By Rabbi Shlomo Riskin
Why are Jews, yehudim, referred to as such? Historically speaking, the vast majority of the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob who remained committed to their traditions and faith after the first exile (586 B.C.E.) come from the tribe of Judah, the 10 tribes (not including Levi) having been exiled by Sanherib. In addition to the factually accurate nomenclature, however, I would like to offer a textually-based explanation that provides a complementary but very different answer to our question.
The mere fact that a person can still call himself a Jew 3,300 years after Sinai and despite nearly 2,000 years of national homelessness is truly a miracle. He is a most unlikely survivor — sustained, nurtured and kept alive by Divine Providence in the face of exile, wars, pogroms and assimilation. To understand what enables a Jew to survive despite all the forces against him, we must turn to his eponym, Judah.
What special traits did Judah possess that set him apart from his 11 brothers and in particular from his eldest brother, Reuben? For example, when an angry and jealous mob of brothers have the chance to carry out their long-harbored wish to kill Joseph, two siblings — Reuben and Judah — each take a leadership role, and it seems that Reuben’s words are the more courageous and moral.
First, Reuben, assuming his status as first-born, attempts to foil his brothers’ evil design: “Let us not kill him … let us not shed blood. … Cast him into this pit … but lay no hand upon him.” As the verse itself then explains, Reuben’s plan to delay a drastic decision was driven by his goal that “he might deliver [Joseph] out of their hand, to restore him to his father.” Although they do indeed place Joseph into the pit, Reuben never gets to fully implement the plan.
This is because Judah sights a caravan of Ishmaelite traders in the distance and suggests to his brothers that there is no point in murdering Joseph when they could just as easily earn money from his sale to slavery. “What profit is it if we slay our brother and conceal his blood? Let us sell him to the Ishmaelites, and let our hand not be upon him, for he is our brother and our flesh.”
Reuben returns, finds an empty pit, and rends his garments. His despair is deep and painful: “The child is not here, and I, where shall I go?”
If we compare the responses of Reuben and Judah, the former seems to own the moral high ground, risking his brothers’ wrath in preventing them from murdering Joseph on the spot. Judah, on the other hand, appears crass, turning the crisis into a question of profit. Speaking like an opportunistic businessman, he sees a good deal and convinces the brothers to get rid of their nemesis and enjoy a material advantage at the same time.
In this light, his concluding words, “for [Joseph] is our brother and our flesh” sound grotesque. If Judah harbored fraternal feelings for Joseph, how could he subject his younger brother to abject slave conditions? This makes Jacob’s subsequent decision to name Judah as the recipient of the birthright even more puzzling.
Perhaps somewhat counterintuitively, I would like to suggest that Judah’s decision is actually what makes him the most fitting leader from among his brothers. The real test of leadership is not who provides the most absolute, morally upright solution, if that will not be accepted by the “crowd,” but rather he or she who ultimately saves the life of the victim.
It is precisely because Judah is a realist who understands when and how to make the best deal possible under exceedingly difficult circumstances that he is deemed best suited for the yoke of leadership. Faced with dreadful options, he pursues the least horrific one possible. Acceding to Reuben’s proposal to leave Joseph inside the pit — which, according to our Sages, was filled with snakes and scorpions — was tantamount to leaving Joseph to die a cruel death, barring last-minute miracle.
So when Judah sees the Ishmaelites in the distance, he seizes the opportunity to save Joseph from certain death, giving his brother a chance to perhaps survive. However, in order to be heard by his angry and jealous brothers, he understands that he must conceal his motivations under the guise of a profit-making venture for them.
Reuben may have had the best intentions for Joseph, but intentions alone are not enough. “Let us not kill him,” Reuben declares, but his words fall on deaf ears. While Reuben nobly appeals to his brothers’ “better angels,” he fails the leadership test in not utilizing more pragmatic tactics in order to attain his goal of saving Joseph. In contrast, Judah wisely couches his plea in accordance with the politician’s “art of the possible.”
Thus it is Judah, in his first test of leadership, who becomes worthy of receiving the birthright from his father, Jacob, a man also intimately familiar with navigating in a treacherous world. In an imperfect world in which ideal situations rarely exist, it is Judah, eponymous ancestor of all “Jews,” who demonstrates what it is that enables a Jew to survive and thrive — to take responsibility for the welfare and continued life of his brother, even if he must use guile in order to achieve that goal.
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is the chief rabbi of Efrat.