The Approach of Yehudah

It seems pertinent that immediately after concluding a Rabbinically modified, even conflicted, celebration of the Hasmonean victory against Hellenism (and anyone who disagreed with them), we read the parsha of Vayigash, named after Yehudah’s approach and resistance to the will of Joseph.
But even in the previous parsha Mikaetz, the Torah refers to “Yehudah and his brothers,” signaling his leadership, which seems at this point a strange choice. After all, it was Levi and Shimon who had rescued and avenged their sister’s rape, slaughtering the entire town for their complicity in the process. Yehudah’s own life was hardly so pure in contrast. He had attempted to have a family roasting at the stake of his former daughter-in-law for having committed an extra-marital affair, but changed his mind when he realized he was the one who had impregnated her in the first place. (Don’t you hate when that happens?) Sorry about that, Dad and Grandpa, but I didn’t recognize her from when I went whoring. Who was looking at her face?
So it seems a little strange. I mean, sure, I would like to party with Yehudah, but come on, not exactly the anticipated “Behold, the great man of Israel” endorsement.
And yet, it makes perfect sense. Here was a guy who saw that he had been wrong. And if rectifying the situation required that he humiliate himself to his own father and grandfather and his whole family in its entirety, so be it.
This may not be moral perfection. But it is certainly moral fiber.
And Judaism is not about perfection. Perfection has its place. Perfection belongs in the Temple, where exact measurements are required, both in the building, and in the sacrifices. There is certainly perfection to be sought in fulfillment of ritual.
But Judaism is about growth. It is not about enforcing perfection.
And it is for this reason that we are named after Yehudah.
Yehudah was suspected by his Ya’akov as being the ringleader in his son Yoseph’s “death.” This was implied by Yaakov’s exclamation that “a wild animal” had killed his son. Yehudah, the lion, was the wild animal.
But Yehudah focused on improving himself, and by the time he approached Yoseph, he had rid himself of all jealousy towards his brother, and towards his aunt’s status as his father’s favorite over his own mother. Yoseph had attempted to fix Jewish history, Shimon had attempted to repair the family name, Levi had attempted to enforce Jewish morality upon the gentile world when it violently engaged with the Jewish one.
Only Yehudah had primarily focused and succeeded on improving himself. And Yehudah would earn the kingship forever, and his name would be eponymous with all the Children of Israel.
It is the difference between a quiescent approach to Judaism, and an activist one. The activist is particularly attractive to today’s Jews, both on the Left and the Right, particularly among the young.
But the activist approach has proven disappointing time and again throughout Jewish history whenever it becomes the dominant expression of Jewish identity. And the activist approach as national Jewish policy is frowned upon by the Torah in its criticism of Levi and Shimon, who were denied land, as well as the selection of Yehudah the Quiescent over Yoseph as the leader of the Jewish people.
How many times have we Jews come up with a new revolution to fix the world, only to see it spiral out of control, lead to tyranny, and bite us repeatedly in the ass? And if we perceive that the Maccabees were at least a problematic, even dubious, victory for the Tikkun Olum right, was the communism of the left any better? And were we not, proportionally, the greatest and earliest proponents of those Leftist revolutions?
If we were to supposed to change the world by force or revolution, we would have been commanded to convert the world. Instead, we are commanded to be a light upon the nations, even as we are promised we will always be the smallest of nations. The most successful way to accomplish this mandate is not though (prohibited) forced conversions, not through physical might, and not though thrusting our vision–be it Left or Right– upon the world. Rather, we are only able to most successfully positively effect the world when we focus on becoming a better and holier people.
Tonight I will retreat from my position of not celebrating Chanukah, which has left me feeling cold, hard, and empty. But I will not do so to celebrate the Maccabees, or to celebrate multiculturalism, or to celebrate a miracle that I am confident did not take place. Rather, I will use this celebration as an opportunity to commit to fighting the darkness of my own soul, and commit to making the world a better and brighter place by being a better Jew, and a better person.
Happy Chanukah.

4 thoughts on “The Approach of Yehudah

  1. Just kidding about my post above. I have the lighting of the candles symbolize the freedom from forced Hellenism and the burning out of the candles symbolize the Hasmonean tyranny.

  2. Kelsey,
    Well said. I have 3 points I would discuss with you.
    1) Your distinction about moral perfection vs. moral fiber is, I believe, a Christian one. As you go on to discuss, Judaism is not about being perfect, but striving for perfection. I would argue taht Yehudah’s reversal, especially in the face of such familial humiliation, is moral perfection.
    These two are more minor points, but I think they are topics that warrant some thought:
    2) Kingship is not the greatest reward, though it is an honor. Kingship was not part of God’s master plan, so to speak.
    3) Levi’s “reward” of Kahuna and the Leviim is a great reward, even if they did not get land. And that Levi warranted the Kahuna in place of the first born (also through what you may term fundamentalism – they whacked everyone who worshipped the golden calf) seems to indicate that the station itself is of value, only to be filled by the most worthy.
    I agree wholeheartedly with your ending – though maybe not the first part of the last part. Regardless, what you wrote is the essence of every holiday in Judaism, every Rosh Chodesh, every Shabbos, every Tefilah, every mitzvah. Its all about each of us striving for perfection.

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