Crossing the Sea! Excerpt from “What’s in It for Me? Finding Ourselves in Biblical Narrative”

In Exodus 14:10-14, the Children of Israel see the Egyptians bearing down on them as they stand at the banks of the Sea of Reeds. The people panic and blame Moses for their plight, saying, “Was it for want of graves in Egypt that you brought us to die in the wilderness? What have you done to us taking us out of Egypt?” (Exodus 14:11-12).

Moses responds that the people should have no fear. God will protect them (Exodus 14:13-14).

At this point, God speaks to Moses, saying, “Why do you cry out to Me? Tell the Israelites to go forward” (Exodus 14:15). The rabbis interpret Moses’ response to the Children of Israel as a prayer to which God responded that there is a time for prayer and a time for action. This was the time for action. In the words of the Midrash,

God said to Moses: “There is at time to shorten prayers, there is a time to draw them out. My children are in dire distress, The sea has fenced them in, and the enemy is pursuing. So, how can you stand there and multiply prayers?! Tell the children of Israel to go forward.” (Exodus 14:15) (Shemot Rabbah 21:8)

In rabbinic literature, there are conflicting traditions as to how the Israelites respond to Moses’ command to go forward. The rabbis never perceived a need to resolve these conflicting views. They taught that a text can have many meanings and teach many lessons.

One interpretation is that everyone argued about who would have the honor of going in the water first. After much contention, the tribe of Benjamin succeeded in entering the water before the other tribes; according to this tradition, God rewarded them by having the temple built in their territory (B. Sotah 36B-37A). The story also explains why a member of the tribe of Benjamin, Saul, was chosen to be the first king of Israel.

A more familiar and contradictory tradition is another etiological account written to explain why the tribe of Judah became the dominant tribe and the only one that ultimately survived. It helps us understand, once again, why we have taken the name Jews. The text reads,

Each tribe was unwilling to be the first to enter the sea. Then sprang forward Nachshon ben Amminadab (chieftain of the tribe of Judah) and descended first into the sea. (B. Sotah 37A)

A third view, and my favorite interpretation, contends that God did not part the waters until the Israelites as a group showed their faith in God’s power. The Midrash states that the sea was divided only after Israel had stepped into it and the waters had reached their noses. Only then did it become dry land (Shemot Rabbah 21:10).

Here, the rabbis teach us all an important religious lesson. The deliverance from Egypt was not accomplished only because of God’s will and God’s miracles. Our salvation was a covenantal partnership requiring not only God’s power, but Israel’s faith as well. From a biblical perspective, God simply parted the sea. From the rabbinic perspective of this Midrash, however, the Israelites as a group demonstrated their worthiness for redemption by wading into the water up to their noses before the sea parted.

Jewish tradition does not question the validity of God’s actions in drowning the Egyptian pursuers. Still, while we rejoice in our freedom, we take no delight in the destruction of our enemy. The Talmud states,

When the Egyptian armies were drowning in the sea, the ministering angels broke out in songs of jubilation. God silenced them, saying, “The works of My hands are drowning in the sea. How can you sing praises in My presence?!” (B. Sanhedrin 39B)

At the Seder meal that celebrates Passover, participants traditionally remove a drop of wine from their cups as each of the ten plagues against Egypt is recited. Wine is a symbol of joy in Jewish practice. By taking wine out of our cups, we diminish our joy in recognition of the suffering of our enemies.

An important figure in modern Jewish history expressed a similar sentiment. Israel’s troops were not fully prepared for the Egyptian invasion, which was launched on Yom Kippur in 1973. Even though Israel managed to thwart the military challenge, there was no rejoicing in the Jewish state. There was instead a lingering feeling of sadness because of all the casualties suffered on both sides. In the aftermath of Israel’s victory, Prime Minister Golda Meir spoke in a manner reminiscent of the Talmudic passage above when she said, “You know, the Arabs’ greatest sin is not making war against Israel and killing her sons. We can forgive them for that. Their greatest sin is that they made us kill them” [Margaret Davidson, The Golda Meir Story, rev. ed. (New York, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1981, p. 206)].

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Tonight Could Be the Night

If you are a fan of early rock ‘n’ roll (or a rock fan of any era) and you hear, Lubbock, Texas, you immediately think of Buddy Holley, who died young and whose enduring influence on the genre has been well-reorded by rock historians.

For me, though, Lubbock and rock ‘n’ roll bring to my mind the memory of the late Virgil Johnson. Mr. Johnson was a school teacher who recruited four of his students to form a doo wop group in the late 50’s. There were no other doo wop groups in west Texas, and there certainly were no other black doo wop groups.

Also working against them, in Mr Johnson’s words, was the fact that they sounded white. There were two distinct music audiences back then,” he continued, “black and white. We didn’t fit the black mold, so we never had a chance to tour.”

Virgil Johnson and his group, the Velvets, were discovered by the late (and very great) Roy Orbison and invited to Nashville to record. I love their record, “Beautiful Lana,” but their one memorable hit, still played on oldies stations is, “Tonight Could Be the Night.”

Mr. Johnson had a long, distinguished career in education. He was an English teacher, and when his doo wop group rehearsed, he insisted, “We enunciated, and we ‘pronunciated!'” He also served for many years as a Jr. High School and high school Principal in Lubbock and, after his retirement, he was a radio DJ. He undoubtedly was an important positive influence on many young lives over the years.

You have to be hardcore doo wop fan to recall Virgil Johnson, but one very memorable shining public moment, came for him a few years ago when–with every act on the bill on stage in tribute–he and the Velvets opened one of PBS’ very popular doo wop specials with a wonderful performance of “Tonight Could Be the Night.”

Yes, Buddy Holley is probably Lubbock’s most famous citizen, but when I think of that city my mind always turns to a warm-hearted educator with a great voice, Mr. Virgil Johnson. May he rest in peace!

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The Arteriosclerosis of Pharaoh: Why Did God Harden Pharaoh’s Heart?

“For I have hardened his (Pharaoh’s) heart and the hearts of his servants … “ (Exodus 10:1)

On my list of most frequently asked questions is: Why does God harden Pharaoh’s heart? Why did God not simply “soften” Pharaoh’s heart, show him the error of his ways, and bring about the emancipation of the Hebrews in a peaceful and loving way?

Without question, Pharaoh’s arteriosclerosis is a complex subject. Traditional Jewish commentators point out that early in the encounters between Moses and Pharaoh, the text states: “Pharaoh’s heart stiffened,” (Exodus 7:22; 8:15) or “Pharaoh became stubborn” (Exodus 8:10; 8:28). Later, (beginning with Exodus 9:12) the text begins to say, “The Eternal One stiffened Pharaoh’s heart.”

This shift, according to the commentators, reflects the view that inertia—the unchecked hardening of Pharaoh’s heart (his stubbornness)—took the matter out of Pharaoh’s hands, and evil took on a life of its own.

In Studies in Shemot, Nehama Leibowitz parallels the unchecked acts of evil that Pharaoh committed, to those of Macbeth. At first, Macbeth is reluctant to do wrong. He certainly fears to lay hands on his King, Duncan. With each succeeding murder, though, the voice of his conscience wanes until it can exercise no control over his treacherous impulses.

When in Act III, Lady Macbeth, who first encouraged her hesitant husband to kill the King, voices her reservations about Macbeth’s reign of terror, Macbeth responds: “Things bad begun make strong themselves by ill.” (Act III, Scene 2, line 55) In other words, the evil has taken on a life of its own; Macbeth can no longer control himself. So it was with Pharaoh.

Rabbi Akiba (second century C.E.) foreshadowed Shakespeare’s insight in Macbeth when he described the inclination to do evil this way: “At first it (the inclination to do evil) is like a spider’s thread and at last it is like a rope of a ship.” (Genesis Rabbah 22:6)

Rabbi Simeon ben Levi said: “The evil inclination of a person waxes stronger day by day.
It seeks to kill him. If God did not help, a person could not overcome it.” (B. Kiddushin 30 b)

Implicit in this text is the notion that a person must enlist God’s help to fight the inclination to do evil. God will not do it for us unless we consciously make the effort.
In other words, only through diligent effort and appeal to God for help, can humans overcome the inclination to do wrong. When we persist in evil, when we ignore God’s will, evil takes on strength greater than we can control. Those uncomfortable with such direct references to the Almighty, but who still seek guidance from traditional texts, might choose to substitute, “appeal to the voice of our conscience” for “enlist God’s help.”

In Pirke Avoth (3:19) we find one of Jewish thoughts most enigmatic teachings: “All is foreseen. Yet free will is given.” As the rabbis understood God, the Almighty knows exactly what will happen. At the same time, the rabbis uphold the ability of human beings to make moral choices of their own volition. So, for the Rabbis, the fact that God announces that the Almighty would harden Pharaoh’s heart (first in Exodus 4:21 and again in 7:3) does not mean that God is responsible for Pharaoh’s evil. The point is that Pharaoh was in not open to God’s guidance.

God, then, did not actually harden Pharaoh’s heart. God allowed Pharaoh to continue on the course that he had chosen. God allows all of us to do the same. Although most of us, at times, have wished that God would step in and change people, such action would rob us of the free will that gives life meaning.

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Acting on Principle

I switched my Rx’s to CVS
I felt that I must
It’s not about ease
It’s all about trust!

It’s less convenient
And parking’s not free
Unlike at the other
Big pharmacy!

There’s no drive through
On cold winter days
And by comparison
The store is a maze.

But these things
Matter less to me
than the fact CVS
Is TOBACCO FREE!

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An Emotional Moment

Vickie presenting the honorary diploma to her mother.

Vickie presenting the honorary diploma to her mother.

An emotional moment: Vickie presenting her mother, Stefanie Steinberg, an honorary diploma from the Holstenschule in Neumünster. Stefanie, 93, is an artist in San Francisco. Her life and work were the subjects of an extensive museum-quality exhibit–put together by Pastor Ursula Sieg–at the Holstenschule. Students studied the exhibit and through Stefanie learned much about Judaism and the Holocaust. Because Stefanie had to leave school when her family fled from the Nazis, she never finished high School. In gratitude for how much she added to the students’ knowledge, the school awarded Stefanie this special honorary diploma which Vickie presented her at Shabbat dinner this evening!

Stefanie was deeply moved by this presentation. So were Vickie and I and our two older children, Leo and Sarah, who were present. Herr Arno Engelmann, Principal of the Holstenschule discussed this possibility with Vickie and me before we left Germany. He enthusiastically pursued this idea and recently sent the documentation to our home in West Hartford. We waited to make the presentation until we could all be together with Stefanie in San Francisco.A lovely Shabbat Eve dinner at the home of our daughter Sarah with four of our grandchildren present was the perfect setting. The grandchildren, Zachary, micah, Jeremy and Noa, are still too young to appreciate the significance of this moment. One day, though, they will, and I pray it will inspire them as much as it does Vickie and me and their parents.

It has been my privilege to share much in this forum about our trip to Germany: The Holstenschule exhibit, speaking in Leipzig on Kristallnacht, speaking at schools, synagogues and ten other churches. Each of these experiences had exquisite meaning for Vickie and me.

Still, I say without equivocation: If all we were able to do in Germany was to arrange for this dramatic moment of reconciliation for Vickie’s remarkable Mom, Stefanie Steinberg, then the entire trip would have been worthwhile.

93-year-old Stefanie Steinberg receivIng honorary diploma from the Holstenchule in Neumünster!

93-year-old Stefanie Steinberg receivIng honorary diploma from the Holstenchule in Neumünster!

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This I Believe About God

God and I have always had a very personal relationship. So it seemed natural to me that when I was 18 years old and stepped onto the ice for my first hockey practice at Hamilton College I offered God a deal: “God, if you make me an all-American hockey player, then, I’ll become a rabbi.” As any witness to my Hamilton hockey career can attest, God categorically rejected that proposal.

Now, a half-century later, I think God must have laughed at my offer and said. “Miracles I can perform, didn’t I part the Red Sea? But, Steve, you are asking too much. No, I have given you just enough athletic talent so that if you work really hard, you may achieve some limited success but you will learn important lessons that will help you for the rest of your life.As far as becoming a rabbi goes, I now perceive that God’s response was: “Don’t do me any favors! But, if that is what you really want, and –again — if you really work hard, I’ll grant you a meaningful pulpit career and the privilege of making a difference at times in people’s lives.”
If I could have discerned these answers when I was 18, I might have thought the Almighty was rejecting me, but today I bow my head in gratitude for the many ways God has blessed me.

I find great wisdom in Garth Brooks’ song: Unanswered Prayers. It is about a youth who fervently prayed that the girl he loved more than life itself would return his love and marry him. It did not happen. Many years later, when he met that girl by chance at a football game, he realized that his life was much happier with the woman he did marry, than he would have been with his high school love. “Sometimes,” he concludes, “God’s greatest gift is unanswered prayers.”

Even after all of my years of religious study, most of what God does remains a mystery to me. That sense of mystery and wonder move me to say: “There is a reason that we come to worship God and do not expect God to come and worship us.”
For many, though, questions they cannot answer about God squelch their belief. If there were a good God, they say, there could not have been a Holocaust. If there were a good God, there would be no hunger and poverty in the world, and there would be no floods, famines or natural disasters. If a good God were in control of the world, innocent children would not die. God would protect us from harm and disease.

In 1981, Rabbi Harold Kushner wrote one of the most influential books ever about God: When Bad Things Happen to Good People. After the death of his son Aaron from a rare disease, progeria, that caused him to age prematurely and die at 14, Kushner decided he could no longer accept the idea of God who is both all good and all-powerful. And so he postulated that God’s goodness is infinite but that God’s power is not. There is, Kushner claimed, a realm of nature beyond God’s control. His book performed a great service by enabling many who once could not believe to believe once again.

But was he right? I am not sure. Rather than claim that God’s power is limited, I believe our knowledge is limited. We can understand some of what God does, but there is so much about God that we do not know and can never know.

Too often, though, we create God in our image instead of the other way around. We think our fine minds should apprehend everything there is to know about God. In our arrogance we think that if something happens that does not comport with our view of the way we believe God should act, then clearly there is no God.

We have all seen good people suffer. We have all watched helplessly while a righteous person writhed in pain or died young while a person with seemingly no regard for anything but his or her own selfish needs lived a long life in robust good health. There is much about God that we do not understand. And maybe there is nothing about God we can say backed by scientific proof!
Jewish thinking does not rest on a proof of God’s existence but on an assumption of God’s existence. That assumption proclaims itself in the very first words of the Torah: “In the beginning, God…

Why should we make that assumption? For me it comes down to one simple reason!
If we assume God exists and assume that God wants all of us to use our diverse talents to do good, then we shall create a better world for ourselves, our children and our grandchildren. Though so much about God is way beyond my comprehension, this I believe with all my heart, with all my soul and with all my might!

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Happy Ending or Just Another Peaceful Interlude

Parashat Va-yehi: Reversing History’s Pattern
Rabbi Stephen Lewis Fuchs

When Jacob dies, Joseph’s brothers fear that he will take revenge on them for selling him away as a slave (Genesis 50:15).

When his brother’s throw themselves on Joseph’s mercy, he speaks tenderly to them saying, “Though you intended to do me evil, God has turned it to good to bring about the saving of many lives” (Genesis 50:20). He then continues to protect and support them during the ensuing years of famine.

The brothers prosper in Egypt, and Pharaoh himself affirms the children of Israel’s covenantal connection to the Promised Land by responding to Joseph’s request to bury his father there with the words: “עלה, Go up,” up to the Land of Canaan. (Genesis 50:5,6). Indeed, Genesis ends, as it were, with “ … and they all lived happily ever after.”

Of course they did not all live happily ever after. It was only a peaceful interlude until, as we read next week, “a new king arose who knew not Joseph (Exodus 1:8),” and enslaved us and threw our babies into the Nile.

Vickie and I have recently returned home from a ten-week stay in Germany. As I ponder our experiences, I wonder: was our journey part of a happy ending after perhaps the most horrific period in Jewish history? Or is it, like the ending of Genesis, an interlude of calm before the next storm arises?

Our visit gave us many encouraging and uplifting opportunities. We taught hundreds of high school students about the Holocaust and basic Jewish values in an exhibit about the life of Vickie’s mother, Stefanie Steinberg. Stefanie, who was born in Breslau, is still an active artist at 93. Her idyllic childhood came to an early end when her family had to flee the Nazis. Although Stefanie never could complete her high school education in the 1930’s, grateful German students now preparing for their graduation send her affectionate emails and voice messages. They thank her and us for the chance to learn about her struggle and vow that their generation will not allow such things to happen again.

Stefanie Steinberg and her great granddaughter, Noa

Stefanie Steinberg and her great granddaughter, Noa


At the Jüdische Gemeinde in Kiel, it was my joyful experience to speak at High Holy Day, Festival and Shabbat services and lead adult study sessions. But each time we walked to the modest synagogue, we passed the monument on the site of the magnificent synagogue that once was a landmark in Kiel before the Nazis destroyed it.

Standing next to the monument on the site where the Great Synagogue in Kiel once stood

Standing next to the monument on the site where the Great Synagogue in Kiel once stood

While we were in Germany, I delivered ten different addresses in Lutheran churches, including one where a Nazi found guilty at Nuremberg of horrible war crimes once served as pastor. The current pastor, Martina Dittkrist, invited me to speak as part of the church’s ongoing atonement for that pastor’s crimes. I saw tears in many eyes as I spoke of reconciliation and building a better future.

(L to R) Pastorin Martina Dittkrist, artist Hannlore Golberg, me, and Vickie standing in front of Ms Golberg's painting of "The Broken Cross" symbolizing the ongoing atonement of the community of the Michaeliskirche in Kaltenkirchen for the crimes of their one time Pastor Ernst Biberstein who was tried and convicted at Nuremberg of mass murder.

In Leipzig on Kristallnacht, the city where my father was arrested on that fateful night in 1938, it was my privilege to speak at three separate commemorations. Certainly it was a happy ending for Vickie and me to be welcomed as honored guests to the city my father left as a prisoner bound for Dachau 76 years ago.

Speaking at the Thomaskirche in Leipzig on Kristallnacht

Speaking at the Thomaskirche in Leipzig on Kristallnacht

In Berlin it was also my privilege to conduct a seminar for rabbinical students and to deliver the semester opening lecture at the School of Jewish Theology at the University of Potsdam. How thrilling to see serious Jewish study once again encouraged in Germany and supported by the German government.

Semester Opening lecture at University of Potsdam School of Jewish Theology

Semester Opening lecture at University of Potsdam School of Jewish Theology

There is so much to be grateful for in our experience that we cannot help but revel in the joyful reality of Germany’s present. And yet we can never and should never forget the past. I keep wondering, “Are all of the wonderful experiences we enjoyed in Germany evidence of a true happy ending? Or is it just another interlude of calm?”

The evidence of Jewish history cries, “Interlude.” Time and again we have been welcomed and lived peaceably in places. But then the economy changed, our people were blamed, and we suffered persecution, forced conversions, murderous pogroms and exile.

There is reason for concern. We hear and see the evidence of resurgent anti-Semitism throughout Europe. Recent incidents in Belgium, Hungary, France and other places are frightening. The future of Jewish life in Europe is far from certain, but there is much we must continue to do.

We must do what is necessary so that Israel will always be strong. Had there been an Israel in 1935, there would have been no Holocaust. Therefore we must continue to defend Israel against those who question her right to live as a Jewish state in the sea of hostile Arab/Islamic states in the Middle East.

At the same time we must continue the fight for Progressive Jewish legitimacy in Israel. Our growing movement there provides an uplifting alternative to Haredi fanaticism on the one hand and secular skepticism on the other.

We must also continue to press for the equality of Progressive Judaism with Orthodox Judaism in every country in the world. Although it is an uphill struggle, we must spare no effort to strengthen our Progressive communities worldwide.

The values of Progressive Judaism demand—not just allow—that we think critically and independently. They demand that we study Torah with rigor to find in it the lessons that inform our lives and make us more worthy partners with the Almighty in forging a better world.

The pattern of Jewish history represented by the end of Genesis and the beginning of Exodus is a somber warning, but its repetition is not inevitable.

If we keep Israel strong—
If we do what we can to strengthen Progressive Jewish life and legitimacy around the world—
If we avidly pursue our destiny as a people called by the Almighty to help create a more just, caring compassionate society on earth—
Then I believe with all my heart, we shall reverse the pattern of history, and we shall endure and thrive. Moreover, we shall be able to say to those who wish us ill, as Joseph said to his brothers in the week’s parasha, “Although you intended to do me harm, God has turned it to good.”

Rabbi Stephen Lewis Fuchs, D. Min., DD, is Past President of the World Union for Progressive Judaism and Rabbi Emeritus of Congregation Beth Israel, West Hartford, Connecticut, USA. He is the author of What’s in It for Me? Finding Ourselves in Biblical Narratives.

http://www.rabbifuchs.com
Twitter: @Rabbifuchs6
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2014 in reviewd

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2014 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

The concert hall at the Sydney Opera House holds 2,700 people. This blog was viewed about 15,000 times in 2014. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about 6 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.

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He Wanted to say, “My Father” Out Loud

Quick comment on parashat Va-yigash

How I treasure the memory of my yearlong study of the Joseph story with the amazing Nehama Leibowitz, of blessed memory, in Jerusalem.
Each week she masterfully held a room of 60 people in the palm of her hand, and engaged us every minute we were in her classroom.

In discussing this week’s portion she asked, ”Why does Joseph say, ‘Is my father still alive?’” (Or if you like the modern translations, which in this case I do not, “Is my father still well?”) After all he had just heard Judah say that his father was indeed alive.

Among the many answers proffered to her query, one has stayed in my mind these 44 years. A young Japanese man on the other side of the room responded in a way that Professor Leibowitz exclaimed that she had never heard before in her long teaching career and which she loved: “He wanted to say the words, ‘my father’ out loud.”

Wow! When we had that particular lesson, I had just returned to Jerusalem from a month-long trip back to the states to bury and mourn my father.

This past November on Kristallnacht I had the privilege of delivering three speeches, in Leipzig, Germany, the city where my father was arrested and abused on that fateful night in 1938. (See those blog posts at http://www.rabbifuchs.com),

Everything Joseph did, he did not for revenge but to see if his brothers had changed from the men who callously sold him as a slave years ago. When Judah–the perpetrator of Joseph’s sale–offers to exchange himself for his brother Benjamin, Joseph knows what he needs to know. He ends his charade and reveals himself to his brothers and forgives them. He can now say the precious words out loud: ”My father!” Those words were precious to Joseph thousands of years ago. They are precious to me today.

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My Vote for The Greatest Speech Ever

An End to The Charade

The entire story of Joseph builds toward the moment when Joseph–so moved by Judah’s stirring appeal–reveals himself to his brothers. (Genesis 44:18-34)

“It is one of the greatest, most stirring addresses in all literature.” That is how my eighth grade religious school teacher, Mr. Joseph Ehrenworth, z”l, described Judah’s address to Joseph. Thank you, Mr. Ehrenworth. I know I was not a serious student in your class, but your explication of Judah’s speech has stayed with me my entire life. I did not realize it then, but you set in motion the process that inspired me to make the search for meaning in biblical narratives a driving force in my life.

Sir Walter Scott called Judah’s speech, “the most complete pattern of genuine natural eloquence extant in any language” (Joseph Hertz, The Pentateuch and Haftorahs, P. 169).

We wonder though, why does Joseph treat his brothers so harshly? Why does he accuse them of being spies? Why does he demand Benjamin’s presence in Egypt, and why does he instruct his steward to put his goblet into Benjamin’s bag?

Many commentators suggest that Joseph’s sought revenge. The brothers mistreated Joseph and sold him as a slave, and so now Joseph is paying them back. Even W. Gunther Plaut, z’l, in his masterful Torah commentary suggests revenge as one of Joseph’s motives. Plaut writes that at first and understandably, “Joseph thought of revenge. He still wants revenge more than he wants love” (The Torah, A Modern Commentary, p. 284). However, if revenge was Joseph’s goal, he could have exacted it without disguise, without delay, and without bringing the untold anguish upon his father that Benjamin’s journey to Egypt caused.

No, revenge was not Joseph’s motive. Joseph acted as he did for only one reason: He wanted to see if his brothers had changed.

Years before, Joseph had been their father’s favorite. He tattled on them, he bragged about his dreams, and he proudly wore the famous “coat of many colors” that their father gave to Joseph and Joseph alone. As a result, Joseph’s brothers hated him and sold him into slavery.

With Joseph gone, Benjamin, the only other child of Jacob’s beloved wife Rachel, became Jacob’s favorite. By putting his cup into Benjamin’s sack, Joseph places Benjamin in a position whereby he too might become a slave in Egypt, and Jacob would once again lose his favorite son.

Judah knows what is at stake. If Benjamin does not return home safely, his father will die. This time Judah, who so callously inflicted the pain of the loss of Joseph on his father, will not let it happen again. In his speech, the longest one to one address in the Bible, he offers himself as a substitute for Benjamin.

That is all Joseph–who has already had to leave the room twice in his meetings with his brothers to avoid breaking down and weeping in their presence–needs to hear to end the charade.

Our tradition calls a person who repents for his or her sins a ba’al or ba’alat teshuvah (literally, a “master of repentance”). The Jewish tradition accords even a greater honor to a person who commits a particular transgression but later, when he or she is put in a similar position, turns away from the same kind of wrongdoing. That person is a ba’al teshuvah shelemah (a “master of complete repentance”). This is the lofty designation Judah earns for his actions in Joseph’s presence. [See Nehama Leibowitz, Studies in Sefer Bereshit, pp. 327-328 (Hebrew edition), pp. 460-461 (English edition)].

Judah is now a true hero, worthy to emerge as the progenitor of Israel’s most enduring tribe. We can be proud that the words “Jew” and “Judaism” derive from his name. More important, Judah’s example of repentance can inspire us to examine our own actions and help us to turn away from transgressions we have committed in the past and live more positive, purposeful lives in the future.

I am deeply grateful for my studies with Professor Leibowitz in Jerusalem during the 1970-1971 academic year, which helped me develop the outlook I have shared in this commentary.

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