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Vayeshev 5783                     December 17, 2022

Rabbi Randall J. Konigsburg

Shabbat Shalom,

Two weeks ago, we read about the birth of Jacob’s children. Leah has the first four children, all boys, and when she gives birth to Jacob’s fourth son, she is thankful to God for all of the blessings she has received, so she names her son Yehuda, after the word, “hoda” meaning grateful.

This week, we read about the life of Judah/Yehuda. He marries, has three sons, and becomes a widower. He finds a wife for his oldest son, Er, whose name is Tamar. But Er dies before Tamar can bear him any children. According to the tradition of Levirate marriage, his second son, Onan, is supposed to marry Tamar and the children she will bear will be considered the children of Er. But Onan does not want to fulfill his duty to his brother and to Tamar and so he too dies without any children. Yehuda’s third son, Shela, is next in line for Levirate marriage. But Shela is young, and Judah is a bit wary of losing another son. Tamar seems to bring bad luck to his children, so he puts off having Shela marry Tamar and has her return to her father’s house to wait for him to grow up. Time passes and Tamar begins to see that Yehudah has no intention of her marrying his youngest son. So, she devises a plan.

Posing as a prostitute, she entices Yehudah into a sexual relationship. Yehuda promises to pay her from his flock and leaves his signet, cord, and staff as a pledge with the prostitute to be redeemed when he sends her a lamb. Tamar the prostitute disappears with his items and when the lamb is delivered, nobody can find her to pay the pledge and get the signet, cord, and staff back. Yehudah gives them up as lost and goes on with his life. Tamar however is now pregnant.

Tamar is betrothed to Shela. What she has done is considered adultery and is condemned by Yehudah to die. Technically, both the man and woman who commit adultery are to be executed so Tamar simply says that the person who got her pregnant is the owner of this signet, cord, and staff. Yehudah could deny his role in this and put Tamar to death, but Yehudah turns out to be righteous and admits the items are his, that he has delayed the marriage to Shela, and he is the father of Tamar’s baby. It is this confession that marks the kind of man Yehuda is.

Yehudah admits or confesses that he has wronged Tamar. The midrash makes clear that even though he doesn’t use the verb le-hodot in this moment, this act of recognition is a confession, and is core to Yehudah’s name and identity, in Bereishit Rabbah 99:9, it says, “Yehudah—your brothers acknowledge you” (referring later to Genesis 49:8). You who confessed (hodita) in the affair of Tamar, your brothers will acknowledge you (yodukha) to be a king over them. Yehuda will be the founder of the line of King David.

The modern commentator Aviva Zornberg elaborates on this linguistic link: “The play on Judah’s name (Yehudah - hoda’a) is, in effect, a translation of the word used of Judah’s moment of recognition in the Tamar narrative - ‘Judah recognized [va-yaker] the pledges, and said, ‘She is more right than I’ (38:26). What Judah recognizes is not simply his pledge to Tamar - the seal and cord and staff that symbolize his authority.  He recognizes, in effect, himself.”

Rabbi Eli Kaunfer, in his Devar Torah this week, comments on this entire transaction: “As a result, Yehudah brings another aspect to the meaning of his name: the one who admits guilt. Yehudah as a name captures two aspects of the meaning of the root י-ד-ה: one who recognizes the blessings in his life—and offers praise; and one who recognizes the wrongs he has committed—and admits guilt.”

Don’t we wish we had leaders today like Yehuda? I read this explanation of Judah’s name not as an indictment of modern leadership; after all, I have no influence at all with how political leaders understand gratitude and how they can admit when they are wrong. My concern is with my own actions and my responsibility to teach my congregation what the Torah can teach us about how we live our lives.

The first element is gratitude. We need to be thankful for all that we have. We human beings often lament the things that we do not have and often never notice the blessing we do have in our lives. I can’t tell you how many times I hear from older seniors about how their children will no longer let them drive, let them live alone, or demand that they go to a doctor to find out what is wrong with their health. I understand how intrusive it is when children tell their parents what to do. I also think that it is important, however, to consider two things when our children are worrying about us. First, it is important to remember where they learned to take care of their parents. Often, they learned that lesson watching us take care of our own parents. They observed our concern for our parents and learned from us what their responsibilities are. My own mother could be very stubborn at times, and I sometimes shared my frustration with my own daughter. Her answer to me was always simple, “Just remember this when it is my turn to take care of you!” She knew that stubbornness was a trait in our family and that it is likely that when I get really old, that I will be stubborn too. My daughter is already setting the stage to care for me when her turn might come.

The second thing we need to remember is that the concern our children have for us is not born out of any contempt or need to assert authority. It is born out of love. Because we love our children, we cared for them when they were young, showed them the right way to live their lives; taught them their responsibilities in life, to earn a living, to care for others, to be kind, to be a mensch. Those lessons are now being reflected back on us. Our children are acting out of love, the very love we gave to them is now reflecting back on us. If we had been mean, thoughtless parents who didn’t care about our children at all, they would be engaged with friends and not giving us a second thought. It is our own fault that our children love us so much that they want to take care of us.

Gratitude is thus one of the most important things to remember in life. We have so much to be grateful for. For children who love us, for friends who care, for food and shelter, for health and strength. We can count hundreds of reasons to be grateful every day. Like Yehudah, and his mother Leah, we should realize that our blessings are too numerous to count, and we truly should be grateful for all that we have in our lives. As we read just before our Shacharit service in our siddur, “Were our mouths filled with song as the sea, our tongues to sing endlessly like countless waves, our lips to offer limitless praise like the sky, our eyes to shine like the sun and the moon, our arms to spread heavenward like eagles’ wings, and our feet swift as deer, we would still be unable to fully express our gratitude to you, our God and God of our ancestors.”

But gratitude is only one part of the equation. It is all too easy to think that all we have, we have earned by our own hard work and good fortune. We see the world as giving us what we deserve because we have done so many good and important things. It is all too easy to lose our humility when we are surrounded by so many blessings. We think that we have earned it all by the work of our own hands. Rabbi Kaunfer puts these thoughts into words as he writes: “I am grateful for the miracles of my daily life that I can’t even fully contemplate, and I confess that sometimes I am tempted to claim credit for success on my own. We might think, “That professional achievement? That financial gain? That act of generosity?  It is all credit to me!”  Indeed, our contemporary culture often encourages us to claim credit for all our successes and act accordingly. For instance, how often have we heard the claim: “That person earned the money themselves, so they can decide how to spend it”? But…, we have an opportunity to be honest about our lives and admit: “I am not the ultimate cause of my success.”  To the extent I sometimes think otherwise, I admit my guilt here in this blessing, and acknowledge: God is the source of my success, and I am the steward, not originator, of the gifts in my life.”

 Rabbi Kaunfer goes on to add, “This is a stance that may not come naturally, and bears repeating multiple times a day. In our ideal, the Jewish people, children of Yehudah, inhabit both aspects of this word: the ability to praise God and the ability to confess to God. As we close the Amidah, (Saying Modim Anachnu Lach) we have the opportunity to express both of these meanings: to thank God for the blessings in our life, and to confess the ways in which we sometimes misattribute our success to ourselves and not to God. In this way, we strive to live to the fullest extent what it means to be Jewish (Yehudi).

To be a Jew means to be both grateful and humble. We are truly blessed, and that blessing comes from God. We are Jews because we are all descended from the tribe of Judah, whose name means to be grateful and to confess. Tomorrow we will begin the holiday of Hanukah. It is a time to celebrate with family and friends. But it is also time to be grateful for the miracles of long ago, the victory of the few over the many, and the miracles of today that bless our lives at all times. But with all the food, and celebrations, and gifts, it is also important to stress our humility. All that we have is a gift from God. The fullness of all the earth belongs to the God who created it. Our share of that bounty comes from our God who is full of Hesed, kindness to us and to all humanity. As we bask in the lights of our Hanukiot, let the light remind us to be grateful for the miracles and may we still always walk humbly with our God.

Al Ha Nissim, thank you God for all the miracles that you did so long ago that you performed for our ancestors in those days and at this time of year. And thank you God for the many miracles in our day as well, as we humbly seek your blessings. As we say Amen and Shabbat Shalom                and Hag Urim Sameach – may we have a happy Festival of Lights

Sun, October 1 2023 16 Tishrei 5784