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The Torah Learning Library of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah

Why Are We Called Yehudim?

by Rabbi Avi Weiss (Posted on May 25, 2016)
Topics: Torah, Sefer Breishit, Mikeitz

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It is commonly known that the reason that we call ourselves by the name Yehudim (Jews) is because most of us come literally from the Kingdom of Judah, or more specifically the tribe of Judah. Yet, there is a deeper reason why we have continued to use this term specifically when there are countless other names that our people and religion could go by.

This week’s Torah portion points to this reason. In the narrative, Yosef (Joseph) takes Shimon (Simon) hostage and demands that the brothers bring Binyamin (Benjamin) to Egypt, as a precondition for both Shimon’s release and his (Yosef’s) providing of more food for Yaakov’s (Jacob’s) family.

Yaakov is understandably hesitant. Having already lost Yosef, his favorite, he fears losing Binyamin his only remaining son from his beloved wife Rachel. It is here that Yehudah (Judah) bravely rises to declare that he would act as an “orev,” a surety for Binyamin. “If I don’t return him,” he says to his father Yaakov, “I will bear the sin forever.” (Genesis 43:9)

Yehudah’s pledge is unusual. Normally when a debtor guarantees collateral, the collateral comes from a party other than the debtor. Here, Yehudah takes his obligation to a higher level. Yehudah himself is both the one who makes the commitment as well as the guarantor. This indicates how seriously Yehudah takes the pledge or the “arevut” he is offering.

Arevut,” writes Rabbi Ahron Soloveichik. “means more than just another concern for one’s fellow Jew. It means that I am a surety-each and every Jew is a surety for every other Jew. Just as a surety in money is held responsible as if he had been the debtor, so, also, every Jew is a surety for all the spiritual obligations of every other Jew.”

Of course this does not mean that Jews are not concerned for all of humankind. We are. Every human being is created in the image of God. In the words of our Rabbis, chaviv adam shenivrah be-tzelem Elokim. As such, we have very deep obligations to all people. But our obligation to our fellow Jew is unique. As we are more connected to our inner family with whom we share a common tradition, history and destiny, so too concerning our larger family – the people of Israel.

Hence, we are called Yehudim, as we are named after the person who so intensely exemplified ahavat Yisrael – Yehudah. We must realize the centrality of the principle of Jewish unity. Rabbi Yehudah Halevi, the medieval poet and philosopher notes that all of Israel can be compared to a human body. When one limb hurts, the entire being is affected. So it is with Am Yisrael. All Jews are one body. He taught that when one Jew is in pain, Jews everywhere feel that pain.

Yet, he also taught us that when a Jew dances and experiences joy, we all dance and feel the joy. Let us hope that we can experience the unity of joy, an important element in our obligations as Yehudim, more and more in the days, months and years to come.