“What’s in a Name?”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Vayeishev, we are privileged to encounter one of the great epic narratives of world literature, the saga of Joseph and his brethren.

Within the story of Joseph and his brethren is a second magnificent story about Judah, which is absolutely riveting.

Joseph, the favorite son of his father Jacob, had not just gotten himself under his brothers’ skin. He upset them so profoundly that they harbored a perfidious, and possibly violent, hatred for him. It is true that some of the brothers’ hatred was due to the fact that their father Jacob favored Joseph since Joseph was the son of his favorite wife, Rachel. This was, of course, clearly evidenced by the coat of many colors that Jacob gave to Joseph. But it was really the “immature” Joseph who made things worse for himself. He not only had dreams of lording over his brothers, but was thoroughly insensitive and related those dreams to his brothers in a cavalier manner that only added to their already immense distaste for him.

The brothers easily justified their murderous intentions by concluding that Joseph was undermining their family in a way that would negatively impact on the destiny of the Jewish people. So it is not very surprising that when the brothers, who had fled to Dotan in order to get away from their unhappy home environment, see Joseph from afar, they conspire to kill him. They say (Genesis 37:19): “Hee’nay ba’al ha’cha’lo’moat ha’lah’zeh bah,” Here comes the dreamer. Now come let us kill him and throw him into one of the pits and we will say, “a wild beast has devoured him.” Then we shall see what will become of his dreams!

Reuben, the oldest brother, who is certain that he will have to take the “rap” at home for the missing child, devises a scheme to save Joseph, and suggests that they throw him into the pit, which the brothers readily do. With Joseph in the pit crying for dear life, the brothers go to eat. At that time, the natural leader among the brothers, Judah, stands up and says (Genesis 37:26): “Ma beh’tza kee na’ha’roag et ah’chee’noo v’chee’see’noo et da’mo,” What benefit will there be if we kill our brother and cover up his blood? Come let us sell him to the Ishmaelites, but let our hand not be upon him, for he is our brother, our own flesh. The brothers agree and sell him to the Midianites. Joseph eventually winds up in Egypt as a servant in the home of Potiphar.

With Joseph’s fate undetermined, there is a dramatic pause in the story. Chapter 38 opens with these fateful words: “Va’ye’hee ba’ayt ha’hee, va’yay’red Yehudah may’ayt eh’chav,” and it was at that time, Judah went down from his brothers and turned toward an Adullamite man whose name was Hirah. The rabbis explain that when old Jacob was shown the coat of many colors covered with blood, and assumed that Joseph had been devoured by a wild animal, he was totally disconsolate. Nothing and no one could assuage his grief and mourning for his beloved Joseph. At this point the brothers turn to Judah and blame him for their father’s grief since it was his idea to sell Joseph to the Ishmaelites! Judah responds by telling them that had he not suggested that Joseph be sold to the Ishmaelites, the brothers would have murdered Joseph outright.

Judah was so frustrated at being blamed for the sale of Joseph and for his father’s grief that he simply left home, determined to have nothing again to do with his abusive family.

Judah moves far away from his family. He befriends Hirah the Adullamite, marries a Canaanite woman, who is identified only as the daughter of Shuah, and, in very short order, has three male children. Judah does not simply go “off the derech” (off the proper path), and stray from good “Jewish” tradition…he violates every rule in the book in order to proclaim a total break with his family. The more “gentile” children he brings into the world with his “gentile” wife, the better off he is. The gap is so great that it seems unbridgeable. Rapprochement between Judah and his father and his brothers, or between Judah and “Jewish” tradition, seems unfathomable.

How great is the gap? We can see how profound it really is by examining the names of Judah’s children. How interesting that we never learn the name of Judah’s wife. This woman simply seems to be an available “uterus” to bear children. Scripture even suggests as much: “Va’yee’ka’cheha va’ya’vo ay’leh’hah,” he [Judah] takes her and comes in unto her. The birth of each child reflects Judah’s increasing estrangement. Scripture describes the birth of Judah’s first child (Genesis 38:3): “Va’ta’har va’tay’led bayn va’yik’rah et sh’mo Er,” and she conceived and gave birth to a son, and he called the name of the child, Er.

The name “Er” means awake. Judah is, in effect, stating, that for the first time in his life he feels “awake,” like a real man, an independent person who can finally wear his passions on his sleeves, instead of being restrained and restricted by those ubiquitous and stifling laws of Judaism! Judah says: Now I can eat whatever I want, and sleep with whomever I like. I no longer have to watch my language, and I can dress in those most outrageous clothes that I always wanted to wear. Now that I’ve broken the grip of my stifling parental home, I’m finally alive!

When the second child is born, scripture states (Genesis 38:4): “Va’ta’har oad, va’tay’led ben, va’teek’rah et sh’mo Onan.” And she conceived again and bore a son, and she called his name Onan. Judah doesn’t appear to be at all involved. His wife gives the baby a name that suggests that Judah cares very little about his wife or his biological offspring. The Hebrew word “Onan” reflects intense mourning, perhaps because Judah’s wife feels Judah distancing himself and the estrangement growing. When Er, the first child was born, Judah was quite likely in the delivery room, possibly coaching his wife in the Lamaze breathing method. When the second child is born, Judah seems to be, at best, indifferent, at worst–totally removed. A deep mourning has taken hold of the child’s mother, a sadness that is further justified with the birth of the third child.

Genesis 38:5 states: “Va’toh’sef oad, va’tay’led bayn, va’tik’rah et sh’mo Shelah, v’ha’yah vich’ziv b’lee’d’tah oh’toh!” She conceived again and bore a son, and she called his name Shelah; and he [Judah] was in Chezib when she gave birth! This time Judah never returns home for the birth. He simply remains in Chezib, tending to his flocks or taking in another round of golf. The profound disappointment in Judah’s wife is reflected by the name Shelah, which means to mislead, or to raise false hopes.

Things go from bad to worse, but fortunately, this bitter narrative has a sweet ending. Er marries an extraordinary woman named Tamar, but Er is sinful in G-d’s eyes and dies prematurely. Onan, the second son, marries his brother’s widow, Tamar, but he too dies because of his misdeeds. Judah holds Shelah, his third son, back with no intention of ever allowing him to marry this “murderous” daughter-in-law.

In desperation, Tamar dresses up as a harlot, eventually seduces her father-in-law, Judah, and becomes pregnant. When he learns of Tamar’s profligacy, Judah, not knowing that it was he who has made Tamar pregnant, sentences Tamar to death by fire. As she is being led out to be burnt at the stake, Tamar privately reveals to Judah that he is the father of her child. In one of the most momentous acts of history, Judah owns up to his guilt, and pardons Tamar, saying that she is more righteous than he! Tamar gives birth to twins, one of whom, Peretz, is destined to be the progenitor of King David and the Messiah. Judah thus becomes the first Ba’al Teshuvah, the first great penitent, in Jewish history.

It is hard not to appreciate the brilliance of this biblical story, a brilliance that is compounded many times over by the subtle and remarkable hints and digressions that we find in the biblical narrative. The Zohar states that the Torah is written “aish sh’chorah al gabay aish l’vana,” black fire upon white fire, implying that sometimes the white spaces in the Torah scroll tell more than the black letters. That certainly is true about this great narrative.

How much is revealed in the names of Judah’s three sons! Each name is a treasure-trove of its own. Now we understand the Talmudic statement (Menachot 29b) that tells us that Rabbi Akiva used to decipher hundreds of Torah insights just from the jots and tittles that decorate the tops of the Torah letters. How much more is there for us to learn from the names that are found in this parasha.

Chanukah Samayach! Happy Chanukah!

This year, Chanukah begins on Friday night, December 15, 2006 and continues through Saturday night, December 23, 2006. Remember to light Chanukah candles before Shabbat candles.

May you be blessed.