What Does It Really Mean To Be A Jew?

My notes from Friday’s Dvar Torah (19 February).

What does it mean to be a “Jew”?

To answer this we must start with another question? Who was the first person to be called a Jew?

You might think Abraham was as he his considered the “father of Judaism” – but he was never called a Jew.  Rather, he was known as an “Ivri”, a “Hebrew”.

Isaac, Abraham’s son was also known as an “Ivri” or “Hebrew”.

As many know, Jacob, Abraham’s grandson, had a famous wresting match with an angel which led to his name being changed to “Yisrael” or “Israel”.  Jacob’s twelve sons, the twelve tribes, were known as “Israelites” not Jews.

The word “Jew” or, in Hebrew, “Yehudi”, is related to the name “Judah” or “Yehudah”.  Judah was the fourth son of Jacob.  Given this, it might appear that by calling someone “Jew” or a “Yehudi”, we are implying that one is a descendant of the tribe of Judah.  The problem with this is that not all “Jews” are descendants of the tribe of Judah. For example, some of us today know that we are “Levites” descendants of the tribe of Levi.  Even the first “Jew”, as we shall see, was not a descendant of the tribe of Judah.  For approxmaintely 2,500 years, we have been known as “Jews” no matter what tribe we come from.

Why are we called “Jews”?

To answer this question, we must go back 2,500 years in history. If we do so, we are in Shushan, under the reign of King Ahashverous.  Yes, 2,500 years ago, the famous story of Purim was unfolding.  It is in this story that we hear about the first Jew.

“There was a Jew in Shushan the capital, whose name was Mordechai from the tribe of Benjamin” (Esther 2:5).

Mordechai, the hero of Purim, is our first Jew/Yehudi.  Notice, Mordechai was not from the tribe of Jehuda.  Rather he was from the tribe of Benjamin – proving that Jews were not necessarily descendants of Judah.

If Mordechai was not part of the line of Judah, why is he called a Yehudi/Jew?  To answer this question properly, we must appreciate the fact that the term “Jew” has more to do with a personality trait than with family lineage.

Judah was one of the infamous brothers who threw their young brother, Joseph, into a pit.  As a result of this cruel, brotherly deed, Joseph was sold into slavery and wound up in Egypt where, overtime, he became quite powerful in Pharaoh’s government.

While Joseph was rising to power, his brothers went about their lives, assuming that their little brother Joseph was lost forever.  Overtime, a terrible famine would sweep through the land of Israel.  Joseph’s brothers – including Judah – went to Egypt to find food.  While they did not know it, their search for food led them to their brother Joseph who was now an important leader.  Joseph, of course, knows who his brothers were but torments them a bit – which is understandable given what they put him through.  Joseph demands that his brothers leave the youngest brother, Benjamin, with Joseph as a slave.  At this moment, we can only imagine that Judah had a flashback to the moment he and his brothers doomed Joseph to a life of slavery.  Judah would not go through this again.  He had learned from his bad behavior and, so, he stood up to Joseph, whom Judah thought was a high ranking member of Egyptian royalty.   Certainly, this could have been extremely dangerous.  Standing up to and opposing royalty could have meant instant death for Judah.  But he had been a part of one brother’s enslavement.  He would not make the same mistake twice.  Judah’s risky, yet commendable actions led Joseph to disclose his true identity to his brothers.

Now that we have a clearer sense of Judah, let’s turn our attention to Mordechai and try to figure out why he is the first to be called a “Jew”.

Mordechai is the reason the Purim story takes place. Because Haman is a descendant of the wicked Amalek who viscously attacks the women, children, and infirm Israelites as they begin their journey in the desert, Mordechai refuses to bow to him.  This makes Haman so angry that Haman plans to kill the Jewish people.

Some might say that Mordechai should have bowed to Haman as this would have protected the Jewish people of Shushan.  However, Mordechai felt that this would have been compromising everything he believed in.  It was worth putting his life life on the line for this issue.  The Jews of Shushan agreed with Mordechai.  They had no problem taking part in a very public day of mourning when it was learned what Haman’s sinister plans were.  They could have remained silent – but they did not.

Mordechai, the descendant of the tribe of Benjamin, stood up to a powerful leader in an effort to defend his Jewish family.  He seems to inherited the courageous gene from his great-great-uncle Judah.  Ah-hah!  This is why he is called a “Yehudi” – a “Jew”.

What does it mean to be a Jew?

It means more than our adhering to the rituals, beliefs and practices of Judaism.  It means following in the footsteps of Judah and Mordechai and countless other Jews who have taken a risk by courageously standing up for what they believed in – even if doing so put them at risk.

For 2,500 years since Mordechai gained the title “Jew”, there have been many moments in Jewish history that have tested our “Jewishness” – our willingness to stand up to the bad guys and stand up for our beliefs.  As Jews, history has shown us that we get bullied.  But as Jews, we do not run from the bully.  We stay strong and we don’t break down.  That is why we have survived for as long as we have and continue moving courageously into the future.

This Purim, may we all reconnect to our “Jewishness” by remembering that we are the descendants of Judah and Mordechai.

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