Have you ever looked up the word “Jew” in the dictionary? Webster’s dictionary definition reads: “Jew n. descendent of the ancient Hebrew people; a person believing in Judaism.” Is that really the definition of a Jew? Or for that matter, where did the name “Jew” come from? In Hebrew the term for a Jew is “Yehudi.” The term comes from the Jewish name Yehudah, or in English, Judah, hence “Jew” for short. The obvious question is why, out of all Jewish names, was the name Yehudah chosen to be the term allocated to one who is “a descendent of the ancient Hebrews, or one who believes in Judaism”? More specifically, Yehudah/Judah, was the name of one of the twelve tribes – I understand we might want to be named after one of the holy tribal leaders, but why specifically Yehudah and not any of the others? Perhaps we should be called “Reuvenies/Reubenies” after the first-born tribal leader, Reuven/Reuben?
There are several answers to this question, one of which can be found in the beginning of this week’s Torah portion, Vayigash. The portion opens up with one of the most tension-filled scenes in all of the Torah. The brothers of Joseph had been sent down to Egypt to get food for their father Jacob and their families. They approached the viceroy of Egypt, who, unbeknownst to them, was their very own brother Joseph, whom they had sold as a slave several years earlier. To say this viceroy was giving them a hard time would be an understatement. He harassed them to the point of accusing the brothers of being thieves who stole a personal item from the viceroy himself, and he now wanted to incarcerate the “culprit” in whose baggage the item was found. At this point, and this is where this week’s portion begins, Judah stepped forward in defense of his brother. After some dialogue, at the height of the tension, Joseph finally revealed himself to his brothers with the famous words, “I am Joseph, is my father still alive?”
Rabbi Tzadok Hakohen offers his understanding of why we are called Yehudim – Jews. When all looked hopeless for the brothers, the one who stepped forward and did not despair was Yehudah/Judah. This trait of courage in the face of calamity is an inherent in the Jewish people. Time and time again the nations of the world have stood up against us and pushed us to the point of despair. But the Jews never give up. We turn toward our Father in Heaven, and try to understand the message in our misfortune. We pick ourselves up and seek to grow from the challenging situation.
As a matter of fact, we find this very trait intrinsic in the first seeds of our nation. Sarah was barren for many years until she gave birth to Isaac. The situation looked hopeless, to the point of despair. No doubt, people seeing Sarah and her husband Abraham thought to themselves “How sad, there will never be any progeny from them, the ones from whom the entire Jewish nation was supposed to come forth.” However, after much heartfelt prayer, they were blessed with a child. Jews never give up. Our Father in Heaven is always looking after us. He may challenge us with difficult situations for a variety of reasons, but he is always there, waiting for us to turn to Him. The name of our nation, Yehudim, reminds us to remain undaunted, like our forefather Yehudah and his ancestors before him, and to reach out to the Almighty to give us strength and resolve our difficulties.
 The reason for Joseph’s behavior toward his brothers is a subject for another essay at a different time.