To be a Jew

What is a Jew?  The term “Yehudi” (“Jew” in Hebrew) means “From Yehuda.”  During the First Temple period, when all twelve tribes lived in Israel, a Yehudi would have been from the Tribe of Judah (just as an Efrati would have been from Efrayim, a Binyamini would have been from the tribe of Binyamin, etc….).   However, after the destruction of the Temple, the term’s meaning changed. The Babylonians who exiled the people from the Kingdom of Judah referred to all the exiled people as Yehudim, regardless of the tribe they originally hailed from. The name “Yehudim” (or Jews) thus became the official name for all the twelve tribes of Israel throughout the diaspora.


But is that really all that the term “Jew” means? We are a people with great pride in being Jewish.  The name “Jew” invokes inside us deep emotions that go beyond an affinity for our ancient kingdom.  What is the hidden message is contained in the word “Yehudi”?


When the entire people of Israel refer to ourselves as Jews, we are affiliating ourselves with the leadership mission of Judah, the fourth son of Israel.  To understand the secret of the Jew’s strength, we must study the blessing that Jacob gave on his death bed to Judah.


The words of this blessing are poetic and metaphoric.  To make the message more clear, we will use the translation of the linguistic expert Yechiel Ben Nun ( Eretz HaMoriah, pages 177-182). The meaning of the metaphors of the poetry have been translated into the image that they transmit:

Yehuda! After you prove yourself in war against your enemies, your brothers will acknowledge you and accept your authority.

Yehuda will then be able to abandon the practice of fighting wars.

His country will be in a state of stability.  

The scepter of power will not depart from Yehuda-internally within the nation,

The authority of the law will not depart from his jurisdiction- throughout the world he will teach justice and righteousness.

The riches that he has attained until now through war from the other nations will continue but now they will be given to him as a gift as a recognition of his people’s status.

This will signify that the nations are ready to accept him and listen to him.

His region will be able to produce wine freely and the shepherds will be able to lead their sheep without fear. The people of Yehuda will have the blessing to enjoy the fruits of their land.

Yechiel Ben-Nun’s translation helps us see the six stages of the blessing of Judah:

  1. The military victory that the Jewish People will have over their enemies.
  2. All of Israel will accept Judah as the head of the nation.
  3. Israel will then be in a position of strength, obviating the need to fight.
  4. Israel will use this time to spread justice throughout the world.
  5. All the nations will accept Israel’s authority.  This will be represented by the gifts which they will send us.
  6. Judah will be able to develop the Judean Hills and the Judean Desert. The country will be cultivated and the people will enjoy the fruits of their labor.

This is the dream of the Jewish people. To defeat our enemies. To become a united people. To stop wars. To promote justice. To encourage the world to adopt this vision. To be able to enjoy the blessings of our land.  This is the vision which we are promoting when we call ourselves a Jew. This is the calling we are undertaking. This is our goal and destiny.


The Nation of our Fathers

What is a nation?  According to the Oxford Dictionary a nation is: “a large body of people united by common descent, history, culture, or language inhabiting a particular state or territory.”  Currently, due to unfortunate circumstances of our exile from our home land, the Jewish people do not seem to fit this definition.

It is true that we are all descended from Abraham and Sarah (whether physically or spiritually) and that we share the same history (as described in the twenty four books of the Tanach).  It is also true that we have inherited from our ancestors common cultural attributes (such as the pursuit of justice, heart for kindness, a love of learning, and a desire to make a better world) and that Hebrew has been the language of the Jewish people for the last 3.000 years in prayer and learning (and now again in speech).  Yet it seems that we are lacking the most important qualification of a nation:  a land which unites us all!  

Let us consider if the land of Israel can be that missing link.  On one hand, it definitely unites the Jewish people: It is the place of our origin. It is the place of our destiny.  It is the country we cry about on Tisha B’av.  It is the country we dream of on Passover.  It is the country we pray for in the midst of our weddings.  It is the country where the righteous wish to be buried at the end of their days.

 But for over one thousand years the majority of the Jewish people did not dwell there.  Even today the Jewish People reside in over one hundred countries, spread over six continents.  How does the land of Israel keep us as a nation if we do not all dwell there?  Rabbi Mordechai Breuer answers that the unique relationship each of our forefathers had with the land of Israel set a precedent for the future generations of their descendents.  Our nation sometimes has a relationship with the land like of Abraham (Aliya), sometimes like of Isaac (Dwelling), and sometimes like of Jacob (Return).

Abraham made Aliya to Israel.  Abraham was born in Ur, the biggest metropolitan city of ancient times.  On God’s command he left the culture and technology of his birth place and made his home in the not-cultivated land of Israel.  Abraham shows us that Israel is our homeland regardless of our place of birth.  

Isaac lived in Israel.  Isaac was born in the land and even in tough times did not leave. Isaac cultivated the land and he didn’t give up when the locals opposed his efforts.  He kept on digging new wells until they realized that he is committed to the land and here to stay.  Isaac teaches us that our homeland is Israel, no matter what others claim.

Jacob returned to the land of Israel.  When he was forty years old, Jacob left the land of Israel to live in Aram.  There he was very successful.  Yet Jacob left his wealth to return to his homeland.  Jacob shows us that even if we live elsewhere the country of Israel is still our home.  Jacob demonstrated this again when he was living in Egypt and commanded his children to make sure he will be buried in Israel.  He was telling his children “You might temporarily need to live outside Israel-maybe even for hundreds of years-but don’t forget that your true place of residence is the land of Israel.”

The three relationships our forefathers had with the land of Israel were repeated on the national level.  Like Abraham our Father, the Jewish People were born outside of Israel and we “made Aliya” to establish our homes in the promised land.  Like Isaac our Father, the Jewish people cultivated the soil, fought the Pelishtim (Philistines) who contested our existence, and ultimately established ourselves as the true residents of the land of Israel.  Like Jacob our Father, the Jewish people had to leave the land and found themselves in a new place with an opportunity for prosperity.  Yet when the Jews had the ability to return to the land of their forefathers they did.  The first Aliya (Shesbazar), the second Aliya (Zerubavel), the third Aliya (Ezra) and the fourth Aliya (Nechemya).all contributed to the Second Common Wealth, a renewed Beit HaMikdash, and even a more glorified state than before.
Today, on both a national and individualistic level, we witness the renewal of all three relationships that our forefathers had with the land.  From throughout the world, the Jewish People are making Aliya and returning to their home.  In Israel, the Jewish people are cultivating the country, fighting off the enemy, and with a silent and modest determination, establishing the nation of Israel as the permanent residence of the land.  

The Nation of Israel Lives!!!