Friday, December 11, 2009

Leadership, Repentance and Going Home.

Guest Post by Martin Brody

With the book of Genesis three quarters completed, following a whole slew of malfeasance, we finally hear somebody admit they are wrong.

And it comes in this week’s Sedra, Vayeishev, from an unlikely source in an unlikely episode, Judah, the son accepted as a leader both by his brothers and their father, and his involvement with the apparent prostitute, Tamar his daughter-in-law!

Judah is seen as less than a stellar person. He did save Joseph from death, but the reason he advanced was mercenary. Instead, he recommended a profitable way of disposing of his brother by selling him to the Ishmaelites. He married a Canaanite woman, although Abraham and Isaac had previously fought against such an idea.

He was not exactly truthful when telling his widowed daughter-in-law, Tamar, to wait until his third son, Shelah, was older before they married. His real intention was that Shelah should not marry her for fear that he, like his elder brothers, would die after marrying her. He spent a night with a woman whom he assumed to be a prostitute, and then learning that Tamar was pregnant through that act of prostitution, he decided that she should be burnt without hearing her defense.

It was then that repentance was introduced into the world. So impressed with Tamar’s refusal to point the finger of accusation at Judah as her impregnator, he confessed his guilt, the first step in repentance, teshuva.

Teshuva literally means return. But return to what? There are several word for sin in Hebrew, the most well known perhaps being “Chet” which is used dozens of times in the Yom Kippur liturgy for example. With Judaism so concerned with self elevation, that this word for sin means missing the mark, as if one was not in the right place.

The English word transgress is similar, meaning moving outside the border, away from one’s home. So Teshuva means returning home at least in a spiritual sense, and Judah introduced the concept, later to be repeated and amplified with Joseph, to whom he and his brothers had caused so much distress. This step alone earned him the right of leadership and the progenitor of kings and the future Messiah.

A young Austrian, thoroughly assimilated Jewish writer had invited the Chief Rabbi of Vienna over to his house one December evening to discuss a wild and crazy idea. On entering the home, the writer asked the Rabbi if he would like to join them for the lighting. As it was Chanukah, the Rabbi was delighted to attend, but on entering the family room was shocked to see the writer and his family about to light the Christmas tree. It was Christmas Eve!

The Rabbi took the writer aside and had a long discussion about his Judaism, and convinced the writer to perhaps light a Menorah instead.

This young Austrian writer was none other than the great Theodor Herzl. This little known vignette with the Rabbi was to have a tremendous impact on his life. The wild and crazy idea, of course, was Zionism, the return of Jews after nineteen hundred years to sovereignty in their homeland. A movement to go home. This was spurred on by the horrific Dreyfus trial to which he was a reporter.
So alienated from his religion he previously thought the answer to anti-Semitism was conversion to Christianity, but that was jettisoned by the events at tghe trial. But after the meeting with the Rabbi there was a new ingredient to the mix. Religious observance. He was repenting, returning. So much so, that in 1897 he publicly declared that there could be no return to Zion without a return to Judaism.
How much he moved in the direction of observance is not our business, but move he did. And he did not physically return home to Israel, but through his genius, courage and leadership, millions did and will in the future. So much was his importance that Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the Chief Rabbi of pre- State Palestine and the leader of the religious Zionist faction (pictured above) declared that Theodor Herzl could have been Messiah Ben Joseph, the precursor of Messiah Ben Yehuda.