My wife and I love listening to your podcast.
I have a question that no Rabbi has been able to answer to my satisfaction. (It could be that they have answered the question accurately but it never resonated with me.)
It’s about Jacob and his children. Jacob is revered by us and his children were given the privilege of having tribes named after them. What bothers me is that these were not nice children. Judah had a terrible mean streak and was known to hang out with women of ill repute. His brothers sold a brother into slavery. They lied to their parents, they wiped out entire cities for revenge. (If I was Jacob’s neighbor my kids would have been under strict instructions to avoid them at all cost!)
Where does the reverence for Jacob’s children come from and why do rabbis insist on calling them righteous?
We’re not sure we can answer this question to your satisfaction, but we are going to try and contribute perspective which we hope you will appreciate.
Recently, a book about a complicated woman, Dr. Anne Spoerry was published. (In Full Flight by John Heminway) She fought the Nazis while part of the French Resistance. She was betrayed and sent to a concentration camp where she collaborated with the Nazis in monstrous crimes against other captives. To escape war crime prosecution, she fled to Kenya and spent the rest of her life saving the lives of thousands of Africans.
To the Africans whose lives she improved and saved while working devotedly on that continent she is a heroine. The concentration camp internees who saw her as a sadistic torturer viewed her very differently. A snapshot of her work for the Resistance before she was sent to a concentration camp would reveal another aspect of her personality. We haven’t read the book yet, but we surmise that Dr. Spoerry was an incredibly powerful and complex woman. We may never know the truth about her feelings, motivations and even her actions but her life does serve as a reminder that God created humans as amazingly complicated beings.
What does this have to do with Jacob’s sons? The Torah consistently presents complex pictures of human beings. It is not a history book, but a guide to life. If the people in it were one-dimensional saints or sinners it would not be useful to us because that is not how any of us really are. The Torah teaches that the greater a person is, the greater is his capacity both for good and for evil. In fact, ancient Jewish wisdom, based on the following verse, teaches that anyone who is great enough to accomplish exceptional things will, by definition, do some wrong things as well. “There is no righteous man on earth who does only good and never sins at all.” (Ecclesiastes 7:20).
Jacob’s sons were establishing a movement that, to our day, exerts tremendous influence. They were powerful people given a powerful heritage. We disagree that Judah wasn’t a nice person. He failed to live up to his own standards and picked himself up and tried again. He candidly acknowledged his errors and demonstrated remarkable courage with Joseph in Egypt. In doing so he made it easier for the rest of us to follow suit.
It’s also worth remembering that Jacob and his family didn’t live in a small and wholesome LDS town in Utah or in a church-centric community in Oklahoma. They lived in a world yet unimpacted by Judeo-Christian values. Their neighbors behaved barbarically and inflicted cruelty upon one another. There was no civilized alternative to Jacob’s sons wiping out the men of Shechem. It wasn’t simply revenge for rape. It was a process of civilizing the world.
None of the other actions you mention such as the brothers selling Joseph or Judah’s visiting a woman he thought to be a prostitute can be fully explained in this response. They’d need more space and time. Nonetheless, it would be a mistake to treat the narrative like a modern fiction story. There were elements of good and bad in all the actions. Often, the right thing to do inevitably has aspects that are damaging and those who do wrong often have good inside them as well. Like us, the brothers had to deal with circumstances that are multi-faceted and complicated.
Through their successes and failures they maintained their allegiance to the God of their fathers and to His greater picture. They strove to improve and pass on to their children a call to become greater. They were men of a caliber that we can’t begin to comprehend but the emanations from them still lend strength to us. These are some of the reasons their descendants were called ‘the Children of Israel” and why the word Jew is proudly derived directly from the name of the fourth son, Judah.
We hope that at least some of what we tell you here resonates.
Rabbi Daniel and Susan Lapin