In the early 1600s, Rabbi Samuel Palache, president of Neveh Shalom Synagogue in Amsterdam, was also a pirate. With authorization from Dutch and British authorities, he preyed on Spanish ships. A hundred years earlier Spain had cruelly expelled his family, along with all other Spanish Jews.
I relate to the roving rabbi. For half the year, he lived aboard his boat, equipped with a kosher chef, in the balmy waters of the Caribbean. Some of our most memorable family times have been aboard a boat, admittedly not in the Caribbean but off the coast of British Columbia. We don’t engage in piracy and our kosher chef is my wife. Still, my feelings about boat and ocean seem to confirm our family tradition that we descend from the tribe of Zevulun.
Zevulun will live on the seashore and boats will be his haven…
Yet, I am known as a Jew rather than as a Zevulunite. Jacob had twelve sons but the people of Israel are not called Reuveinim—Reubenites or Shimonim—Simonites. We are named only as descendants of Yehuda—Judah, Yehudim. In Germany we were called Juden, descendants of Jude. In English that became shortened to Jew.
Why did Judah become the namesake of all the Children of Israel? Like everyone in Scripture, and like all of us, he was not perfect. He made mistakes. However, Yehuda learned from his mistakes.
He shirked responsibility towards his brother, Joseph. When the brothers wanted to kill Joseph, he did not use his persuasive powers to advocate complete mercy. Instead of rescuing Joseph, he said to the brothers:
What profit is there in killing our brother…come let’s sell him…
He was also insensitive to his father. Ancient Jewish wisdom informs us that Judah showed Joseph’s bloody coat to Jacob and said:
Please recognize this, is it your son’s coat or not?’
Then, the tables were turned. After an amorous encounter with a woman he didn’t know was his daughter-in-law, Judah is incensed to discover that Tamar is pregnant. She is about to be punished when she proclaims:
…please recognize this signet ring, jewelry, and stick…I am pregnant by their owner.’
In Hebrew, that phrase ‘please recognize’ is “Haker Na” and it appears only twice in all of Scripture. These two unique instances appear here, within 30 verses of one another.
Judah acknowledged that he is the father of Tamar’s offspring, one of whom later becomes an ancestor of King David. Ancient Jewish wisdom tells us that Judah understood that because he caused his father pain with those words “please recognize—haker na,” that identical rare phrase was soon thereafter used to cause him the pain of public embarrassment.
We see that Judah learned his lesson when Joseph, as viceroy of Egypt, threatened to imprison Benjamin and Judah stepped forward and courageously insisted that he must return his brother home to his father. (Genesis 44:18)
Frequently, God kindly sends us unmistakable signs that the ordeal we are undergoing is the result of some earlier mistake we made. Only by being open to that quiet, heavenly message can we grow and learn from our mistakes. Linking current tribulations to our own past mistakes is good not only for individuals but also for nations.
Most Spaniards of the 17th century didn’t realize that their ordeal of a collapsing culture and economy was caused by the cruelty their country had inflicted on its Jewish population. Some nations get it while others don’t.