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Change Is Who We Are

I often hear people say that the Orthodox way of life guarantees Judaism’s survival. I hear this argument from all manners of Jews, from Reform, Conservative and Orthodox Jews. The notion is that only strict observance and inviolability guarantees the Jewish future. This is false.

I understand when I hear this argument from Orthodox Jews because it makes sense that they would believe their commitments are the true path. It saddens me when I hear this from fellow Reform Jews because it suggests a lack of faith in our own chosen path.

This week we conclude the story of Joseph and his brothers. Joseph has framed his brothers by hiding a goblet in his brother Benjamin’s bag. Joseph accuses the brothers of thievery and threatens to jail Benjamin. Rather than allowing Benjamin to be carted away and made a slave, as they did to Joseph so many years ago, Judah draws near to Joseph and begs that his younger brother be spared.

Judah pleads, “Therefore, please let your servant remain as a slave to my lord instead of the boy, and let the boy go back with his brothers. For how can I go back to my father unless the boy is with me? Let me not be witness to the woe that would overtake my father!” (Genesis 44) In that moment Joseph realizes his brothers have indeed changed.

The rabbis are forgiving of Joseph’s machinations. They believe he devised a legitmate test of his brothers. Given the opportunity, would they once again get rid of their father’s favorite son or this time, make a different choice? Would they defend Benjamin even though years earlier they had betrayed Joseph? The only true test of teshuvah shleymah, complete repentance, is to find oneself in the exact same situation and make a different choice.

This is how Joseph discovers that his brothers have made done the hard work of repentance. The Torah states, “And Judah drew near.” Judah has changed.

It is instructive that Judah is the spokesman for the brothers. It was he who had earlier suggested that they sell Joseph into slavery rather than killing him. Years later, Judah has become a different man.

Change is central to his character. It should also be defining of our own. In fact, it is from the name Judah that the term Jew derives. The origin of the term Jew is one who descends from the tribe of Judah. Why then do we not see change as the defining characteristic of a Jew? Why do we believe that never changing is what guarantees a Jewish future?

Change is part of our DNA. It is what guarantees the survival of Jacob and his descendants. Judah’s repentance is what ensures that he and his extended family will survive the famine now plaguing the area.

And yet most people remain afraid of change. We want it to remain like yesterday. We mythologize the past. We bristle at change and demonize the future.

How long will we for example pretend that online praying and singing is no longer just a temporary fix but a fixture of our future? I understand. While we might recognize that individuals change, we are reticent to believe that the institutions around which we build our lives must also adapt. We say, “Let my synagogue be just as I remember it. Let my children’s Judaism be just as I learned it in Hebrew School.”

Such thoughts are fantasy. Nothing is really as we remember it. We prefer to pretend and imagine that we live in a never changing present.

Let us look to Judah for inspiration. Let us embrace change and gain solace from the strength of character it requires.

Change is who we are. It is our very name.