At age 13, a violin virtuoso appeared on a Berlin stage and overwhelmed his audience. In fact, the young prodigy so inspired one audience member, namely Albert Einstein, that he uttered, "Now I know there is a G-d in heaven." The name of that virtuoso and eventual member of Britain's House of Lords was Yehudi Menuhin.
Do you recognize the first name? Yehudi is the Hebrew word for Jew. But why would parents name a son Yehudi?
Menuhin's parents were Russian Jewish immigrants, newly arrived in New York. They moved into a tenement in the city while Mrs. Menuhin was pregnant. The landlord chanced to say: "Thank goodness you're not Jewish. We don't allow Jews here." Mrs. Menuhin, on the spot, decided that if her baby were a boy she'd name him Yehudi. "Whenever they will call my son by his name," she said, "they will acknowledge my people." Clearly, Mrs. Menuhin was a virtuoso in her own right.
In this, the final parashah of the first Book of Moses, Jacob is about to die. And so he gathers his children to endow each with a special gift — an individual blessing. But it's the b'rachah that he bestows on his fourth son, Yehuda, that becomes a tipping point for the Jewish people. Here is what he says: "Yehuda, ata yodukha achekha — Judah, your brothers will acknowledge you."
In the Midrash, the rabbis made this claim: The descendants of Jacob — Israelites — will not be called Reubenites or Shimonites or any other name; they will call themselves Yehudim — Jews. Yehuda became the eponym of the Jewish people.
Why so? What was so special about Judah that he merited to name the Jewish people?
The drama between Joseph and his brothers holds the key to Judah's virtuosity, say our sages, and, by extension, the genius of our people.
The ultimate price of doing "business" with Joseph was by bringing the youngest child, Benjamin, to him. It was Judah who succeeded in overcoming the trepidations of his father, and he did so by uttering two words that tipped the scale of Jewish destiny. He said in effect, "Dad, don't worry. Send Benjamin with me.
The phrase is even more pregnant with meaning than might be obvious at first. Areiv does not just mean to take responsibility; it means to be intertwined. Judah, and by extension all Jews, are unique because there is an acute sense of inextricable connectedness, one to the other.
In his "Letter from a Birmingham Jail," Martin Luther King wrote, "What affects one person directly affects all peoples indirectly." But to be a Jew is to know that "what affects one Jew directly affects all Jews –directly."
In a shocking statement, Maimonides declared: "One who separates oneself from the community, even if that person was free from sin, has no share in the world to come" (Hilkhot Teshuva 3:11). Think about this: If a person was scrupulous in observance, but still divorced from the community, there will be no merit in the world to come.
We are called by a name that speaks of responsibility and interconnectedness — both spatially to those next to us, and temporally to the generations that came before and are yet to be.
So how about we all make a new year's resolution? I'm not suggesting that we all become violin virtuosos, but I am suggesting that we strive to become Jewish virtuosos, so that when people look at us and our comportment and values, they will be filled with a sense of affirmation and adulation.
Rabbi David Gutterman is the executive director of the Vaad: Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia.