Parsha Vayechi: Why we are called Jews?

by Rabbi Mordechai Shifman

"And white-toothed from milk" (49:12)

Many commentaries interpret this passage literally, as a description of Yehuda's suitability for royalty, i.e. that he was a man of regal appearance. The Talmud however, offers the following homiletic interpretation: The person who makes his teeth white by smiling affectionately to his fellow man, has done more good than the person who offers his fellow man milk to drink. Rather than interpreting the verse "u'leven shinayim maychalav" - "teeth white from milk," one should read "u'levone shinayim maychalav" - "showing the whiteness of your teeth is more beneficial than milk." What is the connection between the homiletic and literal interpretations? Why should this message be relayed in the blessing of Yehuda?

The Talmud teaches that were it not that Hashem provided for the animals, each animal would be suited for a particular profession. The fox would be most competent as a storekeeper and the lion as a porter. It is difficult to understand why the lion, who is the symbol of sovereignty, the lion being the symbol of Yehudah, would be depicted as a porter, which is from the least respectable of professions. Chazal must be teaching us that the unique nature of Yehuda's sovereignty is that he is the ultimate servant of the people. Yehuda does not beat his subjects into submission to fulfill his own agenda; rather, he serves and caters to the needs of his people, submitting himself to their agenda. Therefore, the lion is appropriately described as a porter, who is willing to carry the burden of all those whom he serves.

Yehuda's nature is aptly depicted in last week's parsha, when he is willing to become a slave to Yosef so that Binyamin may go free. Yehuda sets aside his own personal agenda for the well-being of another.

The notion of greeting everyone with a genuine smile so that they will feel appreciated and significant reflects the same quality portrayed by Yehuda. A person is required to set aside all thoughts or worries which trouble him, and relay a genuine sense of joy for the well-being of another.

Rabbi Mordechai Shifman

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