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Chancellor's Parashah Commentary

Parashat Va-yiggash 5755
Genesis 44:18 - 47:27
December 10, 1994    7 Tevet 5755

Ismar Schorsch is the chancellor of The Jewish Theological Seminary.

As you know, the Haftarah is the prophetic selection with which we take leave from the weekly parasha. The word is a noun which means, "to bring (the Torah reading) to a close." We do not depart from the Torah abruptly, but gradually with a final reading from the Prophets, chanted from a printed book rather than a handwritten scroll. We withdraw from the realm of the sacred slowly. The prophetic passage chosen always relates to the content of the parasha for that week.

This Shabbat's haftarah is no different, except that it amplifies what we read in the Torah more richly than usual. Ezekiel's prophecy (37:15-28) offers a vivid metaphor for an end to the divided condition of Jacob's descendants. Living in exile in Babylon after the destruction of the First Temple in 586 B.C.E., Ezekiel is instructed by God to inscribe two twigs, one with the name of Judah and the other with the name Ephraim, and then bring them together and watch them fuse. The exile of Israel (722 B.C.E.) and Judah was soon to be reversed. But beyond that, the metaphor foretold the restoration of national unity lost after the death of Solomon, when the Northern Kingdom rejected the rule of the Davidic house in Jerusalem. Redemption would also end the factional nature of the Jewish polity.

The haftarah does more than echo the reconciliation of Joseph and his brothers. It treats the main protagonists - Joseph and Judah - as prototypes of the two hostile kingdoms of Samaria and Jerusalem. And with this interpretation, the haftarah takes us to a deeper layer of the Joseph story.

The truth is that the story is not just about the squabbles of a dysfunctional family. The central figures foreshadow the fate of the nation to come. The twelve tribes that will enter the promised land under Joshua and make up the loose confederation under the Judges prior to the creation of the monarchy bear the names of Jacob's sons, and the whole nation is known by his name, Israel. It is a nation riven by internal tensions that remain largely unresolved when the tribes join to found a monarchy to withstand better the threat of their powerful new neighbors, the Philistines. Even the building of a national capital in Jerusalem by David and a central shrine by Solomon fails to heal the rift.

The Torah sees the root cause for this tragic failure at national unity in the divided family of Jacob. The sons came from different mothers and are at loggerheads from the start. As the ancestors of the Northern and Southern Kingdoms, Joseph and Judah play the lead roles in the family saga. It is Judah who proposes to sell Joseph to a caravan of Ishmaelites on their way to Egypt for 20 pieces of silver (Genesis 37:16 ff). According to the midrash, when the brothers see the grief that Judah's counsel brings to their father, they promptly remove him as their leader (Rashi on Genesis 38:1).

But eventually it is Judah's leadership that reunites the family. He persuades his father to allow Benjamin to accompany the brothers to Egypt as demanded by Joseph, and when the boy's welfare is endangered by Joseph's design, Judah steps forward to offer his life instead. History does not repeat itself. Judah's act of self-sacrifice is seen by Joseph as an instance of pure contrition. This time the son of Leah does not betray the son of Rachel, Jacob's favorite.

The narrative artfully reduces the destiny of the nation to the strains of its family origin, and must be read on both levels to appreciate its full power and subtlety. But the reconciliation is only temporary at best. Joseph appears to be the dominant protagonist. His political might is transferred into the family domain when Jacob, before his death, adopts Joseph's two sons, Ephraim and Menasseh, as his own, giving Joseph in effect two tribes.

Yet the ambiguity continues. In Jacob's final testament to his sons, he depicts the tribes that will emerge from their loins. And in this context, political supremacy resides incontrovertibly in the tribe of Judah. "Your father's sons shall bow low to you.... He [Judah] crouches, lies down like a lion, like the king of beasts - who dare rouse him? The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor the ruler's staff from between his feet (Genesis 49:8,9,10)." Joseph's blessing, though effusive, contains no hint of political leadership. Genesis does not leave us with a clear indication as to the ultimate locus of power. Both kingdoms can lay claim to the authority of the text.

Perhaps that is the most honest way to leave things. While Jewish history comprises the destiny of a single people, it pulsates with internal dissension and factionalism. The divisions that mark the period of the First Temple are multiplied and intensified during the Second. Even after the Babylonian Talmud gains ascendancy in Jewish life under the umbrella of the Baghdad Caliphate in the final centuries of the first millennium, it is challenged by the biblicism of the Karaites. The many divergences in Jewish practice between Babylonia and Eretz Yisrael are perpetuated in the medieval cultures of Spain and Germany. Indeed, the eighteenth century, which preceded the onset of modernity in Jewish life, was riven by the wrenching aftermath of Sabbatian messianism and the rise of Hasidism.

While surely there is much that is new in the modern period (for example, the phenomenon of secular Jews), Jewish divisiveness is not one of them. On the contrary, in the area of Jewish foreign affairs we in America have gained a measure of political unity unknown before, though this too is breaking down, with the opening of denominational offices in Washington. (Jewish foreign affairs used to be a role reserved to the religiously neutral civil defense organizations.) Only a spirit of civility and inclusiveness can serve to offset the consequences of a decentralized polity, which has long been endemic to Jewish life.

In the amidah for minha on Shabbat afternoon we remind ourselves of the vision of true Jewish unity that will come only with the messianic era. The opening line of the middle berakha reads: "You [God] are One, Your name is One, and who is like Your people Israel unique and united [my translation of ehad] throughout the world." According to a midrash, three of the silent devotions on Shabbat allude progressively to the three sabbaths of history. The maariv amidah of Friday evening refers to the sabbath of creation with the words, "You [God] sanctified the seventh day for Your glory." The shaharit amidah recalls the sabbath on which the Torah was given at Sinai when it declares that, "Moses rejoiced at the gift of his destiny." Finally, on Saturday afternoon, as the sun sets and we are about to return to the disorder of our daily lives, we cast a longing glance toward the ultimate and never-ending Shabbat in which unity will become the natural state of Jewish existence.

Till then, let us remember on occasion the most inclusive yet lofty definition of Jewishness that I know, namely that of Rabbi Yohanan, who lived in Israel back in the third century. "Anyone who repudiates idolatry is called a Jew." The mission of Judaism is to disseminate monotheism, and nothing could be more demanding of us than to be true monotheists.

Shabbat shalom u-mevorach,

Ismar Schorsch


The publication and distribution of Chancellor Schorsch's commentary on Parashat Va-yiggash are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z"l) Hassenfeld.