Parashat Vayigash: Can we save the unity of the Jewish people?

First, Vayigash recounts the crime that shattered Jacob’s family.

Some 15,000 people take in Acheinu's Day of Jewish Unity at the Western Wall in 2017. (photo credit: Courtesy)
Some 15,000 people take in Acheinu's Day of Jewish Unity at the Western Wall in 2017.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
This essay began its life as a commentary on the weekly Torah portion of Vayigash and its accompanying haftarah reading from the Prophets which contradicts the Torah’s story. But I believe Vayigash’s historical parallels are so striking that we must urgently consider these two conflicting stories and the lessons they teach us to prevent a split in world Jewry in our time.
First, Vayigash recounts the crime that shattered Jacob’s family. Joseph’s brothers had seethed at Jacob’s undisguised preference for his wife Rachel. They were hurt and infuriated by Jacob’s manifest favoritism for Rachel’s firstborn. Their anger turned into hatred when Joseph boasted of recurring Divine signals that he would rule over them in the future. Finally, when Joseph visits his brothers in the fields, they determined to kill him.
Judah – Joseph’s chief rival for leadership of the family – manages to persuade them instead to sell Joseph into slavery in Egypt. Joseph’s disappearance devastated Jacob’s life. The cover-up of the crime locked the family into a prison of silence, guilt and alienation from each other as they watched their father’s endless grief and self-recrimination. Why had he sent Joseph out alone? They were helpless to comfort him and unable to tell the truth.
Joseph survived the shocking plunge from pampered, favorite child to the dregs of slavery under a foreign master. He drew upon inner resources to rise to important positions in his master’s household, and to endure sexual harassment and betrayal by his master’s wife. He was not broken by demotion and imprisonment. In jail, he made himself so useful as to be repeatedly promoted. In a lightning turnaround, Joseph interpreted the royal dreams, which Pharaoh’s magicians and wise men failed to do. He correctly diagnosed a coming famine and came up with a plan to prevent starvation. Taken from prison and appointed chief administrator, Joseph presided over a massive grain collection that sustained the Egyptian people and all the neighboring nations.
We marvel at Joseph’s internal conviction that God had chosen him to be Egypt’s savior that enabled him to climb the pinnacle of power without losing his way or having his head turned (Genesis 45:5-8). In only one way is Joseph damaged. He rejected his family and walled off his past. He never even tried to contact his loving father during the seven years he was the vizier and second-in-command in Egypt; nor did he reach out to family in the initial years of a consuming famine.
Jacob’s family was hopelessly fractured. When Joseph meets the brothers who came to buy food for their hungry households, he feels no pity or longing for them. He toys with and torments them. Perhaps he really did want to see his only full brother, Benjamin, from whom he was violently separated years ago, but he has no plan to reconcile. His brothers are dead to him. As he said when he named his first son, Menashe, “God has made me [helped me] forget all my toil – and all my father’s house.” (Genesis 41:51). Joseph plans to see Benjamin and then let them all go out of his life forever. But Benjamin evokes a storm of emotion in him, leading him to improvise to frame Benjamin and keep him in Egypt.
Now comes the unexpected denouement. Judah approaches Joseph directly and finds the one key that unlocks his hardened heart. He communicates Jacob’s never-ending heartbreak at his missing beloved son. Judah offers to become a slave in Benjamin’s place. That is to say, far from reacting violently to Jacob’s total possessive love for Rachel’s youngest son, Judah will give up his own life in order not to break his father’s heart again.
Joseph’s blocking wall crumbled. He is flooded with yearning and nostalgia for the father who loved him more than life. In a moment of clarity, he also sees that his brother’s hateful and cruel action made possible his growing up to become a great leader.
Surviving the rejection moved him from a self-centered narcissist to a person who is fulfilled by being an instrument of God’s plan to rescue Egypt from famine – and save his family from extinction. Joseph, moved to the core, reaches out to his father and family. He brings them down to Egypt and nurtures them lovingly through the famine and its aftermath. This is the inspiring story of the near-miraculous reuniting of Jacob’s broken family and the restoration of its wholeness.
The story is almost too good to be true. The haftarah – this week’s prophetic reading – relates the sad reality that there was not a happy ending. The competition continued below the surface, as evidenced by Jacob’s mixed blessings and curses on the different sons, and the brothers’ concern after Jacob’s death that Joseph would now take revenge (Genesis 49, 50:15-26).
When the children of Israel took possession of Canaan, tribal rivalries returned. In particular, the tribes of Ephraim, son of Joseph, and Judah dueled for supremacy. King Saul came from the tribe of Ephraim, and the Judeans were somewhat distanced from him. David, Saul’s son-in-law, came from the tribe of Judah. David’s success – and the Judeans’ obvious preference for him – drove Saul into paranoia, and he tried to destroy David.
David and Solomon managed to keep the kingdom united, despite the alienation of the tribe of Ephraim and its allies. But Solomon’s son Rehoboam was a weak ruler, and the nation split into two under him – the Kingdom of Israel (comprising most of the Ten Tribes) and the Kingdom of Judah (mostly Judah, Benjamin, and part of the Levi tribe.) The kingdoms competed religiously, including Israel’s creation of two worship centers in Beit El and Dan to keep the Israelites from going to Jerusalem for their communal religious worship. Sadly, there were neither rulers great enough nor prophets successful enough to reunite the two kingdoms.
While the Kingdom of Israel suffered many coups, archaeology shows it was the larger and dominant power in the area, with Judah as its satellite. This came to a crashing end when Assyria invaded and conquered Israel, sending the people into exile and replacing them with other ethnic groups. Tragically, the Ten Tribes assimilated and were lost to Jewish history.
Over a century later, the new imperial power of Babylonia conquered Judah and exiled many of its people. But Judah had undergone repeated religious renewals. Part of the Judeans’ internal strength came from the religious deepening and revival in response to the destruction of Israel, and the arrival of a large group of Israel’s most religious citizens as refugees to the Kingdom of Judah. Once Babylonia was overthrown by the Persians and Medes, the Judeans returned to the homeland, having successfully maintained their religious identity intact. However, the lack of religious interaction with Judah over the centuries left the general Israelite population weaker in religion and covenantal identity, leading to their assimilation and disappearance.
The haftarah of Vayigash is a vision of Ezekiel – prophesying in Babylon more than a century after the disappearance of the Kingdom of Israel. He is instructed to take one stick and write on it “for Judah – and the tribe’s companions.” On another stick, he writes “for Ephraim and the tribes of Israel.” The Lord promises to unite the sticks into one – representing the reunited and restored people of Israel.
The haftarah is heartbreaking because you realize the nostalgia and yearning behind the rabbinic pairing of this prophetic portion. Unlike Judah in Vayigash, there was no political leader or prophet over the centuries to approach the two kingdoms and speak the unifying words of faith and reconciliation that could have saved Israel (or, at least, assured the survival in exile of its people). By Ezekiel’s time, the Ten Tribes were hopelessly lost. The prophet articulates the longing for reunion and profound regret at all the missed opportunities to unite the two main Israelite centers, which might have saved both.
This is the message of Vayigash and its haftarah for our time. Again there are two major centers of Jewry in the world – in Israel and the Diaspora. Again, after a century of solidarity and mutual aid, there is the splintering effect of political differences, geographic distance and religious/cultural divergence. Many are complacent, saying sociological and cultural trends will run their course and there is nothing we can do.
This week’s Torah portion and haftarah constitute a warning not to repeat the errors of the past. We need to mount a major effort to link Israel and Diaspora Jews in a new consciousness of deeper unity and learning with and from each other.
I want to mention and praise here Our Common Destiny ( a project launched last year by the Genesis Philanthropy Group and the Diaspora Affairs Ministry, under the auspices of President Reuven Rivlin. This initiative is dedicated to bringing Jewish communities together by focusing on our common values. The guiding text of the project is the Declaration of Our Common Destiny, an eloquent document that sets forth the core principles that have connected the Jewish people for millennia. Our Common Destiny crowdsourced the completion of the Declaration, a global effort that garnered the participation of more than 130,000 Jews from all over the world.
I urge you to go to the website, read the document, offer your own input, and join in the process. On December 17, there was an online celebration of the declaration in the presence of President Rivlin in a program called “Illuminate: A Global Jewish Unity Event.” I believe that we must build on the declaration and add communal structures to link Israel and the Diaspora, Some permanent structure is needed to assure that Israel’s governments have a strong connection to Diaspora Jewry and an effective channel to hear its needs.
We need to expand programs of direct contact between Diaspora Jews and Israelis. The classic programs are Taglit/Birthright Israel, which brings 50,000 young Jews annually to Israel for a free 10-day intensive educational trip, and MASA, which enables a more extended stay and study program in Israel. These and other similar programs are building a reservoir of Jews who have encountered Israel firsthand. Studies show that Diaspora participants develop relationships with Israelis and attachment to Israel so they can process divergence and conflict yet remain deeply attached.
Charles Bronfman and Irina Nevzlin have announced the formation of Enter: The Jewish Peoplehood Alliance, which focuses on digital connections between world Jewish communities and Israel. Its goal is also to engage Israelis more and to raise Jewish peoplehood’s salience in Israeli education.
Now that there is a shake-up in Israel’s political Right, there is an opportunity to reach out to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his would-be successors to be more responsive and responsible to the Diaspora. This gives us an opportunity to undo some of the mistakes made in recent years that offend Diaspora Jewry. These include exclusion of liberal religious movements and denial of recognition to their converts or marriages, and the repudiation of the compromise permission of non-Orthodox services at the Western Wall. These policies resulted from Prime Minister Netanyahu’s deferring to haredim (ultra-Orthodox) on government religious policies for the sake of gaining their political support. Netanyahu argues that the other parties, including the opposition, also defer for the sake of political support, but the time has come to stop this practice and put Jewish unity first.
There are those who justify giving the ultra-Orthodox a monopoly on Israel’s religious affairs, claiming it will preserve the unity of the Jewish people to have one officially recognized standard. But there can be no unity without recognition of the pluralism and diversity that is dominant in Diaspora Jewry. Similarly, Netanyahu’s neglect of the Democratic Party (political home of nearly 80% of American Jewry) should be reversed to restore full bipartisan support for Israel. Finally, world Jewry also must make a new major investment in liberal, open Orthodoxy – the only religious force that can challenge haredim on their turf and open the door to pluralist Israeli government policies.
The famous dictum is that those who do not learn from history are condemned to relive it. We need to make a massive investment in connecting Israel and Diaspora Jewry, lest we end up losing one Jewish center – which would profoundly weaken the other. We need our Judah leadership to speak the right words and focus on the right projects to keep Jewry – in both its centers – as one people, bound by fate and by choice and sustaining each other.
The writer served as (executive) director of the President’s Commission on the Holocaust, which proposed the creation and wrote the program of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. He served as chairman of the museum from 2000-2002.