Cultivating an Ethic of Responsibility

Vayiggash By :  Ismar Schorsch Rabbi Herman Abramovitz Distinguished Service Professor of Jewish History and Chancellor Emeritus Posted On Dec 18, 2004 / 5765 | Torah Commentary

Jewish history unfolds as a dialectic between exile and homeland. In this week’s parashah, that dialectic emerges into full view. To reunite with his long lost son Joseph, Jacob relocates his family from the promised land of Canaan to Egypt. God encourages the shift in venue. To leave Canaan will not put God out of reach. God assures Jacob that God will accompany him into exile.

Exile is always a threat to identity, no less for the group than for the individual. Given the bald fact that exile dominates Jewish history, how are we to understand the survival of Jewish identity? The fate of the ten tribes of Israel, Judah’s northern counterpart, did not foreshadow the resilience, creativity and sheer perseverance of later Jewish history. A large part of the answer can be glimpsed through the lens of our parashah.

First and foremost is a well known rabbinic derash that projects the Torah as the portable homeland of the Jewish people. God goes into exile with Israel, the man and the nation, in the form of a book adorned solely by interpretation. It is the substitution of a sacred book for a sacred space that transforms God from a national to a universal deity. The Midrash reads this momentous change into a prosaic verse: “He [i.e. Jacob] had sent Judah ahead of him to Joseph, to point the way before him to Goshen” (46:28). Because in biblical Hebrew the verb lehorot means not only to point the way but also to teach (the word Torah derives from the same root), the Midrash understood the purpose of Judah’s advance party to be founding a place to teach Torah. The spin was quintessentially rabbinic. No Jewish community, whether in Israel or in exile, could long survive if it did not rest on a foundation of religious practice that flowed from the deep study of the sacred text. The academy was the hearth that heated the nation in inclement weather. Torah reinforced Jewish identity. Where it withered, the forces of assimilation would prevail (B’reishit Rabba 95:3).

But there is a second feature in our parashah equally critical to the dynamic of Jewish survival. Jacob did not go down to Egypt alone. He took his entire family, a clan of some sixty-six souls. The Torah accentuated the importance of the group by giving us the names of all its members. In Egypt they would live apart in the land of Goshen, on the eastern delta of the Nile. From the perspective of Jewish history, the manner of this migration became paradigmatic. Whether in Egypt or elsewhere, Jews could cultivate their own identity only if they migrated and settled as a group. The forging of a Jewish community was as vital as the founding of a house of study. If the latter sustained their inner life, the former attended to their material and social needs. The power of Jewish community made Jews a model of self-reliance. Conversely, the settling of a solitary Jew in a land untrod by other Jews leaves no footprint.

And so it is that the beginning of Jewish history in America is not marked by the person of Luis de Torres, who served as an interpreter for Columbus and who had converted to Catholicism shortly before the journey. Indeed, he was the first of Columbus’s crew to set foot on the soil of the new world and one of the first Europeans to take up residence in it. But a single Jew, and surely not a Marrano, does not constitute soil for the flowering of Jewish life. Rather, in consonance with Jacob’s collective migration to Egypt, we commemorate the 350th anniversary of the arrival in September 1654, of twenty-three refuges in New Amsterdam from Brazil, a group that once admitted and established, would soon organize itself into a nascent Jewish community. The purchase of a cemetery by 1682 reflected the Jewish reality that you can’t say Kaddish alone.

Jews and Judaism are inextricably linked. The ultimate determinant of the group nature of Jewish migration is the religious requirement of a quorum of adult males for the performance of certain sacred acts. I know of no similar requirement in Christianity or Islam. Not only is the demand of a minyan unique to Judaism, it also is the seedbed for community. To live Judaism, Jews need each other. It is impermissible to read the Torah publicly or perform a wedding or recite K addish or other prayers with an extra measure of holiness without the presence of a minyan (be it traditional or egalitarian). While one may certainly pray alone, the Talmud deems prayers offered in a minyan to be especially pleasing to the Almighty (BT Berakhot 8a). By the same token, to be in the midst of a praying minyan often rekindles our religious energy when it wanes.

Put differently, the demand for a minyan gives expression to the supreme importance in Judaism of community. Our individual relationship to God is mediated through a plurality of likeminded souls. The original revelation at Sinai, our yearly confessions on Yom Kippur, and our daily prayers, all gain traction and resonance by virtue of being a group experience. To improve the wellbeing of the world cannot be done alone. Each time we extend ourselves by joining a minyan, we enhance our awareness of being part of something greater than ourselves. Davening in a minyan helps cultivate within us an ethic of responsibility.

Shabbat shalom,

Ismar Schorsch

The publication and distribution of Chancellor Schorsch’s commentary on Parashat Vayiggash are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.