A Vision of Jewish Unity

Vayiggash By :  David M. Ackerman JTS Alum (Rabbinical School) Posted On Jan 3, 2009 / 5769 | Torah Commentary | Israel

This Shabbat, whatever our politics, we stand together with concern and worry as our brothers and sisters in Israel engage in yet another battle in what often seems like an unending war. The ongoing terror of rockets, fired arbitrarily into southern Israel, along with Israel’s military response, unite us in shared anguish. We also share in the hope for a just end to this battle, to this war, and to all wars.

Grief and guilt, anguish and worry, unite us and perhaps they always have. The recent terror attacks in Mumbai rallied Jews of all persuasions, united in grief by the senseless murders of Rabbi Gavriel and Rivka Holtzberg, the four souls at the Chabad House, and the hundreds killed elsewhere in Mumbai. The acute awareness that as Jews we can be the victims of horror at any moment powerfully connects us to one another, our everyday disagreements, at least for the moment, set aside. 

The still evolving financial scandal surrounding Bernard Madoff’s alleged fraud has served to unite Jews of varying stripes in yet another way. Joined together in shame and embarrassment, we jointly share in the painful recognition that we as a people are by no means exempt from destructively dishonest behavior. As a friend of mine put it a couple of weeks ago when the story first broke, echoing a sentiment felt in many American Jewish psyches, “why did he have to be Jewish?”

The famous Talmudic notion that kol yisrael areivim zeh ba’zeh (all Israelites serve as pledges/guarantors for one another) [Bavli Shavuot 39b] shares an inner architecture with this past month’s headlines. 

The Talmud offers its slogan in an effort to explain the idea that individual Jews fall by virtue of one another’s guilt. With great interpretive ingenuity, the Talmud begins with a brief clause from Leviticus 26:37: v’kashlu ish b’achiv (and they shall fall upon one another). The Bible’s words form part of the gruesome description of maladies and curses that will befall the people of Israel should they choose to disregard the commandments. 

The Talmud inserts the word transgressionavon-into this phrase as a way, I think, of deepening and internalizing the Bible’s original concept of shared responsibility. The Talmud’s interpretive move makes us responsible not only for one another’s physical well-being, but also for one another’s spiritual and ethical fitness. To step forward as a pledge against the anticipated, future transgressions of another is what the Talmud has in mind. Talk about a heavy responsibility. 

Parashat Va-yiggash offers us a more uplifting vision of Jewish connectedness and unity, and when enriched by the week’s haftarah, one of Ezekiel’s great dramatic statements of future hope, we arrive at a concept of Jewish unity that is truly, and startlingly, inspiring. 

Va-yiggash describes the dramatic reconciliation of Joseph and his brothers. The brothers have returned to Egypt, this time with Benjamin in tow, to secure provisions from Egypt’s second in command. Joseph knows who they are, but they fail to recognize him. Joseph has set up his brother Benjamin by placing a silver goblet in his sack, a clever means of entrapping his clueless brothers. Unable to defend themselves against the charge of theft, the brothers turn to Judah to speak on their behalf. Judah steps up to the task and offers a richly emotional plea the high point of which is his restatement of the promise he made to Jacob to guarantee Benjamin’s well-being with his own. “For your servant guaranteed (arav) the youth before my father saying ‘if I do not bring him to you I will stand guilty before you forever'” (Gen. 44:32).

Judah’s pledge, his guarantee, bears no connection to Benjamin’s sinfulness. Benjamin has committed no wrong after all. Rather, Judah guarantees Benjamin’s life with his own; he acts, finally and forcefully, as a brother. Midrash Bereshit Rabbah (93:9) sees three layers of reconciliation in Judah’s declaration. He reconciles with Rachel, he reconciles with Benjamin, and most importantly for the Torah’s narrative, he reconciles with Joseph. Unity here derives neither from grief nor guilt nor worry, rather it flows from deeply held and shared connection and commitment.

The choice of haftarah to match the Torah’s tale of reunification pushes the notion of shared destiny even farther. Ezekiel, following a divine command, performs a symbolic act-a piece of dramatic street theater-in which he fuses together two sticks, one marked Joseph and one marked Judah, to form one long stick. The key word in his prophecy, making eleven appearances in just fourteen verses, is the word ehad. Ezekiel’s message couldn’t be clearer. Joseph and Judah share a past; Joseph and Judah share a future. Their anticipated oneness reflects the inner unity of the whole people of Israel, an application made explicit by the haftarah’s conclusion. We have been one and we will again be one; that’s the point.

Va-yiggash and its haftarah suggest a vision of Jewish unity not limited to anguish and guilt. To be part of the people of Israel means to share a past and to share in a common hope for the future. The only gap in that formulation surrounds the question of the present.

In 1951 Abraham Joshua Heschel published an essay entitled “To Be a Jew: What Is It?” that took on the question of belonging to the Jewish people. A reworked version of that essay became the final chapter of Heschel’s magnum opus, God in Search of Man, published in 1955. Here are his original words:

Why is my belonging to the Jewish people the most sacred relation to me, second only to my relation to God? Israel is a spiritual order in which the human and the ultimate, the natural and the holy enter a lasting covenant, in which kinship with God is not an aspiration but a reality of destiny. For us Jews there can be no fellowship with God without the fellowship with Israel. Abandoning Israel, we desert God.

Heschel then serves up a rich metaphor, one that connects beautifully with Ezekiel’s great symbolic act in this week’s haftarah: “Israel is the tree, we are the leaves.”

Why stay connected to a unified Jewish people? Heschel’s inspiring answer goes like this: “The future of all men depends upon their realizing that the sense of holiness is as vital as health. By following the Jewish way of life we maintain that sense and preserve the light for mankind’s future visions.”

The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.