The Fragility of a Nation’s Unity

Vayeshev | Hanukkah By :  Ismar Schorsch Rabbi Herman Abramovitz Distinguished Service Professor of Jewish History and Chancellor Emeritus Posted On Dec 7, 1996 / 5757 | Torah Commentary | Holidays

Jacob fathered twelve sons, but singled out Joseph for special favor, setting off the family dynamic which would eventually land Jacob’s clan in Egypt. The verbal flow of the text foreshadows the intimacy: as our narrative begins the name of Joseph appears directly after that of Jacob. No extraneous word is allowed to loosen the bond. “These are the begettings of Yaakov. Yosef, seventeen years old, used to tend the sheep along with his brothers (Genesis 37:2 in the translation by Everett Fox).” It is as if the history of Jacob comes down to the fate of Joseph.

A midrash imputes the following meaning to the sequence of their names “Yaakov Yosef”: Identical life experiences deepened their kinship. What happened to Jacob is about to happen to Joseph, something that cannot be said of any of his other sons. The midrash elaborates: both were born circumcised; their respective mothers, Rebecca and Rachel, had difficulty conceiving and giving birth; both were the first-born of their mother; both were hated by their brothers who sought to kill them.

The midrash served to meld the two names into one. Thus one of the important early disciples of the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism, was Jacob Joseph Ha-Kohen, the ascetic and persecuted rabbi of several communities in Volhynia. In 1780 he published a polemical compendium of Hasidic doctrine which he titled, after the opening words of our parasha, Toldot Yaakov Yosef. Its rich contents are ordered, after a fashion, according to the parashot of the Torah. When the book reached Vilna, the citadel of talmudic piety in Eastern Europe, in 1781, it provoked yet another resounding excommunication of all Hasidim: “The people who belong to this accursed sect in our community are put under the great ban, so that they must move out of our community with their wives and children…. No one…may lease or rent them any dwelling. And whoever violates this is himself excommunicated and banned…” (Bear with me, I will return to this digression!)

But to stay with the midrash a moment longer, it also underscores the pattern of sibling rivalry that rends three generations of Abraham’s progeny. Indeed, this dysfunctional pattern escalates as it persists. Isaac and Ishmael do not grow up in the same household and seem to be more estranged than antagonistic. With Jacob and Esau, who do, the threat of violence is always at hand. While Esau enjoys his father’s love, he fails to get his rightful blessing because of Jacob’s deception, and the family is fractured. Astonishingly, Jacob as father repeats the egregious error of preferring one child over another, unleashing passions beyond control and endurance.

The temptation to read these stories of domestic trauma in terms of our own narcissistic needs is irresistible. But I submit that what troubled their masterful author was not the agony of a dysfunctional family, but the tragedy of a dysfunctional nation. Their editing coincided most likely with the shift to monarchical rule in ancient Israel and mirrored the tribal tensions that were destined to keep the descendants of the patriarchs a deeply divided nation. It was the growing might of the Philistines which probably forced the tribes to abandon their loose confederation centered at Shiloh. The book of Judges closes portentously: “In those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did as he pleased (Judges 21:25).”

Yet even a monarchical structure failed to provide lasting national unity. Despite the noteworthy power and expanse of the Judahite house of David and Solomon, including the creation of a new national capital and sanctuary in Jerusalem, their dominion foundered after but 80 years, never again to transcend the divisions between the tribes of Joseph (Ephraim) and Judah, frozen into the northern and southern kingdoms. In the dreams of Joseph I detect the longing for strong central government; in the contrasting characters of Joseph and Judah, the rivalry of competing if related polities.

Nor did national divisions end with the destruction of Samaria in 722 by the Assyrians and Jerusalem in 586 by the Babylonians. The story of Hanukkah may well be a saga of religious persecution that begins as civil war. The problem with the conventional account is that it flies in the face of what is known about Hellenistic civilization: it did not indulge in oppression on religious grounds, and for that matter, neither did Antiochus Epiphanes. Rather our sources suggest that the initial step is taken by wealthy Jews eager to become part of the Hellenistic world brought by Alexander the Great to the Middle East. According to the First Book of Maccabees:

At that time [when Antiochus became king] there came forth from Israel certain lawless men who persuaded many saying: Let us go and make a treaty with the heathen around us, because ever since we separated from them, many evils have come upon us.’ The plan seemed good in their eyes, and some of the people went eagerly to the king, who gave them permission to perform the rites of the heathen. They built a gymnasium in Jerusalem in accordance with the customs of the heathen. They also subjected themselves to uncircumcision and stood aloof from the sacred Law (1:11-15).

Moreover, the Second Book of Maccabees adds by way of confirmation that Antiochus, always in need of money, was ready to sell the high priesthood to the highest bidder, first Jason (4:7) and later Menelaus (4:23-24), both ardent advocates of Hellenization. It is only when their radical plans ran into the resistance of pietists and the family of Mattathias that Antiochus is persuaded by the Hellenizers to suppress the rebellion. Many of the victims of Judah Maccabee’s wrath are Jews who have lined up with the priests of the Temple.

My point in recounting these somber episodes is to stress that national unity is always elusive, even for a fragile and beleaguered community. Jewish history shows a recurring pattern of internecine struggle, often turned violent. The bitter confrontations between zealots and moderates in the face of Roman rule in 66 C.E., Pharisees and Sadducees, Hillelites and Shammaites in the academies of Palestine, Karaites and Rabbanites in the Middle Ages (according to the Shulhan Arukh it is forbidden to marry a Karaite) and Hasidim and Misnagdim in Eastern Europe abound with leaders for whom compromise was anathema. Our history offers little comfort to those who believe that Jewish unity has always been inviolable. When it finally is, only then will deeply felt differences become reconcilable. May this year’s Hanukkah bring us closer to that goal.

Shabbat shalom u-mevorach,

Ismar Schorsch

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