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Haftarat Vayigash: Unity is the First Step by Gidon Rothstein

December 8, 2010 by  
Filed under New Posts

Ezekiel 37, 15-28

Like the weather, unity is easy to speak about, harder to actually affect or effect. One important contribution this haftarah makes to the conversation about unity is to give us a definition of the word, a sense of the kind of unity we ought to seek and can, with effort, bring about.

Yehezkel is told to unite two sticks, either symbolically (according to Radak), or miraculously (according to Rashi and Radak’s father).  On one of those he wrote “Judah and the Children of Israel who are his friends,” and on the other “Joseph, the House of Ephraim, and the Children of Israel who are his friends.”  This predicts the future reunification of the Northern Kingdom with the Southern, which will apparently precede God’s taking the exiles back to their land, where they can be made into one nation, with one king.

Note that the verse speaks of the two sides as Judah and Ephraim and their respective cohorts.  The origins of their split, in the Book of Kings, might suggest that they had a dispute over one question, whether to submit to Rehav’am’s (Shlomo HaMelech’s son) taxation, but Yehezkel is seeing them as two kingdoms with differing basic outlooks. 

Recognizing that the two were at conceptual odds with each other explains also why the Prophets often refer to the Northern Kingdom as Ephraim—it was their perspective that typified the Kingdom.  The challenge of reunification, then, is to bring together those who disagree, even violently, into a productive working relationship.

Unifying Despite Our Differences

Some of us might think that can only occur when all Jews happen to already agree, but I do not believe that was Yehezkel’s intent.  If he meant that, it seems to me, he’d have written the two names on one stick; his writing them on two and then bringing them together suggests they will maintain their separate identities.  In spite of that, he is holding out the hope that they will still manage to reconnect.

Yeshayahu’s vision of the angels, (read in a different haftarah and which forms the center of the “Kedushah” prayer), suggests a similar idea.  He describes them as calling out to each other, and then saying, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God.”  Rashi understands that calling out as being a way of insuring they recite the “Holy, holy” together.  Each angel has its own task, Jewish tradition claims, but their highest expression is praising God as one.  Here, too, Yehezkel seems to be telling us that our task is to find a way to unite while also maintaining our independent status and views.

Which Is Not the Same as Relativism

I do not believe that means becoming indifferent to others’ views or lifestyles, to confuse a desire for unity with an apathy to right and wrong.  Accepting others’ differences can only occur within the range of the morally plausible.  Allowing others to act immorally fosters anarchy, not unity.

Unity comes once we have established parameters of accepted behavior; within those, the range offers opportunities for different people to focus on and emphasize their particular interests and concerns.  Many of the differences between Ephraim and Judah are fixed and unchangeable.  What can be adjusted is the two camps’ inability to work together.  They can, with effort, build a polity that knows when and how to compromise.

The Key to Redemption, in Joseph’s Time and Beyond

That view of unification makes clear how it could lead to the benefits described here– a return to Israel, to the active and open presence of God in our midst, the rebuilding of the Temple, and the return of a Davidic king.  Unity is the required first step, Yehezkel tells us, because all those steps ideally occur in an environment conducive to their flourishing.  Once we know to completely reject that which is absolutely wrong, to require universally that which is absolutely right, we can then comfortably allow people to choose their approach to the rest, and will be on the road to final redemption.

In this reading, we can also see how the haftarah relates to the Torah reading.  Yosef reveals himself to his brothers when Yehudah has made clear that he knows Yaakov cares more about Binyamin than about him, Yehudah; if the brothers return without Binyamin, it will kill the old man, but the loss of Yehudah will not set off such a catastrophe.  Whatever that says or doesn’t say about Yaakov as a parent, Yehudah’s ability to accept the difference in his father’s feelings for him and his brother led, in their case, to the outcome they all wanted, reunification.

One Famous Verse, Two Important Ramifications

R. Joseph Albo, in his fifteenth century work on Jewish faith called ספר העיקרים, the Book of Principles, insists that God’s promise to make the Jews one nation, in verse 22, was originally meant to apply during the Second Temple; it was only when that failed that it was left for Messianic times. 

In context, it helps him make a fascinating point, that some prophecies meant for earlier times were postponed by human failure to actualize them.  That also means that nothing miraculous is needed to achieve at least that aspect of Messianic times, since it could have occurred in the Second Temple era, had we only acted properly.  We need not wait for it, as we wait for the Arrival, we need only make it happen.

The second example highlights some of the issues we’ve been discussing.  R. Shlomo Kluger, in his האלף לך שלמה, a collection of Responsa, deals with a questioner who did not wish to say the morning blessing “שלא עשני גוי, who has not made me a non-Jew.”  The questioner noted that Jews are also called “גוי, nation,” as in our verse, which refers to us as a “גוי אחד בארץ, a unified nation in the Land.”

R. Kluger answered that Jews are only called “nation” in the aggregate; the morning blessing refers to a non-Jewish individual that way.  He seems to understand the blessing as thanking God for not making us like non-Jews, who are, each of them on their own, a complete whole.  Jews, on the other hand, are only a complete whole in unification with others. 

That he could see the blessing as thanking God each morning for being incomplete, for needing other Jews to be a complete whole, strikes me as a nice supplement to the haftarah itself, stressing real unity as a necessary and unavoidable phase of bringing the Jewish people back to the glory of a Temple, King, and close relationship with God. 

In summary, then, the symbolic act of bringing two sticks together offered a model for national unity in which differences are retained, but all unite around a core set of issues and concerns. 

Shabbat Shalom

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