Thursday, January 05, 2006

Vayigash (Haftarah)

The Two Sticks United

The haftarah for Parashat Vayigash presents Ezekiel’s vision (37:15-28) in which the “son of man” is commanded to take two sticks, to write upon them the names of Judah and Ephraim/Joseph, and then put them together so that they are one. This action is explained as symbolic of the ultimate unification of the sundered tribes of Israel—the return from exile of the tribes of the Northern Kingdom, and their rejoining the nation of Judah/Israel. This time they will truly become one nation, shall no longer worship “idols and abominations,” shall have “one shepherd” (i.e, the Davidic monarch), and will worship the one God at His own one Temple. (Incidentally, this vision complements the famous vision of the dry bones, related in the first half of this chapter.)

Two traumas in biblical history relate to the division of the Israelite people into two nations; it is difficult to say which of the two was more wrenching. In 721 BCE, the kingdom of Israel was overran by the troops of the Assyrian emperor, Sennacherib. Following the conquest of the northern kingdom and the deportation of much of its population, the invaders approached the capital city of the Judaean kingdom. Isaiah 10: 27-33 describes in dramatic terms how the conquering army advanced through a series of towns and small cities north of Jerusalem until, at the very last minute, they were stopped by God’s hands. Chapters 36-39 give a more detailed, prose picture of this event, ending with 185,000 enemy soldiers being miraculously struck dead by a Divine angel, overnight, at the very gates of Jerusalem.

But the split in the kingdom following Solomon’s death had been an ongoing wound in the people of Israel even before that. The rebellion of Jeroboam ben Nebat, with the call, “each man to your tents, o Israel,” prompted by the arrogant behavior of the crown prince Rehoboam, brought about a rift in the body politic that was never to be healed. From then on, there were to be two rival, at times even warring, Israelite kingdoms. Even the spiritual centrality of Jerusalem, as the seat of the Temple, was defied, with rival cultic centers at Dan and Beth-el.

But the roots went back even before that: just below the surface, there had always been tensions among the tribes. The description by modern Bible scholars of Israel as an “amphictony” or confederation of tribes seems born out by the reality described, e.g., in the Book of Judges. We find there periodic groupings of groups of tribes to fend off enemy attacks, but even these are of limited scope, and of a local character: Barak and Deborah in the Jezreel valley; Jephthah in the high country east of the Jordan; Gideon in the central mountains of Ephraim; Samson very much a loner in the area between the inland valleys of south-central Israel and the coastal home of the Philistines; a group of wandering Danites seeking a home; etc. All of this, then, forms the background to our haftarah, as well as its link to the Torah portion. The conflict there among the brothers, especially that between Joseph and Judah, reaching a head in this week’s parasha, foreshadows all this.

Later on, the wish for reunification became part of the messianic expectations of the Jewish people, an inextricable part of the hope for restoration of our days “as of old.” The idea was even expressed here and then in the liturgy, as in the choice of the following verse as part of the Zikhronot blessing for Rosh Hashanah: “Is not Ephraim my beloved son, my darling child? For whenever I speak of him, my heart yearns for him; I shall surely have mercy on Him, says the Lord” (Jer 31:19) Fantastic legends began to be woven around the image of the Ten Lost Tribes. Legend had it they that they were not assimilated among their Assyrian captors, but lived on to this day, in a powerful and wealthy kingdom nestled away in a hidden verdant valley, far away, “beyond the dark mountains,” in some remote part of the world—perhaps deep in Central Asia. There, they were surrounded by the miraculous River Sambatayon, which raged fiercely all week along, preventing anyone from coming and going, but resting on the Sabbath day.

In a fascinating unpublished book by Raoul Pollack, entitled Destination Jerusalem, the author explores the role of Jews and conversos in Columbus’s voyages. He propounds the thesis that the famed Bible exegete, Don Isaac Abravanel, masterminded the idea of Columbus’s voyage to the East as a solution to the dilemma of the Jews in Spain. Knowing that they would be expelled from Spain as soon as the Christians completed the reconquest of Granada from the Moors, he conceived a plan whereby the expelled Jews would sail around the world to the Far East, be reunited with their lost brethren in this distant place, and ultimately march victorious upon Jerusalem.

Even today, the romance of the Ten Lost Tribes continues. As a child, I remember being told in dead seriousness that the adjective “British” came from the words Brit - Ish, “Covenant of Man,” meaning that they were from the Ten Tribes. Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia, the “Lion of Judah,” was still alive then, symbolizing to some the majesty and grandeur of these lost tribes. In point of fact, the halakhic basis for the status of Ethiopian Jewry is based upon the acceptance of their claim to belong to the tribe of Dan by 16th century posek Rabbi David ibn Zimra (Radbaz). There were many who saw the Ingathering of the Exiles from the diverse “tribes” upon the establishment of the State of Israel, if not halakhically or historically based on the ten tribes, as at least its symbolic equivalent. Over the past decade or so, various groups have been engaged in an active quest seeking lost tribes, discovering various groups with crypto-judaic practices in far-flung parts of the world: in the mountains of Peru; in Afghanistan; India; West Africa; remote villages in Portugal; etc.

But beyond the legendary and ethnographical aspects, which are very problematical, this perennial interest in the Ten Lost Tribes can be seen in one of two ways. It may be seen as a reaction to the status of the Jews as a small, beleaguered minority, by the desire for an expanded Jewish people, to see Jews everywhere. (Was it Woody Allen that said: “When you’re in love the whole world’s Jewish?”) Or it may be read, on some level, as expressing a certain universal pull in Judaism: an anticipation of the Messianic return of mankind to knowledge of the one God, foreshadowed by the return of these long lost brethren, who held on to their ancestral faith with great tenacity and against all odds.

On yet another level, perhaps the vision of an ultimate unification of all the lost tribes of Israel may be taken as a metaphor for our own current situation. For years now, particularly since Rabin’s assassination, people have spoken of the deep rifts within Israeli society: the image of the nation as split more or less down the middle between two diametrically opposed groups, divided in politics, religion, sense of cosmopolitanism vs. traditional ethnicity, and more often than not in terms of secular education and socio-economic status. The recent crisis with the Palestinians has only exacerbated these tensions. Perhaps one can take a certain paradoxical comfort from knowing the historical, almost eternal nature of conflict and split within the Jewish people: that this is simply the nature of things—always coupled with the perpetual hope that some day there will be unity of hearts. (The difficulty is that this unity cannot be artificial, based on the pretence that these differences don’t exist, or engaging in gentlemanly, pareve inter-group dialogue—as seems to be the case in many well-meaning attempts at such “meetings”—but only on a genuine change of heart).


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