Torah from Around the World #146

By: Rabbi Edgar Nof, Haifa, Israel

Recent Issues

A Renewed Approach of Courage and Peace

Vayigash is the eleventh and penultimate Torah portion in the book of Genesis.

At the beginning and end of the story we read about two major encounters: the first one between Joseph and Judah, a meeting between two brothers; and the second one between Joseph and Jacob, a father and son.

Both encounters are complicated and emotionally laden. The encounter between Joseph and his father Jacob can be condensed into one dramatic verse:  ”

Joseph prepared his chariot, and went up to meet Israel, his father, in Goshen. He presented himself to him, and fell on his neck, and wept on his neck a good while

” (Genesis 46:29).

A dispute arose among medieval Torah commentators: who fell on whose neck? Who is the one that wept, Joseph or Jacob?

The gap between generations, between two types of leadership is indeed intriguing and an excellent topic for discussion or further investigation, but for now I choose to relate to the beginning of our Torah Portion: the crucial meeting between two brothers and leader – Judah the son of Leah and Joseph the son of Rachel.

Parashat Vayigash begins with the words: ”

Then Judah approached him (Joseph)

” (Genesis 44:18).  According to our Sages in the Midrashic literature, Judah approached Joseph with emotional rhetoric in order to achieve his goal, for example:  ”

… the words of Judah were acceptable to everybody when he spoke with Joseph

” (Genesis Rabbah, 93:3) and ”

Judah didn’t move away from Joseph until he answered every question and understood his heart

” (Genesis Rabbah, 93:4).

Following the interpretations and focusing on the opening words of Parashat Vayigash (“and he approached”), we shall ask the obvious question:  how and in what manner did Judah approach his brother Joseph?

The beautiful Midrash, Genesis Rabbah, suggested a number of different explanations that our Tanaitic Sages gave for the word Vayigash, such as ”

the language of peace, words of condolence, the language of sacrifice, words of reprimand and the language of checking

” (Genesis Rabbah 93:7).

The main disagreement among the Sages in the Midrash becomes clear through the different opinions of Rabbi Yehuda, Rabbi Nehemiah, most other Rabbis and Rabbi Eleazar, as follows:

“Then Judah approached him (Joseph)”:  Rabbi Yehuda says:  language of war.  Rabbi Nehemiah says: words of reconciliation.  Rabbis said:  language of prayer. Rabbi Eleazar took equity:  if to war, I come; if to reconciliation, I come; if to prayer, I come (Genesis Rabbah 93:6).”

According to Rabbi Yehuda, when Judah approached Joseph, son of Jacob,  he does so in order to provoke a form of conflict (perhaps on the basis of  who should be the leader of the People of Israel: the son of Leah or the son of Rachel; eventually the Northern Kingdom of Israel or the Southern Kingdom of Judah). According to the opinion of Rabbi Nehemiah, Judah’s attitude toward Joseph was of reconciliation.

According to the Sages, Judah did not go to Joseph, but rather prayed to God, using words of prayer to resolve the conflict. (The opinion of Rabbi Eleazar at the end of the Midrash is a very interesting attempt to find harmony among the three previous opinions.)

It should be noted that in the Haftarah of Parashat Vayigash, taken from the Book of Ezekiel, it is written: ”

And you, son of man, take for yourself one stick and write upon it, ‘For Judah and for the children of Israel his companions’; and take one stick and write upon it, ‘For Joseph, the stick of Ephraim and all the house of Israel, his companions

‘” (Ezekiel 37:16).  The prophet seeks to unite the people of Israel, bringing together the people of the kingdom of Judah with the remnants of the people of the Kingdom of Israel (Joseph).

Following the words of the Prophet Ezekiel, only when unity prevails among the people of Israel, can we expect redemption. This will come in two stages:  first when Israel will be safely established in the Land, and ultimately, peace and holiness will prevail upon Earth.

We live in trying times. These are not easy days for the Jewish people who choose to live in the State of Israel, sovereign in our homeland. Political decisions, speeches and claims made by our lawmakers and Leaders in the Knesset and the Government represent different approaches existing today among the Jewish People to resolve complex conflicts and disagreements.

All of us who care deeply about the future of the Jewish people in Israel and in the world, wonder what should be the correct approach to resolve the many conflicts between us and our neighbors in the Middle East. And no less important, in my humble opinion, is how we communicate among ourselves between brothers and sisters of different denominations: Secular and Reform, Progressive and Neo-Orthodox, Liberal and Hasidic, Israeli and from the Diaspora.

Over the past 15 years I have ceaselessly toiled to create bridges of hope among the residents of Haifa, organizing interfaith prayers, studying Bible with Christian Arabs, organizing soccer games for peace between Jewish and Muslim children, establishing a dialogue with our Druze neighbors and promoting understanding between Jews of different denominations, working on Tikkun Olam projects for the needy and underprivileged.

I hope that we will learn from and fulfill the words of wisdom of the Prophets and the Sages of Israel, following the right way of Judah, son of Jacob, being on the one hand brave enough to confront painful issues without ignoring them, and on the other hand, being wise enough to seek and reach for reconciliation and peace, as we all join in prayer together for better days, for us and our children, with Peace in Israel and Peace in the world. Amen.

Ken yehi ratzon

(May it be God’s will)!

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