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Thursday, January 1, 2009

Parashat Vayigash - the Haftara

Parashat Vayigash - the Haftara
Parashat Vayigash – the HaftaraEzekiel 37:15 - 28

Reading date: 3rd January 2009 – 7th Tevet 5769

Our highlighted Haftara text

“They shall live in the land that I gave to My servant Jacob, the land of your ancestors; they, their children and their children's children shall live there forever, and My servant David shall be their head forever.I will make a covenant of peace with them, an everlasting covenant with them. I will make them safe and increase their numbers, and place My sanctuary in their midst forever.My Presence will be with them; I will be their God, and they shall be My people.” Ezekiel 37: 25-27

The dynamic tension of different cultures can be a source of great creativity, or painful polarization.

The connection between this week's parasha and the haftara is more subtle than in some weeks. In one of the most emotional scenes in all literature, the Torah portion relates how Joseph is climactically reunited with his brothers. In the passage chosen for the haftara, Ezekiel describes that the tribe of Joseph (Ephraim) which made up the bulk of the Northern Kingdom, would be similarly reunited with the Southern Kingdom of Judah.

The rabbis often see the patriarchal narratives as archetypes: 'Ma'aseh avot, siman labanim’ - The acts of the ancestors foreshadow the experiences of their descendants.' At the same time, the haftara provides an interesting counterpoint to the Torah: as Israel is about to descend and be exiled to Egypt, we already read of YHVH's promise to restore the nation under the united Davidic monarchy.Ezekiel used vivid imagery and metaphors (the famous passage: the valley of the dry bones, for example, is read on Passover) and often describes complex mystical visions of chariots and cherubs.

The prophet Ezekiel lived during the destruction of the First Temple at the hands of Nebuchadnezzar (586 BCE) and was exiled to Babylonia. In the first half of the book of Ezekiel, the prophet warns of the imminent destruction of Jerusalem; in the latter half, he preaches a message of consolation and restoration. While Ezekiel still had hope that the Northern Kingdom would be restored and then united, in fact, this prophecy did not come to pass. The Northern Kingdom conquered by the Assyrians over a hundred years earlier (722 BCE), have disappeared from history, notwithstanding the fairly discredited attempts to identify various ethnic groups with the missing 'Ten Lost Tribes.' Yet we see today the people of Ephraim emerging from the Nations preparing to take their place amongst the Nation of Israel as witnessed in St. Louis MI in August 2008.

The prophets often used dramatic symbolic actions or visual aids to demonstrate their message. Our haftara begins with YHVH instructing Ezekiel to take two sticks: one for Judah (for the Southern Kingdom) and one for Joseph (for the Northern Kingdom). Ezekiel is to write the names on the sticks and the two sticks will become [as] one.Hebrew is a funny language.

Adjectives have to agree in number and gender to the noun they modify. Usually, the number one, of course, only modifies something singular. But occasionally, as in our verse (17), the word for 'one' ‘echad’ to describe the joined sticks takes the unusual plural form: ‘achadim’ because it refers to the two sticks. They are one (in Hebrew, literally ones!?). Rabbi Marsha Pik-Nathan, in The Women's Haftara Commentary, suggests that the idea reflected here is that the sticks will merge into a oneness and yet somehow will retain their individuality and independence. She illustrates this with the modern day ingathering of the Exiles ‘kibbutz galuyot’ since the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948. Jews had lived separated from each other in many different communities around the world, and their languages, customs, food, and music all evolved, taking on the flavor of their adopted homes. When Jews returned to the land of Israel, it became a mosaic of couscous, kugel and malawah (Yemenite fried bread).

Idan Reichal's CD merges Yiddish klezmer, Arabic oriental influences with Ethiopian Amharic. Unity need not mean uniformity.The dynamic tension of these cultures (Ashkenazi and Sephardic, religious and secular) can be a source of great creativity, or painful polarization. So it is comforting to read Ezekiel's vision that YHVH will make a covenant of peace. We associate the rainbow with a covenant of peace because the first covenant YHVH made with Noah was sealed with the rainbow. The bow, normally a symbol of war, is turned on its head, like the Prophet Joel's vision, "They shall beat their swords into plowshares, their spears into pruning hooks..." (3:10). In this case, YHVH beats the bow of war into a sign of peace.The rainbow has been adopted by various groups as a symbol of peace because it’s many colors represents diversity:Just a rainbow is made of different colors and shades, which are joined into a unified wholeness, so too [must be] the differences between people, societies, groups or nations. Life is based on understanding and measured tolerance, upon harmony and peace- these are the basis for the continued existence of the world, "a sign of the covenant between Me and the earth." (Z. Hillel, quoted in Itturei Torah)If Joseph's embroidered multi-colored coat was indeed a rainbow of stripes (as it is depicted in many illustrations) then the rainbow symbol of covenant connects Joseph and Ezekiel's haftara message of hope and unity.

Not only will Israel and Judah be restored, but they will be united, just like Joseph is reunited with his brothers.In our day, this message of unity is all the more relevant as the community of the Children of Israel is in danger of breaking apart. However, calls for unity must, like the rainbow, acknowledge the multi-hued approach of each of our movements and ethnic and cultural traditions. Then may Ezekiel's vision come to pass, "I will make a covenant of peace with them, an everlasting covenant with them. I will make them safe and increase their numbers, and place My sanctuary in their midst forever. My Presence will be with them; I will be their God, and they shall be My people."

Shabbat Shalom.

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