Parshat Vayigash: The Union of Joseph and Judah

By Yinon Ahiman, Director General of Ohr Torah Stone

Judah and Joseph, once bitter enemies, now enter into a union, each a tree in their own right. These two trees mesh to produce own great nation. Full redemption is contingent on the union between the brothers.

The word of Hashem came to me, saying: And you, O mortal, take a stick and write on it, “Of Judah and the Israelites associated with him”; and take another stick and write on it, “Of Joseph—the stick of Ephraim—and all the House of Israel associated with him.”

Bring them close to each other… I will make them a single nation in the land, on the hills of Israel, and one king shall be king of them all. Never again shall they be two nations, and never again shall they be divided into two kingdoms. (Ezekiel, Chapter 37).

These are the opening verses of the haftorah reading for Parashat Vayigash. Echoing the expression famously coined by Nahmanides, maaseh avot siman labanim (“the action of the forefathers are a sign for the children”), this week’s Parasha begins with an account of the struggle that took place in Egypt between Judah and Joseph. Indeed, throughout the period of the First Temple, after the kingdom disintegrates, an endless war ensues between the tribes of Judah and Joseph, between the Kingdom of Israel, with its capital city in the hereditary lands of the tribe of Ephraim, and the Kingdom of Judah.

The theme of civil war also ties into the holiday we just celebrated: Hanukah. This is a time when we commemorate the confrontation between the few – the Hasmoneans and their supporters who championed the traditions of their forefathers – and the many – the Hellenists who gravitated toward the Hellenistic culture of the Greek rulers of the land and others in the vicinity. There seems to bear a striking resemblance between the war in the story of Hanukah and the struggle between the kingdoms of Israel and Judah. The small Kingdom of Judah kept the traditions and laws of our forefathers, and the Holy Temple stood in its territory. The Kingdom of Israel, however, was larger, and its monarchs intermarried into the royal houses of neighboring kingdoms, gradually adopting their laws and rituals.

Yet despite the similarity, there is one marked difference between the two. The Hasmoneans waged a bloody war against the Hellenists, and ultimately, the Hasmoneans triumphed over their Hellenist enemies and the Hellenist kingdom that collaborated with them and set up an independent kingdom. Yet despite their great victory, from a historical perspective, they may have won the battle, but they lost the bigger war. The Hasmonean kings themselves began to gradually adopt the customs of surrounding kingdoms. Most had become almost entirely Hellenized, and the Hasmonean kingdom’s reign was cut short following another civil war, this time between John Hyrcanus and Aristobulus, the two sons of Queen Shlomzion. In the year 63 before the common era, Vespasian exploited this civil war to launch a campaign to conquer Judah and Jerusalem.

However, the Israelite prophets had a completely different vision. The prophecy of Jeremiah, a contemporary of Ezekiel’s – a prophecy we recite as part of the Rosh Hashanah liturgy – states as follows: “Truly, Ephraim is a dear son to Me, A child that is cherished! Whenever I have turned against him, My thoughts would dwell on him still. That is why My heart yearns for him; I will receive him back in love —declares Hashem. (Jeremiah 31:19). According to Jeremiah’s prophecy, the ways of Hashem are hidden, and to our surprise, Ephraim, who represents the sinful son of the Kingdom of Israel, is Hashem’s “cherished son”, the one he pines for. So too, in this week’s haftorah from the Book of Ezekiel, not only is no decisive victory achieved in the war between the kingdoms – the opposite occurs. According to Ezekiel, no victory can ever emerge from a civil war. Judah and Joseph now enter into a union, each of them a tree in their own right. These two trees mesh to produce own great nation. Full redemption is contingent on the union between the brothers, not by the neutralization and elimination of one of them.

Redemption will only occur when the two warlike brothers unite and reconstitute a single nation.

May we merit to do so speedily in our days.


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