The main story lines of Genesis all seem to deal with family problems, particularly the competition and tension between brothers; Cain and Abel, Jacob and Esau, and Joseph and his brothers being the most prominent examples.
Making peace between brothers, I believe, is the Bible’s teaching on humanity’s first and most ongoing challenge. After murdering his brother, Cain questions: “Hashomer achi anochi” – “Am I my brother’s keeper?” (Genesis 4:9) Other biblical stories expand family and sibling conflicts into national dimensions. The personal and familial are intertwined and played out in what the Germans call “heiligsgeschichte,” sacred history; in our case, the dramatic story of the Jewish people.
We can say that the goal of history as understood by Jewish holy texts is the reconciliation of generations and the unification of brothers and sisters. We must say “yes” to Cain’s question, and a major thrust of Torah education is to learn how to do so and mean it. Parshat Vayigash provides a dramatic vision of family reconciliation and unity, and the haftarah presents Ezekiel’s great vision of the unified Jewish future.
I grew up in the Williamsburg of the 1940s and ’50s and occasionally davened with my friend Yankie at his family’s shtebel, the Karlin-Stolin shul on Rodney Street near Lee Avenue. We loved the singing (the Stoliner band was the first to play chassidishe standards at weddings). Rav Yochanan Perlow, the Karlin-Stolin rebbe in Brooklyn, would give beautiful teachings every Shabbos and we loved his stories and insights. In many talks he emphasized that the Jewish people are Bais Yisrael, literally, the House of Israel, and as such are unique in the world. This house, this structure, is based on achdus, unity; achvah, brotherly solidarity; and ahavas Yisrael, love of one Jew for another.
“Ten boards that are tied together become a raft that can float,” the Stoliner rebbe said in one story. “In the same way, Yidden who are bound together by bonds of love are capable of rising above their problems and difficulties.”
The rebbe explained this concept with a mashal (parable). A wealthy prince once set out on a journey in his royal carriage. Somehow the carriage became bogged in mire, and as much as the prince tried, he couldn’t get his four thoroughbred horses to pull it out.
A simple farmer who was passing by offered to help. The farmer unhitched the prince’s horses and tied his own four horses to the carriage. Within a few minutes they pulled it out of the mud.
The prince was amazed. How could the farmer’s simple horses accomplish what his thoroughbreds could not?
“All of your horses,” said the farmer, “are handpicked; each comes from a different estate. Each is bred to be a champion. When you hit one, the others could care less.
“My horses,” continued the farmer, “were born and raised on the same farm. When I hit one, they all feel the pain and help each other out of the mire.”
That’s the way it is and should be with our people, the rebbe concluded. Our house depends on all of us pulling together to move forward.
This week’s Torah portion, Vayigash, is the parshah where b’nei Yisrael, the children of Israel, become Yisrael, a unified people (Genesis 47:27). It happens for the first time, interestingly enough, in a place called Goshen, the neighborhood that Pharaoh set aside for Jacob and his sons. Goshen comes from the same root as Vayigash, “and he drew near”; Goshen was the place in which the brothers drew near to one another and resolved many of their differences and distrusts. Goshen may be the place of exile from land, but not from one another, and may represent survival, even “thrival,” through long periods in diaspora communities. How? By being together, by working on our arguments and differences, and, most especially, by valuing and practicing forgiveness and repentance for words and acts we recognize as hurtful, more hurtful even than the sticks and stones hurled at us by our external enemies.
The prophet Ezekiel in the haftarah prophesized that ultimately we will come to turn our “wooden sticks” – representations of our differing loyalties and ideological positions – into one single wooden tablet, representing the unified Mishkan Israel under the kingship of David, which will be the perfect dwelling place for God’s presence in the world.
Let this be our vision and our reality.