Vayyehi: The end of the beginning

by | Dec 21, 2012 | Torah Thought

This Shabbat, throughout the Jewish world we read Parashat Vayyehi, the concluding portion of the Book of Bereshit. However brief it may appear in comparison to other Parashiyot, its importance remains vital to the development of the People of Israel during Biblical times and beyond. The last of the patriarchs, Jacob, having brought his clan from Canaan down to Egypt, created the first “exilic” community. Comfortable at first, under the protection of his son, Joseph, Jacob’s descendants eventually fall to the depths of a slave class in Egyptian society. The Torah records that a new Pharaoh arose in Egypt who did not recognize the contribution of Joseph and felt no obligation towards these Semitic immigrants.

In every subsequent Jewish community in exile, the same essential quality proved true, namely the Jews were always dependent upon the benevolence of the ruling power. No matter what country hosted Jews, they were always tolerated as resident aliens, not actually citizens in the same sense as the peoples among whom they were living. From the time we lost control of our own independent state, we also lost a sense of physical security; we entered an existence of perpetual potential danger. Time and again, the potentiality became reality. At best, we were expelled from one country or another. We are all too aware of what the worst turned out to be. Even after the European Enlightenment, the period of seeming tolerance of others, Jews were never really accepted by native populations. No matter how much we tried to convince ourselves that things had changed, that we were viewed by others as something other than “others,” living in exile left us vulnerable.

That is not to say that the Galut, Diaspora, has not been an extraordinarily productive experience for the People of Israel. The contributions of Jews to the civilizations with which they have interacted have always been far greater than their small proportion of any population might suggest. Throughout the centuries, Jews have been masters in poetry, fiction, philosophy, music, painting, sculpture, architecture, medicine, law and in every field of scholarship imaginable. In contemporary times, no other single nationality or ethnic group has been awarded as many Nobel Prizes as the Jews. But there has also been another role played by Jews in the Galut. In many places and times, Jews have served in the position of advisor or minister to the crown, or, in later times, the head of state. This required maintaining a very delicate balance between government service and loyalty to the best interests of the Jewish people. Knowing full well that they were only tolerated because of their wealth and ability, they had to be careful not to overstep their bounds and end up on the executioner’s block, their estates forfeit.

In our own generation, one Jew in the Galut helped bring about the creation of the modern State of Israel. The story is a familiar one. Even though the United Nations voted for the birth of Israel, diplomacy demanded that nations formally recognize a new state and establish relations. The United States of America, among the most powerful and influential countries in the world would have to recognize the fledgling state in order for others to follow suit. President Harry S. Truman was debating what to do. The leadership of Israel was aware that, years before entering politics, Truman had a Jewish business partner. Eddie Jacobson was able to obtain an appointment with the President and convince him of the importance of Israel to the world, to say nothing of securing the Jewish vote. It was not the only factor in the international ratification of Israel, but it certainly helped.

The support of various Jewish communities for Israel began even before the state came into existence. The Zionist theorist, Ahad Ha’am, posited the idea of Israel as a cultural center for world Jewry, but never believed that it would become the home of a sizable percentage of the world’s Jewish population. He was correct about the future role of Israel for Jews everywhere, but erred in thinking that it would never become a population center as well. In the prestate period, aliyah after aliyah brought thousands of Jews from Europe and the Middle East to live in Israel. It was money and moral support from the Diaspora that helped those pioneers build a new land. That same support helped supply arms and munitions to help the Israeli army win the War of Independence. Influence with the American government by Jewish groups has provided much needed, even essential, materials throughout Israeli history up to the Iron Dome system recently installed to save Israeli lives.

Because of Zionist sentiment in the Jewish world, deeming Israel to be the millennia-long dream of the Jewish people fulfilled, there have been those whose expressed opinion was that the Diaspora should cease to exist, that all Jews should pack their belongings and make aliyah to Israel. There is much to support such an opinion. Israel has taken its rightful place in the community of nations. There can be no doubt that because Israel exists, non-Jews throughout the world view Jews differently. The Jew is all too often the victim of antisemitic sentiments and even violence. But the world knows that the Jewish state in Israel will not tolerate the kinds of state sponsored, widespread anti-Jewish actions such as have been allowed by the world community to be perpetrated in times past.

Jews, themselves, have developed a more positive self image since the birth of Israel, especially after the 1967 Six Day War. The strength and productivity of the little Jewish state has taught pride to Jews throughout the world and a feeling that Jews no longer need lower their heads or hide from anyone or anything. The thought of a world without our homeland in Jewish hands has become unimaginable to our people. Still, a Jewish world without the Diaspora may also be a dangerous place for the Jews. Some decades ago, the esteemed Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, Dr. Gerson D. Cohen, z’l, delivered a “State of the Jewish World” address at the 92nd Street Y in New York City. Speaking as the chief functionary of the Conservative Movement worldwide, but also as one of the greatest scholars of Judaism in the late 20th century, his theme was the symbiotic relationship between the Jews of Israel and the Jews in Galut. Stressing the absolute necessity for Jews to have a homeland in Israel, he also warned against negating the importance of the Jews in the Diaspora. As a historian, he detailed the accomplishments of Jews living among other peoples and theorized that it was the very interaction between Jew and non-Jew which may have provided the environment for those accomplishments. He also reviewed the many times when American Jewry, and Jews everywhere, helped maintain Israel’s strength and security, things that may not have been so certain without the placement of Jews living outside the Homeland.

Professor Cohen was teaching us the lesson of our father, Jacob, who knew the value of living in Galut but who never forgot the relationship with the land God gave to us as part of our Berit, covenant. On his death bed, knowing that he would never return to his beloved land alive, Jacob made his children promise that they would bury him with his ancestors in the Cave of Machpelah, thus preserving his unbreakable connection with the Land of Israel. May it be God’s will that both the State of Israel and the communities of the Diaspora remain strong and healthy and prosperous and safe in our time and for all times to come. Amen.

Cantor Gordon Piltch, Congregation Beth El