Haftarah Parshat Vayiggash
December 23, 2017 | 5 Tevet 5778
Ezekiel was a prophet with utopian yearnings. He prophesied about the restoration of the Jewish people to its homeland, likening them to dry bones which would be revivified and reinvigorated. And in this week’s haftarah, he foresees the reconciliation of the two biblical Jewish nations, the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah under a single Davidic king: “The word of the Lord came to me: ‘And you, O mortal, take a stick and write on it, “Of Judah and the Israelites associated with it;” 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 so that they can become one stick, joined together in your hand.'” (37:17)
Although Ezekiel’s parable was intended to represent the future emergence of a united nation, rabbinic interpreters throughout the ages have never felt themselves confined to the plain meaning of the text. Using cues from the text, the Netziv, Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Berlin, an important 19th century Lithuanian sage, found a different kind of accord in Ezekiel’s message, one which spoke to his own audience. Noting that the northern kingdom no longer existed in Ezekiel’s times, the Netziv totally reinterprets this prophecy:
‘The stick of Judah’ represents the strength of Torah and ‘the stick of Joseph’ represents the strength of acts of lovingkindness (gemilut chasadim), The prophet sees as his task to convince people to join together the strength of Torah and that of lovingkindness, making them one; for in this world [namely, our day], few are drawn to the strength of Torah while many are drawn after acts of lovingkindness. This is why it is necessary to join the two.” (adapted from Herhav Davar on Genesis 50:23)
Judah, from whose line comes the Davidic monarchy, represents Torah and Jewish national identity. Joseph, who, as Pharaoh’s right hand, saved Egypt from famine, represents gemilut chasadim and our imperative to help others regardless of national boundaries.
It is likely that the Netziv is talking here about the Eastern European Jews of his day who were drawn to Socialism and Communism, believing their promise to build a utopian society. He does not denigrate the significance of their drive to better the world. He only seeks to remind them that the world they seek to build should not be achieved without Torah and Jewish identification.
The Netziv’s interpretation of Ezekiel’s prophecy is as fitting today as it was a century ago. Our Jewish impulse to “fix” the world cannot be divorced from our particular Jewish needs or wisdom. We must pursue universal causes AND make sure Jews everywhere are safe and secure, with excellent and affordable Jewish education. The world need not be, and must not be, rebuilt at the expense of Jews. The Netziv understood that the Torah and Gemilut Hasadim must go hand in hand. So should we.