December 22, 2001
The reconciliation between Judah and Joseph, which opens this week’s parashah, was not an easy one. After all, it was Judah who was directly responsible for Joseph’s being sold into slavery. Judah ultimately atoned for this awful act when he accepted the responsibility to protect his youngest brother, Benjamin, from a similar fate after the brothers had brought him down to Egypt at Joseph’s behest. This turnabout in Judah’s behavior was nothing short of heroic and Joseph’s compassionate response to his brother’s change of heart is one the Torah’s most moving scenes. When we consider the great events in the Joseph story which brought about the rapprochement between Joseph and his brothers, we can understand the monumental nature of Ezekiel’s expectations for the future reconciliation of the Jewish people.
Ezekiel, the master of metaphor and parable, prophesied that the ultimate redemption would be preceded by the unification of the Jewish people. The northern kingdom, known as the nation of Israel (associated with Joseph), would again be joined with the southern kingdom, known as the nation of Judah. God had Ezekiel foreshadow this event with the following symbolic image: “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 it.’ Bring them close to each other, so that they can become one stick joined together in your hand.” (Ezekiel 37:16-17 – NJPS translation) Each of these sticks represented part of the divided Jewish nation. The joining of the sticks symbolized the reunification of the Jewish people. Rabbi David Kimche recounts in the name of his father, Rabbi Joseph Kimche, the famous 12th century Spanish-Provencal exegete, that Ezekiel’s action was not merely symbolic but miraculous as well.
Why does Kimche describe the joining of the sticks as a miracle? Perhaps he intends to emphasize the great difficulty of reconciling the disparate groups that make up the Jewish people. If it took great effort to heal the rift between Joseph and Judah, how much more of a challenge will it be to mend the relationship between groups with differing ideologies and world views. Only with God’s help can this be made possible and without God’s help in bringing this unity, redemption will not be achieved.