Most people consider there to be two parts of Neviim — there are the interesting bits, and then there are the actual prophecies contained in sections like Trei Asar and so forth that most people never learn. This is an understandable phenomena. The prophecies contained in most of Neviim are esoteric and fantastical, redundant, and can easily be summarized with one of the following proclamations: “Do good or you’ll be punished”; “Good things will come after the darkness”. In this essay we shall study the Haftarah of Vayigash in an attempt to show the deeper meanings and insights contained therein, with the hopes of emerging with a greater appreciation for all of Tanach.
Yechezkel and Vayigash
The Haftarah of Vayigash is taken from Yechezkel. The scene takes place during the great dispersion of Jews after the destruction of the Beis HaMikdash. The Jewish people were in desperate need of unification and reconciliation, and Yechezkel proposes a prophetic solution:
And the word of the LORD came unto me, saying: ’And thou, son of man, take thee one stick, and write upon it: For Judah, and for the children of Israel his companions; then take another stick, and write upon it: For Joseph, the stick of Ephraim, and of all the house of Israel his companions; and join them for thee one to another into one stick, that they may become one in thy hand. And when the children of thy people shall speak unto thee, saying: Wilt thou not tell us what thou has done? say unto them: Thus saith the Lord GOD: Behold, I will take the stick of Joseph, which is in the hand of Ephraim, and the tribes of Israel his companions; and I will put them unto him together with the stick of Judah, and make them one stick, and they shall be one in My hand. And the sticks whereon thou writest shall be in thy hand before their eyes. And say unto them: Thus saith the Lord GOD: Behold, I will take the children of Israel from among the nations, whither they are gone, and will gather them on every side, and bring them into their own land; and I will make them one nation in the land, upon the mountains of Israel, and one king shall be king to them all; and they shall be no more two nations, neither shall they be divided into two kingdoms any more at all; neither shall they defile themselves any more with their idols, nor with their detestable things, nor with any of their transgressions; but I will save them out of all their dwelling-places, wherein they have sinned, and will cleanse them; so shall they be My people, and I will be their God. And My servant David shall be king over them, and they all shall have one shepherd; they shall also walk in Mine ordinances, and observe My statutes, and do them. And they shall dwell in the land that I have given unto Jacob My servant, wherein your fathers dwelt; and they shall dwell therein, they, and their children, and their children’s children, for ever; and David My servant shall be their prince for ever. Moreover I will make a covenant of peace with them—it shall be an everlasting covenant with them; and I will establish them, and multiply them, and will set My sanctuary in the midst of them for ever. My dwelling-place also shall be over them; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. And the nations shall know that I am the LORD that sanctify Israel, when My sanctuary shall be in the midst of them for ever.’
In brief: Yechezkel is to perform a miracle before the gathered Jewish people in which he merges two sticks (with various inscriptions) into one. When the nation asks him what it was, exactly, that he just showed them, he is to explain that he merged two sticks into one. After this, God lays out what His unified nation will look like under Divine sovereignty.
Such is the Haftarah. One could summarize it with either of the two options presented at the beginning of this essay. Both “Do better to achieve unity” and “Happy days are coming” work here. This begs the question: What is the relationship between these two different perspectives?
The Problems With The Miracle
Yechezkel performs a miracle — namely, combining two separate sticks into one. Theologically, though, this is problematic. God does not perform unnecessary open miracles. If ever there was an unnecessary open miracle, it’s the miraculous merging of two sticks. For God to perform such a miracle makes little sense.
There is a methodological problem in these verses as well. It is more than a little strange for the Jewish people, after just having witnessed the miraculous merging of the two sticks, to immediately ask “What have you just done?” While one could suggest that the nation is really asking what the significance of what they just witnessed was, such a suggestion is not born out in the text, for Yechezkel replies quite literally by simply explaining precisely what it was that he just did. We must then ask: Was the nation not able to see clearly? Were they incapable of processing and understanding a simple event? What is going on in this story?
The Story Of The Botanist
There is a story told of Rav Yehuda Amital in relation to this Haftarah. A student of his was apparently bothered by the same problems laid out herein. Rav Amital took this student to a nature reserve to visit a man named Nogah Hareuveni, a completely secular Jew, botanist, and great Biblical scholar. Hareuveni explained, as the story goes, that such an episode in Tanach as the one found in this Haftarah cannot be understood properly within the confines of a Beis Midrash.
Hareuveni explained that, in reality, there is no miracle being described in this Haftarah. What was witnessed by the nation was nothing other than grafting — not a miracle, but a perfectly natural process farmers employ all the time in which they attach a sick limb of a tree to a healthy one. Far from being a miracle, this is a phenomena built into nature that can be openly witnessed on any farm.
A Miracle Would Have Been Wrong
We now are faced with a radically different Haftorah. Indeed, the nation’s bewilderment upon watching the grafting taking place is well understood. They were rightly confused about what it was, precisely, that they just saw. They did not witness an overt miracle, but instead saw a farming tactic they were likely not familiar with.
Indeed, a miracle at such a juncture would have been all wrong. A miracle would have been a poor analogy for God to have given the Jews at that time. After all, the process of the reunification of the nation was to be natural. It was not going to happen miraculously. God was not going to do the hard work for them. Ultimately, it had to be done on their own.
Snakes And Trees
Rav Moshe Benovitz extends and elaborates upon these ideas. He points out that one of the brachos recited at a Shevah Brachos includes a number of different words for joy and love:
[Blessed are You, L-rd our G-d, King of the universe,] who created gilah, rinah, ditzah, chedvah, ahavah, achvah, shalom and reyus…
In truth, however, this blessing is not simply redundant. Far from just being synonyms, these different words express different elements of joy. We shall focus presently on “ahavah” and “achvah”.
“Ahavah”, of course, translates to “love”, while “achvah” translates to “brotherhood”. The difference between these is that the former is a chosen relationship, while the latter is not. Brotherhood is defined by commonality/common ancestry. While both entities could be radically different, they share a common bond and source all the same.
This understanding begs the question: Why do we speak of brotherhood at a Shevah Brachos if, surely, such a relationship does not, in fact, exist between spouses?
The answer, simply, is that while there might not be achvah in the true sense, suggesting that there is only ahavah is not quite fair either. One can view his or her counterpart as a totally separate entity, but one can also “graft” his or herself to the other.
One cannot, however, graft a snake to a tree — only another tree will do. True brotherhood requires both entities to be of the same ilk, and in that way, come together to form a unified whole. Such is the paradigm of marriage.
Love and Brotherhood
Rav Benovitz explains that Yechezkel, in grafting one stick to the other, was showing the Jewish people that they were not two separate entities, but that they were really all one and the same. They were all Jews, all brothers, and they needed to come together as such.
Indeed, this is a message that resonates profoundly to this day, as the Jewish people finds themselves more diversified and separate than ever before. In truth, however, we are all so much more alike than we are different. We have so much more in common with one another than we do not. As the famous Reagan quote goes: “My eighty-percent friend is not my twenty-percent enemy”. Nogah Hareuveni goes down in the Jewish canon with this idea of his. Despite being completely secular, he is a Jew all the same. We share the same ancestors. There is brotherhood.
In reality, the Jewish people are all 99.8% the same, and 0.02% different, yet we'd often think it was the opposite. Focusing on differences is a license for mistreatment. The importance of instead focusing on similarities between man and his fellow is the crucial message imparted here by Yechezkel. And as Yechezkel makes equally clear, Jewish unity is not going to come by way of rosy miracles. No; it is the recognition of God as the Father of all of us that will bring us together.