Shabbat VaYigash: Stick Together

וְדַבֵּ֣ר אֲלֵיהֶ֗ם כֹּֽה־אָמַר֮ אֲדֹנָ֣י ה’ הִנֵּ֨ה אֲנִ֤י לֹקֵ֙חַ֙ אֶת־בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל מִבֵּ֥ין הַגּוֹיִ֖ם אֲשֶׁ֣ר הָֽלְכוּ־שָׁ֑ם וְקִבַּצְתִּ֤י אֹתָם֙ מִסָּבִ֔יב וְהֵבֵאתִ֥י אוֹתָ֖ם אֶל־אַדְמָתָֽם׃

Declare to them: This word is holy. The Israelite people will be gathered from among the nations they have gone to, from every corner of the world, and they will come to their own land – Ezekiel 37.21

The parashat hashavua, the parashah for this week, is VaYigash, in which we read the denouement of the Joseph story. The opening scene is dramatic: brother squaring off against brother, neither knowing the full truth of the other’s lived experience. Joseph uses his power to push his brothers to decide the fate of one of them, and Judah finds it within himself to respond with courage and selflessness.

It’s fascinating to consider this story within the larger political context in which it would have been told, and that is what the prophet Ezekiel does in his own day. Consider Ezekiel’s situation: exiled with the refugees from the Babylonian destruction of Israel, he has pitched his tent along the river K’var with the other houseless Israelite wanderers. They are in shock; they are dispirited; they wonder if this is the end of the line for the people of Israel. Ezekiel – whose name, יחזקאל Yekhez’k-El, means “G*d will give strength” – brings his prophecy into this time of terrible despair and hopelessness.

The Israelite prophets were good pedagogues; they often used a visual aid to support their teaching. Ezekiel uses two sticks:

וְאַתָּ֣ה בֶן־אָדָ֗ם קַח־לְךָ֙ עֵ֣ץ אֶחָ֔ד וּכְתֹ֤ב עָלָיו֙ לִֽיהוּדָ֔ה וְלִבְנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל חברו [חֲבֵרָ֑יו] וּלְקַח֙ עֵ֣ץ אֶחָ֔ד וּכְת֣וֹב עָלָ֗יו לְיוֹסֵף֙ עֵ֣ץ אֶפְרַ֔יִם וְכָל־בֵּ֥ית יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל חברו [חֲבֵרָֽיו׃]

And you, O mortal, take a stick and write on it, “Of Judah and the Israelites associated with him”; and take another stick and write on it, “Of Joseph—the stick of Ephraim—and all the House of Israel associated with him.”

וְקָרַ֨ב אֹתָ֜ם אֶחָ֧ד אֶל־אֶחָ֛ד לְךָ֖ לְעֵ֣ץ אֶחָ֑ד וְהָי֥וּ לַאֲחָדִ֖ים בְּיָדֶֽךָ׃

Bring them close to each other, so that they become one stick, joined together in your hand.

(Ezekiel 37.16-17)

In his hands Ezekiel brings together a stick with the word Judah carved upon it, and another with the word Joseph upon it. He holds them together and demonstrates how much stronger they are together than each one is held separately.

This is classic Israelite prophecy. It does not foresee the future, but seeks to understand the moral impact of the past, and in that way to offer guidance toward future acts. The two sticks represent the two kingdoms of Israel that formed as a result of an ancient political and social sundering of family ties. Unlike the brothers of the Torah story, who repair their breach, the two kingdoms have gone their separate ways, and, ironically, it is only in their destruction are the people again united in a common path – and a shared misery.

Ezekiel’s prophecy in essence is still relevant, for it reminds us that we are not as strong as individuals as we are in community. Even when we, like those ancient Israelite exiles, sit by the river called “K’var” (literally “that which has been”) and mourn that which we’ve suffered, without a clear sense of the way forward, we can find strength with each other. And as Ezekiel’s name itself encourages us, we will be stronger together to face whatever will come.

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