Vayigash: Settling Into Prosperity and Captivity

jewish-handsIn 468 CE, Rabbi Amemar, Rabbi Mesharsheya and Rabbi Huna, the heads of Babylonian Jewry, were arrested and executed 11 days later. The Jewish community of Babylon had existed for 900 years, ever since Nebuchadnezzar had conquered Israel, destroyed the Holy Temple, and exiled the Jews to Babylon. Seventy years later, when the Jews were permitted to return to Israel, a large percentage remained in Babylon — and this eventually became the center of Jewish rabbinic authority. Things began to worsen in the 5th century, when the Persian priests, fighting against encroaching Christian missionaries, unleashed anti-Christian persecutions which caught the Jews of Babylonia in its wake. Eventually the situation improved, and Babylon remained as the center of Jewish life for another 500 years.

-Rabbi Shraga Simmons
“Today in Jewish History, 7 Tevet”

Thus Israel settled in the country of Egypt, in the region of Goshen; they acquired holdings in it, and were fertile and increased greatly.

Genesis 47:27 (JPS Tanakh)

It’s hard not to compare these two events. Both of them describe different points in the process of the Jewish people going down into a land not their own and then making themselves comfortable there and thriving. As we see in the Babylonian example, the “good times” don’t last forever, but from Jacob’s point of view, this isn’t readily apparent. In fact, he had assurances that dwelling in Egypt was the right thing to do.

So Israel set out with all that was his, and he came to Beer-sheba, where he offered sacrifices to the God of his father Isaac. God called to Israel in a vision by night: “Jacob! Jacob!” He answered, “Here.” And He said, “I am God, the God of your father. Fear not to go down to Egypt, for I will make you there into a great nation. I Myself will go down with you to Egypt, and I Myself will also bring you back; and Joseph’s hand shall close your eyes.”

So Jacob set out from Beer-sheba. The sons of Israel put their father Jacob and their children and their wives in the wagons that Pharaoh had sent to transport him; and they took along their livestock and the wealth that they had amassed in the land of Canaan. Thus Jacob and all his offspring with him came to Egypt: he brought with him to Egypt his sons and grandsons, his daughters and granddaughters — all his offspring.

Genesis 46:1-7 (JPS Tanakh)

God’s blessing upon Jacob as we see above, is the beginning of the process of Israel dwelling in Egypt, multiplying greatly, and thriving there. However, the other end of the story is hardly so pleasant.

A new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph. And he said to his people, “Look, the Israelite people are much too numerous for us. Let us deal shrewdly with them, so that they may not increase; otherwise in the event of war they may join our enemies in fighting against us and rise from the ground.” So they set taskmasters over them to oppress them with forced labor; and they built garrison cities for Pharaoh: Pithom and Raamses. But the more they were oppressed, the more they increased and spread out, so that the [Egyptians] came to dread the Israelites.

The Egyptians ruthlessly imposed upon the Israelites the various labors that they made them perform. Ruthlessly they made life bitter for them with harsh labor at mortar and bricks and with all sorts of tasks in the field.

The king of Egypt spoke to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shiphrah and the other Puah, saying, “When you deliver the Hebrew women, look at the birthstool: if it is a boy, kill him; if it is a girl, let her live.”

Exodus 1:8-16 (JPS Tanakh)

rabbi-prayingThe irony in making the above comparisons, is that the Fast of the Tenth of Tevet is just a few days away.

The Fast of the Tenth of Teves marks the day that Nevuzadran, the Babylonian general, laid siege to Jerusalem prior to the destruction of the first Holy Temple. The siege lasted almost three years until the city walls were breached and the Temple was destroyed. This was the beginning of a long line of disasters on the Jewish people, including the first exile, and the destruction of the second Temple.

This day is commemorated by refraining from eating or drinking from sunrise to nightfall.

While the last sentence of this week’s Torah portion is one of hope and prosperity for the Children of Israel, it is ominously foreshadowed by what we know will occur after the death of Joseph and his brothers. This is the fate of the Jewish people that we’ve seen enacted again and again across history since the destruction of Herod’s Temple in 70 CE and to this very day, when the Jews settle in an area, develop a robust and prolific community, and then are persecuted, robbed, maligned, murdered, and exiled.

On his blog, my friend Gene Shlomovich posted an extremely telling example of how Christianity in the “bad old days” expected and enforced Jewish conversion to Christianity. I invite you to click the link I just provided and read the whole story. It’s not a pretty picture, and many Jews chose to be tortured and die rather than to abandon the God of their Fathers and the Torah of Truth, and replace them with the “lure” of the “Goyishe Jesus.”

What am I saying here? That Christians are perpetually bad and that Jews should do anything in their power to blame the church for the hideous way it has historically treated Jewish people? Is that what the upcoming fast is all about? Not according to Rabbi Raymond Beyda

The purpose of fasting almost 2500 years after the events of the destruction took place is to awaken our hearts today to repentance. Our sages teach that anyone who lives at a time when there is no Bet Hamikdash must realize that had he or she lived when the Temple stood that his or her behavior would contribute to its destruction. Should we mend our ways and remove from our lives the behavior that brings destruction we will bring about the construction of the third Temple — the one that will never be destroyed — and the coming of Mashiah speedily in our days. May we all spend the day productively contributing to that end — Amen.

This is not to excuse the church for its crimes or to pardon any of the peoples and nations who have harassed and abused the Jewish people over the long centuries, but we must separate history from current events. Yes, hatred of Jews and hatred of Israel is still rampant in our world and there are many accounts in the media that indicate it is on the upswing. However, there are also many churches that have significantly revised and improved their (our) understanding of Jews and Judaism, and they (we) have repented and seek to understand our “Jewish roots,” while also honoring that God created a unique covenant people and nation in Israel who remain unique and special to the current day.

But the Jewish people have only one nation, Israel. While, in most parts of the world, Jews are welcome, and flourish, and are fully integrated within the countries and societies where they dwell, we see from history that there is such a thing as being too integrated, and certainly assimilation takes Jews to the point of no longer being recognizably Jewish. What the ancient church attempted and failed to do by force is now being accomplished voluntarily.

Judaism is being destroyed by assimilation and integration, which in effect, means Jews are, without realizing it, renouncing all that it is to be a Jew for the sake of national, social, and cultural belonging. But for those Jews who fully retain their unique ethnic, covenant, and halakhic identity as Jews, the danger they face living in the nations is the same danger the Jews faced in 468 CE in Babylon, and the same danger they faced in the 1930s in Germany.

joseph_egyptAnd it’s the same danger we find them facing this week as Jacob and his family settle comfortably in Goshen, which is in Egypt, and ruled by Pharaoh. Today, as we read Vayigash, Pharoah, King of Egypt knows Joseph and seeks to continue the profitable relationship between Egypt and Jacob’s family. Tomorrow, a new Pharoah will arise who does not know Joseph. That’s the way it’s always happened. Jews believe it will happen again.

According to the Talmud, as the Messianic era approaches, the world will experience greater and greater turmoil: Vast economic fluctuations, social rebellion, and widespread despair. The culmination will be a world war of immense proportion led by King Gog from the land of Magog. This will be a war the likes of which have not been seen before. This will be the ultimate war of good against evil, in which evil will be entirely obliterated. (Ezekiel ch. 38, 39; Zechariah 21:2, 14:23; Talmud – Sukkah 52, Sanhedrin 97, Sotah 49)

What is the nature of this cataclysmic war? Traditional Jewish sources state that the nations of the world will descend against the Jews and Jerusalem. The Crusades, Pogroms and Arab Terrorism will pale in comparison. Eventually, when all the dust settles, the Jews will be defeated and led out in chains. The Torah will be proclaimed a falsehood.

“End of Days”
from the “Ask the Rabbi” series

Israel and her people, the Jewish people, will be rescued when Moshiach comes. But until then, we in the church have a responsibility to make sure the Holocaust or anything like it does not happen again in our towns, in our cities, and in our nations. In solidarity, we can also fast on the Tenth of Tevet, which this year is on Sunday, December 23rd.

Peace be upon Jerusalem and may the Messiah come soon and in our day.

Good Shabbos.

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