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Drash on Parashat Vayigash 2022

Drash on Parashat Vayigash     
Rabbi Nicole Roberts
North Shore Temple Emanuel, Chatswood, NSW

In tractate Ta’anit, the Talmud describes the progressive (small “p”) steps that a community takes to ward off an impending crisis, such as plague, drought, or harsh government decree.  Once a community has already tried fasting and crying out in prayer in shul to allay a threat, the next recommendation is to cry out in the streets.  You take the aron (ark) and your shaliach tzibur (prayer leader), go out into the street, and hold your communal prayer services there.  “Why do we go out into the street?” asks the Talmud.  N’vazeh atzmeinu b’farhesiah—“because we should humiliate ourselves in public.”  Galuteinu m’chaperet aleinu—“our exile atones for us.”[i]  Praying outside the walls of the shul simulates exile, and exile increases our suffering, not only because it is a hardship, but because it’s humiliating.  Self affliction and humiliation were thought to bring about atonement—regaining of God’s favor—so that communal catastrophe might be avoided.

The misery of Jewish exile, however, brought about another theology—a comforting theology proclaiming that God is with us in our exile.  That our troubles are also God’s troubles.  Bringing the aron out into the street with you when you pray expresses this idea, too.  The aron represents the Ark that was in the Jerusalem Temple, said to be the dwelling place of the Shechinah—God’s presence.  The presence of the aron outside, in exile with you, the Talmud says, shows that “I [God] am with him in his distress”—imo Anochi v’tzarah—and that “in the people’s every distress, God is also in distress,” b’chol tzarotam, lo tzar.[ii]  

Do theologies of exile still impact, comfort, guide, and “work” for us, when we’re not exactly… in exile?  We could now, after all, make aliyah to the Holy Land—our homeland—yet so many of us choose to stay here in Diaspora.  Our lives here are, by and large, untroubled, and, in fact, quite comfortable.  Our families are here, our jobs are here… who knows why else we stay, but we do.  And while we call it “Diaspora,” it doesn’t feel like exile; the lives we live here are not lives of humiliation and suffering.  Our decision to stay in Diaspora, and not make aliyah to our Jewish homeland, is voluntary.  So the question arises:  Does God come with us into exile, when our “exile” is voluntary?  Is God willing to dwell with us outside the Land of Israel, if we’re not suffering here, but thriving

Jacob, in our parasha, wrestles with these questions too.  He realizes that his beloved, long lost son, Joseph, is still alive and has offered to feed the family if they come to Egypt to escape the famine.  Jacob needs reassurance, though, says commentator Nehama Leibowitz, because he knows that Egypt is a land of plenty, and that in a “country of huge granaries, civilization and wealth” his family may never want to leave and fulfill the Divine plan to inhabit the Promised Land.[iii]  So Jacob wonders: Are You on board, God, come poverty or plenty?  Come humiliation and distress in exile, or thriving and contentment in Diaspora?  Will you still be with us, if we make this choice? 

God’s response?  Anochi ered im’cha—“I will go with you.”  Al-tirah—“Fear not to go down to Egypt.  I will make you into a great nation there.  I will go with you.”[iv]  And Jacob is comforted.  God will be with them and they will still be a “nation” even there—assimilation will not take hold.  Ered im’cha – I’m going with you.  Even if your bellies grow full and you live comfortably among the non-Jewish majority, and the fireworks on December 31st light up the world, and the pavlova is sublime, and your children don’t ever long to leave… God will be with you in this land.

This is the gift of monotheistic theology, some would say – a God that follows us everywhere, and isn’t, as was previously believed, tied to a particular land or ruling party.  But there is an important distinction between the ‘God is with us wherever we live’ theology and the ‘God is with us in exile’ theology.  In the latter, there is a sense that God has been driven into exile along with us.  When we choose to live in exile, or Diaspora, however, God is not compelled to come along.  God only comes along on this voluntary exile, if we voluntarily choose to bring God along.  What will ultimately hold us together in Diaspora is our willingness to make a place for God to dwell in our midst.  

What will preserve our Jewish identity here?  A meaningful Jewish spirituality that helps us feel God’s presence in our lives.  Not just bagels, kugel, and chicken soup, but the aron, all it represents, and the sense of Divine presence it brings into our lives.  This is what we must cultivate, cling to, and pass on to our children in a land of comfort and plenty. 

 

[i] B. Ta’anit 16a

[ii] ibid.  Also, Ps. 91:15 and Isa. 63:9.

[iii] Nehama Leibowitz, New Studies in Bereshit (Genesis) [Jerusalem: Haomanim Press, n.d.], p. 507

[iv] Gen. 46:3-4

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