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Vayigash - Owning Our Essence

Vayigash works to strengthen the understanding that Israel must strive to improve not only our own moral behavior, but also the moral behavior of all peoples and groups.

As a sovereign state in the contemporary Middle East, Israel has both the opportunity and the physical and spiritual existential need to take an especially active interest in the moral behavior of peoples throughout this region.

The Diplomatic Military Realm

The real conflict in the Middle East is whether this will be a region where human life and peace are valued for their own sakes or one where people are taught to hate and murder in the name of Heaven. Until peace and human life are widely valued, formal peace agreements are unlikely to be implemented and even less likely to be maintained. But when love of peace and life are the norm, even deep-seated disagreements are unlikely to receive violent expression.

Many regional actors, including Hamas, Al-Qaeda, Iran and Hezbollah, understand the nature of the conflict and are working hard to win. Israel, unfortunately, has yet to even show up for the battle.

The Spiritual Realm

For perhaps the first time in our long history, the people of Israel are in a position to actively pursue our underlying raison d’etre: to be a “nation of priests,” to take an interest in the moral welfare of others. Unfortunately, however, many Israelis are being educated to be indifferent to the moral behavior of Arabs and Muslims. Our failure thus far to own our essence is not only a squandering of a long-awaited opportunity, but it is contributing to a sense of confusion, polarization and despair in an Israeli society that is no longer sure what we are doing here. 

Much of the world intuitively understands what we have recently been working hard to repress: that the reemergence of a sovereign Israel should bring moral benefit to the whole world.

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Our tradition teaches that every human being is created in G-d’s image (Genesis 1:27), and is required to behave morally (by keeping the Noahide laws, as in Tosefta Avoda Zara 9:4). G-d’s decision to give Torah to the Israelites was in no way intended to exempt the rest of humanity from moral behavior. Rather, Israel was given Torah in order to facilitate the morality of all peoples:

“And you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation (19:6).” 

And all the people answered in unison saying: ‘All that the L-rd has spoken we will do.’ ” (Exodus 19:8)

Just as a kohen (priest) facilitates the spirituality of others, so must a nation of priests facilitate the spirituality of other peoples. The Torah commentator Sforno elucidates: “You will be a treasured nation when you are a kingdom of priests to understand and teach all of mankind to call out to the L-rd.”

The requirement to protect humanity and facilitate morality finds additional expression in many other sources. For example:

  • Noah (a pre-Israelite) is criticized for not interceding with G-d to save his generation (Zohar: Noach 67:2) and for not encouraging his generation to repent (Ibid 68:1)
  • Abraham actively reaches out to idolaters and teaches them about monotheism. (Breishit Rabah 39:21)
  • Abraham is told he and his descendants will be a vehicle for blessing and cursing the families of humanity, and is commanded to “be a blessing” (Genesis 12:2-3).
  • Abraham encourages G-d to spare the (mostly evil) inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 18)
  • G-d commands Moses to reach out to Jethro, a former enemy of the Israelites. Without the resultant recognition of G-d by Jethro, the Torah would not have been given.  (Shemot Rabah 27:2)
  • Jonah’s refusal to minister to the Ninevites is an explicit attempt to disobey G-d. (Jonah: the entire book) By withholding his prophecy, Jonah deserved death at the hand of G-d (Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 89a)
  • The Israelite prophet Elisha minsters to Naaman, the Aramean defense minister (Kings II 5:1-19)
  • Rabbi Shimon ben Shetach is more interested in having a gentile bless the G-d of Israel than in all the money in the world (Jerusalem Talmud, Baba Metzia 2:5, 8c)
  • “A person who is good to Heaven and good to humanity is called a righteous one who is good. A person who is good to Heaven and not good to humanity is called a righteous one who is not good.” (Babylonian Talmud Kiddushin 40a)
  • “We have been taught that when the world becomes full of sin and is doomed to destruction, woe is then to the righteous man who is found in it, for he is first made answerable for its sins.” ( Zohar Noach 67:2)

Our Long Awaited Opportunity

While Israel’s ultimate raison d’etre has always been to help improve the moral behavior of our fellow humans, historical circumstances have contributed to this mandate remaining largely dormant.

Our own struggle with idolatry in the First Temple period made our leaders reluctant to encourage wide-scale interest in the moral potential of our idolatrous neighbors. Some positive developments which began in the Second Temple period were ultimately arrested when the Roman Exile brought with it the double threat of physical annihilation and total assimilation. Modern Zionist leaders also felt the need to build mental “iron walls” in order to concentrate on the establishment and defense of the State of Israel.

However, since the Oslo process began there have been an ever growing number of indications that neither peace nor security in the Middle East will be obtained as long as human life is undervalued by large segments of the Arab and Muslim world. At the same time, more and more Israelis are looking for universal expressions of their Jewish identity. The time has arrived to apply Hillel’s maxim on a national level: “If I am not for me, who will be for me? And if I am only for me, what am I? And if not now, when?”