Politics & Parsha: Vayichi 5771

Posted on December 17, 2010 In Archives

Politics & the Parsha: “Shul Politics Like Never Before”

Each week IPA Deputy Director of Public Policy Howie Beigelman takes a look at the weekly parsha and discusses it in a way you may never have seen. Any hashkafic, halachic or political opinions are personal and do not reflect the official psak or policy of the OU.

Vayichi 5771: The Original Birthright: Israel

It’s back! The gift that keeps on giving. The allegation that President Obama wasn’t born in the United States has, thanks to Wikileaks and Mike Huckabee made a return (Mr. Huckabee suggested we ought to keep our nation’s secrets safe, if only we kept them with Mr. Obama’s birth records).

Senator John McCain faced a similar question in 2008. He, after all, had been born in the Panama Canal Zone. Was he a natural born citizen? Was he eligible to become President of the United States? This controversy sheds light on this week’s Torah portion, Vayechi and a puzzling decision by Jacob to bless Joseph’s children as his own.

Jacob, on his deathbed, seems to have not learned his lesson. Despite the brutal, bloody and un-brotherly consequences of his greater love for one son over the others, we are witness, admittedly some decades later but with the wounds still raw and the brothers’ fear of retribution still palpable, to Jacob picking two of his grandchildren – Joseph’s sons no less – of all his grandchildren to bless as equals to his own sons.

To be sure, Menashe & Ephraim are impressive figures. Menashe, chief of staff to Joseph himself, was exemplary in his role during the confrontation between Joseph and his ten brothers. Ephraim stays by Jacob’s side from his arrival in Egypt until his death, both studying with Jacob the scholar and ministering to Israel, last of the patriarchs.

Surely many of their cousins were equally talented, skilled and successful. Why risk another – possibly fatal – fissure in the family?

If it is because they were the first Jews to survive galut, they weren’t. Jacob himself was in exile for 22 years with Laban in at least as corrupting an environment as ancient Egypt. Jacob’s own mother, Rebecca, and all four of Jacob’s wives grew up in galut and “married in” to the Jewish people, as it were. Joseph himself had survived years of solitary exile.

Perhaps it was because Menashe & Ephraim are the first Jews to never live in Israel. From cradle to grave, they are born, bred, educated, work and die in Egypt. Despite that, their surroundings and their personal history, they commit not only to the Jewish religion, but to the Jewish national story and the nation’s destiny. All this without ever seeing another Jew till adulthood, never setting foot in the Land of their Fathers, and knowing full well how terribly their uncles treated Joseph.

(Joseph & Osnat get credit here for raising their children this way, but in the end, we know children choose. Ishmael & Esav also chose. And they had benefits Menashe & Ephraim could never have dreamed of and lacked temptations Joseph’s boys saw each day.)

The Bible only records the prophecies of Jacob that occur in the night. Jacob is the seer of the dark of Jewish destiny. And knowing as he did that night would fall on his descendants, a history written in blood and gore, exile and persecution, Jacob knew his grandchildren, writ large, needed more than hope. They needed the model of his first grandchildren – at least the two who chose Judaism.

Menashe and Ephraim may have lived in Egypt, and they may have been part of its culture, been friends, neighbors and colleagues of the royal courtiers, the civil servants, the military command, the academic intelligentsia and the barons of commerce. But they weren’t Egyptian. They were Jews, in some weird, Bizarro Law of Return, where they were citizens by virtue of the fact that they never returned. Almost as if they spent their lives on some metaphysical equivalent of a Jacobian embassy or protectorate. No matter where in the world it is, or how far from home, an embassy, military base or naval ship is sovereign land, really and truly. If you are born in the Panama Canal Zone, it still counts as America, if you just think it so (& if the First Congress passes a law saying so).

Menashe & Ephraim never lived in Israel but they were citizens of the land and linked to the Jewish people not by geography, or even blood, but by will. Jacob knew in the long dark night of the Diaspora that was something worth blessing.

Words to consider, ideas to ponder – politics & the parsha.