Gathering In

Parashat Vayigash 5779

Meir Sendor

This week Yaffa Batya DaCosta, the founder of the Israeli organization Ezra L’Anousim came to meet with me, prompted by last week’s blog post that featured the story of a woman from Brazil who discovered her family’s Jewish identity. Ezra L’Anousim does vital work helping families and individuals from around the world who are descendants of those forced to convert to Catholicism in Spain and Portugal in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, whose ancestors lived for centuries as crypto-Jews in Europe, the Balkans, the Americas and around the Pacific, and who now want to reclaim their Jewish heritage and make Aliyah. Yaffa Batya, who lives with her husband in Jerusalem, has a fascinating personal story as well. Along with the twists and turns of events that awakened her to her Jewish identity and brought her to Israel, I found intriguing an element of her story that I have heard in other similar cases over the years. While she grew up in a Catholic community in the States and only found out that she is Jewish in mid-life, she was attuned to Jewish issues since childhood. Her Jewish identity was not just a passive genealogical label, it was an active yet sub-consciousness sensibility that somehow moved her and guided her back to her People, back to her Land, back to Torah, back to HaShem.

This week’s parashah tells of the moving reunions between Yosef and his family, first with his brothers, then with his father Yaakov and the whole family. But there is a detail in the description of the meeting of Yaakov and Yosef, and its interpretation in Rabbinic tradition, that is, at first glance, jarring. The Torah says:

בראשית פרק מו פסוק כט

ויאסר יוסף מרכבתו ויעל לקראת ישראל אביו גשנה וירא אליו ויפל על צואריו ויבך על  צואריו עוד:

And Yosef turned his chariot and went up to meet Israel his father,to Goshen, and he saw him and fell upon his neck and cried and cried upon his neck.

Rashi, referring to a midrash, notes that it only says that Yosef fell upon and cried upon Yaakov’s neck:

רש”י בראשית פרק מו פסוק כט

אבל יעקב לא נפל על צוארי יוסף ולא נשקו,ואמרו רבותינו שהיה קורא את שמע:

 but Yaakov did not fall upon Yosef’s neck and did not kiss him. The Rabbis say that he was in the midst of saying the Shema.

This midrash is cited by Rav Yehudai Gaon in a responsum (She’eilot u-Tshuvot haGaonim 45:38) and by Rabbi Shmuel Edels in his commentary on the Gemara Yuma 19b as added proof that when in the midst of saying the Shema one should not engage in any other activity, no matter what it is, but maintain constant focused intent, and this is the halakhah.

But wait a second. Yaakov Avinu is reuniting with Yosef, his beloved son, who he thought was dead, who he has been mourning inconsolably for twenty-two years (Rashi on Gen 37:34) and just found out he is actually alive, who he is going down to Egypt with his whole family to meet. Yet when he comes to the deeply poignant moment of actually meeting Yosef, what, he checks his sundial and realizes it’s time to fulfill a mitzvah and stands there stiffly reciting Shema while Yosef is hugging him and weeping and weeping? To be simplistic, there’s a three hour period of time in the morning in which the Shema can be said, and an even longer window at night. Couldn’t he have said Shema before or after, and be fully emotionally present for his reunion with his son?

Actually, the midrash that Yaakov said Shema when he reunited with Yosef is telling us something profound, even more moving. There’s no question that Yaakov was fully emotionally present, in fact, the midrash is telling us that this moment was so overwhelming that neither father nor son could contain it. Yosef weeps and weeps. The elderly Yaakov stands and says Shema – this doesn’t mean he is not feeling what is happening. It means he feels it so deeply that he says Hear, Israel, HaShem our God, HaShem is One. Twenty-two years of mourning for Yosef were twenty-two years of feeling his world broken apart, of feeling his life broken, of feeling himself as if abandoned by God. Suddenly he finds Yosef is alive, he and his son are brought back together, now they are really in each other’s arms. His world has come back together, his life has come back together. He realizes that HaShem has been holding everyone and taking care of everyone and bringing everyone back together, he realizes that God is with him and has always been and will always be with him. He realizes that yes, God is One and God’s oneness also holds all existence together in this world and beyond this world and is the ground that makes possible all union and reunion in this world and beyond this world (Hovot haLevavot 1:9). In saying Shema, God is One, he is realizing and expressing the existential emotional meaning of this moment, sharing this with HaShem.

Not all of us are fortunate to experience such a reunion with a loved one we miss while in this world.  According to Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish in the Gemara Pesachim 56a, when Yaakov is on his deathbed, about to depart this world, his children who are gathered around him all say Shema together. Yaakov responds: “Blessed be the Name of the Glory of His kingdom forever and ever.” God’s oneness is infinite and eternal – this world is not a limit.

And God’s oneness can also stir a woman in her soul, even before she understands, and bring her and her family, and thousands of others like them, long estranged from their Jewish heritage and from Him, back to their people, back to their Land, back to their Tradition, back to Him.       

עובדיה פרק א

(כ) וגלת החל הזה לבני ישראל אשר כנענים עד צרפת וגלת ירושלם אשר בספרד ירשו את ערי הנגב:

And this exiled host of the children of Israel who are among the Canaanites as far as France and the exiles of Jerusalem who are in Spain shall inherit the cities of the Negev.

ישעיהו פרק כז

יג) והיה ביום ההוא יתקע בשופר גדול ובאו האבדים בארץ אשור והנדחים בארץ מצרים והשתחוו ליקוק בהר הקדש בירושלם:

And in that day a great shofar shall be blown and those lost in the land of Ashur and those cast out to the land of Egypt shall come and bow down to HaShem on the holy mountain of Jerusalem.

At Ezra’s Promenade in Gush Etzion, in memory of Ezra Schwartz, HYD
Jerusalem, our Eternal Capital

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