For the week ending 26 December 2020 / 11 Tevet 5781

Parashat Vayigash

by Rabbi Yaakov Asher Sinclair -
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With the discovery of the goblet in Binyamin's sack, the brothers are confused. Yehuda alone steps forward and eloquently but firmly petitions Yosef for Binyamin's release, offering himself instead. As a result of this act of total selflessness, Yosef finally has irrefutable proof that his brothers are different people from the ones who cast him into the pit, and so he now reveals to them that he is none other than their brother. The brothers shrink from him in shame, but Yosef consoles them, telling them that everything has been part of G-d’s plan. He sends them back to their father Yaakov with a message to come and reside in the land of Goshen. At first, Yaakov cannot accept the news, but when he recognizes hidden signs in the message which positively identify the sender as his son Yosef, his spirit is revived.

Yaakov, together with all his family and possessions, sets out for Goshen. G-d communicates with Yaakov in a vision at night. He tells him not to fear going down to Egypt and its negative spiritual consequences, because it is there that G-d will establish the Children of Israel as a great nation although they will be dwelling in a land steeped in immorality and corruption.

The Torah lists Yaakov's offspring and hints to the birth of Yocheved, who will be the mother of Moshe Rabbeinu. Seventy souls in total descend into Egypt, where Yosef is reunited with his father after 22 years of separation. He embraces his father and weeps, overflowing with joy. Yosef secures the settlement of his family in Goshen. Yosef takes his father Yaakov and five of the least threatening of his brothers to be presented to Pharaoh, and Yaakov blesses Pharaoh. Yosef instructs that, in return for grain, all the people of Egypt must give everything to Pharaoh, including themselves as his slaves. Yosef then redistributes the population, except for the Egyptian priests, who are directly supported by a stipend from Pharaoh. The Children of Israel become settled, and their numbers multiply greatly.


Nuclear Fusion

“And you, son of man, take to yourself one piece of wood and write upon it 'For Yehuda and the Children of Israel, his associates,' and take another piece of wood and write upon it, 'For Yosef, the stem of Ephraim and the whole House of Israel, his associates.'” (Haftarah, Yechezkel 33:16)

One of the fascinating facets of the A-bomb story is that the vast majority of the players were Jews. Albert Einstein’s Theory of Relativity paved the way for investigation into nuclear fission. In 1939 he urged President Roosevelt to build an atomic bomb before Nazi Germany did so. Leo Szilard (1898-1964), born in Budapest, helped Italian Enrico Fermi (married to a Jew) conduct the first controlled nuclear chain reaction. Niels Bohr (1885-1962) was the first to apply quantum theory to explain nuclear structure. Born in Denmark to a Christian father and Jewish mother, Bohr won a Nobel Prize in 1922, and narrowly escaped Denmark in 1943, pursued by the Nazis. He worked on the Manhattan Project with his son Aage. Lise Meitner (1878-1968) was born in Vienna and became a pioneer of research into nuclear fission. She analyzed her results with her nephew, Otto Frisch. Walter Zinn and Fermi directed the first controlled nuclear chain reaction in 1942 at the University of Chicago. Hungarian-born Edward Teller led the US team that developed the first hydrogen bomb. And the list goes on.

But maybe the most fascinating of the all those who built the atom bomb was J. Robert Oppenheimer (1904-1967), the US-born theoretical physicist who was chosen to direct the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos in 1942. It was his team that, on July 16, 1945 exploded the world’s first atomic bomb. Three months later he resigned as project director and opposed development of the H-bomb. Oppenheimer was accused of being a Communist, he was vilified in public, and, although exonerated, the experience broke him. Oppenheimer came from a wealthy, assimilated New York Jewish family. He was an aesthete, an intellectual and a philosopher. His colleague I. I. Rabi once wrote about him:

"He reminded me very much of a boyhood friend about whom someone said that he couldn’t make up his mind whether to be president of the B’nai B’rith or the Knights of Columbus. Perhaps he really wanted to be both, simultaneously. Oppenheimer wanted every experience. In that sense, he never focused. My own feeling is that if he had studied the Talmud and Hebrew, rather than Sanskrit, he would have been a much greater physicist.” (From "Dark Sun: The Making of the Hydrogen Bomb" by Richard Rhodes)

Commenting on this week's Haftara, Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch bewails the continuing strife between the "Ephraim" Jew and the "Yehuda" Jew. The “Ephraim” Jew, “by his systematic disavowal of the Divine Torah, seeks salvation in political greatness and tries to find a substitute for the lack of protection from G-d by vain efforts to obtain alliance with the nations, among whom it hopes to ‘blossom out in brotherhood’ (Hoshea 23:15) by complete assimilation. But, for giving up all Jewishness, he only experiences contempt and repulsion."

On the other hand, "Yehuda, who in principle certainly acknowledges Hashem as its G-d… is still far off from unreserved trust in G-d.” Rabbi Hirsch criticizes the “Yehuda” Jew for failing to apply the same standards in his relation with his fellow man as he does with regard to his kashrut.

“And you, son of man, take to yourself one piece of wood and write upon it, 'For Yehuda and the Children of Israel his associates,' and take another piece of wood and write upon it, 'For Yosef, the stem of Ephraim and the whole House of Israel, his associates.' And bring them near… and they will become united to one union in your hand.”

The two chips of wood representing the two tribes will eventually be united, not in a watered-down compromise but in a genuine elevation “in an everlasting faithfulness towards G-d."

When we look at our divided nation, how we long for that “nuclear fusion” that will bathe the whole world in Hashem's light!

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