As many of you know, I am a Civil War buff. My interest in the War Between the States began when I was six years old. In 1960, the United States was celebrating the Centennial of the Civil War. Living in Baltimore, I was in easy driving distance of Gettysburg, Antietam, Harper’s Ferry and Bull Run to mention a few famous sites. My father dutifully took me to all of them and then supplied me with ample reading materials to deepen my knowledge.
The Civil War became a constant then in my intellectual life and ultimately influenced my decision to earn a Ph.D. in 19th century American history. The more I studied the Civil War, the more I understood how tragic and bloody it was, the ultimate American disaster, which resulted in the destruction of slavery but also failed to cure the underlying malady of deep racism among white Americans. In time, my studies extended to the post-War period, called Reconstruction, and the failed attempt to “bind the wounds of the nation” and, worse, saw the rise of the doctrine of white supremacy. Lincoln’s dream of national reconciliation remains a goal for our country to this day.
Both the Torah portion for this week, Vayigash (Exodus 44:18) and the Haftarah, Ezekiel 37, both discuss the theme of reconciliation. In the Torah portion, Joseph reunites with his brothers and father, brings them to live in Goshen and reconciles with them. Joseph’s famous words, “I am Joseph, your brother” live today as the gold standard both of family and interfaith reconciliation. In the Haftarah, the prophet Ezekiel offers instruction to write the names of two Hebrew tribes, Ephraim and Manasseh, and hold them together as a symbol of healing ancient Israel’s internecine divisions, which ultimately led to the division of Solomon’s realm into northern (Israel) and southern (Judah) kingdoms. The hope of Jewish national reconciliation remains an unfulfilled dream of three thousand years. And, indeed, the Jewish world remains fractured along many internal fault lines to this day.
But perhaps even more troubling for many of us in the United States are the deep divisions which characterize national life in America today. We are split into two and more camps in a number of areas: presidential transition, masks and public health policy and foreign policy (e.g., Russia and Iran) to mention just a few. Dialogue and compromise are almost impossible. As in the days prior to the Civil War, we are plagued by “disunion” even more than we are bound together by a common national purpose. In Texas, there has even been talk of secession as if we were living in 1860!
We need a path to reconciliation in the days and weeks ahead. We need to learn to agree to disagree without the threat of physical violence against one another or deep accusations of disloyalty or treason. We need to be able to speak truth and agree on facts and suspend our descent into a nightmarish fantasy world of conspiracy theories and alternate realities. It will not be easy, but if our history and Torah can offer some reassurance, it is possible.
I have many prayers for 2021. First, is the end of the pandemic and second is the beginning of national reconciliation. I am not praying for the day when we agree about everything but rather for a day when we can honestly debate our political differences and celebrate our cultural diversity in the embrace of a renewed national covenant with one another. May the New Year, 2021, bring health, happiness, prosperity and national reconciliation to America and to the world. Amen.
Shabbat Shalom and Happy New Year’s!
Rabbi Lance J. Sussman, Ph.D.