Nikki Haley drew everyone’s attention this week. Why couldn’t she just say that the Civil War was over slavery?
After reading our weekly Torah parsha, Vayechi, I realized Haley’s problem. Whereas, we Jews have one united story through our Torah, the account of the Civil War has yet to be settled. Haley hails from South Carolina. They have a different perspective on the Civil War. To many of them, it’s still the War of Northern Aggression. The wounds from the Civil War have not been healed, and collectively we don’t have a version of the story that works for both the North and the South.
In contrast, disparate and diverse as we are, through the Torah, have one story that unites us.
In our Parsha, Jacob is on his deathbed. He calls all his sons to his side to bless them. Although he should have learned by now not to play favorites, Judah and Joseph receive considerably more blessings than their peers.
Likewise, Moses blessed the tribes of Israel before his death. Who receives the biggest blessings? Judah and Joseph.
We could give many reasons for this, but I believe the main reason was actually shalom, peace.
In ancient times, the Hebrew tribes living in the north of Canaan had their own county called Israel. Their kings were from the tribe of Ephraim, Joseph’s second-born. Their cousins to the South were predominately from the tribe of Judah and were called after that name. In 722 BCE, the Assyrian armies sieged and conquered the northern state of Israel. Most of the people were exiled and henceforth known as the lost tribes of Israel. However, many fled to their kin in the south. The kings and leaders of Judah welcomed them with open arms. These tribes that were cousins had slightly different origin stories. For the sake of peace, their accounts were combined and blended, enabling the two nations to feel like one.
We have an ancient tradition that Jacob and Moses blessed the tribes of Israel before their passing. Before the two nations merged, each culture had only their dominant tribe receiving a prominent blessing. Yet, for the sake of harmony, in the Torah written post-722 BCE, both proud tribes receive extensive blessings.
Another instance of compromise came in accepting both country’s spiritual leadership. The priestly class in Israel was the Levites; in Judah, they were the Cohanim. So, in Deuteronomy, they’re joined. Now known as the “Kohanim HaLeviim,” both were given priestly status.
Both country’s leaders receive criticism as well. In the north, Moses (a Levite) was more highly esteemed, whereas, in Judah, Aharon (a Cohen) was their spiritual father. Therefore, throughout the Torah, both men are found to have significant faults as well as exceptional attributes.
Our Torah is an imperfect story. There are contradictions and repetitions of the same story. But its inclusivity enabled all to feel valued. Everyone’s version and story are in there somehow, and all are equally criticized and praised. Our story became one.
By contrast, when I learned about the Civil War, I was taught that Lincoln was the great savior, the North got it right, and the South got what it deserved. There are still multiple stories embedded in different parts of the country.
“One nation, under G-d, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all” is still a paradigm yet to be achieved. If America were to learn from our Jewish heritage, perhaps one solution is to rethink and rewrite the Civil War story until both sides are criticized, respected, and heard. When we have one story, then we’ll be one people.
Happy and Healthy 2024,