On becoming the Jewish people, Am Yisrael


Parashat Vayechi is the final sidrah in Sefer Bereishit and the bridge to Sefer Shemot. Until now, our forebears were a small family of 12 tribes, yet within the first chapter of Sefer Shemot, Pharaoh utilizes what will become classic fear-mongering and rabble-rousing rhetoric and proclaims to his nation: “Behold, Am B’nai Yisrael (the people of the children of Israel) are more numerous and stronger than we are. Get ready, let us deal shrewdly with them, lest they increase, and a war befall us, and they join our enemies and wage war against us and depart from the land.” (Shemot 1:9-10)

Suddenly, we have become an am, a people, a recognized “nation within a nation,” that in Pharaoh’s twisted and hate-filled mind threatens the existential being of the Egyptian people.

I believe that Ya’akov Avinu was well aware that his family of 70 individuals was destined to become an am. As such, prior to blessing his sons he declared: “Hayasfu (gather) and I will tell you what will happen to you at the end of days. Hekabtzu (join together) and listen, sons of Jacob, and listen to Israel, your father.” (Bereishit 49:1-2) While hayasfu and hekabtzu have slightly different meanings, both suggest the idea of banding together into a singular entity, in this case, the nascent Jewish people.


hat is the essence of Am Yisrael? What makes us a unique nation? How, against all the “laws of history,” have we managed to not only survive, but to thrive? These are questions to which my rebbe and mentor, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik zatzal returned time and time again.

During some of the darkest days of the Shoah, the Rav penned, “U’vikashtem Misham (And from There You Shall Seek),” his most personally beloved theological work. Therein, he identifies and analyzes the idea of Knesset Yisrael: Knesset Yisrael (the Community of Israel) its definition: the inextricable connection between the first and last generations of prophet and listener, of Torah scholar and student, of the Revelation of G-d’s Divine Presence in the earliest lights of dawn, and the eschatological vision on that day to come.”

At first blush, one might imagine that Knesset Yisrael is a homogeneous entity linked together by like-minded people and universally agreed upon concepts and patterns of thought. Yet, in his analysis of the term, “hekabtzu (join together),” the Rav presents an entirely different notion of what accounts for the continuation and greatness of Knesset Yisrael: “Jacob here [in his blessings to his sons] expresses the essence of Knesses Yisrael. According to Nachmanides, Knesses Yisrael connotes a community of contradictory, mutually exclusive ideas and people … [with] many traits of character.” (Public lecture, Boston, 1979, cited in, Chumash Mesoras HaRav, Sefer Bereishis)

I believe that Ya’akov Avinu profoundly recognized this constitutive aspect of the Jewish people, as demonstrated by his differentiated brachot to each of his sons. Then, too, in my estimation, Ya’akov’s brachot represented the key to the Jewish future in which our many differences have become a dynamic source of strength, enabling us to survive the seemingly endless trials and tribulations that we have encountered throughout our storied history.

May the Master of the Universe ever encourage us to embrace our myriad differences so that we may continue to join together and proclaim as one, “Am Yisrael chai!” V’chane yihi ratzon.