Spiritual Debriefing

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Eliana Yashgur

Perek 35 of Bereishit begins with the injunction G-d gives Yaakov,

וַיֹּ֤אמֶר אֱלֹקִים֙ אֶֽל־יַעֲקֹ֔ב 

ק֛וּם עֲלֵ֥ה בֵֽית־אֵ֖ל וְשֶׁב־שָׁ֑ם 

וַעֲשֵׂה־שָׁ֣ם מִזְבֵּ֔חַ 

לָאֵ-ל֙ הַנִּרְאֶ֣ה אֵלֶ֔יךָ בְּבָרְחֲךָ֔ מִפְּנֵ֖י עֵשָׂ֥ו אָחִֽיךָ׃

God said to Jacob:

 “Arise, go up to Bethel and remain there; 

and build an altar (mizbeach) there 

to the God who appeared to you when you were fleeing from your brother Esau.”

Why does G-d need Yaakov to move to Beit El, and build an altar now?

This command comes at an interesting time, right after the jarring events in Shekhem. Radak on 35:1 explains that Yaakov had intended to head toward his father’s home, but was derailed by the incidents in Shechem, the assault on Dina, and the further upheaval resulting from the retaliation of her brothers. Midrash Tanchuma (Buber) Vayishlach 22:1 writes that after Dina’s brothers Shimon and Levi attacked the city of Shechem, Yaakov fell on his face and didn’t get up until G-d granted him permission. Similar events occurred with Yehoshua and David. Clearly, this retaliatory measure was morally fraught, responding to violence with more violence. G-d’s command puts Yaakov back on his original track.

Tur comments that per Ramban, ושב שם ועשה שם מזבח means that Yaakov should first create a temporary residence in Beit El, and only then erect the mizbeach. Beit El would serve to refocus Yaakov on spiritual matters prior to going ahead and building the mizbeach. The mizbeach would then serve as an avenue to cleanse themselves of the ritual impurities associated with idolatry that they had encountered, as well as the defilement resulting from contact with the people of Shekhem they had slain. 

Rabbenu Bahya grounds this reading more deeply in the words by suggestign that “ושב” means “let your mind come to rest.”  Yaakov would erect the mizbeach only after he recovered from his disturbed state of mind, with G-d’s appearance to him aiding in the process. Sforno similarly interprets וְשֶׁב־שָׁ֑ם to indicate that Yaakov must prepare himself mentally and spiritually before he erects the mizbeach, making reference to the “chassidim rishonim” described by Chazal as spending extended time preparing before and unwinding after prayer. 

These verses and commentaries convey the need for spiritual closure after spiritually challenging events. Decisions in response to morally complicated situations are not always easy, and can take spiritual and moral tolls even if you feel you did your best. What is the best way forward after such experiences? 

G-d’s command to Yaakov suggests that both mental cleansing and spiritual cleansing may be necessary. Yaakov is told to clear his mind by moving away from the site and by putting down roots in Beit El, and to ritual cleanse himself from the tum’ah of death through the mizbeach., The underlying purpose of this entire activity is a spiritual reckoning with G-d.  Each of these steps is intricately tied to properly and carefully assessing our spiritual and moral actions before and after they occur. 

Halakhah provides similar responses to spiritually tangled experiences. For example, nazirut has a positive aspect of enabling a spiritual focus by removing the temptation for physical activities like drinking wine, but also a negative aspect of excessive asceticism. A nazir reaps the benefits of spritual growth but then brings a korban chatat, or sin offering. The expectation of the nazir to bring a sin offering is a priori, as if to say – one can undertake this activity, as long as they bring a sin offering afterwards. This is somewhat counter to the traditional model of repentance – where one expects to not need to repent after, and in fact if one sins with the intention of repenting, it is quite problematic. 

Similarly, the Mishnah and Gemara of Horayot describes in a retroactive fashion the responsibilities of the Sanhedrin for ruling accurately for different types of issues and circumstances, and consequences of errors of these premier judicial leaders of the Jewish people. 

Spiritual debriefing is vital to keeping our spiritual and ethical sensibilities sharpened, allowing for self-reflection, as well as dialogue with G-d and community, in order to be more thoughtful in how to approach and learn from complicated experiences. 
Eliana Yashgur (SBM ’17, ’19; WBM ’18, ’19) lives in Jerusalem and is a research assistant in psychology at Hebrew University. 

Leave a comment

Filed under Alumni devar Torah, Uncategorized

When Moral Discourse Breaks Down

by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper

בראשית פרק לד :לא

ויאמרו הכזונה יעשה את אחותנו:

They said: Shall he make our sister like a harlot?

How does one determine the moral of a story? This question is of more than academic interest for Orthodox Jews, who seek to live in accordance with the message of Torah, and our difficulty in answering it is one reason that many focus on Halakhah rather than Aggada. If we are willing to submit ourselves to His Will, it seems only reasonable to demand that He state his Will clearly.

And yet – Torah itself is a frequently baffling mixture of narrative and law, and each influences the historical interpretation of the other, so that it is often difficult to tell which genre we are dealing with. For example – is the famous dispute between Rambam and Ramban as to whether it is legitimate to seek the death penalty for Noachides [1] for the crime of failing to establish a viable criminal justice system a consequence of their reading of the story of Dinah, or do they interpret that story in light of their legal positions? Or, for that matter, are both their legal and interpretive stances generated by their ethicopolitical judgment?

The episode at Shekhem – even giving it a title is fraught – is important strategic territory for contemporary visions of Judaism, as it implicates three critical contemporary issues:

  1. The proper relationship of Jews and Gentiles
  2. The proper use of Jewish power
  3. The relationship between gender and power, and more specifically, the extent to which Jewish society has the obligation to enable women to safely participate in a coed society.

I use the metaphor “strategic territory” advisedly, because I think it is essential that advocates of particular positions on these issues develop powerful readings of this text, and seek to make those readings the default community understanding. Perhaps more importantly, we need to exclude those interpretations which we find morally offensive. By exclude, I don’t mean to say that studying them is necessarily not Talmud Torah, but we need to in a sense pasken Aggada here, i.e. state with absolute clarity that any attempt to justify contemporary action or attitude on the basis of those interpretations is not just wrong but, in our eyes, illegitimate. Some “morals of the story” are immoral.

Orthodox Jews are properly hesitant about saying this about texts that have been part of the Tradition for years, especially if they are found in texts that collectively make up the legacy of “Chazal.” I think it is preferable to seek ways to interpret those interpretations acceptably, to be “dan lekhaf zekhut” and understand such texts as making morally acceptable points, if that is at all plausible.

One interesting example of such a limmud zekhut is found in Sandra Rapoport’s Biblical Seductions. Rapoport argues that the Rabbinic statement that Dina ends up marrying Iyov (Bava Batra 15b, Bereishit Rabbah 19) is a recognition that Dinah is an innocent who has suffered unjustly, and thus she marries a righteous man who symbolizes unjustified suffering. This may be – but Bereshit Rabbah derives the marriage from Iyov’s chastisement of his wife for being unwilling to accept G-d’s Will when it causes them harm, and the linguistic connection is between her speech “You speak like one of the nevalot” and Dinah’s rape “a nevalah was done in Israel.” These seem more negative than Rapoport, and I think Ishei HaTanakh plausibly understands Dinah marrying a Gentile as a punishment. But I much prefer Rapoport’s moral.

Yalqut Shim’oni Vayishlach 134 contains a story that suggests a similar perspective.

The daughter of Yaakov (like her father) was one who dwelled in tents (indoors). What did Shekhem ben Chamor do? He brought girls to play around her with cymbals, so she went outside to see the daughters of the land, and he captured her and lay with her, and she gave birth to Osnat, and the sons of Yaakov sought to kill her, saying: ‘All the land will say that there is a daughter of harlotry in the tents of Yaakov!’ What did Yaakov do? He wrote a Divine Name on a gold tzitz and hung it around her neck and sent her away. All this was seen by The Holy Blessed One, so the Angel Michael descended and took her down to Egypt, to the house of Potifera, as Osnat was fitting to marry Yosef, and the wife of Potifera was barren, so she raised her as a daughter, and Yosef took her to wife.

Here I think it is clear that the midrashic author sees Osnat as a victim, who is ultimately rewarded. But what are we to do with the depiction of the brothers as honor-killers, whom Yaakov can frustrate but not flout?

I think it is important to note that the brothers in this story have no intention of killing Dinah, but rather Osnat. My suggestion is that this midrash is driven by reading “Hakezonah yaaseh et achoteinu” as follows: Since it is in the future tense – “he will make” – it must refer to an argument about something after the massacre of the Shekhemites. The brothers feel that by allowing Dinah to live, Yaakov is leaving Dinah with a permanent stigma. The midrash has no textual basis in Yaakov’s words; we must guess at his motive for saving her. Perhaps it reads Yaakov as believing that Shimon and Levi would be indifferent to moral arguments, and so he tried to invoke self-interest, but this also failed.

There are Rabbinic readings that seek to magnify the sins of the Shekhemites in ways that make the massacre less troubling. R. Chaim Paltiel, for example, suggests that the circumcision was preceded by a collective violation of Dinah. Again, this does not seem justified textually, but I appreciate the implicit claim that nothing less could allow us to even discuss the right or wrong of the brothers’ actions – even if we end up agreeing with Yaakov.

The key interpretive questions are generally whether the Torah sides with Yaakov or rather with his sons, and either way, what motivates the sons. But I think one other question also matters. The brothers’ statement is in third person – “shall he make our sister like a harlot.” Ibn Ezra understands the “he” as referring to Shekhem, but the midrash above understands it as referring to Yaakov. If it refers to Yaakov, then it is said in third person – amongst themselves, after Yaakov has gone. It means that they are no longer arguing with him – they have dismissed him, and look only for confirmation within their own moral circle. Yaakov correctly sees them as uninterested in moral arguments – even if his “image” argument at core is accusing them of making a chillul Hashem, they can understand it only as a weak and inappropriate concern for Gentile moral opinion.

But Yaakov is at fault for not realizing this earlier. Yaakov waited until his sons came home to react to the initial rape – he did this in the hope that they would engage in serious ethical conversation and arrive at a response that everyone could deliver with integrity. But when moral discourse completely breaks down, at least sometimes one has to act unilaterally.

Yaakov saves the day supernaturally, and gets Osnat safely to Egypt. But when we have such Shimons and Levis among us – and I think we do – we cannot rely on angels to descend and save the innocent victims of their obsessive pride.

Notes:

[1] According to my teacher Rav Ahron Soloveitchik z”l, as I understand his position, it is never necessary to seek the death penalty for Noachides, and it is only legitimate if it will have deterrent value.

This Dvar Torah was originally published in 2011.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized, Weekly Devar Torah

Are the Maidservants Equal Matriarchs?

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Joshua Skootsky

Jacob has thirteen named children. Their mothers are Bilhah (Dan, Naphtali), Zilpah (Gad, Asher), Leah (Reuven, Simon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Zebulun, Dinah), and Rachel (Yosef, Binyamin).

Are the four mothers on equal footing?

Genesis 30:3-13 tells us that Rachel, seeing that Leah already had four children with Yaakov, decided to be ‘built up’ through her amah (maid-servant), Bilhah. Bilhah is also referred to as Rachel’s shifchah (literally, female slave) (Gen. 30:4). Leah later does the same thing with her shifchah Zilpah. The relationship among the mothers therefore parallels the relationship between Sarah and Hagar two generations earlier, and Hagar was sent away when she openly presumed herself to be Sarah’s equal. 

However, Hagar’s son Yishmael did not become part of Israel, while Bilhah and Zilpah’s children did.  I would find it disturbing if Bilhah and Zilpah’s original social status had ongoing implications. This seems to be the case in the following series of texts cited on Berakhot 16b:

תניא אידך

עבדים ושפחות אין מספידין אותן

רבי יוסי אומר אם עבד כשר הוא אומרים עליו הוי איש טוב ונאמן ונהנה מיגיעו

אמרו לו אם כן מה הנחת לכשרים:

It was taught in another baraita:

One does not eulogize slaves and maidservants.

Rabbi Yosei says: If he was a virtuous servant, one recites over him a eulogy of sorts: “Alas, a good and loyal man who enjoyed the fruits of his hard labor.”

They said to him: If so, what praise have you left for virtuous Jews? A Jewish person would be proud to be eulogized in that manner.

תנו רבנן

אין קורין אבות אלא לשלשה

ואין קורין אמהות אלא לארבע

The Sages taught in a baraita:

One may only call three people patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

And one may only call four people matriarchs, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah.

אבות מאי טעמא?

אילימא משום דלא ידעינן אי מראובן קא אתינן אי משמעון קא אתינן’ אי הכי אמהות נמי לא ידעינן אי מרחל קא אתינן אי מלאה קא אתינן!?

אלא עד הכא חשיבי טפי לא חשיבי

The Gemara asks: What is the reason for this exclusivity with regard to the category Patriarchs?

If you say that it is because we do not know whether we descend from Reuben or from Simon, if so, with regard to the Matriarchs as well, we do not know whether we descend from Rachel or from Leah!?

Rather, until Jacob they are significant enough to be referred to as patriarchs, but beyond Jacob, they are not significant enough to be referred to as patriarchs.

תניא אידך

עבדים ושפחות אין קורין אותם אבא פלוני ואמא פלונית

ושל רבן גמליאל היו קורים אותם אבא פלוני ואמא פלונית

While the above baraita declares that the term “Fathers” is exclusive,  another Baraita implies that older people were often given the honorific ‘Father’.  

One may not refer to slaves and maidservants as Father [abba] X or Mother [imma] Y.

They would call the slaves and maidservants of Rabban Gamliel “Father X” and “Mother Y.”

מעשה לסתור משום דחשיבי:

The Gemara asks: Is the practice of Rabban Gamliel cited in order to contradict the halakha stated in the previous line of the baraita?

The Gemara answers: There is no contradiction; rather, because Rabban Gamliel’s servants were significant, they were given these honorifics, whereas ordinary slaves should not receive them.

This resolution seems to ignore the problem that the first baraita cited limited the term to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob!?  Rashi explains that the first baraita meant father in the national sense; and was intended to distinguish Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob from their immediate Biblical descendants, such as Jacob’s children.

Rashba offers two extensions of this approach.

אין קורין אבות אלא לשלשה.

פירש הראב”ד ז”ל: שאין אומרים “מי שענה ראובן אבינו” או “שמעון אבינו”

ואם אמר – לא הפסיד, אלא שאין עלינו חובה לכבוד זה אלא לשלשה האבות.

ואינו מחוור בעיני,

דאין קורין אמהות אלא לארבעה מאי איכא למימר?!

אלא הפירוש הנכון כמו שפירש רבנו האי ז”ל

דלכבוד בעלמא קאמר, ולומר שאין חשובין להקרא אבות לכל ישראל ואמהות לכל ישראל אלא שלשה אבות וארבע אמהות.

We do not refer to as “fathers” but three.

Raavad interpreted this to mean that we do not liturgically say “He who answered Reuven, our father,” or “Simon, our father.” If one did say so, one has not lost out halakhically; but there is no obligation to give such an honor to anyone other than the three Avot.

But I the Rashba do not like this interpretation,

because if so, what is the purpose of the baraita in writing “one may only call four people matriarchs” (since that element of the liturgy only mentions men)?

Rather the correct interpretations is like Rav Hai interpreted,

that this refers to generic (rather than liturgical) honor, meaning that only the three fathers and the four mothers are not important enough to be called “fathers” for all of Israel and “mothers” for all of Israel.

By limiting the term “mothers” to four, excluding Bilhah and Zilpah, these texts suggest that because Bilhah and Zilpah were slaves or servants, they are less important than Leah or Rachel. Rashba clearly indicates that the titles “father” and “mother” reflect overall significance, and Ben Yehoyada, (authored by the Ben Ish Chai) accepts this line of reasoning so completely that he wonders how it is possible to say that Moshe Rabbeinu is less important than the three Avot. He answers that the title “Rav” or “Rabbeinu” is greater than the title of “Av.”

However, Rashba also cited Raavad, who limits the implications to the liturgical context. Even if “less important” is to be understood as the defining factor for the liturgy, excluding Bilhah and Zilpah would still leave them on the same level as Reuven, Shimon, Levi, Yehuda, Yosef, etc. the twelve sons of Jacob, which objectively isn’t unimportant.

Another key difference between Rashba and Raavad is this.  Rashba holds that it is inappropriate to use the term Avinu for anyone other than Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov.

By contrast, Raavad says that while we have no obligation to refer to Reuven as an Av, we are permitted to do so. It follows that we may choose to refer to Bilhah and Zilpah as Imahot. 

Midrash Tanchuma to Vayeshev goes further.  It strongly critiques any inequality between the children of Rachel and Leah and those of Bilhah and Zilpah based on their mothers’ original social status. 

אמר לאביו שהן נוהגין בבני בלהה וזלפה מנהג עבדים וקורין אותן עבדים

Yosef said to his father: my brothers are treating the sons of Bilha and Zilpa as if they are slaves, and calling them “slaves.”

This Midrash teaches that the lashon hara Yosef spoke about his brothers from Rachel and Leah was that they were treating the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah in a slavelike manner and calling them slaves. His punishment was being sold into slavery himself.  

It’s ambiguous whether Yosef’s charge was true or invented. But it is clear that the children of Leah and Rachel would have been wrong to treat their brothers from Bilhah and Zilpah as inferior. 

Moreover, many, many midrashim do in fact have the phrase “the six mothers, Sarah, Rivkah, Rachel, Leah, Zilpah, and Bilhah.” For example, Midrash Rabbah to Parshat Naso (12) parallels the six wagons offered by the heads of the tribes to the six mothers, and that comparison to the six matriarchs is also taught in Pesikta deRav Kahana (1).  Similarly, midrashim on the number six in Midrash Rabba Esther (1) and Shir haShirim (6) refer to the six mothers, referring to all six by name, including Bilha and Zilpa.

Does this Midrashic tradition, repeated in many independent contexts, disagree with the traditions cited on Berachot 16b?  This appears to depend on the dispute between Raavad and Rashba. According to Raavad, these midrashim might be permissibly choosing to extend the title of “Mother” to Bilhah and Zilpah. According to Rashba, Berachot 16b forbids that extension, and therefore these midrashim must be disagreeing with those baraitot.

Other Midrashim emphasize that Yaakov married Bilhah and Zilpah with the full honor and status accorded to wives, and that their children were his children with the same status as the children from Leah or Rachel. For example,  Pesikta Zutra (Vayetzei 30) teaches that Zilpa was married to Yaakov as an “Isha” (as a full wife, building off the verse Bereshit 30:9), and emphasises: “as a wife, and not as a pilegesh. Rather, she was freed, and married in the manner of free women.” 

Bereshit Rabati to Vayetzei goes farther and suggests, in one possibility, that Bilha and Zilpa were Lavan’s daughters, born to him from a pilegesh, and that this is why they were called shefachot. The Midrash Sekhel Tov (29) also teaches that Zilpah and Bilhah were both Laven’s daughters from a pilegesh. Commenting on the verse, (Bereshit 46:18) “These are the sons of Zilpa, that Lavan gave to Leah his daughter,” Midrash Sekhel Tov (46) teaches that Lavan gave Zilpa as a shifcha or maidservant, but she was freed before marrying Yaakov.

One Midrash (Sechel Tov Buber, Lech Lecha 16) explicitly takes on the comparison to Hagar by saying  that Rachel and Leah named the children of Bilhah and Zilpah, much like Noami named the daughter of Ruth, whereas Sarah didn’t name Hagar’s son Yishmael because her jealousy was overwhelming. This fascinating midrash, based off the verse that Abraham named his son Yishmael (see Bereshit 16:15), suggests a contrast between Bilha, Zilpa, and Hagar. It seems possible that Rachel, Leah, Bilha, and Zilpa got along better than Hagar and Sarah, and were a more united front. This Midrash emphasizes the differences between the two situations in the very aspect of similarity, i.e. women brought into a marriage by wives struggling with infertility.

Bilha and Zilpa were married as full wives, and their children were full and equal inheritors to their father, Yaakov. They may have started out as maidservants to Rachel and Leah, and they may have been daughters of Lavan from a pilegesh, but after they married Yaakov, they were on the same level as Rachel and Leah. Therefore, we can understand and draw on the strong Midrashic traditions that refers to our six matriarchs: Sarah, Rivkah, Rachel, Leah, Zilpah, and Bilhah.

 

Joshua Skootsky (SBM 2012, 2015) recently graduated Yeshiva University with a degree in Mathematics and still lives in Washington Heights.

Leave a comment

Filed under Alumni devar Torah, Uncategorized

Love, Power, and Religion

by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper

Fear of commitment is a real thing.  For men, perhaps even for women.  Perhaps even for the Master of the Universe, if it were possible to say such a thing? What would that even mean?

Fear of commitment can have two very different causes.

The conventional notion is that it reflects concern that things will turn out badly. Maybe s/he will grow bored of me, maybe s/he has hidden character flaws that I won’t be able to deal with, maybe s/he will really miss their freedom and be unable to make the necessary compromises and sacrifices.

Maybe I’m projecting, and the real risk is that I’ll grow bored, etc.

The less-realized cause is unwillingness to live with uncertainty. What if I spend my life with someone who never loved me as much as I love them? What if I never find out, but much of my happiness was based on an illusion?

This second kind of concern is the basis of many tragedies, in which one party keeps setting up tests of love for another to reassure themselves that they are truly loved. But love is not always pass-fail, not always predictable, and sometimes the exercise of demanding proof of love is a self-undoing process.

All this is made much more complicated when the relationship involves power. Does the side with power really love the other, or merely enjoy their dependence? Does the dependent side love the other more than instrumentally?

Telling someone you love them gives them power over you; they know that you are dependent on their affection. So telling someone you love them paradoxically makes it impossible to know with certainty that they truly love you.

The fraught dynamics of power and love are the basis of the narrative of Sefer Iyov.  G-d is confident of his relationship with Iyov, but Satan points out that he should not be: “Does Iyov fear G-d for nothing?”  Since G-d has given Iyov all his heart’s desire, it may be that Iyov’s relationship with G-d is purely instrumental. So Satan (k’b’yakhol) convinces G-d to make Iyov suffer, to test his love.

Documentary critics note that the poetic/philosophic heart of Sefer Iyov seems unrelated to its narrative frame.  The frame is about this test; the fifty chapters of dialogue between Iyov and his friends and ultimately G-d never mention the possibility of a test. They conclude that the frame and heart must have been written by different authors.

In his play A Masque of Reason, Robert Frost exposes the shallowness of this contention.  “It had to seem unmeaning to have meaning,” he writes. If Iyov ever considers the possibility of a test, then he might serve G-d only to receive the reward for passing, and so the test would prove nothing.

No one who has read Sefer Iyov can be tested to see whether they love G-d.  Unless the test involves taking something away that no reward could possibly replace, like an only beloved son born to a miraculously rejuvenated wife. At the Akeidah, G-d and Avraham test each other. Whoever commits first will never know for sure that they are loved. In the end, G-d spares Avraham the demonstration.  So Avraham learns that G-d does truly love him, and G-d once again cannot know if Avraham’s love is absolutely unconditional.

All this is a long winded introduction to Parshat Vayetze, and the relationship of Yaakov Avinu with G-d. Each of them makes regular statements of commitment that are hedged about with conditions, with Divine and Human “ifs,” as I’ve detailed in previous years’ divrei Torah.  Yaakov seeks to have a relationship with the G-d of his father Yitzchak, who was exempted from future tests by his participation in the Akeidah, even though he was not the one tested. G-d deflects him to the path of his grandfather Avraham.

One fascinating instance of this is G-d’s statement in Bereishis 28:15

וְהִנֵּ֨ה אָנֹכִ֜י עִמָּ֗ךְ

וּשְׁמַרְתִּ֙יךָ֙ בְּכֹ֣ל אֲשֶׁר־תֵּלֵ֔ךְ

וַהֲשִׁ֣בֹתִ֔יךָ אֶל־הָאֲדָמָ֖ה הַזֹּ֑את

כִּ֚י לֹ֣א אֶֽעֱזָבְךָ֔

עַ֚ד אֲשֶׁ֣ר אִם־עָשִׂ֔יתִי

אֵ֥ת אֲשֶׁר־דִּבַּ֖רְתִּי לָֽךְ׃

Behold I am with you

I will guard you in everything you go through

I will return you to this earth

Because I will not leave you

Until that I have done

What I spoke to/about you.

The obvious question is: But what about after G-d has done what he spoke?  Will He leave Yaakov then?

There is no obvious answer.  Sefat Emet suggests that G-d can only make absolute commitments to non-tzaddikim, whose behavior can be removed from the framework of immediate virtue/consequence. In other words, he can only make absolute commitments to those who do not love Him.  For His words about Yaakov to come true, however, Yaakov must become a tzaddik, and beloved.

The rishonim on the whole give more pedestrian answers.  Bekhor Shor, for example, writes:

יש “עד” שאין לו הפסק,

כמו מעתה ועד עולם (מיכה ד’:ז’).

אף כאן אינו אומר: ‘כשאעשה אעזבך’,

אלא: “כי לא אעזבך עד אשר אם עשיתי”, ולא משם ואילך.

There is a word “until” that does not imply a break

as in the verse “from now until forever” (Micah 4:7).

So too here, it does not say “When I do it I will leave you,”

but rather “because I will not leave you until I have done” – nor thereafter.

A different approach to the same end is offered by RaDaK:

כי לא אעזבך עד אשר אם עשיתי

אם כן, לא יעזבנו לעולם,

כי ההבטחה לו כל ימיו לעולם ולזרעו אחריו.

Because I will not leave you until I have done –

If that were so, God would not leave him ever!

because the promise was to him for all his days evermore and to his descendants after him

But the interpretation I focused on this year is that of Minchat Yehudah:

כי לא אעזבך

פרש”י ז”ל: המבקש לחם הוא נעזב,

שנ’ לא ראיתי צדיק נעזב וזרעו מבקש לחם.

וק’,

שהרי מצינו ר’ חנינא בן דוסא שלא הי’ לו אלא קב חרובין מערב שבת לערב שבת,

גם צדיקים הרבה שהיו עניים!?

וי”ל

ד”ראיתי” ר”ל זלזלתי,

כמו אל תראוני שאני שחרחורת,

וה”ק “לא ראיתי” =

לא נראה בעיני שיהא הצדיק נעזב ועני

כמו לעות אדם בריבו ה’ לא ראה.

ואע”ג שגלגל הוא החוזר בעולם

שצדיק נעזב כשנולד במזל עני.

Because I will not leave you –

Rashi explains that one who must seek bread is abandoned,

as Scripture writes For I have not seen a righteous person abandoned

But this is difficult

because we find that Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa had only a peck of carobs each week,

and many tzaddikim were poor?!

We can answer

that the meaning of I have not seen is “I have not disparaged,”

as when Scripture writes do not “see” me that I am swarthy

and this is the meaning of I have not seen

that it has not seemed proper to me for a tzaddik to be abandoned and poor

as Scripture writes to cause injustice to a man in his grievance Hashem never “saw”

even though it is a wheel that keeps turning round in the world

so that the tzaddik is abandoned when born under an astrological indication of poverty.

Minchat Yehudah argues that G-d’s promise to Yaakov is that He will empathize with his misfortunes, not that He will prevent them. In other words, He will truly love him, and hope to be loved in return, even while surrendering His capacity to utterly control Yaakov’s life.  Therefore, “until” cannot be setting an endpoint, because love is not conditional; G-d will love Yaakov for as long as it takes, and eventually what He promised will come true. A core drama of the rest of Sefer Bereishis is whether Yaakov can acknowledge G-d’s love without demanding the exercise of His power.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Thanksgiving, Jewish Identity, and Antisemitism

by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper

Toldot is an utterly terrifying parshah for parents.  Yitzchak and Rivkah have two sons. They start fighting in the womb! Their fights – in the womb! – are about both self-interest (who comes out first) and values (idolatry or Torah). Character is determined and destiny. There was nothing Yitzchak and Rivkah could have done to make Esav turn out better, or to prevent eternal fraternal enmity.

Toldot is an utterly terrifying parshah for parents. Yitzchak and Rivkah have two sons. They share a genetic heritage, and an environment – they had the same potential. They fought – but all male siblings fight, especially twins.  They had different strengths and weaknesses – like all human beings. But a series of parenting errors put and kept Esav on the wrong path, and cemented childhood roughhousing into adult hatred.

Toldot is an utterly terrifying parshah for parents. Yitzchak and Rivkah have two sons, and each of them grows up obedient and cooperative. Suddenly, at bar mitzvah (according to Midrash Lekach Tov) –

ויגדלו הנערים –

ר’ פנחס בשם ר’ לוי אמר:

עשו ויעקב דומים לעצבונית והדס שהיו גדלין זה על גב זה

וכיון שהגדילו – זה נתן ריחו וזה חוחיו.

כך

כל י”ג שנה – לא היו ניכרין מעשיהן

כיון שהגדילו – ניכרין מעשיהן,

The boys matured –

Rabbi Pinchas said in the name of Rabbi Levi:

Esav and Yaakov are similar to an itzbonit and a hadasthat grew one on top of the other

Once they matured, this one gave forth its perfume, and this one its thorns.

So too

For the first thirteen years – Esav and Yaakov’s deeds were not distinguishable

Once they matured – their deeds were distinguishable

This one a man of simplicity, this one a skilled predator.

Yet even this striking image is tinged with ambivalence, at least for modern readers.  Jastrow translates itzbonit as wild rose – did Esav still have flowers? (but see also Yeshayah 55:13). In the folk ballad Barbara Allen, the hard-hearted eponym realizes too late, after Sweet William dies of lovesickness for her, that she loved him as well, and has herself buried beside him. A perfumed flower grows out of his grave, a thornbush out of his, but “in the end they formed/ a true lover’s knot/ and the rose grew ‘round/ the briar” (lyrics as sung by Joan Baez).  So, too, Yitzchak and Yishmael apparently reconcile at Avraham’s funeral. Is it too much to hope for Yaakov and Esav to do the same?  (Maybe, and maybe not – that is a tale for another parshah.)

Toldot is an utterly terrifying parshah for high school Torah teachers.  Avraham was buried b’seivah tovah = in goodly old age – this means that Esav did not begin to sin in Avraham’s lifetime.  Avraham died at 175.  He had Yitzchak at 100, which means that Yitzchak was 75.  Yitzchak had Yaakov and Esav when he was 60 – so they must have been 15 at Avraham’s death, which means that Esav began sinning two years before Avraham’s death!  The answer is that Esav hid his sins for the first two years, while Avraham was alive. He was indistinguishable from Yaakov.

When I was Orthodox Rabbinic Adviser at Harvard Hillel, parents or teachers would sometimes bemoan the corrupting influence of the secular campus on their previously innocent children.  I don’t deny that the secular campus, like very other environment, can be corrupting.  But I also taught high school, and high school students who seemed to all the world like the very model of day school success would confide in me that they had no plans to be frum on campus. Sometimes they would “play frum” when their parents came to visit, but the charade generally had to end sometime.

They didn’t confide in all of their Torah teachers.  As the Keeper says to Captain Kirk: “Captain Pike has an illusion, and you have reality.  May your way be as pleasant” (Star Trek, TOS, The Menagerie Part II).

There is another explanation of the chronological discrepancy. Minchat Yehudah (a commentary by the Tosafist R. Yehudah ben El’azar, available on www.alhatorah.org) reports that ריב”א (presumably Rabbi Yitzchak ben Asher HaLevi) found in a midrash that “Yitzchak was hidden away in the Garden of Eden for two years in order to heal from the incision where his father began to slaughter him.”  He suggests that those two years were a sort of suspended animation – like Noach on the Ark! – and  did not count as part of Yitzchak’s life, so Esav and Yaakov were really born 62 years after his own birth, and Avraham died at their bar mitzvah.

I had not previously seen this midrash. It reminded me immediately of Rashi’s explanation of the apparent redundancy of the angel’s cease-and-desist order to Avraham: “Do not send your hand forth against the lad, and don’t cause him an injury.”  Rashi explains that after the first command, Avraham asked whether he could at the very least draw a drop of blood, so the angel banned even injury.

Shalom Speigel’s The Last Trial made famous the crusade-era interpretation in which Avraham in fact slaughters Yitzchak, G-d resurrects him, and the angel succeeds only in preventing the second sacrifice. In other words, Avraham obeyed the second command but not the first.  Minchat Yehudah’s midrash seems to have Avraham obeying the first command – “Don’t slaughter” – but not the second.

Minchat Yehudah does not tell us whether the bacta tanks of Eden completely renewed Yitzchak’s skin. I suspect that he became whole psychologically – not the same as before, but whole – but that he always had a physical scar, and that Yaakov and Esav knew full well where the scar had come from.

What do such children grow up thinking? Some of them are genuinely inspired by both the willingness to sacrifice and to be sacrificed. These are the children of Navaredok – even before the Shoah, in the early Soviet Union – who could endure anything for the sake of keeping Torah alive under oppression. It is a very powerful message, but possibly one that requires continued oppression, or the live memory of oppression, or at least belief in the inevitability of oppression  to be effective.

When Avraham dies, Esav and Yaakov have only Yitzchak’s experience left. They know what they are giving up for Judaism, but Esav no longer feels that the sacrifices are motivated by idealism, let alone justified by idealism.  What kept Esav frum was his connection to Avraham, and let’s be honest – perhaps also fear of Avraham. The possibility that one will be sacrificed tomorrow concentrates the mind wonderfully.  Esav knew that Yitzchak would never be able to punish – to inflict any sort of harm on him – for the sake of religion.

Yaakov connected to Rivkah. Rivkah was a baalat teshuvah – she left with Eliezer voluntarily, against her family’s will, and in rebellion against the worst parts of their culture. She is attracted and overwhelmed from the start by Yitzchak’s capacity for religious experience. No one has ever succeeded in imposing anything on her.

Rivkah never got through to Esav.  That doesn’t mean that his going astray was inevitable – it just meant that she needed help. But to give her that help, someone had to understand in time that Esav’s conformity was shallow, rooted in fear and personality, and find a way for him to develop an autonomous connection to Torah. Too often, I suspect, his teachers, with the best of intentions, tried instead to set themselves up as substitutes for Avraham. To be fair, they probably had success with many similar students. Esav married at 40.  If only Avraham had lived another 27 years, Esav might never have broken away.

Yaakov teaches us that Jewish identity can thrive without being rooted in the expectation of oppression. We have not had many opportunities to try the experiment. This Thanksgiving is a time for American Jews to reflect with gratitude on the beauty and fragility of our experience. Let us resolve to both preserve it and deserve it.

Leave a comment

Filed under Weekly Devar Torah

Are We Living in a Greek Tragedy?

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Adena Morgan

It is a familiar formula from Greek mythology. A prophecy is given to a family that their child will bring doom and destruction. They try to prevent it, but in doing so cause the prophecy to be fulfilled, and what they feared does indeed come to pass. The moral is the inexorable nature of fate. What is determined to happen cannot be avoided.

At first glance this week’s Parsha turns this formula on its head. A mother is given a prophecy that both of her sons will be the patriarchs of different nations and that the older will be subservient to the younger. She acts to bring it about, and although in doing so deceives her husband and older son, she is ultimately successful. The younger son receives the father’s blessing of dominance intended for the elder. This is the complete opposite of the Greek formula, as the mother works to fulfill the prophecy rather than prevent it.

The traditional Jewish understanding of these events is that Rivkah, the mother, is heroic in her efforts to secure the primacy of her younger son, Yaakov, whose descendants still benefit from her actions today. Eisav, the older son, was undeserving of this blessing, as he is evil and scorns his special status as the firstborn of his generation, meant to carry on the mission of Avraham. The father, Yitzchak did not realize the true nature of Eisav, for if he had, he would never have even considered choosing him over Yaakov.

However, there are several parts of the text that challenge this narrative. For someone who is rejected from being part of the Jewish story as unworthy, the Torah spends an inordinate amount of space describing Eisav’s pain and internal monologue. And for someone who should be happy that the family project will continue into the next generation ,Yitzchak is instead very upset. For the rest of his life Yaakov is faced with scenarios in which he is deceived in a similar manner, which can be seen as a rebuke for his actions here. Additionally, Yitzchak receives prophecy after the birth of his sons. If it is preordained by God that his older son be subservient to the younger, why isn’t this explained to him the way it was to Rivkah? Instead, he is told only that his descendants will be numerous and inherit the land promised to Avraham. There is no mention of a hierarchy between Yitzchak’s sons or that only one of them will be chosen to receive the blessings given to Avraham. Are these details indicating that all is not well with what happened? Is it possible that this episode is indeed a tragedy after all?

Let us consider what could have happened if the mother hadn’t heard the prophecy and made her younger son impersonate the older. The couple, barren for many years, would have rejoiced at the birth of two sons into the chosen family, double the amount of the previous generation. Naturally, one of them would need to be the leader of the family and he would have “ruled” over his brother. It appears the father wanted this to be the older son as the bechor and either did not know about the sale or did not care. Both sons’ families could have lived in the land promised to Avraham and help fulfill the prophecy about the number of Avraham’s progeny by begetting many children. 

But, as we know, this did not happen. The younger brother steals the blessing meant for the elder, creating a rift in the family. Although the older brother receives a consolation blessing, it ensures a cycle of continuous competition between the two sides of the family. This brings us back to the Greeks; fate is predetermined and humans are only left to decide if they are willing or unwilling to live according to its dictates.

Yet, this is not the end of the story. Time passes and the brothers are able to reconcile when the younger voluntarily subordinates himself to the elder. This seems to be a reversal of the prophecy. However, instead it is a different interpretation as it is clear that the younger son still maintains spiritual supremacy. While the Greek notion of fate is that it is unchanging and binding, the Torah teaches the idea that there is no single way to live out one’s destiny. The choices humans make result in changes to their futures.

Although the brothers later separate, they do so as friends, and each settles in different parts of the land promised to their grandfather. For the time being the cycle of dominance and suppression is broken and the brothers are able to coexist peacefully for many generations.  As the inheritors of the destiny spoken about in the Parsha we too have the opportunity to choose how it will unfold. We can view our relationships with other peoples in terms of dominance and suppression and live in endless cycles of violence. But that is not the only option. For as we learn from Yaakov it is possible to live with others in mutual prosperity. For at the end of the day, would you rather be living in a Greek tragedy or forging your own destiny?
Adena Morgan (SBM ’11, ’13) lives in Jerusalem where she is a member of the first cohort in Midreshet Lindenbaum’s new Ga”D program.

Leave a comment

Filed under Alumni devar Torah, Uncategorized

Can One Ever Really Ask an Eved for a Favor?

by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper

As a grandstudent of Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, I see human autonomy as a fundamental religious good and goal.  I am therefore instinctively opposed to human relationships which involve one person subordinating their will to another.

As a Jew and as an American, and as someone heartily sick of “Downton Abbey,” I see slavery as an evil, and permanent servitude as morally problematic.

All this makes the relationship between Avraham and his “eved” challenging reading for me, whether eved means chattel slave or some less severe servile relationship.  So I present below what hope is a useful model of reading morally challenging texts with integrity.

Maybe the Ribono shel Olam shares my qualms about avdut? Every phrase in the Torah’s report of the relationship in 24:2 can be read as reflecting and respond to this discomfort.  Let’s read the whole verse, then interpret it phrase by phrase:

וַיֹּ֣אמֶר אַבְרָהָ֗ם

אֶל־עַבְדּוֹ֙

זְקַ֣ן בֵּית֔וֹ

הַמֹּשֵׁ֖ל בְּכׇל־אֲשֶׁר־ל֑וֹ

שִֽׂים־נָ֥א

יָדְךָ֖ תַּ֥חַת יְרֵכִֽי׃

Avraham said

to his eved

the zakein of his house

who ruled over all that was his:

Place, please,

your hand under my thigh

a.

Avraham is described as vayomer (=speaking) to his eved, not vayetzav ­(=commanding) or even vayidaber (=speaking dominantly).  The problem is that in a hierarchy, a superior’s request for a favor will often be understood as a command, and often is a command. Condescension (in the original positive sense of the term) can be very helpful in preserving an underling’s dignity, but doesn’t change the underlying power dynamic. Any request to an eved is a command.

b.

But the Torah describes this eved as z’kan beito.  A zakein can be either an old person, or else someone with social authority.

Chizkuni understands it as referring purely to age; Avraham picked a servant who could be trusted not to molest the woman while bringing her back for Yitzchak.  Bekhor Shor, however, translates z’kan beito as “who had aged in his house,” meaning that the relationship was longstanding and therefore Avraham trusted him.

Malbim takes the opposite approach, understanding z’kan beito as “sage of the house,” one whose advice was followed in all matters. Saadia Gaon similarly understands it to refer to knowledge of social norms.

Avraham is described as zakein in the previous verse, presumably meaning old, but it’s not clear whether z’kan beito is intended to create a parallel or a contrast. Rav Hirsch argues that it does both at once; the eveds wisdom was a reflection of Avraham’s, and derived from being raised in Avraham’s house.

A Midrash Aggadah may go further. It understands z’kan as a contraction of ziv okinin, meaning that the eved’s face looked just like Avraham’s.  This is often a motif for expressing identity.

c.

The eved is not only the zkan of Avraham’s house; he is also hamoshel bekhol asher lo, the ruler over all that was his.

Moshel/Ruler” seems more antonymic than descriptive of an eved.  A similar tension is resolved in the Yosef story when the master reasserts his power with regard to his wife; a parallel reading here would fit with Chizkuni above, that the eved would return to pure subordination if he mistreated Yitzchak’s future wife.  Torah Temimah similarly cites a responsum of Rosh as using this verse as evidence that the legal meaning of a contract declaring someone “master of all I possess” is revokable power of attorney and not gift.

However, some interpreters evade this tension by reading the eved as master of everything that was his own, not of everything that was Avraham’s.  For example, Keli Yakar understands the phrase to mean that the eved mastered his own possessions rather than being mastered by them and altering his lifestyle to protect and preserve them.

Yoma 28b resolves the tension by transposing “all that was his” to the realm of abstraction.  The eved was moshel betorat rabbo, ruler of his master’s Torah. Being moshel is stripped of any political or social implications, and the Torah he “rules” still belongs to his temporal master and teacher.

Bereshit Rabbah combines these approaches.

“המושל בכל אשר לו”  –

שהיה שליט ביצרו כמותו,

Who rules over all that was his –

Meaning that he had control over his yetzer just like Avraham.

The eved was moshel beyitzro, master of his own evil inclination. This interpretation should be read in contrast rather than as parallel to Chizkuni.  Chizkuni portrays the eved as reliable because he has aged beyond desire; this is no character reference.  This midrash portrays him as virtuous and capable of resisting temptation.  Moreover, it explicitly establishes him as Avraham’s equal.

d.

Finally Avraham qualified the opening verb of his request with the word na (=please). It seems that Avraham is trying his best not to address the eved as an eved.  All the commentators recognize that the eved expresses his subordination by obeying and placing his hand where Avraham asks. Ibn Caspi graphically describes the posture as “as if his hands are chained under the seat of the person he is swearing to.” Ralbag may subtly add a crucial nuance:

והנה אמר אברהם אל עבדו

שעמד בביתו ימים רבים וגדל עימו,

אשר השליטו אברהם על כל אשר לו,

שישׂים ידו תחת ירכו

להורות שידו היא תחת רשותו,

Avraham said to his eved

who had been in his house many years, and who had grown up with him,

whom Avraham had given control over all that was his,

that he should place his hand under his thigh

to demonstrate that his hand was under his authority

In 47:29, Yaakov similarly says na when making the same request to Yosef. Public demonstrations of subordination are necessary only when no subordination is evident. Private demonstrations of subordination are necessary when subordination is voluntary.  By saying na in private, Avraham is indicating that his prior grants of autonomy to Eliezer were genuine deserved, and he has the right to refuse to put Avraham’s will before his own. Eliezer – not without hesitation, for a variety of possible motives – agrees.

It seems plausible to me that the verse’s description of the eved is from Avraham’s point of view.  If that is so, and we take all the autonomy-friendly options for each phrase, the verse means that Avraham acknowledged the eved’s autonomy by speaking rather than commanding; by saying please; by allowing him authority over the rest of the household, or over the estate; by teaching him all he knew; and by recognizing him as a spiritual equal.

Some of these options seem mutually exclusive, and certainly some are more convincing textually than others.  My contention is that collectively they weave a harmonic around the verse’s tune that make it clear that the Torah here is not baldly describing or endorsing the culturally standard eved-master relationship.

Faith in Torah compels the belief that there is a morally acceptable way of reading the Torah’s narratives.  It does not guarantee that we will find that reading, and if we look for shortcuts, we’ll end up cutting the Torah to fit our measure.  But I think it is necessary to search, and fair to treat moral comfort as a “plus factor” when choosing among plausible interpretations.

Leave a comment

Filed under Weekly Devar Torah