Any Dream Will Do

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Pnina Grossman

In the story of Yosef and his brothers, dreams cast a long shadow. These dreams are also a completely new type of dream from what we have previously seen in Sefer Breishit. Up to this point, the Torah has only mentioned dreams as a form of communication. If a dream came up, it was because G-d was talking to someone inside the dream (see for example בראשית כ:ג, לא:כד). Suddenly, we hear about the nonsensical visions that all types of people are having on various nights – stars and sheaves, vines and birds, cows and wheat doing unnatural things with no omniscient presence explaining why.

Divine communication itself also seems to be in short stock – from the time Yaakov settles in Canaan, we do not see G-d communicating directly with him (or anyone) until Yaakov is on his way down to Egypt to reunite with Yosef. G-d is present – He helps Yosef succeed in Egypt and punishes Yehuda’s two wicked sons. However, we do not see Him tell Yosef the explanation of Pharoh’s dreams. Nor does He tell Yehuda that his sons died for their own sins, not the bad luck of his daughter-in-law. In contrast with Yaakov’s exit from Lavan’s house, it seems that Yaakov must make his own decision about when to send his sons to get food in Egypt during the famine.

Instead of people in this story being told what to do or what any end goals are, they seem to be subtly led in a certain direction, oftentimes by these outrageous dreams. The dream of the Sar HaMashkim leads to Yosef standing before Pharoh, interpreting his dream, which, in turn, leads to the absurd situation of a foreign prisoner and ex-slave becoming the second-in-command of a powerful nation. Arguably, Yosef’s own dreams at the beginning of the story exacerbate his own brothers’ jealousy and resentment of him, leading him to end up in Egypt. Note that while plotting to kill him, Yosef’s brothers disdainfully call him “בעל החלומות,” “the master of dreams.”

This end goal is one that would be surprising to anyone not familiar with the previous stories, or those coming after. Yaakov and his sons must end up in Egypt. This is clear from the upcoming Exodus story, but also from the still looming promise that G-d gave to Avraham:

וַיֹּ֣אמֶר לְאַבְרָ֗ם יָדֹ֨עַ תֵּדַ֜ע כִּי־גֵ֣ר ׀ יִהְיֶ֣ה זַרְעֲךָ֗ בְּאֶ֙רֶץ֙ לֹ֣א לָהֶ֔ם וַעֲבָד֖וּם וְעִנּ֣וּ אֹתָ֑ם אַרְבַּ֥ע מֵא֖וֹת שָׁנָֽה׃ וְגַ֧ם אֶת־הַגּ֛וֹי אֲשֶׁ֥ר יַעֲבֹ֖דוּ דָּ֣ן אָנֹ֑כִי וְאַחֲרֵי־כֵ֥ן יֵצְא֖וּ בִּרְכֻ֥שׁ גָּדֽוֹל׃ וְאַתָּ֛ה תָּב֥וֹא אֶל־אֲבֹתֶ֖יךָ בְּשָׁל֑וֹם תִּקָּבֵ֖ר בְּשֵׂיבָ֥ה טוֹבָֽה׃ וְד֥וֹר רְבִיעִ֖י יָשׁ֣וּבוּ הֵ֑נָּה כִּ֧י לֹא־שָׁלֵ֛ם עֲוֺ֥ן הָאֱמֹרִ֖י עַד־הֵֽנָּה׃ (בראשית טו:יג-טז)

And He said to Abram, “Know well that your offspring shall be strangers in a land not theirs, and they shall be enslaved and oppressed four hundred years; but I will execute judgment on the nation they shall serve, and in the end they shall go free with great wealth. As for you, You shall go to your fathers in peace; You shall be buried at a ripe old age. And they shall return here in the fourth generation, for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete.” (Translation from Sefaria)

The first time we do see G-d communicate directly with Yaakov again, it is to tell him “אַל־תִּירָא֙ מֵרְדָ֣ה מִצְרַ֔יְמָה כִּֽי־לְג֥וֹי גָּד֖וֹל אֲשִֽׂימְךָ֥ שָֽׁם׃” “Fear not to go down to Egypt, for I will make you there into a great nation” (בראשית מו:ג). Chizkuni points out, “אין אומרים אל תירא אלא למי שהוא מתיירא” “you only say ‘fear not’ to someone who is afraid.” Yaakov’s fear, according to the Chizkuni, was that his going to Egypt would precipitate the coming enslavement of his children there. In other words, a justified fear, but G-d still reassures Yaakov

באתי לך להבטיחך אם קרבו ימי שעבוד ועינוי גם קרבה הברכה שברכתי את זקנך ואעשך לגוי גדול. היינו כי לגוי גדול אשימך שם. (חזקוני על בראשית מו:ג)

I have come to you to promise you, if the days of enslavement and suffering are drawing close, the days of the blessing that I blessed your ancestors with ‘and I will make you a great nation’ are also drawing close. This is ‘for I will make you there into a great nation’

R Elhanan Samet points out that there is a certain irony to G-d reassurance as interpreted by the Chizkuni. By promising that Yaakov will become a great nation in Egypt, He is also confirming Yaakov’s worst fears, that, indeed, Yaakov’s children will now be going down to Egypt for an amount of time where they could become a great nation. This is all but assuring that prophecy G-d gave to Avraham about his children being enslaved will be precipitated by the coming journey. G-d softens the blow by telling Yaakov that his descendants will make it through Egypt and talking about Yaakov’s personal reunification with his beloved son, but the dreaded fate of Yaakov’s children remains unchanged.

The promise that G-d made to Avraham itself came in the form of a dream of sorts, although the word חלום is not used, instead it is described as “וַיְהִ֤י הַשֶּׁ֙מֶשׁ֙ לָב֔וֹא וְתַרְדֵּמָ֖ה נָפְלָ֣ה עַל־אַבְרָ֑ם” “As the sun was about to set, a deep sleep fell upon Abram” (בראשית טו:יב; While highly anachronistic, it is worth noting that the same term is used when G-d puts Adam to sleep to effectively perform surgery on him in בראשית ב:כא). This could maybe also be seen as a softening, G-d placing Avraham in an almost anesthetized state to deliver the hard news about what his descendants will have to go through before they can be a nation. Once delivered, this prophecy was not repeated within the text to Yitzchak or to Yaakov. Perhaps the silence surrounding this decree also becomes the silence surrounding the events that lead up to its ultimate fulfillment. Right before G-d appears to Moshe, the Torah tells us ” וַיַּ֥רְא אֱלֹהִ֖ים אֶת־בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל וַיֵּ֖דַע אֱלֹהִֽים” “G-d looked upon the Israelites, and G-d took notice of them” (שמות ב:כה). Rashi comments on this that “נָתַן עֲלֵיהֶם לֵב וְלֹא הֶעֱלִים עֵינָיו” “He directed His heart to them and did not hide His eyes from them.” Until this point, throughout all of the slavery in Egypt, G-d had to hide His eyes from what was happening to His people. Maybe, He had to hide some of Himself from what led them there as well.

Pnina Grossman is a former Sharon native and a 2012 SBM almuna. She now lives in Israel.


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Yosef Was Not Modern Orthodox, or: The Art of Moral Politics

by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper

Yosef was not a Modern Orthodox Jew, or at least not the kind of Modern Orthodox Jew I aspire to be. He lived a bifurcated rather than an integrated life, with different names for different environments, and constantly (at best) balancing his own values against the interests of his masters.

Those were the good times. When the brothers show up in Egypt, Yosef faces the harder challenge of dual loyalties. Now he has to balance not only values against interests, but interests against interests. His testing of his brothers may be an understandable expression of his hope that they are not worthy of deep loyalty, and therefore unlikely to force him into hard and deeply uncomfortable positions. A similar dynamic may explain some aspects of American Jews’ relationship with the State of Israel.

Yehudah’s task in the monologue that opens Parashat VaYigash is to bring Yosef to the point where he is willing to confront that challenge. Bereishis Rabbah 93:4 offers two powerful, beautiful, and complementary metaphors to explain how Yehudah accomplishes this.

A. Scripture writes (Proverbs 20): “Deep waters are the eitzah in the heart of man, but a man of tevunah can draw it up” –
This can be compared to a deep well of cool water, with its waters cool and clear, from which no one could drink. A man came and tied rope to rope and string to string and thread to thread, drew water up from it, and drank.
Then everyone began to draw and drink.
So too – Yehudah did not leave off responding to Yosef, matter after matter, until he was “omeid al libo.”

B. Scripture writes (Proverbs 25) “Golden apples in silver filigree – a word spoken al ofanav” –
Just as a wheel (ofan) shows a face in all directions, so too the words of Yehudah were nir’im lekhol tzad when he spoke with Yosef.

The first metaphor – which the rabbis elsewhere use reflexively, to describe the role of metaphors in teaching philosophy – teaches that Yehudah’s words must be read as psychologically sequential, as leading Yosef step-by-step through the emotional stages that will enable him to acknowledge his family.

The second metaphor – here I will be reflexive – can itself be understood in multiple ways.

One meaning, offered by R. Chiyya bar Abba (B.R. 93:6), is that Yehudah conveyed different emotional content to different audiences simultaneously.

א”ר חייא בר אבא:
כל הדברים שאת קורא שדיבר יהודה ליוסף בפני אחיו עד שאת מגיע “ולא יכול יוסף להתאפק”, היה בהם פיוס ליוסף, ופיוס לאחיו, ופיוס לבנימין:

Said R. Chiyya bar Abba:
All the words you read that Yehudah spoke to Yosef before his brothers up until “Yosef could not etc.”included appeasement toward Yosef, toward his brothers, and toward Binyamin:

פיוס ליוסף,
לומר ראו היך הוא נותן נפשו על בניה של רחל, פיוס לאחיו,
לומר ראו היאך הוא נותן נפשו על אחיו,
פיוס לבנימין,
אמר לו כשם שנתתי נפשי עליך, כך אני נותן נפשי על אחיך,

toward Yosef:
See how I offer my life for a son of Rachel;
toward his brothers:
see how he offers his life for his brothers;
toward Binyamin:
just as I offer my life for you, so too I (?would?) offer my life for your brother(s?)

A second meaning, offered by Rashi, is that Yehudah conveyed a range of possible meanings to Yosef simultaneously.

דבר באזני אדני- יכנסו דברי באזניך:
ואל יחר אפך- מכאן אתה למד שדבר אליו קשות:
כי כמוך כפרעה–
א.חשוב אתה בעיני כמלך.
זה פשוטו.
סופך ללקות עליו בצרעת,
כמו שלקה פרעה על ידי זקנתי שרה על לילה אחת שעכבה.
ג.דבר אחר:
מה פרעה גוזר ואינו מקיים, מבטיח ואינו עושה, אף אתה כן –
וכי זו היא שימת עין שאמרת לשום עינך עליו?!
ד.דבר אחר:
“כי כמוך כפרעה” –
אם תקניטני, אהרוג אותך ואת אדוניך:

“A word in my master’s ears” – may my words enter your ears
“and let your wrath not flare”- from here you learn that he spoke harsh things to him
“for you and Pharaoh are alike” –
a. I regard you as equal to a king.
This is its pshat.
b. But its midrash is:
You will eventually be plagued with tzora’at over him,
just as Pharaoh was plagued with tzora’at regarding his foremother Sarah for the one night he detained her
c. Another interpretation:
Just as Pharaoh decrees but does not fulfill, promised but does not act, so too you –
is this the ‘placing of eyes on’ that you intended when saying ‘I will place my eyes on him’?
d. Another interpretation:
“For you and Pharaoh are alike” –
if you antagonize me, I will kill you and your master

Each of these are necessary tactics. Yehudah cannot himself expose Yosef, lest Yosef respond defensively and seek to demonstrate his Egyptian loyalty by rejecting his brothers. Nor can he risk having the rest of the brothers abandon Binyamin – and thereby let Yosef justify abandoning all of them– or even worse, having Binyamin turn on the brothers.

At the same time, Yehudah has to give Yosef a motive for changing. Yosef has known all along who the brothers are, and not dropped the charade that they are strangers, so Yehudah has to find the right combination of carrots and sticks to enable Yosef to find the courage to expose himself.

What encourages Yehudah, I suggest, is that Yosef has already exposed himself to at least one Egyptian. Somebody had to plant the cup in Binyamin’s bag (as Bekhor Shor notes, with Ramban following in his wake), and that someone both makes Yosef vulnerable and demonstrates that at least in part he wants that vulnerability.

The art of moral politics, and the aim of moral political rhetoric, is often to get people to act in accordance with what they already believe but cannot find the courage to act on. Sometimes that requires jettisoning an alluring but deceptive complexity for the sake of moral clarity – this was the teshuvah-process of Yehudah, and his hardwon clarity enables him to bring all his powers to bear on the task of winning over Yosef. Sometimes, as for Yosef here, it requires facing complexity at the expense of an alluring but disingenuous clarity.

Modern Orthodoxy in America faces both these challenges; may we, as we read Yehudah’s words and Yosef’s reaction, be inspired to meet both with courage and integrity.

This Dvar Torah was originally published in 2013.

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Chanukkah, Miracles, and Zionism

by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper

Chanukkah commemorates events that took place during the period of the Second Temple.  But which events?  There are at least four possibilities.  One, supported by the letter of some versions of the Al Hanisim prayer for Chanukkah, focuses on the military victory of the Hasmoneans.  A second focuses on the restoration of Jewish sovereignty that resulted from that victory.  A third, supported by the structure of that prayer and by the name of the holiday, focuses on the renewal of the Temple.  A fourth focuses on the miracle of the long-lasting oil mentioned in the Talmud.

Each of these possibilities seems hopelessly outdated as the basis for a contemporary celebration.  The Hasmonean victory has no ongoing political consequences; a century later, Judea became a Roman province, and eventually we were exiled from Judea.  The Temple was destroyed and remains a ruin.  The oil-miracle had no clear significance other than indicating that G-d was responsible for the victory and/or rededication.  So why do we still celebrate Chanukkah?

This is not a new question.  The irrelevance and historical insignificance of Chanukkah was discussed more than a thousand years ago in the Talmud (Rosh Hashannah 18a-b).

Sometime during the Second Temple period, a work ironically called Megillat Taanit (=The Scroll of Fasting) began serving as a record of all days on which Jews were forbidden to fast. The Talmud records a dispute among the first generations of Amoraim as to whether this prohibition remained in force: Rav and Rabbi Chanina said no, but Rabbi Yochanan and Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said yes. Rav Kehana then challenges the position that it is no longer binding:


וגזרו תענית בחנוכה בלוד,

וירד רבי אליעזר ורחץ, ורבי יהושע וסיפר,

ואמרו להם: צאו והתענו על מה שהתעניתם.

A factual narrative:
They once decreed a fast on Chanukkah in Lod.
Rabbi Eliezer went down to bathe, and Rabbi Yehoshua had his hair cut
and (Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Yehoshua said to them:
Go out and fast (to atone) for having fasted.

The Talmud at this point sees Chanukkah as a perfectly ordinary Second Temple nonfast day, and takes the position of Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Yehoshua as dispositive (the end of the sugya acknowledges that both sides of the controversy had standing).  So how could Rav and Rabbi Chanina deny that all the other nonfast days remained in force?

אמר רב יוסף:

שאני חנוכה, דאיכא מצוה.

אמר ליה אביי:

ותיבטיל איהי ותיבטל מצותה!?

Said Rav Yosef:
Chanukkah is different, because it has an (associated) mitzvah.
Abayay said to him:
So let it and its mitzvah be nullified!?

Rav Yosef initially distinguishes Chanukkah on the grounds that it had a ritual, presumably candle-lighting. Abbaya understands him to be arguing that rituals have greater legal inertia than a proscription against fasting. He finds the claim absurd; why should rituals survive their rationale?!

אלא אמר רב יוסף:

שאני חנוכה, דמיפרסם ניסא

Rather, Rav Yosef said:

Chanukkah is different, because mfrsm miracle.

So the Talmud reinterprets Rav Yosef, or else Rav Yosef changes his mind.  It matters which.  If Rav Yosef changed his mind, it turns out that ritual per se is not relevant; Chanukkah survives because of something intrinsic about the day.  But if the Talmud is reinterpreting his earlier statement, then it is the combination of ritual and meaning that endures.

The grammar of mfrsm is also ambiguous.  Does it mean that the miracle was already widely known, and therefore the day did not lapse, or that the day should not be allowed to lapse, because it serves the purpose of publicizing the miracle?

Rashi takes a radical third approach:

 כבר הוא גלוי לכל ישראל

על ידי שנהגו בו המצות,

והחזיקו בו כשל תורה,

ולא נכון לבטלו.

Since the miracle is already “in the open” to all Israel
via their performance of the mitzvot (plural!)
and they grasped it as if it were Biblical,
so it is not proper to nullify it.

According to Rashi, the Rabbis did not find Chanukkah’s message more enduring than those of other Second Temple celebrations, nor did they grant rituals intrinsic halakhic inertia. Rather, the ritual served to spread the message, and the combination of medium and message embedded itself so deeply in popular culture that it would be improper – perhaps deeply unwise – to seek to nullify it.

Chanukkah thus becomes a parade example of bottom-up halakhic influence. The remaining question is whether the Rabbis were simply indifferent to the day, or whether Chanukkah’s popularity bothered them, because they were actively opposed to the continuation of its message in Exile.  If the latter is the case, might they have sought to affect its meaning if they could not prevent its practice?

Rashi does not identify the miracle he is referring to, but he makes clear that for the Rabbis, Chanukkah survives not in order to publicize the miracle, but rather because it has already been publicized.

A different impression emerges from our edition of Rambam Laws of Chanukkah Chapter 3:

During the Second Temple, when Greece had dominion,
they imposed decrees on Israel, and nullified their religion, and did not permit them to engage in Torah and mitzvot,
they laid hands on their money and their daughters
they entered the Heikhal and breached it and defiled the things that must be tahor
Israel suffered much from them, and they tormented them greatly
Until Hashem the G-d of our ancestors had mercy on them and saved us from them and rescued them
so that the Hasmonean High Priests were victorious and killed them and saved Israel from them
They appointed kings from among the priests
and Jewish monarchy/sovereignty returned for more than 200 years until the Second Destruction
When Israel triumphed over their enemies and destroyed them – it was the 25th of Kislev
They entered the Heikhal but found only once cruse of tahor oil,
which only contained enough to light for one day
but they lit the lights of the array from it for eight days, until they pressed olives and produced tahor oil.
Because of this
the Sages of that generation established that these eight days, beginning on Kislev 25,
would be days of joy and praise
and we light the nerot on each of those eight nights at the entrances of the houses

להראות ולגלות הנס . . .

in order to demonstrate and put “in the open” the miracle.

Rambam does not use the word miracle anywhere in his retelling of the Chanukkah story, so we cannot tell for certain which miracle he thinks our lighting commemorates. However, his narrative clearly focuses on the return of sovereignty as the core of Chanukkah. Moreover, his concluding phrase seems clearly drawn from Rav Yosef, which indicates strongly that he sees Chanukkah as surviving in order to publicize the miracle.

However, Raphi Ozarowski pointed out to me that the phrase “In order to demonstrate and put in the open the miracle” is absent in the first edition of the Rambam and a key manuscript.  That suggests that Rambam saw Chanukkah as surviving purely because of its underlying message, and perhaps tried to diminish the importance of the miraculous to that message – so much so that a later copyist felt impelled to insert a sentence reintroducing the miraculous.

Unlike Rashi, Rambam does not attribute Chanukkah’s survival to populist resistance.  Rather, he presents it as a Rabbinic decree whose rationale never lost relevance.  It is tempting to suggest that the hypothetical later copyist represents a different kind of successful resistance.

But the resistances to Rashi and Rambam might cut in opposite ways.  For Rashi, it might be that the people refused to accommodate themselves to the condition of Exile, and kept the Chanukkah lights burning in order to keep their non-explicitly-miraculous (=non-Messianic?) Zionist dreams alive – whereas the resistance to Rambam rejected the possibility of non-explicitly-miraculous Zionism.

The Rabbis discuss whether in Messianic times there will still be a purpose in remembering the Exodus.  By the same token, we could ask whether Chanukkah still has a purpose when a more recent victory is the cause of our having a State, even if we firmly hold that the State is at best potentially Messianic, and not inevitably so.  Or perhaps Chanukkah has renewed meaning in our day precisely because it foreshadowed non-Messianic Zionism so powerfully for so long.

While the Hasmonean victory was not Messianic, it was certainly accompanied by the miracle of the oil.  The oil in the Temple lasted just long enough for the Jews to prepare new tahor oil; it would have run out had the Jews delayed at all, and not been ready with new oil on the 8th day. One eternal message of Chanukkah is that miracles do not endure forever, and even those blessed by miracles must make every effort – spiritually and practically – to be ready for the transition back to normal life.

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The Value of Entertainment

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Michael Pershan

The story of Yosef is absolutely thrilling, according to no less an authority than my son, who is nearly four. The coat, the dreams, the pit — he loves it all, as I know from our review sessions on the way home from preschool.

(A caveat: his name is also ‘Yosef’ which is at least part of the appeal.)

Seeing my son’s joy in the Torah’s stories has helped shake me out of a sort of rigid intellectual appreciation of scripture. Because whatever else the Torah is — revelatory document, source of divine law, national history — it contains some gripping stories.

But why does the Torah include entertaining stories? Does the Torah aim to entertain?

Both within and without Judaism, entertainment makes us uneasy. The things that easily capture attention seem to be less valuable than those that demand a sustained effort to focus on. One can more easily capture attention with stories, but what is that attention worth?

This unease is expressed in a fascinating story from the gemara in Sotah:

Rabbi Abbahu and Rabbi Ḥiyya bar Abba happened to come to a certain place. Rabbi Abbahu taught matters of aggada, and at the same time Rabbi Ḥiyya bar Abba taught halakha. Everyone left Rabbi Ḥiyya bar Abba and went to Rabbi Abbahu, and Rabbi Ḥiyya was offended. Rabbi Abbahu said to him to appease him: I will tell you a parable: To what is this matter comparable? It is comparable to two people, one who sells precious stones and one who sells small items. Upon whom do the customers spring? Don’t they spring upon the one who sells small items? Similarly, you teach lofty and important matters that do not attract many people. Everyone comes to me because I teach minor matters. (Sotah 40a, Steinsaltz translation)

There are multiple layers of irony in this story, the first of which is that Rabbi Abbahu consoles Ḥiyya with a parable. And the substance of his consolation seems to have an edge. Rabbi Ḥiyya may be teaching lofty matters, but should he? If Rabbi Abbahu really believed that aggada was worth less, would he teach it?

To take this market metaphor further, there is no correspondence between an item’s true value and its price. The key intermediaries are supply and demand. Items of high intrinsic worth can be inexpensive. For example, water is cheap as can be, but only because supply is high. (Perhaps this is part of the sense of the Gemara Bava Kamma 17a: ein Torah ela mayim.)

Like water, entertainment is freely available. Entertainment can be found in books, movies, conversation, theatre, etc., many avenues beyond Torah. In a strict sense, it is commonly available. It is a small thing.

It seems to me, though, that entertainment is cheap but of high intrinsic value. Entertainment is a form of sustained attention; too often our attention drifts indiscriminantly through the day. Sustained attention is, all things being equal, a good state to be in. When things go wrong for humanity, very often it’s because of a refusal to devote that full attention. (Simone Weil: “There is something in our soul that loathes true attention much more violently than flesh loathes fatigue. That something is much closer to evil than flesh is.”)

Of course, entertainment can be wicked or immoral. But all of this is to say is that we are maybe less susceptible to this kind of entertainment than we might think. When we are truly paying attention, we are more attuned to our moral and religious values. This awareness puts us closer to our best than to our worst sensibilities.

(Though perhaps the sustained, expensive focus required by halacha is necessary if we seek a chance to challenge and transform those sensibilities.)

I have no doubt that the story of Yosef can be read to have multiple messages. But beyond all those messages is the story itself, which so often leaves my son asking “what’s next?”

It seems to me that this layer, the layer of entertainment, has religious value as well.

Michael Pershan teaches math at Saint Ann’s School in Brooklyn.

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From Altars to Oak Trees

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Elliot Dine

“And Yaakov arrived safely in Shekhem…” (Genesis 33:18). As Seforno points out, in this verse God fulfills his end of Yaakov’s vow – “if I return safely to my father’s house” (28:21); and yet this verse also sets up the story of Dinah with a tragic irony. Yaakov arrives in Shechem knowing God has been with him and protected him, knowing that he has struggled with man and God and overcome and will be blessed for it. He has suffered for taking the blessing from Esav, and yet he has done penitence for it, literally returning a blessing to Esav in 33:11. Indeed, Yaakov at that moments feels confident and secure enough to consider himself as worthy of his new name and worthy of a place among the patriarchs. Thus, he sets up an altar and names it “E-l, E-lohei Yisrael” (33:20). He uses the same phrase as God describes himself to Yaakov in his dream – “E-lohei Avraham Avikah V’e-lohei Yitzchak” (28:13) – and calls himself by a new name that, as the Ha’amek Davar points out, God has not yet bestowed onto him. Yaakov thinks he has fulfilled his religious mission, making up with his brother and returning to the land with a full family, and therefore can take his place in history among his own forefathers.

And yet Yaakov is gravely mistaken in his assessment, as the story of Dinah and Shekhem makes abundantly clear. A key part of Avraham and Yitzchak’s lives centered around ensuring that their children would not marry Canaanites. And yet in the story of Dinah, Yaakov does not fulfill this mission, inviting and saying nothing in response to Shechem and Hamor’s offer to marry into Yaakov’s family and vice versa. Moreover, Yaakov’s children deceive Shekhem and Chamor in a manner like how Yaakov deceived Esav and Yitzchak, leaving a trail of dead bodies and forcing Yaakov once again to flee from a violent situation. The two reasons Yaakov had to leave his parents’ house, to flee violence after trickery and to marry non-Canaanite women, recur in the story of Shekhem, indicating that Yaakov has not yet fully escaped or repented for his past.

So, what, if anything, must Yaakov do or experience to move on from his tragic mistake? Clearly, he has suffered and made up for his wronging of Esav, yet Yaakov neglects how he and Rivkah not only wronged Esav, but also deceived Yitzchak. And for that he has not yet been punished nor done Teshuvah.  We see how Yaakov and Rivkah are punished for this deception a few verses later when we read, “And Devorah, Rivkah’s nurse, died, and she was buried under the oak under Bethel, and it was called the oak of weeping” (34:8).  As the Midrash points out (and as quoted by Rashi and Ramban), the weeping and death of Devorah is hinting to the notification to Yaakov that Rivkah has died. And in the language of Ramban, Rivkah does not merit seeing her son return, she and her son are punished for their deception of Yitzchak in quite a powerful and sad way. And it is following this punishment and this tragedy that Yaakov fully merits receiving his new name of Yisrael. For in the next verse God blesses Yaakov with the blessing that his forefathers received, namely how his children will inherit the land, and bestows him with the name Yisrael. Only after Yaakov receive his punishment for deceiving Yitzchak can he become Yisrael and take his place in religious history as one of the three patriarchs.

While I have interpreted this story as one of punishment cleansing Yaakov and allowing him to receive his true blessing, it is also important to note that Ramban, while building off the Midrash, puts a slightly different twist on it, and views the blessing as a blessing of comfort following tragedy. God comforts mourners through covenants and blessings. Yaakov and Rivkah do not receive this punishment to do the full measure of penitence, but rather in God’s kindness he blesses Yaakov to comfort him. As a fellow SBM alum, Rabbi Jason Strauss, points out, for our time and place that is a much more powerful read, for we cannot nor should we contend that bad things happen to punish people for their mistakes, rather just as God does here, we must confront tragedies with words of comfort and blessing.

Elliot Dine (SBM 2010, ’15) is currently pursuing a PhD in molecular biology at Princeton University.

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Esav Shrugged

by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper

The opening of Parshat Vayishlach makes difficult reading for fans of Jewish assertiveness.  Yaakov relates to apparent alpha-dog Esav with over-the-top obsequiousness – “grovel, grovel, cringe, bow, stoop, fall.”

But explicit power relationships can be deceptive. Yaakov successfully refuses Esav’s repeated efforts to establish a continuing relationship.  Esav, meanwhile, yields to Yaakov’s insistence that he accept his enormous gift.  Sometimes the tail really is wagging the dog.  But why was it so important to Yaakov that Esav accept the gift, and why was Esav so resistant?

Rabbi Shimon Sofer, a grandson of the Chatam Sofer who was martyred in Auschwitz, offers a series of politically and psychologically incisive explanations that may add up to a coherent reading.

“I have much; my brother, let what is yours be yours” – meaning, that if Yaakov had no possessions, Esav would be compelled to support his younger brother.  Therefore, Esav said, “Let what is yours be yours,” so that I don’t need to give you anything and the much that I have remains mine.  So the overall intent is “I have much if what is yours will be yours.”

Rabbi Sofer starts from the premise that any hatred Esav felt toward Yaakov would have no effect on his understanding or fulfillment of his obligations toward Yaakov. Esav and Yaakov are socially intertwined in ways that Esav cannot escape, and perhaps cannot imagine escaping. So it is in Esav’s self-interest for Yaakov to be independently wealthy.  Esav fears that Yaakov is deliberately giving him a gift so large as to leave him no choice but to accept Yaakov and his family as dependents.

We know, but Esav does not, that the gift represents a judiciously chosen share of Yaakov’s assets. Yaakov knows that it is considered rude to attack a person whose gifts you have accepted, because accepting gifts is a way of acknowledging feudal obligations. Most feudal obligations are at heart a trade of economic benefits for security. So Yaakov insists, and perhaps Esav eventually realizes that Yaakov can bear the expense and accepts the transaction at face value.

We can explain why Yaakov insisted that he take the gift from him.  The way of honored officials is that even though in their hearts they want and desire gifts and bribes, nonetheless it is beneath their dignity to accept them.  Therefore, they want the giver to persist and insist.  That way, they end up with both, the bribe/gift that their heart lusts for, and also their dignity, that they did not wish to take it from him without being greatly pestered, and they took it only because they would not withstand the giver and humiliate him by refusing to accept it.  Thus “Yaakov persisted/insisted, and he took it.”

On this reading, Esav is in charge throughout.  He intends to have Yaakov persist, and he intends ultimately to consent under seeming duress. His goal is to reverse the gratitude framework; Yaakov should owe Esav for the tovat hana’ah gained by having such a prominent person willing to accept his gift, rather than Esav owing Yaakov for the gift itself.

Halakhah recognizes this tovat hana’ah as having cash value. Very prominent people can marry women by accepting gifts from them. Nonetheless, in most contexts it is a polite/political fiction. Politicians strive to create the impression that they are stooping to accept gifts, or willing to go on junkets for the sake of learning about policy, but lobbyists expect to receive something in exchange for the amenities they provide politicians. To quote Don Corleone, “Someday, and that day may never come, I will call upon you to do a service for me. But until that day, accept this justice as a gift.”

We can say additionally that according to the ways of ‘etiquette,’ if A sends a gift to B, and B returns a lesser gift than he received, it seems as if he is thereby surrendering; if he returns an exactly equal gift, this seems like miserly precision; so B therefore sends A more than he received initially.  So Esav realized that etiquette would require him to send Yaakov a gift even larger than Yaakov was sending, therefore he said: “Let what is yours be yours,” but Yaakov indicated that he did not wish a return gift by saying to him “I have everything.”

Perhaps Rabbi Sofer read anthropology?  Wikipedia provides the following description of a Pacific Northwest custom called potlatch:

Dorothy Johansen describes the dynamic: “In the potlatch, the host in effect challenged a guest chieftain to exceed him in his ‘power’ to give away or to destroy goods. If the guest did not return 100 percent on the gifts received and destroy even more wealth in a bigger and better bonfire, he and his people lost face and so his ‘power’ was diminished.”

On this reading, Yaakov’s enormous gift is an expression of dominance, while Esav’s ultimate acceptance is a gesture of submission.

So far we’ve drawn models for Yaakov and Esav’s interaction from Native American culture, feudalism, and The Godfather.  Rabbi Sofer’s reading is also compatible with a fourth model drawn from Ayn Rand’s critique of altruism. Let me acknowledge upfront that this is likely to be more ethically controversial than any of the others.

Rand famously or infamously argued that altruism, or doing things for the sake of others, is the root of all evil.  Actions can be ethical only if done for one’s own sake; thus a programmatic essay was titled “The Virtue of Selfishness.”

This counterintuitive framing is often misunderstood as endorsing boorishness or a pure focus on personal pleasure and material or emotional self-interest. That this is a misunderstanding is easily demonstrated by the fact that all her novels revolve around an ethical hero(ine) sacrificing their material self-interest, even committing suicide, for the benefit of someone they love. Rather, Rand argues that one must choose virtue because that is the kind of person you wish to be, not because it benefits anyone else.

Why does this matter?  Rand argues that virtuous people expect no return for their virtuous deeds; they don’t feel “owed” because they have acted for your material self-interest against their own, because their actions were done for their own sakes.  Virtuous philanthropists do not see themselves as superior to the recipients of their charity.  By contrast, altruists always feel that they are owed more than they gave.  Charity recipients owe them gratitude, and if economic positions reverse, they owe their former benefactors larger alms than they received. (Consider in this light the letters that schools often send to alumni who received scholarships, no matter how much those alumni contributed to the school environment as students, and even if those alumni paid more in tuition than the marginal cost of their schooling.)

Esav suspects, or understands, that Yaakov’s gift is altruistic in nature.  Accepting it will impose burdens of gratitude and reciprocity on him that he has no interest in assuming.  So he tries to refuse it.  But Yaakov insists.

Why does Yaakov insist?  Very likely he is also aware that gifts often come tangled in implicit strings. He may suspect that Esav is genuinely altruistic, and therefore will feel himself bound to reciprocate.  Or, he may consider that regardless of Esav’s own philosophic convictions, he is embedded in a society of altruists who will hold him to the obligations they recognize as stemming from gift-acceptance.

The common denominator of all four models is that gifting is often not a one-way transaction. Gifts can be Trojan Horses.  We should look at their teeth before accepting them; and we should look very carefully in the mirror before and after giving.  Our goal should be a society in which givers are indifferent to gratitude, and therefore thanks can be freely given.

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How Should One Relate to Modes of Torah Interpretation that One Does Not Believe In?

by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper

How should one relate to modes of Torah interpretation that one does not believe in? I intend this question in two ways.

First, how does one relate to hermeneutical systems that one sees as imposed on texts rather than as organic to the text, as producing eisegesis rather than exegesis? Second, how does one relate to interpretations developed in the service of broad philosophic positions that one does not share?

The first question arises often for me when reading Chassidic commentaries. An underlying presumption of such commentaries is that the exoteric historical narrative of chumash (but not only the narrative, and not only Chumash, or even only Tanakh) is properly interwoven with, supplemented, and sometimes supplanted by an esoteric psychospiritual narrative.

The esoteric narrative often emerges by employing some of the more radical techniques of classical midrash. Here is an example, drawn from Toldot Yaakov Yosef1to Genesis 27:22. “הקול קול יעקב והידים ידי עשו” is generally translated as “The voice is the voice of Yaakov, but the hands are the hands of Esav”; Toldot Yaakov Yosef, however, translates “The voice is the voice of Yaakov, as are the hands, the (very) hands (previously) of Esav”. Exoterically, the verse describes Yitzchak’s confusion as to which son was standing before him to receive his blessing; esoterically, it tells us that involving one’s entire body in the ecstasy of prayer sanctifies the physical, specifically by clapping, so that the hands previously identified with the material become servants of the spiritual.

On a purely syntactic level, this reading requires us to read across the parallelism of the verse in a kind of slantrhyme. The identical tactic is given on Sanhedrin 57b as the basis for Rabbi Yishmael’s position that abortion is included within the Noachide prohibition against bloodshedding. Genesis 9:6 “שופך דם האדם באדם דמו ישפך” is usually translated as “The shedder of human blood, by a human must his blood be shed”, but here is translated “The shedder of the blood of a human within a human, his blood must be shed”.

No claim is made in either case that this reading is the exclusive or even primarymeaning of the verse, and I think that playing with punctuation to produce multiple meanings is a standard poetic technique. So for me the fundamental question is not whether the literary tactic is compelling, but rather whether I think that the resulting interpretation is a plausible intent of this section of Chumash.

My answer to this depends to some extent on another question: To what extent is this interpretation interwoven with the exoteric narrative? For example: Does Toldot Yaakov Yosef claim that on some level Yitzchak intended this when exclaiming it, or would he be content to say that Yitzchak simply channeled the Divine intent unconsciously, he “prophesied without knowing what he had prophesied”, in the rabbinic phrase? I would be happier if the former were true, if this interpretation owed at least some fealty to the narrative context.

On that assumption, Toldot Yaakov Yosef must claim that Yitzchak was on some level aware of Yaakov’s deception. Even more strongly, he was celebrating Yaakov’s capacity to engage in the deception, to utilize the “hands” without losing his “voice”.

And I do think that a close reading of the exoteric narrative lends much support to the thesis that Yitzchak was a willing party to his own deception. Which means, in the end, that Toldot Yaakov Yosef’s reading is useful to me. And yet, I still find it hard to allow any validity to the claim that this verse is in any sense about the importance of being a clapper during davening.

Toldot Yaakov Yosef offers the above reading as a prefatory aside to a discussion of the opening of this week’s parshah. “Yaakov left B’er Sheva, and went toward Charan. Vayifga bamakom…” Any reader will notice immediately that “bamakom”, “(untranslatable preposition) the place”, is problematic, as the place has not previously been identified. Classical midrash identifies it either as Mount Moriah (on his way to the Akeidah, Avraham saw the place from afar – Genesis 22:4) or as G-d (the place of all existence). The former reading raises geographic difficulties, which are resolved in various ways. The latter fits well in context – a prophetic dream ensues immediately (although for Talmud Berakhot 28 it seems to refer to a separate act of prayer)  – but Ibn Ezra argues that it is anachronistic, in that G-d is not referred to as “the place” in Tanakh, only in rabbinic literature. Radak and Seforno accordingly postulate a well- known wayfarer’s station in that location, and indeed an entire institution of such stations on major roads.

Toldot Yaakov Yosef adopts the position that “bamakom” refers to G-d. He does not stop there, however – Be’er sheva refers to a kabbalistic Service known as the Seven, Charan refers to Divine Anger, and “vayifga bamakom” means that Yaakov became subject to the Divine Aspect of Justice as the result of leaving the highest level of service (in which he acquired the “hands”).

I cannot follow him down that path. This raises for me the question of whether I can legitimately use the product of his initial steps. But I want to explore that question in a broader context.

Over the years, I have had a number of friends who raved about the beauty and depth of kabbalistic thought without, so far as I could tell, in any way believing that the metaphysical structures described by kabbalah had any “real” existence. For them, the ten sefirot, the worlds of thought and deed, and the like were useful metaphors for aspects of the human psyche, and no more; they did not require any notion of transcendence or Divinity. I often wondered (aloud, and, no doubt irritatingly, to them) if this was fair to the texts and authors they studied and taught. More strongly, I wondered whether the key question was not belief but experience, whether it was possible to meaningfully read these texts without having had experiences that corresponded to their notion of reality – were they colorblind critics teaching about art? For myself, I remain unaware of having had any such experiences, and therefore I always resisted citing such texts.

So it is much caution that I end this devar Torah by citing a metaphor from the Zohar.

Zohar 1:148b

The other, younger (son of Rabbi Yitzchak) said:
“Vayifga bamakom; he lay over there because the sun had set; (he took of the rocks of the makom and put underneath his head” –
What is the meaning of “vayifga bamakom”?
This can be compared to a king who visits a lady – he needs to entreat her and to perfume her with words, so that she will not seem utterly available to him.
Not only that – even if he has a bed of gold and woven tapestries in his castle to sleep on, whereas she makes do with a stone bed on the ground in a fortress of straw, he should leave his and sleep on hers so as to give her satisfaction, so that their companionship will be unified without constraint.
This is as we learn here, for once he came to her, what is written? “He took from the rocks of the place and put under his head, and he lay down in that place” – so as to give her satisfaction, as even the rocks of her house are beloved to him to sleep on”.

The Zohar is plainly talking about the unification of various aspects of the Divine, about which I have nothing to say. But the courting/marital advice is beautiful, and there is one literary/psychological element that is tempting, namely the parallelism between Yaakov’s relationship with G-d and his relationship with Rachel, where he also saw hardship as joy in the service of love. Is it fair to extract those and leave the kabbalah behind? I welcome your comments.

This Dvar Torah was originally published in 2010

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