Baal ha-Batim, the Avot, and the Imahot

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Michael Pershan

Where does one go for guidance on how to live the practical, Jewish life of a baal habayit?

In a 1979 talk, Rav Soloveitchik identifies two traditions that run through Jewish history. First is the familiar rabbinic tradition, passed from Moshe to each subsequent generation of scholars. Second is the practical tradition of the baal habayit, which originates from Yosef.

In contrast to the scholastic, the practical tradition is not one of concepts, thoughts, concepts, laws. It’s one of images. The continuity is something I see, I feel, I can reach out for it. It’s the tradition of the lifestyle of action. This tradition can be traced back to antiquity.

Many have written about rabbis, Rav Soloveitchik notes, but far fewer have written about baal habatim.

Why has so little been written about Jewish laity? We can partly point towards rabbinic interpretation, which consistently interprets Jewish excellence as scholarly excellence. The gemara (Yoma 28b) cites our parsha to teach that Avraham sat in yeshivah and kept the entire Torah. His servent Eliezer is a scholarly disciple, one who mastered Avraham’s teachings and offered them in turn to others. Both are, undoubtedly, part of the spiritual elite.

Perhaps there is no issue at all. It’s true, there is little said about the spiritual non-elite, but why should there be? Yes, we could imagine Avraham as a real estate agent who struggles (as many of us do) to find time for Torah, family or our communities. But that would eliminate the utility of Avraham as a role model. Avraham is an unattainable spiritual model — striving towards his standard is impossible for the average Jew, and that is what makes him an effective goal-setter for the laity.

There is a great deal of truth here, I think. Yet there is also something missing. I can’t think how Avraham or Eliezer — if we see them as geniuses of Torah — would deal with some of the issues I grapple with daily. Here is one that feels somewhat silly to admit: even after years of eating among colleagues in public, I’m unsure how to make berachos and bentch in the proper way. (Without seeming crazy, while having proper kavanah, without being rude, and without consistently explaining my practices.)

How would Avraham grapple with this? He wouldn’t even be bothered by the problem. Alas, I am.

As I look at this week’s Parsha more carefully, though, I notice that perhaps I’ve shown bias in my search for Jewish role models. There are, in fact, Jewish heroes who are not painted by Chazal as scholars: the women of the Torah. They feel the feelings that I regularly do. We learn from Yalkut Shimoni that Rivka became terrified upon seeing Yitzchak in the field; last week Sarah laughed in the face of an oracle. These are emotions that I recognize.

Could the tradition of baal habayit be found in the women of the Torah? Rav Soloveitchik says this would be a tradition of images, scents and feelings, rather than of intellectual matters. Perhaps, when trying to find ways to bentsch while sitting among colleagues who don’t understand prayer, rather than thinking of halachic heroes I should think towards the images the Torah provides of the imahot — Rivka, sitting on a donkey, covering her face with a veil and whispering to Eliezer.

Michael Pershan (SBM 2009) is a math teacher in New York City.

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