Monday, December 19, 2005

Vayishlah (Torah)

The Great Confrontation

The climax of the Yaakov “Bildungsroman,” which I discussed earlier, comes in Vayishlah, with the renewed encounter with Esau following twenty years of separation. This is the real test of his manhood and of his maturity. That figure to whom he could only relate by flight or deceit is now encountered face to face, on equal footing. He is prepared to do battle, and is equally prepared for reconciliation: but most important, he now sees him, not as a fearful, overwhelming ogre, but simply as a man, like himself. Perhaps this is the symbolic meaning of the struggle with the mysterious figure—angel, “prince of Esau,” or whomever—encountered at the ford of the River Yabbok called Penuel. It is as if this crucial encounter occurs twice: once on a symbolic, dream-like level (the traditional commentators debate whether this confrontation in fact occurred in reality or in a dream), and once in concrete reality.

On another level, all the encounters with Esau —from the struggle within the womb, through the obtaining of the birthright and the parental blessing, up to and including this passage—are perceived as symbolic of the confrontation of the Jewish people with the nations of the world. Esau/Edom is the last of the four kingdoms that subjugate Israel —a leitmotif that reappears in innumerable midrashim as a basic scheme for Jewish history. (The other three are Babylonia, Persia, and Greece—i.e., the Seleucid and Ptolemian kingdoms that followed Alexander the Great’s conquests of the Middle East in 333 BCE) Edom, originally a desert kingdom dwelling in the high plateau land of southern Transjordan (see this week’s haftarah, the Book of Obadiah), is identified in turn with the Roman empire, which subjugated Israel during Second Temple times about a hundred years after the Maccabean rebellion; later with the Christian Church, seated in Rome; and by some, in this possibly post-Christian world, with the non-Jewish world generally. This symbolic level is so central, that even the ladder vision in Vayetze, which on the literal level has nothing to do with Esau, is interpreted by many midrashim in its light. The first three angels, representing the first three kingdoms, each ascend and descend in turn, symbolizing a period of hegemony followed by their disappearance from the historical stage, whereas the fourth angel, representing Edom, climbs higher and higher without stop. God then reassures the perturbed Jacob that Edom, too, will eventually suffer a downfall.

It is interesting within this context to reflect upon the mitzvah of Gid hanasheh, the prohibition against eating the sinew of an animal’s hip. There is something strange in the presence of this prosaic, semi-technical regulation here (I imagine most of us would be hard-pressed to even identify this sinew or know exactly where to find it). The entire book of Genesis contains only three mitzvot: the other two being “be fruitful and multiply,” the fundamental imperative to procreate, without which there would be no new human beings and no Jews; and brit milah, circumcision, the basic sign of the Abrahamic covenant, an act pregnant with deep symbolic meaning. What is this rule doing here, coupled with these two central mitzvot? Another strange feature is that this is the only mitzvah among the kosher laws that serves a commemorative purpose (if we discount the rules of Passover, which are really concerned with the meaning of that holiday, and are not part of kashrut per se). It seem to me that to pose the question thus is to know the answer: that, following the basic God-consciousness learned from the Creation, and the notion of the covenant, learned from Abraham, the idea of the isolation and separateness of the Jewish people from the other nations—as a basic principle of our being, and not only as an accident of history—is in some sense a fundamental principle, reinforced by a mitzvah. For many of us, raised on liberal, democratic, pluralistic values, this is a hard pill to swallow, but it is an aspect of our teaching that we must confront and understand; one of the basic elements of our being, until that day when “redeemers shall go up to Mount Zion, to judge Mount Esau, and the kingdom shall be the Lord’s.” (Obad v. 21).

Jacob the “Simple Man”

What are we to make of Jacob’s repeated dishonesties: his stealing of the birthright and of his fathers blessing from Esau; his complicated manipulations of the sticks to increase both the quality and number of his own flock; etc.? A generation ago, the world of Christian theology was all in a hubbub over Joseph Fletcher’s Situational Ethics, a book which proposed the thesis that the definition of the proper ethical response to any problem is dependent upon the details of the specific situation within which it occurs. At the time, the book was seen as revolutionary and highly controversial, in pointed contrast to the often rigid moral position of classical Protestant thought, as perhaps best embodied in the New England WASP type. Yet, in fact, this simple truth has always been understood by Judaism. The Talmud is filled with discussions, not so much about right and wrong, but about how to rank and decide between two “rights,” and how to behave in the event—which constantly arises—of conflict among several equally valid “rights.”

Perhaps Yaakov’s prima facie dishonest behavior ought to be understood in this light—namely, as situational. Both Yaakov the man and B’nai Yaakov, the people, needed to confront hostile, even murderous, “brethren”—of whom Esau was exemplary. Thus, Yaakov’s crafty, roundabout tactics may be seen as paradigmatic of a certain necessary tactic of relations with the non-Jewish world. Needless to say, the issues are far more complex; I do not mean to suggest that this eliminates the moral difficulties we feel with Yaakov’s behavior, nor would I advocate an across-the-board policy of “fair play or foul vis-a-vis the Goyim” in today’s world. Nevertheless, this is at least one possibly fruitful line of interpretation.

Habad for non-Lubavitchers: Thoughts re the 19th of Kislev

Many people find it difficult to deal with the Habad Hasidic movement or with its religious culture in an objective way, in light of the messianic hysteria promulgated over the past decade, both during the late Lubavitcher Rebbe’s lifetime and after his death. This is unfortunate, as to my mind Habad is one of the great spiritual paths within Judaism; its seminal work, Sefer ha-Tanya, is one of the major works of Jewish mystical thought, presenting a highly developed system intended to guide the individual toward mystical contemplation of the divine unity, within the framework of Torah and mitzvot.

Unlike other Hasidic books, which are typically collections of isolated, occasional Torahs based on the Torah portion and the festival cycle, the Tanya is a handbook, intended to provide a systematic guide as to how a Jew ought to conduct himself through the daily round of prayer, Torah study, and mitzvot, in order to achieve the highest and most sublime God-consciousness of which he is capable. The book begins with a presentation of its religious psychology: a detailed description of the conflict within the soul of each person between the Divine spark and the earthbound “animal soul”; the way in which the study of Torah and the practice of mitzvot serve as instruments in this struggle: as “garments” and “food” for the soul. From there, it proceeds to a programmatic outline of the nature of Avodat Hashem (“Divine service,” a term, which goes far beyond worship in the usual sense, to encompass every moment of life), with a special focus on prayer, and especially on the recitation of Shema, the moment of great unification.

The power of such a book, and of such a system serving at least as an ideal within a living community, lies first of all in its placing issues of spirituality and the inner life on the agenda of religious Jewry. Here, we approach the crux of the dilemma or paradox of Orthodox spirituality: to wit, that the system of mitzvot itself, with its numerous details, too often becomes an end in itself, leading the most pious Jews to overlook the issue of achieving religious consciousness, or to identify it with those who are privately considered a bit strange. Whether these spiritual goals are in fact achieved within Habad, there is at least a vocabulary and a set of concepts to keep them in people’s minds.

In Habad, one encounters people who are adepts at individual, contemplative prayer—what the Habadniks call Tefillah ba-arikhut, “extended prayer.” These people will come to synagogue on Sabbath morning to hear Kedusha and Barchu and the Torah reading and all the requisite things they need to hear; sit studying a Hasidic tract or reciting Psalms or meditating quietly; and begin davening only after everyone else has gone home, sometimes till 2 or 3 in the afternoon or later. I recall once observing a Habad Hasid—a young rabbi in his early 30’s with a fiery red beard—during the Evening Service for the conclusion of the Shabbat. While the rest of the congregation was reciting Shema and standing to recite the Amidah, he was deep in meditation, his Siddur open to the page with the first line of Shema. Only after we went outside to say the blessing of the new moon and came back had he begun his private Amidah recitation.

There is a sense of discipline, of inward, tightly contained energy, in Habad; of a certain austerity, of spiritual asceticism. For better or worse, there is none of the ecstasy, of the pomp and circumstance, nor on occasion the deliberate sloppiness, chaos and anarchy found in Polish Hasidim. Many of the institutions familiar from other Hasidic groups are absent. There is no tish, with masses of Hasidim gathering around the Rebbe while he eats his Shabbat meals. There is no Seudah Shelishit, no Third Meal, traditionally the high point of the Hasidic Sabbath. Instead, the characteristic meeting of Rebbe and hassid is the Farbrengen—the gathering held, sometimes on special weekdays, sometimes on Shabbat afternoons, sometimes at the conclusion of major festivals, at which the Rebbe speaks, interspersed by singing and drinking Lehayyim. The focus is always on the goals of Avodah. Even the mode of dress is austere -- no streimlach (Hasidic fur hats) or colorful embroidered Shabbat robes; everyone, even the Rebbe, is dressed in a simple black knee-length coat and a soft hat with a turned-down brim. Prayer is quiet but intense, with no shouting and hand-clapping, and little singing.

Even the music of Habad is different. Rather than the laid-back, sweet, almost feminine melodies—what I call the “Kol Mekadesh” mode - typical of the Shabbat zemirot of Bobov, Vishnitz, Modzitz, Bretslav, and other Hassidic groups, Habad music is characterized by two basic modes: deeply mystical, meditative songs of infinite yearning (Eli Atah , the Alter Rebbe’s Niggun, Ein Sof, Tzamah lekha Nafshi, or the Ma’amer Nigun); or else fast, military-like marches, meant to be sung in an enormous hall by thousands of intense male voices, such as—well, 770.

There is an interesting irony in Habad. Of all hasidic groups, Habad most emphasizes the spiritual work of the individual; the classical function of the Rebbe in Habad was to be a spiritual mentor in Divine service, not a dispenser of advice and blessing on mundane personal matters. Yet in our day, no Hasidic movement has been so totally dominated by the figure of its leader, whose physical image, even, is ubiquitous; and no Hasidic movement has been so distraught and thrown into crisis by its Rebbe’s death—which, when all is said and done, ought not to have been unexpected, given the mortality of all humankind.


The traditional reading of the encounter described in this week’s portion between Yaakov and Esau is one that sees it as filled with sinister, hostile undercurrents: Esau comes to meet Jacob with four hundred men—a small army, as if ready to make war; Jacob sends numerous gifts, as if attempting to appease an intractable foe; when Esau embraces and kisses his brother after a separation of twenty years, the word describing this action, va-yishakehu (Gen 33:4), is marked by dots in the Torah scroll—a fact seen by the rabbis as a sign of his insincerity (the handful of places where dots are placed above letters are seen as a means of drawing our attention to some exegetical subtlety or ambiguity); even Esau’s invitation to Jacob to join him in travelling with their respective flocks is politely but firmly refused, with a rather lame-sounding excuse. So, too, Esau’s refusal of Jacob’s gifts with the comment “I have a lot” (yesh li rav; 33:9) is seen as boasting, and contrasted invidiously with Jacob’s “God has blessed me, and I have all” (v. 11), i.e., all I need, expressing a sense of complete satisfaction with whatever he has.

Yet it is worth remembering that, on the level of pure peshat (the literal sense), Esau appears here as a perfectly friendly guy, wishing his brother well, wishing to restore the long-estranged fraternal relations between them, to travel with him a bit, etc. The refusal of the gifts can also be seen as consideration, generosity, a genuine desire not to benefit at his brothers expense; even the four hundred men can be plausibly explained (?) as the members of a nomadic tribe which he headed and who migrated with him everywhere. We see here, again, the extent to which the midrash paints a given scene in line with a certain overall world-view on the subject—perhaps also in light of the Jewish people’s later bitter experiences with Esau-Seir-Edom?

The Rape of Dinah

The episode of the rape of Dinah (Genesis 34) is one of the hardest chapters in the Bible, whose ethos is most difficult to accept. Jacob and all his clan settle near Shechem; presumably then as now a major city in the hill-country of central Canaan. A young prince, Shechem son of Hamor, overcome with attraction for Jacob’s daughter Dinah, rapes her (or at least so we assume, from the combination of “he lay with her and humbled her”; v. 2). But this is no passing lust: he is smitten with love for her, and asks his father to arrange his marriage with her. The father asks Jacob, hoping in the process to also establish economic and political alliances with the powerful Jacob clan. The brothers, who throughout the episode act as spokesmen for the family, seemingly agree, but demand that all the men in the town become circumcised first, “as we are.” They readily agree; but then, on the third day, when they were weakened by pain, Simeon and Levi go through the town, slaughtering all the men of the village.

Before considering the ethical issue, an interesting psychological question raised by this chapter: How are we to understand the relationship between Jacob and his sons in this incident? And why was Jacob silent? Interestingly, when he first hears the news of the rape, he doesn’t react, but waits until his sons return from the field (v. 5). It is as if suddenly, finding himself surrounded by grown sons, he turns passive. Overnight, his sons do all the talking, make all the decision, conceive an entire deceitful and violent scheme without consulting him. Jacob, who during his twenty-two years in Haran is filled with energy, initiative, shrewdness, practical knowledge in all kinds of areas, suddenly seems to become a passive old man. Is he perhaps reverting to the Yitzhak paradigm? Later on, on the opening verse of Vayeshev, Rashi comments that all Jacob wanted to do was “to dwell in calm and quiet”—and instead he was forced to confront the murderous hostility among his sons (Rashi to 37:1, s.v. davar aher; and see my comments in Hitzei Yehonatan 5760, to Vayeshev). One is reminded here also of King David, who faced endless difficulties with his own sons as grown men.

The core question raised by the parsha is, of course, the moral issue raised by the episode. Jacob, upon hearing of the massacre perpetrated by his sons, roundly condemns it, but more on political than purely moral grounds: “You have made me ugly/cloudy, to make me stink in the eyes of the inhabitants of the land” (34:30). To which the brothers’ short, almost brutal reply is “Shall we let our sister be made into/treated like a whore?!” (v. 31).

How are we to understand the relation between Jacob and his sons here? What was the basis of their differing approaches? On the face of it, the brothers are acting in accordance with the well-know Middle Eastern code of “family honor,” in which any abuse of the clan’s honor, and particularly an assault on the sexual integrity of the women of the group—“our sister’s virginity”—must be avenged, and can justify almost any act of violence. Even today, hardly a month passes without this sort of thing happening—but this usually occurs in the Beduin or Druze or Arab villages, which we think of as “backwards” and “primitive.” (And how did it happen, anyway, that the Shechemites dared to rape the daughter of a powerful chieftain, and didn’t honor this code?)

I see the moral and psychological aspects of this issue as intertwined. As one who has passed the half-century mark, but still remembers his radical youth, I see this story as much as a portrait of the eternal conflict of outlooks between the generations as about anything else. Shimon and Levi, and to a lesser extent the other brothers, are filled with the passion, the absolute moral standards of youth. The violation of their sister’s chastity was an affront to the central moral value of feminine modesty and virtue, which needed to be defended at all costs (living in an age with more liberal, or perhaps lax, standards in these areas, it is perhaps difficult for us to perceive this in quite the same light). Yaakov, older and wiser in the ways of the world, saw things in a more complex, nuanced light, and was especially conscious that the massacre, taking revenge not only on the perpetrator of the deed, but upon the entire town, could only be seen in the darkest light by others.

Finally, what is da’at Torah (a much misused term that I usually hate), in the sense of the “editorial“ stance taken by the Torah itself, on the events described here? Do the sons in fact have the “last word”? The traditional approach is that the Torah intends to teach us moral lessons by the incidents it recounts—or in this case is it just “stuff that happened”? Possibly, by presenting the position of both Jacob and the sons, the Torah is leaving matters somewhat open-ended—but the reference to this act in Jacob’s death bed blessing to his sons (49:5-7), which is in fact the only thing remembered about these two sons, leaves little doubt as to its ultimate condemnation.

Some Thoughts on Esau and Jacob

Both of the psalms discussed in my "Psalms" paper have similar themes: that of the struggle between the wicked and the righteous. In both, there is a sharp dichotomy—again, as in many other psalms of this ilk—between the “wicked, evil, men of violence, deceivers,” etc., on the one hand, and “the righteous, the upright, the good, the humble, the pious,” etc., on the other. This type of dichotomy underlies much of midrashic thinking as well: Esau vs. Jacob or, more generally, Israel vs. the nations of the world, engaged in a perpetual struggle, corresponding to a cosmic struggle between good and evil. Even intra utero, Rebecca feels the two infants struggling within her womb: an image taken as paradigmatic for Jewry’s relations with the Gentile world, a reality of perpetual struggle—“when this one ascends, that one is defeated”—and vice versa.

I find such thinking troubling. So long as it is confined to the realm of symbolic, archetypal, midrashic thinking or language, I have no quarrel with it. But as soon as it is applied as a model for understanding the real world, it is a gross simplification, and as such can be very dangerous. At the risk of belaboring the obvious, people—both individuals, and the conglomerates of human beings that we call nations, folks, ethnic groups, etc.—are complex, and almost every one contains a mixture of some good and some evil. This type of thinking can too easily lead to a type of self-righteousness, in terms of how one sees oneself—and most people doubtless see themselves on the side of the good, the oppressed, the downtrodden and victimized—making it difficult to engage in self-criticism, to perceive ones own faults and ones own share in creating a bad situation. On the other hand, it leads to demonizing the Other: to see one’s opponents as embodiments of the devil himself, as filled with viciousness, cruelty, evil for evil’s sake, and certainly not as someone who might be “relevant,” a “partner,” a person or group one might trust enough to try to reach a modus vivendi.

A few weeks ago I saw an interesting teaching by the Kotzker Rebbe on the subject of Jacob and Esau. The Torah depicts both Yitzhak and Rivkah praying for a child, but God listens “to him”—i.e., Yitzhak (Gen 25:21). Why? Rashi’s answer seems simplistic: that he was not only righteous, but was also the son of a righteous man, and hence enjoyed more “merit” than his wife, who came from a “bad family.” (But do we not celebrate the high levels a ba’al teshuvah can reach, that are even higher and more profound that those of someone raised in a pious home?) The Kotzker, in a collection entitled Ohel Torah, is dissatisfied with this answer. He suggests that Isaac, understanding that both good and evil would go into the makeup of his children, prayed that there be a clear and total distinction between the two: that the one be wholly righteous, and the other wholly wicked. Rivkah, ever the compassionate mother, wanted their qualities to be intermixed: the righteous child would also have a little bit of evil, and the evil one would have some measure of goodness.

I find myself sympathizing with Rivkah. True, the Jewish people has suffered greatly in its long history: in Crusades and Inquisitions, in pogroms in Russia, in the Holocaust, and even here in Eretz Yisrael, in our struggle to become a sovereign nation: in the Arab riots of the ‘20s and the ‘30s, in the various wars of Israel, in the intervening non-declared hostilities, and in the Intifadas. There is, paradoxically, something almost warm and comforting in being able to see ourselves as the perpetual victims.

At this time in 2004 Yasser Arafat died. I will not go into the issue of whether or not he was an embodiment of unadulterated evil. But his death has bought with it, at last in the short term, a seemingly more reasonable leadership, which does not see itself in the same mythic term as did Arafat, and which offers at least the possibility of change, of new beginnings. I believe that the central task for Jews today—one on which the very future of the Third House may hinge—is to find the maturity, as a nation, to see the other in his humanity as well. Not only to see things in black and white, in terms of the everlasting struggle of Esau and Jacob; certainly, not to see things in the apocalyptic colors of a messianic end game, as do some; but to seek to build a reasonable Middle East, based on human tolerance and acceptance on both sides, and on a realistic, this-worldly, non mythic picture of our mutual relations.


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