Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Vayehi (Midrash)

“He Sought to Reveal the End”

A number of midrashim on this week’s portion focus on the theme of the End of Days: the patriarch Jacob wished at his deathbed to “reveal the End,” but was prevented from doing so. I would like to present several of these midrashim, and then discuss some larger philosophical issues that follow from them. These midrashim also serve as good examples of a feature of the Midrash in general: that almost every midrash is based simultaneously upon technical exegetical problems within the text, and larger religious, ethical or other issues. There is a confluence of two levels—an awkward turn of phrase in the text, an unwarranted duplication or repetition, a strange choice of words—and the more theoretical level. Thus, at the very beginning of our parsha, we read the following in Genesis Rabbah 96.1:

“And Jacob lived in the land of Egypt…” [Gen 47.28]. Why is this portion “closed,” [unlike] all the other portions of the Torah? Because once Father Jacob died there began the domination of Egypt over Israel.

The Torah is divided into “parshiyot,” units of texts roughly equivalent to paragraphs in the English language (not to be confused with the weekly Torah portion or parsha, more properly called sedrah), that determine the physical layout of the Torah scroll. In the Sefer Torah, the words and verses are written in run-on fashion, without any punctuation or sentence division. Only at the end of one parsha and the beginning of the next, at places determined by tradition, is there a certain division: either by continuing on a new line (an “open” unit, parasha petuha) or by a blank space of nine Hebrew characters on the same line (a “closed” unit, parsha setuma). There may be, and usually are, several or even many such parshiyot within each weekly portion, but there is almost always a parsha at the division between the weekly portions. The one exception to this is our portion, Parshat Vayehi, whose opening verse, Genesis 47:28, follows immediately on the heels of the preceding verse.

This anomaly is even more puzzling in light of two facts. First, that there is a gap of seventeen years between the events described in the closing verse of Vayigash, which describes how the Israelites settled down in the land of Goshen, and this verse, which suddenly takes us to Jacob’s deathbed scene. Second, as Rabbi Soloveitchik points out in an illuminating essay on this parsha, this entire section is an a certain sense extraneous, in that one could skip all of Vayehi and still understand the opening scene of the book of Exodus; that is, it does not contain any information essential for understanding the ongoing “plot,” but is a kind of interlude that serves other functions in the Torah, as he elaborates there. For both these reasons, one would have expected a new parshah here. In any event, this is the exegetical problem that our midrash attempts to resolve, offering three different answers. And indeed, the first answer relates to the fact that Jacob’s death signaled the beginning of a drastic change for the worse in the destiny of his offspring in Egypt (although Exodus 2:6-8 makes it clear that the real transition began only after the death of Joseph and the brothers).

Another thing: Why is it closed? Because Father Jacob wished to reveal the End, and it was closed to him.

This answer and the one that follows are based on a pun on the word satum, “closed.” We shall discuss the meaning of “revealing the End” in the parallels below.

Another thing: Why is it closed? Because all the troubles of the world were closed to him.

That is, for the first time in his life he was free of troubles. This view sees the final seventeen years of his life, when Jacob was in Egypt, as the only truly happy ones in his life. He was free of troubles and worries—the tensions and rivalries of his childhood home; the subjugation to his father-in-law during the long years in Haran; and the anxieties over the hatred among his children during the years that Joseph was gone, were all past.

Another midrash presents the same idea, following a different route—Genesis Rabbah 98.2:

“[And Jacob called his sons and said, ‘Gather and I will tell you] what will befall you at the End of Days’” [Gen 49:1]. R Simon said: he showed them the fall of Gog, as is written “At the end of days shall it be” [Ezek 38:16]. “Behold, upon Edom shall [my sword] descend” [Isa 23:5].

R. Judah said: He showed them the building of the Temple, as is said, “It shall come to pass at the End of Days that the mountain of the house of the Lord shall be established [as the highest of mountains]” [Isa 2:2]

The Rabbis said: He set out to reveal to them the end, and it was hidden from him.

This verse also presents great difficulties: Jacob states that he is about to reveal what will happen at the End of Days, and in what follows there is nothing of the kind. The Rabbis were perturbed by this, and offered various answers. Both R. Simon and R. Judah, reading “between the lines,” suggest that he did in fact reveal certain aspects of the Eschaton, which are simply not recorded here—either the defeat of the archetypically evil nation of Gog, or the establishment of God’s temple as the focus of Divine worship and righteousness for all the nations. The rabbis (Rabanan), by contrast, see Jacob’s attempt as being in fact truncated. (It is interesting that in the one other place in the Torah where someone sets out to tell what will happen at the End of Days, he does in fact present a prophetic vision of what the future will bring for various nations. I refer to Balaam’s “parting shot,” in Num 24:14-25)

R. Judah said in the name of R. Eleazar bar Ravina: Two people had the End revealed to them, and it was again hidden from them. And these were Jacob and Daniel. “Now Daniel, shut up the words and seal [the book]” [Dan 12:4]. “…what will happen to you at the End of Days… Reuben you are my first born” [Gen 49:2-3}. This indicates that he set about to reveal to them the End, and it was concealed from him.

It is implied here, almost as axiomatic, that there is something hidden, mysterious, meant to be concealed about eschatological knowledge, so that even those figures who were given a glimpse of these secrets had hem hidden again. This is illustrated in the case of Daniel by an explicit verse to that effect, while in the case of Jacob it is shown by the non sequitur in which, following verse 1, where he promises to reveal these secrets, he turns to an “ordinary” blessing of each of his children in turn: “Reuben…” (v. 3), as well as, perhaps, by the repeated calling of all of them in verse 2, “Gather together and hear…,” as if he had lost his train of thought. This sense of an obvious change of direction in mid-sentence is noted in the continuation of our midrash:

This may be compared to a friend of the king ,who was departing this world, and whose sons were gathered around his bed. He said, Come and I will reveal to you the secrets of the king. He lifted his eyes and saw the king [standing there]. He said to them, Take care of the honor of the King! So too Father Jacob lifted his eyes and saw the Shekhina standing above him. He said to them: be careful about the honor of the Holy One blessed be He….

Why is “knowledge of the End” surrounded by such mystery, by such a strong sanctions? We know that, throughout Jewish history, there has been a tension between mahashevie kitzin, those who engaged in messianic speculation, and in almost every generation even came up with “prophecies” of specific dates for the coming of the Messiah, and those Rabbis who tried to eradicate the phenomenon as dangerous and demoralizing. Thus, fur example, already in the Talmud, on Sanhedrin 97b, we have one amora who states that the Redeemer will come during the 85th jubilee (i.e., the fifty year period ending in the year 4250 AM [Anno Mundi] = 490 CE), hat is, a date during the amoraic period, which was no doubt close at hand to the proponent of this view. On the other hand, on the same page, following various other conjectured dates, based on various interpretations of enigmatic biblical verses, Rabbi Yonatan states: “May the bones of those who calculate the End rot.” I believe that Rashi on that spot states one reason for this imprecation is that, after the date passes and people see that he has not come, they will fall into deeper despair, and think that now he will never come, and in some cases even abandon Judaism altogether. And Jewish experience with false messianism has shown it to be a negative, destructive phenomenon. Our own generation has unfortunately been witness to such hysteria, in which a great and noble Hasidic movement, with a deep path of inner, contemplative avodah (worship), has made itself and its Rebbe into a laughing stock to the rest of Jewry because of its inability to accept the simple and inevitable fact of human mortality, of the death of an elderly man, who died beseivah tovah, in the fulness of his years. May he be remembered in the future for the good work he did during his lifetime, spreading Torah to all corners of the Jewish world, before this collective insanity overtook his followers.

But a closer reading of this midrash indicates something else: what might be called a kind of religious modesty, even bashfulness. Modesty as a sense of reverence about God; as a sense of reticence, as a sense that are certain things that are not meant to be discussed before the masses in the public square but, if at all, conveyed privately, in the intimacy of a master-disciple relationship. This is what is suggested by the parable of the king suddenly appearing at his servant’s deathbed: a sense of embarrassment that he was even contemplating conveying the intimate secrets he had learned about the king.

While the discussion here is about eschatology, it seems to me that this idea of reticence about conveying “the secrets of the King” applies even more so to other aspects of esoteric religious knowledge—i.e., teachings about the nature of the Godhead and the nature of Creation, the things known as Ma’aseh merkavah and Ma’aseh Bereshit, whether these things are identified with what is known as Kabbalah, as in the preponderance of the tradition, or as metaphysics and physics, as Maimonides interprets them.

We live today in an era in which there is widespread interest in the mystical and “spiritual” side of Judaism; classes on Hasidism and Kabbalah are among the most popular in many centers of Jewish study. These matters are very complex, nor does everything in these areas necessarily fall under the rubric of Ma’aseh Merkabah and Ma’aseh Bereshit. But our generation would do well, among other things, to bear in mind the value of a certain modesty and reticence regarding “the secrets of the king.”

A Postscript to Vayehi: On “the Mysteries of God”

In my perpetual haste to send out Hitzei Yehonatan before Shabbat, I may have failed to presented a balanced, nuanced view of the problematics of Kabbalah study today. On the one hand, to be sure, the concept of a sense of modesty, of reticence towards God, is a central one. The Rav often spoke, both with regard to personal life and the religious life, of a certain tradition among talmidei hakhamim of privacy, of not talking to all and sundry about ones deepest inner feelings and emotions. This is certainly in refreshing contrast to the American style of wearing ones heart on ones sleeve.

On the other hand, I am well aware that the so-called “New Age” renewal of interest in spirituality is at least in part a healthy reaction to the paucity of spirit in much of today’s world. Our society, in general, is oriented towards financial success, career and consumerism in a sick kind of way. Time and again we hear of people reaching middle life, having been great successes in the competitive race, asking ”Is this all?,” and seeking some deeper religious meaning in life. (We have had our fair share of such people at our Shabbat table.)

It’s a truism to say that Jewish teachers cannot start teaching mature adults at Alef-Bet, with Siddur and holidays, nor even with the rationalistic theology and “principles of faith” that have been the stock in trade for most of the past century. There is a strongly felt longing in this generation for the immediacy and intensity of religious experience that are associated with mysticism. Nevertheless, one must walk, and teach others to walk, with a certain reverence, an awe and modesty in face of kivshono shel olam, the secrets of the cosmos expressed in Zohar and Kabbalah. Especially important in this respect is the idea of bittul atzmi, of self-negation, of the awareness that at some basic level religiosity means stripping off at least part of ones ego. Yirat Hashem tehorah: “The fear/awe of the Lord is pure” [Ps 19:10]. To my mind, the purity spoken of here by the Psalmist is not primarily ritualistic (as in its simple meaning in Sefer Vayikra and elsewhere), nor sexual (as in much of Kabbalistic Mussar literature), but first and foremost purity of thought, particularly in the sense of uprooting all the innumerable ulterior motifs and posturing and ego-trips that we bring from living in modern urban culture. It is a next to impossible task, certainly to accomplish fully, but true fear of God requires that one make a start.

Even within the world of Torah, there is much cheapening or vulgarization of values, the use of gimmicks to tempt people into Judaism, in ways which ultimately cheapen Judaism itself. Those who peddle books of Kabbalah from door-to-door or in public squares, like ice cream or sunflower seeds; or the popular Orthodox rabbi who tries to argue that one can be halakhically observant and still be “in” or “with it”; that, e.g., you’ll enjoy sex more, perhaps even enjoying the same rush as an extramarital affair, if you’re faithful to your wife and keep taharat hamishpaha!

This issue of humility brings to mind something I recently read. Confronted with the statement remark of a well-known Buddhist teacher that “Judaism is a lowly religion,” Arthur Green reacted that “Why shouldn’t religion be lowly? God is lowly and uply, high and low an everywhere…. The whole hasidic teaching is that you have to go down to the lowest places to find God, not just preserve your pristine holiness in the high places….” In an interesting way, the very humility and modesty fostered by Judaism returns one to a full embrace of real human life, as it is lived in the most down-to-earth sense.

It is also interesting, vis-a-vis the issue of transcendence and immanence, that the traditional liturgy speaks of God almost entirely in immanent terms. Thus, the berakhot, the various blessings addressed to God, each revolve around some concrete component of human experience—whether these be actual objects: food stuffs or fragrance or other things from which we derive enjoyment; the mitzvot we perform which, while pointed heavenward, are concrete acts in the real world; the miscellaneous blessings of praise, whether for various occasions, or as part of the fixed daily liturgy; or even the blessings of Shemonah Esreh, which are worded as petitions for specific things in human life.

There are a handful of exceptions to this, that I would call the “exceptions that prove the rule”—i.e., prayers or blessings that point exclusively to the Divine, supernal world. These are: the first verse of Shema’; the third blessing of the Amidah, the kedusha, the three-fold doxology praising God in His holy transcendence; and, in a different way, the institution of Shabbat which, unlike all the other holy days and things, is sanctified inherently, not through human action (see HY III; Vayetze).


Post a Comment

<< Home