Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Tevet (Months)

Month of Tevet

Tevet represents the low point of the cycle of the year: the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year, occurs (in the Northern Hemisphere, where 96% of the world’s Jews live) towards the end of Kislev or the beginning of Tevet, and is known in Hebrew as Tekufat Tevet. Interestingly, the zodiacal sign for Tevet is Capricorn—gedi, the goat, an animal known for its cussedness and aggressiveness: at least according to stereotype, one who gets in a goat’s way is likely to be unceremoniously butted with its lowered horns. But this aggression is not lethal: unlike Leo, the lion, associated with the Hebrew month of Av, which stands for the feline family, heavy-duty carnivores and serious, powerful, formidable killers—and thus an appropriate sign for the month of destruction and exile—goats are actually herbivores.

In Lurianic tradition this month is related to correcting the trait of anger: one might say, anger between Israel and the nations. The month begins with the final days of Hanukkah, a holiday that marks the distinctiveness of Israel and Jews from other nations in, so to speak, a realpolitik sense; the other date of note in this month is the fast of the Tenth of Tevet, which chronologically or historically is the first of the four fast days relating to the destruction of Jerusalem—namely, the first phase, that of the start of the siege.

Though the one is a day of no little festivity, of psalms and hymns of praise and, at least nowadays, an occasion for parties, eating special foods, etc. (greatly exaggerated in the Western Diaspora by dint of the proximity to Christmas in the context of an open, pluralistic society), while the other is a day of fasting and, ideally, of introspection and repentance, the underlying theme is in a certain sense the same: the problematic, ambivalent, ambiguous nature of Jewish destiny in a world ruled and dominated by others.

Interestingly, the Torah portions for Tevet—from Miketz through Vaera, the closing section of Genesis and the opening chapters of Exodus—also represent a kind of low point on the cycle. Backtracking for a moment to Vayeshev (Gen 37 on), we find Joseph descending into the pit, descending to Egypt, descending to ignominy in his master’s home, and finally descending to prison. In Miketz, the first of the Tevet portions (at least this year), he is followed there by his family—initially driven by famine, then kept there by a series of ruses designed by Joseph, most probably to test whether they had done “teshuvah,” but ultimately taking up residence in a land not their own. In Midrashic tradition, this is the first of the Exiles, foreshadowing the successive captivities of Israel in four different kingdoms. Initially, the picture of Israel in a foreign land is a positive one: as a family, or clan, they enjoy the protection of this bright, enormously talented, ingenious young man, whose abilities are quickly recognized by all that meet him (he is repeatedly called ish matzliah, a successful man, enjoying God’s blessings, and given carte blanche to run things as he sees fit: see Gen 39:2-6; 39:21-23; 41:38-45)—whether in the home of Potiphar, in prison, or before Pharaoh.

Joseph foreshadows a long line of bright, talented Jews who were mishneh lamelekh—viceroys and ministers to kings and presidents, often in matters of finance or diplomacy— Shmuel Hanaggid; Don Isaac Abravanel (remembered today mostly as an important Jewish thinker and exegete); Benjamin Disraeli; Walter Rathenau (the most tragic of the lot); Bernard Baruch; Henry Kissinger; etc. But sooner or later, almost inevitably, it seems, “there arose a new king who knew not Joseph.” And suddenly the money, power, cleverness, and sheer numbers of the Jews begins to represent a threat, paranoiac leaders fear their becoming a fifth column, and repression ensues: in Egypt, harsh slavery; in Spain & Portugal, expulsion; in medieval Christian Europe and pre-modern Poland and Russia, sporadic violence and murder; and ultimately, in mid-twentieth century, genocide.


For more teachings on Hanukkah, see below in the Archives for December 2005.

I would like to add a few qualifications to what I wrote earlier, in my essay on Esau and Jacob (HY VII: Kislev II), about Hellenism and Hebraism. While this synthesis certainly involves positive features, and great potential for good, it is far from being without problems, so that there is something almost messianic in the hopes pinned on it. There is good reason for Jews’ suspicion of even the most noble, elevated, sublime elements in humanistic culture.

Several key lines of demarcation between Judaism and Western culture:

1) The notion that “man is the measure of all things” has its pitfalls. There is implied a sense of over-confidence in human judgment. The axioms accepted by “modern,” liberal people—personal autonomy, free will, maximum freedom in all things—have led, in the “post-modern” age, to the sense that there is no clearcut standard defining the good. Two generations ago it seemed self-evident that the advocates of liberalism were on the side of the angels, in the struggle with fascist and totalitarian systems that crushed the human soul. Clearly, pluralism, in the sense of respecting and honoring different cultures and nations and races and even religious traditions, is all to the good—but today we seem to have entered an age of axiological pluralism: that there is no universal moral truth, no cultural or intellectual standards. Ultimately, of course, the notion of Torah implies that there is truth—even, within the Noachide Code, a certain basic, minimal ethical code for all mankind.

2) Greek culture, specifically, has strong elements of determinism, of fatalism. Last time, in a different context, we mentioned the myth of Oedipus. There is a sense in this story of fate, of destiny catching up with a person no matter what. Oedipus fled from his childhood home to avoid the terrible prophecy of the oracle that he would kill his father and sleep with his mother—and yet it still happens, even though he doesn’t realize at the time who they are! Essentially, we have here the denial of free will. The modern-day, updated version of this is a biological determinism: the view that we are no more than highly incredibly sophisticated animals or machines, ultimately, helpless victims of the electric circuitry of our brains.

3) Maurice Samuel, in his book The Gentleman and the Jew, sees the basic line of demarcation between Jewish culture and Gentile aristocratic culture—for example, that of the English upper classes, but with its roots in classical Greece—in the attitude toward violence. He sees the emphasis on the competitive spirit, on things like the hunt, and even the celebration of team sports (“the battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton”), as reflecting an attitude toward what it means to be a human being that is profoundly antithetical to the Jewish view. He sees sports and other forms of competitive as ultimately a ritual acting out of warfare, which is seen as the noblest, most gentlemanly-like of human endeavors, rather than as the abomination it is, even when it proves to be necessary.

Two Postscripts:

But before leaving the family saga of Bereshit, a few comments on Genesis, or at least the second half, Gen 25-50, as a pair of interlocked Bildungsroman—that is, a kind of biography telling the story of a person’s life, from early youth through maturity and to old age, with the focus on the personal challenges encountered and the hero’s growth over the course of a lifetime. The cycles of stories of Jacob and Joseph—different as they are—may both be read in this way.

I see the central challenge in Jacob’s life as his learning to face his brother as an equal: the turn from deceit, avoidance and flight, as a youth, to meeting Esau man to man, after twenty-two years. From a protected, softish, young man, to a pater familius and leader of his clan. All of his tests or the conflicts surrounding him were one on one: Isaac and Rebekkah, himself and Esau, Rachel and Leah, himself vs. Laban, and then again, confronting Esau as an adult.

In both families the parents played favorites, but whereas in the case of Esau and Jacob each parent had their special favorite, creating unbearable tension in the home, in the case of Joseph it was his father who pampered and spoiled him, making him the favorite of all, the center of the constellation of twelve. It is thus hardly surprising that he saw himself as king, as the central axis around which the microcosm of his family was to turn. Thus, for him, what maturity came to mean was not meeting the others as equals, but learning to wield what we would call today political power. He only encounters his brothers again when he is already the second most powerful man in the kingdom. He waxes sentimental, weeping with them when he finally reveals his identity—but he is also clearly their benefactor, and that of their father. His role is that of the worldly-wise brother who helps his “greenhorn” family to become established in the new land, where he knows how things work. Indeed, he doesn’t even have to talk to “the right people,” because he himself is “the right people.”

But in the final analysis, the Bible what is not only a human story, a great family saga— as compelling, and filled with human insight and psychological acumen as it may be—but the book of God and man. And what makes it so powerful is precisely the presence and encounter with God in the fray of all-too-human life. It is, so to speak, the juxtaposition of the vision of the angels coming up and down, and the Divine promise to Jacob that “I will be with you” as he sets off to the unknown, with what comes after—the challenges of a household with two fractious women, the dealings with a wily and dishonest father-in-law, the practical details of animal husbandry. What would Jacob have thought at Beth-el had he known what the next twenty-two years would bring… ?

MIKETZ: An Unbroken Chapter

1) The word parashah, which literally means “section,” is used in two different senses in the Torah: one, to refer to the portion read from the Torah each week, the parshat ha-shavua; second, and in a more strictly halakhic sense, the visible divisions within the Torah text, something like paragraphs or chapters: those places where the Torah text begins on a new line (parashah petuhah: roughly equivalent to a “hard return” or “carriage return” in printed matter); or where there is a blank space in the middle of a line, equivalent to the width of nine letters (parashah setumah). These divisions generally indicate the beginning of a new law or idea, or a new phase in the narrative. They are very important halakhically: they are based on ancient tradition, which specifies precisely where they appear in the Torah; Rambam, in Chapter 8 of Hilkhot Sefer Torah, brings a comprehensive list of all the parshiyot. If a Torah scroll is written with even one of the parashah divisions missing, or done improperly, (e.g., a “closed” for an “open” one, or vice versa), the Torah scroll is unfit for public use (except in those very rare cases where there is some dispute about the tradition itself—an interesting situation I once encountered).

This year I started to wonder about the fact that Miketz consists of one long, single parshah, without any internal divisions. The only other weekly portion that shares this characteristic is Vayetze (Balak, which tells the story of Balaam, is almost one long continuum, but there is a parashah division at the very end, at Num 25:1, at the end of the Balaam story and just before the handful of verses that tell of the incident of Baal-peor and the zealotry of Pinhas). Perhaps I am particularly aware of these phenomena because, as a baal keri’ah, I always seek an easily-located resting point for my eyes, to know where to resume reading after each aliyah; their lack is thus keenly felt. In any event, the question I ask myself is: why?

There is a Rabbinic dictum that the divisions into parshiyot were introduced by Moses to provide the student with an opportunity to reflect, contemplate, review, and absorb the subject matter of one section before going on to the next one. There is even a discussion in the Talmud as to whether the Torah was given in “modular” form (megilot megilot; Gittin 60a), or as one seamless unit (Torah hatumah). This is seen as particularly important regarding the legal parts of the Torah, which demand more intensive and detailed study, but the narrative portions of the Torah (which includes virtually all of Genesis) are also divided into coherent sections, distinct stories or stages in the unfolding of the drama. So why, nevertheless, are there no divisions in Vayetse and Miketz? One could certainly think of appropriate places for such division: e.g., at 42:1, when the scene turns from what Joseph was doing in Egypt to Jacob and his sons in the land of Canaan; or at 43:1, where, as years pass after the first journey to Egypt and the famine deepens, Yaakov begins to realize that he must allow Benjamin to go if he and his family are to survive at all.

I have not seen this question addressed by any traditional commentators, so I will present my own speculations. It occurred to me that the common denominator of Vayetzse and Miketz is that both deal with Galut, with Exile (Balaam, centered on the machinations of the non-Jewish king and wizard who try to harm Israel, also involves a kind of “exilic” theme). The 22 years spent by Jacob in Haran were a kind of Galut, a kind of “the deeds of the fathers are a sign for the children.” Indeed, one midrash (which I saw quoted by Mei Shiloah on Vayeshev) goes so far as to say that Jacob thought that his exile in Haran would fulfill the Divine promise, “Know, that your seed shall be strangers in a land not their own” (Gen 15:13), obviating the need for his descendants to go into exile in Egypt (or into other future exiles). Miketz, of course, represents the mechanism that brought the entire Jacob family down to Egypt.

The underlying idea, then—thus it seems to me—is that Galut is in some way something to be passed over quickly, in one fell swoop, in one unbroken continuum, without pausing to dwell or reflect upon it too much. It is a kind of necessary evil, a stage to be gotten through, but not, so to speak, an end in itself. Never mind how complex or intricate or even inherently interesting the events that occurred in or on the way to Galut may be; the graphic arrangement in the Torah scroll itself hints that they are somehow to be treated as one unit.

I would be curious to hear any other explanations readers may offer, particularly whether anyone knows something on this matter by one of the classical mefarshim.

MIKETZ: What Motivated Joseph

The classical issue raised in Miketz is: why did Joseph play these elaborate “cat and mouse” games with his brothers? Why did he conceal his identity, play tricks on them, hiding their money, and later his own divining cup, in their sacks, detaining first Shimon and then Binyamin as prisoners, etc? There are three possible answers:

1) In a sense, the most obvious answer is that he still held a grudge against them for their murderous cruelty towards him. Now that the tables were turned, and he enjoyed a position of unquestioned power, he saw an opportunity to put them through mental suffering. Certainly, this is a perfectly natural, even expected human reaction; everyone can surely think of examples from everyday life. If this were a novel, and not the Torah, we would take that route, and one could get into all sorts of interesting psychological reflections, e.g., about Joseph’s own inner conflicts. He was doubtless torn between maintaining his mask and the elaborate “game” that went with it, and disclosing his identity and embracing them. After all, they were his brothers, they represented home and childhood, the only thing he ever knew on an intimate level. There is a human tendency to suppress and forget pain, to remember the good things. Thus, several times we are told about Joseph turning aside to a private place to weep, washing his face, and returning to maintain his distant stance. And ultimately, when he saw Judah’s strength and courage, his willingness to take unqualified responsibility for his younger brother and to avoid at all cost hurting their old father, he could no longer hold back. The reaction described at the beginning of Vayigash (45:1-3) was a spontaneous emotional one: the sadistic, vicious, jealous older brother had become a mentsch!

We can also imagine that Joseph, as a stranger in a new land, a “self-made man” who created for himself a new persona, faced a peculiar conflict. He married a woman, Asnat bat Peta-fera, from the local aristocracy, who certainly served him well in terms of running his home, bearing his children, as a proper hostess at state functions, no doubt also “good in bed”—but somehow, it is difficult to imagine real emotional intimacy between them. Someone once said that intermarriage is a kind of permanent exile—a place from which one can never go home again, because one’s home is built on something alien to one’s deepest inner self. (And if there are so many intermarriages In America, and many of them are doubtless happy—as I believe they are—it is because the Jewishness of so many American Jews is shallow, not based on deep roots, so that their basic personalities, their whole cultural world and associations, is far more American than Jewish.)

2) But we are reluctant to see the Torah as portraying its heroes in such a mean and petty light, and I believe that, beyond the purely human level, there are further levels of height and nobility in Joseph’s behavior. A second lien of interpretation is that Joseph behaved as he did in order to fulfill his dreams, which had a divine, prophetic message. All eleven brothers had to bow to him, like the sheaves in the dream; then, separately, the “sun and the moon” needed to do so, along with the stars—i.e. Jacob with mother Rachel (who was already dead). Thus, he devised a mechanism to bring down Benjamin, and then Jacob. But, notwithstanding his inner self-control, at a certain point his emotional ability to maintain the pose of an alien to his own brothers faltered. The emotional climax, as I described earlier, emerges in Vayigash. And, one might say, his failure to bring these things about cost him his “kingship.”

3) The third interpretation, and the one most widely accepted among the classical commentators, is that Joseph functioned as a kind of “Musar rebbe”: a kind of self-appointed moral teacher or guide to his brothers. Everything he did was intended to test whether the brothers would treat Benjamin as a scapegoat, as they had him, or not. As the all-powerful “Egyptian,” he functioned as a kind of father figure, who like their own father favored the youngest sibling. When Binyamin was caught in crime, they could, in so-called “good faith,” go back and say “there was nothing we could do”—or, as Judah did, they could stick their necks out and try to save him.

The problem with this approach is that assumes a tremendous, indeed, unqualified transcendence of self-interest on the part of Joseph. He had to have seen himself as acting in the name of objective truth, as embodying the values of Torah, of justice, of compassion, etc. Indeed, this is the concept of the Tzaddik in the Hasidic world—the leader is seen as a person who totally negates or detaches himself from his own ego, acting as a kind of channel for Divine blessing and wisdom, and acting, in his interaction with others, to help each person to realize his own highest potential, and to guide people in the correct path in life. And Joseph, it will be remembered, is traditionally seen as the very apotheosis of the attribute of Tzaddik.

The question to be asked here is: is this really so? So often, one hears, both in the broader world and even in the Jewish religious world, of people who represent themselves as elevated “spiritual teachers,” for whom this serves as a mask for various ego needs. (Just recently I heard about a certain guru at the center of a cult of “enlightenment,” in which he humiliates and shames all and sundry.) Too often, the widespread longing today for meaning, for spirituality, is exploited as a tool to manipulate others, to gain power, wealth, etc. At times, the stance of spiritual superiority seems to obviate the need to relate “at eye level” to others, on a one to one basis.

And yet, nevertheless, there are also authentic holy men in the world—people who have really and truly learned to detach their own selves from the work they do with others, to teach and guide them in the path of truth. Happy is he who has met even one such teacher in his lifetime.

SHEMOT: A Short Thought: From Family to Crowd

In the introduction to this month’s Torah readings, I spoke of the overall theme of decline—how Jacob’s family “descended” from their own homeland to Egypt, initially as immigrants, enjoying a privileged and protected situation by dint of their family connection to the brilliant young vizier; but afterwards as slaves, enduring harsh and bitter oppression. Reading the opening verses of this week’s parsha, it occurred to me that one can pinpoint the exact moment at which this happened.

The parsha, and the Book of Exodus/Shemot as a whole, begins with a list of the sons of Israel/Jacob: “These are the names of the sons of Israel who came to Egypt…” Immediately after the list, we read “and Joseph died and all his brothers and all that generation” (v. 6). A whole world disappeared, as it inevitably must: parents die, and children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren who grew up in a different time and, often, in a different place and cultural milieu as well, take their place. “And the children of Israel were fruitful, and swarmed, and multiplied greatly, and the land was filled with them” (v. 7).

Between these two sentences we see the transition from an extended family, a collection of known individuals with names and histories, to—a crowd, a mob, a “mass,” a swarm (vayishretzu: they multiply like animals, or worse, like reptiles or insects! Note, in almost all racial stereotypes, the element of exaggerated sexual potency or profligacy of “the other”), a faceless, anonymous crowd. One could say that the Hebrew title of this book, Shemot (“Names”) is meant with no little irony, since the people so rapidly lost their “names” in Egypt. During Joseph’s lifetime, and so long as he was remembered, the sons of Jacob were accepted in Egypt. They were, to be sure, the poor relatives of the great man: rough and unpolished in manner; garbed in crude woolens or animal-skins rather than in the fine dyed linen of the Egyptians; bearded rather than clean-shaven; rural farmers and shepherds used to spending most of the day outdoors in the sun, rather than cosmopolitan sophisticates, involved in the intricate social life of a hub of international commerce; and, worst of all, sheep growers. Nevertheless, they were accepted as part of the scene. But afterwards, “a new king reigned over Egypt, who did not know Joseph” (v. 8), and immediately, panic, paranoia, fear took the place of friendship; these masses of people who are not like us are likely to become a subversive element, a fifth column: “led us outwit them, lest they multiply… and join our enemies.” And thus began the servitude in Egypt.

At root, it all started from anomie, from the anonymity and alienation of the crowd. It is a truism, but one that bears repeating nevertheless, that racial and ethnic hatred begins when one perceives other human beings as part of the group to which they belong, rather than as individuals, with dreams and aspirations and feelings and talents and shortcomings and strengths and weaknesses of his/her own. And relations between groups become reduced to one crowd or mass relating to another in such terms (see on this, and other aspects of how individuals change in groups, the late Bulgarian-Jewish writer and social thinker Elias Cannetti, in his Crowds and Power). As soon as one knows a particular person as an individual, group stereotypes tend to drop away. Of course it’s more complicated: often, a person continues to accept the stereotype, but makes an exception for a particular individual: “I’m not a bigot; some of my best friends are…. [Jews, blacks, Arabs, homosexuals, Catholics, Moroccans, Romanians, etc.].” And then, of course, there are the die-hard bigots who never allow the other to get close enough so that they might have to risk knowing him as a person.

But this is not meant as a simple Brotherhood Week sermon. On another level, I am much troubled by the unfettered individualism of our culture, and by the lack of social cohesion or even responsibility, of historical and cultural depth, that often accompanies it. Community may be a very positive value. Human beings are gregarious creatures, and belonging to groups—tribes, nations, ethnic groups, religions, political parties, clubs—is a natural part of human life, for better or for worse. For those of us living in the Middle East, the notion that one can look at society as a collection of individuals without any group-identity or roots seems naive, if not utterly foolhardy. But all this is subject for another time.


Post a Comment

<< Home