Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Vayishlah (Rashi)

For more teachings on this parsha, see Archives for December 2005.

More on Jacob and Esau; or, What’s In a Name?

This week’s parsha begins with Yaakov’s dramatic encounter with the mysterious figure at the river ford of Yabok (interestingly, the transition from life to death is associated with that name; the classical book on the subject is known as Ma’avar Yabok), in whose wake Jacob’s name is changed to Israel. Later on, after Yaakov has entered the Land of Israel and returns to the same site at Beth-El where he experienced his earlier vision, God Himself speaks with him and, in words almost identical to those uttered by the angel, blesses him and gives him a new name.

Rashi comments in similar terms on both these passages. We shall begin with the latter verse, which is more succinct:

35:9. “And God said to him: You who are named Yaakov: your name shall no longer be called Yaakov, but rather Israel shall be your name.” Rashi: “Your name shall no longer be called Yaakov.” Language suggestive of a person who waits in ambush and in crookedness, but [rather] language of a prince and leader.

Rashi’s comment on the earlier passage is somewhat more elaborate. It begins as follows:

32:29. “And he said: Your name shall no longer be called Yaakov, but rather Israel, for you have striven with God and with man and prevailed.” Rashi: It shall no longer be said that the blessings came to you through crookedness and deceit, but through rulership and manifestation of [the Divine?] face.

The issue of the dishonesty and deceit involved in Jacob’s acquiring the birthright and blessing and the moral difficulty in accepting this story are perennial ones. This comment of Rashi, repeated almost verbatim in two separate places, as much as admits that the name Yaakov is suggestive of crookedness and moral turpitude, while the name Yisrael indicates rightful rulership and even Divine blessing. The tone here is thus rather different from that of the midrashim quoted in Toldot, in which Rashi seems to defend and explain away, every step of the way, Yaakov’s seemingly dishonest behavior.

To elaborate on the issue of Jacob’s “crookedness”: two weeks ago, Dr. David Levine, Lecturer in Talmud at Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem, gave a brief talk at Yakar about these issues. He noted an interesting point: that there are numerous cases in the Bible in which one other than the first-born becomes the leader and functions de facto as the first-born; so much so, that it is a veritable pattern in its own right: Yitzhak vs. Ishmael; Judah vs. Reuven; Ephraim vs. Manasseh; Moses vs. Aaron; David vs. his six older brothers; etc. Yet in none of these cases does the text criticize or find any fault with this arrangement. Why then in the case of Yaakov is there, at least on the level of peshat, a strong criticism implied for his displacement of his brother?

He went on to present a philological examination of the root עקב , from which the name Yaakov is derived, showing that its linguistic field refers consistently to crookedness, deceit, usurping, etc. Thus, already in the chapter of the stolen blessing, when Esau discovers what his brother has done, he says: “Is he not then rightly called Yaakov, for he has deceived me / supplanted me these two times (יעקב... ויעקבני; Gen 27:36). Similarly, in Hosea 12:4, we also have an explicit description of Yaakov’s action, in uncomplimentary terms: “in the womb he bypassed his brother… (עקב את אחיו).” In Jeremiah 9:3, we find a description of a situation of universal deceit and lack of trustworthiness—”each man is guarded against his neighbor, nor does any trust in their brother; for every brother takes advantage, and every neighbor goes about as a talebearer”—but note: the phrase about the crooked brother is taken from the same root as ya’aqov (כי כל אח עקוב יעקב). When Yehu ben Nimshi lured the priests of Baal into their temple in order to massacre them, we are told that he behaved “with craftiness” (בעקבה; 2 Kgs 10:19). Finally, when Jeremiah bemoans the general crookedness of the human heart, he says עקוב הלב מכל (Jer 17:9).

In an interesting aside, Levine also observed how the account of the birth to Tamar of the twins Peretz and Zerah (Gen 38:27-30) constitutes a kind of parallel to the Esau-Jacob story: here, too, there is a kind of competition between the infants as to which will be born first—the one sticks out its hand, on which there is tied a crimson thread as a marker, but then the other, who is subsequently considered the firstborn and becomes an ancestor of the royal Davidic family, is born. And here too, as with Esav/Edom, we find the color red, as well as the name Zerah, “sunrise/shining,” suggesting brightness.

One more brief linguistic comment: if one examines other infinitives sharing the same first two letters as עקב (the so-called “two-letter roots”), one finds other words that have to do with indirection, crookedness, or otherwise negative and somehow devious qualities: עקש(stubborn); עקל, עקלקל (crooked)—including two familiar roots which, to my surprise, appear nowhere in the Bible (at least according to Mandelkern’s Concordance or the BDB Lexicon): עקם (to twist, make crooked) and עקץ (sting, as of a bee or snake—a concealed form of attack). These last words are evidently of mishnaic/ tannaitic origin. But then, many familiar words don’t exist in Bible—a good example from last week’s portion being the humble workman’s ladder, sulam, which is a biblical hapax lagomena, appearing just this once!

Returning to our Rashi: he uses the verb ‘okbah in a negative sense, as if to say: after this change of names, Yaakov is no longer the one who gets what he does in life through crookedness and deceit, but honestly and straightforwardly, in reward for his own virtues and qualities. He seems to be suggesting that the events described here serve as a kind of tikkun for his earlier cheating of his brother: a kind of admission that he was crooked (similar to what we saw in our study of Rashi in Toldot), a point to which I shall now turn.

Yet I would suggest another aspect of this peshat: first, that Yaakov is making here a kind of reconciliation, in that he is at last open to making peace with his brother. This is a kind of tikkun, but it is also the result of a process that he underwent over the past two-odd decades. Many years ago, when I first started writing these pages (HY I: Toldot=Toldot (Torah)), I suggested that the Jacob saga may be read as a kind of Bildungsroman, in which we see the transitions he undergoes in life. He begins life as a kind of “mama’s boy,” not yet fully masculine, very frightened of the world of males (a world in which his own father, Yitzhak, took a rather reticent, withdrawn role), and reacted through either lying or flight. After two decades of dealing with various human problems—a dishonest father-in-law cum employer; a polygamous household, with two sisters locked in a complex love-hate relationship; the problems of assuring his own economic security, through learning and mastering the skills of animal husbandry and genetics, and ultimately standing up to his father-in-law—we find that, without noticing it or being able to point out exactly when it happened, he became a different person. And it is this change that is symbolized by the name: from Yaakov the sneak, the usurper, to Yisrael, the straightforward, mature man, confident of his own inner power and resources. The struggle with the angel, the midrashic “Prince of Esau,” was a symbolic acting out of these roles: one in which Esau and Jacob were at least equals, neither one “fixing” the other.

As an aside: these kinds of issues—what is meant by masculinity in the positive sense—are issues that have come to the forefront for some in recent years. With the burgeoning feminist movement, and women’s discoveries of their own strengths along with some of the negative aspects of male-ness, coupled with the problematics of today’s highly technological, often alienating society, many men are reexamining the nature of the male journey through life, seeking models other than those of either violence and aggression, or those of highly competitive professional or business success admired in Western culture today. Robert Bly, in his book Iron Man, raises some of these issues in an interesting way, although his answers are more from the realm of pagan mythology than of monotheistic religious faith. Daniel Boyarin has written an intriguing book from a Jewish perspective, in which the traditional lamdan serves as an “alternative model of heterosexuality” to that of the West: see his ,Unheroic Conduct: The Rise of Heterosexuality and the Invention of the Jewish Man. A fascinating book written more than half a century ago by Maurice Samuel, The Jew and the Gentleman, also covers much of this ground, seeing the line of demarcation between Jew and Gentile in attitudes towards war and combat as a cultural ideal—but we shall return to these issues another time.

We now turn to the latter half of Rashi’s comment on 32:29, in which he tells a rather strange story:

And in the end the Holy One blessed be He will be revealed to you in Beth-El and change your name. And I will be there with you, and tell you of them.

The basic difficulty here is that the Torah tells us of Yaakov’s change of name twice: once by the angel, and the second time by God Himself. Thus, Rashi takes pains to point out that the first time he was told of the name change was a kind of preliminary one, and that at that point the angel informed him of the anticipated epiphany which would in some sense be a more “official” name-change.

And this is what is written, “And he struggled with an angel and prevailed, he wept and beseeched him” (Hosea 12:4). The angel wept and beseeched him. And what did he beg of him? ”Beth-El he shall be found, and there he will speak with us” (ibid.). Wait for me until He speaks with us there. But Yaakov did not wish to wait, and under duress he told him; and this is, “and he blessed him there” (ibid., 30)—that he begged him to wait, and he did not wish to do so.

But more than that: Rashi quotes a midrash which makes it clear that this was not the original plan: the struggle with the angel was perhaps intended as a symbolic struggle with his brother, but not originally intended for presentation of the new name. The angel saw this task as reserved for God Himself, but Yaakov evidently knew that there was some important message that he was to be given, and forced the angel to reveal it to him then. He learns this from the verse in Hosea (in which it is unclear who begs of whom), but also sees it as hinted at in the subsequent phrase “and he blessed him there”—the addition of the word ”there” is otherwise unnecessary: the angel was not supposed to bless him at that particular point, but did so under duress.

This entire story is interesting in that it gives us a glimpse into, so to speak, the private life of the angels: the angel, like a human being, planned a particular course of action but was forced to depart from it by dint of superior power. A very different image of angels than what we usually think—which brings us to our next topic.

Postscript: A Short Essay on Angels

“And he saw a ladder… with Divine angels going up and down upon it”

The subject of angels has puzzled me for quite some time: What exactly are they? How can we, as people brought up under the modern dispensation, talk about and believe in such things? In a certain sense, belief in angels requires a greater leap of faith than belief in God, for which there is, if not iron-clad proof, certainly many cogent arguments. I think it would be fair to say that many modern religious Jews, however observant and strict they may be in their observance, have a world-view in which there is, on the one hand, God, reigning alone in singular splendor in the mysterious hidden realms of the Infinite and, on the other hand, the physical world of the natural universe as we know it from modern science, from “eagle nests to lice eggs” or, to bring it up to date, from the infinite unfathomable depths of intergalactic space with its billions of stars, to our own earth, down to microscopic single-celled life and subatomic particles.

Angels seem to belong, either to a hopelessly out-dated medieval world view, or else are part of the iconography of the Victorian age, alongside lace-doilies, ever-so-precious Christmas cards with cherubs, or kitschy memorial stones in working-class Catholic cemeteries. Alternatively, they are no more than a figure of speech, as when Oprah Winfrey talks about people who are visited by “angels”—meaning, flesh and blood human beings who perform extraordinary and supererogatory acts of kindness and generosity.

And yet angels permeate the Jewish tradition. The above example, from one of the Torah portions read recently, of the angels seen in Jacob’s vision at Beth-el, is but one among many. There are, broadly speaking, two types of angels: the one, Divine messengers who appear among men as human beings to perform some task or mission: e.g., the three messengers sent to Abraham to inform him of Sarah’s impending miraculous pregnancy and the overthrowing of Sodom; the angel who appears to the stupid Manoah and his clever wife to convey instructions about the birth and upbringing of the wonderful child to be born to them, who will be a super-hero who will save Israel; the angels who guide Ezekiel and Zechariah around; the one who informs Isaiah of his mission; and many others. In later Jewish folk-legend a similar function is performed by the prophet Elijah (also called “the angel of the covenant’), who appears in the guise of the mysterious stranger bearing an important message, and then disappears without a trace.

And then—and this is my real concern here—there are the myriad hosts of ministering angels, whose sole function is to praise God, to sing His praises daily. These fill our literature: they appear here and there in the Tanakh (at the end of Ps 102, and many other places); in the so-called “Inter-Testamental “ literature, consisting of such Apocryphal works as the books of Enoch, IV Ezra, the Apocalypse of Baruch, etc.; in the Dead Sea Scrolls, which contain an entire angelic liturgy; in the Merkavah or Hekhalot literature (a kind of proto-Kabbalistic, mystical genre), and so on and so forth.

Interestingly, even so putatively “rational” a figure as Rambam, in his outline of the various components of the natural world in the opening chapters of the Yad (Yesodei ha-Torah 2.3-8), speaks of angels or ishim, intelligent celestial beings, composed of form but without matter, who praise God, and enjoy a higher level of apprehension of the Godhead than even the greatest prophet.

But most important to a Jew such as myself, who worships thrice daily, is the central role played by angels in our daily liturgy. The Kedushah, the three-fold proclamation of Gods holiness, which is perhaps the quintessential moment of public prayer, one of the few prayers for which a minyan is indispensable, is based on the premise of the existence of angelic choruses: “We shall sanctify Your name in the world, as it is sanctified in the supreme heavens…”—that is, the public Kedushah is an imitation or parallel act of worship to the heavenly chorus of angels that praise God daily. Similarly, the opening blessing of the main body of Shaharit after the introductory psalms—namely, Yotzer Or—celebrates God’s creation of the heavenly lights luminaries as a manifestation of His wisdom, and then, almost seamlessly, turns to a detailed depiction of the heavenly scene in which various classes of angels—seraphim on the one side, ofanim on the other—recite the verses of Kadosh and Barukh. (These passages are given particular poetic elaboration in some of the piyyutim for the High Holy Days, which were among my favorites as a young man, and which regretfully are not recited in Eretz Yisrael.)

I once asked Rav Adin Steinsaltz the question, “What do you think of angels?” to which he replied, “Perhaps it would be better to ask an angel what he thinks of you!” After I did a double–take, he continued: “An angel is a rather simple creature, composed of pure spirit, with no will of its own, no evil inclination, no drives or desires except to do what it was created for, whereas you (meaning of course every human being, not me personally) are a strange hybrid of angel and chimpanzee.”

For myself, I have found two reasonably cogent ways of explaining what we mean by angels. The one is based on a book by Huston Smith, Professor of Religion at MIT, called The Forgotten Truth. In this rather unusual little book, he presents a serious challenge to the modern scientific, empiricist picture of the world. Basically, he says that almost every human culture, with the exception of post-Renaissance Western culture, has a remarkably similar four-tiered picture of the universe, in which this material world is the lowest of four worlds or dimensions, the highest being the realm in which God “dwells.” In between are realms populated by spiritual beings and forces, “palaces” and “stories”—including, of course, the angels.

These words cannot be “proven.” But, he says, once one begins to question the hegemony of the material, empiricist view (this is the most interesting part of his view; many modern theologians argue, à la Teilhard de Chardin, “render unto science the things that are science’s, and under God the things that are God’s”—that is, the separation of realms), an alternative picture or map of how the world itself is structured begins to become more acceptable. Smith challenges the purely mechanistic, material view of the universe, and opens doors to the reality of those realms—such as the four Kabbalistic worlds—about which esoteric traditions in every time and place have spoken in great detail.

A second way of speaking about angels is in terms of the Jungian notion of the collective unconscious, of a store of mythic archetypes within which there exist certain perennial images, which serve as means of conveying the collective wisdom and insight of human culture. In this view, angels are a kind of concretization of certain possibilities that they embody as a model for human existence: of a certain purity, of a life unfettered by the struggle for physical survival, by the pull of various biological urges, by the often chaotic emotions of jealousy, competition, anger, desire, etc. The angel thus embodies spirituality, the service of the Divine in a single-minded way. Notwithstanding the notion of imitatio dei, of imitating God’s attributes, it would seem that imitating the angels is a more modest, and doable, goal for human beings that imitating Almighty God. Hence their usefulness as an object of meditation.

Do they “really” exist or not? Does it even matter? It is enough to speak of them as an option of human existence: of purity and transcendence of human condition, of a kind of intelligence that is not body bound.


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