Monday, December 25, 2006

Miketz (Rashi)

For more teachings on this portion, see the Archives for January 2006.

Dreams and Their Solution

As the Shabbat of this parsha has already passed, I will suffice with a few comments on one Rashi passage from this portion:

Gen 41:8: “And Pharaoh told them his dream, and there was none who could interpret them to Pharaoh.” Rashi: “And there was none who could interpret them to Pharaoh.” That their voice did not enter into his ears, and he did not have any satisfaction from their interpretation. For they said to him: you shall procreate seven daughters, and you shall bury seven daughters.

On the level of the text, Rashi’s point of departure is the seemingly extraneous word “to Pharaoh”; the same meaning could have been conveyed by saying “none could interpret them” (Incidentally, there is an unexplained discrepancy here between the singular form of חלומו, “his dream,” and the plural form of the pronoun used to refer to it, אותם, “them,” as if in anticipation of what Joseph notes in his interpretation, namely, that the two dreams are really one (41:32): different symbols are used to reinforce what is structurally the same dream. Ibn Ezra, the grammarian among the classical commentators, does not address this issue; Hizkuni, and especially Sforno, see this as a hint that the magicians saw the dreams as being entirely separate, and this was what misled them—but this theory fails to account for the word “to Pharaoh”).

Rashi observes that, while the court magicians came up with a plausible “decoding” of the dream as such, it was not appropriate for him, and did not satisfy him. By this remark, he may suggest a kind of interaction or symbiosis between the dreamer and the interpreter. While the dreamer may not understand the dream on his own, he intuitively knows whether a given interpretation fits or not. This, as opposed to that view, current both in ancient cultures and in certain schools and circles to this day, according to which dream interpretation is an objective, universal skill, dreams being a kind of universal language in which there is a direct, one-to-one correspondence between each symbol in the dream and its meaning. This is the approach taken by the classical Talmudic sugya on dreams, in Berakhot 55a-57b. Rashi (here following the midrash at Gen. Rab. 89.6) rejects this view, and suggests that the dream has a unique meaning based on the personal, inner world of the dreamer.

It is interesting to compare this to the modern psychoanalytic approach to dreams, according to which dreams come from the individual’s unconscious world and function as a kind of message or discourse the person holds with his unconscious while sleeping. The contents of dreams reflect emotions, impulses and wishes hidden deep within the person, that are perhaps too dangerous for the person to acknowledge or even consciously know of, even within himself—but properly understood they may help a person to gain knowledge of himself, and of things that have been deeply troubling him of which he was not even aware. Or, as the Talmud says at the start of the above-mentioned sugya, an uninterpreted dream is like an unread letter. Because dreams originate in the person’s own psyche, he will intuitively recognize whether a given interpretation is correct not.

Thus, Sigmund Freud, in his classical Interpretation of Dreams (written exactly one hundred years ago), states that the first and foremost thing in dream-work—which, again, is based upon interaction and dialogue between the patent and the analyst, perhaps like the ancient dreamer and the dream interpreter?—is that the dreamer articulate his associations with the particular things seen in the dream, the feeling state evoked, etc., in order to decipher davka its personal, private meaning. Indeed, this is a basic principle of the therapeutic process generally: that the patient must come to his own realization and understanding and insight regarding his life. If these are spoon-fed to him by the therapist, when he is not yet prepared to accept them, they will simply not be internalized by him and hence not be effective.

At first glance, this approach seems to sharply differ from the traditional religious view, stated explicitly in various places in the Bible, that dreams come from God, as a kind of personal prophetic message. “Dream is a sixtieth part of prophecy.” (Indeed, Rambam sees dreams and prophecy as closely related, stating that, with the single exception of Moses, all the prophets received their prophecies in the dream state). Certainly, all those dreams described at any length in the Bible—Jacob’s vision of the ladder, Joseph’s dreams, those of Pharaoh’s cup-bearer and baker as well as of Pharaoh himself, the dream of the Midianite overheard by Gideon (Judges 7:13-15), and those of Nebuchadnezzar interpreted by Daniel—are seen as prophetic on either the personal or national level. In each case, it is clearly stated that it comes from God: when Joseph is seen as having special talent to do so, he demurs that “do not dream-solutions belong to God” (Gen 40:8); or “Not from me! God will answer to Pharaoh’s welfare” (Gen 41:16); or Daniel declares that “there is a God in heaven who reveals mysteries, and has made known to the king what will be at the end of days. This is your dream…” (Daniel 2:28).

But if we say that God is not only transcendent, “in heaven,” but also resides deep within man’s soul, his nefesh elohit, perhaps the two approaches are not so different after all: dreams originate in a hidden, spiritual place within man, couched in a concealed, subtle, arcane idiom.

It is also interesting that Yaakov, Yosef and their families knew what the dreams meant instantly, without outside intervention. It is only the non-Jewish characters in the Bible—the baker, the cup-bearer, Pharaoh and Nebuchadnezzar—who seem to require external help to interpret their dreams. And indeed, one is tempted to add, the master dream-interpreter from Vienna was also Jewish (even if highly assimilated, and even tyrannically anti-religious within his own home; the much-vaunted tolerance of liberal rationalists of his ilk seems to be limited to those who think like themselves).

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.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Vayeshev-Hanukkah (Rashi)

For other teachings on this parsha, and on Hanukkah, see the archives for December 2005.

A Rashi Potpourri

The working assumption among traditional Jews is that the rishonim, the classical commentators and authors of the Middle Ages, wrote their texts with great care and precision. In particular, the two towering figures, Rashi and Rambam, are studied very carefully, and ever word, every turn of phrase, every nuance is delved into, examined, and an attempt made to derive significance, not only from what is said, but from what is not said. In the Rambam’s Yad, much may be learned from the order of the halakhot or why a particular subject was treated in one place and not another (questions we considered during the year we studied Rambam). In Rashi, too, an important question is: “Why did Rashi elaborate upon this particular verse, this particular phrase, and ignore another?” Or, as the late Nehama Leibowitz used to put it: “What is bothering Rashi?”

Thus, the fact that Rashi chose not to comment upon a particular verse is itself deemed significant, and is assumed to teach us something. The assumption, when one finds difficulty in a particular verse, and finds that Rashi does not treat it, is that Rashi must have considered the answer to the problem as so self-evident that his readers would, with a bit of reflection, be able to figure it out for themselves. The absence of Rashi is thus seen as an invitation to further study and thought.

An example of this struck me in the first section of this week’s parsha: the scene in which we are introduced to Joseph and to the tension between him and his brothers. Three times within a few verses we are told of their hated for him: first, after Yaakov indicates his preference for him above the others by giving him the striped tunic, we read וישנאו אותו, “and they hated him” (Gen 37:4); and twice more when he has the dream about the sheaves: ויוסיפו עוד שנוא אותו, “they hated him even more” (ibid., 5, 8). The strange thing is that this phrase is used once when he has the dream and tells it to his brothers, and a second time after the text tells the contents of the dream, and briefly recounts the brother’s reaction. The second time the verse adds, after saying that they hated him even more, על חלומותיו וכל דבריו, “for his dreams and for his words.” The point of the repetition in verse 5 is self-evident: that there was further cause for hating him, not only for being his father’s favorite, but for his own dreams (fantasies? visions? prophecies?) of grandeur: all the brothers will bow down to him. The additional repetition in verse 8 does not refer to anything new, but is part of the expansion of the story: what is told succinctly in verse 5, is repeated and spelled out in vv. 6-8, and hence must conclude with a repetition of the result, “they hated him even more.” All this, Rashi must have considered so obvious that he saw no need to spell it out.

At the end of the scene, after Yaakov chastises him for his dreams, we read that ויקנאו בו אחיו ואביו שמר את הדבר, “and his brothers were jealous of him, and his father kept the thing in mind” (v. 11). It should be noted in passing that, notwithstanding his preference for Joseph, who reminded him of the one great love of his life, Joseph’s mother, Rahel, who died young, Yaakov was not blinded by his love, but criticized him—perhaps for what he saw as signs of a certain narcissism and arrogance in his relationship with his brothers or, according to Rashi on v. 10, for inviting their hostility by not keeping the dream to himself. In this, Yaakov proved himself a good, wise parent, in striking contrast to David, the classic indulgent father in the Bible, of whom we are told, re Adonijah, “And he never in his life chastised his son, to ask him, ‘Why did you do this?’” (1 Kings 1:6)—and was rewarded by a palace revolution in his lifetime.

In any event, why doesn’t Rashi comment on the phrase “And his brothers were jealous of him” in v. 11? Here we have yet another repetition of the fact of their negative emotion, this time with a change of language—קנאה (“jealousy”) rather than שנאה (“hatred”). Why does Rashi ignore this phrase?

To understand that, we must abandon our modernist, post-Freudian conditioning. In the ancient world, dreams are not, as we generally assume them to be, an expression of the dreamer’s unconscious, filled with all the unacceptable and anti-social feelings and desires a person represses during waking life—in this case, Joseph’s childish fantasy of ruling over his family—but a quasi-prophetic state, a means used by God or by spiritual beings (including spirits of the dead) to communicate with men. (Indeed, Rambam says that most prophecies occur in the dream state; it was only Moses who was privileged to converse with God while fully awake). Thus, this dream is taken as a sign that Joseph was indeed destined to rule over his brothers in the future: good reason for Yaakov to take a “wait and see” attitude, and for his brothers enmity at his aloof and self-centered behavior to transform into real jealousy and envy.

On the other hand, there are verses in this parsha which Rashi does explain at some length for reasons that are not altogether clear, at least at first blush. Thus, in the title verse: וישב יעקב בארץ מגורי אביו בארץ כנען —“And Yaakov dwelt in the land where his fathers dwelled, in the land of Canaan” (37:1)—Rashi brings no less than three separate comments, which I shall briefly summarize. First, that after a brief summary of the offspring and settlements of Esau (Chapter 36), the Torah describes Jacob’s settlements and history at length, because they are the ones who are important to God (as his covenant people); Rashi goes on to mention other examples in which the Torah presents certain facts in brief and then elaborates. Second, a Rashi Yashan which assures that, no matter how powerful Esau/Edom my seem, they will ultimately get their comeuppance. Third, a comment on verse 2 that still relates to the opening verse: “Yaakov wished to dwell in calm and tranquility (וישב יעקב), but he was beset by the troubles of Joseph and his brothers”—teaching that the righteous have no reason to expect peace and quiet in their lifetime.

An aside: this is the first Rashi I ever learned, from my parent’s friend Isaiah Heller, z”l, a non-observant New York Jewish intellectual and raconteur who had studied in a heder in White Russia in his childhood. He liked to quote this Rashi as a metaphor for his own situation: he was already well into middle-age, and was having only grief and anxiety from his two grown daughters, rather than the nakhas fun kinder for which he had hoped.

It seems to me that one reason for Rashi’s elaboration of this verse is because of a certain literary anomaly: if we skip the first verse, we find that this parsha in fact begins in a manner similar to the beginning of Toldot (Gen 25:19). We read there: “These are the generations of Yitzhak son of Avraham, Avraham beget Yitzhak….” And, in verse 2: “These are the generations of Yaakov: Joseph was seventeen years old….” In both cases, the genealogical introduction is followed by a brief description of the character and doings of the son or sons, followed by the central incident of the chapter, involving interaction between/among brothers. But in this case that verse is preceded by another, stating that Yaakov dwelt in the land of his fathers; hence, Rashi feels called upon to explain why the pattern is interrupted in this manner.

Another example appears in the next chapter, in the story of Tamar and Yehudah. In the background verses, we are told that Yehudah married a certain woman with whom he had three sons, and the eldest married Tamar. But then:

38:7. “And Er the first-born of Yehudah was wicked in the eyes of God, and God caused him to die [lit., put him to death].” Rashi: Like the evil of Onan, who wasted his seed, as it is said in Onan, “and He also made him to die.” As the death of Er, so was the death of Onan. And why did Er waste his seed? So that she not become pregnant and spoil her beauty.

In the following three verses we are told that the next brother, Onan, was instructed to enter into levirate marriage with Er’s widow but, knowing that the offspring of this union would not be considered his, “whenever he came to his brother’s wife, he would spill it [lit., ‘waste it’] on the earth, that he might not give seed to his brother.” (Incidentally, this act was not what has come to be known in our culture as onanism, but probably coitus interruptus, as per Rashi on v. 10 and as seems the straightforward sense of the verse; or, according to Yevamot 34b, anal intercourse; in any event, it is clear that the text’s real concern here is not with the deviant sexual practice per se, but with the attempt to circumvent his brotherly duty). We are then told that what he did was wicked in God’s eyes, and He caused him to die as well (וימת גם אותו).

Rashi’s comment on verse 7 is prompted by what he sees as an anomaly: two people are described as being put to death by God because of evil they have done, but only in the second case, that of Onan, does the Torah explicitly state what was done. Rashi’s comment, retrospectively equating Er’s action with that of Onan, is an attempt to explain why Er was called evil; from the fact that the word “also” is used of Onan’s death, he infers that the cause of both deaths must have been the same sin. (Incidentally, verse 7 doesn’t say that Er did something evil, but that he was evil, suggesting an almost existential wickedness.)

Why still need to understand why Er did this. Onan’s motivation, selfish and reprehensible as it might be, is at least understandable: he didn’t want to raise and support a child who wouldn’t be “his.” But Er was not a levir, but in an ordinary, first marriage, the proverbial “young couple starting out in life”; hence, there must have been some other reason. Rashi, quoting the Talmudic aggadah, suggests that he was excessive concerned with his wife’s appearance (Yevamot 34b). Interestingly, at Gen 4:19, where we are told that Lemech took two wives, Adah and Tzilah, Rashi comments that one was for sex alone, and took a “cup of sterility”; while the other was for children. It would seem that in the generation of the Flood there was a sharp dichotomy between the erotic aspect of sexual connections, with the related ideal of perfect feminine beauty, and woman’s maternal-familial role. Sound familiar?

I would like to conclude with a few brief comments by Rashi which are rich in psychological insight. The Torah may be read on many levels. Many contemporary preachers, following the midrash, are fond of reading Bereshit as foreshadowing and paradigmatic for Jewish history, the connection to Eretz Yisrael, etc. But we must not lose sight of the most basic level: the Bible as a human story. The universal appeal of these chapters, in particular, is that they speak to us on the immediate human level. Everyone grows up in a home with parents; almost everyone has siblings, and knows something of the rivalry that often exists alongside the feelings of love and friendship; most people, even in this day and age, marry, or at least know something of romantic love, attraction, as well as frustration and conflict. Thus, the characters and situations depicted here are of perennial interest, even on the simple human level.

37.4. “And they could not speak with him peaceably.” Rashi: From their vices, one learns of their praise: that they did not say one thing in their mouth and [feel] another in their heart.

The brothers may have hated Joseph—a bad thing, to be sure—but they were not hypocrites! They hated him, and didn’t hide it in polite, “civilized” parlor games.

37:13. “Please go and I will send you to them, and he said, ‘I am ready.’” Rashi: “I am ready.” A language of modesty and quickness. He hastened to [fulfill] his father’s command, even though he knew that his brother’s hated him.

This tiny vignette sees in the one word, hineni, “I am ready,” a picture of filial dedication, of Joseph’s willingness to obey his father’s request despite the hatred he knew his brother’s held for him and the danger involved in going to them in a remote, isolated place.

37:35. “And all his sons and all his daughters rose up to comfort him, but he refused to be comforted.” Rashi: A person does not accept condolences for a person who is alive but whom he thinks is dead. For it only regarding the dead that it is decreed that he be forgotten from the heart, but not of the living.

This verse speaks of Yaakov’s uncontrollable grief after being told of Yosef’s disappearance and evident death. Rashi sees, precisely in the extremity of his grief, in his refusal to be comforted, an indication of an unconscious, intuitive sense, that Joseph wasn’t really dead, but was alive and that they would eventually be reunited.

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.