Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Vayehi (Rashi)

We mark with sadness the passing in recent weeks of two members of our family circle: my aunt, Martha Sardell, who died in New York on 1 Tevet (December 22); and my former mother-in-law, Hilde Engelman, on 11 Tevet (January 1). We share in the grief of the immediate families and offer our condolences to all the mourners, and to all those who loved them.

For more teachings on this parsha see the archives below, at January 2006.

“And Jacob lived… And the days of Israel came to die”

It is an interesting paradox that those two parshiyot which feature variations of the word hayyim (“life/to live”), Hayyei Sarah and Vayehi, deal specifically with death: the end of life. This week’s parsha, in particular, is a kind of hiatus within the forward motion of the Torah narrative towards enslavement and redemption, to record the final days of Father Jacob: his illness, the blessings he gave, first to the grandchildren born in Egypt and then to his sons, and an elaborate description of his embalming, the mourning, and burial procession to Canaan. It seems to me that this linguistic oddity really comes to teach a lesson: that Jewish tradition sees the emphasis on life, and perceives death, not as a mystery to be dreaded or as a mysterious passage into the unknown, but primarily as the natural culmination of life. In any event, the task of those who remain in this world is to respect the departed friend or relative, to speak of their life, and to reaffirm their own faith in God (the underlying idea of the Mourner’s Kaddish).

“He Switched his Hands”

In Chapter 48 Yosef brings his two Egyptian-born sons before their grandfather Yaakov to be blessed. This scene (which has been painted by Rembrandt) includes a curious gesture: Yosef arranges the young men before their grandfather according to age, so that the older, Manasheh, is opposite Yaakov’s right hand, but the old man deliberately crosses his hands over one another so as to give the “higher” blessing to Ephraim, the younger. When Joseph tries to correct him, he explains that he is fully aware of what he is doing, and explains that he is doing so for a good reason: namely, that Efraim, the younger—whether he or his descendants—will in some sense be “greater” and more important than Manasheh.

Rashi, quite understandably, attempts to elaborate upon this strange saying, which really begs to be read in prophetic, oracular fashion. Why else, otherwise, would he arbitrarily favor one adolescent grandson over the other?

48:19. “I know, my son, I know. He, too, shall be a people, and he will also be great. But his younger brother shall be greater than he, and his seed shall be as abundant as nations.”

Rashi: “He too shall be a people, and he will also be great.” That Gideon will come from him, by whom the Holy One blessed be He will perform a miracle. ”But his younger brother shall be greater than he.” That Joshua shall come from him, who shall inherit the Land and teach Torah to Israel. “And his seed shall be as abundant as [lit., fill the] nations.” The entire world will be filled when his reputation and his name goes out, when he shall make the sun stand still at Gideon and the moon in the valley of Ayalon.

The two brothers are to be the progenitors, respectively, of Gideon and of Joshua, two important leaders during the period between Moses and the monarchy. Gideon, one of the judges who saved Israel during a period of harsh subjugation to the Midianites (see Judges 6-8) was perhaps the best-known leader from the tribe of Manasseh (interesting, one could read the allusion to his Manassite origin—“my clan is the humblest in all Manasseh, and I am the youngest in my fathers house” (6:15)— as part of his self-effacing response when he receives the call from an angel). But Joshua, Moses’ successor, who led the conquest and inheritance of the Land of Israel, was from Ephraim—surely a more important role. Albeit, rather interestingly, Rashi seems to consider the miracles performed by each as the main criterion for greatness.

But the more interesting question, to my mind, is why Rashi completely omits any mention of Jeroboam son of Nabat. Surely, if one is speaking of the long-range historical significance of the Joseph tribes, their most important role was as the dominant tribes in the northern kingdom that split away from the Judahite-Davidic leadership after the death of Solomon—and in this connection, Jeroboam was the archetypal, instrumental figure. Judah and Joseph, whom we saw as rivals for leadership in last week’s portion, ruled over parallel kingdoms for some two hundred years, albeit the midrashic tradition prefers to see Yosef, not as rival to Yehudah and David, but as complementing it.

The answer is that the Rabbinic tradition issues a starkly negative verdict on Jeroboam: he is an evil king (see, e.g., Mishnah Sanhedrin 10.2). True, the prophet Ahiyah initially gave him a mandate to rule over ten of the tribes, tearing his garment as a symbolic sign of the rent in the Israelite people as a result of the tyrannical approach of Solomon’s heir Rehoboam, and is told that if he walks in God’s ways he will be blessed, his kingdom will be firmly established, etc. (1 Kings 11:29-39). But immediately thereafter we see him using religion for political ends. Fearful that the people would return to Jerusalem on the pilgrim festivals to make sacrifices, he set up his own shrines (with graven calves!) at Bethel and Dan, the two geographical extremities of his kingdom, knowing that their religious sentiments would draw them to wherever there was a holy place (12:25-33). But see more on this below.

Following this an anonymous prophet comes from Judah, predicting a bad end both to Jeroboam’s house and to the altar. (This prophet himself meets a bizarre end, in one of the stranger stories in the Tanakh—but we cannot go into that.) In any event, it is clear from all this why Rashi was hardly enthused by the figure of Yeroboam, treating him with a thunderous silence.

"Reuven, you are my Firstborn”

We now turn to the blessings of the twelve tribes. These have a wealth of midrashim, and Rashi comments extensively on nearly every verse. By way of introduction, I will quote the opening verse, which establishes the tone of the whole section:

49:1. “Gather together and let me tell you what will befall you at the end of days.” Rashi: He sought to reveal the End, but the Shekhinah departed from him, and he began to speak of other things.

That is, these blessings are prophetic in nature; indeed, Yaakov intended to reveal the secrets of the End of Days. The moment before death is often seen as a time of heightened awareness and religious consciousness, in which the dying man already has one foot, so to speak, in the other world—particularly in the case of so a great figure such as the Patriarch Yaakov. Even though he is prevented from revealing the ultimate secrets of the End, his words (and the corresponding blessings of Moses at the very end of the Torah) are seen as alluding to the entire course of future history. (Although I would make the caveat that the phrase aharit hayamim, literally, “the End of days,” is not necessarily eschatology. In Balaam’s prophecy, in Num 24:14 ff., it seems to refer to future events within the normal parameters of history.)

As an example of Rashi’s treatment of these blessings, we shall treat here the first verse, that concerning Yaakov’s firstborn son, Reuven:

49.3 “Reuven, you are my first born, my might and the first fruit of my vigor [or: potency]; exceeding in rank and exceeding in honor.” Rashi: “the first of my vigor/potency.” He was [conceived] from [Jacob’s] his first drop, who never [until then] had a seminal discharge in his life. “My potency”—my strength, as in “I have gained strength for myself” (Hosea 12:9); “because of his great might” (Isa 40:26); “[vigor] to him who has no might” (ibid., v. 29).

There are a variety of issues here. Reuven was not only Yaakov’s first-born (and thus also first-conceived) child, but the midrash states, in rather hyperbolic fashion, that the latter never so much as had an involuntary seminal discharge until his wedding night (which, ironically, was spent with a woman he thought was someone else). This phrase thus stresses sexual purity and control as an important component of virtue and holiness, with semen as an obvious focus of power, vigor, potency, etc.

Rashi continues by bringing a series of prooftexts to explain the word און, a rather unusual word. It is typical of Rashi, whenever there is an unusual word, to explain it, often by inference from other biblical verses where it is used. The texts brought here support the understanding of the word as meaning “strength” or “vigor” in general—although the use in the verse strongly suggests that it refers to “sexual potency,” which is also its use in modern Hebrew. An interesting speculation: is there any relationship between the root און used her, and the name אונן, Onan, which is identical to it except for the doubling of the final letter—Judah’s second son who “spilled his seed on the ground”—i.e., misdirected his potency.

In any event, the more important point made here is that Reuven’s status as firstborn entitled him to special privileges in two distinct areas—but he lost these due to his character faults, as expressed in several incidents, which cause him in the next verse to be described as “unstable as water” (i.e., his impulsive offer to kill his two sons in exchange for freeing Binyamin; his sexual appropriation of his fathers concubine; his premature interest in the aphrodisiac roots of the mandrake and their significance to the sex-life of the adults around him).

“Exceeding in rank (se’et).” You ought to have had an advantage over your brothers for the priesthood—alluded to in the language of “lifting up hands [נשיאת כפיים].” “And exceeding in honor.” Alluding to the kingship, as is said, “He will give power [עז] to his king” ( 1 Sam 2:10). But what caused you to lose all these? “Unstable as water…”

This last section is most interesting: Reuven is shown as having the potential to be both king and high priest (again, based upon analogy to other biblical verses in which the same key words are used): in other words, the two “crowns” are potentially compatible. But as a result of Reuven’s weakness—or perhaps, as we shall see, the instability of human nature itself—he was not only denied both these privileges, but they were thenceforth split, the one going to Judah, the other to Levi. Ever during the desert years, under the greatest leaders Israel had ever known, these functions were divided, between Moses as lawgiver / teacher / judge / political leader, and Aaron as priest in the sense of the ceremonial role of performing the actual Divine service. The earlier-mentioned incident of Jeroboam is another case in which the mixture of politics and religion was seen in a negative light, while the age of the Hasmoneans, in which the priestly family became de facto monarchs within a generation or two, to the clear displeasure of the Sages, is yet another.

The question is: why are these two functions seen as incompatible? Or, to sharpen the question, why—as suggested by the role originally allotted the first-born Reuven, according to this Rashi—is the union of secular and sacred rule, as the medievals called it, or of political and religious authority, theoretically desirable, and why is it rejected and seen as dangerous in practice?

The answer lies in the idea of the unity of truth. The ethical-religious-societal truths to be promulgated by both rule and priest are ultimately one, the role of both being to establish the kingdom of God on earth. The function of government, in theory, is to care for the people, their needs and welfare, to protect them against external enemies, etc. The king’s rule is meant to be benevolent and disinterested—perhaps something like the humble image of leaders close to the people which some people claim (no doubt with nostalgic distortion) existed during the early years of the State of Israel—Ben-Gurion in his open-necked shirt, Ben-Zvi in his humble tzrif, Begin riding to office by buses, etc. It is in this light that Rambam paints the task of the king in Hilkhot Melakhim 2.6:

Just as Scripture gave great honor to the king, and required all to honor him, so did it command that within himself his heart should be lowly and empty, as is said, “And my heart was empty within me” [Ps 109:22]. And he should not behave with excessive haughtiness towards Israel, as is said, “that he not lift up his heart above his brethren” [Deut 17:20], but he should be compassionate and merciful to great and small. And he should go out and come in concerned with their needs and their welfare, and take pity on the honor of the lowest of the low.

And when he speaks to the entire public he should speak gently, as is said, “Hear now, my brethren and people” [1 Chr 28:2]. And it says “if today you will be a servant to this people” [1 Kgs 12:7]. And he should always behave with great humility.

There was none greater than Moses our Teacher, and he said, “But we, what are we? Your complaint is not against us…” [Exod 16:8]. And he should bear their trouble and burden and complaints and anger, like a nursemaid who carries an infant. Scripture called him a shepherd: “to shepherd Jacob his people” [Ps 78:7]. And the way of a shepherd is explained in tradition, “As a shepherd leads his flock, gathering the lambs with his arms into his bosom…” (Isa 40:11).

All this is the ideal vision of what monarchy should be. But in practice, “power corrupts” and “absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Sooner or later, human nature being what it is, leaders will begin to use their position to fulfill their own desires for wealth, power, control. It was this that ultimately put the paid to the egalitarian socialist ideal of Marxism when applied in practice in the Soviet Union.

Religion speaks—or claims to—in the name of God, as the Source of absolute, incontrovertible Truth. But there too, there is a temptation on the part of religious leaders—priests, rabbis, prophets, gurus, masters—to use their religious authority to further their own earthly, personal needs, ambitions, and desires. Even taken by itself, religion has a potent psychological power which can easily be abused. One may see this today: with so many people seeking spiritual meaning to their lives, beyond creature comforts and wealth, it is often more a matter of luck than anything else whether they find an authentic teacher of the soul or fall prey to cynical charlatans, who may jump at the opportunity for wealth, adoration, sexual favors, etc.—and the things are well-known.

Unless one wishes to advocate anarchism and atheism, one cannot avoid these dangers completely. Society needs leaders, and believing man needs religious teachers and leaders. But it would seem that the Torah wished to avoid the worst of the above dangers by separating the two realms from one another, in the hope that priest, prophets and sage would serve as a check against the runaway lust for power of the governing authorities—and, hopefully, vice versa.

The situation in Israel, in which the Rabbinate is administered under the rubric of a governmental agency, and the Chief Rabbi is elected by an electoral board operating within the political game of horse-trading, is unhealthy, if not downright poisonous, to any real religious leadership. But we shall return to this discussion shortly in its own right.

The Tallis Puzzle

Re the question I posed at the end of last issue: Thomas Tallis (1505-1585) was an English church musician who, among other works, composed a Fantasy for Keyboard. Perhaps better known than that is Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis (1910), or the Tallis Fantasia, for short.

This answer was given by Rahel Jaskow, as befitting one of the few trained musicians on our list (she is a talented soprano singer), as by Mark Kirschbaum and David Eisen. For myself, I owe my knowledge of this tidbit to my oldest brother, Chip, who possesses an encyclopedic knowledge of the classical music repertoire and its performances (although rather little about either taleisim or tallitot).

But some of the “wrong” answers (or at least those unintended on my part) were perhaps more interesting. One reader, who asked to remain anonymous, quoted Wikopedia about a game called “Talisman: The Magical Quest Game”:

“The game was renamed “Talisman” and it was shown at Games Day 1983. The first edition of Talisman was nearly identical to the Second Edition: the differences between the two are purely cosmetic. The first edition’s black and white deck cards were replaced with coloured versions in the 2nd edition. Also the folding board of the first edition was replaced with a 4-piece board which fitted together like a jigsaw puzzle.”

Take this with a sense of humour, Even if this is not connected to your own associative thinking process, I was intrigued by the colour changes in the TALISMAN game from black-and-white to colour. Furthermore the game itself has interesting themes and element.

Another reader suggested I was going back to my childhood roots, through associations elicited by my “old threadbare tallit, which for you was a tallis.” Yet another, a psychotherapist by profession, suggested that:

The reason you spelled it tallis rather than tallit was because in your fantasy subconscious muse you returned to your pre-Zionistic Ashkenazic roots in middle Europe where Buber did his work, and felt the need for consistency. Only in Europe was our struggle with Christianity mostly felt. In your fantasy you hit upon the deep need for future tikkun olam… the need for the daughter religions of Abraham our Patriarch to somehow come to a mutual validation. We need to admit to the fact that much of Rabbinic Judaism was a product of the need for a self-definition to be a negative image of Pauline theology. In doing so we lost much of the powerful mythological pathos that accompanied their world view. We need this tikkun so we can honestly re-appropriate this lost theological telos (instead of hiding it in Hasidic and other mystical theologies that parallel closely Pauline theology).


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