Monday, November 19, 2007

Vayetze (Mitzvot)

For further teachings on this parasha, see the blog archives for December 2005. For new teachings on Toldot and Vayera, scroll down to the appropriate section below.

The First Wedding Feast and Gemillut Hesed as a Universal Act

In this weeks parasha we encounter the first wedding feast in the Tanakh. After working for his uncle for seven years, Yaakov asks to marry his daughter Rahel, as promised. Straightaway, in Genesis 29:22, Lavan gathers the people of his place and makes a feast. While this scene is mostly important as providing the setting for Lavan’s notorious trickery, switching the intended bride with her sister, it nevertheless shows that a public feast was the accepted, common way to mark a wedding.

It is common among certain kinds of Jews to always stress the uniqueness, the specifically Jewish facet, of every mitzvah. Nevertheless, certain social institutions, even if given particular shape by the halakhah, are basic, universal human institutions. This is, as we noted earlier, one of the special functions of the Book of Bereshit—to teach of those norms that are, so to speak, implanted within the human heart, that precede the revealed commandments. Weddings, and partying and feasting around nuptials, exist in just about every human society I can think of; it is a natural human impulse to celebrate the union of man and woman. (In this context, it is particularly fitting to wish Mazal Tov to our friends Akiva and Deena Garber on the marriage last night of their youngest son, Hayyim, to Ephrat Aren.)

Within the halakhah, the obligation to “rejoice bridegroom and bride” is subsumed under the broader rubric of acts of gemillut hesed, of kindness towards others. This includes: escorting the dead to his final resting place, comforting the mourners, visiting the sick, and helping those in need: clothing the naked, giving alms to the needy, feeding the hungry. This last item includes, not only those who are literally hungry and have no food to put on their table, but also those who are alone, strangers in a community who seek the company of fellow Jews for a Shabbat or festival meal. The Rambam places gemillut hesed in turn under the more general category of ואהבת לרעך כמוך, loving one’s fellow as oneself (Hil. Eivel 14.1); while the Mekhilta relates it to הלכת בדרכיו , imitatio dei, “walking in the ways of God.” Either way, it is one of the fundaments of the Torah.

The mitzvah of gemillut hesed does not require that we go against “human nature” but, quite simply, that we cultivate the generous, expansive, outward-turning impulse within our natures, as opposed to the stingy, self-involved, more inward-turning impulse (both of which exist, to greater or lesser extent, in all of us). Indeed, the halakhah both assumes and structures a healthy society, not overly privatized, in which people are involved in the lives of others and feel a sense of responsibility toward others, particularly toward their fellow Jew. כל ישראל ערבים זה לזה.

Traditional Jewish society was organized around mutual help. Each town had its hevrot, associations dedicated to the performance of social mitzvot or for various kinds of group study. A popular book about Eastern European Jewish life, by anthropologists Mark Zborowski & Elizabeth Herzog, is entitled, Life is With People. The title says it all: for Jews, life is synonymous with life in community, with others; our greatest saints were not sequestered monastics who withdrew from the world to avoid contamination and temptation, but tzaddikim who lived among the common people and gave their all to help others—often, in anonymity and modesty. (Albeit, this is only half the picture: Zborowski & Herzog’s title is nicely complemented by that of A. J. Heschel’s memoir of the shteitl, The Earth is the Lord’s.)

Mountain, Field and House

“How awesome is this place! This is naught but the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven …” (Gen 28:17)

The opening section of this week’s parasha describes Yaakov’s unexpected and numinous encounter with God, en route from his home to the unknown land of his ancestors—a meeting that was to be both a turning point in his own life, and a paradigm for future generations. “Indeed, there is God in this place, and I did not know it” (28:16). In several Talmudic passages, the Sages discuss this passage in relation to events in the lives of the other two patriarchs. I discussed one of these, that in Berakhot 26b which portrays the Fathers introducing each of the three daily prayers, a few weeks ago (HY IX: Hayyei Sarah). Another (Pesahim 88a) speaks of the three patriarchs relating to God in different kinds of locii:

Rabbi Eleazar said: What is meant by the verse, “And many nations will come and say: Come, let us go up to the mountain of God, to the House of the God of Jacob” (Isa 2:3)? Why do they not say, “the God of Abraham and Yitzhak”? Not like Abraham, who called it a mountain, as is written “on the mount of the Lord shall He be seen” (Gen 22:14). Not like Isaac, who called it a field, as is said, “And Isaac went out to meditate in the field” (Gen 24:63). Rather, like Jacob, who called it a house, as is written, “And he called the name of that place Beth–El [the House of God]” (Gen 28:19).

At first reading, this passage is rather baffling. However, it seems to me that it may be read as a typology of different kinds of religious experience. “Mountain” conjures up images of transcendence: a high, lofty, mysterious place, remote from the centers of human civilization, midway between heaven and earth—a fitting place to meet the God who is “Wholly Other,” utterly beyond the ken of human comprehension. To know God, man must first and foremost ascend beyond himself, to the rarefied air of the mountain tops. And indeed, such mountain symbolism is rife in other traditions, from ancient Greece to Tibetan monasticism, through post-Christian thinkers like Nietzsche or Gurdjieff—not to mention the image of Moses on Sinai. This is the quintessence of the primal, foundational experience of Abraham: the high and lofty, unique God who is Creator of All, “the master of the palace.” Such an approach is diametrically approached to the pagan approach of Terah and his world, who saw numerous divine forces—generally speaking, nature gods—at play within the familiar, everyday world.

By contrast, the field in which Yitzhak walked to commune with God suggests God’s immanence, His omnipresence. He “fills all worlds”; He is “the Life of Life,” found in in every flower and every blade of grass, if one but knows how to look. This aspect somehow seems particularly accessible in open, natural settings, far from the noise and tumult of human society. I read Yitzhak’s experience as a mystical one, of the type known as “panentheism”—i.e., of Nature identified as being within, and part of God, while He is not encompassed by nature, but transcends it: “He is the place of the world, but the world is not His place” (Genesis Rabbah 68.9). This somewhat circuitous, dialectical formulation is important so as to distinguish the Judaic concept of immanence from the pantheism so beloved of 19th century romantics and Transcendentalists, which veers dangerously close to paganism.

What is the significance of the “house,” the name that Jacob associated with calling upon God? “House” suggests a place analogous to a human habitation, a space that is well–defined, set aside for a specific purpose. Not like a mountain, which awakens feelings of awe, suggesting the Infinite; nor a field, open in every direction, as far as the eye can see; but something more modest, human, limited, homey (“heimish”). Like the home of a particular family, so too is the “house” of God—the Temple in Jerusalem, the synagogue, the Study House—somehow God’s “place” in this world (notwithstanding that this is an inherently paradoxical concept, as the Rabbis were well aware). Jacob’s “house” was a house of prayer for all: not only for unique personalities possessing extraordinary religious sensibilities, but also for amkha—for ordinary folk and great alike, “together, all the tribes of Israel.” This is perhaps the reason why our gemara gave preference, in the end, to the “house” of Jacob, rather than to the high mountain of Abraham, or the immanent Presence felt in the field by Yitzhak.

Another, related interpretation also seems plausible. The “house”—well-defined, and a very human sort of habitation—may be seen as symbol for the halakhah itself. “After the Temple was destroyed, the Holy One blessed be He has naught in His world but the four ells of halakhah.” The law, with its categories and practices rooted in and shaping ordinary mundane life, is a kind of “dwelling place” through which the Infinite God somehow makes Himself accessible to ordinary people.


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