Monday, November 30, 2009

Vayetze (Aggadah)

For more teachings on the parashah, see the archives of this blog, for December 2005, November 2006, November 2007, and December 2008.

“And He Came Upon That Place”

The bulk of this week’s parashah is set in the ruddy, fertile soil of Aram Naharaim, “Lavan-land,” far away from the Land of Israel; in it, we read inter alia of the birth of all but one of the twelve sons of Yaakov. But it opens in a transitional place between the Land and Outside of the Land, with Yaakov’s famous dream-vision of God’s angels ascending and descending a ladder and God addressing him with words of blessing. (In this, it resembles the parashah that precedes it, and several of those that follow, in that it opens with a vision or a dream.)

A famous aggadah concerning this scene gives a surprising version of what happened. It is brought in a chapter of the Talmud in which many of the key aggadot of Hazal are concentrated, known as Perek Helek. Sanhedrin 95b:

Our Rabbis taught: There were three before whom the land “jumped” [i.e. the distance they needed to traverse was foreshortened]… Jacob our Father, as is written, “And Jacob went out of Beer-sheva and went to Haran” (Gen 26:10) and it is written, “And he came upon the place” (ibid., 11). When he got to Haran he said: Perhaps I have passed some place where my fathers prayed and I did not pray there? He wished to return. No sooner had he thought to return, than the land “jumped” before him. Immediately: “He came upon the place.”

Yaakov had gone all the way to Haran, the land of his ancestors, where he had been sent by his parents, both to flee from the wrath of Esau and to find a wife. Suddenly, he felt a sense of regret that he may have failed to pray at a site where his ancestors had prayed, and decided to return to such places before beginning his new life in Haran.

Why was it so important for him to worship in a place here his fathers had worshipped? More generally, what is the significance of “place”? Towards the end of this chapter, after receiving his vision, Yaakov says, “Indeed, there is God in this place, and I did not know… How awesome this place is; this is none other than the House of God, and this is the gate of heaven” (vv. 16-17)

We are accustomed to thinking of holiness as something created by the encounter between man and God, or as the result of human intention to dedicate a particular place or thing to the service of God. This is true, Rav Soloveitchik used to insist, of the Temple, of a synagogue or Study House, a Torah scroll, tefillin, mezuzah, a sacrificial animal, or even the sacred times of the Jewish calendar (with the dramatic exception of the Shabbat!)—of everything holy. Yet here the picture presented is of a numinous quality inherent in the place itself; as if to say, there are certain spots in the world where God is present; they are innately holy. This is accentuated by the nature of Yaakov’s vision: the image of angels ascending and descending is suggestive of the idea that, just as this is seen as the boundary between the Land of Israel and outside the Land (see Rashi on v. 12), so too is it a point of liminality, joining heaven and earth.

Perhaps our aggadah’s emphasis on filial piety (“to pray in a place where my ancestors prayed”) somehow combines both aspects of the meaning of place. It may be that Avraham originally prayed there and tarried there because he felt the numinosity, the innate holiness of the place; now, on this important journey, where Yaakov departs from the land of his birth and sets out all alone into the unknown, on a way fraught with danger, insecurity, and uncertainty, he wishes to follow in his father’s footsteps, to establish his own connection with God in those places that have been sanctified by his father’s or grandfather’s action. It is also interesting that, for this midrash, the most important thing about a journey is not the scenery seen or the people met, but the places where one has prayed.

The concept of kefitzat haderekh (“foreshortening of the road”) refers to miraculous, Divine assistance enabling one to cover large distances very quickly. Many millennia later, this idea features prominently in many Hasidic stories, particularly those involving the Baal Shem Tov, who harnessed his horses and in a single night traveled to wherever Jews needed his intervention.

Jacob’s Stone

The next verse shows Yaakov preparing for sleep, placing the stones in the area under his head as a sort of pillow. Hullin 91b describes this as follows:

It is written, “And he took from the stones of the place” (Gen 26:11). And [further on] it is written “and he took the stone” (v. 18; i.e., “stone,” in the singular). Rav Yitzhak said: This teaches that all those stones gathered to one place, and each one said: “Let this righteous man rest his head upon me”—and all of them were swallowed up into one.

This aggadah elaborates upon a linguistic inconsistency—i.e., that the stones are initially referred to in the plural and than in the singular—which it resolves through the image of the little stones being combined into one large stone, which later serves as a matzevah, a marker of a sacred place. We have an almost animistic approach, perfectly acceptable in mythical or symbolic thinking, in which inanimate objects and places are alive with feelings, respond to holiness, etc. (Compare Martin Buber’s description of an I-Thou relation with a mica stone in Daniel, pp. 140-141)

What is the point of this story? It might be read as a symbol of Yakaov’s central life task, which begins with this parasha: to be the father of the twelve tribes of Israel. Unlike Abraham and Yitzhak, each of whom had one child who carried on the covenant and another who was in some sense cast aside, here all twelve sons together constitute the covenantal community, the basis of the twelve tribes. The Rabbis say that “Yaakov’s bed was whole”—i.e., that all the children he procreated together made up the nation of Israel. The twelve that united into one may be seen as suggested by this image of the many stones becoming one. (“E pluribus unum” long before the United States was even conceived!)

IN MEMORIAM: A Year Without Mickey

This Shabbat, 11th Kislev, marks the first Yahrzeit of Rabbi Michael Rosen, “Mickey,” the founder and guiding spirit of Yakar. During the year that has passed since his death, I find myself missing him far more than I expected. (Of course, during his lifetime none of us ever thought about his possible death, anymore than one does of any other vital, active person in his middle years. He was taken away very much in the midst of life).

I will not repeat here the things I wrote in the eulogy last year (see the archives below, December 2008, Vayishlah), which those who wish to may reread, but will try to focus upon one or two of his quintessential qualities. Trying to pinpoint what made him such a rare, even unique figure (particularly in the Orthodox camp), I would say that he was a “God-intoxicated man.” If we look at the Jewish world today in terms of the triad of God-Israel-Torah, we find that most rabbis and Jewish leaders/teachers stress either Israel or Torah. There are those, especially in the Orthodox camp, who stress halakhah—the meticulous observance of the details of the laws—and the study of Torah as the most essential thing (indeed, there is theological basis for conceiving the Torah itself as a kind of mediating entity between the infinite God and finite, mortal, earthbound Man). Alternatively, there are those whose real focus is on Jewish peoplehood—be it in the US and other Diasporas, with the emphasis on survival and “continuity,” on stemming the tide of assimilation and intermarriage, or here in Israel, where the emphasis is more on the struggle for the souls of “Am Yisrael,” or for the integrity of Eretz Yisrael.

Mickey’s focus was on the religious experience per se. He spoke openly about the quest for intimacy with God. The spirit of Psalm 139, “Where do I find you, and where do I not find You?” was writ large (quite literally!) on the walls of his study house. Prayer was not something taken for granted, a halakhic routine. Whenever he approached the reader’s stand (and he did so frequently: almost every Friday night, Nishmat on Shabbat morning, the major prayers of the Days of Awe and many of the major festivals, and on many other occasions), one sensed that this was something he did with all his heart, that he wished to make the prayer as meaningful and authentic as possible, for both himself and his community. He also spoke of the quiet moments in the empty synagogue early Shabbat morning, before it became filled with people, when he felt a presence, a sense of anticipation, of almost palpable holiness.

Another special time at Yakar was the Third Meal on Shabbat, when a handful of people gathered in a small room and sang slow, meditative Hasidic niggunim. Here, too, he attempted to create a mood, an atmosphere of receiving the Divine Presence, of sensing the ra’ava de-ra’avin, the special ”time of grace” associated with this twilight hour, with the approaching departure of Shabbat and the desire to linger with it, to savor its holiness as long as possible.

He sought penimiut ha-torah—the inner core of Torah—but not as this was understood in conventional Hasidism. He identified with the school of Psyshscha, which rejected both Kabbalah and the personality cult of rebbes.

A second key to Mickey’s personality was his curiosity. There was something almost child-like in his interest in just about everything. He wanted to understand, and he always asked interesting and unexpected questions, He was not like many rabbis, who only pose a question when they already have a clever or innovative answer (hiddush) or it serves an “educational” or missionary aim (“kiruv”). He asked questions and shared them with others, even without having an answer. This was a very refreshing quality, and it sheds light on a central aspect of Yakar: the total openness to presenting a variety of ideas and opinions. He was not “pluralistic,” in the sense that he had very definite opinions and commitments, but he was open-minded and enjoyed the free exchange of ideas and views.

Finally, a third comment, which must be made, difficult as it may be: there were times, during his lifetime, when I found him a rather difficult person. It took me a long time—indeed, not, finally, until after his death—to realize that these problems were vastly overshadowed by his virtues. Over the years, I came to realize that, whatever the reason for his quirks and occasional awkwardness in relations, he did not have a mean bone in his body; he never set out to deliberately slight or hurt anybody. If, on occasion, I may have privately expressed my frustration with him to friends over what were, in the end, petty matters, may my writing these words publicly be as a form of teshuvah and a seeking of mehilah. Perhaps his occasional shortness and impatience with people also derived (and here I speculate) from his keen awareness of his own mortality looming before him (though his death as such was unexpected, he lived with serious medical problems most of his adult life), his own limited powers, and the desire to accomplish as much as possible within the limited time he knew he had.

May his memory, and his personal example, be a source of blessing to us all.


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