Friday, January 01, 2010

Vayehi (Aggadah)

For more teachings on the parashah, see the archives to my blog, at January and December 2006, December 2007, and January 2009. For a eulogy of the Bostoner Rebbe, see below.

“Ephraim and Manasseh shall be to me like Reuben and Shimon”

This week’s parasha focuses almost entirely upon the events surrounding the death of the Patriarch Yaakov: the death-bed scenes at which he gathers his sons around him to give each the appropriate blessing; his actual death, embalmment, and the funeral procession to the Land of Canaan; and the denouement, in which the brothers, notwithstanding their apprehensions, arrive at a final (uneasy?) peace with Yosef.

I find the strangest facet of this parasha the fact that there are two separate death-bed scenes. In Chapter 48 Yaakov sends for Yosef, who comes together with his sons Manasseh and Ephraim, who are given special blessings, each being made the equivalent of a tribe in their own right: “Ephraim and Manasseh shall be to me like Reuben and Shimon” (Gen 48:5). Later, in Chapter 49, Yaakov gathers all the sons to him, giving each one a blessing prophesying their future destiny; at the end of the scene, he dies. Three questions present themselves here: Why did Yaakov give a special portion to the children of Yosef? Why, within that, did he reverse the priority based on birth order, switching his hands and mentioning Ephraim before Manasseh (there is a famous Rembrandt sketch of this scene)? And third, what is the meaning of the final verse of this chapter, v. 22 in which he says, “And I have given you one shekhem above your brothers, which I took from the hand of the Amorites with the sword and my bow”? Is shekhem, which usually means “shoulder,” an archaic term for “portion”? Or may it allude to the town of Shechem, which Yaakov’s other sons massacred in the scandalous incident related in Chapter 34? (Some have suggested that, because the Shechem incident released forces of sexual promiscuity; Yosef, who is seen as a symbol of control in those areas, received that town as part of his portion.)

This time, I found it difficult to isolate one or two aggadot that answer all these questions. Hence, I will present a pastiche of comments by Hazal and the medieval commentators, to try to make some sense of it all.

One may imagine Joseph being called to Yaakov’s bedside because he was the one upon whom Yaakov relied to take care of all his needs—both because of his high and influential position in the Egyptian government, and because of his own talents. Indeed, In many families there seems to be one child who is the organizer, the doer, the one upon whom parents rely in their old age when they are no longer able to care for themselves (a need exacerbated in the case of immigrants to a strange land; not unlike the generation of our grandparents who came to America in the early 20th century, or for that matter of those Americans who made aliyah to Israel but never properly learned Hebrew, whose sabra children may teach them how to “manage”). Indeed, Hizkuni comments that one of the reasons Yosef—or rather his offspring—were given an extra portion in the inheritance of the Land was in gratitude for the help he gave him, and the whole family, in settling in Egypt. A second reason, of course, was that Yaakov’s one true love throughout his life was Rahel: he originally intended to marry one woman, for whom he worked for seven years, and somehow ended up with four; after she died, all his love was transferred to Yosef, her first born, who bore an uncanny likeness to her in many ways. By this, he seems to be repeating the same disastrous mistake he made many years earlier in favoring Yosef above his other sons.

To this, one may add two historical-political factors: first, that Levi was destined to become the clan of priests and Temple officiants, without a territory of their own; hence, another tribe needed to be found to maintain the total of twelve. Dividing Joseph into the two tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh solved this problem. Moreover, the special importance given to Yosef foreshadows the great division or “fault-line” in the Israelite nation, which openly emerged after the death of King Solomon when the northern tribes, under the leadership of the Ephraimite rebel-king Jeroboam son of Nabath, seceded from the southern kingdom of Judah. This new kingdom was dominated by the two tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh whom, if I am not mistaken, held the two largest territorial shares: the central hill-country of Ephraim, and the allotment of Manasseh in Trans-Jordan, which included most of the steppes of Bashan and Golan, plus a portion along the sea-coast, near contemporary Hadera.

The midrash is ambivalent about Ephraim. Tanhuma interprets Yaakov’s question in 48:8, “who are these?” (is it conceivable that he did not recognize his own grandchildren, after living in close proximity to them for seventeen years—especially Ephraim, in one version, was the old man’s favored study partner!?), as expressing a prophetic vision of the subversive figures among their descendants, the rebel Jeroboam and the wicked king Ahab. Yet other midrashim describe the tribe of Ephraim impetuously breaking ranks during the Exodus and being decimated by nomadic tribes. Then, too, there are the censorious words of Psalm 78:68: “And he despised the tent of Yosef, and did not choose the tribe of Ephraim.” On the other hand, there is the well-known description in Jeremiah 31:19 (featured prominently in the Rosh Hashana liturgy): “Is not Ephraim my beloved son, a dandled child; whenever I speak of him I remember him again, my innards yearn for him, I shall surely have compassion on him.”

Why is Ephraim placed before Manasseh? Genesis Rabbah 97:5 mentions two major leaders, even saviors of Israel, who emerged from these tribes: Joshua bin Nun from Ephraim, and Gideon from “the smallest clan in Manasseh.” As Joshua was the greater of the two, he was given priority. But Yalkut Yehuda, quoting Rabbenu Bahyei, notes that Ephraim was Yaakov’s study–partner, the Torah scholar of the pair; while Manasseh, possibly following in Yosef’s footsteps, was the “doer” type—a merchant, a provider, a practical man of action (this typology is reminiscent of the Yissachar/ Zevulun partnership). Somehow, through a kind of paradoxical logic, by being placed second he was actually shown to be more prominent.

Yalkut Yehudah raises an interesting question about verse 20: “By you shall Israel bless, saying, ‘May God make you like Ephraim and Manasseh’” (see there, Vol I:391-392, §15). While this verse is familiar to many as the blessing given by parents to their sons on Friday night before Kiddush, that custom is only 400 or 500 years old. How was it expressed in practice before then? An old piyyut used at Brit Milah, mentioned in Pesikta Zutra, refers to Ephraim and Manasseh; these two are seen as models for what we want the infant child to become. Inter alia: the two sons of Yosef born in Egypt are seen as surviving as Jews even in conditions of adversity, of a foreign milieu, without a supportive Jewish environment.

To return to our original question: Why are there two death bed scenes? The previous parasha, Vayigash, begins with the dramatic confrontation between Yehudah and Yosef (whose identity is still hidden), seen by the midrash as a titanic struggle between the two, whose subtext is: Who shall be the future leader of the Jewish people? On the face of it, Judah wins: by his display of extraordinary moral fortitude and, perhaps most important, the ability to change and repair past misdoings, he shows himself the stronger of the two (see what I wrote on this in HY I: Vayigash, quoting Rav Soloveitchik). This is seemingly confirmed by the blessing given him in 49: 10 “the scepter shall not depart from Judah,” by which Judah is named the tribe of kingship; the establishment thereafter of the Davidic monarchy, and the blessings assuring that his line shall sit on the throne forever, reinforce this.

But does it? I would suggest that there is no real, simple answer. Things are left deliberately ambiguous. If I may put it thus, this Torah portion is known for a certain ambiguity; it is the only weekly portion which begins without any visible separation, in the Torah scroll, from that which precedes it; hence it is called setumah, “closed.” The portion opens with a special blessing, in which the prerogative of the birthright seems to be given specifically to Joseph. Moreover, if one compares the blessings given by Yaakov to Yehudah and Yosef, in 49:8-12 and 22-26, respectively, one find that, while both seem far greater than those given their brethren, one is hard put to say which is the “better” blessing (in some ways, Jospeh;s blessing more closely resembles that given by Yitzhak to Yaakov-cum-Esau). Moreover, in Moses’ deathbed blessing to the tribes two-odd centuries later, Yosef, if anything, comes out ahead (compare Deut 33:13-17 with the rather perfunctory blessing there, v. 7). Again, examining the Midrashic traditions about the End of Days, we find that there is Messiah ben David, but there is also Messiah ben Yosef. Which is more important? Hard to say; both are highly instrumental.

This chapter, more than providing clearcut answers, seems to point to a basic fault line in Jewish people. If I may venture into the realm of derush, I would like to suggest that the essential difference between the two—the Judah type and the Yosef type—is that Judah may be seen more as a military leader: a rough and ready type, as behooves a military leader who must lead men into battle; one who knows how to talk to ordinary people, who doesn’t give himself airs, certainly not the “dreamer” as Yosef was in his youth. He also has a certain earthly aspect: he knows both lust and anger. He is compared in this parasha to a “lion cub” who crouches in wait for his prey—a type exemplified by several of the judges, as well as by King David himself, who waged many successful wars and battles. Yosef, by contrast, is a civilian leader: he is an expert organizer, an intuitive economist, a rational thinker, good at planning and managing complex social structures—but far less of a khevreman, and clearly without Judah’s demonstrated talent for “male bonding.” In the end, both types are important, and the two remain in a certain irresolvable tension.

* * * * *

We conclude with wishes of a very happy civil New Year and new decade to all our readers, and a prayer that the Almighty may, in these coming years, bless our leaders with the Light and Truth of His Wisdom.

The Bostoner Rebbe: A Eulogy

“Of Levi say:… to your godly man / man of lovingkindness (ish hasidekha)”

Thirty days ago, on December 5th (Shabbat Vayishlah = 18 Kislev), the Bostoner Rebbe—R. Levi Yitzhak b. Pinhas David ha-Levi and Sarah Sasha Horowitz—returned his soul to its Maker. He was 88 years old.

The Rebbe was the first American-born, English-speaking Hasidic Rebbe; as such, he created and led a community of a unique sort. The five-storey building at 1710 Beacon Street was a hub of activity, serving as synagogue, Beis-Medrash, home of the Rebbe and his family, site of the Rebbe’s tisch on Shabbat and Yom Tov, social hall, dormitory, mikveh and even, in one corner, contained a matzah-oven used once a year. The Rebbe engaged extensively in what is known as kiruv work, actively reaching out to students at the numerous colleges and universities in the Boston area.

Several times a year there were Shabbatonim at which students from all walks of Jewish life were welcome to experience a Boston–style Hasidic Shabbat, complete with Friday night tisch with the Rebbe, Shabbat meals with families in the communities, talks, discussion, etc. On any ordinary Shabbat, there were always a dozen or more students from the area staying with families in the community—whoever wished to come was welcome. Many of these were from Orthodox backgrounds, but just as many were ba’alei teshuvah, who had embraced an observant way of life, or who were just beginning to learn about Jewish religion.

The Rebbe not only opened his own home and family to others, but taught his community the importance of hakhnasat orhim—hospitality to guests—as an important mitzvah. Indeed, as I gradually came to learn, many of his bale-batim, the families who made up his synagogue, had themselves come from non-observant or less-observant background—a fact which, while perhaps more common today in many places, was still unusual in the 1960’s.

The Bostoner’s home was also open to families of patients at the various medical institutions for which Boston is renowned. People from all over the world, including Israel, often come to Boston for the specialized medical treatment that is available from its experts, often accompanied by close family members. The Rebbe and his community provided a “home away from home” for these people, who found themselves both in a strange land and in a worrisome personal situation: a place to stay (in the top floor of 1710, which was set up as a kind of dormitory, or in furnished rooms reserved for this purpose); Shabbat invitations and kosher meals during the week; a friendly face and people who spoke their language; and help in finding the right medical experts and in making the initial contact with them. In recent years this activity has been officially organized as “Rofeh International,” medical referral and support services, a project led by the Rebbe’s son, Reb Naftali.

In the early 1980’s the Rebbe established a presence on the Israeli scene as well: he built a synagogue and Beit Midrash in the Har Nof neighborhood of Jerusalem, and later a Bostoner Yeshiva was established. Many members of the community in Boston made aliyah (some estimate that this numbered as much as one-third of the total community), building a vibrant community around the Rebbe. The Rebbe himself, as long as he was able to travel, spent half a year in Jerusalem and half a year in Boston; his two younger sons, Meir and Naftali, serving as his full-time representatives and rabbis in each place, respectively.

So much for the external facts. Some personal memories: I was part of the Rebbe’s community, in one way or another, over a period of six years. I lived in the Boston area from 1968 to 1974, part of that time as a graduate student at Brandeis, part of the time simply living and working in the area, enjoying the general Boston ambience, in what was in those days a kind of “Mecca” for the late-‘60s youth culture. During a good part of those years, I lived a rather ambivalent, if not schizophrenic, religious life, dividing my Shabbatot between the nascent Jewish youth culture, especially the Havurat Shalom in Cambridge and Somerville, and the main-stream Orthodox community – albeit I was always at least minimally observant of such basics as Shabbat, kashrut, and tefillin.

Looking back at those years, the striking thing about the Rebbe was the warmth and even love he radiated to everybody. Although he had very clear and definite standards, he was accepting of everyone as they were and only rarely judgmental—and even then, this was done with a kind of gentle irony, never in a heavy-handed, moralizing manner. Thus, when I planned to go to Cuba in January 1970 as part of the “Venceremos Brigade,” an international group of Leftists who showed their moral support for Castro’s revolution by cutting sugar cane on its tenth anniversary, the Rebbe obviously disapproved—but he expressed it in a gentle, ironic way. In general, he didn’t quite know what to make of me: he once said something to the effect that: “Just when I thought you were in the place where I wanted or hoped that you would be, you turned out to be someplace entirely different.”

The feeling of being welcome and accepted in the Rebbe’s home was very important to me. Until that time, my experiences of Hasidism were of two types. In high school, I began to learn about Hasidic music through a pair of Modzitz LP’s my mother had received from a colleague at work. Fascinated by this music, and the combination it represented of joy and vitality mingled with deep religious fervor, I sought out “real-life” Hasidim in my own environs, in a small Satmar shteibl near Queens Boulevard, about a mile from my parent’s house. Though the spirit and enthusiasm of their worship spoke to my heart—a welcome change from the coldness and formality of Conservative Judaism in the 1950’s—the atmosphere was foreign to me: the world of Yiddish-speaking Hungarian Jews, mostly Holocaust survivors, was too remote from my own world.

During my college years I discovered Lubavitch, and went to several “Encounters” with Habad and spent some festival days with Habad families. But in Lubavitch there was an intense, messianic fervor and energy, a cult of the Rebbe, that was hard for me to take for long periods. The atmosphere in Boston was very different: more homey, warm, loving, “laid-back,” even “feminine”—a traditional Galician Hasidism. For the Rebbe, it was important to teach Jews about Judaism and to bring them to observance, not in order to bring Messiah, but simply because this was what he believed in, and he wanted to share it with others.

Minhag played an important part in the Rebbe’s way. There were numerous customs, Hasidic-Kabbalistic practices, which many of us had never heard of, or had at most read about in books, which were practiced as a natural part of life by the Rebbe and his warm, accepting family. To mention but a few of these customs: a long break between Friday night prayers and Kiddush, as the meal could not start between 6 and 7 pm; the Rebbe wearing a Tallit at Friday night prayer and through Kiddush, then changing from his black silken kapote to a colorful brocaded tisch bekashe; a whole series of strict Pesah observance; baking matzot for the Seder on Erev Pesah—an activity in which the entire community was invited to participate, based on a largely defunct medieval Ashkenaz custom; sleeping in the sukkah, even in the cold of autumn-time New England; saying goodbye to Sukkah on afternoon of Hoshana Rabbah; etc., etc.

All these seemingly arcane customs were shared with whoever happened to be around. There was a sense, contrary to the stereotype of Hasidim as a strange, rather self-enclosed sect, of this being an accessible, ordinary family, who spoke regular American without an accent (or, to be more precise, with the broad Boston “a,” very much like the Kennedys). Though dressed very differently from most of us, there was a feeling that they were basically normal regular people once one got to know them.

I visited the Rebbe now and again in Israel—at public events, and once or twice to ask for advice with personal problems. While at the time I was unable to accept his advice, in retrospect I see it as wise, and certainly as based upon solid Jewish values. I also saw the Rebbe two or three times during my more recent trips to the US; he was warm as always, and apologetic about his failing sight and hearing.

The last time I saw the Bostoner was last year, at the wedding of the daughter of a woman who had been a bat-bayit of myself and my first wife Esther when she was first becoming religious; now, to me a mere “child” of 40, she was herself becoming a mother-in-law! The atmosphere had changed; it was more main-stream Yerushalmi hasidish; the entire hall was filled with men wearing shtreimels, almost all of whom called themselves Bostoner Hasidim—many of his original followers, plus their children and even half-adult grandchildren. The Rebbe himself showed himself a real “trooper”: although he had to be brought in a wheelchair, he stood up for the huppah, said one of the berakhot in a clear, loud voice, and even danced a bit at the “mitzvah tanz.”

What was it that drew so many people to the Bostoner Rebbe? He was not a great intellectual or Rabbinic scholar: he was not a Jewish philosopher or world–class scholar or thinker like Rabbi Soloveitchik, who lived in the same city. He did not have a world-embracing strategy for bringing the entire Jewish people back to Torah, like the Lubavitcher Rebbe. Nor was he an ecstatic mystic, such as, say, the Bobover Rebbe; nor did he teach any unique Hasidic teaching—again, like Habad, or Breslav, or any one of the numerous “neo-Hasidic” teachers of texts, on various points within and without Orthodoxy, in the world today. What then was the secret of his power?

The answer to this question is two fold:

First, the Rebbe was a font of kindness and love: a true ish hesed. This was expressed in practical ways—in opening his home to all those who needed what he could give, whether a place for Shabbat, a meal, help with medical issues, someone to talk to about personal issues or about finding his/her way into Judaism, etc. But this was love was expressed even more so in some intangible facet of his being. He radiated love and caring to all who came into contact with him: in his manner of speaking to people, in the kindly demeanor of his face, in the twinkle in his eyes. Whether they were his “Hasidim” or not, people felt that he listened to them and cared about them.

Second, the absolute authenticity and sincerity of the Rebbe. In a world of constant change, of new ideas and styles and ways of thinking about even the most basic aspects of life, in which even modern Orthodoxy involves maintaining a complex, dialectical synthesis of Torah and modernity, the Rebbe was a man solidly rooted in his tradition, who projected a sense of absolute certainty, of what Hasidism calls emunah peshutah, “simple faith.” And again: all this marked by great love: love of God, love of Torah, love of the mitzvot and joy in their performance.

I don’t know if the Rebbe had any systematic “philosophy” of Judaism or of ta’amei hamitzvot, of rationales for the mitzvot. He was quite simple rooted in his tradition; he preserved his familial and ancestral ways, and this somehow attracted young people. (By the way, I should add that those attracted to his path included not only students who might be considered a tabula rasa, but also young adults being to raise their families, including men who already had doctorates in sophisticated disciplines, who adopted the strict Orthodoxy of the Rebbe).

The Rebbe was who he was, of course, first of all, because of his own middot—his unique personal qualities and character. But, in addition, he benefited from a fortuitous combination of historical circumstances. I don’t know much about his upbringing: he was born in Boston in 1921; his father, a Yerushalmi dayan, a religious court judge in Jerusalem and scion of the Lelov Hasidic dynasty, found himself in Eastern Europe adjudicating a dispute within the Jewish community when the First World War broke out; upon his return, via Greece, he was seen as an enemy alien and forced to leave on the first available ship. Thus, quite by accident, he ended up in the United States, in Boston, where his second son was born (the older son, Moshe David, known as the “New York Bostoner,” was born before the war; he led a smaller community in Borough Park, and died in 1985). The Rebbe grew up in a world where there were very few Hasidic Jews; indeed, in those days Orthodoxy seemed to be fighting a rearguard struggle for survival. Hence, when his father died while he was still in his 20’s, he confronted, as a community leader, with the necessity to somehow accept and deal with the relatively assimilated culture of American Jews. His own children, who grew up in a world in which Orthodoxy had made its dramatic post-war comeback, with a thriving world of innumerable strictly Orthodox institutions, communities, Hasidic courts, may have paradoxically grown up in a more sequestered manner, less “American” than the Rebbe himself.

May his memory be a source of blessing.


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