Monday, July 19, 2010

Matot-Mas'ei (Aggadah)

With deep sorrow we record the passing of our teacher, Rav Yehudah Amital, founder and Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Har Etzion, and founder of Meimad. A memorial tribute will follow.

The Root of All Evils

This week’s double-parashah, one of the longest weekly readings in the entire Torah cycle, incorporates many diverse subjects, the common thread among them being the preparation of the people to enter the Land of Israel. One of the more interesting events recounted here has to do with the tribes of Gad, Reuven, and the half-tribe of Manasseh, who wished to settle in the plateau land of Transjordan (roughly corresponding to today’s Ramat Hagolan), which was suitable to the needs of their abundant livestock, rather than to participate in the settlement of the Land of Israel proper. Only after Moses criticized them severely did they agree to cross over with their brethren, do their share in the conquest of the Land, and only then return to the territory they wished to settle. The following midrashic passage conveys at least one aspect of this situation in succinct terms. Numbers Rabbah 22.7:

“And the children of Gad and the children of Reuven had much livestock, yea, very much” (Num 32:1). The tribes of Gad and Reuven were wealthy, and had abundant flocks and herds, and they cherished their money, and dwelt outside of the Land of Israel. Therefore they were exiled first of all the tribes, as is said “And they exiled the Reuvenites and the Gadites and the half-tribe of Manasseh” (1 Chron 5:26). And what caused this to them? That they separated themselves from their brethren because of their property.

This little midrash warns against the dangers of excessive attachment to material goods. The needs of caring for their property—which consisted, as was usual in those days, of large herds of sheep and cattle—blinded them to the value of social cohesion, of responsibility to their brethren. Hence, they agreed to cross the Jordan and to participate in the struggle to conquer the Land only after Moses chastised them and pressured them in no uncertain terms.

The comments on this incident are often read as Zionist sermon: i.e., a negative comparison is drawn between the contemporary Jews of the Diaspora, who enjoy great wealth which keeps them from settling in the renascent State of Israel, as opposed to the inhabitants of the Land, who are willing to suffice with a more modes standard of living in order to live in their ancient land among their own people.

While this may have been true fifty years ago, it seems less true today, when Israel is an economically prosperous country, with a large and comfortable middle class, and flourishing industries in the areas of high-tech and medical technology. But more important, it seems to me that the message of this midrash is not so much that of dwelling in the Land (although that also clearly plays a role; the fact that the Assyrians, when they defeated and exiled the Northern kingdom in 721 BCE, began by deporting these two and a-half tribes is clearly related to their more vulnerable, peripheral geographic location), but their shortcomings in the areas of social cohesion and solidarity. It seems to be a rule of human life that, contrary to what one might think at first glance, the more wealthy individuals or society becomes, the less generous it is towards others—notwithstanding that the wealthy presumably have more “discretionary income” to spend on helping others. Poverty, or at least a modest, down-to-earth lifestyle, seems to breed mutual help and caring while, with notable exceptions, wealth often goes with “closing the gates to one’s home and celebrating festivals only with one’s own family and friends”—a practice lambasted by Rambam in Hilkhot Yom Tov 6.18). As the values of our society have become more and more material-oriented—as they seem to have become during the past few decades—they have become increasingly individual-oriented, with each man looking out for himself, and with even the most basic unit, the family, in serious decline. But that is a major subject for another occasion.

All of Torah is Holy

The next passage, from the Talmud, is more halakhic, or least a hybrid of halakhah and aggadah; I include it because it quotes a verse from the incident of the Gadites and Reuvenites. It subject is the institution of shenaim mikra ve-ehad targum: “Twice Scripture and once Translation.” That is: alongside the weekly public reading of a portion of the Torah every Shabbat morning in synagogue, as a kind of centerpiece for communal study of Torah, each individual is required to read the parashah to himself privately, following the same schedule. This reading consists of reciting the Hebrew text from the Torah twice and the Aramaic Targum of Onkelos once. Presumably, the Hebrew text is read because it is the essential thing, the source; the Targum, which translates it into Aramaic, the vernacular of ancient Palestine, helps those unversed in Hebrew to understand it, as well as adding an element of interpretation, particularly in the halakhic areas. Berakhot 8a:

Rav Huna bar Yehudah said in the name of Rav Ami: A person should always complete [reading] his chapters with the public, twice Scripture and once Targum—even [the verses] “Ataroth and Divon…” (Num 32:3).

The concluding phrase, mentioning the verse from our parashah, is brought to make the point that on must read, and translate, every single verse in the Scriptural lesson, even a seemingly trivial and unimportant verse such as “Atarot and Divon…”—i.e., a list of names of towns and cities in the area they desired to settle. There is some discussion among the commentators as to whether the obligation to read even such a verse refers to the text or to the Targum, but the underlying idea seems clear enough: that the entire Torah is holy, and the obligation to study applies equally to all of it (underlying this are also mystical ideas of the Torah as an organic unity, or even as an apotheosis of God Himself).

This idea also underlies the tension among different approaches to Torah study in the yeshiva world. There were those yeshivot which emphasized the study of a certain cycle of Talmudic tractates, mostly from the orders Nashim and Nezikin, rich in “lomdus”—intellectually challenging and complex concepts that provide the foundations of the structure of the halakhic system, or are of greater practical relevance. On the other hand, other schools—that of Volozhin, of Rav Meir Shapira of Lublin, or of Brisk, each in their own way—insisted on the importance of comprehensive study of the entire Talmudic canon, “from Berekhot to Uktzin.”


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