Vayehi (Individual & Community)
“All these are the tribes of Israel, twelve in number”
Here, for the first name in many weeks, we have a parashah without overt familial conflict—albeit here too the undercurrents of conflict, the deep fault lines within the family of Yaakov, are clear enough.
As I noted when I first started writing these papers (see HY I: Vayehi = Vayehi [Torah]), quoting a teaching of Rav Soloveitchik, this parashah is a kind of pause in the forward thrust, both dramatic and historical, of the “story-line” of the Torah. The action and information needed to bring us to the opening page of Exodus—the circumstances leading to the servitude in Egypt, which was in turn a prelude to the deliverance and Exodus therefrom—are all found by the end of Vayigash. Indeed, Gen 47:27, the final verse in that portion, is closely echoed in Exod 1:7. This parashah is primarily about Jacob: his blessings, first to Joseph and his sons, then to all twelve sons/tribes; his setting his house in order in anticipation of departing this world; his death and burial, with the long, almost stately procession to the kind of Canaan, which serves as an occasion for displaying (if only pro forma) unity in paying tribute to the aged patriarch; and the brief aftermath, in which there is a certain attempt at reconciliation between Yosef and his brothers.
The salient entity here is “the twelve tribes of Israel.” The people of Israel are conceived of in the Bible as a kind of federation—what biblical scholars like to call an amphictony—of twelve tribes, each composed of descendants of their eponymous ancestor. In some ways it is not altogether unlike the United States, albeit on a more modest scale, both in terms of population and geographical spread.
What does this form of organization suggest in terms of the idea of community, and the individual’s belonging to it? We have here two levels of collective identity: the nation, with its central institutions—the king, the High Court (Sanhedrin), the Temple, and the army which was mustered together from all able-bodied men when necessary; and the tribe, which was smaller, more compact geographically, each one of which shared various common traditions which distinguished it from the others: one consisted of hill-dwellers, who cultivated olive trees on the rocky soil of the Galilee; another, located by the coast, were sea-going merchants, with a more cosmopolitan perspective; while a third might live by the desert, and a fourth near the rapidly flowing waters of the River Jordan. Somehow, I imagine, the tribe provides an orientation, a sense of belonging to something larger than the extended family or clan, but still small enough, intimate enough, to identify with in a more intimate way than the semi-abstraction of “the people of Israel” as a whole. May one draw an analogy, in our own day, to the role of the nation-state as an intermediary level of cultural identity, as opposed to those who say that they identify only with “humankind” as a whole?
A Closed Portion
Vayehi is unique in that, of all the sections of the Torah read week-by-week, it is setumah, “closed”—that is, there is no space of any sort: parashah petuhah or parashah setumah: that is, either the beginning of a new line or a blank space of half-a-dozen or so letters—separating it from the end of the previous parashah (or, more properly, sedrah).
The Sages puzzled over this anomaly. Rashi, at the very beginning of Vayehi, brings two possible explanations. One, that with Yaakov’s imminent demise they somehow felt the onset of the Egyptian enslavement and “their eyes and hearts were closed because of the trouble.” That is, being a slave is not only a physical or economic or legal state in which one’s freedom is curtailed and one is forced to labor for another, but also a psychological state, which somehow ”closes the heart,” narrows a person’s capacity to feel, to imagine, to think, to see beyond his own immediate, concrete situation—and thus it affects not only the body but, with very rare exceptions, the spirit as well.
Second: that Yaakov wished to prophecy about the future, but “prophecy was closed off to him.” This latter idea is reiterated by Rashi on 49:2: that Yaakov wanted to “reveal the End”—i.e., the ultimate unfolding of the future of his children and their descendants, up to and including the Endo of Days—but “he was turned / distracted towards another matter.”
Here, Yaakov is portrayed as a visionary, who wishes to disclose to his sons all he is capable of seeing—but God did not allow him to do so. This description reflects an innate tension in Judaism regarding messianic, eschatological vision: May one reveal the End? Is one allowed to talk about such things? Are there secrets—whether secrets of the historical future, secrets of individual destiny (e.g, is there an Afterlife? What happens to us after death?), or secrets of the cosmos and the nature of the Godhead—which one may not discuss openly? There are, of course, divergent views on these questions—in some cases, one might almost say, diametrically opposed—but there seems to be a widely accepted “mainstream” position that such things are, on the one hand, fascinating, enticing (may this another meaning of the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden?)—but also dangerous, and in some sense taboo. This is the source of a certain ambivalence in Judaism about Kabbalah—the popular idea that one may not study certain esoteric texts until one is forty, or at least until one is mature and well-versed in the “meat and potatoes” of halakhah, of the laws guiding human beings in the concrete reality of their lives here-and-now, on this earth.
Two more interpretations of Vayehi as a “closed parashah,” these my own: One is that suggested at the very beginning of this paper in the name of Rav Soloveitchik: that it is, so to speak, a “bracketed” parashah, a pause or hiatus in the story of what befell the family of Yaakov-Yisrael and its descendants, a closed unit focused upon Jacob’s departure from life.
Second, it is setumah in the sense that it is arcane, difficult to understand, filled with, if not secrets, then certainly with things that are enigmatic, difficult to understand. This is the case in Yaakov’s blessing to the twelve sons; and, even more so, of Chapter 48, where Yaakov blesses Joseph’s sons separately. Why, if Judah is ultimately destined to be the leader of the entire people, are Yosef and his offspring treated as if they are the first born? Why does Yaakov switch his hands when blessing Ephraim and Manasseh, rather pointedly telling the children’s own father Joseph that he is deliberately renaming the second child as firstborn? And what is the meaning of the enigmatic final verse of this chapter: “For I have given you one porton (shekhem= portion / shoulder / the town of Shechem?) over your brethren, which I took from the Amorite with my sword and with my bow?“ No time to examine this now; perhaps another year.
SUPPLEMENT: The State of Our State’s Religion
As promised last week, I present some thoughts on current events. Many troubling things have happened recently, the common denominator seeming to be that every time a religious figure opens his mouth, he says something so foolish or misguided that one feelss embarrassed to be a religious Jew in this day and age.
To begin with: three or four weeks ago there was a controversy concerning Rabbi Chaim Amsalem, a member of Knesset from Shas, the Sephardic Haredi party. Rav Amsalem, to the pleasant surprise of many, including myself, publicly criticized the Kollel system, so central to the Haredi world. He said what is obvious to many: that the expectation, around which all of ultra-Orthodox society is structured, that virtually all men will study Torah indefinitely, full-time, while being supported by a combination of public funds, wealthy donors, and the wife working, is wrong and unhealthy. He cited Rambam, who declared that “Whoever says to himself, ‘I will study Torah and not work and will be supported by charity’ profanes the Name… extinguishes the light of religion” (Talmud Torah 3.10). Amsalem added that the Shas people, by adopting this model, are imitating a Lithuanian–Ashkenazic model of “Haredism,” and that they ought to return to the authentic, historic Sephardic model in which people worked for a living and studied Torah early in the morning and/or in the evening. Needless to say, this author heartily agrees with everything he said—but for the Sephardic Haredi party, it was tantamount to heresy. They excoriated him, insisted that he return his Knesset seat, and even put him in herem. Rabbi Avraham Yosef (the son of…), rabbi of Holon, went to the extent of holding Rav Amsalem personally responsible for the extended drought from which Israel has been suffering!
There are several things that I find disturbing about this incident. First, the very fact that the Haredi world is blind to the deleterious effects of their system; that the combination of shnorring public funds and mass exemption from Army service (both of which got a further boost from the government in recent days) is a major factor leading to hatred of religion, closing the minds and hearts of many Israelis to even considering Judaism as anything other than a primitive, benighted set of beliefs. Secondly, the fact that the religious world today, especially the more “pious” elements, seems incapable of engaging in civilized polite ideological debate, is deeply disturbing. (I know, such a statement must sound totally naïve). Pirkei Avot speaks of the concept of “controversy for the sake of Heaven”—one of the characteristics of which is that it is motivated by the pursuit of truth, not the desire for victory over the other, and hence is conducted with respect towards the opposing party, accepting the good intentions and integrity of those who think differently from oneself. The classic example of this is the schools of Shammai and Hillel; the Mishnah at Yevamot 1.4 relates that, even though the two schools disagreed over several cardinal issues with far-reaching consequences, including the crucial area of marital law, they nevertheless treated one another with brotherliness and respect and did not refrain from intermarriage between the two groups. Such things are all but unheard of today, each faction having its own path and its own gadol hador, whose word is beyond questioning.
The third disturbing point is the ease with which certain rabbis claim to know the metaphysical reason for whatever bad things happen. Thus, while the catastrophic fire on the Carmel ridge was still raging, Rav Ovadiah Yosef declared that the conflagration was Divine punishment for desecration of the Shabbat by those affected. (Never mind that, even if we fully accept this mindset, his facts are incorrect: the area affected by the fire being divided roughly equally among religious Jews, Druze, and secularists.) The important point is, of course, the arrogance and audacity of these rabbis in claiming to know the detailed workings of Divine Providence. Are they prophets? Have they ascended to Heaven and peaked behind the curtain? Traditionally, all we can say is that God’s ways are righteous and based upon love and justice; catastrophes are thus seen as times for teshuvah and soul-searching—hence the institution of public fast days and prayers in times of trouble. But beyond that, even the prophets only speak in the most general terms in saying that the people’s sinfulness brings punishment in its wake.
Beyond that, theodicy—why “bad things happen to good people”—remains one of the most perplexing and problematic areas of faith. In any event, such faith does not eliminate the role of ordinary causality in life’s events. Rambam notes in the Guide of the Perplexed (see, e.g., III.16-20) that many of the things that happen in the world are the result of simple causality. Thus, as happened some years ago, when a car full of Haredi men from B’nai Berak were killed in a crash on their way home from a prominent rabbi’s funeral, thereby orphaning a large number of children, it was probably because the driver took a foolish and dangerous risk in passing on a narrow one-lane road with poor visibility. Or, as happened on the Carmel, a teenage boy dumped the ashes from a nargila onto a pile of rubbish without checking that they were extinguished, some brush caught fire, igniting a nearby tree, and from there, before anyone knew what was happening, it jumped from tree to tree until the whole forest was on fire.
To turn to another matter: two weeks ago, a group of rabbis—including many rabbis of cities and towns, whose salary is paid by government funds—issued an opinion stating that it is forbidden to rent or sell homes in the Land of Israel to non-Jews, specifically to Arabs. The halakhic argument was that it is forbidden to give Gentiles a “resting place”—i.e., a residence—in Eretz Yisrael. It seems to me that this is one of those dead letters in the halakhah that is best benignly ignored—an approach for which there is abundant halakhic support, if only on the basis of darkei shalom (i.e., “its ways are ways of peace”). It seems clear that the real motivation was anti-Arab racism, pure and simple. One heard two arguments frequently repeated: the first, that “it isn’t safe for Jewish girls to walk on certain streets at night” (as if there were no Jewish boys who are louts and make catcalls and obscene remarks to young women!) These types of sexual fears are common to racism world wide. Substitute “Negroes” for “Arabs” in the Jim Crow South, or for that matter “Jews” in Nazi Germany, who reputedly threatened the purity of Aryan maidenhood—and you have an exact parallel! (All that is missing is the claim that Arabs have bigger penises!)
The second argument is that “The Arabs are trying to take over the country, to remove Jews from the Land of Israel, by buying us out, house by house, block by block.” There’s something disingenuous about this argument, which sounds suspiciously like projecting onto the Arabs what many Jews would like to do. In fact, if anyone, it is davka Jews whom we see displacing Arabs, n some cases literally kicking people out of the homes where they’ve lived for decades, on the basis of documents going back to the days of the Ottoman Empire (but the property rights implied in such documents are never implemented inm the opposite direction). Thus in Silwan and Sheikh Jarah and perhaps other places.
The problem is that the Israeli planning authorities have not provided for the “natural growth” of the Arab population; hardly any new Arab towns or cities have been planned since ’48; moreover, it’s extremely difficult for Arabs to get building permits to add on to their own homes, even in their own villages and towns. In any events, those Arabs who have made test cases about buying homes in places like Natzrat Illit are by-and-large young, middle-class professionals who, like other middle-class people, want slightly more upscale, comfortable homes, which are mostly to be found in the Jewish sector—or, in the case of rentals, Arab students who seek housing near their campus. Or do these good rabbis want the universities to be Aräberrein? Is total separation between the two populations the ideal? Gevalt, Yidd’n! Run!
But there is a very important, principled question here. Over the years, Israel has become a pluralistic, even cosmopolitan state, with sizeable minorities of Arabs and other groups. Is the ideal of Zionism an ethnically pure Jewish state, or a “normal” society that absorbs diverse groups who, ultimately, learn to live in harmony with one another? Could it be that one of the factors leading to the intensity of hatred between Arab and Jew is precisely the fact that the two groups hardly know one another as people? Experience seems to show that where there is estrangement and ignorance of the Other, there grow racial and ethnic stereotypes—and from there the road is short to demonization of the Other, hatred and inter-group violence.
The alternative, as I said, is a society of total apartheid. Do we really thank that it can possibly work—or that it can only lead to more resentment, irredentism, radical nationalism and Islamism, terror, , etc.—and their counterparts on the Jewish side. So long as there is an Arab minority in Israel—and expulsion is a non-starter for a host of reasons, pragmatic, geopolitical, and moral—we have no choice but to learn to live with this minority group in as human and decent a manner as possible.
Finally, my own conclusion from all this: first, that notwithstanding all the problems, the State of Israel has been a wonderful thing for the Jewish people—if for no other reason than it has provided a homeland, a refuge, for Jewish refugees from Hitler’s Europe, from the Arab world, from Soviet Russia, from Ethiopia, etc. etc. But it has been a disaster for the Jewish religion, because of the opportunity it has provided for Judaism to enjoy political standing and political power, and the taking over of “official” Judaism by the most reactionary, conservative elements within it. The first chief rabbis of Eretz-Yisrael—Rav Kook, who was an extraordinary visionary, as well as the first few after the founding of the State, who were real Zionists and had a broad perspective as to what modernity is all about, men like Rav Herzog, Rav Uziel, Rav Unterman, and Rav Goren, who was a strong-minded, independent halakhic thinker, not to mention being a real genius—were men who provided real leadership to the entire people. But since then, matters have gone steadily downhill, until today the chief rabbis are in effect puppets, serving as mouthpieces for the gedolim of Haredi Jewry. Rav Elyashiv and Rav Ovadiah Yosef are de facto those setting the spiritual tone for the entire country—and indirectly affecting much that happens within world Jewry. The time has come for the de-establishment of religion or, to use the language of neo-liberalism (even though it’s anathema to me as a lifelong socialist), the “privatization of religion.” Unfortunately, despite many voices calling publicly for such changes, I don’t see it happening anytime in the foreseeable future, due to the political system, which gives smaller parties disproportionate bargaining power in creating coalitions.