Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Toldot (Torah)

I would like to propose one or two questions on this parshah, but without giving any definite answers. It centers upon two converging problems, which are really one. In terms of archetypes, we have here the beginning of the motif of Israel & the world: the idea of an antagonistic relation between Jewry and the other nations, symbolized by Jacob and Esau already struggling in the womb: “when one ascends, the other goes down; when the other ascends, the former goes down.” Esau is viewed by turn as a symbol of the hated Roman empire, of the Medieval Christian Church and, in a post-religious age, perhaps as the Gentile world generally. It is thus in the midrash, and thus in a classic medieval homileticist such as R. Nissim of Gerona, who devotes the 2nd chapter of his Derashot ha-Ran, immediately after the Creation, to this theme.

Secondly, as in the Akedah story, the modern reader is confronted here by profound moral problem: how are we to relate to Jacob’s underhanded methods? Twice in this section Jacob receives that which was due his brother: once, taking advantage of Esau’s weakness, he “buys” the birthright for a bowl of red lentil soup; a second time, using a deliberate, elaborate scheme to deceive his father, he gets the much-coveted blessing. Moreover, the text does not even criticize him; instead, we are told “and Esau despised the birthright” (25:34).

The traditional explanation is that Jacob was merely reclaiming that which was rightfully his, since the birthright essentially implied spiritual leadership, the one who was to continue the Abrahamic covenant with God. Esau is shown here as a grossly physical person, without any sense of moderation, returning from the hunt and saying “If I don’t eat right away, I’ll die!” (One is reminded of the old Yiddish joke of the visitor, asked by his hosts about various common acquaintances, and replying “Geshtorben!” “He’s dead!,” finally explaining, “When I’m eating to satisfy my hunger, the whole world is as if dead!”) He even refers to the act of eating using a word usually used for the feeding of animals or fowl: “Hal’iteni,” literally “stuff me with that red stuff.” Moreover, Rashi goes so far as to see that, since they were twins, Ya’akov was in any event really the firstborn because he was conceived first, describing the womb as a kind of narrow tube, in which what goes in first comes it last. Notwithstanding all this, for many of us the problems remain real ones. One is reminded too much of the most negative features of the Galut Jewish mentality: all’s fair in love and war where goyim are concerned. (More on the problem of Jacob’s character next week.)

Another question that bears further examination is why, of the little told regarding Isaac’s adult life as such (and sandwitched between the two phases of the Esau-Jacob competition), there are chosen the specific incidents recorded in Chapter 26: the incident in Gerar; the sowing of the land; the digging of wells; the pact with Abimelech.

A few other interesting sidelights: the motif used to explain the Akedah, that in fact God wanted Isaac to be made a sacrifice, but not to be killed, reappears here in two comments of Rashi. Two unique features of Yitzhak’s life, as against the other patriarchs—that he was monogamous, and that he never left the Land of Israel, are explained in terms of his being an “olah temimah”—a whole, pure offering—a status that he evidently retained throughout this life (analogous to that of a Nazirite?). See Rashi on 25:24 and 26:2. (Incidentally, Rashi , who is too often seen as a simple commentary for school children, filled with naive, preposterous interpretations, deserves deeper study. He represents the distillation of the classical old midrashic tradition, just before the multitude of new directions—philosophical, pietistic, scholastic, and Kabbalistic—taken by Judaism in the High Middle Ages.)

“And he smelled his clothing and said, ‘See the fragrance of my son, like the fragrance of the field, which God has blessed’” (27:27). There is something singularly clean and refreshing in this verse: the old man who, in the end, seems to find his way around life through his nose and loves, more than anything else, the vast open vistas of nature (see S. Yizhar et al). One is reminded of 8:21, where God himself mitigates his harsh verdict on humanity after smelling the “fragrance” of Noah’s sacrifice.

Finally, verse 40. After Esau coaxes “one last blessing” out of his father, he is told that he shall enjoy “the fat of the land and the dew of heaven” (there’s evidently enough of that to go around for all), and live by his sword. We then read the concluding phrase: “and when you rebel, you shall throw his yoke off your neck.” It seems interesting that, after being that it is the natural order for Jacob to rule Esau, he is blessed (or is it a simple statement of human nature?) that, in due time, he shall rebel! Perhaps this is my radical youth speaking here, but surely there is some affirmation here of the validity of the human impulse to freedom, of the throwing off of yokes of all sorts—even that of Yisrael Sabba!

Who was Esau, and why did Isaac love him?

Last year (see HY to Vayetse and Vayishlah) we devoted considerable space to discussion of the personality of Yaakov, in relation to Yitzhak and others, and to the family dynamic as a whole. One basic question remained unanswered: who was Esau himself? General speaking, the Jewish tradition treats Esau as the “heavy” of the story; the Midrashim, by and large, paint a one-dimensional picture of Esav ha-Rasha (“Esau the wicked”).

This week’s portion (with one or two excurses into relations with the inhabitants of Gerar) basically focuses upon the intimate, emotionally charged relations within the close family unit, consisting of a pair of parents and two sons. We are told at the outset: “And Isaac loved Esau, because he had a taste for game (lit., game was in his mouth); and Rivka loved Yaakov” (Gen 25:28). The stage is thus set for an explosive family conflict, with each of the two parents favoring a different one of their children over the other. Why?

Esau was basically a simple, uncomplicated, natural man, living entirely in the present, in immediate concrete reality. He loved the hunt; he is described as a “man of the field,” who felt most at home outdoors, with the strong sun beating down on his head and the wind blowing in his face. One can imagine him enjoying use of the masculine power contained in his ruddy, hairy body. He identified himself wholly with his immediate physical needs. When he came home, he wanted to eat, and felt that he would “die” if his ravenous hunger was not satisfied. His sexuality, too, was basically uncomplicated; according to the Midrash, when he wanted a woman he “hunted” for one, took her (“hooking up”) with the minimum of gestures of courtship or seduction (if that), and cast her off. Not for him the romantic love of Yaakov, who encountered Rachel by the well, fell in love with her, and was willing to postpone gratification for years. Esau, when he finally does marry, takes two wives at once. His murderous anger at Yaakov is not evil, but the natural reaction of one who discovered that which he had thought of as belonging to himself suddenly being taken away from him. He was told by his father to hunt game, bring it home and prepare it “so that I may bless you before the Lord before my death” (27: 3-4)—and suddenly found that he was cheated, double crossed.

Basically, Esau lives without the dimension of height or transcendence of the spirit. He is the epitome of natural, biological man. Rav Adin Steinsaltz, in his “Bi’ur Tanya,” explains the Hasidic concept of nefesh ha-behamit, “the animal soul,” not as inherently evil, but as representing the biological side of man uprooted from the dimension of transcendence, from what has been called “the natural depth in man.” Such was Esau. Inevitably, he was rather coarse and brutish, rough and unpolished; he had no interest in the niceties or refinements of civilization. Nevertheless, Esav and what he represents constitute a necessary, entire “storey” or level in the human personality.

Why then did Yitzhak love him? I see his attraction to his rough, unpolished son as reflecting certain inevitable conflicts within the spiritual life. We have seen Isaac as a profoundly mystical personality: given to spending hours in deep meditation, aware of the mysterious, Divine life pulsing beneath the surface of things. Yet there was a part of him which longed for the simplicity of life lived in the immediate present, for his very lack of complexity. There is something in the multi-leveled, almost convoluted consciousness of the man of God that must, at times, be tiring. Yitzhak may have been weary of always living in a tense, dialectical tension with the concrete world. Of course, he himself could not live like Esau; he saw and understood too much and on too many levels. Nevertheless, he must have looked with a certain empathy and understanding at this earthy son of his, both envying him his simplicity, and perhaps too feeling a wish to protect him from the heavy, spiritual intensity of his overly spiritual family.

I have neither the time nor inclination to comment on politics at this moment, but may it be that our present bloody confrontation with the Palestinians is somehow related to our own long-term inability to understand their own concrete, earthly reality on its own terms? Perhaps we will only be able to attain peace when we learn to make tikkun for Yaakov and Esau.

Postscript: “That My Soul May Bless you”

Three times in Parshat Toldot, in the conversations between Yitzhak and Esau (or “Esau”), an unusual phrase is used: “that my soul may bless you / your soul bless me.” When Yitzhak asks Esau to go into the field, hunt him some game, and prepare him delicacies in the way he likes, he adds, “that my soul may bless you (ba’avur tevarekhekah nafshi) before I die” (Gen 27:4). When “he” (in fact Jacob impersonating him) returns, he says to his father, “Come, sit and eat of my game, that your soul may bless me” (v. 19). And a third time, when the authentic Esau returns from the field and presents his father with the food he’s prepared, he addresses him in almost identical words (v. 31). The phrase, “for the soul to bless” is a rare one, which as far as I can tell appears in reference to human beings blessing one another only here, in the entire Bible. (The phrase barkhi nafshi et ha-Shem, “May my soul less the Lord,” does appear at the beginning and end of two consecutive psalms, Psalms 103 ad 104, but it is used there in relation to God. It would be interesting to try to uncover if and what is the common denominator between these two otherwise rather different psalms.)

What I find interesting is that this phrase is associated with food, specifically with the act of one person feeding another. It is as if the act of being given food by another somehow awakens the nefesh, the vital element within the person, to gratefulness toward the other—not only for the immediate act of feeding, but with a deep, existential blessing that comes from the very heart of the person’s being. Interestingly, the word nefesh, generally translated as “soul,” in fact refers, not to some abstract, disembodied entity but, according to Kabbalah and generally, to the seat of vitality, of life energy in the person. (We read in Leviticus, in a totally different context, that “the blood is the nefesh.”) Interestingly, this entire portion revolves around eating: the incident of Esau selling his birthright (25:29-34) also takes place around food—the infamous “mess of pottage” or lentil stew.

When I first came across this point and thought of retelling it (at a meal, where else?), it sounded like a bad Jewish joke, like something said by a character in an early Philip Roth novel or a Woody Allen movie. Tales of Jewish mothers saying “Ess ess, mein kind” are legion. The conventional wisdom is that Gentiles at social occasions offer one a drink, while at Jewish parties the line is, “Won’t you have something to eat.” Ascetic trends in religion, too, downplay the importance of food, dismissing it as ”corporeality” and advocating fasting and minimum sustenance as the ideal. Certain streams in modern feminism, on the other hand, deride the stereotypic role of the woman as provider of food (“kirche, küche und kinder”) and celebrate the cultivation of more cerebral skills. But in fact, eating, and food, is a crucial human concern, of profound cultural meaning. Food, and everything surrounding it, is a central theme, mirroring the values and attitudes of different societies. Certainly, the approach to food in Judaism—from kashrut, through the various blessings recited at the table, the etiquette and behavior prescribed for a meal, the use of the sacral meal to celebrate Shabbat and festivals and various important occasions, and the various symbolic foods for different occasion—are all indicative of the Jewish approach to life. In light of all this, the linking of the table and the act of blessing is no more than natural.

Toldot (Haftarah)

The haftarot we have dealt with thus far have either been narratives concerning various incidents from the ancient history of Israel under the reign of the kings of Judah and Israel, or prophecies of comfort and consolation taken from the latter part of the Book of Isaiah. This week’s haftarah consists of the opening section of the Book of Malachi (1:1-2:7)—the last of the Twelve “Minor Prophets” (so called only because of their size, not because of any lesser degree of importance)—written during the period of the ”Return to Zion” (ca. 530 BCE). It is the first haftarah in the annual cycle consisting of “prophecy” in the classical sense: that is, words of rebuke and moral exhortation to Israel.

The “argument” of the chapter consists of three main stages: the first stage (1:1-5), which is evidently the reason for its choice for this particular week, contrasts God’s love for Israel/Jacob with His hatred for Esau. The second stage (1:6-2:3), taking off from the exaggerated sense that “God will love us no matter what,” chastises Israel, and specifically the Levitic priests, for their slovenly, if not contemptuous, attitude towards the Divine service. The third stage (2:4-7), by contrast, presents an ideal vision of the function of the righteous priests: “For the lips of the priest shall speak knowledge, and Torah shall they seek from his lips, for he is an angel of the Lord of Hosts.”

Modern liberal Judaism has made much of the contrast between the “ritual” chapters of the Torah concerned with the details of the sacrificial system, and the prophetic books which are critical of such sacrifices, describing them as unnecessary and not really desired by God. Isaiah’s famous call: “Who has asked this of you, to trample my courts… I cannot endure iniquity and solemn assembly,” etc. (Isa 1:12ff.); or Jeremiah’s: “For I did not speak to your fathers or command them concerning burnt offering and sacrifices on the day that I brought them out of Egypt“ (Jer 7:22 and ff.), come to mind. In a similar vein, the prophet Zechariah answers the seemingly straightforward halakhic query, “Shall we continue to weep and fast on the fifth month [i.e., Tisha b’Av] as we have done these many years” (7:3) with a lengthy discourse on the true moral purpose of fasting, only answering the question in 8:18-19.

Clearly, this element is present in the above passages, and the dialectic between priest and prophet, between the ceremonial and the ethical, is an important one. (See my citations of Richard Rubenstein, and his comments on these as differing modes of religiosity, which he also identifies with Protestant and Catholic, or “church” and “sect,” in HY to Ha’azinu-Yom Kippur.) But be that as it may, the present chapter does not outright condemn or reject the sacrificial system. Rather, it presents a more nuanced critique, combining two elements. One, the ethical—that people think they can compensate for moral corruption, theft, exploitation of their fellow man, etc., by performing rituals and bringing offerings. Second, that even their attitude toward the ritual itself is haphazard and sloppy, betraying an underlying contempt that is tantamount to an insult to God Himself, bringing to the altar animals that are blind, sick, lame, or otherwise blemished. To the contrary, religious acts must themselves be performed with an attitude of reverence and awe for the reality of God; with the knowledge that offering sacrifices on the altar is not just a game or a magical charm of some sort. In short, they think they can bring any old thing as a sacrifice, whereas (this is implied between the lines) they are careful to serve only the best meat at their own table or to offer as a gift to a powerful person (v. 8).

Today, when prayer has taken the place of sacrifice, one cannot avoid the thought: would any of us speak to our boss, to an important business client, to a prominent public official, not to speak of a head of state, in the off hand, rapid-fire, essentially inarticulate manner in which the vast majority of Jews daven most of the time?

An important verse, often overlooked, draws a comparison between Israel’s lax attitude to sacrificial worship and that of the other nations: “From the rising of the sun to its setting, My Name is great in the nations, and in every place incense is offered up to My Name, and a pure offering” (v. 11). This statement has far-reaching theological consequences: namely, that ultimately, even the pagan nations, in their supposedly idolatrous cults, also worship the true God. Beneath the garish, polytheistic, and at times even lewd symbolism of paganism, there lies the intent to serve one Creator of the Universe. Certainly, in what are often thought of as contemporary idolatrous religions—such as Hinduism—there is a ground concept of one supreme God or Reality underlying the numerous deities of the pantheon. In any event, their conceptions underwent a certain development over time; in the Hindu case, there is a profound contrast between their oldest scriptures, the Vedas, and the later philosophical tradition of the Upanishads. I do not know much about the so-called ”animistic” religions of central Africa, but would not be surprised if there, too, the totems and animal images and worship of the forces of nature serve as the external shell for an intuitive perception of the one force of Divine life flowing through all things.

All this must give us some pause. Perhaps we need a modified model for understanding non-monotheistic religions; rather than seeing them in terms of black and white, either monotheistic or pagan, there is a certain continuity: that these religions, even in pagan, polytheistic guise, contain a partial truth. In such an approach, the prohibitions of avodah zarah, including imagery, would be directed at Jews, who are called upon to have a purer, unsullied, concept of God, to arrive insofar as possible at the purest, most refined religious truth. (See my discussion of this issue in last year’s Hitzei Yehonatan to Yitro, especially as it bears on the issue of imagery. Maimonides is very strict and outspoken also with regard to incorrect theological concepts held by many Jews; later Maimunidean philosophers engaged in polemic with the Kabbalah for its concept of the sefirot as semi-independent entities within the Godhead, seeing this as a departure from the pristine concept if God’s unity—but this is a discussion in its own right.)

Toldot (Midrash)

It’s All in the Family

Two consecutive midrashim in this week’s parsha comment on the nature of the family connections in the lives of the patriarchs. First, Genesis Rabbah 63.2:

“The crown of the elderly are their grandchildren, and the glory of sons is their fathers.” [Prov 17:6] Fathers are a crown to their children, and children are a crown to their fathers. Fathers are a crown to their children, as is said, “and the glory of sons is their fathers”; and children are a crown to their fathers, as is written, “The crown of the elderly are their grandchildren.”

Thus far a conventional folk proverb, in which families are a setting for mutual pride and admiration—and justly so, according to the verse from Proverbs. (This same verse is no doubt familiar to many from Pirkei Avot 6.8.) But then it takes an unusual twist:

R. Shmuel bar Rav Yitzhak said: Abraham was only saved from the fiery furnace by virtue of Jacob. This may be compared to one who was placed on trial before the ruler, and was sentenced to be burned. That same ruler saw in his astrology that that man [i.e., the one convicted] was to sire a daughter who would be married to the king. He said to himself: He is deserving to be saved by virtue of the daughter who is to be born to him and who shall be married to the king. Similarly, Abraham was sentenced by Nimrod to be burnt, and the Holy One blessed be He saw that Jacob would be born from him. He said: Abraham is worthy to be saved by virtue of Jacob.

The comparison is strange: in the parable, the ruler who passes the death sentence is the one who decides to stay execution because of his (or the king’s) interest in the daughter who is to be born. But God, who saved Abraham, and Nimrod are clearly on opposing sides: Abraham was thrown into the fiery furnace because of his discovery of monotheism and his efforts to spread knowledge of the One God! (See HY III: Lekh Lekha on this midrash) Surely, that same God had every reason to spare him in his own right! One must conclude that the analogy was meant to be only partial, and was introduced to teach the idea of merit being accrued back and forth across the generations, of future, past and present commingling in the Divine economy.

The idea conveyed here is a kind of counterpart or inversion of the concept of zekhut avot. According to this idea, the children and even later generations enjoy a certain Divine favor by virtue of the merit of their righteous fathers and ancestors; the idea is a familiar one, invoked particularly in the liturgy of the Days of Awe and in other petitionary prayers. The opposite issue—to what extent fathers and children are held accountable for one another’s sins—is a problematic one in Jewish theology, and the subject of an implied debate within the Bible. See, e.g., Exodus 20:5-6 and 34:7, in which God visits the iniquity of the fathers to the sons unto the third and fourth generations (but remembers kindness to the thousandth generation) and, on the other hand, Ezekiel 18, which states categorically that “each soul shall die in its own sin” (e.g., vv. 4, 20; but see the entire chapter). Here, the idea is inverted: an ancestor may enjoy the merit of his future descendants, thanks to the anticipatory mercy of an omniscient God. The comparison to astrology, which is here presumed to effectively see the future, is of course problematic.

This idea is first cousin to the idea of yihus—“pedigree” or ancestral pride. Jewish families are known to preserve knowledge of their distinguished Rabbinic ancestors for numerous generations (note the title of this series, which alludes to my own forebear and namesake eight generations back). In Hasidic circles in particular there is an almost mystical sense that ones character and dynasty are profoundly shaped by ones ancestors, leading more than once to leadership by mediocre grandsons of great men. This mood differs profoundly from the modern sensibility, which is an highly individualistic ethos—some would say, carried to ridiculous and unhealthy extremes in the other direction. The midrashic exposition continues:

For it is written: “Therefore, thus says the Lord to the house of Jacob, who redeemed Abraham” [Isa 29:22]. Another thing: “The crown of the elderly are their grandchildren, and the glory of sons is their fathers” [Prov 17:6]—“These are the generations of Isaac son of Abraham, Abraham begat Isaac” [Gen 25:19]

The verse from Isaiah serves as a proof text to show that Abraham was saved by virtue of Jacob. The homily is reminiscent of the Hasidic derush (homily) in its use of a clever linguistic twist to give a new and striking meaning to the words, unintended by their author. The verse in question, due to its unusual syntax, easily lends itself to this; to be understand properly (i.e., that the Lord who redeemed Abraham is now addressing the house of Jacob, not that Jacob redeemed Abraham) one needs to rearrange the order of the words—what the medieval commentator Nahmanides called sarsehu vedarshehu, “cut it up and expound it.” The final line returns full circle, connecting the verse that was the original subject of our midrash to the opening verse of the Torah portion.

Let us now turn to the next paragraph, Genesis Rabbah 63.3, which takes these same ideas further. Beginning with well-known changes of name among the patriarchs, it goes on to suggest other dual nomenclature:

These are the generations of Isaac. Abram is called Abraham, as is said: “Abram is Abraham” [1 Chron 1:27]. Isaac is called Abraham, as is said, “These are the generations of Isaac son of Abraham; Abraham…” [Gen 25:19].

Here, we have a “proof” for the strange thesis that Isaac was also called Abraham, by means of word play: cutting the verse short in mid-phrase so as to make it read as if Abraham were the offspring of Isaac, or perhaps another name for Isaac himself.

Jacob is called Israel, as is written: “No longer shall your name be called Jacob, but rather your name shall be Israel” [Gen 32:29]. Isaac is called Israel, as is written, “And these are the names of the sons of Israel who came to Egypt, Jacob and his sons” [Gen 46:8].

Again, a clever homily, based on an overly literal interpretation of the verse. If Jacob is included among the “sons of Israel” (rather than heading that group), then his own father, i.e., Isaac, is obviously the one called Israel.

Abraham is called Israel. R. Nathan said: These are deep words. “And the time that the children of Israel dwelt in Egypt” [Exod 12:40] and in the land of Canaan and in the land of Goshen “was four hundred and thirty years.”

Traditional Rabbinic exegesis holds that the four hundred years of enslavement in Egypt prophesied to Abraham in the Covenant Between the Pieces (Gen 15:13) in fact began immediately at that time, and hence included the life-spans of Isaac and Jacob (see Rashi there for the calculation); the actual enslavement only lasted 210 years. Hence, the “children of Israel” referred to in this verse begin with Isaac, who was only born some time after that prophecy; therefore, Abraham=Israel, QED. What is going on here? Is this merely clever word-play, stretching syntax in an imaginative way? It seems to me that it goes beyond that. The previous midrash stretches the boundaries of time, seeing present events rooted in the future, conflating together past, present and future in one seamless amalgam. In this midrash, the very names of the different patriarchs (symbolizing identity) is seen as open and flexible; identity itself is not fixed and immutable, but fluid and shared. It is as if there were a single entity, “the patriarchs,” who draw upon one another’s qualities as needed. We find ourselves here in a realm of sacred, typological history, in which time, space and personal identity are flowing, open-ended, running together; it is perhaps suggestive of the hyper-dimensions of some modern theoretical physics, in which the laws of time and space as we know them do not hold sway.

In Praise of Age, Suffering, and Illness

The following midrash turns all of our usual assumptions about life on their head. In a society that praises youthfulness, creature comfort, and health, Genesis Rabbah 65.9 is a thought-provoking little gem:

[1] “When Isaac grew old his eyes became dim so that he could not see” [Gen 27:1]. R. Judah b. Simon said: Abraham sought old age. He said to Him [i.e., God]: Master of the Universe, when a man and his son enter a certain place, no one knows to which one to show honor. Once you crown him [the father] with old age, a person knows whom to honor. The Holy One blessed be He said to him: By your life, you have sought a good thing, and with you it shall begin. From the start of the book until here, “old age” is not written; once Abraham came he was given old age: “And Abraham was old, advanced in years” [Gen 24:1].

There is an interesting implication here: the idea that younger people should show respect to their elders is seen as axiomatic, even before such a thing as old age existed! Beyond that, the visible signs of old age are somehow seen as a source of reverence: the proverbial old man with the long white beard as a symbol of wisdom.

[2] Isaac sought suffering. He said to Him: Master of the Universe, if a person dies without suffering, the Attribute of Judgment is drawn taut against him; but if you bring upon him suffering, the Attribute of Judgment is not drawn taut against him. The Holy One blessed be He said to him: By your life, you have asked a good thing, and with you it shall begin. From the start of the book until here suffering is not recorded. Once Isaac came he was given suffering: “And when Isaac was old, his eyes were dimmed from seeing” [Gen 27:1].

The suffering referred to here is specifically physical suffering: in this case, blindness; we may certainly imagine other earlier incidents causing emotional suffering. The argument itself is interesting. Suffering is seen as a kind of lightning rod, absorbing or neutralizing the accusations of the Attribute of Judgment that would be directed against a person when brought before the Heavenly Court for judgment after his death; Middath ha-Din is depicted like an arrow, drawn back in a tightly drawn bow. As every person commits some wrong during his lifetime, and is hence deserving of some punishment, it is to his advantage that these be expiated during the course of his lifetime through suffering rather than after death. Indeed, suffering is listed among the factors affecting atonement for a person’s sins, alongside, and more potent than, both repentance and Yom Kippur (see b. Yoma 86a; Rambam, Teshuva 1.4; Berakhot 5a; etc.)

[3] Jacob sought illness. He said to Him: Master of the Universe, if a person dies without illness, he cannot make peace among his sons. Once he is sick for two or three days, he reconciles his sons. The Holy One blessed be He said to him: By your life, you have asked a good thing, and with you it shall begin: “And Joseph was told, behold, your father is ill” [Gen 48:1].

Here the function of illness is a curious one: as a kind of warning period before death, enabling people to put their affairs in order. Most important to the author of the midrash is that the dying parent use his influence to make peace among his children: to obviate bickering over their inheritance, etc. The conception seems to be that, before illness was introduced into the world, people died when their time came, in advanced old age, without any particular illness preceding death. The two or three days duration of illness is a stereotypic in the Bible; see Hosea 6:2, ”he will revive us after two days, on the third day He shall raise us up and we shall live.”

[4] R. Levi said: Abraham introduced old age, Isaac introduced suffering, Jacob introduced illness, and Hezekiah introduced illness from which one recovers. He [Hezekiah] said to Him: You have made him aware of the day of his death, but through a person being ill and recovering, being ill and recovering, he repents. The Holy One blessed be He said to him: By your life, you have asked a good thing, and with you it shall begin. Of this it is written: “A letter to Hezekiah king of Judah when he was ill and recovered from his illness” [Isa 38:9]. Said R. Samuel b. Nahman: From here we infer that between one illness and the other there was [a third] illness graver than the other two.

Following the three patriarchs, the midrash turns to Hezekiah, King of Judah at the time of the Assyrian incursion of 721 BCE: a figure renowned for his righteousness, if not a messianic figure, who underwent a particularly dramatic illness during which he prayed to God and lived for fifteen more years. The essential idea, both here and in section [2], is that those experiences in which a person is confronted with his vulnerability and mortality make him more humble, and thereby work a refining effect on his personality—and thus also effect atonement on the part of God.

On the whole, the different sections of this midrash illustrate the positive value to be derived from experiences usually thought of as negative and to be avoided. The world of the Rabbis, in which spiritual and ethical growth are the central goals in life, is able to look on these with equanimity and even in a positive light; the gap between their world and our own may be seen in our own culture’s vastly different response to these phenomena.

On Field and Well

The two locii of field and well play a central role in this portion, and in those that immediately precede it and follow. The word sadeh, “field,” is repeated numerous times in the sale of the cave of Makhpelah in Genesis 23; in 24:63 Isaac goes out to meditate in the field, where he meets Rivkah for the first time. Esau is called “a man of the field” (ish sadeh) in 25:27, in contrast to Jacob, who is ish tam yoshev ohalim—“a simple man, who dwells in tents.” Eliezer meets Rivkah at the “well” or “spring” (be’er / ‘ayin; compare 24:11 and 42), where he tests the generosity of her nature to see whether she will make a fit wife for Yitzhak; Isaac has a series of conflicts with the Canaanites concerning the wells that had been dug in the days of Abraham, which they stopped up (26:15-22). In Vayetse, Jacob meets his bride, Rachel, at the well (29:2-10); in this case, as soon as he sees her he performs an act of masculine strength (counterpart to Rivkah’s act of feminine grace and kindness, probably at the selfsame well?), rolling the stone (echos of the stone at Beth-el, 28:11, 22?) off the well so that she may water her flock.

What do these places symbolize? The spring or well is often seen as a symbol of Torah, of that which is drawn up from a deep, hidden place. That same symbolism may also suggest deep emotion, such as that involved in the meeting and ultimate union of man and woman (Moses, too, met his future bride at the well in Midian; see Exod 2:15-22). A field, by contrast, is a place of openness, of expectancy and potentiality, a place where things grow, a place perhaps midway between the wildness of uncultivated desert or forest, and the domesticity of hearth and home. This being so, what are we to make of the association of “field” with both Yitzhak and Esau?

An interesting aggadic passage from the Talmud (Pesahim 88a) speaks of the three patriarchs associating God with different kinds of locii: “’Let us go up to the house of God…’ [Isa 2:3]. Not like Abraham, who called it a mountain…; and not like Isaac, who called it a field…; but like Jacob, who called it a house….” When I expounded this passage a few years ago (HY I: Vayetse), I suggested that “mountain,” “field” and “house” may be read as appellations for different kinds of meetings between Man and God. Mountain suggests transcendence: a high, lofty, mysterious place, midway between heaven and earth, which man ascends to encounter the “Wholly Other” God. The “house” associated with Jacob suggests the establishment of fixed religious institutions: a Temple or synagogue, four walls built to contain and define the holy: neither the awesome, numinous quality of the mountain, nor the total openness of the field, but something in between—humble and homely, with clear limits and boundaries; a vessel for spirituality for all people, and not only for extraordinary individuals.

The field suggests God’s omnipresence: Isaac, the meditative mystic, sees God everywhere, in very flower and every blade of grass, but especially in open, natural settings far from the noise of human society. One is reminded of the Baal Shem Tov, or of the Zohar’s “Melekh basadeh”—the “King in the Field”—as a symbol for total accessibility of the Divine.

Therein lies the crux of the difference between Esau and Isaac. A field is open, infinite, seemingly ordinary. It can be a site for awakening profound mystical awareness—or a place you cross over without much thought to get from one place to another, or even a place to shoot and kill wild animals. Nature mysticism, or world unitive mysticism—the insight that God is everywhere—can be a very profound level of consciousness, or may seem meaningless or trivial, beyond the ken of those who are not so attuned. The strange affinity between Yitzhak and Esau related to their both being connected to the field. “See the fragrance of my son, like the fragrance of the field which God has blessed” (Gen 27:27). But Isaac was ultimately misled by Esau, in thinking that he had the same kind of consciousness as himself.

Toldot (Hasidism)

On Jacob and Esau

A brief teaching of the Baal Shem Tov, from the anthology of his teachings known as Sefer ha-Besht that we’ve already mentioned here. This is what Shlomo Carlebach would doubtless have called “a sweet little teaching” (Toldot, §1):

“And these are the generations of Isaac son of Abraham: Abraham beget Isaac” [Gen 25:19]. I heard from the Rabbi the Besht z”l, the interpretation of this verse, that it is a question and answer. That is, the question: from whence did it come about that Isaac, who is Gevurah, the attribute of limitation, come to be born from Abraham, who is the attribute of Hesed [=lovingkindness / expansiveness / generosity]? The answer is: “Abraham beget Isaac.” That is, Gevurah comes from Hesed, that there should be limitation in the world. For by means of the fact that a certain is lacking to one, the other one can give it to him. And this is “the world is built upon kindness” [Ps 89:3], and Hasadim (Kindnesses) are drawn down into the world. Thus far his holy words. (quoted from Mevaser Zedek, §Behar).

The midrash (Tanhuma ad loc.; Bava Metzia 87a; quoted by Rashi) finds the repetitive nature of this verse strange. Why say “Abraham beget Isaac” if he is already identified as “Isaac son of Abraham”? They give another, more down-to-earth answer: that the scoffers of the generation thought that Sarah had conceived him from another man, perhaps Avimelech, rather than from the elderly Abraham; but his face was like that of Abraham, establishing his paternity beyond all doubt. The Hasidic Torah projects the verse onto a Kabbalistic, Sefirotic backdrop: since it is well-known that Abraham and Isaac correspond to the diametrically opposed sefirot of Hesed and Gevurah, the question becomes: what is the relationship between the two? The larger question lurking here is: if Hesed, the flow of divine plenum, of blessing and expansion, is so good, why does the word need any other attributes to come into play? The answer may be read on two levels: the moral one—lack is needed for people to practice generosity to others, to break out of the limits of their own selves and to see the neediness of others. It is known that in middle class and even more so in wealthy society, people tend to be much more enclosed within their own homes, more protective of their own boundaries than in, say, poor neighborhoods or peasant society, where real poverty and hunger and want are familiar. The idea may also be read on a theological level: God created the world as a kind of moral testing ground for human beings, so as to provide constant opportunities for mitzvot. Otherwise, why would He need a world altogether? Surely, God would have been satisfied to reside in His Own undifferentiated infinity. This is perhaps the meaning of the verse cited above: “olam hesed yibaneh”: that loving-kindness is the basic moral building block of the universe.

Toldot (Psalms)

Psalm 36: On The Divided Soul

This week’s portion, Toldot, opens with the prenatal origins of the struggle between Jacob and Esau, or Israel and Edom—Esau being treated in the Midrash as a kind of archetype of evil, and specifically the arch-enemy of the Jewish people (Rome, the medieval Christian Church, etc.). This was no doubt the image that inspired the selection of Psalm 36 as the reading for this portion.

The title, la-Menatzeah le-eved ha-Shem le-David, “For the Choirmaster, for the servant of God, [a psalm] of David,” is interesting: the middle phrase perhaps suggests that the psalm will tell how to become a true servant of God, a process which evidently requires one to undergo a certain confrontation with evil. The opening verse, ne’um pesha la-rasha bekerev libi, “transgression speaks to evil within my soul,” suggests a divided consciousness. While there are those who suggest that the psalmist is observing this process from the side, it is more likely that it represents an inner struggle. “Transgression” is personified as an autonomous being, addressing what the Sages would call the Yetzer hara, that component within every person which responds to evil. Whom among us has not experienced, at one point or another in life, a situation in which the thought of performing some immoral act pops into our head, to which a voice inside us immediately responds: “What a great idea!” “I’d like to do that!” This voice is that of the “little rasha” inside us that is tempted by the apparent sweetness of evildoing, by the immediate benefit or pleasure to be derived from that act. Hopefully, if we are moral people, there is a little tzaddik inside us as well who immediately vetoes it; or there may be a protracted inner struggle; or we may in fact succumb.

The psalmist continues by describing how “transgression,” i.e., the personification of the will to evil in the world, invents smooth, persuasive arguments by which to convince people to do its biding: “he flatters himself [or: talks smoothly] in his eyes,” using words of deceit and mischief. Wickedness takes over all his thoughts, becomes the center of his whole existence, to the point that he even plots how to do evil while lying in bed at night.

Verse 4 uses an interesting phrase: hadal lehaskil leheitiv, which may be translated “he has ceased to act wisely [or: to understand] and to do good.” Does this phrase, which uses two separate verbs—lehaskil, “to understand” or “consider,” referring to an activity of the mind; and leheitiv, “to do good,” i.e., a moral act—refer to two distinct, independent realms, or are the two interrelated? This relates to an important question in philosophy: namely, does the application of the intellect automatically bring a person to knowledge of the good, or is the intellect morally neutral?

The tendency in the modern world is to see the mind as a morally neutral organ. It may be used for analyzing problems, “processing” information, and achieving practical goals—but alienated from any “values.” A well-known anecdote tells of a prominent professor of ethics who was notorious for his immoral behavior. He was berated by one of his colleagues: “How can you, an expert on ethics, a trailblazer in ethical theory, behave in such blatantly unethical fashion?” His retort was, “Is a professor of mathematics expected to be a triangle?”

Indeed, our experience clearly shows that practical or applied intelligence can certainly be used for evil. The Nazi killing machine, with its well-designed, efficient functioning, reflecting the application of much thought, is only the most strident example of this. Almost every mystery novel or movie features the clever criminal who uses his mind to outwit the police, leaving no trace and having a fool-proof alibi (although there’s always some small slip up which betrays him); or, on another level, the extramarital lovers who invest great cunning and intelligence in planning their trysts so as to cover their tracks.

But the biblical view, as expressed, for example, in Kohelet, Proverbs and Psalms, is that evil is ultimately related to foolishness. “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God’“ [Ps 14:1]—that is, atheism is an in some sense a failure, not only of faith, but of the intellect; a failure to see what ought to be obvious to any clear-headed person (the ultimate foolishness of the wicked man is in believing that he can get away with his wrongdoing; that “there is no judge and no judgment”). Or there is the notion expressed by the Sages that “A person does not sin unless there enters him a spirit of foolishness.” The human mind, left to its own devices, will reach the way of God; or, perhaps equally important, will intuitively arrive at basic moral and ethical principles. This is in turn related to the assumption, which I believe to be implicit in the concept of the Noachide law, that there is a universal moral law that is innate or inborn within the human soul or mind (see our discussion of this in HY V: Noah).

Certainly, the very idea of a discipline of moral philosophy, whether in the ancient world or among post-Enlightenment thinkers, is based on the premise that man can discover the good and the true through thought. On another level, we have the notion, in classical antiquity, of Wisdom (Sophia /Hokhmah) as a Divine efflux, as the foremost emanation or apotheosis of the Divine within our world.

Interestingly, R. Judah Halevi, in the Kuzari, posits a separate, distinct faculty enabling man, and specifically the Jew, to arrive at knowledge of the divine: inyan haelohi, the “Divine matter” or “faculty,” what might be called a talent for godliness religion. This faculty is outside of the regular definition of intelligence. Indeed, Halevi was skeptical of the efficacy of logical proofs, or of philosophy generally, in bringing human beings to knowledge of either the good or the true. It was this skepticism that led him to the conviction that it is only by means of revelation, and the related phenomenon of prophecy, that man may know with certitude the path in which he must walk.

Returning to our psalm: after painting in clear colors the way of the evil man, there is a pair of verses celebrating the ineffability of God’s attributes: “O Lord, Your lovingkindness extends to the heavens, Your faithfulness to the skies; Your righteousness is like the mighty mountains, Your judgments a great depth—Man and beast you save, O Lord” (vv. 6-7). Are these images, all of which portray the infinite dimensions, the overwhelming and sublime nature of God’s qualities, meant to provide assurance of Divine goodness, or do they suggest His great distance from human affairs (perhaps in response to human wickedness?)? Both readings have been suggested.

The final part of the psalm—“how precious is Your steadfast love…” (vv. 7-10), expresses a sense of being inundated with Divine kindness and grace. Here God’s love is no longer a great mountain or deep abyss, but like that of a protective mother bird or a stream flowing with abundance and delight. The psalmist ends with a brief prayer that he protected from the “foot” and “hand” of the evildoers.

Friday, November 25, 2005

Hayyei Sarah (Torah)

Scenes from a Marriage

The Book of Bereshit (Genesis) may be read as a series of scenes presenting the archetypes that are the basic building blocks of human life: from the Creation of the universe itself, through the mysteries of human freedom, of sexuality, of the discovery of the lethal potential of violence of one man against another, of the propensity to hubris and challenging God, of the possibility of rank evil; introducing the world of human religious consciousness and spirituality with Abraham, the first God-intoxicated man, and his various tests and the difficult trials on his life path. In Hayyei Sarah (Gen 23-25:18) we encounter the next stage—the beginnings of family life. While Abraham was of course married, and Sarah even plays a pivotal role in certain moments in his life, the subject of marriage and family life per se is somehow peripheral to the concerns of the Abraham cycle. Unlike the Ingrid Bergman film of the above-mentioned title, and the modern sensibility it reflects, the scenes that the Torah shows of marriage do not make sex—before, during and after—to be the center of marriage (notwithstanding Isaac’s giveaway “sporting” with his wife in 26:8). Nevertheless, marriage is clearly the central theme here. The two central vignettes around which Hayyei Sarah is focused capture, to my mind, the essence of Jewish marriage.

The parshah begins at the end: with the “summing up” (in Somerset Maugham’s apt phrase), the end of Abraham’s marriage to Sarah with her death. We have heard a great deal over the past three decades about how this section teaches us of the Jewish people’s claim to Eretz Yisrael, in general, and to the “city of the patriarchs,” in particular. To my mind, the human situation portrayed here, briefly but profoundly, is no less important. In moving terms, we see the widowed Abraham coming to Hebron “to mourn for Sarah and to weep for her.” (The modern sense of lispod in the sense of “eulogize,” to deliver a hesped, is later and secondary. The original sense is closer to “moaning” or “keening.”) Only then does he proceed to the business of buying the plot of land with the cave on it (contrary to current Jewish usage, where the formal mourning of shivah is specifically after burial). It is as if, with his partner’s death, he too is bereft, without any anchor or fixed point of being in his own life.

We are reminded of the Rabbinic dictum: “No woman dies save to her husband; no man dies but to his wife.” Children mourn for their parents, but in some sense everyone knows and accepts that it is the way of the world for one generation to pass on while another comes into full strength. (Indeed, in olden times it was customary among Jews for a man in his prime to wryly refer to his son as his “Kaddish’l”) At times, parents are bereaved of their offspring: surely that is the most poignant, bitter loss, and one all-too-familiar in contemporary Israeli society; Hebrew even has a special verb, shekhol, to refer to this form of bereavement. But it is the loss of a partner which is perhaps the most wrenching, removing the life companion who has been ones “missing limb.” The death of parents is the final end of childhood; the death of a child is the truncation of the future; but the death of a spouse is for many tantamount to the end of life itself. I remember our own mother, during the months following my father’s death, saying “my own life is over.”

Perhaps the Torah deliberately places this story here to introduce the theme of marriage by way of negation—revealing its centrality through the deep pain involved in its end. It is as if the Torah is telling Isaac: you are about to be married, to have a wife brought to you “on a silver platter,” arranged by your father’s emissary. By observing the mourning, the loss, the look on your father’s face on the day he came to bury Sarah, you may infer how deep and central it was to him: the symbiosis, the sheer mutual interdependence and support of her presence by his side. For many of us, the figure of the widower has been an emblematic one in the Torah world. Three of the most innovative, dynamic leaders within Orthodox Jewry over the past generation, each of them a leader of a major camp—Rav Soloveitchik, Rav Zvi Yehudah Kook, and the Lubavitcher Rebbe—were widowers for extended periods. One of the most striking images is that of the Rav saying Kaddish for his beloved wife at every public prayer, and reciting Kaddish de-Rabanan at the end of every public Torah lecture (shiur): beginning from the day she died, continuing long past the end of the mourning year had ended, for over a decade, until he himself was no longer able to participate in public worship. The depth of the attachment, and of the loss, seemed to be symbolized in this simple gesture. We can somehow imagine Avraham Avinu in similar light.

As for the other pole: Yitzhak’s marriage to Rivkah. I referred before to “Scenes from a Marriage”; but of course these are really scenes from two different marriages—of Abraham and Sarah, and of Yitzhak and Rivkah. And yet, in one of the psychologically strangest, possibly most strikingly Freudian verse in the entire Torah, we read: “And Isaac brought her [Rebecca] to the tent, [of] Sarah his mother, and Isaac was comforted after his mother” (24:67). Rashi, following the midrash in Bereshit Rabbah (60.16) elaborating on the absence of the conjuctive shel (“of”) between the words “tent” and “Sarah his mother,” reads the verse, “and be brought her to the tent, [and she was] Sarah his mother.” True, he immediately qualifies this, saying that it is to be understood metaphorically: i.e., that she resembled, or assumed, the persona of Sarah, by her actions and by the blessing brought about by her presence in the tent. Nevertheless, the straightforward sense of the midrash is that in some metaphysical or symbolic sense Rebekah actually became Sarah. Isaac’s marriage is not painted in romantic, but primarily in familial colors. The son is dependent upon a maternal figure—even if his own wife. As if, already from the beginning, he was calling her “imma” or “mother,” liked old married couples. If you will (and this is strongly supported by the literal meaning of the verse itself), the wife and the mother in some sense play the same psychological role in a man’s life: most basically, of building a home in which to live. Ishto, zo beito (“His wife is his home”).

One can imagine Abraham and Isaac, during the period following Sarah’s death, living in the manner of bachelors—without the grace and invitingness provided by the proverbial woman’s touch. Busy with their round of masculine pursuits—whether roughly physical, subduing the stubborn intransigence of the material world, or lost in abstract intellectual endeavors, like the withdrawn, contemplative Torah scholar or mystic in which light Isaac is portrayed— they see the tent, the home, as merely a place in which to put their head for the night. Until Rebecca comes, and once again there is a candle burning from Sabbath eve to Sabbath eve, symbolizing domesticity and warmth; a cloud is spread over the tent—symbolizing the Divine presence; the doors are open wide in all four directions, signaling hospitality and a home to the wayfarer; and, finally, there is blessing in the dough.

I am not advocating here a simplistic return to Home and Hearth, or the “three K’s” (Kirche, kuche und kinder) associated with women’s provenance in Germanic culture, but to something deeper. There often seems a tent-like, nomadic aspect to modern culture. Today’s urban centers are so work-oriented, for both men and women, that there seems an absence of the sense of the home as a serious center, as a focus for life energy. This is of course diametrically opposed to the Judaic scale of values.

“And Isaac went out to meditate in the field” (Gen 24:63)

We see here the figure of Isaac as an intensely introverted, inwardly-turning man, going out to meditate in the field towards evening. There is a sense of an inactive, quiet figure; given to long, lonely walks, not overly involved in matters of this world. The Sages use this verse to infer that Yitzhak introduced Minhah, the Afternoon Prayer—perhaps significantly so. Unlike Abraham, who instituted Shaharit —“and Abraham rose early in the morning”— a busy individual, who has plenty to do in the course of a day after davening; Isaac is a dreamy contemplative, whom we can imagine spending long hours spent alone in thought and reflection.

An Orientalist at Bar-Ilan University, Dr. Yosef Drori, has suggested that this passage does not refer to systematic meditation or prayer, or even to “going after his thoughts.” Rather, it was a kind of opening up without any predetermined purpose; walking about in nature to simply feel the presence of God, like the Sufist or other Quietists. (This is apparently suggested by the Arabic root sah). Abraham and Jacob are familiar human types: Abraham is portrayed, at least in the well-known midrashic image, as the warm, generous hevra’man, concerned about others, caring about their needs, drawing them near, teaching—while constantly focused, on another level of consciousness, on a clear, intimate sense of God’s presence. Jacob is the doer, a somewhat morally ambiguous figure, who undergoes a complex zig-zag path of personal growth and problematic interpersonal encounters in all kinds of situations; an ambitious person, always on the move. Isaac, by contrast, is more difficult—and perhaps there is even something frightening, disturbing in him to other people. He is involved in delving deeply into himself—the symbolism of the wells. His stillness and inwardness is disturbing and hard to comprehend—yet it is the very heart, the very stuff and substance, of his experience.

Who Was Yitzhak? A Personal Midrash

“And Isaac had come from Be’er-lahai-ro’i, and was dwelling in the Negev. And Isaac went out to meditate in the field towards evening, and he lifted up his eyes and saw a caravan of camels coming….” [Gen 24:62-63]

In these verses we encounter Yitzhak for the first time since the Akedah. His presence is not noted at his mother’s funeral, nor is he at all involved when Abraham sends his servant messenger Eliezer on the long journey to “the old country” to find him a bride. Indeed, there are midrashim galore that try to figure out where he was during this period. One says that he had gone to study at the yeshivah of Shem and Eber to learn their ancient wisdom; another that he was in the Garden of Eden, healing from the wound inflicted on him by Abraham at the Akedah (but we don’t read about any wound there!); yet a third says that he was in fact slaughtered and burnt, and that his ashes were restored by miraculous heavenly dew. (On these and more, see Shalom Spiegel’s The Last Trial.) Then there are those who suggest (see Dov Elboim’s intriguing article, “Yitzhak, the Forgotten Patriarch” in Akdamot 9 [2000], 131-141) that he in fact become a kind of disbeliever, the great rebel against God, and that the great silence regarding his life, compared to the elaborate, detailed descriptions of the doings of Abraham and Jacob, was because he was in fact “the bad son.”

In an earlier discussion (HY I: Hayyei Sarah; cf. Toldot & Vayetsei), we characterized Isaac as a weak, withdrawn, distant, to all purposes ineffectual figure. But was he so? How are we to understand him:? I envision him as a deeply introspective, brooding figure lost in an inner world of his own. He made contact with the world around him only with great difficulty. His wife Rivkah was clearly the dominant figure in the everyday life of the household, and in understanding the dynamics of the interaction between the two so different brothers; she also sized up far more accurately the women Esau chose for himself.

Isaac’s life was shaped by the trauma of the Akedah. A well-known midrash explains that he became blind in old age because the tears that the angels shed upon him at the time of the Binding. But more than that. He had undergone an experience, before which everything else that came before or since paled. The business of life—sowing and reaping, marriage and raising children, everyday interaction with neighbors and friends—must have seemed to him petty and insignificant.

Abraham discovered God. He is also depicted in his formative years as a loner, who spent long hours in contemplation, pondering the secrets of the universe, wondering the world itself could exist if there were nothing beyond the idols of wood and stone that his father made—until he arrived at knowledge of the one God. But Isaac‘s experience was on a different level. The question that confronted him was not: what is the nature of God? But: what is the nature of the religious man? This was the essence of the Akedah, which presented a powerful, overwhelming vision of life totally devoted to God; that life itself is unimportant compared to the singular imperative of total dedication to God. And when that was halted in mid-stroke, so to speak, when Abraham was told to stay his hand and not slaughter him—how was he to go on living thereafter?

In the above verses we encounter Isaac coming home, returning from a place whose name might be translated “the well where my seer liveth” or “the well where the living One sees.” The very first thing that he does when he returns, almost, is to go out to the field and to commune (presumably, with God). The Sages cite this verse to infer that Yitzhak introduced Minhah, the Afternoon Prayer. Unlike Abraham, who instituted Shaharit —“and Abraham rose early in the morning”— a busy individual, who has plenty to do in the course of a day after davening; Isaac is a dreamy contemplative, whom we can imagine spending long hours spent alone in thought and reflection.

Dr. Yosef Drori, an Orientalist at Bar-Ilan University, suggests that this passage does not refer to systematic meditation or prayer, or even to “going after his thoughts,” but was a kind of opening up without any predetermined purpose; walking about in nature to simply feel the presence of God, like the Sufist or other Quietists. (This is apparently suggested by the Arabic root sah).

But there is more to it than that. I see Yitzhak as the prototypic mystic, whose entire life was devoted to meditation, introspection, perhaps brooding—to attempting to figure out the great riddle of his own life. I imagine him as someone who has had a profoundly transformative experience of inner vision, that totally changed his subsequent perspective on life. Contemporary analogies might be someone who has taken LSD, and had an overwhelming mystical vision; the political radical who has made certain decisions that change the course of his entire life: e.g., to go to jail for ones convictions (a Natan Sharansky, or a ‘60’s draft resister); or one who has entered into the world of outcasts, of those considered the dregs of society—perhaps forging a close friendship with a criminal or a prostitute—whom he has come to know in their complex humanity, forever casting aside conventional judgments. How does such a one ever find his way back to “normal” life? Surely, he will seem to others as “strange,” “odd,” decidedly not a regular member of society.

Hayyei Sarah (Haftarah)

“Adonijahu shall rule”

This week’s haftarah (1 Kings 1:1-31) is of an altogether different type. It is not a particularly pleasant story, involving an old man’s humiliation, brothers struggling over their inheritance before their father is even dead, and royal court intrigue.

The story takes place in the last days of King David. The king is very elderly, and constantly feels cold. A young girl, Avishag (also, incidentally, a Shunemite), is brought to share his bed and warm him up: a kind of living hot water bottle. The text rather pointedly observes that she served this purpose alone; despite her great beauty, “the king did not know her” (v. 4). The demise of the king’s sexual powers, which evidently becomes known, serves as a signal for open rebellion and jockeying for the succession. David’s sons, Adonijah, gathers a group of followers and claims the throne. The scene is like a kind of replay of the rebellion of Absalom years earlier (2 Sam 15-18): indeed, the very first thing Adonijah does is to take a chariot, horses, and fifty men running before him, exactly like Absalom (compare v. 5 with 2 Sam 15:1). Even the cast of characters—Joab ben Zeruiah and Eviathar the priest, disgruntled royal retainers, who supported both Absalom and than Adonijah—is the same. The Adonijah faction goes to the spring of Rogel, just outside the city, and proclaim him king with a huge feast, blowing of the shofar, and shouts of “Long live the king Adonijah.”

Meanwhile, word of this gets back to the royal palace, where Adonijah’s the Davidic loyalists are gathered, including his son Solomon. Nathan the prophet lays a plan for gaining the kings’ support for confirming Solomon’s right of succession. Bath-sheba is the first to approach the king: the strategy is presumably that the woman whom he once loved with a reckless passion (and still loves?), now in the role of a weighty royal matriarch, would have the greatest persuasive power over him, particularly if pleading on behalf of herself and her son Solomon. They fear that, if Adonijah in fact comes to power, both she and Solomon (and the other loyalists: Nathan, Zadok the priest, Benayahu, etc.) will be ruthlessly slaughtered as soon as David is gone. Then Nathan enters, asking as if innocently, “Did you really say that Adonijah is to be king?,” thereby forcing him to proclaim Solomon his rightful heir. The balance of the chapter (vv. 32-53), which is not read in the haftarah, describes how this choice was affirmed in a public anointing ceremony, and ends with Adonijah begging Solomon for his very life.

Those of us living in the Middle East are reminded, lehavdil, of the scene enacted some years ago, when the dying but strong-minded King Hussein came home to straighten out the succession to his own throne, and the dramatic last minute change in which the young prince Abdallah superceded his uncle Hassan.

In a revealing remark near the beginning of this chapter, the narrator comments of Adonijah that “his father never chastised him in his life, asking him ‘Why did you do that?’.” In other words, this whole shameful affair, pitting brother against brother, had its roots in a profound educational failure on the part of David. As courageous as he may have been on the battlefield, as decisive and regal as he may have been during his forty year reign as king, he was an indulgent, sentimental, weak father, who did not know how to put limits on his own children (see almost anywhere in 2 Samuel). One may well imagine Solomon uttering the verse in Proverbs, ”spare the rod and spoil the child,” in reaction to what he witnessed growing up in this strife-ridden royal family. Needless, to say, these lessons are applicable to those o us in humbler walks of life as well.

* * * * * *

Why was this particular passage selected as the haftarah for this portion? On the face of it, it was chosen because of the death of Sarah with which the portion begins (Gen 23:1-2). There are two major death-bed scenes in the Torah, which dominant their respective portions: that of Jacob (Vayehi; Gen 48-50), and that of Moses (Vezot ha-berakha; Deut 33-34). The former takes as its haftarah the immediate sequel to the chapter under discussion (1 Kgs 2); the latter, read on Simhat Torah, when we finish the entire Torah, takes the chapter immediately following it in the Bible, Joshua 1, as its haftarah.

But Sarah’s death, while opening this week’s parsha and providing its title, is not elaborated in any way. It thus seems strange that it should provide the basis for selection of the haftarah. The two main subjects of the portion are: the negotiations to buy the cave of Machpelah (Gen 23), which, while required to bury Sarah, is quite different from a death-bed scene; and the search for a wife for Isaac (Gen 24). But it would seem that the Rabbis were hard put to find any suitable passage from the Nevi’im for either of these episodes. Offhand, there are no tales of shidduchim, of the process of match-making, in the Prophets. (There are a number of sordid sexual episodes: David and Bathsheba, the rape-killing of the concubine in Gibeah, and Amnon and Tamar, but the Sages specifically state that these are “not to be read publicly,” and in any event this is something quite different. Samson’s marriage (Judges 15) is the only wedding described in any detail, but the girl was a non-Israelite, his parents disapproved, and the whole business ended rather badly. There is, to my mind, a significant parallel to the purchase of the cave of the Machpelah in the story of Jeremiah and his uncle Hanamel, who redeemed a plot of land in Anatoth prior to going into exile, as a sign of confidence in the eventual return to the Land of Israel (Jeremiah 32); however, chapter is already “taken” as the haftarah for Behar. If I had my ‘druthers, perhaps I would have use it here, using Chapter 34 of that same book (about the sabbatical year) as the haftarah for Behar rather than for Mishpatim, and turning elsewhere (perhaps to Joshua 24—the making of a covenant with the people over the observance of the “laws and statutes” of the Torah) for Mishpatim—but the Masoretes did not choose that particular route.

Beyond the seeming lack of other available options, the Sages clearly found valuable lessons and values expressed in this particular chapter. First, the educational insight already mentioned above. Second, and more important, we know that the Davidic dynasty was of great importance in Jewish history and deeply captured the midrashic imagination; it is integrally connected to our Messianic hopes; it is even explicitly mentioned in one of the blessings of the haftarah, suggesting that the Prophetic readings generally were related to the hopes for restoration of the Davidic monarchy. Hence, the establishment and confirmation of the first link in David’s succession, described here, was of vital importance (even if the rival was also Davidic), and deserving of a place in the canon of haftarot.

Hayyei Sarah (Midrash)

“And God blessed Abraham with ‘all’”

The opening verse of Genesis 24—the somewhat long-winded narrative describing how Abraham sent his servant to find a wife for his son Isaac—is the occasion for a midrash which is a prime example of how the Rabbis derived a multitude of meanings from a single word. Genesis Rabbah 59.7:

“And the Lord blessed Abraham with all” [Gen 24:1]. Rabbi Yehudah and R. Nehemiah [discussed this verse]. Rabbi Yehudah said: that he gave him a female [i.e., a daughter]. R. Nehemiah said to him: [Even] regarding the main thing of the king’s household [i.e., his wife] blessing is not written! Rather: “And the Lord blessed Abraham with all” —that he did not give him a daughter at all.

This midrash was prompted by the seemingly innocuous word bakol, “with all.” Precisely because this term is so comprehensive and all inclusive, there is the feeling that it says at once everything and nothing. The medieval Bible commentator Moses Nahmanides (Ramban) indeed interprets this phrase as meaning “wealth, property, honor, long life, children—all of a person’s desire,” so that the only thing found lacking in his life was a suitable match for his son Yitzhak. This he then set out to find, making this verse a suitable introduction to this chapter. The Rabbis were not satisfied with such an answer (nor, as we shall see later, was Ramban), and sought a more specific, focused meaning for “all.”

Since there are those who perceive a family with only sons or only daughters as somehow incomplete (just as a man or a woman are incomplete without a mate), it was only natural that R. Judah should seek the specific significance of “All” in a veiled allusion to an otherwise unmentioned daughter of Abraham. R. Nehemiah’s contrary answer may be read as a cynical, misogynist remark. There were certainly those among the Sages who saw the existence of woman, and by extension the whole business of sexuality that their presence in the world implies, as a kind of necessary evil. But Mirkin makes the interesting comment that this is not necessarily the case here; reading the midrashic corpus as a whole, one finds that R. Nehemiah simply liked arguing with R. Judah, and disagreed with almost everything he said “on principle.” Alternatively, this may be a worldly-wise remark on the difficulties of raising daughters and marrying them off (come back in another ten years for my opinion on this)—especially for Abraham, living in the pagan milieu of Canaan with a paucity of suitable hatanim (bridegrooms).

Ramban cites the parallel to this midrash from Baba Batra 16b (where the discussants are R. Meir and R. Judah), which includes the view of “others” that he had a daughter whose name was Bakol, that he had preternatural powers of divination, or that he had a magical healing stone he wore around his neck. He then adds a mystical answer, borrowed from Sefer ha-Bahir, that Abraham had a special connection to the Divine attribute known as bat—a symbol for Malkhut, or Shekhinah, that represents the ingathering of all blessings. We continue:

R. Levi said three things: “With all”—that He gave him control over his Urge. “With all”—that Ishmael repented during his lifetime. “With all”—that his treasury (kilarin) lacked for naught. R. Levi in the name of R. Hama said: “With all”—that He did not test him any more.

R. Levi adds several more areas in which Abraham was especially blessed—these represent problematic areas with which he was preoccupied. First—and this seems a perennial concern of Hazal generally—the battle to control his own instinctive impulses, i.e., his sexuality. The implication is that, as successful as a person’s life may be in terms of external circumstances, if he does not succeed in exercising control over his own chaotic impulses, if he is inwardly divided, his life is bound to unhappy. Second, he was concerned with his wayward son Ishmael; elsewhere in the Midrash (Gen. Rab. 30.4; 38.12) we are told that both Terah, Abraham’s father, and Ishmael his son ultimately returned to the righteous path. Thus, Abraham would not remain a kind of righteous “sandwich” between two generations of pagan, but his family would join him in his religious journey. Third, that his bank account was not diminished by the expense of Sarah’s burial, the subject that immediately precedes this verse. Finally, he was assured [somehow] that the Akedah would be his final test, and that he would not have to endure an endless sequence of ongoing trials.

A Tale of a Pious Donkey

Further along in this chapter, the text makes a passing reference to the unhitching and feeding of the animals in Eliezer’s caravan. This provides the Midrash with the pretext to relate a marvelous story about a certain donkey (like the above midrash, also parallel to a story in the Talmud). Genesis Rabbah 60. 8:

“And the man went to the house and he ungirded the camels” [Gen 24:32]. He unhitched their muzzles. R. Hunna said: R. Jeremiah asked Rabi Hiyya bar Rabba: were not the camels of Father Abraham similar to the donkey of R. Pinhas ben Yair?

The tradition reads the word hitir (here translated “ungirded”), that probably relates to removing the burden, saddles, and other travelling gear of the camels, as referring to the muzzles they had worn during the long journey to prevent them from grazing in the fields of others on the way, which would constitute a kind of theft. The midrash asks a rather strange question: why did they wear muzzles in the first place? Why don’t we assume that animals belonging to a righteous person such as Abraham would automatically behave in a modest and righteous way, similar to the legendary donkey of the tanna R. Pinhas b. Yair (who was particularly known for his piety and scrupulous conduct in all matters)? It then proceeds to relate the story:

R. Pinhas ben Yair’s donkey was once taken by thieves. He spent three days with them and did not taste anything. They said to one another: “In the end he will die and stink up the cave; let us return him to his owner.” So they sent him and he ascended to his master’s house. Once he drew near he brayed and they identified his voice. They said: “Open [the gate] for that poor [animal] and give him something to eat, for three days have passed and he has not tasted anything.” They give him barley, and he did not touch it. They said to him [to R. Pinhas b. Yair]: ”Rabbi, we gave him barley and he did not touch it.” He said to them: “Did you fix it” [i.e., separate terumot ve-ma’asrot, heave offerings and tithes]? They said to him: “Yes.” “Did you separate demai” [i.e., doubtful things]? They said: “But has not our rabbi taught us: ‘One who takes feed for an animal, or flour [to cure] skins, or oil for the lamp or oil with which to cure vessels, are exempt from demai’ [m. Demai 1.3]”? He said to them: “What can we do, and he is strict with himself?!”

Not only did this donkey have ethical scruples about not eating stolen goods, but he was also meticulous about laws of terumot and ma’asrot—the numerous regulations pertaining to the separation of certain portions of all produce grown on the Land of Israel to the priests and Levites—and was even a mahmir?, refusing to use the dispensation given to animals vis-a-vis the rule of demai (the rule requiring that foodstuffs originating from the amei ha-aretz, the ignorant class of people, about whose status we are uncertain, need to be “fixed” a second time).

R. Jeremiah sent R. Zeira a basket (kartalos) of figs. R. Jeremiah said to himself: Is it conceivable that R. Zeira would eat them without fixing them? R. Zeira said to himself: Is it conceivable that R. Jeremiah would send something without fixing them? Between one thing and another, the figs were eaten in an un-fixed state. The next day R. Jeremiah saw R. Zeira and asked him: Did you fix those figs? He replied: No.

R. Abba b. Zamina said in the name of R. Zeira: If the former ones were like angels, we are human beings; and if they were like human beings, we are like donkeys—and not like the donkey of R. Pinhas ben Yair. R Pinhas ben Yair’s donkey was given un-tithed barley and he did not eat it, and we ate un-tithed figs.

Our story continues with an amusing, somewhat embarrassing story in which a gift sent from one prominent sage to another became a stumbling block, each one relying on the other to perform the action needed to render it kosher. R. Zeira himself, with considerable chagrin, tells the story on himself, including the invidious comparison between himself and R. Pinhas’s donkey.

What are we to make of this curious story? How did the donkey know that the food placed in front of him had not had its tithes separated? The assumption seems to be that the animal knew what was kosher or not through some sixth sense, making the story rather reminiscent of that of Bilaam’s ass, who perceived the spiritual entity of the angel more clearly than did his master.

On another level, this little story throws into question some of our basic assumptions about the nature of halakha. Rav Soloveitchik, in his famous essay Halakhic Man and elsewhere, describes Halakha as a kind of conceptual order, a set of concepts superimposed upon physical reality, like mathematics or theoretical physics. But other schools of Jewish thought, especially those influenced by Kabbalah, see halakhic categories, especially those relating to forbidden things, as reflecting innate qualities of the objects in question, a kind of metaphysical reality felt even by an animal. (But Maharsh”a, in his comments on the Talmudic parallel to this story in Hullin 7a-b, gives a more rationalistic explanation: to wit, that God miraculously prevented the donkey from eating that which his master would ordinarily be prohibited to give him, not that the donkey himself understood what was going on.)

On yet another plane, A. J. Heschel speaks of aggadah as concerning itself with the meta-values implicit in halakha. A story such as this, ascribing meticulous piety to the animal of a pious man, may be read as a celebration of Jewish piety as a kind of universal value, applicable even to the animal kingdom, communicated even by proximity to a holy man.

Our midrash continues, confronting the question as to why the Torah troubles to discuss such seemingly trivial and mundane matters as the feeding of livestock:

“And he gave straw and provender to the camels” [ibid.]. Said R. Aha: The conversation of the servants of the patriarchs are more beloved than the Torah of the sons. The chapter of Eliezer takes two or three pages, and even repeats itself over and over; while the sheretz (the law concerning creeping things) is a basic rule of the Torah, yet [the law] that its blood renders things impure in the same way as does its flesh is only inferred from an added nuance (ribui) in the Scripture. R. Simeon bar Yohai said: [it is derived from the use of the definite article]—“impure,” “the impure” [hatamei; Lev 11:29]. R. Eliezer b. Yossi said: [it is derived from the conjunction]—“this,” “and this” [vezeh; ibid.).

The prolixity of the Torah in describing these mundane matters contrasts dramatically with the spare, even minimalistic language used to convey some basic halakhic rules, even though the latter are required for everyday religious observance. In this case, a certain rule concerning ritual impurity is derived by the Rabbis from a subtle turn of language: a ribui, an added definite article or conjunction which does not serve an absolutely necessary syntactic function in the sacred text. The basis for using such inference is the axiom that every word, nay, every letter of the Torah is holy, and is placed there for some purpose—e.g., to infer those laws which are not explicitly stated.

Beyond that, what is meant by the saying, “The conversation of the servants of the patriarchs are more beloved than the Torah of the sons”? The Rabbis were struck by the contrast between the economy with which the Torah expresses itself in many of its legal chapters, and the expansive nature of this chapter, which goes into great detail about seeming trivia. Perhaps the underlying idea is that the area of mundane, everyday life is of great importance, and of equal or even greater importance than that realm which is regulated by specific, well-defined laws. The Torah wants to teach us something here about proper behavior in everyday situations—feeding animals, ordinary conversation, respect and deference in conversation, doing business—through the lives of the patriarchs. These values are illustrated, not by dictating laws, but by example. The chapter represents a kind of gestalt, describing how a Jew ought to behave in those areas that cannot be codified into “do”s and “don’t”s.

More on “The Discourse of the Servants of the Patriarchs”

Last week we commented on the midrashic saying that, “The discourse of the servants of the patriarchs is more beloved than the Torah of the sons.” During the course of that Shabbat, I happened upon a discussion of the same topic in Or Gedalyahu, a collection of talks by Rabbi Gedalyah Schorr, ztz”l, late rosh yeshiva at Torah ve-Da’at in New York City. In general, Rav Schorr’s book is an interesting amalgam of Lithuanian Yeshiva-type Musar and Hasidism, by which he was deeply affected. In this discussion, he clearly articulates the issues involved in this saying, albeit I do not agree with his conclusions.

The central idea is that the patriarchs, when engaged in ordinary, mundane activities, performed yihudim, mystical acts of unification that affected heavenly realms—if you wish, religious work within the world itself. During the age prior to the revelation at Sinai, there was a different type of religious milieu than prevailed later. A Kabbalistic motif has it that Isaac and Jacob, by digging wells or arranging the sticks in front of the watering troughs, accomplished the same spiritual end as we, in a later age, accomplish through, e.g., donning tzitzit or tefillin. Rav Schorr even provides a cautious, theoretical justification for a kind of religious pluralism, acknowledging that, “There are many different paths to God, but those outside of Torah are dangerous.” After Sinai, the only valid path is one of involvement in Torah, and especially Torah study.

The path of the ancients spoken of here is analogous to the avodah begashmiyut (“service through corporeality”) of Hasidim, which sought to sanctify the everyday. Arthur Green has devoted an entire book, Devotion and Commandment, to exploring this motif. Martin Buber, whose approach has more than once been described as “Abrahamic,“ adamantly rejected established religious forms and structures in favor of direct encounter and dialogue with the Divine command in the world—a pre-Sinaitic Judaism. It seems to me that much of the current appeal of Mei Shiloah, the Izhbitzer’s book so beloved by Shlomo Carlebach, lies in its emphasis on seeking to know and perform “the Divine will”—imperatives of an existential, personal, situational nature, derived from a trans-halakhic realm. Of course, this also involves a certain element of risk, in that one never knows for sure what the “Divine will” really is; there is a feeling among many that that way lies anarchy.

I see this issue as lying at the crux of many of the problems facing us today. We see today a resurgent, strict Orthodoxy that bastions itself more and more behind social fences and halakhic stringencies separating it from the world. On the other hand, there those that advocate a pluralistic, syncretistic Judaism radically open to the world—but often only tenuously related to the discipline of halakhah. The great challenge for our generation is to create a vibrant, authentic synthesis of both—of the mundane, world sanctifying conversation of the patriarchs, and the tradition-rooted Torah of the children.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Hayyei Sarah (Hasidism)

“The Days of Sarah’s Life”

Most Hasidic teachings relate to the biblical verses or Rabbinic sayings which serve as their point of departure as a kind of symbolic structure, rather than as a subject of study and literal exegesis. Hence, they often show a particular affinity for the enigmatic verse or Rabbinic dictum. The opening verse of Hayyei Sarah is a prime example. Rashi, in explaining a seemingly simple statement about Sarah’s age at the time of her death, quotes a rather strange midrash from Bereshit Rabbah 58.1:

“And Sarah’s life was one hundred years, and twenty years, and seven years, the years of Sarah’s life” (Gen 23:1). “The Lord knows the days of the innocent, and their inheritance shall be forever” (Ps 37:18). Just as they are unblemished [or: innocent], so are their years unblemished. At twenty years she was like seven years for beauty, and at one hundred years she was like twenty years for [innocence of] sin.

The midrash, noting the Bible’s expressing Sarah’s life span of 127 years in terms of three separate units—100 years, 20 years, 7 years—assumes that this is intended to draw a comparison among the different ages. She is described as being as beautiful at 20 as she was at 7 (itself a rather strange statement; most non-pedophiles would probably consider the 20-year-old to be closer to the very peak of her beauty!), and as innocent of sin at 100 as she was at 20 (Again, are 20-year-olds really so innocent of sin? The usual explanation is that, although a Jew is formally obligated to perform mitzvot from age 12 or 13, one is not held fully accountable, vis-a-vis Divine sanctions, until 20).

R. Elimelekh of Lizhensk, author of Noam Elimelekh, was one of the senior figures among the next generation of disciples: not the direct students of the Baal Shem Tov, but rather that remarkable group of individuals who were disciples of the Maggid of Mezhirech and became rebbes in their turn. Each of these created his own unique path in Avodat Hashem, in Divine service, and collectively they spread the path of Hasidut to virtually every place in Jewish Eastern Europe. These include, in addition to Reb Elimelekh: his brother, R. Zusya of Hanipol; R. Levi Yitzhak of Berdichev, the “Kedushat Levi,” renowned for his great love of Israel; R. Shneur Zalman of Lyady, author of Sefer ha-Tanya and founder of Habad Hasidism; R. Menahem Mendel of Vitebsk; R. Nahum of Chernobyl (also a direct disciple of the Besht), the Me’or Einayim, whom we already mentioned; R. Aharon of Karlin; R. Shmelke of Nikolsburg; R. Yaakov Yosef, the “Hozeh” of Lublin; and many others.

Perhaps more than any other person, R. Elimelekh is considered the one who transformed Hasidism into a popular movement, and the originator of the concept of the Tzaddik in its popular form: that is, of the Hasidic court roughly as we know it today, centered around the charismatic figure of a leader who serves as teacher, exemplary model of piety, and intercessor between the ordinary hasid and his God. But R. Elimelekh was not satisfied with vicarious piety; he made very stringent and uncompromising demands of his hasidim, some of which doubtless seem harsh and inhuman to modern ears. The Tzet’l Katan, the “Small Letter” printed at the beginning of his book, which he asks people to study and repeat frequently, advocates a regimen of intense, fiery prayer and seeks to inculcate a psychological state in which a person imagines himself at any given moment as being ready to die for Kiddush Hashem, for the Sanctification of God’s Name. R. Elimelekh’s orientation is thus largely a Mussar one, in the sense that his concern is more the person’s spiritual development rather than issues of theology, such as that found in Me’or Einayim.

Many of the classic Hasidic works take the qualities celebrated here as being in turn symbolic of other things. The following passage, concerning the above-mentioned midrash elucidating the passage about Sarah’s ages, is perhaps typical:

Or one may say that Rashi alludes in his words to teaching people the ways of God. That is, there are two stages in men’s path. The one, when man is in his childhood, he strengthens himself in study and studies constantly, and the study is called “beauty,” for this is the beauty of the Creator, blessed be He. *

An aside: In his autobiography, The Book and the Sword, David Weiss Halivni recounts a childhood experience of leafing through a copy of No’am Elimelekh that he came across in his grandfather’s home, and the ambivalent reaction of the adults to him, as a child, studying such a profound Kabbalistic text. He mentions there that many of the passages in this book are studded with asterisks, such as above, which according to Hasidic oral tradition are said to allude to deep mysteries. Perhaps they represent the end of certain units of thought, which call for reflection and meditation.

And when a person is more advanced in years, that is, from twenty years on, then his intellect strengthens to know God. At that point he begins to reflect upon his own actions to see whether they are done properly, for His glory, may He be blessed, in truth. And he sees and understands of himself that he has not at all discharged his obligation in the involvement in Torah and mitzvot that he has performed thus far. And he understands that he has been lacking and fallen short in them, that is, that he studied for some ulterior motive or to aggrandize himself or for some other matter for his own pleasure. And that person shall tremble and regret what he did it previously, and strengthen himself to correct all of his actions and his Torah study, that it should all be equally for His Name, may He be praised, and not for his own pleasure.

This is an interesting progression. Torah study is seen as a form of religious service suitable even for childhood, whereas introspection and self-examination require a greater emotional and spiritual maturity. A child is naturally egotistical; he does those things for which he is praised by adults, or which are interesting or enjoyable in their own right. The self-reflective conscience, the ability to act on the basis of an internal set of values and standards, only develops much later. In a traditional Jewish community, where there are powerful social reinforcements, excellence in Torah study can not only be an end in itself, but also can—and often does—become for the bright student a vehicle for childish self-aggrandizement. Again, Weiss Halivni’s biography provides a striking picture of the adulation by adult shteitl society of an “illui,” a child prodigy.

The above passage also implies the Hasidic critique of Torah study as the exclusive value, of the Mitnaggedic value system which seemingly makes Torah study the be-all and end-all. But in truth, in Mitnaggedic circles too there was an on-going tension between Torah and yirah, between the acquisition of knowledge and acute intellectual analysis of the overt contents of Torah, on the one hand, and “the fear of God”—piety, character work, and religious consciousness—on the other.

And as is known, it is written in the holy book Hovot ha-Levavot, that there is no piety like that which is at the beginning. For every thing, at its first beginning, is done with great longing and effort, and with the greatest possible exertion. And this is what Rashi said: “at 100 years, she was like 20 years regarding sin”—that is, as she was at age 20, for then it is a person’s nature to examine his actions, and he finds therein the sins that are lacking in His service, may He be praised. And he holds fast to this path very strongly, for it is the first beginning. And when she was 100 years old she was still on this level. *

Hasidism emphasizes the need to maintain the consciousness of “beginnings.” It is only natural for human beings to approach the start of a new project, of a new path in life, with energy and excitement; beginnings are almost always marked by an almost naive single-mindedness. The important thing in life is persistence. But, for Hasidism, this requires not only will-power, but somehow maintaining the actual feeling of freshness, of newness. “’Today’: Let them be as new in your eyes ever day” (Rashi on Deut 6:6). “He who renews the acts of creation every day, constantly.” A. J. Heschel wrote of “radical amazement” as the central religious emotion. The Rav used to describe the ability to maintain a certain child-like quality as an essential component in the religious personality. Thus, according to R. Elimelekh, the remarkable thing about Sarah was her ability to maintain into old age the sense of surprise and newness —including the ability to engage in self-examination. At times one encounters old people whose faces still contain a child-like sense of wonder at the world, a curiosity and freshness of perception, a refusal to become blasé, jaded, cynical, indifferent. It is difficult to describe such faces; it is one of those qualities that you recognize when you see it.

“And aged 20 like aged 7 for beauty.” This too is meant in the same way. That is, in study as well there must be a maximal approach, to reflect on His holy Torah as when he was still in his childhood, in his tender years. And the righteous person who behaves thus, merits eternal life. *

It seems to me that this passage is not only speaking of Torah study as intellectual understanding. After all, that grows the more one studies and the more one matures mentally, regardless of whether or not one perceives it as fresh and new. The more Torah one knows, the greater the facility with which one can call up associations and points of comparison, draw broad-ranging analogies, create over-arching theories, etc. But no—with all ones “book learning,” one also has to know how to study Torah as one did as a child, to be excited by it, to feel it as a source of vitality, not as something to which you already know the answer. Rav Soloveitchik once remarked: “I teach my Gemara class for three hours. It’s very strange…. The boys there are perhaps fifty years younger than me, but at the end of three hours they are exhausted and I am refreshed.” In truth, to truly innovate in Torah (as in anything) requires a fresh view: the ability to look at the text from a new angle no one’s ever thought of before; not only a narrowing circle of ever finer dialectical hair-splitting, but a radically new purview.

I am also reminded here of watching an old man dancing on Simhat Torah or at a wedding. When a young boy dances, that may be an expression of pure animal energy. When an old man dances, it is the spirit dancing.

Hayyei Sarah (Rambam)

On Sheva Berakhot - The Seven Nuptial Blessings

This essay was originally written on the occasion of the marriage of my son, Ika Chipman, to Leeza Small-Goldberg, during the week following Parshat Hayyei Sarah in November 2003.)

This week’s Torah portion contains the first extensive account in the Bible of a marriage, in the story of Abraham’s servant’s mission to the city of Nahor to find a bride for Isaac. All the components of Jewish marriage are here: the kiddushin is executed by means of an emissary, who presents the girl with gold and silver vessels and clothing, and gifts to her mother and brother (Gen 24:53). Once she arrives in Canaan, Isaac is described as “bringing her into his tent” (v. 67)—i.e., the act of taking the woman into the huppah, which is the essence of marriage. Moreover, Tractate Kallah cites the verse, “and they blessed Rivkah, saying…” (v. 60) as a source for the Sheva Berakhot, or Birkat Hatanim. Interestingly, this blessing is not a “benediction” praising God, but an invocation of God’s blessings, so to speak, upon the bride. Thus, one might say that Sheva Berakhot has a double aspect: blessing in the usual sense of praises addressed to God, and in the sense of invoking Divine blessing upon people.

As we mentioned in our introduction to this series, Maimonides had a genius for order and logical arrangement of his texts, and the choices he made in this regard are themselves significant. His treatment of the laws of Sheva Berakhot are a prime example of this. The full text of the Sheva Berakhot are brought by him in two separate, very different settings; an analysis of these two passages is, to my mind, revealing for understanding Rambam’s conception of this halakhic institution. First, he brings them in Hilkhot Ishut, Chapter 10, among the laws describing the legal process of formalizing marriage: after detailing the laws of kiddushin (betrothal, in which a woman is set aside and sanctified to be the wife of a specific man) in the first nine chapters, he then turns to the laws of huppah or nissuin, the solemnization and actual consummation of the marriage, where the man brings his wife into his home, and there go into effect the monetary and other obligations of the partners to one another, as entailed in the ketubah (marriage document). This section begins:

2. Once the betrothed woman has entered into the huppah, it is permitted for him to have relations with her whenever she wishes, and she is completely his wife, in every respect. And once she enters the huppah she is called married….

3. And one needs to recite the Nuptial Blessings (birkat hatanim) in the home of the bridegroom before the marriage, and these are six blessings, as follows: “Blessed are You…” [there follows the text of all the blessings]

4. And if wine was available, he brings a cup of wine and blesses first over the wine, and then arranges all [the blessings] over the cup; he thus recites seven blessings…

In the Laws of Blessings, Maimonides presents the mitzvah of Birkat Hamazon, Grace After Meals. After the discussing the basis obligation involved in this blessing, he enumerates the various additions made to the “bentching” on various occasions: Shabbat, festivals, New Moons, in the House of Mourning, and in the House of a Bridegroom. Thus, in Hilkhot Berakhot, Chapter 2:

9. In the house of a bridegroom one recites the Bridegroom’s Blessing after these four blessings, at every meal that they eat there. And this blessing is not recited by slaves or minors. Till when does one recite this blessing? If he was a widower marrying a widow, one recites it on the first day alone. And if he was a bachelor marrying a widow or a widower marrying a virgin, one recites it throughout the seven days of the feasting.

10. This blessing added in the house of bridegrooms is the last blessing of the seven nuptial blessings. Under what circumstances? When those partaking of the meal were the same people who were present at the nuptial blessings and heard the blessings. But if those partaking of the meal were others, who did not hear the nuptial blessings at the time of the marriage, these seven blessings are recited for them [my emphasis-JC] after Grace After Meals, in the same way as one blesses at the time of the wedding. And this, provided that there are ten present; and the bridegroom is counted among the minyan.

11. And these are the Seven Blessings: “Blessed are You, O Lord our God…” [the text of all the blessings follows].

It clearly follows from this that the Rambam perceives the seven blessings recited under the huppah, and those recited at the festive meals during the following week, as stemming from two different obligations. In Hilkhot Berakhot he even uses a different terminology to refer to them: the former are called Birkot Nissuin (“Nuptial Blessings”); the latter, Birkat Hatanim (“the Bridegroom’s Blessing,” in the singular)—albeit he is admittedly inconsistent, using the latter term in Hilkhot Ishut. I discussed this problem at some length a little over a year ago (HY IV: Bereshit), when I wrote a long essay about Sheva Berakhot in honor a friend’s daughter’s wedding. I will briefly summarize my conclusions; the full text of that essay is available upon request.

As I understand it, the core of Sheva Berakhot, the essential reason for their recitation at a wedding, is to provide a theology, an in-depth religious context, for the union of man and woman, and by extension for the marriage of this particular couple. Adam and Eve are the archetype for every couple; every couple on their wedding day are in some sense an embodiment, in some mystical sense perhaps even a reincarnation, of that first couple. Under the huppah, the blessings are an obligation incumbent upon the hatan and kalah: to thank God for their zivvug, their own union, and to meditate upon the long-term, cosmic meaning of that union. At the feasts, the blessings are for the benefit of the guests gathered for this occasion, for whom the union of this couple conjures up memories of that first wedding in Eden. The rules governing their recitation all relate to the idea of newness, of freshness: there must be at least one individual who is in fact hearing these blessings, for this particular couple, for the first time; and, except on the wedding day itself, at least one of them must be marrying for the first time. Thus, what creates the obligation is both the newness of the union and the newness of those experiencing it as celebrants.

Before turning to my main subject, two questions for further thought, to which I have no ready answers: 1) First, where does the notion of there being two distinct obligations come from? In reading the Talmudic sugya on this subject (Ketubot 7a-8b), we see no indication of a separate “wedding ceremony” at which the seven blessings were recited. One must remember that in ancient times the betrothal or kiddushin, and the actual marriage or “bringing into the huppah,” were two events that more often than not were separated by an interval of several months, a full year, or even more. The impression gleaned from the Talmud is that the huppah was a festive canopy erected within the groom’s home, perhaps a canopied bed (as in seventeenth and eighteenth century European homes, as can be seen in museums or English castles) or a temporary pavilion adjacent to the home, where the newlyweds consummated their marriage, and during the course of the day the friends of the bride and groom feted the young couple with non-stop feasting, drinking and singing. Indeed, there is some discussion and disagreement among the rishonim as to whether or not these blessings must precede “entering into the huppah.” 2) Secondly, there is room for broader speculation about the historical origin of the sheva berakhot. What lies behind the Talmudic discussion about the requirement of a minyan of ten for these blessings, down to deriving it from a special verse? And were they connected in any way to early Jewish-Christian polemics about the role of sexuality in human life?

Finally, Rambam’s identification of birkat hatanim with the one concluding blessing, and its description as a kind of norm, with the recitation of the full set of seven at the wedding feasts as the exception to the rule, is quite different from the way things are presented in the Talmud, the Tur and Shulhan Arukh. Both the order in which he presents these laws and the exact phrasing used by him suggest that the Rambam had a definite conception of the special position enjoyed by Asher Bara among the nuptial blessings. In the balance of this essay, I would like to explore the specific meaning of this final blessing, and try to understand why it enjoys the special status of being recited at all wedding feasts, regardless of whether or not “new faces” are present. The text is as follows:

Blessed are You, O Lord, our God, King of the Universe, who created joy and happiness, bridegroom and bride, gladness and joyful song, amusement and gaiety, love and camaraderie, peace and friendship. Speedily, O Lord, our God, may we hear in the cities of Judaea and the courtyards of Jerusalem: the voice of joy and happiness, the voice of bridegroom and bride, the voice of joyous shouts of bridegrooms from their wedding chamber and of youths from their feasting and song. Blessed are You, O Lord, who rejoices the groom with the bride.

This blessing consists of two main parts. The first part thanks God for creating the joy of this occasion, enumerating its various aspects (it is rather difficult to translate accurately, as several of these nouns are near synonyms). It is a kind of celebration of the fulness of life, of the epitome, the quintessence of joy, represented by marriage. Not only is it a kind of reliving of Creation, of the wholeness of Adam and Eve’s existence in Eden, but it is also a kind of contagious joy, that makes all those around them happy as well. The celebrants sing and dance, rejoice and feast and laugh—life lived in the present, in the fullness of the moment. (Twelve nouns are brought in all; an old, larger defunct Zoharic- Sephardic tradition mentioned in Seligman Baer’s Siddur Avodat Yisrael has only ten, corresponding to the ten sefirot)

The second half is a prayer for the restoration of Jerusalem. Its presence here is a bit puzzling: the full version of Sheva berakhot already contains a blessing (sos tasis) devoted to hopes for the rebuilding of Jerusalem, and the comforting of the “desolate woman” who awaits the return of her children. Perhaps there is a sense in which the very joy of the wedding festivities are somehow a reminder that Jewish national life is as yet incomplete.

There is also a verbal association between the four nouns mentioned at the beginning of the blessing—sasson simhah hatan vekalah—“joy and happiness, bridegroom and bride”—with a series of verses in Jeremiah. These phrases appear in almost identical form in four separate passages in Jeremiah. Three of these are prophecies of doom, in which the cessation of marriages is seen as emblematic of the end of all normal life, as symptomatic of the dark cloud of destruction and exile: “I will cause to cease from the cities of Judah and from the courtyards of Jerusalem, the voice of joy and the voice of happiness, the voice of bridegroom and the voice of bride, for the land shall be laid waste” (Jer 7:34; cf. 16:9, 25:10). Only in the fourth of these verses, Jer 33:10-11, are the same words used to prophesy redemption and the renewal of life: “There shall yet be heard in this place, which you say is desolate, with neither man nor beast, in the cities of Judah and the courtyards of Jerusalem… the voice of joy and happiness... of groom and bride…. a voice saying, ‘Give thanks to the Lord of Hosts, for God is good, for His lovingkindness endures forever,’ bringing thanksgiving offerings to the House of the Lord.”

Similar ideas appear in other prophecies: the sign of God’s favor being restored is not necessarily in the grand, dramatic events of the ingathering of myriads of exiles from every corner of the world, or the rebuilding of the Temple, or of upheavals of nature, but in the minor, everyday things that signify the return to everyday life: weddings, planting and enjoying the fruit of vineyards (Jer 31:4), or simply the sight of old people sitting on park benches with their canes and children playing in the streets (as in Zechariah 8:4-5).

There is a kind of dialectic here: for the Jew, even at the height of joy one always remembers that something is missing. There is a hole in the center of the religion, so to speak; just as our daily payers are suffused with the absence of the Daily Burnt-Offering, or the liturgies for Yom Kippur or Pesah give prominent place to the missing Temple ritual, so too the very joy of the wedding reminds us of that which is missing. On a certain level, one might say that this sense of lack is almost existential: the joy of Adam and Eve in Eden was also short lived—some midrashim say, only a matter of hours. Perhaps one may even draw a parallel between the expulsion from Eden and the exile from Jerusalem.

Actually, there is an anomaly in this blessing. It seems strange to hear it phrased in the future tense, when the voices of joy and gladness, of bride and groom, are heard right here in Jerusalem, today!

In any event, what is it about this blessing that makes it a sine qua non of every wedding meal, regardless of who is there or how many people? Essentially, as already mentioned above, it is a blessing for the festivity of marriage. The basic idea is that a wedding is the very quintessence of joy; that a wedding feast is sui generis a “joyous occasion.” Therefore each feast, each meal per se, is an occasion for thanking God for the existence of joy in this world (Some authorities suggest that the very recitation of this blessing is part of the mitzvah of “rejoicing bridegroom and bride”). The “reliving” of the Edenic experience is, so to speak, exhausted by the blessings recited at the huppah, unless newcomers come to revive that feeling of reliving Bereshit; but that the wedding feasts are an occasion for rejoicing per se is a fact. This is also reflected in the halakhah that mourners are proscribed from participating in such feasts and that, on the other hand, the “seven days of feasting” are treated as a private festival, a seven day yom tov, for the newlywed couple; even if a parent of one of the principles dies, the feasts go on, and mourning is postponed till after shivah—and there are many other like laws.

I cannot leave this subject without quoting the famous aggadic passage about the five “voices” mentioned regarding the wedding feast. Berakhot 6b:

Rav Helbo said in the name of R. Huna: Whoever enjoys a nuptial feast and does not rejoice the bridegoom, violates [i.e., shows contempt for—Rashi] five voices, as is said: “the voice of joy and happiness, the voice of bridegroom and bride, the voice saying, ‘Give thanks to the Lord of Hosts, for God is good, for His lovingkindness endures forever’” [Jer 31: 11]. And if he does rejoice him, what is his reward? Said R. Yehoshua ben Levi: He merits to the Torah, which was given with five voices. As is said, “And on the third day, when it was morning, there was the sound of thunder and lightening and thick cloud upon the mountain, and the sound of the shofar” [Exod 19:16]. “And the sound of the shofar was increasingly loud… and God answered him with a voice” [ibid., v. 19].

This parallel between the voices, or sounds, of the Sinaitic revelation and those of rejoicing at a wedding is striking. Torah Temimah (at Exod 19:16; §33) suggests that this is based upon the fact that marriage (and, by extension, bearing children and family life generally) and Torah are the two things upon which the very existence of the world depends. One who rejoices at a wedding thus demonstrates, so to speak, that he cares about the existence of the world.

The use of the number five is also suggestive. One wonders whether the non-biblical phrase used at the end of this blessing, “the joyous shouts of bridegrooms from their wedding chamber and of youths from their feasting and song,” is a deliberate substitute for the phrase in Jeremiah, “a voice saying, ‘Give thanks… to the Lord for He is good…,’” was specifically introduced to maintain the same number of mentionings of “voices.”

Halakhic Postscript

As in many other areas of observance today, the question is raised as to whether or not women may recite one of the sheva berakhot—at a wedding meal in honor of the couple, or perhaps even under the huppah. Offhand, there seems to be no reason why they should not do so. The above-cited Rambam, as well as the Shulhan Arukh, specifically stipulates that slaves and minors may not recite these blessings—seeming to imply by silence that women may do so. One well-known rabbi was reported as saying that it is permissible, but that the public is not yet ready for a woman to recite it under the huppah. Slowly, slowly, there seems to be a modest grass-roots movement to recite it at seudot during the week; then it will no doubt gradually find its way into the wedding celebration itself—first at the meal, and finally at the huppah.

Rabbi Daniel Sperber referred me to several articles on the subject by Rabbi Joel Wolowelsky, an important American modern Orthodox halakhist and pro-feminist thinker, in which he reaches similar conclusions: in Modern Judaism 12 (1992), 157-165; in his book Women, Jewish Law and Modernity (Hoboken NJ, 1997), pp. 56-66; in Tehumin 6 (1985), 118-120; and in Amudim 31:3/444 (1983), 86-88. There is also an important article on this topic, with reactions and discussion by four prominent rabbis, in Geranot 3 (published by Beit Morasha Yerushalayim), which I have not yet had the opportunity to read. It seems to me that this could be an important symbolic gesture: if today’s young re’im ha [ve]-ahuvim (“loving friends” or “friends and lovers”) are embarking upon a more shared, egalitarian path, building a less sharply role-differentiated life together than did their forebearers, might this not be expressed by their receiving blessings from both men and women who are close to them?

More on Public Prayer and Private Prayer

(The following is by way of belated conclusion to our discussion of prayer in the Rambam, the first parts of which appeared in HY V; Ekev and Nitzavim. My apologies for the long delay)

Towards the end of Parshat Hayyei Sarah, we encounter the figure of Yitzhak, who “went out toward evening to meditate [la-suah] in the field” (Gen 24:63). Rashi interprets the phrase la-suah as implying prayer, as in the phrase, “he shall pour out his entreaty” (Psalm 102:1)—from whence the notion that Isaac introduced the Minhah Prayer. Isaac is thus a kind of paradigm for the individual who engages in meditative, inward prayer. There is something mysterious about this lone figure, ambling through the desert while the sun is setting, perhaps enwrapped in profound thoughts about the secrets of creation, or crying out to his Maker from the depths of his heart. Such figures reappear, in varied and different forms, throughout the spiritual history of the Jewish people.

The difficulty emerges when the Yitzhak mode is counterpoised with the great emphasis placed by the halakhah upon public worship. The ideal, perfect prayer is always thought of as being recited in public, with a minyan of ten Jews—whether on festive days, such as Simhat Torah or Purim; on days of high solemnity, such as the Days of Awe, when there is hardly a serious Jew who doesn’t find his way to the synagogue; in times of crisis and trouble, as on the public fast days of ancient times, when the entire community gathered in the city square; or simply on ordinary weekdays, when it is a mitzvah to pray with the public. The subject is succinctly presented in Rambam’s Hilkhot Tefillah 8.1, as follows:

The prayer of the public is always heard; and even if there were sinners among them, the Holy One blessed be He never rejects the prayer of the multitude. Hence a person must join himself with the public, and should not pray by himself so long as he is able to pray with the public. And a person should always go to the synagogue morning and evening, for his prayer is only heard at all times in the synagogue. And whoever has a synagogue in his city and does not pray there with the public is called a bad neighbor.

Maimonides devotes more than half of Hilkhot Tefillah, his “Laws of Prayer” —Chapters 8-15—to public manifestations related to prayer: the order of tefillah betzibbur, the synagogue (whose sanctity derives from the regular presence therein of public worship), the public reading of the Torah, and the priestly blessing. In many places, the Sages likewise emphasize the importance of public prayer (see Berakhot 8a). Moreover, according to Hazal’s world-view, in public worship the merits of the public somehow compensate for the shortcomings and lacks of each individual therein. Indeed, they even find a certain note of arrogance or haughtiness in the behavior of a person who does not feel the need to pray with others, as if he is confident that his prayer will be accepted by the Master of the Universe on the basis of his own righteousness alone.

It is my own admittedly subjective impression that daily public worship is one of those mitzvot honored largely in the breach, and is less universal than it was two or three generations ago. Outside of the Haredi world, whether “yeshivish” or Hasidic, it seems that many religious Jewish men, quite possibly the majority, do not attend synagogue daily, unless saying Kaddish. The reasons for this are many: the pressures of modern life, especially of long commutes to work in often congested traffic; readying small children for school or day-care in two-career families with an egalitarian, non-traditional approach to division of tasks; “night-birds,” who may work in intellectual pursuits and utilize the late hours of the night to concentrate without disturbance; and, related to this, those whose “biological clock” cannot easily adjust to rising for early morning minyanim (and who don’t have a late minyan in their neighborhood); not to mention those who live in a city where there is no daily minyan at all.

Yet the centrality of public worship is rooted in basic Jewish concepts. The covenant is seen as in essence being made between God and the Jewish people; even when the Almighty speaks with individuals, as He does constantly in the Book of Genesis, which we read during these autumn months, the covenant is made “between Me and yourself, and with your seed after you throughout the generations” (Gen 17:7) —that is, with a collective which will come into being through the patriarchs, and not with them as individuals per se.

On this count, there is a striking difference between Judaism and Christianity. As Soren Kierkegaard phrased it: “’The individual’—that is the decisive Christian category, and it will be decisive for the future of Christianity.” He even eschewed marriage with the love of his life, Regina Olsen, because he saw his religious calling as somehow fulfilled through his remaining “the Single One. “ (Psycho-historians will doubtless add that this must have been connected with a fear of sexuality, the “thorn in the flesh” that supposedly causes a person to compromise his spirituality by enjoying carnal pleasure.) Admittedly, his approach was an extreme one even within Christianity, but the attitude itself is in some way integral to that faith. Hence the institution of monasticism, and the requirement of celibacy even among lay priests in the Catholic Church, in contrast to Judaism’s emphasis on marriage, family, and the mitzvah of procreating and educating children.

In principle, one might say that Christians are converted to the faith, while Jews are born into the covenant community. Conversion, as a cognitive act, is by definition individual (hence the requirement for adult baptism and consciously “accepting Christ” in many Protestant groups), while birth is a matter of belonging to a certain family, to a group—so much so that even giyyur is understood as being “born” as a Jew, the mikveh and the womb being symbolically equated.

Nevertheless, there are various values in halakhah that at times came into conflict with that of public prayer. Thus, some of the Sages saw Torah study so central to their being that they preferred to worship in solitude where they studied, rather than with the public in the synagogue. Thus, it is told of Rav Assi and Rav Ami that “Even though there were thirteen synagogues in Tiberias, they only prayed between the pillars where they studied” (Berakhot 8a). I have heard that there were great sages closer to our own time, such as the Vilna Gaon, who also followed this approach.

Another aspect of prayer that may lead to conflict with public prayer—one that takes us to the very essence of the meditative, “Yitzhak” model—is that of kavvanah, of the need for spiritual focus or concentration during prayer. Prayer is defined as avodah shebelav, “service of the heart”; hence, by its very nature it must be an expression of the person’s heart and soul. If prayer is lacking in kavvanah, in the inner feeling of standing before the Almighty, it is no more than a heap of words. Here, too, Rambam’s words, based upon the Talmudic discussion, are both clear and insistent: “intention of the heart” is defined as among the “five things whose absence disqualify prayer” (Tefillah 4.15), alongside the laws pertaining to basic physical obstacles to prayer. This, in contradistinction to those things that, while desirable, are not essential, such as the direction faced during prayer, bodily posture and gestures, being dressed in a dignified manner, etc. Thus, by rights, a person who prays without kavvanah ought to recite Shemonah Esreh a second time. The only reason we don’t require this is that the poskim considered it likely that the person will pray by rote the second time around as well! (Shulhan Arukh, Orah Hayyim §101). In a similar vein, the Talmud says that a person must devote time to preparation prior to prayer itself: “The pious men of old would wait one hour and thereafter prayed, so as to focus their hearts upon their Heavenly Father” (Mishnah Berakhot 5.1).

Indeed, there were more than a few great Torah sages, particularly within the Hasidic movement, who found themselves on the horns of this dilemma. Many Hasidic rebbes were in the habit of praying in solitude: some prayed in a separate, side room, with the door slightly opened so that they might hear Kaddish and Barkhu and Kedushah and so on, while there were others who prayed in complete seclusion.

In quite a few synagogues, prayer is conducted in a rapid, perfunctory manner—in some cases even on Shabbat, all the more so on weekdays—that in many cases may disturb those seeking to pray in a more serious manner to properly fulfill the mitzvah of “service of the heart.” Or they may find a certain problem with the “energy” of Orthodox prayer, which at times, in certain places, may somehow seem too nervous, jerky, almost compulsive. Prayer is a very subtle business. Some people are easily disturbed and lose their ability to concentrate if they need to keep up with someone else’s pace, and hence prefer private devotions.

Part of the problem may be put down to the “individualism” of our age: that is, that we value too greatly our own subjective prayer experience and its needs; were people to appreciate the importance of tefillah be-tzibbur, of public prayer, and its cardinal role as a symbolic expression of belonging to the community, they would make a greater effort to, say, pray with a minyan daily.

But that is not a complete answer. Although at times it may seem that the decline in the status and dignity of public prayer is a problem of recent generations, it is in fact not a new problem. Already two hundred years ago this issue was discussed in the writings of Habad Hasidism. The Habad approach, as is well known (see HY IV: Vayishlah, Vayakhel), greatly emphasizes prayer as a central part of a person’s avodah—wherever possible, protracted, meditative prayer. The worshipper is called upon to reflect upon the sublime greatness and majesty of the Holy One blessed be He; to prepare himself by studying a chapter or two of a Hasidic devotional text, and thereafter to pray slowly, word by word, with a melodious chant and with focused attention. The psalms of Pesukei de-Zimra and the first two blessings of Shema in the Morning Prayer are seen as playing a special role, their purpose being “to awaken the love hidden in the heart of every Jew” so that it might thereafter “be openly manifested in his heart at the moment of reciting Shema, which is the mitzvah of love implied by the verse ‘and you shall love [the Lord your God].’”

In two passages in Tanya, the basic text of Habad Hasidism, the “Alter Rebbe,” R. Shneur Zalman of Lyady, relates to this conflict: i.e., between the need for proper kavvanah during prayer, and the requirement of public prayer. His optimal solution is to try to assure that every minyan in every town is hospitable to seriously spiritual prayer—placing his own considerable prestige and stature behind a campaign to do so. In the first chapter of Iggeret ha-Kodesh (the fourth section of Tanya), and again on the final pages of Kuntres Aharon (the fifth and final section), he refers to reports he has heard of places where “businessmen,” who hurry to complete their prayers so as to go about their affairs, serve as prayer leaders, determining the pace of the daily prayer, thereby preventing others from praying slowly and attentively. He protests against this phenomenon, and counsels that;

Only those who have the time…. who are able to pray the morning prayer for about an hour and a half all the days of the week (!) shall be the prayer leaders…But on Shabbat and festival days, when also those who have businesses are at leisure, it is a suitable time for them to pray at leisure, at length, with concentration of their heart and directing their soul toward God (would that this were true today!-JC), [they too may lead the prayers]. All the more so that the obligation is imposed upon them with greater force… as is written in the Torah of Moses, “Six days shall you work … and the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God”—specifically, that it is entirely for God. (Iggeret ha-Kodesh, Ch 1; in Tanya, p. 103a)

How many people can we imagine agreeing to spending an hour and a half davening every weekday morning?! We live in an age when certain minyanim pride themselves in finishing in 25 minutes! I have even heard of a certain synagogue that made a rule that Shaharit on Shabbat morning may not exceed 45 minutes in length—Heaven forbid someone should get home much after 10:30! Nevertheless, our synagogues could stand a certain slowing of pace; perhaps the popularity of “Carlebach minyanim” and other new ways of conducting the service with a slower, more musical or meditative style of prayer, will be the first “swallows” heralding a spring of renewed Jewish spirituality.

The second solution to this problem, current today in Habad, is a kind of fall-back position, in which the two obligations, of public prayer and of kavvanah, are performed separately. The “ba’alei avodah” who daven at length come to synagogue with everybody else, sit quietly and study something while the public worships, meanwhile stopping to fulfill the various mitzvot connected with public worship: Kaddish, Barkhu, Kedushah, and listening to the Torah reading on days when it is read. To these I would add: listening to the entire repetition of the Amidah, and answering “Amen” to each blessing, preferably while standing, given that Hazarat ha-Shatz is considered by Rambam to be the very essence of tefillat hatzibbur. Only thereafter do they pray at length by themselves, with love and fear of God, each one according to their inner resources.

It seems to me, that this approach on the part of Habad is an interesting effort to maintain both values at once: on the one hand, participation with the public, expressing the sense of common destiny, the notion that “all Israel are responsible bound to one another,” that finds concrete expression in public worship; on the other hand, the spiritual goal of kavvanah, of emotion, of prayer as service of the heart—things that, by their very nature, occur within the soul of each individual, and which are rooted in his/her own inner life.

On another level, there is a tension here between “fixity” and “beseeching mercy.” We read in Pirkei Avot 2.16, “Do not make your prayer a fixed thing, but compassion and entreaty before the Omnipresent, blessed be He.” The late Prof. Yeshayahu Leibowitz used to say that Judaism, in effect, rejected this mishnah, preferring fixity and constancy in the mitzvot, including that of prayer, to innerness and emotion, which are by definition subjective and transient. But unlike Leibowitz, I believe that it is both possible and desirable to make every effort to maintain both, and that there is broad support in Judaism for both constancy and for emotion, for participation in the religious life of the congregation and for the outpouring of the soul of each individual.