Friday, December 25, 2009

Vayigash (Aggadah)

For more teachings on the parashah, see the archives to my blog, at Januaryand December 2006, December 2007, and January 2009.

A Poignant Tale

The story of Joseph and his brothers —leaving aside its consequences for future Jewish history, and the world-historical interpretation placed on it by the midrash—is, in simple human terms, perhaps the most moving story in the Bible, certainly in the Torah. It deals with eternal themes—fathers and sons, rivalry and hostility among siblings—that speak to universal human feelings. The following pithy saying from b. Hagiggah 4b seems to sum it up:

When Rabbi Eleazar would come to the verse, he would weep: If, regarding the rebuke of flesh and blood, it is written “And his brothers could not answer him, for they were astonished before him” (Gen 45:3), all the more so regarding the rebuke of the Holy One, blessed be He.

My discussion here shall be divided into two parts: my own reaction to the biblical story, and why R. Eleazar wept. First, speaking for myself: on more than one occasion, when reading this chapter publicly in the synagogue on Shabbat, I have had to pause, feeling myself on the verge of weeping, imagining Joseph revealing himself to his brothers, and the brothers’ reaction, ranging from shock, to shame, regret, embarrassment, to love and joy and relief that Joseph was indeed alive. Last week’s parashah also contains many poignant scenes: when Joseph overhears his brothers, who of course don’t know that he understands their language, speak of how all this is happening to them because they are guilty of not hearing their brother’s pleas, many years ago, Joseph quickly goes to a side room to weep; again, when he sees his brother Binyamin, he cannot control his weeping (Gen 42:21-24; 43:30-31). Also, Joseph repeatedly asks, both while still in the guise of the Egyptian vizier, “how is your old father of whom you spoke; is he still alive” (43:27) and then, in this verse, once he makes his identity known, he states, almost in one breath, “I am Joseph, is my father still alive?”—and only thereafter “I am Joseph your brother whom you sold to Egypt” (45:3. 4). It is as if, even though he had risen to the second most important position in all of Egypt, his deepest fear was that his father would die without him ever seeing him again; that he would never speak with him again, make reconciliation with him, to fix whatever had been left in need of correction.

The problem presented here—estrangement between people who, at least in terms of the conventional understanding of things ought to be particularly close—has no pat answers. It is simply one of the realities of human life that at times, indeed, not infrequently, even in the “best” families (and even in the very heart of the religious world), there are families in which brothers or other close relatives are openly at odds, so much so that they have not even spoke to one another for years, or even decades. That is perhaps why so many novels and plays by Jewish and Israeli authors and playwrights make the Passover Seder or the house of mourning the central scene for their family dramas: it is a loci at which long-buried conflicts often come into the open, as feuding siblings are nevertheless in one place. I remember attending a funeral in my own extended family, at which, after the formal eulogies in the synagogue, just before the Kaddish, after the grave had already been covered with earth, the youngest son at his mother’s grave side made a brief but poignant speech calling on his siblings: “Let us not be divided! Let us stay together, help one another, as our mother would have wished.” I don’t know whether his heartfelt imprecations helped much. At times, caring for an elderly or ailing parent keeps children together; once they die, there is no longer any common activity or responsibility that unites them, but only the fact of kinship per se—and then other factors, whether money disputes or simply “irreconcilable differences” of temperament, personality, values, etc., often drive them apart.

A friend of mine once remarked that “Americans divorce their families at age 18.” That is, the individualistic ethos of US culture is so strong that adults often see no reason to maintain contact with the “family or origin” once they are themselves independent adults. Traditionally, Jews have an ethos in which the family is important; indeed, the central axis of life. My sense is that this individualistic ethos is not quite so predominant among Jews as it is among non-Jews; but I may well be wrong, and in any event these norms are rapidly changing. The Joseph story reminds us that these strains and tensions have existed since time immemorial.

Turning to R. Eleazar’s comment: interestingly, Joseph did not actually rebuke the brothers. Rather, their own feelings of guilt made them feel thus—just seeing him felt like a living rebuke, because they knew he had every right to rebuke them, to be furious with them, that they had done things which were simply inexcusable. In addition, of course, they may simply have been shocked to discover that this “Egyptian” sitting before them was their own long-lost brother.

From this, R. Eleazar draws an a fortiori: human beings are, existentially, always lacking in God’s eyes; hence, any confrontation with God, with the Infinite Creator, Lawgiver and Judge, is by definition one in which man feels his own inadequacies, and stands dumbfounded.

POSTSCRIPT: Redemption of Captives: The Shalit Affair

Thinking further about the piece I sent out earlier this week, and some emails I received in its wake, I realized that the halakhah as formulated in the Mishnah and the Rambam leaves a key question unanswered: What does it mean to speak of a person’s “worth”? How can one objectively determine what is “too much”? If each human being, and certainly every Jew, is of infinite value, such a determination seems absurd.

And yet, when speaking about redeeming a person, one somehow has to set a price. Does a prisoner’s value correspond to the “valuation” discussed in Leviticus 27, where a person makes an oath to bring his “value” (ערכך) to the Temple? Or is it the price that a given individual would draw if sold as a slave (remembering that there was slavery and a slave-market in the world in which Hazal lived)? Or is it the person’s projected life-time earnings, as is sometimes granted, or at least sued for, in civil damage suits related to murder (as in the O. J. Simpson case) or medical negligence? Or is there such a thing as a known market price for ransoming kidnapped people? Moreover, in this case, where one is speaking of prisoner for prisoner rather than prisoner for money, it becomes much more complicated. In the first such exchange, Israel exchanged its soldiers one-for-one (in 1971, night watchman Shmuel Rosenwasser, who had been kidnapped in Metullah by the PLO, was released in exchange for Mahmoud Hijazi—the only such one-on-one exchange) --until the terrorists started to realize they could demand huge numbers of their people released in exchange for one or two Israelis, and get it. The issue is not so much whether Israeli soldiers are worth more, which is a metaphysical question impossible to answer, but that Israeli civil society seems to care much more about each individual life.

Israeli Nobel Prize winner, economist Israel Uman, has suggested that we put a stop to this. He proposes that Hamas be presented with a list of 500–1000 hardened prisoners and be told to choose one, to be released in exchange for Shalit. As he received his Nobel for game theory, he presumably knows what he’s talking about—but, unfortunately, decisions are being made by politicians rather than by professors.

In any event, it is not a simple matter. Apart from the immediate repercussions, it presents an interesting question in the philosophy of halakhah. After writing this essay, I was told by Dov Frimer, a prominent attorney and very serious talmid-hakham, that the late Rabbi Yehudah Gershuni published an important halakhic study of pidyon shevuyim, with an orientation towards the reality of the Israeli experience (as he died in the 1990’s, it was presumably in relation to the notorous “Jibril deal”). Once I read it, bli neder, I will share my findings with readers.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Miketz - Zot Hanukkah (Aggadah)

For more teachings on the parashah, see the archives to my blog, at January and December 2006, December 2007, and January 2009.

“To Sleep, Perchance to Dream”

The latter half of Bereshit, the Book of Genesis, is filled with portentous dreams and visions—beginning with the oracle to Rivkah explaining the struggling of the infants in her womb; through Yaakov’s dream-vision at Beth-el of the angels ascending and descending and his dream-like encounter with the mysterious figure at the crossing of the stream Yabok; through Joseph’s own dreams, of the sheaves and the stars, portending future greatness; the dreams of the baker and the cup-bearer which earned him a reputation as a dream interpreter that ultimately brought him to the second most powerful position in the entire kingdom; and concluding with Pharaoh’s fateful dreams about the future famine. How are we to understand the significance of dreams? Do dreams have an innate, objective meaning? Do they reflect an immutable Divine decree? Do they predict the future, or contain other important messages, albeit imbedded in obscure, puzzling language and visual symbols? Or, as some neuro-scientists suggest today, are they no more than so much static noise produced by random brain waves while we sleep? The Talmud devotes several thick pages (at b. Berakhot 55a-57b) to various aspects of dreams, including a key to deciphering many specific dream symbols. One answer to these questions is provided by the following brief saying at b. Berakhot 55b:

Rabbi Eleazar said: From whence do we know that all dreams go after the mouth? As is said, ”And it came to pass, as he solved for us, so it was” (Gen 41:13). Ravva said: And this, provided that he interprets in accordance with the nature of the dream, as said “each one he resolved according to his dream” (ibid.,v. 12).

The basic idea implicit here is that the “meaning” of a dream is not based upon an external, objective code with only one fixed meaning. Rather, its meaning is somehow determined through the very process of attempting to interpret it, be that process undertaken by the dreamer himself or by some outside expert—whether he is, as in the ancient world, a professional dream-interpreter such as Joseph (whose “Egyptian” name in Gen 41:45, which is really Aramaic, tzofnat pane’ah, means “he who deciphers hidden things”), or, as in sophisticated modern urban culture, a psychiatrist. Hence, the dream is not some awful oracle, predicting what will happen in the future no matter what—as in the dream of Oedipus’ parents, that the newborn infant would grow up to slay his father and sleep with his mother—but a pointer, a window to the world of the unknown, vague and nebulous and malleable, much like the dream itself.

Hence, there are a number of suggestions in the Talmudic dream tradition as to how one can affect the interpretation and consequences of the dream. One idea is that the first idea that comes into one’s head upon awakening—specifically, the first biblical verse that comes to mind in connection with the symbols seen in the dream—affects its meaning: if a positive verse, then the dream will be played out for good; if evil, then for evil. We shall quote one of numerous examples, this one related to the opening section of this week’s parashah, also brought in the “dream sugya,” at Berakhot 56b:

Our Rabbis taught: One who sees a haircut in his dream should rise and say, “And he cut his hair and changed his raiment” [Gen 41:14—referring to Joseph’s preparation for appearing before Pharaoh], before there comes to him another verse, “Should my hair be cut then my strength would depart me” [Judges 16:17; Samson (foolishly!) revealing the true source of his strength to Delilah].

Elsewhere in the sugya we are told a rather amusing story, in which Abbaye and Rabba have a series of identical dreams, and each goes to the same dream interpreter to “decode” it: the one pays him generously, and the other does not pay him at all. The one who paid the soothsayer was given positive, upbeat interpretations; the one who did not was delivered dire predictions of disaster. The story, besides saying something about human greed, reflects the belief that the meaning of a dream is nevertheless affected by the interpretation given.

Two more means of changing the consequences of a dream, to assure that it will omen good rather than ill, are mentioned in the Talmud. One is the practice institution of Hatavat Halom (ibid., 55b): if one is deeply disturbed by a dream, he is to gather three people, making a kind of miniature court or Bet Din, and together with them recites a series of verses having the key words: הפך (“turn about”), פדה (“redeem”) and שלום (“peace”). A second method of countering the negative “fall-out” from a frightening dream is to pray that the dream be for good and not evil when the priests bless the people; such a prayer, complete with suitable biblical verses, appears in many traditional prayer-books and High Holiday Mahzorim.

The point of all this, is that there is somehow a back-and-forth interaction between the dreamer and his dream. The Talmud seems to reject a rigidly deterministic view, in which the dream is seen as an unalterable oracle or prophecy from God, in which one is shown one’s fate in symbolic language. Is part of this, inter alia, a rejection of the determinism, at times fatalism, of the cultures among whom Israel lived (the classic example being the Greco-Roman culture, with its concepts of unalterable fate or destiny, moira, exemplified in the example of Oedipus mentioned earlier). Judaism, by contrast, celebrates human freedom and choice, behirah hofshit.

One more thought. Are dreams a simple message from God, or is one often shown therein “the thoughts of one’s heart”? Are dreams a way of prodding a person to recognize hitherto repressed truths about himself and his own desires and fantasies—things which have perhaps been suppressed because they are too dangerous to confront openly, and thus are encoded in dream language? Are they a “window to the unconscious”? While the latter idea is a central theme of Freudian dream analysis, it was already expressed by the Talmud 1500 years earlier:

Rabbi Yonatan said: A man is shown naught but the thoughts of his own heart, as is said, “You, O King [Nebuchadnezzar], on your bed thoughts came to you…” [Daniel 2:29].

Indeed, perhaps this idea is far older. Already in the story of Joseph’s dreams we have his father’s rebuke: “Will we come, I and your mother and your brothers, to bow down before you!!?” (Gen 37:10)—as if to say, “Is that what you wish in your secret heart?!” And, if this dream reflected his own true wishes, and not merely some external oracle over which he had no control, his brothers’ hatred “for his dreams and for his words” (ibid., v. 8) also make even more sense.

Nevertheless, we must not overlook the other aspect of dreams: the objective lexicon of dream symbols that occupies much of our sugya, as well as the prophetic aspect, of dreams being what Hazal, again in this sugya, call “sixtieth part of prophecy.” One need look no further than this week’s parashah, in which Pharaoh’s dreams predict the coming famine, and act as a warning and catalyst for his taking the necessary steps, with Joseph’s sage counsel, to enable his country to survive this natural cataclysm.

(NOTE: For an excellent, highly insightful study of the Talmudic dream sugya, see Philip S. Alexander, “Bavli Berakhot 55a-57b: The Talmudic Dreambook in Context,” Journal of Jewish Studies 46 (1995), 230-248)

POSTSCRIPT: Hanukkah and Psalms

Psalm 30 is recited on Hanukkah because of its title or heading: מזמור שיר חנוכת הבית לדוד, “A Psalm, a song, for the dedication of the House, of David.” But what, if any, is the relation of its contents to the meaning and contents of Hanukkah? We must bear in mind what I said in my recent piece on Hanukah: that Hanukkah, both in its historical contents and in its symbolic meaning as a mid-winter festival, focuses on the emergence from darkness to light, from somnolence and near-death to life and vitality, from oppression to freedom—and thus, from lamenting to dancing, from sack-cloth to girding [garments of] joy. While there are many psalms that depict the author-petitioner in dire straits, praying to God and being redeemed, that process is particularly dramatic in this psalm; and, what for me is the most interesting aspect, it portrays a person who, before all this happens, is immersed in complacency and self-satisfaction:—“I said in my tranquility, I will never be moved” (v. 7)—and, through the process of facing troubles and even the prospect of his own death (“God, you hid Your face… What profit is there in my blood, in my descending to the pit? Can dust thank you, talk of Your truth?”–8-10) and the feeling God’s redeeming hand, he arrives at a new, more mature sort of faith.

This is also the reason for the other, somewhat puzzling, liturgical use of this psalm: as the introduction to the Morning Service, even before Pesukei de-Zimra. This unique mode—gratitude to God, not out of comfort and middle-class security, but awareness of one’s dependence on God and the insecurity and unpredictability of life—is the proper attitude with which to stand in prayer before God.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Hanukkah (Aggadah)

For more teachings on Hanukkah, see the archives to my blog, at December 2005, 2006, 2007, and 2008.

We note with sadness the death of the Bostoner Rebbe, Rabbi Levi Yitzhak Horowitz ztz”l, on Motza’ei Shabbat Vayishlah (December 5th). A memorial essay will follow shortly.

“What is Hanukkah?”

Near the beginning of the Talmudic discussion about Hanukkah (which, unlike almost all the other holidays, does not have its own tractate, but appears in the second chapter of Shabbat, by way of association with the Shabbat candles), the question is asked: מאי חנוכה, “What is Hanukkah?”—a question that the Talmud does not ask about any other holiday. Let us examine this passage, at Shabbat 21b:

What is Hanukkah? As our Rabbis taught: On the 25th of Kislev are the days of Hanukkah, eight [days] during which it is forbidden to lament the dead or to fast. For when the Greeks entered the Sanctuary they contaminated all the oils which were therein, and when the kingdom of the Hasmonean house strengthened and defeated them, they searched and found only a single vial of oil which had been left with the seal of the High Priest [that had not been contaminated], and there was only enough there to light for one day. And a miracle was done, and they lit therefrom for eight days. The following year, they fixed these as [eight] festive days, with praise and thanksgiving.

This Talmudic passage is a more-or-less direct quotation from Megillat Ta’anit, an ancient document, considered by some to be the earliest extant work of Oral Torah, which lists a variety of days throughout the course months of the Hebrew year, all told some forty in number, that were marked by a certain degree of joy and festivity and on which it was forbidden to engage in weeping or fasting. Of the occasions listed there, only Hanukkah and Purim are observed today. (Note: the brackets in the above text indicate those phrases that appear in Megillat Ta’anit but not in the Talmudic passage.) The Talmudic sugya quotes the opening part of the scholium, the explanation of why Hanukkah is celebrated as such. Further on, Megillat Ta’anit addresses the question as to why Hanukkah is observed for eight days rather than seven, as the other times the Temple was dedicated the festivities lasted for seven days; it goes on to describe the makeshift Menorah, made of pipes of iron overlaid with lead, used in place of the golden Menorah; and concludes with some of the laws of Hanukkah.

What is missing here? Both the passage from the Babylonian Talmud and that from Megillat Ta’anit ignore almost completely the war of the Hasmoneans, described at length in the Apocrypal Books of Maccabees and in Josephus, which was intended to restore Jewish sovereignty and thereby enable the Jews to once again live their lives according to their ancient traditions. The Seleucid-Hellenistic rule of the late third and early second century BCE was one of severe religious repression, during which, at least according to many sources, the Jews were not allowed to practice circumcision, to observe the Shabbat, or to fix their calendar and thus the various festival days through their High Court. Shaking off the Hellenistic rule and the restoration of religious freedom thus seemed to go hand-in-hand.

Interestingly, Rambam, in his presentation of the laws of Hanukkah, like this Talmudic passage, begins with a lengthy discussion of the historical background of this occasion, rather than going directly to the pertinent laws and mitzvot as he does in the case of those festivals prescribed by the Torah. But his emphases are quite different from those of the gemara. Thus, in Chapter 3 of Hilkhot Megillah ve-Hanukkah, we read:

1. During the Second Temple, when the Grecian kings issued edicts against Israel and abolished their law and did not allow them to engage in Torah and mitzvot, and tried to take their money and their daughters, and they entered the Sanctuary and made breaches therein and contaminated the pure things. And Israel were greatly oppressed because of this, until the God of their Fathers took pity upon them and delivered them from their hand and saved them. And the Hasmonean high priests overcame them and killed them, and saved Israel from their hand, and crowned a king from among the priests, and sovereignty returned to Israel for more than two hundred years until the destruction of the Second Temple.

He continues, in the next two halakhot, to describe the miracle of the oil and the institution of Hanukkah. (I have translated and discussed this passage in the past, interested readers are referred to HY V: Miketz-Hanukkah [=Rambam; see my blog archives, December 2005.)

Strikingly unlike the Talmudic sugya, Maimonides here discusses what might be called the political-cultural-national aspect of Hanukkah: what may have started as a pietistic reaction to religious persecution and suppression prompted a rebellion, which resulted in the attainment of political sovereignty. As time went on (this point Rambam does not mention), the Hasmonean line, of priestly descent, assumed royal prerogatives as well, thereby violating the traditional separation of sacred and secular leadership that had been observed since time immemorial, and eventually succumbed to the allures of wealth and power, turning corrupt and aloof from the ordinary people.

Some have suggested that the posing of the question, ”Why Hanukkah?” refers to a quandary felt by the Sages of the Talmud. As they could no longer be particularly excited by the Hasmonean victory, both because they ultimate departed from the religious ideals that originally motivated them, and because in any event the state they created was now defunct, they wondered why one ought bother to celebrate it at all. The Bavli’s answer was a narrow one, focused on the supernatural intervention expressed in the miracle of the oil. Rambam, by contrast, sees matters on a broader canvas, focusing at least as much on the political victory, as a means of attaining religious-cultural-spiritual freedom from the Grecian oppression. A similar spirit to that of the Rambam is expressed by the Al ha-Nisim prayer, inserted in the Amidah and in the Grace After Meals throughout the eight days of Hanukkah.

Modern Jewish historiography, particularly that influenced by Zionism, has tended to emphasize the nationalistic aspects of Hanukkah. In secular Israeli culture, Hanukkah is often identified as a victory of the striving for national independence and autonomy, coupled with the military heroism and bravery of the Maccabees. The Israeli state, as it were, wishes to see itself in the image of the Hasmoneans. By contrast, the more religious elements within Jewry tend to emphasize the theological, religious aspects of Hanukkah—hence, the emphasis on the miracle of the vial of oil and the devotion of the Hasmoneans to the restoration of the Temple service with, above all else, its requirements of ritual purity. All this is symbolized by the candles, which represent the light of Torah.

But there is yet another way of viewing this holiday. Prof. Israel Jacob Yuval of the Hebrew University, in a recent lecture, has suggested a third motif—if you will, “a third verse that mediates [between two contradictory ones]”—that transcends the dichotomy between the theological-spiritual interpretation and the national-political one. To understand his approach, we must read the following aggadah related to the ancient pagan mid-winter festivals, at Avodah Zarah 8a:

Mishnah: These are the festival days of the idolaters: Kalends and Saturnalia… Gemara: Rav Hanan son of Rava said: Kalends is eight days after the [winter] solstice; Saturnalia, eight days before the solstice. The sign of this is “behind and afore You have created me” [Psalm 139:5].

Our Rabbis taught: Because Adam saw that the days were becoming progressively shorter, he said: “Woe is me, perhaps because I sinned the world is becoming dark and returning to chaos, and this is the death which has been decreed upon me from Heaven.” So he sat for eight days, fasting and praying. Once he saw the solstice of Teveth [i.e., the winter solstice] and that the days were beginning to become longer, he said: Such is the way the world. So he went and made eight festive days. The following year, he made both of them festive days.

He [Adam] fixed them for the sake of Heaven, but they [the idolaters] fixed them for idolatrous worship.

Our aggadah describes a universal human experience: the sense of dread elicited by darkness. There is something existentially frightening, terrifying, evocative of the most primal fears, about the absence of light. No wonder, then, that in virtually every human culture, darkness and the color black are seen as symbols of evil, of death, of return to chaos. Night is a time filled with uncanny, hostile spirits; witches, succubii, and demons; the wee hours of the night are the preferred time for the cult of Satan. Even in the most “enlightened,” secular, atheistic cultures, such as those of Scandinavia, the long, dark, winter months are a time when many turn to drink and depression, and even suicide. At its root, darkness is reminiscent of the grave.

What has all this to do with Hanukkah? Prof. Yuval notes that the Roman pagan culture commemorated mid-winter’s day (which they believed to fall on December 25th, not on the 21st as held by modern calculations of the solstice) with the two above-mentioned festivals. The shortest day of the year is a turning point in the natural cycle: in the midst of a period of prolonged darkness, the days gradually, at first almost imperceptibly, begin to become longer and longer. In the pagan world, this festival was dedicated to the sun god; however, there is much evidence to suggest that both Judaism and Christianity adapted this holiday for their own purposes, in the form of the days of Hanukkah and the Feast of the Nativity, respectively. {There is no evidence in the Christian Scriptures to suggest that Jesus was in fact born on December 25th, or anytime around midwinter (the Greek Orthodox and other Eastern Churches celebrate Christmas in early January). Only two of the four gospels, Matthew and Luke, mention Jesus’ birth at all, and neither gives any indication of its date or even season. However, it is highly improbable that the “shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night” of Luke 2:8 did so in the depths of winter; even with the Mediterranean climate of Eretz Yisrael, it is quite cold on winter nights, especially in the central hill country where Bethlehem is located.)

The final sentence of the above aggadah has it that “Adam fixed them [as festival days] for the sake of Heaven, but the pagans did so for the sake of their idolatry.” To translate this into conceptual language: mid-winter’s day as an occasion for celebration is not incompatible with monotheism. We are grateful to the one God for ordering the universe in such a way that there are times of winter, cold and darkness, but also summer, filled with light and warmth; the first signs of the turning-point in mid- winter is a reminder of this. The return of light is a natural symbol for the return of joy, of vitality, of life itself. A reminder that, within the earth itself, even if at times it is frozen over, new life is germinating, providing grain and fruit for the new spring’s and summer’s harvest.

Beyond that: the contrast between light and darkness may easily be seen as symbolic of that between good and evil, between life and death, between knowledge and ignorance; these symbols are ones of universal significance. Thus Judaism reinterpreted the traditional mid-winter festival, appropriating it for its own purposes, inter alia to commemorate an event that in any event had occurred around that time of year. The emergence of Christmas as a major festival of the new religion of the Roman empire in the third century may have served as a stimulus for Judaism to reemphasize its own midwinter festival, rather than discarding it along with all those other days recorded in Megillat Ta’anit, stressing particularly those contents related to light: the miracle of the oil in the Sanctuary, the lighting of candles at home and, more generally and metaphorically, the spread of the light of Torah, as exemplified by the religious devotion of the Hasmoneans (some thinkers speak of Hanukkah, not inappropriately, as the “Festival of Oral Torah”), and perhaps also the national urge for autonomy and self-determination as a form of light.

Yuval concluded his talk by seeing Hanukkah, rather than as a festival celebrating separation, as is the usual interpretation, but as one of synthesis, adapting universal contents to our own cultural and religious system. To those of us who seek a more nuanced approach to the age-old conflict between Jerusalem and Athens, beyond simple rejection of Hellenism and all it symbolizes, this approach has much to recommend it (but is not to be confused with the superficial syncretism of “Chrismukkah,” in which both traditions are flattened out to little more than consumer labels).

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Vayeshev - Hanukkah (Aggadah)

For more teachings on this parashah, as well as on Hanukkah, see the archives to this blog, at December 2005, 2006, 2007, and 2008.

Joseph and His Brothers

This time we will focus upon Jacob’s reaction and attitudes towards the affair of Joseph and his brothers, which ultimately precipitated the descent of Israel to Egypt. First, a brief passage from Genesis Rabbah 84.3:

“And Jacob dwelled” [Gen 37:1]. Rav Ahha said: When the righteous dwell in peace and tranquility and wish to dwell quietly in This World, the Satan comes and accuses them. He says: Is it not enough that which is awaiting them in the World to Come, that they wish to dwell in peace and tranquility in This World? Know that this is so, for when Jacob our Father sought to dwell quietly in this world, there was matched for him the adversity of Joseph.

This midrash, picking up on the first two words of the parashah, makes a very bold statement. What is wrong with a little peace and quiet? Admittedly, any decent, ethical person must be prepared to set aside his own well-being and natural desire for comfort when confronted by some specific task or imperative: to help other people who are in distress or to take action to further some urgent cause. Any moral system, any approach to life based upon transcendent values, will demand that. But what is wrong with a person desiring peace and tranquility as such? Indeed, the ancient Greek philosophers, the medieval Christian contemplatives, and even our own Maimonides, celebrated the life of contemplation, of philosophical reflection—all of which is predicated on a certain inner calm, a life without too many external disturbances. Rambam, at the end of Mishneh Torah and elsewhere, sees the summum bonum, the ultimate goal of human life, as attaining knowledge of God, which can only be attained through long hours of solitude while engaged in profound thought and reflection.

Why then did the Rabbis object here to Jacob’s simple desire, at the end of a long and tumultuous life—especially in light of all that he had gone through with Esau, with Laban, with the bickering and rivalry of his two wives, with the people of Shechem—for a bit of peace and quiet, for what we would call today a “serene retirement”? Certainly, that fits in with contemporary mores: most people, would say that one of their goals in working hard is to have enough to enjoy “the good things of life”—leisure time, a nice vacation, a comfortable retirement.

But many Jewish Mussar thinkers would say to all that: No! Man is born to toil— אדם לעמל יולד; work and even travail is man’s natural condition (Job 5:7; cf. Gen 3:17-19). Beyond that, every free moment ought to be devoted to the service of God, avodat hashem: dong mitzvot of kindness towards others, studying Torah, praying slowly and with kavvanah, etc. In similar fashion, Protestant Christians sometimes speak of life in terms of a “calling” or “vocation,” not only for clergy but of whatever work one does in the world being somehow focused on God. This is not so far afield from Jewish view as it may seem: while the terminology sounds goyish, the substance and spirit is very much the same.

Yalkut Yehudah (by Yehudah Leib Ginsburg of Denver) says that excessive tranquility and comfort is objectionable, because the vast majority of people do not enjoy these most of the time; hence, in order to identify with others, the righteous man must also live a simple, even unquiet life. Human life, almost by its nature, involves upheaval and disquiet of one kind or another; if a person enjoys excessive calm and tranquility, this may be a sign of his own insensitivity, that he fails to see or ignores what is going on around him, that he makes himself impervious to the needs and sufferings of others. Yaakov’s quest for peace and quiet was answered by God bringing about the circumstances which split his family down the middle, resulting in the exile for twenty years of the bright, second-youngest son.

Yet on another level, surely this is only one side of the coin. Does Judaism lend legitimacy to the contemplative life or not? Do borrow we see the need for both Martha and Mary (archetypes for the active and contemplative lives in Christianity), or do we frown on the purely contemplative type who fails to perform acts of goodness because he lives in a manner that is remote from others? Significantly, a serious Jew cannot live a fully isolated, hermit–like existence, because he must have a community, if only for the mitzvot of public prayer. “Life is with People,” to quote the title of a book about Eastern European Jewish life that was popular some years ago.

The next, succinct saying concerns sibling rivalry. Shabbat 10b:

”And he made him a striped coat” [Gen 37:3]. Rav Hamma son of Goria said in the name of Rav: A person should never show preference to one son among his sons, for because of a two sela’s worth of fine wool in the striped robe that Jacob made for Joseph more than for his other sons his brothers were jealous of him, and the matter developed such that our forefathers went down to Egypt.

This saying seems to belabor the obvious. What parent sets out to deliberately favor one child over another? If asked, almost every parent will say “I love all my children equally, but each one in their own unique special way.” Yet theory is one thing, and life as it is lived is another. Most of us, if we look at our own life experience, whether as children or as parents, or at those of families we know well, will find that favoring of one child is very common, perhaps more so than its opposite. And the results are, of course, often disastrous. Sibling rivalry, conflict between brothers, is the theme of much fiction; any number of biblical narratives, from Yitzhak and Ishmael, through Yaakov and Esau, and down to the sons of David, revolve around this theme—and parental favoritism is often the root cause. Like gossip, like sexual dalliance and infidelity, everyone agrees that parental favoritism is a bad thing, that sooner or later will exact its price—but everyone also knows that, if not ubiquitous, it is exceedingly widespread and common. Not infrequently, one hears of families in which siblings are totally estranged, not speaking to one another for long years and even decades; meeting, at best, at weddings and funerals. Indeed, I know of cases involving fine and outstanding families, of learned, intelligent, scholarly, ethical people, in which even the death of a parent fails to bring siblings together. (Perhaps that is why the Torah makes a special point of telling us that Yitzhak and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, respectively, at least got together for the burials of their fathers; see Gen 25:9; 35:29) All that Hazal can do, then, is to point to the phenomenon and consequences, and warn against it.

A Quote About Lashon Hara

The subject of lashon hara, guarding one’s tongue against speaking evil of others, is an important ethical rule of Torah, virtually impossible for any normal person to fully observe. But it is particularly apt in the case of this week’s parashah which, among other things, demonstrates the incredibly destructive power of negative speech. Note the brothers’ murmuring against Yosef; their lie to their father about his being devoured by a wild animal, thereby casing him twenty years of grief; Potiphar’s wife’s malicious lie, reversing the identity of seducer and would-be seducee, thereby landing Joseph in prison; the cup bearer’s silent ingratitude; and, by shining contrast, Judah’s near-heroic admission of his dalliance with Tamar, and even more so, Tamar's silence, risking all so as not to embarrass another person.

The following quotation was sent out this week by Shmuel Himelstein, an avid collector and sharer of quotations from just about everyone and everywhere, with the comment, “that pretty much sums up Hilkhot Lashon Hara.” Its author was an American educator, clergyman, poet and essayist:

There are two good rules which ought to be written on every heart; never to believe anything bad about anybody unless you positively know it to be true; and never to tell that unless you feel that it is absolutely necessary, and that God is listening while you tell it. —Henry van Dyke (1852–1933)

And, more succinctly, from comedian Herb Shriner (1918-1970):

Conversation is when three people stand on the corner talking. Gossip is when one of them leaves.

Vayishlah (Aggadah)

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

Jacob Wrestling with the Angel

The nature and identity of the mysterious figure with whom Jacob wrestles at the Ford of Jabok is discussed in the Talmud in Hullin, the tractate dealing with various aspects of kashrut. The specific context is a halakhic discussion of the prohibition of gid hanasheh, the sciatic nerve or “hamstring”—offhand, the only kashrut regulation that serves a commemorative purpose, namely, to remember that selfsame struggle. After discussing whether this law applies to both of the animal’s hind legs or to only one, the Talmud concludes that it applies to only one, and turns to the question of which leg. In doing so, it invokes various theories as to the nature of this figure, in each case using it to prove that the “hollow of the thigh” on which Yaakov limped was that of the right side. Hullin 91a:

R. Joshua ben Levi said: Scripture says, “When he struggled with him” (Gen 32:25)—like a person who embraces his fellow, his hand reaching to the right -hand thigh-hollow of his fellow. Rabbi Shmuel b. Nahmani said: He appeared to him like an idolator. … Rav Shmuel bar Ahha said before Rav Pappa in the name of Rabba bar Ulla: He seemed to him like a sage….

We read elsewhere in the Midrash that this figure was the “Prince of Esau.” Assuming this to be the case, how are we to understand the vast range of images used here, from “idolator,” through “friend/fellow man” to “Sage”? At the risk of over-interpretation (or “eisegesis,” reading too much into the text), perhaps this reflected different ways of viewing the non-Jewish world represented by Esau. A predominant view in much of Jewish thought is that of the “idolator”—that is, that the non-Jewish world lies irredeemably sunk in the morass of paganism, with all that implies in terms of world-view, superstition, ethical level, etc. The image of “fellow” is more neutral: The Esau-ite is a fellow human-being, with all the potential for good and evil that implies. Finally, the image of the talmid-hakham suggests that Esau, notwithstanding all his bad habits and seemingly coarse nature in real life, he is somehow still a true son of the patriarch Isaac, and that the “Prince of Esau,” the heavenly archetype from which he somehow draws his vital energy, is somehow sublime and connected to holiness.

And how did our Rabbis interpret the phrase, “when he struggled with him”? It is needed for the saying of R. Joshua ben Levi, for R. Joshua b. Levi said: This teaches that the dust of their feet rose up to the Throne of Glory. It says here, “when he struggled with him” and it says there “And a cloud is the dust of His feet” (Nahum 1:3).

Here, a few lines further in the same sugya, Yaakov’s struggle is raised to a new level, to a conflict of cosmic significance, the dust of their feet rising to the Divine Throne of Glory: i.e., that God Himself is interested in the outcome of this conflict!

We turn to another midrash, with a certain thematic conception:

“And Jacob remained alone” (Gen 32:24). It is written “There is none like the God of Jeshurun” (Deut 33:26). R Berekhiah in the name of R. Simon said: “There is none like God.” And who is like God? Jeshurun! — [That is,] Grandfather Israel. Just as it is written of the Holy One blessed be He “and the Lord alone shall be exalted on that day” (Isa 2:11), so too Jacob “And Jacob was left alone” (ibid). —Genesis Rabbah 77.1

Here we turn to a wholly different dimension, a very radical reading indeed, in which Yaakov (and, by extension, the Jewish people as a whole, the term Yisrael Sabba often being used to allude to the eternal aspect of Israel’s existence in the world) are seen as being similar to God, at least in His aspect of aloneness, and perhaps uniqueness. Jacob remains alone, providing the setting for his encounter with the angel. But this somehow makes him similar to the Almighty—as if to say that, somehow, individuation, being alone, are seen as signs of a higher kind of spirituality, of a state perhaps in which the intellect and the focused activity of the mind is somehow more concentrated. While the prophets may have spoken their message to the throng, to the public, they developed their capacity for spiritual insight and receptivity through long period of solitude. Rav Soloveitchik often spoke of the enhanced quality of human dignity one when one is not part of the throng, the mass, the swarming multitude—and these being symbolized by Israel’s somewhat solitary position among the nations.