Follow by Email

Thursday, November 26, 2020

Jacob's stone(s)

 וַיִּפְגַּ֨ע בַּמָּק֜וֹם וַיָּ֤לֶן שָׁם֙ כִּי־בָ֣א הַשֶּׁ֔מֶשׁ וַיִּקַּח֙ מֵאַבְנֵ֣י הַמָּק֔וֹם וַיָּ֖שֶׂם מְרַֽאֲשֹׁתָ֑יו וַיִּשְׁכַּ֖ב בַּמָּק֥וֹם הַהֽוּא׃

וַיַּשְׁכֵּ֨ם יַעֲקֹ֜ב בַּבֹּ֗קֶר וַיִּקַּ֤ח אֶת־הָאֶ֙בֶן֙ אֲשֶׁר־שָׂ֣ם מְרַֽאֲשֹׁתָ֔יו וַיָּ֥שֶׂם אֹתָ֖הּ מַצֵּבָ֑ה וַיִּצֹ֥ק שֶׁ֖מֶן עַל־רֹאשָֽׁהּ׃

For many of us, these verses evoke the image of Jacob's quarreling stones -- each demanding, "upon me let this righteous man lie his head," until God fused them together (Rashi, Gen. 28:11 following Bereshit Rabba and Hulin 91b). A memorable story by itself with an echo of ancient Israelite mythology, this midrash is also a moving metaphor for the twelve tribes of Israel uniting under the banner of their forefather Jacob (see Bereshit Rabba and Pirke de-Rabbi Eliezer for the tradition of twelve stones and its explicit symbolism).

The peshat-oriented exegetes (e.g., Rashbam, Ibn Ezra, Bekhor Shor), of course, don't feel bound to read מֵאַבְנֵ֣י הַמָּק֔וֹם as multiple stones; they insist that Jacob took just one stone of many in the area. (Interestingly, the King James Version translation follows Rashi: "and he took of the stones of that place, and put them for his pillows, and lay down in that place to sleep.")

The Torah tells a story about a random rock because of its special destiny. After sleeping beside the rock, and awaking from his famous dream, Jacob dedicates it as a מצבה (a stele or monument), anoints it with oil (an act of consecration) and vows that upon his safe return from Haran he will sacrifice thanksgiving offerings to God in that very spot, the site of a future temple.

But why did Jacob need a stone in the first place? וַיָּ֖שֶׂם מְרַֽאֲשֹׁתָ֑יו may seem to suggest he wanted to prop up his head on a stone pillow. And on one level, this makes sense. Jacob later says that he escaped from Esau carrying only his walking stick (Gen. 32:10). Even if this was a poetic exaggeration, Jacob would still have had no time to pack unnecessary belongings, certainly not cushions or extra garments for padding his campsite. A pillow of stone befits his desperate and spartan condition at the time.

Still, the word מְרַאֲשׁוֹת in the Bible doesn't always, or perhaps ever, mean "under the head." Instead, it appears to mean "beside the head." The biblical usage includes, for example, the following: (I Samuel 26:7, 11-12) וַחֲנִית֥וֹ מְעוּכָֽה־בָאָ֖רֶץ מְרַאֲשֹׁתָ֑יו -- "his spear stuck in the ground at his head" -- this certainly doesn't mean under his head! (see also Mandelkern's Concordance, p. 1065, which defines מְרַאֲשׁוֹת as "the opposite of מַרְגְּלֹתָיו," i.e., at the feet, rather than on the feet).

It seems very likely that Jacob's stone, or stones, were for warmth. Ancient travelers sleeping outside in the cool night air, especially in the desert, could take advantage of the heat that radiates over time from stones which have been baking all day in the hot sun. Jacob may have also deliberately avoided lighting a fire at night so as not to draw attention from Esau and his men who, Jacob would have feared, were already pursuing him. 

If I am correct, then the Midrash, rather than the peshat commentaries, may have gotten it right after all. For maximum radiant heat, Jacob would no doubt have gathered as many large stones as he could.

Jacob's descendants, an imperfect union of often warring tribes, are fortunate that those honor-hungry, self-centered stones ultimately, and involuntarily, made peace with each other.


Wednesday, September 23, 2020

Tikkun Olam is a great idea. It's just not in Alenu.

Re. the correct spelling of le-taken olam in the Alenu prayer, Mitchell First has written convincingly on this topic. The earliest textual evidence certainly points to לתכן instead of the prevalent לתקן.

I would add, however, that the strongest proof for לתכן is contextual rather than from textual variants -- that is, from the Musaf prayer itself and from related biblical verses that the author seems to be drawing from.

The expression לתכן עולם appears to allude to the second Ketuvim verse of Malkhuyot (Ps. 93:1): ה מָלָךְ֮ גֵּא֪וּת לָ֫בֵ֥שׁ לָבֵ֣שׁ ה עֹ֣ז הִתְאַזָּ֑ר אַף־תִּכּ֥וֹן תֵּ֝בֵ֗ל בַּל־תִּמּֽוֹט

More precisely, לתכן עולם במלכות ש-די is a compound phrase constructed from the last words of that verse -- לתכן עולם follows תִּכּ֥וֹן תֵּ֝בֵ֗ל -- combined with the biblical usage תכון מלכות (e.g., I Sam. 20:31; I Kings 2:12), which is to establish a permanent dynasty or kingdom. 

But no matter how you spell the word in Alenu, the current usage of Tikkun Olam represents an effort that is much easier to implement than bringing God's kingdom down to earth.

Tuesday, September 15, 2020

For the Love of God


(Slightly revised version of essay posted on Times of Israel)

 

In a year defined by its compound anxieties — medical, racial, political, environmental, and economic — we are in last days of the most anxious month on the Jewish calendar. Without much of an independent identity, Elul is the final stretch of the religious year and a prelude to the impending Days of Awe. Traditionally, it is a time of increased religious vigilance, including heightened introspection, Selichot (penitential prayers), revisiting personal and communal moral standards, and stricter observance, all in anticipation of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. 

But there’s more to Elul, even in a year like this one, than brooding over the prior year’s shortcomings or worrying about the weeks and months ahead. For the sensitive religious soul, this season can also be a time of deep spiritual yearning and an intensified love for the divine. A memorable epigram, citing the Song of Songs (6:3), literally spells this out: “’I am for my beloved, and my beloved is for me’ — this is an acronym spelling ‘Elul.’”

Love and fear often come in tandem. And in Jewish thought, love of God and fear of God are considered opposite but conjoined poles of a unified response to divinity: “And now, Israel, what does the Lord your God demand of you? Only this: to fear the Lord your God, to walk only in His paths, to love him . . .” (Deuteronomy 10:12).

The traditional Siddur for children begins (right after Modeh Ani) with a declaration — “the beginning of wisdom is the fear of God” (Psalms 111:10) — that places the latter at the epicenter of intellectual achievement. And the second verse of Shema, almost a credo of Jewish faith, is the commandment to love God.

While both mitzvot are somewhat amorphous, fear of God may be the easier of the two to grasp and to implement. But how can the Torah mandate loving God? What does it mean in practice?

In the very first chapters of his Mishneh Torah code, Maimonides lists love and fear of God as distinct but tightly coupled commandments. Characteristically, he intellectualizes the effort required to fulfill them. Maimonides states that love and fear of the divine, properly observed, arises from an appreciation of God’s majesty and man’s humility. And this can only be accomplished by means of study; specifically, training in physics and metaphysics: “One can only love God by the knowledge with which one knows Him. According to the knowledge, will be the love . . . a person ought therefore to devote himself to understanding those sciences and studies which will inform him concerning his Master” (Laws of Repentance 10:6). Such learning, Maimonides assures us, will ultimately result in an obsessive love for God (in an unexpected near-poetic flourish, he compares it to romantic infatuation) and to a concomitant feeling of smallness within the vastness of the universe. This sense of humility is what the Torah means by fearing God.

Note that the type of fear that God demands, for Maimonides, is not the fear of punishment (in fact, he rejected the concept of divine retribution in the afterlife by suffering). He has little patience for those who worship exclusively out of fear, as commonly understood, or for the expectation of reward. Rather, he says, one who worships God as intended, out of love, “does what is true because it is true” (ibid., 10:2).

As always, Maimonides sets the bar high -- in this case, possibly too high. His definition of love and fear of God is so consciously elitist as to be out of reach for most people: “This standard [to worship God from love],” he concedes, “is indeed a very high one; not every sage attained it.” (Note, however: Rather than the conclusion of an intellectual journey, the biblical meaning of “loving” God is to commit to worship Him exclusively, and to observe the mitzvot – in short, “to walk only in His paths”).

On this and many other matters, both philosophical and halakhic, Maimonides had his detractors. It also goes without saying that Maimonidean (unsurprisingly, largely Aristotelian) physics, as summarized in the earliest chapters of Mishneh Torah, is hopelessly out of date.

But the idea that loving God must begin, logically and practically, with a love for the truth, is a timeless one that should be the foundation of our spiritual lives. In pledging their loyalty and love to God, religious people should never be asked, or ask themselves, to forsake science and fact. And while the beginning of wisdom may be the fear of God, human wisdom itself, both secular and divine, is only possible with an irrevocable commitment to the truth.

Friday, April 24, 2020

Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik on Jewish ethics and the State of Israel (1959) - an excerpt

I've transcribed a section of a recorded lecture by R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik, “Religious Definitions of Man and his Social Institutions, Part 3” (1959)

The excerpt below begins at 33:29. For the sake of clarity 
I've made minor edits, generally indicated by square brackets. A useful historical background, summary, and analysis by Alan Brill can be found here.
________

[Judaism] insisted upon full axiological democracy. You see, this is the kind of democracy which modern man does not understand. Modern man understands political democracy and also understands, perhaps, economic democracy – as the socialist countries, so to [speak], claim to understand; [though] perhaps it isn’t true. He doesn't understand democracy axiologically, as to the worth of the person. That the great scholar, the scientist, and the little person have the same worth, modern man did not understand, I don’t believe I understand, and perhaps no one understands. But Judaism insisted upon it. Judaism was both realistic, at times, and at times it was simply daydreaming, completely caught in the web of fantasy and imagination. But it was a beautiful fantasy, at least.

I will tell you frankly. Now, with the emergence of the State of Israel, I utter one prayer. And simply, many times, my mind is disturbed. We have a beautiful ethic. And, it is hard to say that we were angels but, more or less, the pages of our history are not as stained with blood and tears and injustice and brutality, as are the pages of the history of European society, to take feudal times or medieval times. The simple reason is not, perhaps, because we are superior to them, [but that] we simply did not encounter the challenge. We never had a state. We never had political problems. […]

A private person, a weak person, a persecuted person, a person who [had no] say could not commit the injustices which, for instance, France or Germany or feudal England committed in the middle ages. But, many times I ask, what if our history had been different, had taken a different course? What if we had been a state in the middle ages, how would we have acted? Just like the feudal lords? Or would we have acted differently because of Judaic ethics? I have no answer to that. Who knows? To say hypothetically how we would have acted is ridiculous. Now, with the State of Israel, we are facing the test. Will we behave like any other state, ethically?

Basically, no state is ethical. I believe that statehood itself implies an intrinsic contradiction to ethics; [even] the best one. Will we act differently or will we restrain ourselves from engaging in certain [practices] which are in conflict with basic Judaic ethics? Or will we yield to temptation? Of course, a few experiences are not very [re]assuring, I must tell you. Others, somehow, hold out hope. I don’t know. But, to me, this is the basic problem with which we, the Diaspora Jews, are faced with regard to the State of Israel. [...] The problem is, here we have an opportunity – the Jews are the rulers, they legislate the laws, they are the masters, so to [speak]. We have never been masters, obviously. We have always been the subordinates. Always. Since the destruction of the Second Temple 1900 years ago. It’s quite a long time. Now, we are the masters. Of course, in a small land, on a narrow strip along the eastern Mediterranean. Will we act like masters or will we understand that Judaism does not know the concept of master and slave, victor and vanquished, powerful and weak? This is my problem with regard to the State of Israel.

The whole of Jewish history will be interpreted in terms of what the State of Israel will do in the next fifty years. If the State of Israel will not live up to the great hopes and challenges of Judaic ethics – I am not speaking now of economics and science, this is a secondary problem to me – then the whole of Jewish history will appear in a different light. People will reinterpret Jewish history. So the Jews were nice and decent? This is simply because they didn’t have the opportunity to be wicked. But as soon as they got the opportunity, they proved to the world that they are not better than anybody else.

Monday, April 6, 2020

A second look at the Haggadah's simple child

Of the Haggadah's four archetypal children, the תם — usually translated as simple or simple-minded — may be the most misunderstood and underappreciated. He (or she) appears to earn the name from his unembellished, innocently curious reaction to the Passover service -- ?מה זאת -- "what is this?" The Haggadah presents his short and seemingly naive formulation in stark contrast to the question of the wise child. Seeking detailed instruction on the ritual obligations of the Seder, the latter uses technical halakhic categories to distinguish between the holiday rituals even before he gets his answer.

The traditional view of the תם may be best represented by a comment in Siddur Rashi, an anonymous anthology from the school of the master exegete:

תם: Neither wise nor wicked, but simple (תמים). He lacks the intelligence to ask “what are the testimonies, statutes, and judgments,” a detailed inquiry into each aspect of the Passover service. He simply asks, "what is this?" 

In fact, the original dichotomy between the wise child and his intellectual opposite, found in the oldest versions of the rabbinic "four children" passage, was much more explicit. In those texts, instead of a בן תם there is a בן טיפש, a foolish child. Scholars surmise that when it was incorporated into the Haggadah, the text was deliberately altered to avoid offense.

Medieval Haggadah manuscripts, printed versions from the sixteenth century onward, and illustrated Haggadot still in use, almost always portray the wise child as an elderly, pious scholar. But how do you draw the תם, either on paper or in the imagination? 

To take a modern example, the extremely popular Haggadah illustrations of Siegmund Forst (1904-2006) from the 1950s and 1960s include several variations on the simple child, none too flattering: He tends to have an absent or quizzical look, holding a finger to his chin as he tries to make sense of his surroundings, and appears only marginally more engaged than the silent child ("who does not know how to ask"). In another, somewhat disturbing Forst rendering, he is a grown man playing with blocks. And in his best portrait, from 1959, תם is an Everyman -- in Yiddish, א פשוטע איד -- reading the comics and sports pages while he smokes a cigar. Over his shoulder stands his bearded counterpart, wrapped in a tallit and pondering a page of Talmud. 

But we may have distorted the image of the תם well beyond recognition. It may be time to re-imagine his much maligned personality.

When transforming the בן טיפש into a בן תם, the ancient composers of the Haggadah may have had more in mind than just euphemism. The תם, I believe, is not intellectually deficient. He is morally advantaged.

Recall that the wise child is a חכם, but he is no צדיק. He is never praised, likely for good reason, for his moral or religious aptitude. While he seems to be, like the תם, genuinely curious, he's also, to be honest, a bit of a showoff. His fairly pretentious question, while full of "lomdus" (abstract conceptualization), is designed to impress as much as to learn. He also seems to have a poorly ordered set of religious-moral priorities.

More significantly, in the Bible, תם has a clear moral connotation, often used in parallel with the word ישר (morally upright). Not once does the biblical word describe a mediocre intellect; instead, it is reserved for towering moral and religious figures like Noah, Job, Abraham, Jacob, and David. Understood this way, the תם of the Haggadah's typology stands opposite the wicked child rather than the wise child (see, e.g., Gen. 25:27, which contrasts Jacob, an איש תם, with his evil twin Esau, the cunning hunter; Job 9:22: "He destroys the blameless [תם] and the guilty [רשע]"*).

"What is this?" may sound unsophisticated, but it is also guileless and pure, both morally and intellectually. It's the kind of question -- full of childlike wonder at everything beautiful, true, and good in the universe -- to which we can all aspire. In the image of Seder's תם, we may recognize those who spend their days practicing unpretentious moral heroism, guided by an uncompromising loyalty to the truth. They are the best among us.

________________

*My son Yaakov נ״י notes that the Vilna Gaon in his Haggadah commentary already cited this verse to argue that תם and רשע are opposite types.