Friday, December 2, 2011

A Thought on the Parsha

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Click here:  Parshat Vayetze

"Give truth to Yaakov, loving-kindness to Avraham..." (Micah 7:20), the prophet Micha asks of God, and thus, in kabbalistic literature, Avraham comes to represent the attribute of chesed, loving-kindness, while Yaakov represents the attribute of emet, truth.  While it is not at all difficult to see how Avraham is associated with loving-kindness  - witness his welcoming of the angelic guests -  it is quite challenging to see Yaakov as embodying the principle of truth.  Whether in his dealings with Esav - exploiting Esav's weariness to purchase the right of the firstborn, and misrepresenting himself as Esav to his father - or in his dealings with Lavan, and his use of striped rods to affect the coloration of the sheep - Yaakov seems to be a person who is, at times blatantly dishonest, and at times a schemer and certainly a less than trustworthy character.   How can we come to terms with Yaakov's character? Where is the attribute of truth?

Two approaches are possible.  One is to find a way to read the stories so that Yaakov is acting truthfully and faithfully.   The other is to see that Yaakov does not start out as a man of truth, but actually transforms into one.   The first approach is that of Rashi.  The famous Rashi on the verse "I am Esav your firstborn" - "I am the one who is bringing you food, and Esav is your firstborn." - is representative of Rashi's approach throughout these stories.  Thus, in the story of the purchase of the birthright, Rashi tells us that Esav was conceived second and not deserving of the firstborn, the truly deceitful one who was constantly duping his father, a murderer, an idolater, and a glutton.  Such a person was not deserving of the right of the firstborn, and even realized this himself, and thus made a calm, rational decision that Yaakov was the one who truly deserved it.    

The problem with this approach is that while it protects our idealized image of Yaakov, it does violence not only to the pshat of the text, but also to the very principle of emet.  If Yaakov acted correctly, then a person in his or her own life can live by Rashi's principle of "I am / Esav [is] your first born."  One can misrepresent oneself, as long as the words are (somehow) technically true (remember, "It depends what the meaning of the word 'is' is"?).  One can engage in deceitful acts, as long as one is doing it for the right reason, and certainly if the person being deceived is a bad person.   And so we find that Rashi tells us that when Yaakov declared that he was Lavan's "brother", he was saying: "If he is a good person, I will be truthful with him, but if he is a deceitful man, I am his brother [and will match him] in deceit."   This, I believe, is not the lesson that we want to be learning from Yaakov or these stories.

The alternative is to see Yaakov as initially flawed, and more so as someone who grows in the process.  Dr. David Berger has already noted in his wonderful essay, "On the Morality of the Patriarchs in Jewish Polemic and Exegesis," that when the Bible was accepted as God's word, it was Jacob's character - and through him, the character of the Jewish people - that needed to be defended against the Christian critics.  However, once the Bible's divine nature was challenged, and its morality brought into question, commentators protected the Torah's moral integrity by reading the stories, and particularly those in our parsha, as critical of Yaakov.   For us, we can say that our sensitivity to pshat and our desire to protect the value of the principle of truthfulness, also demands such a reading.

Yaakov starts off as deceitful, but then he grows.  How do we see this in our parsha?  Perhaps the first thing to note is that after the opening and powerful scene of the ladder and the angels, the first story of Yaakov in Lavan's country is one which shows Yaakov not as a man of deceit, but as a man with a strong work ethic, who understands the seriousness of one's obligation to his employer.  "And he said, behold the day is still long, it is not yet time to gather in the sheep, water the sheep and return to your shepherding." (Breishit 29:7).   Perhaps, the cynical person will say, Yaakov is good at moralizing to others, but does not himself follow his own teaching.  The end of the parsha shows that the opposite is the case.  "These twenty years that I am with you, your sheep and your goats did not miscarry, and the rams of your flock I did not eat.  A torn animal I never brought to you - I would bear the loss...  By day scorching heat consumed me, and bitter cold at night."  He says all of this to Lavan, knowing that he will not be contradicted, for he was the most trustworthy employee one could ever hope for, going even beyond his legal obligations (see Shemot 22:12).  Yaakov is someone who works hard and faithfully, never taking off time, or helping himself to some office supplies.  How many of us - and in particular those of us who are so quick to criticize his other actions - could say the same thing of ourselves?  In these stories he unquestionably represents honesty and faithfulness, and it is Lavan who "switches his fee a hundred times".

So what about his lying and his deceit in the other stories? I believe that Yaakov's struggle with emet was not when it came to the everyday occurrences, nor even when it came to sacrificing of his time or effort, or even money for the sake of truthfulness.   No.  His struggle with emet was when there were no alternatives, and the thing had to be done.  This was the episode with Yitzchak's blessing, and it is for this that he is punished - and learns his lesson - in the house of Lavan.  For after working seven years for Rachel, he wakes in the morning to discover that he has married Leah.  "This is not the way we act here," says Lavan, "to give the younger one before the older one."  Perhaps, he is saying, that is how you acted back in Canaan, but here we do things right.   Yaakov has been punished measure for measure, and learns that deceit begets deceit.  If one benefits from deceit, then ultimately one will pay the price. Even if there is no alternative, one must do the right thing and trust in God that all will work out for the best.

And this lesson is repeated with the sheep.  Yaakov does not act deceitfully.  As we have seen, it is Lavan who constantly changes the agreement, and it is Yaakov who meets the deceit with uncompromised honesty.  But, with that, he was still scheming.  He tried to rig the results by placing striped rods in front of the sheep when they copulated.  Many people are bothered by this story, because it seems to indicate that the Torah believes that this scheme actually changed the physical characteristics of the sheep.  I believe that the story is telling us the opposite.  For when the angel appears to Yaakov, as we hear in his speech to Rachel and Leah, the angel tells him, "Behold all the he-goats mounting the flocks are ringed, speckled, and checkered, for I have seen all that Lavan is doing to you." (31:12).   The angel was effectively saying: "It is not your trick that did it, it was I - the angel - who was ensuring that the right cross-breeding took place.  It was I that ensured that the outcome would be to your benefit."  And Yaakov learns this lesson, for he tells Lavan at the end, that were it not for God watching over him, he would have been left empty handed.  Not only was the striped rod trick ineffectual, but it would not have done any good regardless, since the terms of the agreement were constantly changing.

In the end, the lesson is clear.  Honesty is not a situational ethic.  If one is a paragon of honesty, then one not only is fully faithful to his employer, is scrupulously honest in day-to-day events, even at the cost of his own time, money, and effort, but one is also honest even when there is much to be lost.  If you engage in dishonesty in such cases, you will get your comeuppance, and regardless, it will often prove ineffectual.  Deceit breeds deceit, and you are just as likely to be the one who is cheated.   One must never compromise his or her honesty, and trust in God that all will turn out for the better.    "Give truth to Yaakov and loving kindness to Avraham as you have sworn to our fathers in the days of old."  If we live up to the highest standard of honesty, the honesty that was given, was taught, to Yaakov, then we will be deserving of the God's loving-kindness, and of God's protection.

Shabbat Shalom!

Torah from our Beit Midrash


While a little postponed, I would like to finish up the discussion from two weeks ago on the topic of attitudes towards Christianity, which arose in the daf yomi at the beginning of Bekhorot.  The Talmud (Bekhorot 2b) had stated that a person could not enter into a partnership with a non-Jew, lest the non-Jew have to take an oath, and he would then do so in the name of his god.  The taking of an oath in the name of another god is something that not only a Jew cannot do, but also cannot be the cause of having been done, even by a non-Jew.  The obvious question for the Tosafists then became, how could Jews enter into partnerships with Christians.  Tosafot first notes the possibility that we do not rule according to the statement in the Gemara that partnerships per se are forbidden, as there are cases in other Gemarot which accept Jewish-non-Jewish partnerships.  Nevertheless, Tosafot finds himself pressed to articulate a better answer, since in his day Jews actually would not only enter into partnerships, but would actually demand and accept oaths from non-Jews, which - when done in the name of another god - is unquestionably forbidden.  How, then, was this practice accepted?  Here is Tosafot's answer:

Rabbeinu Tam further explains that nowadays they (Christians) all take oaths in the name of their saints and they don't attribute to them any divinity.  And although they mention the name of God and their intention is to something else (i.e., Jesus), this is not considered the name of a foreign god because their intention is for the Creator of Heaven and Earth.   The And although they "join" (mishtatef) the heavenly name with another thing, there is no prohibition of "before the blind do not place a stumbling block," because Noahides are not prohibited on this issue, and for us (Jews), we have not found that there is a prohibition to bring about such "joining."
(Tosafot, Bekhorot 2b, s.v. Shema).

Let us a dissect this statement.  First, Tosafot points out that Christian oaths which are taken in the name of a saint, are not oaths in the name of another god, as saints are not treated as gods.  But these oaths are not only in the name of saints, but also in the name of God.  (Remember Henry V (Act 3, scene 1):  Follow your spirit, and upon this charge / Cry 'God for Harry, England, and Saint George!').   Now, here is the interesting question - when Christians say "God", not Jesus, is this the "name of other gods"?  Tosafot says that it is not, for both (a) they use the same name that we do and (b) it refers to the same Being - the Creator of Heaven and Earth.  Both the symbol (the word "God") and the referent (the Being referred to) are the same.  The exact meaning here - that the referent is not "another god" -  is open to interpretation.  I believe that Tosafot is saying that when Christians say God, rather than Jesus, they are referring to the Christian concept of God the Father, which is totally consistent with the Jewish concept of God.  

Some may argue - although I do not believe this was the intention - that Tosafot is saying that even if they are referring to the Trinity as a whole, or to any part of it, since this concept includes the idea of God who is the Creator of Heaven and Earth, it is not considered the name of another god.  This reading would seem to come very close to saying that Christianity is not avoda zara - if it is the same God, how could it be avoda zara?  However, Tosafot consistently and unambiguously asserts that Christianity is avoda zara.   What, then, about the above statement?  There are two possible explanations.  Either that Christianity is avoda zara not because their concept of God is different (which it is, but, according to this approach, not sufficiently so) but rather because their worship uses images.  If this were the case, then strands of Christianity that developed after Tosafot, in particular Protestantism, which does not use images, would not be avoda zara!  An alternative explanation is that while their concept of God is, indeed,  "another god" (because of the belief in incarnation and the Trinity), nevertheless, taking an oath in the name "God" while referring to  any part of the Trinity, is not "swearing in the name of another God" since the symbol is the same and the referent is close enough.  Thus they symbol, the word "God" cannot be said to be the name of another god, although that is, in fact, what the Trinity is.

As previously stated, if Tosafot is specifically referring to the Christian concept of God the Father, then the theological implications of the statement are much narrower.  Nevertheless, this first statement in significant in that - in the middle of the Tosafists halakhic world in which Christianity was defined as avoda zara -  there is an assertion to the overlap of the Christian idea of God and the Jewish idea of God.  However, what has not been stated is that Christianity is not considered avoda zara.  For this we must turn to the last statement of Tosafot - what it means and how it has been interpreted.

Tosafot, after addressing the concern with the "name of other gods", turns to the problem ofmishtatef, of joining God with something else.   What is this problem to which he refers?   Here Tosafot is referring to the statement in Sanhedrin (83a) about the worship of the Golden Calf:

There are those who say, that were it not for the vav (which pluralizes) in '[these are your gods, Israel, who have brought thee up', the people of Israel would have deserved extermination [for the worship of the Calf.  But the vav indicated that they were worshipping the Calf together with God].  Thereupon R. Shimon ben Yochai remarked; But whoever  combines (mishtatef) the Heavenly Name with anything else is utterly destroyed [lit., 'eradicated from the world'], for it is written, He that sacrifices unto any god, save unto the Lord alone, he shall be utterly destroyed (Shemot 22:19).

Here the issue is worshipping another being together with God, which, according to Rebbe Shimon ben Yochai's statement, does not stop the act from being avoda zara.   However, there is another context of this statement, which is not about worship, but about verbal praise:

[When the people, on Hoshana Rabbah, departed from their procession around the altar, they would say, according to R. Eliezer, "To God and to you, oh Altar, (we praise).] But does not one thereby associate (mishtatef) the name of God with something else?  And it has been taught, Whosoever associates the name of God with something else is uprooted from the world, as it is said, Save unto the Lord alone? -Rather, what they said was: To God we give thanks, and to you, the Altar, we praise".  [Thus praising them separately]
(Sukkah 45b).

Here the concern is much broader - God cannot be joined with any other thing or being, even in an act of praise.  Rambam (Laws of Oaths 11:2) thus uses this extended concept to prohibit taking an oath in the name of God combined with any other thing or being, "for there is no being to whom it is appropriate to show the respect of taking an oath in its name, save for the One, blessed be He."   The midrash, in fact, uses this application to explain a verse in this week's parsha:

"And Yaakov took an oath in the name of the Fear of his father, Yitzchak" (Breishit 30:53) - so as not to mention any part of what Lavan said (for Lavan had mentioned the name of Avraham's God, which was holy and the name of Nachor's god, which was profane).  This was so he would not combine, lishatef, the profane with the holy.
(Psikta Rabbati, 31)

The issue, then, of Tosafot's understanding and use of the scope of the prohibition against "joining",mishtatef, God with other beings, is critical.  Read narrowly, it seems that Tosafot is only raising the question of the local problem of taking an oath.   Although - Tosafot is saying - we have demonstrated that the oath that Christians take is in the name of God and in the name of saints, neither of which are other gods, is there not a problem that a Jew is causing a Christian to take an oath by combining the name of God with the name of a saint?  Isn't this prohibited?  To this, Tosafot answers, that this problem of combining, shituf, God and another being in an oath, is only a problem for Jews, not for non-Jews.  And there is no prohibition for a Jew to cause a non-Jew to take such an oath.  Read this way, Tosafot has only solved the problem of oaths, but has not made a statement with larger implications for the halakhic understanding of Christianity.

However, we have seen that the problem of shituf also extends to worshipping God with other beings.  If this is Tosafot's meaning, then his answer - that non-Jews are not prohibited against shituf, has profound implications for the halakhic status of Christianity.  While it seems quite clear, from the context and the wording, that Tosafot's meaning was the narrower oath context, his statement was read to refer to the broader, worship context.    Next week we will continue to explore this issue, and see how this latter (historically incorrect) reading of Tosafot changed the way that halakha dealt - and deals! - with Christianity.

Happenings at the Yeshiva


Students continue to shteig away, in their learning of Gemara and Halakha.  Those students learninghilkhot Niddah are now completing the first half of the Niddah curriculum, having covered the halakhot of moving from the niddah state to the non-niddah state, culminating in the pre-mikveh preparations,chatzizot (obstructions) and the act of immersion.  They will be taking their final test on this material in one week's time.   In Modern Orthodoxy, year 1 students explored issues around rabbinic and halakhic authority, and the relationship between halakha and historical and scientific fact.  And  3rd and 4th year students continued their work with Professor Judith Katcher in Public Speaking, and in their Lifecycles class finished their study of hilkhot Milah and pidyon ha'ben, along with discussions of baby naming ceremonies and other ritual opportunities for the birth of baby girls.

On the Monday before Thanksgiving we welcomed Rabbi Herzl Hefter to the yeshiva, a dear and old friend and colleague.  Rabbi Hefter has just announced the opening of a new yeshiva, Harel, in Israel, for men in their twenties.  Rabbi Hefter spoke to students after lunch about the need for a new theology, one that was driven by a need to know and understand God, and at the same time anchored in humility. 

On a similar theme, Rabbi Alon Goshen-Gottstein, founder of the interfaith institute Elijah, spoke to students this past Monday about the notion of religious truth in the thought of Rav Nachman of Breslav and his student Rav Natan.  According to Rav Nachman, Rav Alon taught, any debate,machloket, is an indication not that one side is right and the other wrong, but rather that there is an absence of truth on both sides.  This is a fascinating twist on the concept of elu v'elu, of multiple truths.  Rather than multiple truths, we have multiple falsehoods.  He challenged students to think what the implications of this would be for our sense of religious truth.  Vigorous discussion and debate followed throughout lunch.  

And yesterday, Thursday, Rabbi Steven Exler (YCT '09) gave a shiur and led a discussion about how to set policy and priorities in tzedakkah giving, not as an individual, but as a rabbi of a shul who is dealing with communal tzedakkah funds and is approached by a wide range of people and causes.  The presentation and discussion were a wonderful example of the challenges of translating halakhic theory into real-world practice, and grappling with the degree of discretion that the halakhot oftzedakkah allow for.

We look forward this coming week to a weeklong visit by Rabbi Chaim Rapoport, who will be teaching at the yeshiva all week, on topics ranging from marital sex, to homosexuality, to challenges on college campuses in kiruv opportunities that may lead to transgressions (e.g., a non-observant student driving to a Shabbat event).  We also look forward to a visit by  Rabbi David Bigman, Rosh HaYeshiva of Ma'ale Gilboa, who will be speaking on Wednesday on the topic of akarah hilkhatit,women who cannot conceive because their Niddah period overlaps with their fertility period.

And on Wednesday night, December 7, at 7:30 PM, we will be cosponsoring with SAR High School apanel discussion between Rabbi Rapoport and Rabbi Bigman on the topic of Agendas, Values and Halakha: Non-Jews in Contemporary Halakhic Rulings.   The event will take place at SAR and it would be wonderful to see you there.

And in the Mazal Tov department -  Mazal Tov to David (YCT '08) and Sara Wolkenfeld on the birth of their new baby girl, Tzofia Yasha, Sophie Jane, who was named on the Monday before Thanksgiving, after Sara's aunt and mother.    And a Mazal Tov to Elliot (YCT '07) and Toby Kaplowitz on the birth of their new baby girl, Oshra.   Shetizku li'gadlan li'Torah li'chuppah u'li'ma'asim tovim!