Thursday, November 23, 2006

The Voice And The Hands (Toldot 5767)

The central theme of this week’s parashah is the transfer of the blessings from Yitzhak. Yaakov, dressed in skins to impersonate the hirsute Esav, approached his father, with the view to receiving the blessing intended for his brother. When Yitzhak encountered him (remember that he was blind), we are told:

Yitzhak said to his son - what is this that you have arrived speedily my son? He replied: the Lord your God has made it happen before me. Yitzhak said to Yaakov: please approach so that I may feel you my son. Are you my son Esav or not? Yaakov approached Yitzhak his father and he felt him. He said: the voice is the voice of Yaakov, but the hands are the hands of Esav. He did not recognise him as his hands were hairy like Esav’s hands, and he blessed him. (BeReishit 27:20-23)

The nature of the ‘voice’ and the ‘hands’ mentioned in this familiar verse has interested commentators throughout the ages. Rashi understands the ‘voice’ not as the tone of voice distinguishing Yaakov from Esav, but the manner of speaking:

Yitzhak thought: it is not Esav’s way to have God’s name flowing from his mouth, but this one said: the Lord your God has made it happen…. He spoke in a beseeching tone – ‘please get up’, but Esov spoke in a confrontational manner – ‘get up dad.’ (Rashi ad. loc.)

Yaakov may have successfully impersonated the timbre of Esav’s voice, but failed to capture his manner of speaking. This explanation is continued by HaKetav VeHaKabballah (19th c. Germany):

It seems to me that these brothers had similar voices, so Yitzhak was not afraid of recognising the voice. The explanation is that the main meaning of the word ‘kol’ is revelation, for the hidden thought is revealed through the utensils of speech. (HaKetav VeHaKabballah ad. loc.)

Rashbam (Rashi’s grandson and a great advocate of simple explanation) offers a simple rendition:

The voice is the voice of Yaakov - as they were twins, their voices were somewhat similar, thus Yitzhak was confused by his voice since he found him to be a man with a hairy neck. (Rashbam ad. loc.)

There are many Midrashic reading, which ascribe cosmic significance to the ‘hands’ and ‘voice’. In these readings, the voice of Yaakov is a spiritual entity, whereas the hands of Esav indicate a predilection to violence and conquest. Here are a few examples:

The voice is the voice of Yaakov. The voice is a voice of wisdom, yet the hands send death. Another reading - the voice is the voice of Yaakov - Yaakov only has control with his voice…. The hands are the hands of Esav, for Esav only controls with his hands…. Rebbi Yehudah bar Ilay expounded: the voice is the voice of Yaakov, which cries out from what the hands of Esav have done to him. Said Rebbi Yochanan: the voice of Emperor Hadrian, who killed 80,000 myriads of people at Betar. (BeReishit Rabbah 65:20-21)

There is no successful prayer that does not involve a descendent of Yaakov. The hands are the hands of Esav - there is no victorious war that does not involve a descendent of Esav. (Gittin 57b)

We conclude with an interesting reading by the Maharal:

The voice is the voice of Yaakov but the hands are the hands of Esav. This is to say that Yaakov has the power of the voice, which emerges from the inner part of Man, but Esav has the hands and there is nothing more external than the hands, which extend outwards. The inner voice prevails over the external hands. (Ohr Chadash 103)

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Of Bracelets And Tablets (Chayey Sarah 5767)

Most of this week’s reading deals with the mission of Eliezer to find a wife for his master’s son Yitzhak. When he felt that he had found the right woman, he gave her some gifts, ostensibly to making her more amenable to accompanying him home:

And it was when the camels finished drinking, the man took a gold nose-ring, a beka in weight and two bracelets on her hands - their weight was ten shekalim. (BeReishit 24:22)

The rabbinical sources put great emphasis on these gifts and their deeper significance. Rashi, quoting a Midrash, notes:

Beka - a hint to the shekalim of Yisrael, a beka per head. Two bracelets - a hint to the two tablets which were connected. Their weight was ten shekalim - a hint to the Ten Commandments which were upon them. (Rashi loc. cit.)

This Rashi needs a little explanation. Every male was required to make an annual donation to the Temple of one half-shekel, which equated to a beka. The Hebrew word for bracelets is ‘tzimidim’, which also connotes things that are stuck tightly together. This, together with their weight, is understood to hint to the two joined tablets, which contained the Ten Commandments.

The later sources view this source as part of a body of literature based on the idea of maaseh avot siman levanim – the events of the lives of the ancestors are a microcosmic harbinger of the events destined to happen to the Jewish people in the future. Rabbenu Bachya (mediaeval thinker from the school of the Ramban) adopts this line of thinking.

All of the things which happened to Rivkah were a sign to her children. The events which occurred to the servant in his success on route indicate the events which would happen to her children on route in the desert. Just as the angel was with him on route through the power of Avraham’s prayer so we find with her children on route in the desert.... Just as the waters rose to meet her, so it would be for her descendent in the desert. The servant who gave her these gifts hinted thereby to her, that just as she received these gifts through a servant, so would her children in the future receive the Torah through Moshe, the servant of God - who was the faithful servant with all of the good of his master in his hand. Just as he gave her many gifts, some on route and some in the house (those on route were the gold nose-ring a beka in weight and two bracelets on her hands - their weight was ten shekalim so her children brought shekalim in the desert and received the two tablets of the covenant in which are the ten commandments. Just as he gave her gifts in the house, apart from those which he gave her on route (the servant brought out silver vessels and gold vessels) so her children in the land of Moav, close to coming to the land, were given many Mitzvot (Rabbenu Bachya)

The Maharal takes a different line:

If you ask - why did he hint to these Mitzvot (the half-shekel, etc) more than to any other? It seems that he saw that she acted kindly and he hinted to her further about the Divine service and the Torah with the two bracelets on her hands… making three things - upon which the world stands - Torah, Divine service and kindness. He hinted to her than she was one person in whom lay all three. Further - these three things are found in Yisrael…. Yisrael came from the forefathers. Eliezer hinted to her that since she had performed acts of kindness, it was fitting that the blessed seed, in which these three things would be manifest, should come from her; they are the support of the world. (Maharal, Gur Aryeh)

However one reads the story, the meaning of the Midrash is clear – Eliezer saw in Rivkah all the desirable attributes of the mother of the Jewish people; he gave her gifts to indicate what kind of nation would eventually emerge from her family.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Wash Your Feet (VaYera 5767)

When begging his unexpected guests to accept his hospitality, Avraham asked them to wash their feet before resting in the shade of a nearby tree. Rashi, quoting the Talmud, notes the reason for this odd request; he was concerned that his three visitors were idolatrous nomads, committed to worshipping the dust on their feet. Repulsed by the notion of admitting even the faintest association with idolatry to his house, Avraham asked them to rinse the dust from their feet before entering. We chuckle as we read this Rashi, confident that early idolaters must have been complete fools for believing that the dust on their feet had some kind of divine power. How could anyone be so stupid? This raises a broader question – we read much in the Torah about idol-worshippers and their encounters with the embryonic Jewish people. Is it true that they were nothing more than coarse, man-made images; their devotees no more than irrational primitives? This seems unlikely, particularly as to qualify as idolatry, an act must involve a concomitant declaration on the part of the idolater that he regards the focus of his act as his god. This requires recognition that the idol possesses power and manifests aspects of divinity. Did the ancients believe that carved images had these qualities? It seems highly improbable. Why then was the dust on the visitors’ feet so important to them?

The Ben Ish Chai offers an attractive interpretation. He posits that before embarking on a journey, the ancient idolater would visit his temple to offer sacrifices to his god to invoke the deity’s presence on route. He prayed that the god would accompany him during his expedition, protecting him until he had reached his destination. In the mind of the idolater, he would follow the spirit of his god, which would walk ahead of him, so that every step he took in the dust had previously been trodden by his god When he arrived safely at the end of his journey, he expressed thanks to his god by worshipping the dust on his feet, which was the most tangible representation of his deity’s presence during his travels. Only then would he rinse his feet after his journey. According to this analysis, the dust, rather than being a god itself, carried an important association with his deity the idolater. It became sanctified through contact with the god, rather being a source of power in its own right. We find this explanation easier to comprehend than the possibility that the idolater may have regarded the dust itself as a god. The Rambam commences his legal code on this subject with an overview of the history and development of idolatry.

Perhaps his reader, living in a post-classical-idolatry world, would find it hard to relate to the subject matter that follows without such an introduction. He writes that in the times of Enosh, people made the first in a series of errors that led humanity towards full-blown idolatry. The leaders of the generation noted that God had apportioned honour to the sun and moon by giving them very significant roles in creation. Hence, they reasoned, it must also be the will of God for human kind to likewise honour them, by building temples in which to bring offerings to them. At this stage, they worshipped God indirectly, by relating to His ‘servants’, the luminaries. After some time had elapsed, false prophets arose, who claimed that God had instructed them to build temples and bring offerings to a particular star. Once these were built, it was only a small step to the claim that the star itself had spoken to the prophets, was capable of independent thought and thus made religious demands on the people. At this stage, the link to the one God was broken and idolatry spread throughout the world. Whole generations of children grew up oblivious to the existence of God, completely indoctrinated into the ways of the idols and their temple cults.

Perhaps a single theme underlies the whole of this dismal progression; Man finds it extremely hard to relate to a transcendent, invisible God. He seems so distant and unapproachable. It is attractive to anthropomorphise God, thereby making Him seem more ‘human’ and hence within reach. Judaism, however, understands that Man has the capacity to overcome this challenge and to form a real relationship with God, despite His apparent inaccessibility. The need to create an image of the divine that can be grasped by mere mortals has characterised religious systems throughout history. This idea enables us to achieve a more mature understanding of our subject.

The Maharal observes that the prophet (II Melachim 1:3) refers to ‘the master of the fly - god of Ekron’– indicating that there were people who worshipped the fly as a god. What quality does a fly exhibit that one should possibly feel in awe of it? The Maharal notes that people believed that they could not create a relationship with the holy God, so instead chose something mundane, as unholy entity, to which they could relate. Since this entity was closer to their own experience and world, they felt that they could find religious meaning and expression through it. Some chose the fly, others, apparently, chose dust. These represented forces in the non-physical world, rather than ends in themselves. The dust is a particularly interesting case, for it is the lowest physical part of the earth. The idolater felt that he could best reach out to the Divine by grasping the layer of experience just beyond his own – the lowest dimension of the spiritual world. This was represented by the lowest element of the physical world – the dust itself.