Friday, December 29, 2006

Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Joseph....Parshat VaYehi (in advance)

[I was inclined to further complain about the stupidity of our Foreign Minister (who has no experience, no liberal arts education, speaks no languages other than Hebrew and has gone over to the Left side of the political spectrum. However, why waste the words? (I think of Tehilla often.) In fact, after spending three incredibly exhilarating days at the Shalem Political Hebraism Conference, I decided it was better to exert myself on things of greater worth.]

In his shiurim to the RCA in August of 1980 (available here), the Rav devoted time to explaining why after reciting the first verse of Shema, we recite the words ברוך שם כבוד מלכותו לעולם ועד, or Blessed be the Name of His glorious kingdom for ever and ever. Of course, the point of departure was the story that the Talmud recounts in Pesahim 56b that when the time came for Jacob to die he tried to bless them but the Holy spirit departed from him. He was afraid that there was, among his childen, one who rejected the way of God (as had been the fate of Abraham and Isaac). He asked them and they answered, all of them together, and said to him: HEAR, ISRAEL OUR FATHER: THE LORD OUR GOD IS ONE LORD! Jacob, relieved, responsed, 'Blessed be His Glorious Name for ever and ever.'

Since Maimonides (Keri'at Shema 1, 4) quotes this passage as the reason for reciting this phrase, the Rav suggested that the word 'Israel' in the Shema is not only directed towards the Jewish People, but to our father, Jacob, as well. The rason is that the act of קבלת עול מלכות שמים , accepting the yoke of the KIngdom of Heaven, entails a commitment to the living tradition of Judaism, as represented by Jacob. The question is why?

The Rav suggested a number of different answers (which I urge those interested to follow on the above link). Following one of those answers, I'd like to suggest my own answer.

Maimonides, as the Rav noted, in the first chapter of the Laws Concerning Idolatry (1-2), highlights the uniqueness of Abraham's activity as the אב למסורה , the original fount of Jewish Tradition. He possessed the unique capacity not only to discern truth but to pass it on. Isaac, it appears was unable to do more than receive. He could not instill that Tradition in others. Witness the fact that, according to the Midrash, Jacob received his education from Abraham and in the 'Yeshiva of Shem and Ever.' Isaac, who devoted his life to repeating his father's life actions and to digging wells, could receive but not pass on.

If so, why affirm our allegiance to Massorah to Abraham? The answer, as alluded to by Jacob, is that Abraham's career as a parent was not totally successful. Of all of his children, only one worked out. Isaac.

What, then, did Jacob have that his father and grandfather lacked? Abraham, as the Rav used to frequently note in his Humash lectures in Boston, was the embodiment of חסד, an untranslatable word that denotes the free out-flowing of grace. It is unlimited giving. This is a marvelous quality. Uncontrolled, without limits, it becomes a negative trait. Ishmael, for example, had no limits.

Isaac, by contrast, was the embodiment of גבורה, of heroism. Heroism requires discipline, self-restriction, and limits. Isaac, however, was unmitigated גבורה. He was able to fortify and institutionalize Abraham's legacy but could not go beyond it. He was incapable of seeing, or of discerning, the need to adapt and to give the מסורה to others. His son, Esau, was also heroic. His heroism was, however, גבורה gone haywire.

Jacob combined within himself a balance of both חסד and of גבורה. Thus, with all of his problems, he was able to find a place for each of his very different children, within the parameters of Tradition. He knew how to give, and where to draw the line. He was, therefore, the best of the Patriarchs
(בחיר שבאבות), and it is to him we declare our allegiance to Tradition, as we declare our devotion and submission to God.

I seems to me that the great divide in Contemporary Orthodoxy (and among Jews, generally) is between total Abrahamism and total Isaacism. We need to restore the normative tradition of Jacob (Jacobism, not Jacobinism).

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