Parashat Bo 5774 – Rights and Responsibilities of the Firstborn

וְכֹל בְּכוֹר אָדָם בְּבָנֶיךָ תִּפְדֶּה

The narrative of the Ten Plagues closes with the Death of the Egyptian Firstborn and the consequential dedication of all  firstborn Israelites, man or beast, to ‘א. All the firstborn male (Shemot  13:12) animals from Bnei Yisrael must be sacrificed or redeemed and all firstborn sons must be redeemed.This finale parallels and was predicted by the very opening of the story. When Moshe is on his way down to Egypt ‘א tells him to say to Paroah, “Thus saith the LORD: Israel is My son, My firstborn. And I have said unto thee: Let My son go, that he may serve Me; and thou hast refused to let him go. Behold, I will slay thy son, thy firstborn.”[1] Then Moshe “encounters ‘א” and nearly dies, saved only by his wife circumcising their son, who then says, “Surely a bridegroom of blood art thou to me… A bridegroom of blood in regard of the circumcision.” (Shemot 4:22-26). This parallel creates a structure that not only creates a closed literary unit out of the story, but also perfectly lays out what is at stake.

From the very beginning of the story ‘א intended for the plague of the first born to occur. ‘א explains this as being a consequence of his oppressing and killing ‘א’s “firstborn.”[2] Everything that happens from that moment until the last plague is a function of this idea. Then after the plague of the first born the meaning of being ‘א’s firstborn is made clear when all of the Israelite firstborns becomes consecrated to ‘א and have specific rules. Bnei Yisrael’s special place as ‘א’s nation, with all of the rules and regulations that entails, is a function of being His firstborn. Moshe’s “encounter” with ‘א and the exclamation of “bridegroom of blood” parallel the story of the Pesach (12:1-13) on several counts. First is the idea of blood as the means of salvation. Moshe is saved by the blood of his son’s circumcision and Bnei Yisrael are saved by the blood of the Pesach that they placed on their doorposts. Second is the circumcision itself. While there is no circumcision depicted by occurrence of the Pesach in Egypt, it is listed as a requirement for those participating(12:47-48) and so the midrash therefore says that a circumcision actually was performed. And of course the basic fact of both stories is that of ‘א  killing someone. Thus the story opens the same way it closes,[3] while simultaneously demonstrating how serious the stakes are; life and death are at stake.[4]

This idea of Israel as ‘א’s firstborn can be a source of triumphant nationalism. The entire Exodus narrative can be thought of as ‘א taking care of his first born (Ibn Ezra on Shemot 4:22). ‘א takes care of His people and anyone who attacks them will suffer his wrath. This then leads into the National Theophany at Mount Sinai, for only His nation gets His Law. However, this thought process ignores[5] some of the more subtle, but incredibly important, implications of the phrase “Israel is My son, My firstborn.”

“Are ye not as the children of the Ethiopians unto Me, O children of Israel? saith the LORD. Have not I brought up Israel out of the land of Egypt, and the Philistines from Caphtor, and Aram from Kir?” (Amos 9:7) ‘א is not god of Israel alone, and the proof for this is in the phrase “Israel is My son, My first-born.” The existence of a firstborn son by definition implies the existence of others. Thus while Bnei Yisrael is ‘א’s firstborn, and has a special relationship with Him based on that, the other nations are also His sons. One only need read the books of the prophets to see what the ideal for the relationship between the nations really is. “In that day shall Israel be the third with Egypt and with Assyria, a blessing in the midst of the earth; For that the LORD of hosts hath blessed him, saying: ‘Blessed be Egypt My people and Assyria the work of My hands, and Israel Mine inheritance.” (Yeshayahu 19:24-25) ‘א is the god of all earth and all the nations are his children. The title of firstborn implies special favor and grace, but it also implies special responsibility.[6] “And it shall come to pass in that day, that the root of Jesse, that standeth for an ensign of the peoples, unto him shall the nations seek.” (Yeshayahu 11:10) “Thus saith the LORD of hosts: In those days it shall come to pass, that ten men shall take hold, out of all the languages of the nations, shall even take hold of the skirt of him that is a Jew, saying: We will go with you, for we have heard that God is with you.” (Zechariah 8:23) Bnei Yisrael are responsible for the raising up of the nations. Israel is meant to be the center of ‘א’s kingdom on this earth, when all peoples[7] will be united under ‘א. “Even them will I bring to My holy mountain, and make them joyful in My house of prayer; their burnt-offerings and their sacrifices shall be acceptable upon Mine altar; for My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples” (Yeshayahu 56:7) “For then will I turn to the peoples a pure language, that they may all call upon the name of the LORD” (Zephaniah 3:9) That our relationship with ‘א is differentiated does not mean that it is exclusive, and treating like it as it if it were is an affront.

Moreover, the idea of a “firstborn” is one of the primary concepts of Sefer Beraishit, and it is not simple. The “firstborn” is rarely ever the actual firstborn. Avraham’s firstborn Yishmael is kicked out of the family. Esav, while beloved of his father, is destined from before his birth to be supplanted by his younger brother (Bereishit 25:23). This is the story of Bnei Yisrael and it is based upon the contingent status of the firstborn. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the case of Yaakov’s children. Whole libraries could be filled with the literature that has been written on war for supremacy amongst his sons, specifically the three-way split between Reuven, Yosef, and Yehuda. Notably, Reuven lost the birthright not because it was taken from him but because sinned against his father (35:22). The contingency of Bnei Yisrael as “firstborn”, the contingency of ‘א’s added grace, is the theme of the first rashi on the Torah (Beraishit 1:1):

In the beginning: Said Rabbi Isaac: It was not necessary to begin the Torah except from “This month is to you,” (Exod. 12:2) which is the first commandment that the Israelites were commanded, (for the main purpose of the Torah is its commandments, and although several commandments are found in Genesis, e.g., circumcision and the prohibition of eating the thigh sinew, they could have been included together with the other commandments). Now for what reason did He commence with “In the beginning?” Because of [the verse] “The strength of His works He related to His people, to give them the inheritance of the nations” (Ps. 111:6). For if the nations of the world should say to Israel, “You are robbers, for you conquered by force the lands of the seven nations [of Canaan],” they will reply, “The entire earth belongs to the Holy One, blessed be He; He created it (this we learn from the story of the Creation) and gave it to whomever He deemed proper When He wished, He gave it to them, and when He wished, He took it away from them and gave it to us.[8]

This rashi is generally misunderstood to be about the unending right of Bnei Yisrael to the Land, but that is not it’s true meaning. The Land of Canaan was given to the Canaanites until such time as they no longer deserved it, and the same holds true of Bnei Yisrael. The gift of ‘א’s land is one Bnei Yisrael might easily lose, the same way the Canaanites did before them. While Bnei Yisrael will always be His chosen people, the grace they receive from Him is dependent on their actions.

Being part of ‘א’s nation has a tendency to make people feel superior. But being part of ‘א’s nation is both less and more than people think. It is less than people think in that it is not an exclusive claim. Bnei Yisrael is ‘א’s chosen nation, but all of the nations are His. It is more than people think because it is not just a right but also an obligation. “You only have I known of all the families of the earth; therefore I will visit upon you all your iniquities.” (Amos 3:2) It is the fact of being ‘א’s people that obligates, and not living up to that obligation has severe consequences (Vayikra 26, Devarim 28).

[1] Translations from www.mechone-mamre.org

[2] Note: This would also seem to be a fairly minimal consequence in terms of Paroah’s attempt to kill all the newborn Israelite males.

[3] Also note the connection between 4:21 and 11:9-10.

[4] This is one possible explanation for the juxtaposition of 4:21-23 and 4:24-26.

[5] See, however, Devarim 4:10-14, 19, and 20.

[6] In more practical terms, the reason firstborn son inherits more is to compensate for and to enable his responsibility to take care of the rest of the family.

[7] See also Seforno on Shemot 4:22

[8] http://www.chabad.org/library/bible_cdo/aid/8165#showrashi=true

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Parashat Mikets – Of Gods and Dreams

אִישׁ אֲשֶׁר רוּחַ אֱ׳לֹהִים בּוֹ

Parashat Mikets begins by telling the story of Paroah’s dreams of the cattle and the wheat, dreams which none of Paroah’s magicians are able to solve. Then, upon recommendation from his wine-bearer, Paroah brings Yosef up from the dungeons and asks him to interpret it. Yosef promptly does so, and Paroah is so excited and sure about Yosef’s interpretation that not only does he listen to Yosef’s advice to appoint someone over the produce of the land of Egypt, but the person he picks is Yosef himself. However, upon looking at Yosef’s interpretation, it is unclear what about it is so striking to Paroah. While Yosef’s interpretation is not obvious, it is also far from something that would require a divine revelation. A key point in understanding this is appreciating that regardless of the objective superiority of Yosef’s interpretation, there is something about it that is appealing specifically to Paroah. The Torah confirms Yosef’s interpretation later when it comes true. It confirms it immediately by way of Paroah’s appreciation and acceptance of it. Looking at Yosef’s interpretation with that in mind, it immediately becomes clearer the ways in which his interpretation is superior to that of the magicians.

Throughout Yosef’s interpretation, there is one aspect that is emphasized over and over again.

And Joseph said to Pharaoh: ‘The dream of Pharaoh is one; what God is about to do He has declared to Pharaoh. The seven good cows are seven years; and the seven good ears are seven years: the dream is one. And the seven lean and ill-favored cows that came up after them are seven years, and also the seven empty ears blasted with the east wind; they shall be seven years of famine. That is the thing which I spoke to Pharaoh: what God is about to do He has shown to Pharaoh. Behold, there come seven years of great plenty throughout all the land of Egypt. And there shall arise after them seven years of famine; and all the plenty shall be forgotten in the land of Egypt; and the famine shall consume the land; and the plenty shall not be known in the land by reason of that famine which follows it; for it shall be very grievous. And for that the dream was doubled to Pharaoh twice, it is because the thing is established by God, and God will shortly bring it to pass. (Bereishit 41:25-32)

Yosef mentions three times throughout these verses that the dream is one, despite the fact that it would appear to be two separate dreams, one about cattle and one about grain. Twice it is stated in the positive, “the dream is one” (41:25-26), and once in the negative, where Yosef needs to explain why the dream appeared to be two separate dreams if it is in fact one. This part of Yosef’s interpretation parallels perfectly Paroah’s experience of the dream. When Paroah first dreamed the dream, he awoke between the two halves of the dream, but returns to sleep with no notice about the dream (41:4-5). But when he awakens from the second dream, he suddenly becomes aware of his dream, in singular, indicating that he became aware of both parts of the dream and that they were a singular entity. This unity is also expressed when Paroah tells his dream to the magicians, and the text specifically refers to it as a “dream,” in singular (41:8). However, when that very same verse describes the failure of the magicians it says, “They could not explain them,” meaning the dreams, in plural. Thus it is very clear that what makes Yosef’s explanation superior in the eyes of Paroah is that it fits with his unified experience of the dream.

Perhaps that would be enough on its own to explain the superiority of Yosef’s explanation[1], but there is another repeating aspect of the interpretation stands out. Before he begins his explanation Yosef states, “What God is about to do He has declared to Pharaoh” (41:25). Then after he has explained the symbols of the dream, before moving to explaining the larger picture, Yosef says, “That is the thing which I spoke to Pharaoh: what God is about to do He has shown to Pharaoh” (41:28). Finally, Yosef finishes his interpretation by saying, “it is because the thing is established by God, and God will shortly bring it to pass” (41:32). Thus over and beyond the emphasis on the unity of the dream is the idea that the dream and that which it represents all come from ‘א.

These two aspects of Yosef’s interpretation are connected in an important manner, one that is a function of the primary difference between pagan and monotheistic mindsets. This therefore also demonstrates why it is the magicians could not arrive at the correct interpretation.

Divination is often defined as the discovery by various means of the will and decree of the gods. But this definition inadvertently imposes upon paganism a unified view of the universe that is foreign in its essence. It presupposes that both the disclosure and the decree stem always from the will of the gods. But paganism was conscious of no such unity, for it did not attribute everything to the will of the gods. Some events and conditions had nothing to do with the gods; others befell the gods themselves as decrees overriding fate. (Yehezkal Kaufmann, The Religion of Israel)

Pagan mythologies did not assume that one supreme and sovereign deity created everything; Rather, multiple gods and forces emerged from reality and drew their power therefrom. Thus while a prophetic dream might come from one god, the event conveyed in the prophecy might be the work of another. Alternatively, one or both might be a function of the power latent in reality itself. There would be no reason for Paroah’s magicians to assume that two different dreams which happened be involve the same number were connected in any way. Yosef, however, grew up well acquainted with ‘א as the sole God of History, and thus could only assume that the two dreams came not only from the same source of each other, but also from the same source as the event the dreams depict. Yosef is therefore also able to assume that this message came to Paroah for a reason beyond the whim of the gods, and therefore there has to be some sort of practical outcome from the dreams proper interpretation. It is on this basis that he recommends to Paroah a plan to save Egypt from the coming famine.

This split between monotheism and pagan mythology is manifest not just in this story but also in the laws of the Torah itself.

When you are come into the land which the Lord your God gives you, you shall not learn to do after the abominations of those nations. There shall not be found among you any one that makes his son or his daughter to pass through the fire, one that uses divination, a soothsayer, or an enchanter, or a sorcerer, or a charmer, or one that consults a ghost or a familiar spirit, or a necromancer. For whoever does these things is an abomination to the Lord; and because of these abominations the Lord your God is driving them out from before you. You shall be wholesome with the Lord your God. For these nations, that you are to dispossess, listen to soothsayers, and to diviners; but as for you, the Lord your God has not permitted you to do so. (Devarim 18:9-14)

Bnei Yisrael are specifically forbidden from seeking out magicians and the like in order to determine what the future holds or what course of action should be taken. The Torah never states that these things don’t work, because this would distract from the real problem with these practices. These practices assume a pagan mindset wherein ‘א is not the sole source of everything that exists. Instead they assume that any divinity is simply something that emerged from reality and draws its power from there, and thus if a human could tap into this power then they could bypass, fight against, or perhaps even overpower, the gods. Thus these practices have to be false in a monotheistic world, but more problematic is their implicit statement that ‘א is not supreme. In place of these practices, the Torah provides an alternative method of determining what the future holds or what the correct course of action is.

A prophet will the Lord your God raise up to you, from the midst of you, of your brethren, like to me; to him you shall listen; according to all that you desired of the Lord your God in Horev in the day of the assembly, saying: ‘Let me not hear again the voice of the Lord my God, neither let me see this great fire any more, that I die not.’ And the Lord said to me: ‘They have well said that which they have spoken. I will raise them up a prophet from among their brethren, like to you; and I will put My words in his mouth, and he shall speak to them all that I shall command him. And it shall come to pass, that whosoever will not listen to My words which he shall speak in My name, I will hold him accountable. But the prophet, that shall speak a word presumptuously in My name which I have not commanded him to speak, or that shall speak in the name of other gods, that prophet shall die.’ And if you say in your heart: ‘How shall we know the word which the Lord has not spoken?’ When a prophet speaks in the name of the Lord, if the thing follow not, nor come to pass, that is the thing which the Lord has not spoken; the prophet has spoken it presumptuously, you shall not be afraid of him. (Devarim 18:15-22)

In place of magicians and necromancers the Torah has the institution of the prophet, the messenger of ‘א. Since everything is created by ‘א and ‘א is in control of History, any attempt to determine the future must be an inquiry of ‘א, not some other imagined force. Since the prophets message of the future comes from the source of the future, the prophets message is also assuredly true, and thus the people can act on it[2]. This of course raises the problem of a person who claims to have received the prophetic word without actually having received it, but the Torah accounts for that as well by simply saying that the prophet is only to be trusted if his predictions come true[3]. Meanwhile a false prophet can’t accidentally predict the future because ‘א, the God of History, will ensure that his predictions fail. Thus the false and problematic magical practices of the nations of the land of Canaan are replaced by the godly messenger, the prophet.

It is this difference between pagan mythology and monotheism that sets Paroah at ease after hearing Yosef’s explanation. Instead of the many random explanations the dreams could be given by the magicians, Yosef’s explanation not only resonates with the unity that Paroah himself sensed in the dreams, but also explains them in a manner that unified the medium of the dreams with the message they were attempting to convey. However, as the story of Paroah’s dreams indicates, this difference goes far beyond the level of theory. This difference affects the very way we approach the world. Is the world simply a collage of disparate forces and intelligences all running according to their own plans, or is there an underlying goal, a plan, a unity? The prophets were sent to Israel to teach them that the forces of history are the tools of  ‘א. When we experience the world, when we feel the movements of history, it is incumbent upon us to remember their inherent unity, to remember that “over all the hills is God.[4]” An it is incumbent upon us to respond. We no longer have the institution of the  to teach us ‘א’s Will; rather, ‘א’s Will comes to us in the form of the Torah. When Yosef sees that ‘א is sending a drought, he responds by creating a plan to save the people. When we don’t know where history is taking us, we must respond by looking to the Torah.

[1] See comments of Abarbanel ad loc.

[2] I have written about the interplay between the Divine Word and human response here.

[3] This raises some problems for Yirmiyahu, who consistently predicted a destruction that did not manifest for years, and in the meantime he was accused of being a false prophet on the basis of these verse. For more on this, see Yirmiyahu 26 & 28.

[4] A.J. Heschel, “Towards an understanding of Halakha”; Playing off Goethe’s “The Traveller’s Night Song II”.

Parashat Ha’azinu – Divine Providence and Human Responsibilty – Redux

כִּי לֹא דָבָר רֵק הוּא מִכֶּם כִּי הוּא חַיֵּיכֶם

Parashat Ha’azinu consists of one chapter of the Torah, Devarim 32, which is itself taken up almost entirely by a song (32:1-43). This song is often referred to as Shirat Haazinu or as the Song of Moshe. The composition and teaching of this song is one of the last things Moshe does before he dies, an event made obvious by the way the song is followed immediately by the command for Moshe to ascend Har Nevo where he will be buried (32:48-52). The song is about the cycle of sin and destruction that reigns throughout Bnei Yisrael’s time in the land of Israel. There is no mention of Exile, nor of Repentance followed by Redemption from Exile[1]; there is simply the conquest of Bnei Yisrael and the comeuppance of the would-be conquerors. This comeuppance is not due to Bnei Yisrael deserving it, but rather a way of protecting ‘א’s Name, that the conquering nation should not think it was responsible for the conquest, instead of ‘א. This section of the song makes statements regarding Divine Providence, which are often troubling to the modern ear. However, careful reading of the song and its context shows that these statements are less about Divine Providence, and more about the imperative nature of taking responsibility.

The Song of Moshe is often compared with the covenant depicted in Devarim 27-30. As stated above, the key difference is that in Shirat Ha’azinu there is no mention of repentance as a cause for redemption. Instead, redemption is depicted as a way of protecting ‘א’s Name (32:26-30).

I would have said, “Let Me wipe them out,

let Me make their name cease among men.”

Had I not feared the foes provocation,

lest their enemies dissemble,

lest they say, “Our had prevailed,

and not the Lord has wrought all this.”

For a nation lost in counsel are they,

there is no understanding among them.

Were they wise they would give mind to this,

understand their latter days:

O how could one chase a thousand,

or two put then thousand to flight,

had not their Rock handed them over,

had the Lord not given them up?

 

The future redemption of Bnei Yisrael is not depicted here as an act of merit, or even as an act of love, rather it is necessary in order to keep the conquering nation from viewing itself as controlling history, when in fact it is ‘א who directs history’s course. This is a typical prophetic point of view, and is something that reappears throughout the Tanakh (as does the idea of Salvation for the Sake of Heaven[2]). ‘א is the God of History, and therefore historical occurrences, especially those involving Bnei Yisrael, are products of direct Divine Providence. However, while this idea was the basis of many a prophetic attempt to inspire Bnei Yisrael to do teshuvah, it can be very problematic in the eyes of the modern reader.

Jewish Thought in the second half of the 20th century and beyond must bear a weight greater than that of any generation that came before it. Many of the explanations regarding the nature of Divine Justice and Providence that have been given throughout Jewish History are no longer workable, and many of those that are need to be reconfigured and rephrased in order for a modern audience to find them compelling. Attempts to justify evil, and the mindless slaughter of innocents as occurred in the 1940’s in particular, have been found to be morally problematic. An action is justified by saying that, while it might otherwise be wrong, it is right because of certain abnormal circumstances. The problem with this idea is that it can be summarized as “X was the right thing to do because of Y,” which can be flipped around and formulated as “If Y, then X is the right thing to do.” The idea that there is any set of circumstances under which a person would endorse, or even condone, genocide is about as immoral a thought pattern as can be imagined[3]. Many modern Jews therefore try to avoid explaining or justifying historical occurrences, as the implications of doing so can be monstrous.

One could argue from the fact that Shirat Haazinu is meant to be “put in the mouths” (31:19) of Bnei Yisrael, that Jews are supposed to attribute tragedies to the Hand of God, as the song does, and this would not be entirely incorrect. To do so, however, would be to miss the point of the song. The song is put in the mouths of Bnei Yisrael, not in order to teach them that ‘א is the Lord of History, though it conveys that idea as well, but in order that it can serve as ‘א’s “witness against the people of Israel” (Ibid). The song is meant to serve as warning to them that violating the covenant that they forged with ‘א will bring suffering upon them, and that ‘א will save them, but through no merit of their own. The song thus puts the responsibility for the suffering of Bnei Yisrael not on ‘א, but squarely on the shoulders of Bnei Yisrael themselves. The song is meant to teach the generations of Israel that live in the land, long after the miracles of the desert, that the proper way to respond to crisis and calamity is by taking responsibility, not shirking it.

This is reinforced by the contrast between Bnei Yisrael and the conquering enemy as depicted in the song. While Bnei Yisrael are depicted as neglecting ‘א and straying after idols, the possibility that they have misattributed an action of ‘א is never raised. The cardinal sin of the enemy, however, is just that, and it is so great that it warrants their destruction and the redemption of Israel. So while the song makes it clear that the success of the enemy really is the work of ‘א (32:26-30), it isn’t necessarily important for Bnei Yisrael to know that, only the enemy. What Bnei Yisrael are meant to take away from the song is that their conquest by the enemy is a direct result of their abandoning and despising ‘א (32:15). The responsibility is being placed totally on Bnei Yisrael.

More than anything else, the Tanakh depicts ‘א’s Providence not as minimizing Human Initiative, but as making it imperative. ‘א guarantees major consequences, good and bad, as a response to the actions of Bnei Yisrael. Therefore, ‘א’s guiding history is not meant to be seen as taking power out of mankind’s hands, but as obligating them to be responsible in the use of said power. A perfect biblical example of such responsibility is found at the very end of Sefer Bereishit, where Yosef asks his brothers, “Am I in place of God?” (Bereishit 50:19)[4]. Yosef goes on to explain that ‘א, not the brothers’ misdeeds, led him to that particular point in history, and therefore it is incumbent upon him to respond to ‘א’s guidance with responsibility. Attempting to explain ‘א’s role in the great events and tragedies of our era diverts attention from what we should really be focusing on. When considering tragedy, it is incumbent upon us not to ask why ‘א did what He did, but to ask what we could have done. Our response needs to be not “Why did this happen?” but “What can we do now?”

Much of the Rosh HaShanah liturgy is dedicated to affirming the Kingship of ‘א, specifically in terms of the historical process. “And the Lord shall be king over all the earth; on that day there shall be one Lord with one name” (Zekhariah 14:9) We stand in prayer and declare that ‘א is King. In doing so, we declare that, as His subjects, we are responsible for our actions. We take it upon ourselves to not shirk our responsibility when confronted by anything that might occur over the next year of our lives. Accepting Judgment on Rosh HaShanah doesn’t mean just that anything that occurs to us in the next year should be thought of as a consequence of our actions, but also that we have taken it upon ourselves to be responsible in the face of anything that comes our way.

[1] For more on this, and the song’s relevance to our lives, see this essay by R’ Elchanan Samet.

[2] I have written at some length about this here.

[3] This isn’t to say that everyone who tries to justify the tragedies of the 20th century would condone or endorse such things a priori, most probably don’t think about the fact that such is the implication of their words.

[4] I have written more about this verse, and the general interplay of Divine Providence and Human Responsibility, here.

Parashat Vayehi – Divine Providence and Human Responsibility

הֲתַחַת אֱלֹהִים אָנִי

 

Parashat Vayehi records the final moments of the lives of both Yaakov and Yosef. From Yosef’s very first appearance in the Torah, his life and Yaakov’s are intimately connected. His birth signifies to Yaakov that the time has come to leave Aram and the house of Laban (Beraishit 30:25). The beginning of Yosef’s narratives are explicitly part of Yaaakov’s story: “אֵלֶּה תֹּלְדוֹת יַעֲקֹב יוֹסֵף”, “These are the generations of Yaakov; Yosef..[1]” (Beraishit 37:2). Beraishit Rabah (84:6) lists some twenty parallels between their lives, from being born to barren mothers and working as shepherds to living outside the Land of Israel and raising a family there, and that list isn’t even exhaustive. The two characters are so tightly interwoven that one can hardly appreciate one without understanding the other[2].

After Yaakov’s death, Yosef’s brothers come to him to convince him not to kill them (Beraishit 50:15-19). Certain that he only stayed his hand out of respect for their father, they tell Yosef that Yaakov commanded him not to kill them, and offer themselves as his slaves. Yosef responds to them, saying, “אל תִּירָאוּ כִּי הֲתַחַת אֱלֹהִים אָנִי”, “Fear not; for am I in the place of God? ”. This phrase, “הֲתַחַת אֱלֹהִים” shows up exactly one other time in the entire Tanakh.

Rachel, unable to have children, came to Yaakov to say that he must give her a child or she will die (Beraishit 30:1). Yaakov’s anger flares against her and he says, “הֲתַחַת אֱלֹהִים אָנֹכִי אֲשֶׁר מָנַע מִמֵּךְ פְּרִי בָטֶן”, “Am I in God’s stead, who hath withheld from thee the fruit of the womb?” (Beraishit 30:2). Thus this phrase spans the entirety of Yosef’s life, from before his birth until after his father’s death.

These two uses of the same phrase are similar on the surface, but they have vastly different implications. While both Yaakov and Yosef are saying that ‘א is in control, they have rather opposite intentions. Yosef finds himself in a position of total control over his brothers. He is the Royal Vizier of a country where his brothers are living as guests. Their father, out of respect for whom he kept secret their nigh-murderous actions (Beraishit 37), has died, leaving Yosef free to act with impunity. The time is ripe for his vengeance. Despite all of that, he tells them that he is not in place of ‘א. He is not simply stating that out of humility he will not take revenge, but rather he is making a point about the nature of history and the need for revenge. The brothers are concerned that because they did him wrong, Yosef will respond in kind (Beraishit 50:15, 17). Yosef tells them that they don’t need to fear him because he is not in place of ‘א, and that while they were planning to do evil, ‘א was planning good (Beraishit 50:19-20). Thus he will not be taking vengeance because there is no need; his brothers tried to do something bad, but ‘א’s plan meant that they actually did something good. Regardless of what he, and they, may have thought was best course of events, ‘א is the one who decides what that really is .Yosef sacrifices his sense of entitlement on the altar of ‘א’s control of history.

Yaakov’s situation is totally different. Rachel comes to him asking for him to give her a child, and he lashes out at her, saying that he is not ‘א that she should come to him for a child. Instead of giving up his sense of entitlement, Yaakov gives up his sense of responsibility. He actually says that ‘א is the one withholding children from Rachel (Beraishit 30:2). It’s not Yaakov’s fault, it’s ‘א’s. The Midrash in Beraishit Rabah (71:7) highlights this with a fascinating expansion of their conversation. The midrash depicts Rachel pointing to Yitzchak and Avraham and asking Yaakov why he didn’t act like they did when their wives couldn’t have children. Yaakov deflects the Yitzchak question by saying that he already has children whereas his father didn’t, which leads directly to Rachel mentioning Avraham to her eventually giving of her maidservant to Yaakov as a wife. However, bypassing the question by Yitzchak ignores the whole point of the comparison: Yitzchak tried to help his wife have children, by praying to ‘א on her behalf (Beraishit 25:21), and Yaakov didn’t. While no one would maintain that Yaakov is the one in charge of whether or not Rachel is able to have children, that’s not within his power, the midrash here draws out the point that Yaakov also doesn’t try anything that is within his power. Yaakov points to ‘א’s control because that way it’s not his fault, that way he doesn’t have to take responsibility.

The Tanakh doesn’t put anything outside of ‘א’s power. He created the world and He does miracles. But it just as clearly values human choice and initiative (Devarim 30:19). In no place does it bother to resolve this contradiction, as the Torah is more interested in the way Man lives a life of ‘א than in purposeless philosophizing[3]. That said, its opinion on such matters is still evident from analysis of the experiences it records. In this case, as the midrash indicates, the Tanakh’s opinion is more in line with Yosef than with Yaakov. Yosef locates ‘א’s Providence in the Past. Everything that has happened has been according to the Will of ‘א. Based on this, he makes his choices about the actions he will be taking in the Future. In contrast, Yaakov sees ‘א as being in complete control of the Future, and thus Yaakov’s actions are meaningless. Yaakov doesn’t try to attain a child for Rachel because that’s entirely up to ‘א. And while that isn’t necessarily wrong, it’s not how the Tanakh wants us to live. We are supposed to take responsibility for our actions. In a certain sense, we’re supposed to live as if there is only Divine Providence in the Past, as if ‘א has no stake in the future. The world we live in, all our natural abilities and everything that we have received, these are all things we should see as functions of Divine Providence. But what we do with these thing? That is up to us. We don’t get to say that ‘א will just take care of us, that we don’t have to do our part. The whole concept of the Torah and Mitzvoth being given to Man is based off the idea that ‘א wants us to take certain actions. Leaving it up to ‘א is not an option. “הַכֹּל צָפוּי, וְהָרְשׁוּת נְתוּנָה” (Mishnah Avoth 3:15).

[1] Translations are from mechon-mamre.org

[2] For an understanding of Yosef’s life as a consequence of Yaakov’s theft of the brakha from Esav, and subsequent activites, see Rav Amnon Bazak’s book מקבילות נפגישות, Chapter Sixteen.

[3] The Torah is not Man’s Theology so much as it is God’s Anthropology. ~A.J. Heschel, God In Search Of Man

Parashat Shemini 5774 – “For your sake and for the Sake of the Nation”: The Tension Between Particularism and Universalism in the Inaugural Sacrifices

פרשת שמיני – בעדך ובעד העם

Parashat Shemini opens with the eight day of the inauguration of the Mishkan, the point where the service of the Mishkan, until that point performed by Moshe, began to be performed by Aharon and his sons. This begins a process that would continue until the destruction of the second Beit HaMikdash, where the descendants of Aharon brought the korbanot of Bnei Yisrael before ‘א. However, that day was not merely the beginning of this process. Many of the services performed that day would not become part of the regular ritual of the Mishkan or Mikdash. An excellent example of this would be the two sin-offerings that Aharon and his sons bring.

In Vayikra 9:7 Aharon is told, “Come forward to the altar and sacrifice your sin offering and your burnt offering, making expiation for yourself and for the people; and sacrifice the people’s offering and make expiation for them, as the LoRD has commanded.”[1] The phrase “for yourself and for the people” would seem to be odd. Is Aharon not part of the people? Why would he need a separate atonement? Even stranger, this is not the only time such a formulation is found. In Vayikra 16 Moshe describes the service of Yom HaKippurim, and we find the same basic formulation, of Aharon atoning for himself and the greater unit that he is a part of, four times (verses 6, 11, 17, & 24), with the last mimicking 9:7 almost exactly. “He shall bathe his body in water in the holy precinct and put on his vestments; then he shall come out and offer his burnt offering and the burnt offering of the people, making expiation for himself and for the people.” Once again, the strangeness of the phrasing stands out. Is Aharon not a part of the people? Why isn’t their expiation enough?

The first step to understanding this separation is to appreciate its nature.  This isn’t just a matter of redundancy in speech, this is something that was effected in real life. The expiation of Aharon and the People occurs in two stages. Vayikra 9:8 says that “Aaron came forward to the altar and slaughtered his calf of sin offering.” Nothing in this verse, or the ensuing description of the offering process, says anything about the nature of this sin offering. Verse 15, in contrast, is quite clear: “Next he brought forward the people’s offering. He took the goat for the people’s sin offering, and slaughtered it, and presented it as a sin offering like the previous one.” The sin offering brought in verse 15 is that of the people, as opposed to the previous one. That one, therefore, must be a sin offering for Aharon himself. This answers the question of the sufficiency of the national expiation for the expiation of Aharon. Aharon is indeed part of the people and would have been covered by their offering. His offering comes before the national one, when he had still not received expiation.

The problem that remains is the question of why? Why does Aharon have to give a sin offering before that of the people can be given? Some hint of the answer lies in the nature of the occasions regarding which this “for himself and for the people” expression is found, the eight inaugural day of the Mishkan and Yom HaKippurim. Both of these days are about having a clean start for the beginning of a new process, about being spiritually fit to begin serving ‘א anew. This is something that occurs on both the individual and collective levels. However, an individual, as part of a unit, cannot focus on the whole  and the part simultaneously, and the question then would be which should be attended to first. The model of the Mishkan is clear, the individual must cleanse themselves first, before getting to work on the whole. However, it is also clear that Aharon’s expiation is meant to make him ready to being the sin offering of the people. The individual should make themselves ready first, but they should do so for the sake of better serving the whole. The Torah thus delineates a basic model that applies to all aspects of life. A person is always part of a people. A people is always part of the peoples of our world. And the first step to making it a better world is for all persons to be the best persons they can be, in order that all peoples will be the best peoples they can be, and our world will be the best that it can be.

[1] Translations from the Jewish Study Bible.