Mayanot Parshat Vayigash: Jewish Beauty
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Vayigash(Genesis 44:18-47:27)

Jewish Beauty

"And Israel said, 'How great! My son Joseph still lives! I shall go and see him before I die.' " (Genesis 45:28)

But in fact Jacob didn't just go and see Joseph. He took his entire extended family to the last man and all their possessions with him lock stock and barrel and the people of Israel went down to Egypt for a 210 year sojourn. The necessity for this isn't clear. Presumably, with Joseph in such an influential position in Egypt, some solution could have been worked out to keep a small tribe of people fed for the duration of the seven years of hunger without moving them out of the land of Canaan.

In fact the reason given for the descent into Egypt is stated by God; have no fear of descending to Egypt, for I shall establish you as a great nation there. (Ibid. 46:3) The Rabbis of the Midrash pick up on this idea and compare Egypt to a crucible in which the gold of the Jewish people was refined and/or the womb in which the fetus of the budding nation of Israel was formed. (Shocher Tov, Tehillim 107)

Why is it necessary to come to nationhood through adversity? Why couldn't the Jewish people reach maturity living quietly in Israel?

 

* * *

 

WHY MUST WE GROW THROUGH EXILE

The Egyptian exile demonstrates the proposition that every Diaspora has two aspects. One aspect, the one commonly understood because it is intensively discussed in the Tochochot, the Chastisement portions in Chumash and in the books of the prophets concerns the punishment of sins. But the exile in Egypt demonstrates that the exiles experienced by the Jewish people have a positive, formative aspect to them that bears no relation at all to punishment. As our thesis through all these essays has been that all Divine punishment is therapeutic anyway, the fact that exile has a positive aspect should hardly be surprising; the punishment is also the source of the remedy that corrects the fault that caused the exile in the first place.

It is this positive aspect of exile that we shall attempt to analyze in this essay, and we shall conduct our study in the context of the 'Greek' exile, as it is the one that casts the greatest light on the subject [it also happens to be Chanukah].

 

* * *

 

SPIRITUAL EXILE

The Greek exile was unusual in several ways. It took place when the Jews were living in Israel, their own country, and while the second Temple stood. Indeed, for large parts of this exile the services in the Temple continued as usual. The Greek exile was a spiritual exile rather than a physical one.

If physical exile means being separated from your country and your people, spiritual exile means being subjected to a foreign culture that dominates the scene instead of your own. When Hellenism rather than Judaism reigns supreme in Israel, the Jewish people are considered in exile.

But what does the cultural exile of Hellenism consist of? Two aspects are discussed in rabbinic literature. One aspect concerns religious persecution; the practice of certain commandments was outlawed -- it was forbidden to practice circumcision; it was forbidden to establish schools for Torah learning; other sources speak of Sabbath observance, family purity laws, the maintenance of the Jewish calendar.

 

* * *

 

WRITING ON THE 'HORNS OF AN OX'

The second aspect is difficult to understand at first. The Hellenists insisted that the Jews sign 'on the horns of an ox' that they have no share in the God of Israel. The commentators explain that the 'horns of an ox' is a reference to the Golden calf. The Hellenists insisted that the Jews renounce their share in the God of Israel on the basis of the sin of the Golden calf. As a reason for abandoning a share in the God of Israel this is far from self-evident. What does it mean? How does this idea represent the ideological clash between Hellenism and Judaism?

In the view of Judaism, the rationale for the observance of the laws of the Torah is not obligation based. We are certainly obligated to their observance through the covenant of Sinai, but as the entry into the covenant was voluntary, obligation cannot serve as the ultimate basis of observance. The ultimate source is the factor that prompted the Jewish people to undertake their Covenantal obligations in the first place.

Usually, people enter into agreements because they feel that the arrangement is beneficial to them, and no doubt the resultant benefits is one of the factors that were behind our collective readiness to agree to enter the Covenant with God. Nevertheless, to understand the basis of our agreement to observe the Torah as resting on nothing more than a search for benefits is a shallow view of observance.

Tradition teaches us that the Jewish people accepted the Torah as a matter of necessity. They felt that without the agreement with God that provides earthly existence with an extra dimension, life was purposeless and therefore unexciting.

 

* * *

 

IS HUMAN LIFE WORTHWHILE

There is a fascinating discussion in the Talmud which perfectly illustrates the Jewish attitude to life. The sages engaged in a debate about whether the creation of man is worthwhile when evaluated from a human perspective or not. Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel debated the issue for two and a half years; the former maintained that it would have been better for man not to have been created than to be created, while the latter maintained that on balance it was worthwhile for man to have been created. A decision was eventually reached -- it would have been better for man not to have been created, but now that he was created, he should search his deeds. Some say now that he was created he should develop sensitivity towards his actions. (Eruvin 13b)

Thus after considerable debate our sages concluded that life itself was not worthwhile. What does this mean? What are the factors that allow one to weigh such a question intelligently?

To provide ourselves with perspective, first let us appreciate the full ramifications of the issue. Judaism teaches that the only creation God was interested in was man. Man was created for his own sake, whereas everything else that was created was only to allow man to succeed and flourish. If we conclude that the creation of man is not worthwhile, we are really saying that God was wasting His time in everything that He created. Isn't that blasphemy? Doesn't it contradict God's own judgment: And God saw all that He had made and behold it was very good. (Genesis 1,31)?

 

* * *

 

TORAH NOTION OF 'NECESSITY'

The answer uncovers what is meant by the 'necessity' of entering the covenant of Sinai. If the sages could conclude that human life is worthwhile, then it would be reasonable to enter this covenant on the usual grounds of perceived benefits and profit. Human life itself is worthwhile after all; therefore even in the absence of the Covenant, life and creation make perfect sense. Any improvement is worthwhile as it gives us even more.

But if we conclude that human life per se is not worthwhile, improving it cannot provide the rationale for any human endeavor, including the entry into the Sinaic Covenant. Something that is inherently a waste cannot justify any investment of effort. In light of their conclusion, the sages of the Talmud were forced to conclude that the justification for creation must lie in human actions.

That is to say, the creation of human beings must be justified on the basis that they were designed to accomplish something, rather than on the basis of the inherent importance of human life per se. Their mere existence may not be worthwhile, but it is worth creating them for what they are able to accomplish. This led the sages directly to the examination of the purpose of human actions. Let us follow them in this search.

 

* * *

 

THE FUTILITY OF SELF IMPROVEMENT

Actions that are outside the scope of the Covenant are all undertaken to preserve or improve the quality of life by definition. If life itself is not worthwhile, then all these actions, whose focus is the preservation and improvement of this life, which is not worthwhile, are all a waste of time in the final analysis.

What is more, even Covenantal actions, insofar as they are undertaken to improve human life by lending it an eternal dimension, for example, are also not worthwhile. When the rabbis looked at the relative merits of human creation, they were certainly not considering merely its earthly aspects.

Covenantal actions must have a dimension that is over and above the improvement of human existence, and this must serve as the purpose of creation. But what could this be? In fact Jewish tradition teaches that the purpose of covenantal actions is creation.

 

* * *

 

THE ACTIONS THAT MAKE LIFE WORTHWHILE

Human existence, as God created it, is not worthwhile on balance even taking into account its eternal aspects. But the human existence created by human actions under the framework of the covenant is worthwhile. This is the notion of 'necessity' behind the entry into the covenant. Only the creation of an entirely different mode of human existence through the creative actions of man taken under the covenant can rationalize human existence. This was the significance of the conclusion of the Rabbis of the Talmud.

This conclusion cannot be correct from the point of view of Hellenism. Greek culture and the entire edifice of humanism that was constructed on its intellectual foundations stands for the preservation and improvement of human existence. If we adopt the position that this entire exercise is futile because at the end of the day human existence is simply not worthwhile, then we negate the very axiom upon which Hellenism rests. Hellenism can tolerate religious behavior and dogma although it is unscientific because such activity can still be understood as rational. As long as the purpose is the improvement of human existence, it has a place within Hellenism even if it might be viewed as childish or naïve or misguided. It isn't irrational.

Judaism is irrational in Hellenistic terms. It rejects the ideal of the improvement of man's lot as a legitimate goal for human existence. It aims to create a new sort of man on the very grounds that the present version is only a transition stage and is not worthwhile. Hellenism therefore rejects Judaism.

 

* * *

 

WRITING 'ON THE HORNS OF THE OX' REVISITED

But Hellenism has an argument. If indeed, the present form of the human being is not worthwhile, and the purpose of human existence is the creation of a new sort of human being under the umbrella of the Covenant, than the present human being must have been designed for the task of creating the new one. He must have been designed to be able to follow the covenant. But we have evidence that he wasn't. The people who understood the covenant best must have been those that decided to enter it in the first place. No one in history could possibly match their clarity of vision. It was they who stood at Sinai and spoke to God.

If they couldn't observe the covenant for even a day, then the Jewish vision of the world must be incorrect. Man was obviously not designed with the covenant in mind if he wasn't constructed with the ability to observe it. The sin of the Golden calf demonstrates the fact that observance is unnatural to human beings. Less than a day past Moses' forty-day limit the Jews already violated the most basic tenet of their precious covenant! In a rational world, it is absurd to think that God designed man so poorly that he couldn't keep the covenant for even a day if that was the purpose of man's creation.

In fact the sin of the Golden calf validates the Hellenist view of the Covenant. The Jews served the Golden calf because they entered the covenant as a means of improving their present existence. They had gotten used to the ability to contact God whenever they wanted. When they thought that Moses wasn't returning they decided to construct their own channel of communication to preserve this improvement in their quality of life that they had grown accustomed to. [See Nachmonedes, Ki Tisa]

 

* * *

 

EXILE DEEPENS UNDERSTANDING

We have come to the gateway of understanding the positive aspect of exile. Ideas can only be worked out and clarified in the context of vigorous debate. When a person is alone with himself he has no way to reach clarity.

It is only in the context of coming up against foreign cultures and opposing ideas that the Jewish people can work out for themselves who they clearly are. The subtle ramifications of the observance of the Covenant debated between Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel only emerged in the context of the Jewish confrontation with Hellenism. The sin of the Golden calf could only be understood clearly through this confrontation. In fact, as you cannot correct anything beyond your understanding, it was only by overcoming the edict of 'writing on the horns of the ox' that Israel finally cleansed itself of the mistake of the Golden calf.

All true observance rests on understanding. But intellectual understanding is fleeting and shallow because human beings are easily confused. They have to face the problems of temptation and confusion, and when they come up against people who are better trained than they are in the art of debating and who advocate positions that appeal to their temptations they have a difficult time retaining their clarity. In order to be solid and reliable, understanding has to be existential. Surviving the tests of exile transforms surface intellectual conclusions into existential parts of the collective Jewish subconscious.

 

* * *

 

DAYS OF THANKS

The days of Chanukah were established as days of thanks [Al hanisim prayer]. The word for thanks in Hebrew is hoda'ah. In Hebrew this has a second meaning, admission. The root of the word is hod, which also means beauty and is the name of the eighth Sefira of the ten Sefirot. The conjunction of ideas that come together in this word fully describe the intellectual/psychological confrontation with Hellenism and help define a quality that is essential to Judaism and can only be gained through the confrontation of exile.

There are two ramifications to saying thank you. Thank you is an expression of a feeling of gratitude, but it can also serve as the acknowledgement of the existence of an obligation. The thank you we say to God for having created us depends on the stand we adopt towards the worthwhile ness of human life.

 

* * *

 

THE MEANING OF THANK YOU

If we believe that life is inherently worthwhile, then God created us to enjoy our lives not to accomplish something with them. Every step we take to improve our lot increases the value of His gift and deepens the quality of our thanks. There is no greater thank you we can offer Him than attempting to appreciate His gift to the maximum by taking the most enjoyment of His gift.

But if human life per se is not worthwhile, then the thank you we owe God is the acknowledgement of an obligation. We must make use of this life to create the new human being that can only be created through the actions of the Covenant. We must not waste the precious gift of life by merely trying to take the maximum out of what we already are.

These two versions of hoda'ah lie at the depths of the dispute between Judaism and Hellenism.

The successful internalization of the sense of obligation in the concept of hoda'ah is also the revelation of the beauty in hod.

 

* * *

 

THE BEAUTY OF 'HOD'

Rabbi Hutner described this beauty as being akin to the beauty of the reed. The cedar is much more powerful than the reed but it cannot bend before the storm. When the storm is sufficiently powerful it will break the mighty cedar. The reed can bend before the storm and thus can survive even the powerful winds that topple the cedar. When the great storm passes, the powerful cedar lies in ruins but the humble reed stands up once again. Its weakness and flexibility are really its strength.

The beauty of the Jewish people emerges in the storm of exile. We bend in the face of new ideas and seem to be humbled but when the storm of the exile passes, there we are once again standing tall, having gained vigor and wisdom through our confrontation with the mighty storms of the exile.

This is also the significance of the Sefira of Hod. God created a world that requires the actions of man to make it worthwhile. It is in the character trait of hoda'ah that the supreme beauty of the divine-human partnership in creation emerges. Exile is tribulation transmuted into strength. Therein lies the beauty and majesty of Jewish history.

Published: December 15, 2001

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