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Vayechi(Genesis 47:28-50:26)

Footprints of the Soul

The most dramatic section of this week's Torah portion describes the deathbed scene at which Jacob delivers his final blessing to each of his sons. There is a curious aspect to these blessings that merits closer examination.

We can spotlight the aspect that seems out of place by focusing on Judah's blessing:

'Judah - you, your brothers shall acknowledge. Your hand will be at your enemies' nape; your father's sons will prostrate themselves to you ... The scepter shall not depart from Judah nor a law giver from among his descendants, until Shilo arrives, and his will be an assemblage of nations ... [Genesis 49:8-11]

 

Jacob blessed Judah with the role of royalty in the Jewish commonwealth.

The standard conception about blessings is to regard them as a sort of spiritual boost intended to help the recipient obtain something beneficial, whether physical or spiritual that is beyond his or her reach in the ordinary way of things. But if we take the blessing of Judah as an example, it would appear that Jacob's blessings go far beyond this ordinary understanding ? they seem to confer exclusive property entitlements on the content of his blessings.

 

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THE BLESSINGS AS ENTITLEMENTS

Nachmanides relates the tragic history of the Hasmonean royal dynasty of the Second Temple period to illustrate the entitlement aspect of Jacob's blessings.

The Hasmoneans were a clan of priests -- members of the tribe of Levi, not Judah -- who led the Jewish rebellion against the Syrian Greeks that is commemorated by the Chanuka Holiday. They managed to drive the Greek armies of Antiochus out of Israel against great odds, to purify the Temple, and to reestablish the Jewish monarchy, an institution that had ended with the destruction of the first Temple more than three hundred years earlier. As the Hasmoneans were clearly the de facto leaders of the Jewish people, both physically and morally, they were unanimously acclaimed as monarchs by a grateful and admiring populace.

According to Nachmanides, the acceptance of the monarchy was the cause of the Hasmoneans' downfall. In the space of a few generations the entire clan was wiped out, leaving no trace or remnant. Their ?sin': the violation of Jacob's blessings. Had they over-ruled the popular will and insisted on the appointment of a monarch from the line of David -- that is, from the tribe of Judah -- they would surely have prospered for many generations. People of such great spiritual merit, possessed of such heroic self-sacrifice and great moral stature, capable of inspiring such a powerful spiritual revival in Jewish hearts would certainly have enjoyed the protection of God's Grace under ordinary circumstances.

It is clear that Jacob's blessing is to be understood as being much more than spiritual support for the attainment of certain spiritual levels by his various descendants. His blessings actually constitute a conclusive delineation of roles and powers among the tribes. These ?blessings' resemble a legally binding constitution for the nascent Jewish nation much more than what we commonly think of as blessings.

 

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WHERE DOES THE AUTHORITY ORIGINATE?

This observation of Nachmonedes leads us to the next point that must be considered. By what authority did Jacob decide which tribe should rule Israel a thousand years after his death? Why did Jacob's decisions regarding the remote future outweigh the authority of the current consensus of the Jewish people, especially as their collective will was the appropriate response to the conditions that prevailed at the time?

Let us grope our way to the answer by taking a closer look at one of the more misunderstood commandments of the Torah -- the commandment to honor one's parents.

 

It is written: "Honor your father and mother." [Exodus 20,12] And it is written: "Honor God from your youth." [Proverbs 3,9]. The Torah equates the duty to honor one's parents to the duty of honoring God. It is written: "Man should hold his father and mother in awe." [Leviticus 19,3], and it is written, "You should be in awe of the Lord your God and serve Him." [Deuteronomy 6,13] The Torah equates the awe of one's parents to the awe one must have towards God. It is written: "One who curses one's mother or father must die." [Exodus 21,17] And it is written: "Whoever curses God must bear his guilt." [Leviticus 24,15]. The Torah equates cursing one's parents with cursing God. ... this is fitting because they are all partners in his creation. [Talmud, Kiddushin, 30b]

 

Most of us are fortunate enough to have nice parents whom we love dearly and who inspire powerful feelings of gratitude in our hearts. No human beings ever do as much for us as our parents. But very few of us have parents that inspire us with a sufficient degree of awe that could justify comparing the feelings of awe we experience towards them to the sort of awe that we feel towards God. There is nothing awesome about our parents! How can we relate to being commanded to hold them in awe?

According to the Maharal of Prague, considering this question tells us about a much deeper role that our parents play in our lives. The Torah's commandment to honor our parents should not be interpreted as God's way to reinforce the natural feelings most people entertain towards their parents in any case. The Torah commandment is issued from a standpoint that invites us to understand that our attachment to God can only be reached through the mediation of our parents. The ?awe' in the commandment to honor one's parents is actually the awe of God. The person who sees the spiritual world properly can always get a glimpse of God by observing his parents. How does this work?

 

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THE TRUNK AND ITS BRANCHES

Israel is like a tree with twelve main branches spreading out from its trunk. The trunk grows out of roots firmly entrenched in the soil of Heaven and represents the patriarchs -- Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Out of this trunk emerge twelve main branches that represent the tribes, and each branch further subdivides into sub-branches that represent the main families of each tribe. The leaves represent individual Jews. Individual Jews draw their spiritual nourishment from the heavenly source by the connection of their leaf to the soil of Heaven through the medium of the tree. Like the leaves on a tree, to connect properly to God, each of us must trace ourselves back through our parents, our families, our tribes, and the Patriarchs before we can finally draw nourishment from our roots in Heaven. The Psalmist encapsulates this idea in the following verse:

 

It is a tree of life to those who grasp it, and its supporters are praiseworthy. [Psalms 3:18]

 

This concept presented by the Maharal has applications to areas of Torah beyond the allegorical/mystical. In the laws of conversion it translates itself directly into Halacha.

Tosephos [Baba Batra, 81a] explains that a non-Jew who wants to convert must attach himself to the tree of Israel through Abraham in order to be considered Jewish according to Halacha. Conversion requires the establishment of a Jewish connection between God and the convert who is considered a newborn Jewish child, and such fresh connections can only be forged through the intervention of Abraham who was appointed mankind's universal father for this purpose:

 

'As for Me, this is my covenant with you: You shall be a father of a multitude of nations. Your name shall no longer be called Abram, but your name shall be Abraham, for I have made you the father of a multitude of nations.' [Genesis 17:4-5]

 

When Jacob uttered his blessings, he was really exposing the significance of the branches; each tribe had a specific role within the Jewish commonwealth that corresponded to the particular location of its branch on the trunk of the tree of Israel. Jacob knew the spiritual significance of each location, and he was thus able to bless each tribe in accordance with the spiritual powers that were uniquely its own.

 

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THE ABILITY TO DRAW SPIRITUAL POWER

All spiritual power must be drawn from the roots of the tree of Israel planted in the soil of heaven. These spiritual emanations travel from the roots through the trunk to the appropriate branch that corresponds to the power in question. The powers of monarchy travel down the Judah and Ephraim branches exclusively. The Hasmonean Kings, members of the tribe of Levi, could never tap into the flow of the spiritual power of monarchy; it simply never reached their branch. Lacking fresh spiritual nourishment provided by the roots of the Tree of Life, they literally withered on the vine. A Jewish dynasty of kings who are not connected spiritually to God in their capacity as monarchs is obviously not a viable proposition.

We live in a world based on the axiom that all men are created equal. All positions are open to anyone with the initiative to attain them; all you need is the talent and the vigor to seize the day. The best man always wins by definition; his very success at winning crowns him with the title of being the best. We relate poorly at best to non-egalitarian systems that ascribe special roles to certain tribe s, individuals or sexes. This sort of distribution is undemocratic and violates our sense of fairness. But is our view justified?

To understand the point we must make concerning the spiritual implications of the ?equality' doctrine let see what results when we apply it to the area of physical activities. Would any of us say that the 90-pound weakling is as suitable to fill the job of carrying heavy loads on his back as the strapping muscular giant? Would it violate any rule of fairness if we gave the job of carrying heavy loads to the strapping giant rather than to the 90-pound weakling? Must we accept all applicants who enroll in nuclear physics classes, or is it acceptable to weed out those with lower I.Q.'s?

On the other hand if we were thinking about who should be the President, the issue of muscular strength or proficiency at mathematics are obviously irrelevant. It is concerning the universal suitability to become president that our belief that all men are created equal kicks in. If we think it through, our cultural position can be summed up thus: all people are equally acceptable for any positions in which physical constraints are not a factor. The implication: people may differ physically, but spiritually they are all identical. There is no such thing as being more spiritually fit than someone else.

 

* * *

 

IS SPIRITUAL EQUALITY A RATIONAL PROPOSITION?

If we regard the matter objectively, we are bound to admit that this vision of spiritual equality is based on questionable assumptions at best. Why should spiritual differences be different than physical ones? If it is clear that as far as bodies are concerned we are not equal, is it so self evident that all spirits are of equal quality and equal weight? Isn't it far more likely that if the human spirit became visible we would discover that some spirits were tall and others short, some brilliant and others of average intelligence?

That is the lesson that Jacob teaches us through the medium of the blessings. The tribes are not spiritually equal. They are as radically different from each other spiritually as people differ from each other physically. This means that each of them must have been assigned different missions in the world -- missions that are not interchangeable. The "best man" to be king cannot be selected by popular acclaim; the one whose spiritual mission is to be king is necessarily the best man for the job whatever his popular appeal.

This does not mean to imply that Judaism does not subscribe to the principle of equality! It is the Jewish Torah that is the main source for the principle of equality before the law, the very backbone of democracy. But even equality before the law does not adequately express the Jewish concept of equality. Judaism maintains the principle of equality in the most profound way imaginable.

All men are created in the image of God, which means that they are all equally precious in the eyes of the Creator. He takes the same level of interest in each and every one of His images; He equips and sends each one on his or her own unique mission and carefully monitors the way each such Divine Image performs. But this spiritual equality of the importance of every individual soul in God's eyes does not translate into a belief that each soul has the same potential or that all souls are capable of carrying out the same mission. The perfect model for this type of equality is parental love. Parental love is extended to each child in equal measure; but parents still have a different assessment of each child's needs and abilities.

 

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THE BODY SPIRIT DICHOTOMY

If we look deeper still, we discover that much of our resistance to accepting the decisions of the ancients as binding stems from a lack of appreciation of the relative importance of the body and the soul. Because of our ignorance about the nature of the body soul relationship we tend to overestimate our own wisdom and disparage the knowledge of the ancients. We can get some insight into the body-spirit dichotomy in Moses' encounter with God at the burning bush:

 

God called out to him from amid the bush and said, 'Moses, Moses ... Do not come closer to here, remove your shoes from your feet, for the place upon which you stand is holy ground.' [Exodus 3:4-5]

 

Rabbi Chaim of Voloz'hin, the student of the Gaon of Vilna, basing himself on the Zohar, explains why God asked Moses to take off his shoes.

The body is called the shoes of the soul, because it is by wearing the body on its lowest extremity that the soul can walk around in the physical world. God asked Moses to step out of these ?shoes', because He wanted to converse with Moses without the distortion that the body injects.

God wanted to insure that the prophetic vision received by Moses' soul at the source next to the Heavenly Throne would be identical to the message that finally reached the lower extremity of the soul inside Moses' body. In other words, He told Moses to step out of his body so that it could not distort his prophetic vision of God. Moses' special prophetic power stems from this ability to step out of the ?shoes' of the body and converse with God face to face as a pure spirit.

 

* * *

 

THE IMPLICATIONS OF THE DICHOTOMY

We have an enormous amount of knowledge about the physical world that the ancients didn't possess, and it is this relative advantage that encourages us to adopt a patronizing attitude to what they had to say. How could people who had no telephones, cars or airplanes, who knew nothing about antibiotics or X-rays possibly understand anything better than we do? But we must not forget that we are only experts about the workings of the body or the physical world, which translates into expertise about nothing more than ?shoes' according to Reb Chaim's vision!

Jacob had no interest in such knowledge. His life was dedicated to spiritual ends and he wasn't willing to waste a minute of his time on figuring out how best to polish shoes. He invested all his intellectual resources in the investigation of the laws that governed his soul.

 

* * *

 

THE HEELS OF THE MESSIAH

 

Elijah taught: The world (as we know it now) will stand for six thousand years; two thousand years of bewilderment, two thousand years of Torah, and two thousand years of the days of the Messiah. [Talmud, Sanhedrin, 97a]

 

We have used the image of the ?Tree of Life? to organize the Jewish people throughout history. Another image that has been applied to them is that of a single individual human being. You are my sheep, the sheep of my flock, you are Adam?.[Ezekiel 34,31] you are called Adam whereas the nations of the earth are not called Adam [Talmud, Yevomat, 61a] Tosefot explains that this is not to be interpreted as a racial aspersion on non-Jews; it simply means that all Jews throughout history can be regarded as parts of a single Adam whereas this is not the case for non Jews.

In terms of this image, the Jews who lived at the beginning of Jewish history, who had a clear vision of it and understood it, are likened to the "head" of this composite individual, whereas our own generation, which is living through its final portion, is known as the "heels of the Messiah." We are at the end of the 2000 years of the Messianic days referred to by Elijah. Being the heels of the Jewish people has a secondary implication as well; it implies that we are entirely enclosed in the ?shoes' of the body and have no vision at all of spirituality.

 

* * *

 

FEET VISION

Feet can never direct themselves to the destination. The head must instruct the feet where to step. Loyal feet faithfully follow the instructions and duly deliver the body to the correct place. But feet that tell the head to go away and are determined to work out the destination themselves do not have the slightest chance of reaching at the correct destination. When such feet are doing the leading, there is no telling where the person can end up.

The earlier generations could see higher than their shoes and knew the direction we should take. They could not impart their vision to us, but they gave us detailed instructions to follow so that, even lacking our own spiritual vision, we would still reach the correct destination.

This Torah portion ends the Book of Genesis. These essays have attempted to convey the idea that the establishment of the spiritual connection to God is part of the creation process. The Book Of Genesis describes the forging of this connection in great detail. This part of creation had to come about through the co-operative partnership between God and man. Consequently it is not surprising that it took two thousand years to accomplish the establishment of spiritual connections whereas God needed only seven days to create the entire world. The giants who accomplished the creation of this spiritual creation are the patriarchs and matriarchs, and this connection was their great gift to us.

We must recognize who they were and who we are. We have to accept the fact that our connection to our origins is only through them. Only as long as we follow their instructions to us faithfully and to the letter can we be confident of carrying out our mission in life and actualizing our potential.

Published: December 14, 2002

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Visitor Comments: 2

(2) donald, January 4, 2009 7:55 AM

awesum

interesting and eductional, substance for daily living.

(1) William G Mclaughlan, December 15, 2002 12:00 AM

Brilliant!

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