Growing and Not Growing Into Our Roles in History

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

The Crowns of Judaism

One of the subtexts of Parshat Va-Yetzei is Leah’s continuing search for a sense of Ya’akov’s love. Although he does not directly address it, Meshech Hochmah’s comment on 30;20 gives his sense of what Leah thought would secure her husband’s permanent affection and/or admiration. After Zevulun is born, she says Gd has given her a zeved tov, a choice gift, this time her husband will exalt her. Something had happened to make her now secure in her role in the family.

Meshech Hochmah relates it to a Midrash’s reading of Gd’s reward to the midwives in Egypt who circumvented Par’oh’s order to kill the male babies. Shemot 1;21 says Gd made them batim, houses, and Shemot Rabbah says they were the houses of priesthood and kingship, as Miriam would marry Kalev son of Yefuneh (of the tribe of Yehudah) and be the mother of the kings of the Jewish people, where Yocheved’s sons Moshe and Aharon would be the Levites and priests.

He only relates to that Midrash, where I think he also had in mind Avot 4;13, the statement by R. Yehudah there are three crowns, kingship, priesthood, and Torah. Meshech Hochmah here says Leah has now borne to Ya’akov the progenitors of all three crowns, where Shemot Rabbah had not mentioned the third regarding Yocheved and Miriam, although we usually think of Levi as the tribe that spread Torah as well. Perhaps because of that, R. Meir Simhah identifies the crown of Torah with Yissachar, whom tradition thought spent their time on esoteric elements of Torah [figuring out the movements of the moon and sun to know how to adjust the calendar].

He doesn’t say that’s why he chose Yissachar, but if I am right, he is taking a position on the “crown of Torah” we might miss. Yissachar as bearers of the crown of Torah assumes a model of Torah study significantly more academic or esoteric than we might think. As a proud Levi, I have always thought Torah was to be studied and spread. True as far as it goes, I think Meshech Hochmah might be assuming “real” Torah study studies for its own sake, and leaves the propagation to others.]

My suspicions are supported by the next part of his comment, where he explains why Leah waited until Zevulun’s birth to express her confidence in her husband’s affections. Yissachar cannot make his way without the financial support of Zevulun [as tradition had it, they were full partners, Zevulun providing the financial support, Yissachar the Torah study.] Once the system was in place, Leah was home free.

It’s a lesson in Leah’s sense of how to improve her marriage, that Ya’akov will love whoever gives him his needed future, and a perspective on the kind of Torah study crucial to our nation, engaged in by scholars who do not worry about it being accessible or popular, just study what needs to be studied.

[I recently heard a story about the Klausenberger rebbe being visited in the hospital on a Shabbat afternoon by some teenagers, and starting to speak between Minchah and Ma’ariv. Their teacher knew the boys were not interested, and suggested the rebbe rest instead. He said, “the Torah needs to be said.”

It is, le-havdil elef alfei havdalot, parallel to the scientists who engage in basic research, they too often plagued by questions about its practical value. When not taken to silly extremes, such basic research in any field is necessary to later practical success. No less so in Torah.]

Non-Jews’ Narrowing Our Options for Worship

When Gd appears to Ya’akov to tell him it was time to head back to Israel, 31;13, He identifies Himself, as it were, as the Gd of Beit El, where Ya’akov had set up a matzevah and vowed an oath. Gd mentioned the oath as a warning, because failure to fulfill an oath, Rosh HaShanah 6a reads Mishlei 22;27 to tell us, can lead to a man’s losing his wife. [How or why she would suffer for his failures is a topic of his own, not addressed by Meshech Hochmah, and therefore perforce for another time. Whatever the answer, it does assume closeness between husband and wife.]

Ya’akov had delayed fulfilling the vow because a matzevah, the one-stone altar he had used before, had in the interim become hated by Gd. Meshech Hochmah infers that from Hazal’s reading of Devarim 16;22, where the verse says Gd hates such altars. Since Patriarchs had made offerings on such matzevot, Hazal said they were beloved when the Avot offered on them, not for their descendants. To explain, Meshech Hochmah suggests the non-Jews had started to use such altars for their idols/other powers, as we see with Lavan, who speaks of the matzevah as bearing testimony to the pact he and Ya’akov made not to come at each other in enmity.

Meshech Hochmah says they figured out the value of a matzevah by watching Ya’akov, although the verse he cites comes from next week’s parsha. Ya’akov therefore waited until Gd told him to build a mizbeah, a full altar (also in Va-Yishlah). The matzevah Ya’akov still also uses (and, according to 35;14, sets up) was actually the old one (as ibn Ezra said, and Ramban agreed), from Ya’akov’s way out of Israel. Although matzevot had become a problem, this one was grandfathered in.

Meaning: the institution of matzevah was a fine way to make offerings to Gd until those who worship other powers saw and expropriated it for their own uses. [Notice they also used mizbechot, altars, yet that did not stop us from using them.] From then, matzevah was no longer acceptable.

I take it as a reminder and a caution about how interconnected we are. What idolaters do matters for my personal interest in a world where I can worship Gd in the best way, regardless of all the other reasons I would want them to find their way to a good form of life. It means that “private” behavior of others isn’t always not my business.

Lavan is Impervious, Ya’akov is Growing

After Lavan catches up with Ya’akov and they make a nonaggression pact, 32;1-2 tells us Laven returned limkomo, to his place, and Ya’akov continued on his way. Normally, living with a spiritual giant like Ya’akov rubs off on those around him or her, the reason Mishlei 13;20 says one who walks with the wise will become wiser.

For Lavan, it did not work. Ya’akov heads out, and Laven returns limkomo, his exact place intellectually, in character, in perspective, in immorality. Sadly for him, he could not see the opportunity for change and growth he had been provided.

Ya’akov, in contrast, continues on his journey. For Meshech Hochmah, the journey here is more than physical, reminds us the truly righteous, the true Torah scholars are always on a path upward, learning how to improve themselves, taking steps towards unreachable perfection. It is the reason Berachot 64a says Torah scholars have no rest in this world or the next, because they are always growing. It is the reason Ya’akov then immediately encounters angels, Meshech Hochmah says, adding ve-haven, understand this [I think that Ya’akov’s dedication to growth itself leads him to an encounter with angels.]

Leah develops a sense of what is needed for a Jewish people, and celebrates having been the mother of all those needs with the birth of Zevulun. Ya’akov’s path leads him to realize matzevot are no longer to be used in Gd’s worship, having been perverted by the idolaters around him. Lavan does not realize what he should want to know, and Ya’akov continues to seek and grow. As we can hope will be true for all of us.

About Gidon Rothstein

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