Jews Are Not the Same

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

The comments this week came at me; I actually rejected the first one or two, looking for some other theme, but they kept coming, so I yielded. I resisted them because I am not sure I agree with Meshech Hochmah’s assumptions about the nature of Jews and non-Jews. As we look at them, we will learn one way of looking at what makes Jews different from non-Jews.

Our Innate Tendencies

Meshech Hochmah notices Ya’akov tells Esav he has oxen and donkeys, when the gift this message accompanied included camels as well. Why did he not mention them? For his answer, we should remind ourselves of Shabbat 145b-146a’s picture of what happened in the Garden of Eden.

The Gemara says [and it is likely to be taken as metaphor, but here we are only interested in Meshech Hochmah’s use of ] Havah (Eve) and the serpent consummated their relationship, the nahash sullying her with zohama, a word for defilement that refers to more than the physical remnants of the intercourse.

Meshech Hochmah thinks it left Havah with a blurred sense of the line between good and evil. People were always going to be tempted by evil, but the line between the two was clear. After the serpent incident, it all mixed together. Part of the Avot’s contribution to Jewish lives was their clearing out the evil mixed in with the good; Avraham segregated off Yishma’el (for Meshech Hochmah, helping Jews once again be able to distinguish clearly between that type of evil, whatever it was, and good), and Yitzhak removed Esav [although it was a close call].

When Ya’akov came along, all twelve of his sons were fit for the Jewish people. [I note the Gemara credits the removal of the zohama to the experience of Sinai, a fact Meshech Hochmah does not address.] With that, Jews were returned to the original state, where they were certain they wanted to do good, might be tempted by bad, but were fully aware of which was which. [The value of clarity about good and not, even for those who succumb to temptation, should be obvious in our times, when people literally cannot agree on evil to shun.]

This desire to do good underlies Rambam’s explanation of courts’ right to coerce certain actions from Jews. In the third chapter of the Laws of Divorce, he explained why a court can sometimes apply physical pressure for a Jew to write a bill of divorce, when this document can only be written based on the husband’s free assent. Rambam says the Jew’s soul always wants to do right, this husband’s refusal is a matter of his evil inclination overtaking him. As long as he says he wants to do this, we can believe him, because deep down, he really does.

Ya’akov makes the point by speaking only of oxen, kosher, and donkeys, non-kosher. Camels are less obviously one or the other, because they have one sign of being kosher (they chew their cud) and not the other. That is more like Esav, who mixed his evil ways with certain conspicuous signs of acting well, like honoring his parents.

A first distinction, Jews have a strong sense of the line between right and wrong, non-Jews (who did not have the Avot or Sinai to cleanse them of the serpent’s damage), mix it together [complicating doing good even when they want to; it is not hard today to spot people who sincerely believe they are pushing for good when it seems clear they are making matters worse].

Meshech Hochmah says there is a lot more to say, without saying, except that I stumbled over more of his comments on similar issues.

Maintaining Social Connections in the Face of Idolaters’ Idolatry

The beginning of the ninth chapter of Shabbat, Amar R. Akiva, tells us there is a (rabbinic) concept of ritual impurity related to items of worship of avodah zarah, worship of powers other than Gd. Meshech Hochmah is sure Ya’akov knew this (or innovated it), because in this parsha, he tells his household to rid themselves of any such items, and to purify themselves, before they go to Beit E-l (remember also, Meshech Hochmah accepts largely literally the Talmudic tradition the Avot observed the whole Torah, including rabbinic laws).

When 32;24 tells us Ya’akov crossed the Yabok, transferring all asher lo, all he had, but a Hebrew phrase that reminds Meshech Hochmah of Yoma 11b. The Gemara picks up on the Vayikra 14;35’s referring to a man who owns a home possibly afflicted with tzara’at as asher lo ha-bayit, to whom the house belongs (and the same phrase as in our verse)In the Hebrew, asher lo has an implication of possessiveness, leading the Gemara to say this was someone who pretended not to own anything, to avoid having to lend to others. Gd will send tzar’at (or enough evidence of tzara’at for him to have to go through the process), forcing him to remove all his possessions from his home, unmasking his wealth to the whole neighborhood.

Having taken asher lo as a refusal to lend, he says Ya’akov would never be like that, he lent any items he could ritually purify when the idolaters returned them. Clay items, pachim ketanim, the small containers Rashi said Ya’akov had gone back for, are a material that cannot be purified once rendered ritually impure. Those Ya’akov was within his rights not to lend.

The technicalities can blind us to his assumptions about Ya’akov’s world. Surrounded by people worshipping powers other than Gd, the basic primary wrong of human life, Meshech Hochmah is still sure it would have been wrongly stingy of Ya’akov to refuse to lend, would have been too close to the behavior of people who incur tzara’at. Ya’akov had to lend the items and, when he got them back, repurify them. The cost of living in society, but he had to live in society, because to do otherwise would be tzara’at-type behavior.

Involvement and Separation

Meshech Hochmah’s comment to 33;28 is too technical to review fully here. In unfair brevity, he cites a passage in Bereshit Rabbah 11 that contrasts Avraham’s to Ya’akov’s observance of Shabbat. Avraham observed eruv tavshilin (as the Gemara says), the rabbinic way to allow cooking on a Friday holiday for Shabbat, but not eruvei tehumin, the rules regarding how far one can travel on Shabbat (also rabbinic). [This is quite a novel idea, since the Gemara says Avraham kept the whole Torah, including eruv tavshilin, which I would have thought meant everything]. Meshech Hochmah relates it to the verse here saying Ya’akov camped before the city, where his Shabbat boundaries only allowed him to reach part of the city, not all of it.

He relates their difference of practice to their different family and world spiritual situations. In a world where there was not yet a Jewish people, Avraham realized he had to do his best to bring the entire world to Gd’s service, to make the world as a whole more attuned to Gd, more ready to serve as vehicles of Gd’s Presence in the world. To that end, he focused on feeding people (what an eruv tavshilin allows, to cook even on holidays; there’s more to discuss, because we are not allowed to cook for non-Jews on holidays, but let’s leave the details), to convince them to serve Gd [as in the Midrash I learned as a child, he would feed them and then push their gratitude towards Gd, telling them to thank Gd for the food].

It was also the reason he went down to Egypt (which we might have thought was only because of the famine), to engage/debate the intelligentsia there, to show them the error of their ways, to bring them to recognition of Gd. [Even before we get to Ya’akov, that’s quite a mouthful, although Rambam had similar ideas in the beginning of Laws of Worship of Powers Other than Gd. But that he chose Egypt because it was the center of world thought is really a very interesting idea.]

Ya’akov changes because he has a family all of whose members are ready to be part of the Jewish people (Meshech Hochmah thought Avraham at first did not have children, then had Yishma’el, showing him he was not ready to be just a separate nation; as we saw above, it might have turned out to be a necessary step in freeing the eventual Jewish people of the zohama of the nahash.) The Jewish people will themselves be a sufficient ma’on u-merkavah, residence and chariot, for the Divine Presence, so Ya’akov no longer needs to make efforts to mix with the other nations. He can set up tehumin, boundaries on those interactions (although, as we saw above, he has to be involved enough not to count as wrongly withholding his possessions).

Supporting his claim, we in fact do not see Ya’akov show much interest in turning others to Gd’s service. He does not look to sway Lavan, seems to be angry with Rahel for stealing her father’s idols [I think this is his own inference; we know Ya’akov tells Lavan the thief will be killed, but the idea he was upset with Rahel for doing it is new to me.]

There’s more, but these are the thought-provoking basics. Avraham, without a family who could serve the full role of bringing Gd into the world, sought to spread the idea of Gd to everyone. By Ya’akov’s time, a nation had been started, so Ya’akov withdrew, circumscribed his dealings with the other nations.

Meshech Hochmah does not explain why Avraham spent his efforts as he did if Ya’akov was going to just foster the Jewish nation. I think he is assuming that Avraham shows history could still have gone differently, maybe the Jewish people would not have needed to be as separate as Ya’akov sets them up (otherwise, why did Avraham even try), that more of the world could have been involved in bringing about Gd’s reign. By the time of Ya’akov, the strategy shifted, to building a nation with clear separation of purpose and focus (and, Meshech Hochmah seems to say, not tasked with trying to directly influence the rest of the world), while also continuing to be good and generous citizens of that broader world.

There’s lots more, but the three comments we saw this time say Torah changed the Jewish people significantly, in their tendencies and, as we built a nation, in their separation of task in moving the world forward. While both are true, Ya’akov still also models the value of engaging with others, lending to them so they can enjoy whatever bounty Jews have as well, as long as we remember the symbolic limits of eruvei tehumin.

About Gidon Rothstein

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