Who Counts as Family?

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Many Ways to Read the Torah

There is an extended text known as the Baraita of the 32 middot of R. Eliezer the son of R. Yose Ha-Gelili, with ways to derive ideas from the Torah separate from those in the thirteen of R. Yishma’el we know from morning prayers. [Interesting trivia: I knew I had seen this Baraita somewhere, could not remember where. I couldn’t find it in my Bar-Ilan, and Wikipedia said it was lost until published in the 1930s and 40s.

Except what I think is that Baraita is in the back of Berachot in the Vilna Shasnear R. Shmuel Ha-Nagid’s Introduction to the Talmud. Not sure what Wikipedia meant.]

Meshech Hochmah quotes one of the ideas from that Baraita to explain a passage in Baba Batra 121b. The Gemara asserts Machir and Yair, sons of Menasheh, were born in Ya’akov’s lifetime. Rashbam says the Gemara must have had a tradition to that effect, because no verse says it. [Aside from being unsourced, I think Meshech Hochmah is picking up on the Torah referring to Ya’akov relating only to Efraim and Menasheh themselves, where 50;23 makes explicit point that Yosef saw great-grandchildren.]

Also Can Be Children

The Baraita of R. Eliezer says the word gam, also, can imply children. When David tells Shaul he had slain a lion and a bear (I Shemuel 17;36), the Baraita says the word gam there includes their cubs. So, too, Devarim 22;22 says both partners to an adulterous affair are to be put to death—u-metu gam sheneihem, they also both shall die, where the gam does not obviously add—the Baraita says it shows the woman would be put to death even if she were pregnant, the gam telling us the death penalty can involve her embryo as well.

Meshech Hochmah suggests Baba Batra assumed the idea, so when Ya’akov told Yosef Gd had shown him gam et zar’echa, also your descendants, it meant children of Efrayim or Menasheh’s, and Machir and Ya’ir are the most prominent ones [therefore, I think he assumes, the ones the Gemara would think Ya’akov had known].

More than just a clever explanation of the Gemara, it adds to our understanding of 48;19, where Yosef wants the prime blessing to go to the older son, Menasheh. Ya’akov refuses, yet reassures Yosef gam hu yihyeh le-am ve-gam hu yigdal, he too will be a nation, he too will be great. If each gam means a child, one will be an am, a nation, the other will be great (Ya’ir, whom the Torah, Bamidbar 32;41, tells us named conquered cities after himself, Havvot Ya’ir. Because he had no children, Rashi there says).

Family Goes On

Embedded in what can seem a technical idea—gam adds something, might as well add a cub, an embryo, a child—I see an idea about the relationship between parent and child confirmed elsewhere in halacha. In the Western world, children are viewed as separate and independent almost from birth, where I understand halachah to see the separation as more gradual, and never as fully complete as Western society thinks.

Meshech Hochmah doesn’t say any of that here, but I will permit myself (I hope with your tolerance) to expand a bit. While the child is more separate from the moment of birth (so that killing a fetus is abortion, with a complicated halachic status, where killing a born baby is clearly a form of murder) and again at the age of majority (where tradition thought children were no longer punished as adjuncts to their parents), a child is still often seen as an extension or continuation of the parent. For inheritance, for example, a father’s possessions pass to his sons at death; the sons do not acquire the estate, it becomes theirs instantaneously, because they are his continuations.

For our verse, I think Meshech Hochmah is saying Ya’akov could have said he had seen Yosef’s descendants. When he said “gam, also” your descendants, it had to mean a fuller seeing, he had seen the first stage of Yosef’s perpetuity, and the next stage as well.

We don’t end at death, even in this world; we leave behind those who carry on, and those carryings-on are gam, also, part of who we were, are, and will be, is what I hear Meshech Hochmah saying.

The Honor of Caring About a Parent’s Feelings

At the end of his blessing of Yosef, 49;26, Ya’akov says his blessings should go on Yosef’s head, the brow of nezir of his brothers. Sefaria takes nezir to mean the elect, a valid possibility, but Meshech Hochmah takes the word in the way we more commonly use it, as a nazir, someone who vowed not to have wine products, cut his/her hair, or come into contact with the deceased [remember, Meshech Hochmah assumes Ya’akov and his family observed Torah law, so the idea of a nazir existed].

He says all the brothers felt bad about Ya’akov’s anguish over Yosef’s disappearance, but tradition had it that Yosef did not drink wine the entire time he was separated from his father, in recognition of his sorrow. [This wasn’t Yosef’s sorrow over his own troubles, it was his sadness for his father. It reminds me of tradition’s insistence we feel others’ pain even if we are spared a particular trial, such as the discussion around couples continuing their ordinary married lives in times of famine.]

Ya’akov here was reacting to Yosef’s greater sense of empathy than his brothers.

The idea assumes Ya’akov knew the whole story of what had happened in Yosef’s missing years, an idea I have seen questioned by others. It argues that even if Ya’akov had come to accept the necessity of what happened, had in some senses forgiven his sons what they did, because they were vehicles of providence, it still rankled that they could live their lives with ordinary pleasures when he was distraught every day (so distraught he was denied the Divine Spirit, as we saw last time).

There are times we must act in ways we should find distasteful. But we also should experience the distastefulness of what we have done, have that affect us as well, for as long as the situation continues.

The Nature of Death

When the Torah tells us Ya’akov passes away and his family takes him to Israel for burial, Meshech Hochmah launches a series of comments, and I have picked just one to consider. First, 50;10 says Yosef made a great mourning for his father at the threshing floor of Atad; the Canaanites noticed the event, said it was a heavy mourning for the Egyptians, and then call that place Avel Mitzrayim, the Mourning of the Egyptians.

All that happened before they buried Ya’akov (later verses say they carried him to Me’arat Ha-Machpelah). Meshech Hochmah explains, based on a Yerushalmi, that this was the stopping point for most of the group, who could not enter Canaan armed (it would be an act of war). Since they were separating from the deceased, their mourning started then, as happens today when a mourner doesn’t go to the burial (such as if the person is being buried in Israel). The sons continued on, buried him in Kiryat Arba, and then had their mourning.

It’s an idea to chew on, because it assumes they all were going to observe a full mourning for Ya’akov. Since the sons were not yet starting, Meshech Hochmah is assuming more distant relatives (or maybe just friends) were going to mourn Ya’akov.

There is an idea—not cited by Meshech Hochmah here—that when someone passes away, the relatives of the mourners observe mourning in their presence (a grandchild would observe mourning for a grandparent in his/her parent’s presence), an idea we mostly do not keep anymore. Meshech Hochmah seems to be going further, assuming that mourning, at least for Ya’akov, occupied broader circles.

Many of his other comments here focus on the balance between involvement in ordinary life and focusing on eternal matters. If I had more space and energy, I’d go through some or all of those, too, and relate it back to here, to the idea that technical mourning might apply today only to certain relatives (parent, spouse, sibling, child), but in that part of our life that focuses on this world, it is appropriate for all those affected/ influenced by someone to mourn him/her, perhaps even for a full seven days.

This week’s Meshech Hochmahs seem to coalesce around family, how children can be total continuations of their parents’ lives, the concern we should have for parents even when we feel the need to hurt them, and who counts as close enough to us to obligate us to mourn their passing.

About Gidon Rothstein

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