The Courage of Three of the Tribes

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Parshat Ve-Zot Ha-Beracha

The Needs of a Judge

Moshe Rabbenu addresses the tribes in our parsha, sometimes with a beracha, sometimes with more of a  description. For Dan, 33;22, it seems the latter, calling Dan a gur aryeh, a lion cub, that leaps out of the Bashan. Kli Yakar reads the verse in the context of Ya’akov’s blessing, in Bereshit 29;16, Dan would judge the people.

A judge, we know from Shemot 18;21, must be an ish chayil, a man of courage, fearless in the face of litigants, regardless of how powerful they may be. Bashan was an area filled with wild animals that prey on others, and Moshe referenced it here to remind us the judges of Dan must wrest ill-gotten gains from people who prey (financially) on others. It takes the heart of a lion, what Moshe was wishing them.

Aside from having turned a description into a prescription/blessing, Kli Yakar once again gives me the impression he is reading the Torah with events of his time in mind. Virtuoso that he is, I am less claiming his reading is wrong or weak, only unnecessary. It could be that Moshe wanted his blessings of the tribes to continue Ya’akov Avinu’s, but no verse I know of says so.

If I am right, it means we finish our learning from this master darshan, with one more example of issues of his time he found worthy of addressing with his audience, the courage a judge needs, the grief he could expect to have to bear from those who misused the financial system.

The Protection of Torah

In a comment with overtones for our unsettled times [reminder: I don’t quote only comments I find convincing, just interesting], Chatam Sofer wonders about Moshe Rabbenu’s linking Zevulun to Yissachar, 33;18, Zevulun being told to rejoice in his “going out,” Yissachar in his tents. Putting them in the same verse certainly suggests they are meant to be read in relation to each other, and Chatam Sofer does.

He turns our attention to I Shemuel 13, where Shemuel and Shaul offer a sacrifice before going to war. To help a war effort, sacrifice is “only” a mitzvah, something Sotah 21a said protects while being performed. Zevulun would be better protected when he went to war, however, because he and Yissachar operated in partnership, Zevulun financing Yissachar’s Torah study, the two tribes sharing both equally.

[At least according to R. Moshe Feinstein, who said Zevulun/Yissachar deals are only valid if the Yissachar side shares equally in Zevulun’s business, then Zevulun will share equally in his Torah. Otherwise, it’s laudable support of Torah study, but will not count as the business side himself studying.]

Because of the partnership, Zevulun can rejoice when he goes to war, knowing he has the protection provided by the merits of Torah study, as well as the prayers of the members of Yissachar.

[There’s a lot to say here; let me start by pointing out how far Chatam Sofer moved from Rashi, without noting or addressing it. Rashi in Sotah thinks Torah protects from yissurim, suffering, and the blandishments of our evil inclinations. Perhaps Chatam Sofer would say loss at war, to any extent, is included in yisurim.

More surprisingly, Rashi says the “goings out” of our verse are Zevulun’s business travels, which fits, since that was the topic of his arrangement with Yissachar. If he succeeds in business, Yissachar will be able to stay in his tents and study. Chatam Sofer’s reach to war seems unnecessary, then.

I don’t know of any reason to think he was addressing an issue of his time, some going to war and some studying Torah, but we all know it is a big topic in ours. I will only say this Chatam Sofer does not support a right to insist on an exemption from military service based on one’s Torah study, because Zevulun and Yissachar entered their agreement voluntarilyVe-ha-mevin yavin.]

Levi’s Familial Relations

When Moshe praises the tribe of Levi, 33;9, he says they told their parents they had not seen them, did not recognize their brothers, did not know their sons. Yoma 66 read the verse to be about their actions when Moshe came off the mountain to see the sin of the Golden Calf, their joining him in punishing the most egregious evildoers, without regard to familial connection.

Except that in Shemot 32;29Moshe praised their willingness to kill children and brothers as necessary, without mention of parents. Ha’amek Davar offers two ways to read our verse in light of that one: Sanhedrin 85 says a child may not be the agent of a court to administer punishment to a parent, an idea which should apply here as well. He suggests the Levi’im were being praised for not intervening when someone else killed their parent, not intervening. In this view, the Levi’im both killed close relatives  and stood by when others killed those sinful ones they themselves could not.

However, Ha’amek Davar thinks the simple reading of the phrase refers to the sons of Korach, who watched their father (and mother) go to their deaths and did not join them, separated themselves from the family’s principled stand. A less active version, but still an example of Levi’im following what was right, not letting the ties of blood override their dedication to God.

Ha’amek Davar warns us away from thinking this evinced a lack of love, a colder sense of family. They had the same feelings for relatives other people do, he says, they just loved God’s righteousness more.

Three tribes and their key elements in our last rodeo with these commentators: Dan the fearless judge, operating among those who prey on others, and fighting back; Zevulun, headed out to war with the merits of Yissachar for protection; and Levi, earning their special role with their ability to overcome their significant love for family members to nonetheless punish when necessary, let others punish when prohibited to them, and/or to walk away from family if they go down a wrong road.

We can all hope to have the courage our commentators found in each of these tribes.

Next Torah reading cycle, God willing, commentators of the nineteenth century, focused on showing how the Oral tradition fits well with the simple reading of the verses, Ha-Ketav ve-ha-Kabbalah, R. Samson Raphael Hirsch, Malbim, and (where he comments) R. David Tzvi Hoffman.

About Gidon Rothstein

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