Varieties of Devotion

Vayeshev By :  Ismar Schorsch Rabbi Herman Abramovitz Distinguished Service Professor of Jewish History and Chancellor Emeritus Posted On Dec 4, 2004 / 5765 | Torah Commentary

This past week, my two-and-a-half year old granddaughter spotted me one morning davening by the window in our living room. She recognized the telltale signs of the act, my tallit and tefillin. Spontaneously, she announced her intention to daven also, took herself over to the drawer where we keep some old JTS benchers (small grace books), removed one, and proceeded to strut about with the bencher in her face. Later, I found the bencher on the floor in another room, but for a few tender moments at least, I had a precious soul mate in greeting God that morning.

The scene reminded me vividly of the old truth that imitation is the mother of all learning. Education begins at home. We adults must model the virtues, skills and knowledge that we want to impart to our children. That is why Judaism’s most sacred prayer, the Shema Yisrael, urges us not to miss any opportunities to teach Torah to our children, whether by word or deed, formally or informally. But, first we must take it to heart ourselves. What we have failed to value and internalize can hardly be transmitted by us to the next generation.

It is the opening verse of this week’s parashah that inspires my trend of thought. “Now Jacob was settled in the land where his father had sojourned, the land of Canaan (37:1).” The Hebrew noun megurei comes from the verbal root gur, meaning to dwell as a newcomer rather than a native. After a long absence, Jacob had returned to Hebron in time to bury his father along with his brother. Unlike Esau, though, who chose to leave Hebron for lands to the east of Canaan, Jacob chose to remain in Hebron, where both his grandfather and father had taken up residence. The choice bespeaks a measure of kinship between father and son. The bare fact of staying in Hebron implies a spiritual affinity and identity of purpose. The decision resonates with loyalty. Had Jacob been estranged from his parents, he would have felt no special attachment to the place. But his birthplace had become his homeland. He felt committed to the faith that Isaac and Jacob embodied. He knew himself to be a link in a holy chain.

The midrash expands on the continuity. In rabbinic Hebrew, the root gur morphs into gayer, to convert. The Rabbis perceived the patriarchs as apostles, the missionizing founders of monotheism. Thus on the basis of Genesis 12:5 “And the persons that they acquired in Haran,” they depicted Abraham as converting pagan men and Sarah pagan women to Judaism. Similarly, on the basis of Genesis 35:2, “So Jacob said to his household and to all who were with him, ‘Rid yourself of the alien gods in you midst,'” the Rabbis understood Jacob to be a working apostle. But, where is the verse that would allow the Rabbis to claim that Isaac also was an active missionary? Here, their ingenuity with Hebrew settled on the opening verse of our parashah, where they read megurei as meguyyerei, those who had already been converted. A slight change of the vowels, which don’t appear in our Torah scrolls in the first place, opens up the possibility of imagining that what drew Jacob back to Hebron, was a faith community of converts established by his father. Not only did Jacob keep the faith, like his ancestors, he promoted it vigorously (Bereishit Rabba 84:4).

But what was the nature of the faith that Jacob had absorbed from his father? The Zohar, the thirteenth-century Spanish classic of Jewish mysticism, saw still another root in the word megurei, which allowed it to turn inward. In biblical Hebrew, the root gur can also mean to be afraid as in Numbers 22:3 “And Moab was alarmed because that people [Israel] was so numerous.” Thus, the noun magor carries the meaning of fear as in Jeremiah 20:3 “Terror all around.” This etymology would then have us understand our opening verse as referring to “the fears of his father.” The intent of the Zohar is to stress that like Isaac, Jacob worshiped God out of fear. Why else would the Torah twice make reference to Isaac’s God as the one to be feared, Genesis 31:42, 53? To be sure, the Hebrew term in each instance is pahad(fear), but the meaning is identical with magor. God is to be approached in fear and trembling. Hence, Jacob’s theology did not advance over that of his father. The ominous overshadowed the numinous; God repelled rather than attracted (Zohar, I, 180a).

In his comment on our parashah, Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev, a much beloved third-generation Hasidic master who died in 1809, classified worship out of fear as imperfect. The highest form of worship springs from a love that expresses itself not like marital love behind closed doors, but like the love of siblings for one another that exults in public. This is the radical reading that Rabbi Levi imputes to the sensuous verse in The Song of Songs 8:1:

If only it could be as with a brother, 
Who had nursed at my mother’s breast:
Then I could kiss you When I meet you on the street
And no one would despise me.

Building on the long-held rabbinic view that The Song of Songs is a dialogue between Israel and God, Rabbi Levi hears in this verse an echo of Israel’s desire to exhibit its love of God publicly. The externality of expression corresponds to feeling God’s presence in the most prosaic of commandments and in the most physical aspects of human life. Nothing is bereft of holiness, but only religious joy can reach it and release it.

Nor is what befalls us, even the most frightening of fates, without divine intention. The joy that flows from love detects the hand of God in everything, turning adversity into opportunity. A spark of light is embedded in every black hole that hurtles our way. This is what Moses implied when he spoke of God in the wilderness as “bringing forth water for you from the flinty rock” (Deuteronomy 8:15). In the final analysis, faith has the capacity to extract good from evil. Despair is a function of disposition.

And this is how Rabbi Levi understood Jacob’s faith. Despite the dangers of his surroundings, he dwelled in tranquility. His love of God actually surpassed that of his father. He was ready to overcome every setback with unshakeable trust in God (Sefer Kedushat Levi, va-yeshev).

The publication and distribution of Dr. Schorsch’s commentary on Parashat Vayeshev are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.