Tuesday, November 30, 2010

On the Trail of Blessings: A Light Unto the Nations?

[This is post number 4 1/2 of this series. Begin the Trail here.]

Hashem describes Avraham's relationship with the rest of the world in two different ways. Initially, in the Berachos at the beginning of Parshas Lech Lecha, Hashem says, ונברכו בך כל משפחות האדמה, "through you all the families of the earth will be blessed" (12:3). But later Hashem says this, "ונברכו בו כל גויי הארץ, "Through him all the nations of the world will be blessed" (18:18). And again, after the Akeida, Hashem says, והתברכו בזרעך כל גויי הארץ, "through your descendants all the nations of the world will be blessed" (22:18).

Obviously, "nations of the world" is not the same thing as "families of the earth." Why the difference? In light of what we have learned, this too can be explained. 

The original Beracha found at the beginning of Lech Lecha speaks to the Abrahamic destiny as it relates to the physical realm. This is the piece that Yitzchok broke off for Eisav and, as we have seen, it is not limited to the Land of Israel. (Indeed, Israel does not appear in this blessing.) In the end, this national blessing/mission of influencing the world for the good is fulfilled by the Jew in the Diaspora through personal contact with individual gentiles. Thus, it is משפחות האדמה as opposed to גויי הארץ that are impacted.

Later, however, Hashem is defining ברכת אברהם as it manifests itself in Yitzchok (cf. 18:18-19). The reason for the change becomes clear after after the Akieda. If Yitzchok is an עולה תמימה and can never leave Israel, how will he impact the world? How will the Beracha of ונברכו בך כל משפחות האדמה be fulfilled? This is the question that Hashem is addressing immediately after the Akeida, and this is the answer: וירש זרעך את שער איביו והתברכו בזרעך כל גויי הארץ, "Your descendants will inherit the gates of their enemies," i.e., they will  conquer Israel and build a Jewish State, and then, "through your descendants all the nations of the world will be blessed." Nations, not families. Even if the Jews never leave Israel and never come into contact with a gentile, they can still fix the world, for by creating a utopian Jewish State the Jews create a model for the nations of the world. This is what the prophet means when he describes us as an אור לגוים, "a light unto the nations" (Yeshaya 42:6). A light shines from a distance and from that distance it enlightens the nations. 

This also explains the other discrepancy between the blessings. To be a model to the nations of the world, a Jewish nation is needed. Thus in contrast with the blessing to the "families of the earth" which Avraham can effect by himself - ונברכו בך - the blessing to nations cannot occur through Yitzchok alone, but only through the nation of Israel, his descendants - והתברכו בזרעך.

Our theory is borne out by Yitzchok's prophecy in Parshas Toldos. Hashem tells him, ונתתי לזרעך את כל הארצות האל והתברכו בזרעך כל גויי הארץ, "I shall give to your descendants all of these lands," i.e., Israel, "and through your descendants all the nations of the world will be blessed." Here we have the exact same words Hashem said to Avraham after the Akieda. Never does Hashem say to Yitzchok what He said to Avraham at the beginning of Lech Lecha: ונברכו בך כל משפחות האדמה, for Yitzchok can never leave Israel to impact the gentiles of the world on a familial level. His destiny is limited to being a light unto the nations. The Beracha for משפחות האדמה has been replaced by the Beracha for גויי הארץ.

What does Hashem say to Yaakov on this crucial issue? Hashem addresses it only once and at a critical juncture - when Yaakov is on his way out of Israel, after stealing his brother's Beracha and usurping his brother's mission abroad. Here is what Hashem says: והיה זרעך כעפר הארץ ופרצת ימה וקדמה וצפנה ונגבה ונברכו בך כל משפחות האדמה ובזרעך, "Your descendants will be like the dust of the earth and you shall spread out to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south," i.e., you and your descendants are destined to leave Israel and spread out all over the world and then,"through you and through your descendants all the families of the earth will be blessed" (28:14). The original Beracha that Hashem gave Avraham at the beginning of Lech Lecha has reappeared! For, as we have seen, it was precisely this Beracha - as an independent blessing and agenda  - that Yitzchok attempted to give to Eisav and ended up in Yaakov's hands.

All the families of the earth will be blessed through Yaakov, for the destiny of Yaakov, and the destiny of his descendants who follow in his path, is in the Diaspora. There they will meet the gentile, introducing him to family values and inspiring him with the beauty of a life grounded in monotheism. Not a broad and vague "light unto the nations" from a distance, but an intimate blessing of personal contact with the families of the earth.

Eisav was an unbridled pagan who failed to live up to his destiny, forcing Yaakov to "steal" his Beracha and go abroad to do Eisav's job. But Yaakov's loss is the gentile's gain. And, more often than not, that gentile is none other than Eisav himself.

[Continue the Trail here.]

Monday, November 29, 2010

On the Trail of Blessings: Yaakov Abroad

[This is part 5 1/2 of the series. Begin the Trail here.]

To sum up what we have learned thus far: Eisav's life-mission, as Yitzchok understood it, was to be מקדש שם שמים outside the the Land of Israel by subjugating all natural forces before the One God. These forces are manifest in God's intermediaries, the angels. Eisav failed miserably, worshiping the very forces that he was supposed to dominate, and Yaakov is forced to commandeer his brother's mission. It follows that Yaakov must now confront angels, and that, indeed, is exactly what happens.

The development of Yaakov's relationship with angels makes for a fascinating study. Soon after Yaakov heads out for Charan, ויפגע במקום - Yaakov encounters the gate to heaven, a place of angels. Here Yaakov sees angels for the first time. The angels are ascending and descending a ladder connecting heaven to earth, attending to their business - and ignoring him (28:11-12). Still in Israel, Yaakov deals only with Hashem Himself. But that is soon to change.

Now a successful rancher, Yaakov is engaged in ongoing financial conflicts with his father-in-law Lavan. One night in a dream, Yaakov has a vision of angels taking sheep from Lavan and carrying them over to Yaakov's corral! (31:10; Rashi ad loc.) The angels are working for him! A clear sign that Yaakov is succeeding in getting the natural world under his control. Indeed, earlier in the story we find Yaakov  manipulating the laws of nature through the use of practical Kabbalah, genetically engineering the offspring of his flock (30:37-39; Rashi to 38). Avraham and Yitzchok never engaged in this kind of mystical practice, nor did Yaakov once he returned to Israel. But becoming an איש שדה, gaining mastery over nature, is central to Yaakov's mission abroad.

His third meeting with angels at the end of the Parsha is described this way: ויפגעו בו מלאכי אלהים - "God's angels encountered him" (32:2). In contrast to the beginning of the Parsha where ויפגע במקום, he encountered them, now, on his return to Israel, ויפגעו בו, they encounter him! Yaakov has gained supremacy over nature and the angels, and now he is the point of reference. His prowess knows no limits. וישלח יעקב מלאכים, "Yaakov sent angels..." (32:4). Incredibly, angels are subservient to Yaakov and do his bidding. More, ויאבק איש עמו, he wrestles an angel - and wins! (32:25-26). But the climax is yet to come.

When Eisav and Yaakov finally meet, Eisav asks, מי לך כל המחנה הזה אשר פגשתי, "What is your relationship with this whole encampment that I encountered?" (33:8). Rashi quotes the Midrash:
[Eisav] met up with groups of angels that pushed him and his men. [The angels] asked them, "Who are you with?" "We are Eisav's men," they responded. "Attack!" yelled the angels. The men said, "Leave us alone. He is the son of Yitzchok!" They paid no attention. "He is the grandson of Avraham!" They payed no attention. "He is the brother of Yaakov!" "If so," said the angels, "then you are one of us." 
Yaakov reached a level of dominance over nature that Avraham and Yitzchok never achieved, for this is a mission Yaakov inherited from Eisav, a mission for the Diaspora. When the Jew lives in a world ruled by nature and is forced to be an איש שדה, then his physical and spiritual survival depend on remaining on top of his game - physically and spiritually. He cannot become subservient or worshipful of the forces - natural or market - that define his world; on the contrary, his mission is to be מקדש שם שמים by demonstrating that he will not bow nor surrender before anything other than the One God. This is the definition of success: איזהו עשיר השמח בחלקו. It is a mindset: nature is God's agent and it serves the Tzaddik, not the other way around. The Beracha that Yaakov stole and the mission that came with it are thus one and the same. And, unlike his brother Eisav, Yaakov aces it.

איתא בכתובות דף סו ע"ב, "בכה רבן יוחנן בן זכאי ואמר אשריכם ישראל, בזמן שעושין רצונו של מקום אין כל אומה ולשון שולטת בהם..." וכתב המהרש"א באמ"ד, "כי כל אומה יש לה שר ומזל בשמים משא"כ ישראל שאין להם שום מזל אבל הם חלק ה' עמו כי יעקב חבל נחלתו (יעקב דייקא - י.ג.) וע"כ כשעושין רצונו הם למעלה מכל האומות ושריהם, כמ"ש "הבט נא השמימה" שדרשו שהוציא את אברהם החוצה למעלה מכל צבא השמים דאין הבטה אלא ממעלה למטה..." ע"כ. ויש להוסיף שהקב"ה אמר שם לאברהם "כא יהיה זרעך" ונראה דכוונתו ית' ליעקב, דביעקב אנו רואים קיום הבטחה זו שהוא למעלה מכל צבא השמים, כנ"ל. ואולי י"ל דהיינו מש"כ בחלום הסולם, "והנה ה' נצב עליו", ה' דוקא, אמנם הסולם ומלאכי אלוהים אינם עליו, שהוציאו למעלה מכל צבא השמים  

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Thanksgiving and the Heresy of Entitlement III

[You can read this post on its own, or for the full effect begin the series here.]

Yaakov is praying for his life. "Please save me from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Eisav!" But first he says this: קטנתי מכל החסדים - "I have been diminished by all of the kindnesses... for I crossed this Jordon River with my staff and now I have become two camps!" (32:11). Why is Yaakov saying this here? What does Yaakov's success have to do with Eisav's immanent attack?

Rashi explains as follows: Yaakov was afraid that God's many blessings, blessings which transformed him from a destitute refugee into a successful rancher with a large family, had used up - "diminished" -  his chips, and he now lacked sufficient merit to protect him from Eisav.

There is an obvious problem with this reading. If Hashem's blessings were indeed reward for Yaakov's mitzvos, then why does Yaakov call them kindnesses?! A kindness, by definition, is unearned and would  use up no chips at all.

There can be only one answer to this question. In his humility, Yaakov never assumed Hashem had given him free gifts; all that he received must have come as reward for his mitzvos. (Itself a most humble thought, for tzaddikim receive no reward for their mitzvos in this world. Cf. Kiddushin 39b; Rashi ad loc.) Nonetheless, Yaakov viewed reward itself to be a divine kindness! 

God owes us nothing at all. Ever. Even when He is rewarding us for our good deeds, it's still just a חסד.

ונראה להוסיף דאמירת "קטנתי מכל החסדים" קודם לתפילת "הצלני נא..." היתה בזה קיום של סמיכת גאולה לתפילה. יעיין תר"י ברכות דף ב ע"ב בדפי הרי"ף. ודו"ק  

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

What Was Yitzchok Thinking?!

Last year I put up three posts on Yitzchok's decision to divide up the blessings between Yaakov and Eisav. The first explains it in light of the twin's different personalities, the second in light of the dangers of wealth and the third in light of the fundamental difference between the land of Israel and the rest of the planet. I've polished them up a bit; read them by clicking here.

Did Yaakov even want those blessings his mother commanded him to steal? I think not. See this post.