Rabbi David Walk, Education Director

Congregation Agudath Sholom | 301 Strawberry Hill Ave | Stamford, CT 06902 (203)-358-2200 www.agudathsholom.org

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Walk Article



Rabbi David Walk


            The second Gerer Rebbe in his great commentary the Sfat Emet asks why the patriarchs are called Avot. I mean we could call them founders or initiators. He answers that the term implies that they were living for the future.  They were constantly birthing a new reality.  Their fatherhood was their true persona.  I'm not sure that we feel this with Ya'akov.  Ya'akov seems very much in the moment, whether trying to figure out how to survive the machinations of brother and father in law or how to navigate the dangerous shoals of the relationships with wives and children.  In his life, it was hard to put something away for a rainy day when it was always raining.  Avraham is forever being told that his dealings with God are for his children after him, and Yitzchak doesn't seem involved with this world at all, but Ya'akov is always dealing with immediate issues and problems. He's eternally in sink or swim mode.  So, how is Ya'akov a Patriarch at all, and even referred to as the best as well?

            In many ways Ya'akov is the most problematic of the Avot.  Since I find it so easy to identify with him, that implies that he doesn't portray that bigger than life aspect I see in his father and grandfather.  He seems to be struggling with the same mundane problems which plague us, just more so.  We all have to deal with sibling rivalry, but it doesn't usually reach mortal proportions.  In laws can also be an issue, but we don't usually have to flee their home in the middle of the night or feel cheated in all our negotiations with them.  For most of us they're just sort of a dull pain that we only notice when we poke it.  Also, it seems a bit ironic that someone whose epithet is father, endures so many parenting problems.  Without going into the issue of blame; rapes, attempted murders and kidnappings within the family are rather rare, but he suffered them all.  So, it's confusing that he is called the greatest of the Patriarchs.  It calls into question what the Sages are looking for in Patriarchs.  The normative approach to explain his greatness is that his bed was complete.  By that the Sages mean that all of his children were members of the club.  Avraham had Yishmael and Yitzchak had Esav, who forged paths outside our tradition, but all of Ya'akov's twelve sons become the founders of their own tribes within the nation.  That's one of the reasons that we're called the children of Israel or Ya'akov rather than of Avraham or Yitzchak.

            I believe though that there is a more fundamental or philosophic issue at work.  I think that to understand this issue we must understand the term used to describe the major feature of Ya'akov's character, and that term is Tiferet. (Many authorities count Ya'akov's main trait as emet, truth based on Micha 7:20.  However, in mystical circles he corresponds to the third stage of the sefirot or Tiferet.)   It's very hard to translate this word.  Yet we say every morning that God crowned Israel with this aspect (Otar Yisrael b'Tifara).  It's constructed from the word pe'er, which itself can mean glory or beauty.  Tiferet is probably an intensification of that word, and is usually rendered as splendor.  But what do we mean when we say that Ya'akov is Tiferet?  In what way was he splendid?  Usually we understand the Tiferet nature of Ya'akov as his synthesis of his father's and grandfather's traits.  I don't think that Yitzchak was even aware that his fulfillment of the covenant was different from his father's.  When our parsha begins by emphasizing 'these are the generations of Isaac the son of Abraham; Abraham begot Isaac (Genesis 25:19),' and later states 'Isaac again dug the wells of water which they had dug in the days of his father, Abraham (26:18),' it means that Yitchak was working hard to be his father.

            Ya'akov was fifteen when Avraham died and had ample opportunity to study his father and grandfather.  He clearly observed the differences of style and approach.  The greatness of Ya'akov was that he saw the greatness of each and endeavored to blend them into a new paradigm incorporating the strengths of each.  This integration produced a beautiful tapestry of differing hues woven together so masterfully that it produced a product so splendid that we call it Tiferet, the prototype of beauty.  That's the normal approach, and it has great merit.  However, I think that there's more to the picture.

            I think that the artistry of Ya'akov was even greater.  He understood from his scrutiny of his forebears that greatness can be achieved in a variety of ways, and that everyone has to contribute to the eternal enterprise based upon their unique skill set.  This explains why the blessings given by Yitzchak this week seemed generic.  He bestowed the blessings of wealth and power then he consecrated Ya'akov with the spiritual blessing of Avraham.  However, at the end of his own life Ya'akov gives each of the twelve tribes very specific blessings calibrated to the special characteristics of each son. 

            Now we can begin to appreciate the true Tiferet of Ya'akov's artistry.  He didn't just weave the gorgeous strands which he inherited into an amazing work of art; he spun new threads based upon the rainbow of possibilities he discerned among his offspring.  He became a prism which refracted all the world's light into its constituent parts.  That's why the nation is called B'nei Yisroel, his children.  He empowered us to make our unique contribution to the destiny of our people.  He is our parent continuing to encourage us to be Jewish and be true to ourselves.

            I want my children and grandchildren to be loyal members of the Jewish people and still feel confident enough in themselves to express their own inner selves. Ya'akov taught us how to do that, and that's a many splendid thing.                             


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