Friday, January 13, 2017
Wednesday, January 11, 2017
Rabbi David Walk
In 1839 the English playwright, Edward Bulwer-Lytton (don't feel bad, I never heard of him, either) put the famous words 'the pen is mightier than the sword' into the mouth of his villainous character, Cardinal Richelieu for his play Richelieu; Or the Conspiracy. By 1870, it was recognized that Bulwer had written a line which was destined to live forever. But the idea goes back to antiquity, the earliest known mention was in the 7th century BCE by the Assyrian scholar Ahiquar, and Shakespeare wrote in Hamlet, 'many wearing rapiers are afraid of goose quills.' I hate to nitpick (I really do, lice freak me out.), but doesn't this depend upon the respective wielders? A sharp sword in the hands of an illiterate is considerably more powerful than his words or a Bic. However, I quibble, the idea is a sound one, words, properly mustered, can project power more effectively than any weapon. So, it doesn't make sense, when, in this week's Torah reading, Ya'akov seems to brag to Yosef, that he can offer him a greater blessing than his brothers and something called 'shechem' because he conquered the Amorites, 'with my sword and my bow (Genesis 48:22).'
Although I like that introduction to this week's modest effort, there is an even more effective criticism against a literal interpretation of Ya'akov's statement. It says in the book of Psalms, 'For not by their sword did they possess the land, neither did their arm save them, but Your right hand and Your arm and the light of Your countenance, for You favored them… For I do not trust in my bow, neither will my sword save me (44:4 & 7).' Add to that the fact that we have no record of Ya'akov conquering anyone. Plus, it says that Ya'akov bought Shechem for 100 keshitas, and we have a real problem with understanding Ya'akov's account. There is also a formidable irony in this phrase, because the one who is supposed to live by his sword and bow is Esav not Ya'akov (27:3, 27:40). So, we must save Ya'akov from the literal meaning of his declaration, and the rabbis were obliging.
Rashi says, 'That is his cleverness and his prayer.' In other words, Ya'akov's true power was in his wits and his connection to God. Even though that's a fine approach, it's not without detractors. The authoritative translation of Onkelos (c. 100 CE) expresses the idea differently. That translation into Aramaic uses two words which we should find familiar from Kaddish: b'tzeloti ub'vaʻoti (which are the singular possessive form of the two terms tzelotehon uvaʻutehon in Kaddish). We usually translate those two Aramaic terms as 'prayers and pleas'. Rashi claims that Ya'akov had two great weapons of two very different kinds. Onkelos argues that what we call prayer contains two components, one called 'prayer' and one 'pleas' or requests. The greatest power of praying is derived from the act of communicating with God. It's the contact with the Infinite which makes us stronger, even if we don't get what we asked for. There are those who say that b'kashti really means with my bakasha or request. I would say to them that we can add another powerful pun and say that b'charbi really means bachar bi, my accomplishments are a result of God having chosen me. Any way you slice it, Ya'akov's great power derives from spirituality not weapons.
But what about the shechem in the verse? This is translated as portion, ridge, or mountain slope, because the word shechem really means 'shoulder'. So, there are commentaries who claim that Ya'akov is promising more support for Yosef and his sons than the other tribes will receive. In fact the name of the city of Shechem may derive from the fact that this town has 'shoulders', namely the famous mountains, Har Eival and Har Grizim. All of this has validity because Ya'akov did give Yosef more than the other brothers and Shechem ultimately becomes the final resting place for Yosef and the capital of his descendants' territory (Joshua 24:32).
So, what's going on in our verse? What is Ya'akov telling Yosef? According to Rashi, Ya'akov is telling Yosef that since he is going to take care of burying Ya'akov in Chevron, he is giving Yosef the town of Shechem for his final resting place. Okay, but I think that there's more to it. Shechem has a special place in Jewish history. It's the scene of some of the low points of Jewish history, like the slaughter of the entire male population by Shimon and Levi or as the site of the future capital of the rebel state under Yerovam ben Navot, leader of the tribe of Yosef's son Efraim. However, it's also the scene of the great covenant with God administered by Yehoshua, another descendant of Yosef (Joshua 24:1-24). Like Yosef's family, Shechem has a central role in Jewish history, but sometimes with negative results.
I think this brings us back to the weapons metaphor. Ya'akov refers to two different kinds of weapons, sword and bow. The sword is very effective, but only at very close range, while the bow and arrow can do a lot of damage at long range, but only if aimed very carefully. We must feel the same way about our weapons and skills. They can be effective in both the short and long term, if wielded very skillfully. Ya'akov is informing Yosef of his great gifts and future contributions to the Jewish nation, and he's teaching him about both short term and long term goals.
The book of Genesis ends with Ya'akov wielding his greatest power and, therefore, weapon, his blessings. These blessings contain both encouragement and warnings, and they describe the immediate situation and the 'end of days (Genesis 49:1).' We must fulfill the exact same role with our children, students and even friends. We must calibrate our strengths to positively influence all of those around us with an eye towards creating a better future. But we must all figure out what our most effective weapons are, and wield them wisely.
Sunday, January 8, 2017
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