Thursday, December 31, 2009

Vayechi—Making The Call II

In continuing and expanding on last week’s theme of leadership, as last week’s parsha illustrated how two paradigmatic Jewish leaders dealt with emergency situations, this week the brachos that Yaakov gives actually start with Yaakov castigating his three oldest sons for what he saw as consequences of leadership failures.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes an extensive treatment on this theme regarding Reuven and his lost “potential”, not only as his father saw it, but more poignantly, from another incident, in Vayeshev, where Reuven saves Yosef from the rest of the brothers. At least, initially; 37:21-22 indicates that while he did throw him in the pit to forestall what seemed like imminent bloodshed [and got the requisite spiritual credit], posuk 22 also indicates where Reuven failed to “seal the deal”: he planned to “return him [Yosef] to his father], but as we see later in 29-30, while he’s otherwise occupied, Yehuda and the other brothers sell Yosef off, and Reuven’s first reaction is “va-ani ana ani va” [loosely translated: “now where do I go?”], which leads him to help in the ensuing cover-up. How much Yaakov knew about Reuven’s involvement is arguable; Rabbi Shlomo Riskin discussed Yaakov’s possible musings about his—and his sons’-- responsibility for Yosef’s disappearance, so it might follow that Yaakov referred only to Reuven’s initial misstep of removing his father’s couch from Bilhah’s tent as his evidence of Reuven’s lost potential, and a harbinger of his later failures. [As I mentioned last week, Reuven tries—in a very awkward manner—to guarantee Binyamin’s safety when the brothers are trying to convince Yaakov to send him to Egypt [see 42:37, 38]; Reuven’s idea—“my two sons will die”—causes Yaakov to think [pace Rashi on 38] “My firstborn is a fool [“shoteh”]. At this point there is no question in Yaakov’s mind that Reuven has no leadership ability, and it’s no accident—as we shall soon see--that it is Yehuda who steps into the vacuum with his guarantee, as we saw last week.]

So now we have an example of expected leadership lost: Reuven, the first-born, was not going to achieve the greatness for which he had been ostensibly destined for, even if only because of a perceived birthright. So, the mantle falls to Shimon and Levi.

Or does it? On the face of it, Yaakov is still sore at them for the massacre in Shechem; the posuk reads “be-apam hargu ish”—that they acted out of anger, and “birtzonam akru shor”—they took spoils willingly and with malice aforethought [contrast that with the later military operations in Esther: “uv-biza lo shalchu et yadam”—no profiting from bloodshed. Not for nothing did Yaakov complain in Vayishlach 34:30 that they had caused him a major PR problem: “achartem osi le’havisheni be-yoshvei ha-aretz”.] Yet Yaakov recognized that in their zeal to act—and, at least in the case of Shechem, there was ample justification—there was a contrast to Reuven’s tendencies to be both impetuous and hesitant. Therefore, as Rashi on 49:7 indicates, Yaakov’s apparent meted consequence of splitting them up and spreading them out [“achalkem”/”va-aphitzem”] was actually a device to channel their zeal into more productive leadership positions: Shimon became soldiers and teachers, while Levi became…Levites. The catch was: they never could be “top dogs”—Shimon was “condemned” to pedagogy and military, and Levi had to stay firmly on the religion side of religion and state, with terrible consequences when the Hasmoneans crossed that line.

From there we come to Yehuda. As we saw last week, he claimed his mantle by steeping into the breach at the eleventh hour with his guarantee to Yaakov for Binyomin’s, and then his following through on that guarantee at great personal cost. Ironically, Yehuda’s first “call” as a leader is rather dubious: he suggests that the brothers sell Yosef into slavery and profit, rather than kill him [37:26-27]. Yet even in this there is an element that hints at his effectiveness: the brothers listen to him and carry out his proposal, in contrast to Reuven’s “holding” action of throwing Yosef in the pit. As has been discussed at length in Rashi and midrashim, however, what ultimately gets Yehuda to his position is his experiences following the sale, particularly losing his two oldest sons and the Tamar incident, where he publicly confesses that he was in the wrong. Yehuda, unlike Reuven, has learned from his mistakes—and uses his undeniable leadership talent to correct those mistakes, as is finally revealed when he steps up for Binyamin. Additionally, as will be echoed when similar things happen to his Davidic descendants [David included], Yehuda also experienced the loss of his position, not to mention being force to take responsibility for the actions of his constituents, as evidenced by 38:1, “Va-yered Yehuda me-es echav”: as Rashi points out, the brothers blamed him for Yaakov’s pain: “if you would have told us to return Yosef to Yaakov we would have listened to you.”

The ultimate lesson here is not only regarding decisions made by leaders, however. It may be extended to anyone forced to make a “judgment call”, which may just be everyone, all the time. In a certain sense, the current global zeitgeist [a disingenuous one, to be sure, but still truistic, to a point] is, as the Crunch ads say, “No Judgments”. Ceratinly one should remember Hillel in Avos 2:4 not to judge anyone until you’ve been in the “same place”, or as Bartenura explains, until you’ve overcome the same obstacle that someone else apparently has not.

However, as Rabbi Mark Wildes once said in a pre-Rosh Hashana talk, a judgment means that the action being judged actually means something; in other words, if one is professing to never be judgmental, one is actually in a certain sense being ipso facto judgmental, by declaring nothing to be important. [Or, to paraphrase Rush [the band, not the EIB], if you choose not to judge, you still have made a judgment]. The question in this case might be: is the judgment call you [or me, or anyone] make in the spirit of “Reuven”, impetuous and not necessarily thought through; “Shimon/Levi”, proactive but sometimes destructive [Shechem may have been justifiable, but the initial idea to kill Yosef was theirs too]; or “Yehuda”, deliberate with the benefit of experience and mistakes? Finally, and ultimately, is one going to be ready to take responsibility for one’s own actions and judgments—even if and especially when they are influential regarding others’?

Friday, December 25, 2009

Vayigash—Making the Call I

Vayigash provides us with the portrayal of two future leaders of the Jewish people operating in two respective emergency situations, but from very different vantage points of power. One uses the seat of power; the other threatens it.

From the top, Yosef oversees the implementation of a rather draconian series of emergency measures to save the Egyptian [and, by extension, the world] economy [see my Vayigash: States of Emergency for a treatment of this].

Yehuda—at least according to the text—approaches Yosef with all the respect due a polity’s second-in command to negotiate for the release of Binyamin. Rashi immediately goes to work to dispel this notion: Yehuda, he says, “spoke to Yosef harshly”, denigrated him as one who “decreed and did not execute”, and threatened to kill both “you [Yosef] and your master”. Yehuda was coming very close to breaking all manner of protocol.

[Theoretically, one might think that Yehuda actually managed to get Yosef for a closed-door session [“yedaber na avdecha davar be-aznei adoni”]; this might be belied by the climactic moment when Yosef finally reveals himself, as the first thing he does is clear the room. Not that it helps: everybody knows by the end of the posuk. Maybe the Pharaonic court had Twitter.]

Either way, we see that the maturation processes of both Yehuda and Yosef—the progenitors of both of our eventual Meshichos—doevtailed almost perfectly at this point in the narrative: Yehuda has finally proven that he wasn’t being impetuous when he lays his olam haba on the line in last week’s parsha to convince Yaakov that the trip to Egypt with Binyamin was necessary, and here he demonstrates his ability to back it up. Yosef—who has already “earned his stripes”, as it were, with his ascent to power paralleling his dreams to that effect—finally recognizes that this point has been reached, preceisely because Yehuda has earned the right to “make the call”.

In next week’s parsha I will show more examples of where certain “calls” made by other shevatim could be overturned on the evidence, and where they couldn’t be but weren’t necessarily the right ones. Just an example from Miketz, however, will provide a hint of sorts: before Yehuda convinces Yaakov to send Binyamin to Egypt with the rest of the brothers, Reuven tries—in a very awkward manner [see 42:37, 38 and Rahi on 38, where he has Yaakov thinking that Reuven’s idea—“my two sons will die”—rendered him a shoteh. More on this to come.]

Friday, December 11, 2009

Vayieshev—Raising or Passing The Bar

Last week I made the point that spiritual “battles” are mostly fought in the dark and I derived from that the advisability of not necessarily “exposing” one’s spiritual roots.

It seems that in this week’s parsha Yaakov Avinu didn’t follow his own advice [and the halachic and midrashic literature is pretty critical of his pedagogical and parental approach] and, because he openly transmitted the Torah he’d learned at Shem and Ever almost exclusively to Yosef—and, both because Yosef had successfully absorbed his learning [and as a motivating tool vis-à-vis his other sons], Yaakov gave Yosef the Kesones Pasim. We all know what resulted.

R’ Shlomo Ressler writes, quoting R’ Yaakov Kaminetsky:

Yaakov loved Yosef more because he learned more, and WANTED the other brothers to be jealous (that's why he made him the shirt), so that they'd want to learn it too!...There's an important lesson in all of this, and that is that jealousy can be used in a good way, as Yaakov TRIED to do. But if we're not careful, we could miss the whole point, and end up doing things we shouldn't.

We’ve already documented the nefarious effects of this educational approach; one might say kol sheken in current settings, where it’s safe to say we’re not dealing with anyone of Biblical stature in our schools. [And, if those of Biblical stature such as the shevatim DID “miss the whole point, and end up doing things [they] shouldn't”, al achas kamah v’kamah….]

There’s another incident at the end of this parsha that also indicate faulty pedagogical approaches. We all know the Rashi on “vayishkachehu” [40:23] that states that Yosef’s counting on the sar hamashkim to put in a good word for his cost him another two years in jail.

It wasn’t until much later in life that I heard that MAYBE that would apply to Yosef because of his spiritual standing [and the obvious miracles that had occurred to him since his kidnapping]. Anyone else who DIDN’T ask for help would be mechazei k’yuhara, at best.

A few years ago I heard an even better explanation, from my mara d’asra, Rabbi Allen Schwartz, who related R’ Shimon Shkop’s explanation that Yosef was punished because he asked TWICE [in 40:14, he first says “zechartani”, and then “ve’hizkartani”]; it was well within his rights to ask the first time.

I’m sure it’s my fault that I wasn’t aware of the first explanation until my 20’s, and the second one until my 30’s. However—if I had heard either one in my formative years I probably would have remembered it. I think there’s a reluctance to proffer either explanation for fear of being viewed as “mi-ketanei amana”.

However, said reluctance is more likely to have the negative effect on pedagogical charges in a similar way to how Yaakov’s approach had on his own family. [And I hope no one tries Yaakov’s approach in the home or beis medrash.]

In a similar vein, there is the notion that it is more important to create gedolim even if it means losing a few of “stragglers” [which is actually stated policy in more than a few mussar seforim], which seems to be at odds with the gemara in Eruvin 54b about R’ Pereida and the lesson requiring a 400-fold repetition. In other words,

You can set the bar too high.


In 1992—my junior year in college—I delivered a dvar Torah at a shalosh seudos, the gist of which was such:

The midrashim are all over Yaakov for his diplomatic overtures to his brother at the beginning of the parsha, if not for simply engaging in any diplomacy but not least for deigning to refer to himself as “avdecha Yaakov” [lehavdil, sounds a bit like some of the invective directed at our current President for his public displays of temerity in Suadi Arabia and Japan]. Didn’t Yaakov—who knew kol haTorah kula—know that “Halacha beyadua she’Esav sonei es Yaakov?” What was he thinking?

The midrashim quote from Rashi who explains that Yaakov was covering ALL his bases—“milchama” [as evidenced by “vayitzer lo”—his fear that he might have to kill in self-defense], “tefilah” [“hatzlieni na”] and “doron”, or “presents” [maybe, more accurately, “bribery”—and as shown in 32:16-17, this “mincha” involved a quite a bit of livestock]. The midrashim—some of the same ones who take Yaakov to task for making the overtures in the first place—then quote the gemara in Taanis [20a] that states that one should always be as flexible as a reed rather than rigid as a cedar. Yaakov covered ALL his bases—he didn’t favor one option over the other.

That’s where I left it then [I was referring, obliquely, to the nascent “peace process” at the time and the possibility that some people in our college’s frum community weren’t necessarily holding to the furthest-right political view.]

But there’s another part to the story. The midrashim explain why one should emulate the reed, rather than the cedar: a reed’s roots keep it grounded even as the wind blows it this way and that, while a cedar—no matter how strong—can be toppled by one very strong wind.

I’ll take that a step further: a reed’s roots are sunken—and hidden. A cedar [as many other trees its size and and stature] more often than not will have some of its roots exposed.

It is therefore likely less than accidental that, in between Yaakov’s preparations for and finally meeting Esav, Yaakov is faced with what some consider his signature spiritual moment: his encounter with the “Man”—which occurred at night, in the dark, away from everyone--and someone had to tell him that the struggle was over at first light, and it was Samael, who, while being simultaneously “sar shel Esav”, “Yetzer Hara”, “Satan”, and “Malach HaMaves”—is yet a messenger of G-d.

The first and obvious conclusion is to realize that anyone’s real struggles—spiritual or otherwise—take place “until dawn”, hidden away from everyone and everything.

But, more poignantly, there’s a hint about how “exposing” your “roots” make your approach more vulnerable, or indicate that they may be more tenuous than you think they are. In Yaakov’s case, his flexibility and discretion were almost interchangeable. For most other people, PDA—public displays of almost anything—make everyone uncomfortable. For good reason.