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Parashat Vayechi 5774 — 12/11/2013

Parashat Vayechi 5774 — 12/11/2013

Zevulun will settle on the seashore. (Bereishis 49:13)

Yissachar is a strong-boned donkey. (Bereishis 49:14)

The Creator – the Source of all goodness and kindness – knew from the start that it is impossible for an entire nation to be occupied only with Torah study. Rather, attention must be paid to making a living as well. Accordingly, in these prophetic words, Yaakov Avinu hinted that when the time would come to divide up the Holy Land between the twelve tribes, the tribe of Yissachar and the tribe of Zevulun would be assigned complementary missions.

Full-time Torah learning was the desire of the tribe of Issachar, as it is written, He bent his shoulder to bear the burden. This means, as Rashi explains, to bear the yoke of Torah. Two hundred heads of the Sanhedrin emerged from this tribe, and instruction for the entire Jewish nation. The tribe of Zevulun, dwelling by the sea, engaged in trade and commerce, making it impossible for them to focus entirely on Torah. instead, they supported their brethren the tribe of Yissachar – supplying all of their material needs.  (Chafetz Chaim)

The Yissachar-Zevulun partnership is often discussed, especially in the context of yeshivot asking for contributions.  It has, in the last few years, become a hot-button political issue is Israel, as a growing number of chareidi (ultra-Orthodox) men seek deferments from military service as well as stipends while they spend many years in full-time Torah study.  Their claim is that their study and prayer are in fact their contribution to Israeli society, keeping it safe from outside attack by ensuring that part of the society at least is comporting itself in accordance with Gd’s Will, and that it is only right that Israeli society support them.  The Chafetz Chaim seems to take a more balanced view.

If we actually read the Torah text, it is clear that the great bulk of the laws in it have to do with regulating our behavior in society and in relation to agricultural and commercial activities.  Even the many halachot that govern the sacrificial service in the Tabernacle/Temple have to do with the specific activities taken by the Kohanim, Levi’im and those making offerings.  There appears to be very little that is overtly “spiritual”!  The rewards that are specified for correct behavior (see the 2nd paragraph of the Sh’ma for examples) and the punishments for the reverse are all given in material terms.  Some commentators have noted that, since it’s obvious that conforming to Gd’s commands will bring spiritual benefit, Torah didn’t bother to specify what those benefits are; perhaps we can add that those benefits are in the World to Come, which is a level of life that is beyond our imagining in any event, so Torah just gave us examples we could comprehend.

I think what we see in these considerations is a reflection of the existential situation of humankind.  The fact is, human beings are part animal and part Divine.  The Divine part, our soul, resides in the animal part, our body.  The body is the soul’s means of interacting with the material world, and the reason for this interaction is so the soul can infuse the material world with some of its Divinity.  But in order for this to happen, it is necessary that the body be kept healthy – in fact, the better the body functions, the more the Divinity of the soul can be reflected in it.  On the other end, when the body ceases to function, the soul is forced to depart altogether, denying the material world the opportunity to benefit from it.

The body, being material, requires material support.  We have to eat, drink, sleep, protect ourselves from the elements, procreate.  The trick is to make sure all this material support doesn’t end at the body, but is ultimately directed towards supporting the soul in its work in the material world.  This is the essence of the Zevulun-Yissachar partnership.  Yissachar represents the soul – it was the tribe of Yissachar that eschewed involvement in mundane affairs and devoted itself wholly to Torah scholarship and the spiritual leadership of the community.  In order to support them, the tribe of Zevulun engaged in commerce and made lots of money, enough to donate to Yissachar’s scholars and their institutions.  Our Sages tell us that in return, Zevulun shares in Yissachar’s infinite reward in the World to Come.  Just as the individual soul’s purification through Torah study and mitzvah performance purifies the body, so Yissachar’s communal purification also purifies its source of material support, Zevulun.

As an aside, this partnership is mandated for the Jewish commonwealth at large.  The spiritual leaders of the whole Jewish people are, ideally, the Kohanim and the Levi’im, of the tribe of Levi.  Gd explicitly denies them a portion in the Land of Israel so that, rather than focusing on agricultural labor and development, they would be free to focus on Torah and the Divine service in the Temple.  In return, they were to be supported by the tithes of the entire nation, as well as various other dues (in the case of the kohanim).  The Kohanim and Levi’im received material support and the entire Jewish people was sustained spiritually.  It is not clear to me why the Midrash focuses on the Zevulun-Yissachar partnership, which is barely hinted at in our Parashah (and in Moses’ blessings to the tribes at the very end of Torah), and gives less attention to the Yisrael-Levi’im partnership which is spelled out in great detail in several places in Torah.  Perhaps the reason is just because one is spelled out in Torah, the Midrash doesn’t need to elaborate on it, and therefore discusses the other, which does need elaboration.

Fast-forward to today’s world.  The Orthodox Jewish population of Israel comes in two basic flavors.  The “National-Religious” branch builds settlements (both inside the Green Line and in the disputed territories), supplies some of the best and most committed troops to the IDF, and is engaged with the material world.  The Chareidi branch generally takes the approach that the material world is impure and full of temptations that lead one astray and estrange one from Gd, and therefore it must be shunned.  Their communities are generally insular, most do not serve at all in the IDF (although that is beginning to change), and a very great number of men – in the tens of thousands – study full-time in yeshivot or kollelim and do not participate in the economic development of the Land to any great extent, at least not in any obvious way.

The issue has come to a head as the cost of maintaining growing numbers of Chareidim, at the expense of the Israeli taxpayers, has become burdensome.  When David ben-Gurion and the Chazon Ish created the system of deferments for full-time Torah study, there were about 400 scholars in a population of about 600,000 Jews.  Today the Jewish population of Israel is about 10x larger, while the number of deferments has grown by a factor of about 150.  Even given the much greater per capita income and the higher level of prosperity in today’s Israel, the situation has grown very burdensome.  The debate has not been helped by numerous incidents where elements in the Chareidi community have used strong-arm tactics to try to enforce their view of a proper lifestyle on the entire community, while themselves flouting civil law (if you read the Jerusalem Post online regularly – — you will find these stories popping up all too frequently).  The rhetoric has gotten strident even for Israeli politics, and more so since the most recent elections, where the Chareidi parties are part of the Opposition, and real cuts in subsidies to their institutions are being made or threatened.

What is the solution?  In Tevye’s words, “I’ll tell you.  I don’t know.”  The body cannot function without the soul, and the soul cannot do its job without the body.  I believe that if we truly had 60,000 b’nei Torah, people who are living Torah rather than simply sitting a studying it on an intellectual level, whose minds were fully expanded to comprehend our infinite, underlying nature, then Israel would be fabulously wealthy and invincible from outside attack.  The fact that such is not the case indicates to me that in fact there is something off in our understanding of what Torah study (full-time or otherwise) really means.  Until that understanding is restored in both theory and practice, it appears to me that the Chareidi community can lay no claim to the mantle of Yissachar and demand support from the rest of the community.  And that is all to our detriment, for we all desparately need more spirituality in our lives – that is, more connection with the infinite.  Living the infinite within the finite, material world, and transforming the material world to better reflect its infinite basis, is our mission as Jews.  For our own sake and for the sake of the world, we need to start fulfilling our mission!

Shemoneh Esrei

Sound the Great Shofar for our freedom

Raise a banner/miracle to gather our exiles

Gather us together from the four corners of the earth.

Blessed are You Hashem, Who gathers the dispersed/rejected of His people Israel

Yaaros D’vash comments that the Redemption will not come until all souls have been restored to their proper place in Heaven.  Thus we pray for the ingathering of the Exiles on earth (I often focus my own thoughts on my desire to move to Israel), but at the same time we pray that our soul be gathered in to the World to Come, and not be forced to undergo many cycles of rebirth.  We will only be reborn if we don’t finish our mission in the life we are living now; we will be faced again with the challenges we failed to overcome and the tests we didn’t pass.  In that sense we might be said to be “rejected” from the World to Come, at least until we pass the entrance exam.

I think another way we can take this is as follows: We all experience times when our mind is settled and our thoughts and actions are focused.  There are other times when we are scattered, and find it difficult to get anything accomplished.  We pray that we may be “gathered” within ourselves, so that our thoughts don’t run every which way.  Ultimately, we would like our minds to be “gathered” to their infinite source so that they will be perfectly in tune with Gd’s Mind, never more to suffer exile from the bliss of Gd’s Eternal presence.