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Parashat Vayishlach 5775 — 12/03/2014

Parashat Vayishlach 5775 — 12/03/2014

And I have an ox and a donkey (32:6)

Thus sent Ya’akov to Esav his brother when he was returning to the Land of Israel after 20 years with Lavan.  What does it mean, however, to say “an ox” and “a donkey”?  Surely this wasn’t going to impress Esav very much!  And in fact, the gifts that Ya’akov sent to Esav showed that he had many, many more than just one of each kind of animal.  Furthermore, he goes on to say “flock” – and he had big flocks, and servants (plural) etc.

Rav Kook explains:

According to the Midrash (Bereishit  Rabbah 75), Jacob was not speaking about the material possessions he had amassed… The ox refers to Mashiach ben Yosef, the precursive Messianic leader descended from Yosef.  The ox is the symbol of the tribe of Yosef…

   And the donkey?  That is a reference to Mashiach ben David, the ulitmate Messianic king descended from David, who will arrive as “a pauper riding on a donkey.” (Zech 9:9)

The two Mashiachs represent two different forces or tendencies in our national life:

Gd created us with both body and soul.  We have forces that maintain and strengthen the body, and forces that protect and develop the soul.  The ideal is to have a robust body together with a strong and healthy soul.  The soul, with its remarkable faculties, is meant to utilize the body to fulfill Gd’s Will in this world…

   These two tasks were divided between the two tribes, Yosef and Yehudah.  Yosef looked after the material needs of the Israelites in Egypt.

   Yehudah, on the other hand, was responsible for cultivating the special holiness of the Jewish people… Ultimately, both these aspects were to be combined in the Davidic monarchy.

Note also that, according to the Sages (Sukkah 52a), Mashiach ben Yosef will die in a final battle before Mashiach ben David comes.  (Incidentally, I’m guessing that the story of John the Baptist and Jesus is a takeoff on this same theme, much as the story of Jesus’ carrying his cross is a takeoff on the image of Yitzchak’s carrying the wood to the Akeidah.  Obviously these themes would be familiar to the Jews to whom the early evangelists were preaching.)  How are we to understand all of this?

Last week we discussed the rivalry between Rachel and Leah, and we commented that Rachel corresponds to the “this-worldly,” Ya’akov aspect of the nation, while Leah corresponds to the “other-worldly,” spiritual, Yisrael aspect of the nation.  We see this reflected in their children as well.  Yosef is the quintessential provider.  His dreams are of sheaves of wheat – agricultural commodities, produce of the farmer rather than the shepherd.  Indeed, those dreams are fulfilled: Yosef becomes the viceroy of Egypt, a country dependent on sedentary agriculture.  Leah’s progeny, on the other hand, includes the tribes of Levi, which provides the spiritual leadership of the nation (the Kohaniim and  the Levi’im), and Yehudah, which provides the political leadership (the Davidic dynasty, and, eventually, Mashiach ben David).

Note that in Rav Kook’s day (he was Chief Rabbi of mandatory Palestine from 1921 until his death in 1935), these two functions were split between the secular Zionist camp, which established the infrastructure of Jewish sovereignty in the Land, and the religious camp, both Zionist and non-Zionist, which established the system of yeshivot and rabbinical authority that has evolved into today’s religious establishment in the State.  Unfortunately, then as now, the two camps were often at each other’s throats, reflecting the division, and in all too many cases, the animosity between “Yosef” and “Yehudah” in all their manifestations, and even the rivalry between Rachel and Leah which we discussed last week.  Rav Kook worked tirelessly to bridge the divide, encouraging the secular to see the hand of Gd, the holiness, in all that they were doing, and encouraging the religious to acknowledge the vital role of the material infrastructure in supporting the community, so that it could develop the religious ideal.  Unfortunately, we still have to learn the lessons he taught us.

Our tradition tells us that Gd created the body-soul/material-spiritual dichotomy in order to provide a field in which the soul can earn merit and reward by making free-will choices to act in a positive manner.  In a different formulation, it is a field in which we meet one challenge after another, in order to provide us the opportunity to grow by actualizing our spiritual values in the manifest creation.  Therefore the body/material world is not considered evil or degraded; it is a tool to be used for spiritual purpose.  Just as the community cannot be sustained based only on spiritual activity without normal economic (and military) activity as well, so the individual requires food and drink and shelter in order to grow and progress spiritually.  We get into trouble when we let the demands of the body grow and take over direction of our personality; in the same way, a society gets into trouble when its underlying spiritual values are pushed aside in favor of mere pleasure-seeking and conspicuous consumption.

Perhaps then, this is what our tradition is hinting at when it tells us that Mashiach ben Yosef “dies in battle” to prepare for the coming of Mashiach ben David.  The division of labor between the two leaders is ultimately unsustainable.  Just as Yosef and Yehudah had a somewhat fraught relationship, which led to various communal disasters throughout our history, so even in Messianic times, if the rôles of material provider and spiritual leader are kept apart, the inevitable tension will resurface.  Instead, what is needed is an integrated leadership, which is provided by Mashiach ben David, along with the tribe of Levi of course.  Perhaps the death of Mashiach ben Yosef actually signifies the death of division and conflict between the material and spiritual aspects of life, and ushers in an era of integration of 100% material value of life with 100% spiritual value.  I think this is what we mean when we say a world redeemed.

The Sacks Haggadah

Essay 8: An Afternoon in Jerusalem

R. Sacks describes being invited to a Seudah Shlishit with some friends in Jerusalem during the first Gulf War.  Upon arriving, he found some other guests – a Romanian group that had made aliyah together, as they had been a choir back in Romania.  As the choir began to sing the traditional Shabbat afternoon songs, more and more people from the neighborhood drifted in through the open door and joined in the singing, or just soaked up the atmosphere of peace and harmony that formed such a contrast to the war and negativity everywhere else.

In reflecting on the varied and disparate paths that led each one to that room that afternoon, Rabbi Sacks mused on the long history of Jerusalem and the Jewish threads so intimately intertwined with that history – Avraham’s near-sacrifice of Yitzchak on what would become the Temple Mount, Ya’akov’s dream, David’s bringing the Ark to his new capital, Solomon’s Temple, Ezra’s leading the exiles back from Babylonia, through to the present day.  For millennia, Jews have lived in or longed for Jerusalem and Israel.  It has been the focus of our national life, our religious and spiritual life.

How does this relate to the Haggadah?  At any time in the last several thousand years, if any one generation had given up hope – hope of return to the Land, hope of Redemption, then Jerusalem, with all its magic, would have been irretrievably lost.  Judaism can only exist as a living reality, passed on from one generation to the next.  If I forget thee O Jerusalem, may my right hand forget its skill, may the tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth if I do not put Jerusalem above my greatest joy. (Ps 137:5-6)