Tuesday, January 2, 2007

Va-Y'hi: And he lived (but he died in the end)

This week's parshah is the final one for Bereshit (Genesis), and concludes the history of the Patriarchs, leading to Exodus, which tells the history of the nation of Israel. Israel dies, Joseph dies. And so we begin.

+ In Gen. 48:16, Jacob is blessing the two sons of Joseph (Manasseh and Ephraim), who has adopted as his own. In the blessing, he says "In them may my name be recalled, / And the names of my fathers Abraham and Isaac, / And may they be teeming multitudes** upon the earth." The commentary in Etz Chayim on this passage interprets this as "May G-d bless them as long as they call themselves by traditional, biblical names. The most valuable legacy we can leave our children and grandchildren is bequeathing to them the faith that stustained us (Shneur Zalman of Lyady)." Zalman being the Elder Rebbe, the first rebbe of Chabad. I don't know that I particularly understand how this can be derived from the blessing. I think Zalman takes the "my name" too literally. Rather, I see this as "the memories" of Jacob, his fathers, etc. be recalled. Thus, Jacob's blessing is merely that in the nation of Israel, may the memories of the Patriarchs be recalled.

** Now, an alternative (and what I consider more accurate) translation of the end of that blessing says may they multiply "like fish" (Hebrew: dag). Not sure why Etz Chayim doesn't use this translation, considering that's what the Hebrew says. I'm sort of irritated that the translation got away from this, mostly because of Rashi's interpretation of the importance of this phrase: "[Just] like fish, which proliferate and multiply, and are unaffected by the evil eye." Why are fish free from the evil eye? Talmud states that this is because they are under water. If you recall the flood, fish really were the only animal free from the effects of the flooding because they were water creatures. Additionally, it makes me wonder why the quip isn't "multiplying like fish" and instead is "multiplying like rabbits." The nation of Israel is being blessed to not be affected by the evil eye. Brilliant!

(Note: I'm curious about this and may pursue it further. How does water keep the evil eye away?)

+ Jacob/Israel calls together his sons so "that I may tell you what is to befall you in days to come" (Gen. 49:1). Israel goes on to discuss each son's character and special gifts, not so much their future, though. Naftali of Ropshitz suggests that Israel saw into the future and was so distraught at what was to come, the spirit of prophecy disappeared, as it cannot dwell where there is grief and sadness. Thus, the commentary says that "The modern reader may understand the passage to mean that a person's future depends on his or her character. There is no preordained script that we are fated to follow." This, of course, got me thinking about preordainment in Judaism. I've heard a variety of things, the most fascinating idea being Rabbi Akiva: "all is forseen, yet choice is given" (Pirkei Avot). One rabbi suggests that free will must exist for religion to matter, and I can understand how this conclusion can be drawn.

Those who fail to believe in free will are sort of kidding themselves, especially if those people are the type to believe in heaven or hell. If there are two possible destinations in life, and you are predestined without free will, then what's the point in living? You will -- regardless of good works, etc. -- end up in either heaven or hell. So why try? These also are the individuals who likely will say "My husband died because it was part of G-d's plan" or "The hurricane came because it was part of G-d's plan." It sort of makes my face hurt when people say stuff like that.

Jewish philosopher Hasdai Crescas resolved the free-will/predestination argument by saying that free-will doesn't exist. A person's actions are predetermined from the moment of birth, and their judgement in the eyes of G-d is effectively preordained. HOWEVER, this is not a result of G-d predetermining one's fate, but rather that the universe -- by nature -- is deterministic. In essence, Crescas denies free-will and predestination in relation to G-d. Rather, because nature is deterministic, it just works out that way. Of course, Crescas's views were welcomed with vehement opposition.

Chabad believe in both -- free-will and predestination at G-d's will -- and accommodates the contraditions by saying that man is unable to comprehend the existence of both. G-d and man live in different realities, of course, and thus contradictions are apparent and not able to be understood. This goes back to Rabbi Akiva's statement, too.

To further muddle up whether Jews believe in either/or, Jewish historian Josephus claimed that the "Pharisees held that not all things are divinely predestined, but that some are dependent on the will of man; the Sadducees denied any interference of God in human affairs; while the Essenes ascribed everything to divine predestination."

It's an ages-old debate that seems -- among most Jewish groups -- to be answered by the conclusion that there is no such thing as predestination, that free-will and our decisions are what decide our fate. This, of course, is why tikkun olam is so important in Reform Judaism and in all of Judaism. Good works are what lead us to obtain a position closer to G-d (in a completely nonliteral sense).

However, you'll be hard pressed to find a religious Jew who would deny that G-d is omniscient. This, of course, is not -- in Judaism -- synonymous with predestination.


Okay, so I got pretty sidetracked there with the predestination bit. I think it's an interesting concept, and everyone handles it quite differently. Aside from Va-Y'hi being the conclusion of the history of the Patriarchs, I didn't come up with much else to write on. It could be the fact that I'm pretty preoccupied with other floaty brain things. Or it could be that the coffee shop is particularly noisy today with lots of people having lots of conversations. I've got my headphones on, and it still isn't enough.

And the crowd asks, "Why not study at home, Amanda!?" And my answer? I'm not sure. Once I began college, I grew unable to really concentrate or wrangle my thoughts. Sort of a stir-crazy kind of thing. I go elsewhere to study, because I find it easier to settle myself down in surroundings that don't involve a bed or television or kitchen. It isn't that I fall asleep, watch TV or eat a lot at home all the time ... it's just a state of mind.

Next week, for the first parshah of Exodus, I'll be working from an alternate location in an alternate time zone in an alternate reality. Stay tuned ...

EDIT: It would appear I am a minor celebrity, as a girl at the coffee shop stopped to ask me if I make YouTube videos. Evidently she found this video and recognized me and BAM! Instant celebrity. I'm pretty proud :)