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Wednesday, December 19, 2007

"And all of Israel gathered as one . . . as Chaverim" (Shoftim 20:11)*

At the end of Sefer Bereishit, the legacy that started with Avraham undergoes a change. Until Yaakov, each of the Avot only passed the tradition on to one of their children. Avraham chooses Yitzchak and rejects his other children. Yitzchak passes "Birkat Avraham" to Yaakov (Bereishit 28:3) and not Eisav. Yaakov, however, takes a radically different approach. Instead of choosing one son over the rest, Yaakov chooses all of his sons to be his successors. With this decision begins an unprecedented era of plurality in Avraham’s tradition. Instead of being represented by a single personality in a generation, Bnei Yisrael (aptly named) now has 12 different representatives at once. Each of these Shvatim passes his own legacy on to his children, forming 12 distinct tribes within Am Yisrael. Yaakov's Brachot to his sons highlight for us twelve disparate individuals, each with unique personality traits. I think the following Midrash Tanchuma on this week’s Parsha picks up on this plurality in the Brachot themselves:

וזאת אשר דבר להם אביהם וגו', ברך אותו אין כתיב כאן אלא ברך אותם למה לפי שנתן ליהודה גבורתו של ארי וליוסף גבורתו של שור ולנפתלי קלות איל ולדן נשיכתו של נחש תאמר שזה גדול מזה הרי כללן כלם באחרונה איש אשר כברכתו ברך אותם
The Pasuk does not say “he blessed him” rather “he blessed them.” Why? Since he gave Yehuda the strength of a lion and Yosef the strength of an ox and Naphtali the swiftness of a deer and Dan the bite of a snake- you might be led to say one is greater than the other- so he included them all together at the end “each according to the blessing that he blessed them”

The idea that each of the Shvatim represents different (maybe even contradictory) character traits and that only together they constitute the full nature of Am Yisrael is a theme that runs through Chazal (see for example Ramban and Ibn Ezra on Bamidbar 2: 2, 3. They discuss a Midrash that describes how each of the Shevet flags in the Midbar had a symbol corresponding to the faces of the Angels of Maaseh Hamerkava- the idea being, I think, that different faces come together to make a throne for the Shechina.)

This model of Shvatim working together appeals to our modern sensibilities that there might not necessarily be one “right” way of doing things to the exclusion of all the other “wrong” options, rather there could be a whole plethora of “right” ways provided that we work to a common goal. I'd love to say that this is the model that Tanach recommends to us for eternity,-and then this would probably be a dvar Torah that you've heard before- but a quick historical run through the Neviim Rishonim gives a rather bleak perspective on pluralistic Shevet-cooperation. (You might have already noticed that we don't actually have the Shevet system today.)
Sefer Shoftim does convey that each of the Shvatim has its own strengths. Almost every Shevet manages to put forth a Shofet to lead Am Yisrael and the Shoftim that we know about all act in their own unique way. Nonetheless, a repeated tragic flaw is that the diverse Shvatim don’t really work very well together (see Shoftim 5: 16-17, 12:5-7, 15:11, 20:1-48.). The kingship that was meant to bring them together eventually fractures them into two rival kingdoms (For two extreme examples, see Shmuel II 19:42-20:2 and Melachim I 12:16.)

By the end of Sefer Melachim, the Northern Kingdom is sent into exile by Assyria, not to be heard of again. The historical legacy of Am Yisrael as we know it continues with only a few Shvatim: Yehuda, maybe Binyamin, and some Kohanim and Levi'im that were still around. Does this mean that we rejected the Shvatim model with all its pluralistic implications in favor of a more uniform approach? Certainly the Shevet structure of the Jewish people was dropped for a more limited model that includes only a few tribes. Does that mean that the ideology of diversity that went along with it was also dropped? Did the multi-faceted approach to Judaism prove too much for us to handle, too subject to divisiveness and tension?

Perhaps this question is what motivated a Machloket many centuries later in Sanhedrin 10,3:

"עשרת השבטים אינן עתידין לחזור שנא' (דברים כט) וישליכם אל ארץ אחר כיום הזה מה היום הולך ואינו חוזר אף הם הולכים ואינן חוזרים דברי ר"ע ר"א אומר כיום הזה מה יום מאפיל ומאיר אף עשרת השבטים שאפילה להן כך עתידה להאיר להם:"
“The ten tribes will not return in the future, as it says “and He sent them to another land as this very day”- just like a day goes and does not come back, so too they (the shvatim) have gone and will not come back. This is the opinion of R’ Akiva. R’ Elazar says “as this very day” – just like a day gets dark and light again, so too for the ten tribes for whom the world has become dark, in the future it will become like again.”

Rabbi Elazar maintains that the remaining Shvatim will come back in the Messianic Era. This means that that the exile of the ten tribes was only temporary and that the ideal, Messianic model for the Jewish people is the Shevet structure. Rabbi Akiva, on the other hand, thinks otherwise. Perhaps he feels (a little pessimistically) that the Shevet system just didn’t work out, will not work out, and is rejected for good.

This Machloket (or really, a machloket about whether there is a machloket) continues through to the time of the Rishonim and Mifarshei HaMishna. Some Rishonim, including the Ran in his Chiddushim, felt that Rabbi Akiva had to be reinterpreted. They simply could not believe that Rabbi Akiva could hold that the Ten Shvatim were not coming back. The Bartenura on the other hand, interprets the Mishna literally, ascribing to R' Akiva the view that the Shvatim will really not return.
It seems to me that this machloket with its ideological implications remains as open as this very day**.


QuickNotes for the Shabbos Table
-The individualized Brachot that Yaakov gives to each of his sons paints a picture of a diverse Bnei Yisrael, where different personalities play different roles.
-This is Bnei Yisrael's model when traveling through the Midbar and in the period of the Shoftim.
-Sadly, it led to divisiveness and never quite worked out as planned. Eventually, the exile of the Ten Tribes left us with a fraction of our previous diversity.
-Maybe this is the way it was meant to be! Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Eliezer argue about whether the Ten Tribes are even destined to return.

*10 Points if you catch the irony in the title.
** It is interesting to note that Rabbi Eliezer's opinion is much more well known and that most people don't realize that there might be a dissenting opinion. I wonder whether this means that the mesorah of Am Yisrael has taken a side on this machloket.

4 comments:

Julian Horowitz said...

How quickly we've turned into "The Open-ended Question Project"

Potential Message: It's not as easy to write good divrei torah as we thought...

Ibn Avraham said...

Hey, who said open-ended is bad? Often, its probably more honest; often, it may be closer to the truth.

That aside- last week's (ie my) Dvar Torah really was open-ended. The pattern was there but I was uncertain of the message.

This week's Dvar isn't open-ended; he's just recording a machloket. Obviously a machloket has two sides.

Chai18 said...

and both sides can be right (ailu v'ailu)

Ibn Avraham said...

Well, in this case they can't: either they're comin' back or they're not.