Thursday, January 04, 2007

Halachic Debate - Unity in Diversity

Another belated post on last week's Parasha:

In Parashat Vayigash, Yosef gives his brothers a peculiar instruction before sending them back to Canaan:

And he [Yosef] said unto them: 'Do not become angry on the way.'

The simple meaning of Yosef's command is clear. He realizes that the revelation of his identity will inevitably plunge the brothers into a rehashing of the events surrounding his initial sale. Finger-pointing and blame shifting will abound. Anticipating this, Yosef tells them not to get involved in any such bickering on the trip home.

Rashi, however, quoting the Midrash (as well as the Talmud, Tractate Taanit 11A), offers a different interpretation of Yosef's command:

Do not become involved in a halachic discussion such that the way will become contentious with you (i.e., you will get lost).

This is certainly an unusual instruction for Yosef to give his brothers. After all, the Torah commands us to use all of our free time to engage in study, and the leisure of travel provides an ideal opportunity for discussion and reflection. As we read in the Shema twice a day:

And you shall teach them to your children, and you shall speak of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk on the way...

Why would Yosef tell his brothers to abstain from any involvement in Torah study during this particular trip?

I believe that this Midrash offers us a profound insight into the significance of this trip for Yosef's brothers. Hearkening back to the beginning of the story of Yosef, we see that it was in fact "halachic discussion" among the brothers, as it were, that created a lot of problems for the family. As we read in Parashat Vayeshev:

And a man encountered Yosef while he was lost in the field; and the man asked him, "what do you seek?" And he said, "My brothers do I seek; tell me, please, where are they pasturing?" And the man said, "They travelled from here, for I heard them saying, 'let us go to Dotan'..."

And Rashi famously explains, the significance of "Dotan" is deeply symbolic:

To find for you [Yosef] legal arguments [Heb. datot] to kill you.

In other words, the brothers did not attack Yosef impulsively. Their course of action was a carefully reasoned plot that they deliberated upon before implementing. The brothers were certain that Yosef was an egomaniacal demagogue who had charmed their father but was destined to lord over them ruthlessly. As such, they determined that they had a moral obligation to eliminate Yosef from the family

Of course, the problem was that they embarked upon this journey of halachic analysis alone - without any input or consultation with their father. They did not attempt to discuss the issues that were bothering them with Yaaqov. Instead, the brothers assumed that they had a more accurate picture of the family dynamic than their father, and therefore arrogated to themselves the right to override his "selection" of Yosef and remove him from the midst of Israel. Put simply, they undermined the authority of the principal "Baal Hamesorah", Yaaqov, and tried to set family policy on their own terms.

This does not mean to suggest that the brothers should not have used their minds to reason about the conflict with Yosef - or the new developments in Egypt - and arrive at a better understanding of them. What they were discouraged from doing was interfering in the practical direction of family affairs.

Even in a democratic society such as ours, a community can only survive and flourish when the final policy decisions of its leadership are respected and supported. This respect and support must be rendered despite the fact that differences of opinion continue to exist among both lawmakers and laypersons. The Sanhedrin - the Supreme Jewish Court of antiquity - operated in a similar fashion. A ruling handed down by the Sanhedrin was absolutely binding upon all of Israel. Nevertheless, Rabbis who differed with that ruling were never prevented from giving expression to their points of view in theory; provided that, in practice, they adhered to the decisions of the High Court.

With this in mind, we gain a deeper insight into the sin of the brothers in selling Yosef. Rather than trying to steer the family in a direction that suited their vision of the destiny of the Jewish people, the brothers should have deferred, at least in practice, to the vision of their father. They should have realized that the unity of the family, not to mention the perpetuation of the Abrahamic legacy, depended on it. The brothers' choice to undercut the "ruling" of Yaaqov regarding Yosef was a strategic mistake that wound up costing them more than two decades of conflict, anguish and spiritual stagnation.

Now we can better appreciate why Yosef commanded his brothers not to engage in halachic discussion on their way back to Canaan. At this juncture, it would have been tempting for the brothers to try to analyze and evaluate the surprising new developments in the family amongst themselves. They could have disregarded Yosef's instructions and formulated whatever message to Yaaqov that they deemed appropriate.

Indeed, the trip to Canaan would have provided the brothers with the perfect opportunity to discuss and debate all the relevant issues and to work out a plan of action that was agreeable to them. They had the ability to manipulate the family dynamic as they saw fit. But this would have meant falling into the same trap that ensared them when they sold Yosef the first time around. This is why abstaining from halachic discussion at this point was the ultimate demonstration of the sincerity of the brothers' repentance. It signified their willingness to accept the spiritual authority and guidance of both Yaaqov and Yosef.

The lesson for us today is clear. It is only when we as the Nation of Israel strike the proper balance between open dialogue and debate on one hand, and respect for our religious and political leaders on the other hand, that we can hope to achieve our mission in this world. We must continue to strive for richness and diversity in thought combined with unity and solidarity in action.


Baal Habos said...

RJM, I responded to your prior post, where we left off our conversation on Little Foxling blog.

Gut Shabbos.

Yehuda said...

It is interesting that Rashi says this is not p'shuto shel mikra (the comment on Dothan). Rabbi David Silber (on his audio series on the Yoseph stories) made an interesting point about, Shechem and Dothan. He said that Shechem was the city representing brotherly (or sibling) love (because of the episode with Dina) and by sending him there he was hoping he could reconcile with his brothers. He also said that Dothan may indicate strife (his proof is the Dothan of Dothan and Aviram).

One thing that bothers me about R. Silber's approach (not just on this topic) is that it blurs the line between homiletics and p'shat. I see this as a general critique of the literary approach - at times (if the author is not careful) it becomes unclear whether something is merely a literary allusion or an account of real events. Not to say that Tanach contains no literary allusions.

So I ask: is there any "real" indication that "let us go to Dothan!" indicates a rejection of Yaakov's authority? If anything, I would think that being in Shechem is a greater indication of this. Since the brother's "took" Shechem in a way that clearly rejected Yaakov's authority. The brothers' actual presence in Shechem seems to indicate a preoccupation in their own affairs separate from their father's authority. Of course, they were pasturing their father's flock.

Rabbi Joshua Maroof said...

I remember discussing the homiletics/peshat issue in R' Silber's approach with you a while ago. Although I have the CDs I have yet to listen to them!

I see this as a general critique of the literary approach - at times (if the author is not careful) it becomes unclear whether something is merely a literary allusion or an account of real events. Not to say that Tanach contains no literary allusions.

The deeper question is "what does the concept of a 'real event' mean in the context of Tanach?" The message is real, and the whole point of describing the details is to underscore the message, not give us historical trivia about the Avot.

Ultimately, the Tanach is really a book of ideas, the "Mashal Haqadmoni", so it is not surprising that we should encounter a gray area in between empirical facts and the ideas they are being used to convey.

All of the Hazals regarding the brothers trip to Shechem and Dotan revolve around this idea that they were pursuing their own agenda. The midrashim discuss the different sins they were involved in, etc., all along the same lines. It is certainly alluded to in the text, and the Rabbis highlight it.

Yehuda said...

The message is real, and the whole point of describing the details is to underscore the message, not give us historical trivia about the Avot.

True, I am only bothered when the events as described are not explored first (for their lessons) and instead literary allusions are sought out. I feel some who follow the literary approach at times forget about the stories themselves. Kass is an example of someone who I think strikes a good balance.

Rabbi Joshua Maroof said...

Yes, your point is well taken on that issue...We need to look at the meaning of the features described in context before departing on flights of fancy...

Look at my new post, it was inspired by your comment.