Friday, January 10, 2020

Parashat VaYehi: Revealed & Concealed

Revealed & Concealed
Thoughts on Parashat VaYehi 2020
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As Yaakov neared his death, he called his sons to his bedside and said:
“Come together so that I may tell you what will happen to you at the end of days.” (Bereshit 49:1)
Yaakov then blessed each of his sons individually. He referenced their respective strengths and weaknesses while hinting to them what lay ahead in their future. The Hakhamim paid careful attention to Yaakov’s initial will to “tell what will happen at the end of days.” They described it as an unfulfilled desire:
He [Yaakov] wished to reveal to them the end of Yisrael’s exile, but the Shekhinah departed from him and he began to speak of other things.[1]
Instead of simply omitting Yaakov’s failed attempt to expose that prophecy, the Torah made a vague reference to it. It thus hinted at a particular importance to this occurrence. What was the significance of this “concealed revelation”?

The great 19th Century Jewish thinker R. Sadok of Lublin dedicated much time and effort to understanding the historical transition from the stage of prophecy to that of Torah she-be’al peh (the Oral Torah) during the period of the second bet hamikdash. “All the wisdom of the oral Torah consists of apprehending truth from darkness,” he wrote, “but in the era of the indwelling of the divine presence in Israel, the Jews did not condescend to perception through darkness at all.”[2] According to R. Sadok, the end of prophecy brought forth a particular “darkness” – the neglect and near-forgetting of the oral Torah. Paradoxically, however, that darkness was necessary for the light and genius of the pillars of Torah she-be’al peh (the Anshei Knesset HaGedolah and rabbis of the Mishnah) to shine forth. Whereas prophecy and overt miracles stunted creativity, causing people to think that “if it wasn’t revealed, then it can’t be true,” their absence opened the potential for individual thought and interpretation.[3]

Consider, for example, the difference between a class in which the instructor speaks the entire time, elucidating every point and detail, and a lesson where the teacher provides the framework and basic principles but entrusts the students to discover the information on their own. The former structure displays a “bright light” shined by the instructor, but leaves the students with little room for self-thought and expression. This model represents the era of divine revelation. The “hands off” model, in contrast, reinforces the pupils’ creative capacities, forcing them to think independently and develop the lesson on their own. The enveloping “darkness” rendered by the end of prophecy likewise opened the crack through which the “light” of creativity and human insight could shine.

Psychologists often discuss a similar dichotomy in the way that we are moved by any given stimulus. Following the occurrence of something in our lives, we have the choice to react or to respond.[4] Reacting refers to our reflex – dealt the hand of a difficult situation, for example, we become depressed and sulk in the thought of an ominous future. Learning by means of prophecy likewise precipitates a reaction – “we hear and we accept.” Responding, in contrast, refers to choosing how to deal with the difficulty. It requires self-strength, courage, and the appropriate insight for planning out a course of action. Growth during an era bereft of prophecy necessitates responding – sparking the lights of novelty within a context of darkness.

The Hakhamim taught that Yaakov wanted to expose his vision of the end of exile, but that the divine presence departed before he could do so. Yaakov’s will at that time was to react, relating God’s revelation to his sons. As the Shekhinah vanished from the scene, however, Yaakov was forced to respond. Foreshadowing the manner of the hakhmei ha-masoret many years later, Yaakov then tapped into his own creative capacity. He thought about the strengths and weaknesses of each of his sons, and sensitively charted out a future for them and their descendants.

I am sometimes troubled by the difficulties of living during a time of hester panim (divine concealment). I find myself yearning for “the times of old,” when God publicly exposed “His face,” leaving little room for doubt or uncertainty. I then remind myself, however, of God’s lesson to Yaakov during those critical moments before his death. By removing His presence from Yaakov, God hinted at the paradoxical detriment of constant revelation. He taught that the greatest depths of understanding and connection are attained specifically within the context of “darkness.” It is only then that we are forced to “dig deep,” inspired to search for and find Him with all of our hearts and minds.

[1] Commentary of Rashi, Bereshit 49:1 s.v. ve-agidah.
[2] R. Sadok HaCohen of Lublin, Resisei Layla (Bnei Brak, IS, 1967), pg 160-1.
[3] For a full analysis of R Sadok of Lublin’s thought on this matter, see R. Yaakov Elman’s “R. Zadok HaKohen on the History of Halakha,” Tradition 21:4, pg. 1-26. Cf. Moshe Koppel, Meta-Halakhah: Logic Intuition and the Unfolding of Jewish Law (Lanham, MA, 1997), pg. 52-5 and R. Netanel Wiederblank, Illuminating Jewish Thought: Explorations of Free Will, the Afterlife and the Messianic Era (New Milford, CT, 2018), pg. 446-7.
[4] See, e.g. Stephen R. Covey, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People: Restoring the Character of Ethic (New York, NY, 1989), pg. 70-1 and 309-10, and, most recently Lori Gottlieb, Maybe You Should Talk to Someone: A Therapist, Her Therapist, and Our Lives Revealed (New York, NY, 2019), pg. 288-94.