Vayechi 5774-An installment in the series
From the Waters of the Shiloah: Plumbing the Depths of the Izhbitzer School
For series introduction CLICK
By Rabbi Dovid Schwartz-Mara D’Asra Cong Sfard of Midwood
The Elokim before whom my fathers , Avraham and Yitzchak, walked is the Elokim who has led me like a Shepherd from my inception until this day.
After the revelation at Sinai various directives of the Torah, some actually counted among the 613 mitzvos, express HaShem’s will for imitatio dei– by which man finds sanctity and goodness by endeavoring to imitate HaShem. Be it “walking in His ways”(Devarim 8:6 & 11:22), “sticking to Him”(Devarim11:22&30:20)[ which Chazal interpreted as sticking to His middos-characteristics] or “be holy for I am holy”(Vayikra 19:2) the idea is the same one. To wit; that we humans should make our own behaviors, and the spiritual-psychodynamics that underpin them, as consistent with those of HaShem as the limits of our theology allows.
Rav Moshe Codovero’s classic work, Tomer Devorah is predicated on this principle. First the author analyzes the thirteen Divine Attributes of Mercy and then offers guidance and advice as to how to integrate them into our own lives, Some have described the principle lyrically as dimui hatzurah l’Yotzrah– making the painting grow similar to the artist. (Cp Koheles Rabbah 2:26)
One of the twentieth century’s preeminent gaonim and chachmei hoavodah taught that while all this is true, that prior to the revelation at Sinai, in our Nations developmental period “walking in His ways” was not just one among many mitzvos or even the best technique for performing all the others. It was the be all and end all of the life’s-work of the patriarchs. HaShem proclaims His mission for Avraham as follows: “For I have paid special attention to him, so that he may command his children and his household after him, that they will keep the way of HaShem, to do charity and justice; HaShem will then bring about for Avraham everything that He promised.” (Bereishis18:19)
The “way of HaShem” is not the merely way that He commands us to walk but that k’vyachol-as it were, the way / path that He treads Himself. HaShem is our King, but also our Father, and in Divine Parenting “Do as I say, not as I do” is an anathema. The “way of HaShem” is why He formed a covenantal relationship with Avraham and the nation that will spring from his loins. As such “walking in His ways” is the very cornerstone of Jewish patriarchy.
Still, the Izhbitzer explains, there are subtle yet defining differences between the various patriarchs approach to “walking in His ways.”
Avraham Avinu was defined by his middah of Chesed– loving-kindness, giving to, and pouring out upon, others. Avraham utilized love and kindness in every given opportunity to assimilate himself to His Creator. Yitzchak Avinu was defined by his middah of Gevurah-forceful self-restraint. Yitzchak utilized awe and forceful self-restraint in every circumstance to emulate the way of His Creator. Yet Avraham was unfamiliar with the notion of mimicking Divine Contraction and Yitzchak was unaccustomed to imitating Divine Expansion.
But Yaakov was not defined by, and thus not restricted to, any particular middah. Yaakov’s very being was imitatio dei. Yaakov was a living self-portrait of HaShem that continually developed ever-higher fidelity to the Likeness of the portrait Painter. Yaakov possessed the spiritual dexterity to copy HaShem in all of HaShems Divine middos. Whether the given situation called for chesed, gevurah or any other attribute across the theological spectrum, Yaakov, chameleon-like, conformed to the ways of His Creator. In this respect his father and grandfather were, relatively speaking, more rigid and limited.
When Yaakov says that his fathers walked before HaShem he was humbly voicing a feeling of comparative inferiority. He is expressing his observation of the proactive way in which they served HaShem. Capable of standing on their own two feet they, k’vyachol, walked ahead of HaShem. As Rashi (Bereishis 6:9) says “Avraham strengthened himself and walked in his righteousness by himself.” Defined by their own particular middos, Avraham and Yitzchak were able to improvise and adapt these middos in Divinely imitative ways to new situations. This was especially so in those situations that seemed to be repeating the past, situations that precedents had been set for.
In contradistinction, Yaakov himself needed constant shepherding by HaShem. “Elokim…has led me like a Shepherd from my inception until this day.” A sheep follows every move of the shepherd. When the shepherd goes to the right or to the left, up or down, slow or fast, the sheep follow. Yesterday, watering his flock, the shepherd may have brought them right up to the riverbank. Today, floods have caused the waters to overflow and to repeat yesterday’s livestock management would not result in hydrating the sheep, but in drowning them. Similarly Yaakov felt the need to follow HaShem like a sheep with no internal GPS to guide himself. Even if he confronted the “same” situation for the hundredth time, he awaited Divine guidance and then precisely shadowed HaShem’s Movements k’vyachol.
In fact, this was no inadequacy on Yaakov’s part but the very characteristic that made him the “choicest of the Patriarchs” and why it is his visage, and not those of Avraham and Yitzchak , that is chiseled on the Divine throne of Glory.
Yaakov lived the life that king Dovid prayed for “(When) HaShem is my Shepherd I will lack for nothing!” HaShem always leads a person, yet most people, bristling at the sheep-Shepherd relationship, turn their faces aside and willfully refuse to follow the leader.
The second Izhbitzer explains the relative advantage of Yaakov’s sheepishness in light of the following gemara:
And many nations will go and say: ‘ let us go and ascend up HaShem’s mountain, to the house of the L-rd of Yaakov; and He will teach us of His ways, and we will walk in His paths.’ For out of Zion will Torah go forth, and the word of HaShem from Jerusalem.
Rabi Elazar observed; “to the house of the L-rd of Yaakov” (why is this place referred to as the house of the L-rd of Yaakov) and not the L-rd of Avraham or the L-rd of Yitzchak? Avraham referred to the site of the Beis Hamikdash as a mountain (Bereishis 22:14), Yitzchak referred to it as a field (Bereishis 24:63), but Yaakov called it a house “and he called the name of the place Bethel (Bereishis 28:19).
There is an inherent danger in being fixed in a particular middah. One who is intransigently stuck even in the noblest of middos may be found wanting in particular situations. No middah is more splendid than rachmanus-mercy, rooted in the chesed that is the very foundation of the world. Yet our sages teach us that one who can never let go of mercy will first abuse it by bestowing it upon unworthy recipients and then overcompensate for that abuse with its antisocial antithesis. “All who are merciful to the cruel will ultimately be cruel to the merciful” (Koheles Rabbah 7).
No one middah is complete and perfect unto itself. This is why Yaakov eschewed reliance on any particular middah. Instead, he would assess the changing circumstances and look to HaShem for enlightenment and guidance minute by minute. He would move from middah to middah as the Divine will renewed Itself every moment. This is the meaning of the pasuk “No black magic can (harm) Yaakov nor any occult powers against Yisrael. ‘How is G-d acting at this moment’ is the only question pertinent to Yaakov and Yisrael.”(BeMidbar 23:23).
Through his incessant imitatio dei, his constant cleaving to HaShem Yaakov became subsumed within the Divine Light. The Divine Light surrounded Yaakov like a house. As a house provides shelter from the elements the surrounding Divine Light lent Yaakov invulnerability. No malevolent powers, nor the excesses or deficiencies of the monomaniacal fixation on a particular middah, could harm him. Nimbly darting from middah to middah Yaakov sheepishly followed HaShem at every turn. Unlike his father and grandfather Hashem, k’vayachol, served as a protective “house” for Yaakov.