Monday, November 30, 2009

*More* moral lessons on parshat Vayeitzei

In a previous post I considered (and critiqued) a few of the purposes Ralbag offers on parashat Vayeitzei. Here are a few more. I am focusing on the ones in middot, rather than the ones in deot, and so I skip here from 4 to 9.
4. The fourth purpose is in traits, and this is that it is not fitting for a person to pursue after delights, but rather should take from them only what is necessary. Do you not see that adjacent to this place was a city called Luz {see 28:19, that Luz was the name of this city at first} and it was possible for Yaakov to sleep there on a corner of a couch and leg of a bed {poetic language takes from Amos 3:12}, and he made do with one of the stones of the place upon which to put his head. This too aided him in his zeal in his journey, to get up and to travel when he wanted.

9. The ninth purpose is in traits, and that is that it is fitting for a person to stand in honored placed with awe and fear, and with increased holiness, and should not do in them the actions that he does in the lesser places. And for this reason Yaakov feared in his thoughts {?} regarding the place that he slept.

10. The tenth purpose is in traits, and that is that it is not fitting for a person to urgently seek great wealth, but rather it should suffice for him that which is necessary. Do you not see that Yaakov Avinu only requested from Hashem the basic needs, and that is bread to eat and a garment to wear.

All of these are worthy lessons, and I appreciate how Ralbag derived each of these via careful analysis of the narrative.

Still, I am not certain whether I agree with each of these readings.

In terms of (4), indeed Yaakov slept out in the open. But was it really right next to a city, or town? Indeed, the walled town of Luz existed at the time the land was conquered. See Shofetim perek 1.

כג וַיָּתִירוּ בֵית-יוֹסֵף, בְּבֵית-אֵל; וְשֵׁם-הָעִיר לְפָנִים, לוּז.
23 And the house of Joseph sent to spy out Beth-el--now the name of the city beforetime was Luz.
כד וַיִּרְאוּ, הַשֹּׁמְרִים, אִישׁ, יוֹצֵא מִן-הָעִיר; וַיֹּאמְרוּ לוֹ, הַרְאֵנוּ נָא אֶת-מְבוֹא הָעִיר, וְעָשִׂינוּ עִמְּךָ, חָסֶד.
24 And the watchers saw a man come forth out of the city, and they said unto him: 'Show us, we pray thee, the entrance into the city, and we will deal kindly with thee.'

and when the man was spared and rebuilt a city in Chitti territory, he again called it Luz. But was there really a city at the time Yaakov slept there? The actual substance of the narrative itself in Vayeitzei does not suggest that, also when Yaakov names it Bet El for his experience, the Torah tells us:

יט וַיִּקְרָא אֶת-שֵׁם-הַמָּקוֹם הַהוּא, בֵּית-אֵל; וְאוּלָם לוּז שֵׁם-הָעִיר, לָרִאשֹׁנָה.
19 And he called the name of that place Beth-el, but the name of the city was Luz at the first.

Perhaps the idea is that the Canaanites later built a city there, and that the general territory was called Luz. And based on Yaakov's experience and his naming it, after the Israelite conquest it was also called by this name of Bet El. Or if this is the general territory, perhaps he was in the general vicinity (or else techum) of the city, but not necessarily so close to it.

If indeed there was a city there, why didn't Yaakov sleep there? It could be as Ralbag says, that this was considered a luxury, and he had no need for it. And that this was a mark of his zeal to carry out his actions, for he could make better time without having to first leave the city. (See also previous post, item [2], about how Yaakov exhibited zrizus.)

But isn't is safer inside the city than out? The midrashic understanding is that Yaakov surrounded his head with rocks as a protection against wild animals. Now, it is true that Ralbag does not agree to this, and maintains that he put one stone under his head as a pillow. But even so, item [3] that Ralbag derived from this narrative was that he slept at that juncture, when the sun set, because the road is dangerous at night. If it is indeed dangerous, for example from highwaymen, then it should also be dangerous to sleep out in the open. Rather, I would guess that the reason for not sleeping there, in descending order, would be: (a) that the town did not yet exist; (b) that the town did exist but was too distant; (c) that he was too poor to afford an inn, and couldn't count on hospitality; (d) that camping out would shorten his overall journey.

In terms of (9), Ralbag gets this from the juxtaposition of two pesukim:

טז  וַיִּיקַץ יַעֲקֹב, מִשְּׁנָתוֹ, וַיֹּאמֶר, אָכֵן יֵשׁ יְהוָה בַּמָּקוֹם הַזֶּה; וְאָנֹכִי, לֹא יָדָעְתִּי.
16 And Jacob awaked out of his sleep, and he said: 'Surely the LORD is in this place; and I knew it not.'
יז  וַיִּירָא, וַיֹּאמַר, מַה-נּוֹרָא, הַמָּקוֹם הַזֶּה:  אֵין זֶה, כִּי אִם-בֵּית אֱלֹהִים, וְזֶה, שַׁעַר הַשָּׁמָיִם.
17 And he was afraid, and said: 'How full of awe is this place! this is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.'

I think Ralbag is understanding regret on Yaakov's part for having slept there. This need not be so. (See e.g. Shadal.) But certainly Yaakov was filled with awe of the place, and went on to treat it with respect. And we, too, might learn some lessons in terms of how to treat a shul and how to conduct ourselves therein. Although there are specific halachos regarding this, which might well be less stringent than many people think.

In terms of point (10), it is a good point. Though Yaakov in fact does become wealthy, in asking for it, he does not ask for much in his prayer, even if lechem is food/meat rather than bread. Of course, it might be poetic understatement. Or it might be because of how little he had at present. Certainly when working for Lavan, eventually for himself, he wished to work to accumulate wealth, and took steps with the striped rods towards that end. Still, here, he did realize that a little is sufficient. So while I have my doubts about point [4], points [9] and [10] seem fairly solid, and based on persuasive elements in the Biblical narrative.

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