Posts Tagged 'Unity'

Fragile Family: Yaakov’s Dream of National Unity

As we see in Vayetzei, this week’s Torah portion, the sun is setting and Yaakov rests his head after a harrowing day. He is fleeing from his brother Esav who is hell bent on killing him after Yaakov stole his blessing. In an open field Yaakov gathers stones and makes a pillow of sorts so he can sleep before continuing to his escape in the morning. There we read:

He came upon a certain place and stopped there for the night, for the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of that place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place. (Genesis 28:11)

There is a discrepancy between the “stones” here and what we see later. There we read:

Early in the morning, Yaakov took the stone that he had put under his head and set it up as a pillar and poured oil on the top of it. ( Genesis 28:18)

After the dream there is only one stone. What happened?

Amazingly, the Midrash describes a “fight” that breaks out between the stones Yaakov has gathered. Drawing from this Midrash to comment on this passage Rashi says:

AND PUT THEM FOR A RESTING PLACE FOR HIS HEAD — He arranged them in the form of a drain-pipe around his head for he was afraid of wild beasts (Genesis Rabbah 68:11). They (the stones) began quarrelling with one another. One said, “Upon me let this righteous man rest his head”, and another said “Upon me let him rest it”. Whereupon the Holy One, blessed be God, straightway made them into one stone! This explains what is written (Genesis 28:18), “And he took the stone that he had put under his head” (Chullin 91b). ( Rashi on Genesis 18:11)

What do we make of this fanciful story at this moment in Yaakov’s life?

I was thinking about this image of Yaakov’s pillow recently when I learned a great midrash about the nature of the family unit. There we learn:

A society and a family are like a pile of stones. If you remove one stone, the pile will collapse. If you add a stone to it, it will stand. (Bereishit Rabbah 100:7)

This speaks to the fragility of Yitzhak and Rebecca’s family at this time. This rings true for Yaakov at this moment in his life. Just as Yaakov is removing himself from his family the pile of rocks might topple. But that is not what happens to him. Instead of his family falling apart be departs to start his new family.

In many way this is a fulfillment of the destiny of humanity as we learn in the Garden of Eden. There we read:

Hence a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife, so that they become one flesh. ( Genesis 2:24)

This moment of his leaving his father and mother the rocks are falling apart, instead he finds a wife ( or two) and they have 13 children. These children will become the nation of Israel. In this critical moment of his dream Yaakov transforms a fragile family into a unified nation. This image of us as a nation being one unified rock is at one challenging and challenged. Maybe it is just a dream.

Higher Level: Chanuka, Light, Reconciliation, and Unity

The other night Yishama and I were driving back from his basketball game at night. We were on our way home to light candles for Chanuka. I asked him what he was learning in school. He shared with me that he was learning the machloket in Shabbat between Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel as for how we should light the Chanuka candles. There we read:

Our Rabbis taught: The precept of Hanukkah [demands] one light for a man and his household; and those who will beautify the mitzvah [kindle] a light for each member [of the household]; and those who really will go all out and beautify the mitzvah,-Beit Shammai maintain: On the first day eight lights are lit and thereafter they are gradually reduced; but Bet Hillel say: On the first day one is lit and thereafter they are progressively increased. (Shabbat 21b)

Yishama recalled the principle that we follow Hillel to increase candles because we should elevate to a higher level in matters of sanctity and not decreased.  Amidst this dark time it is hard to understand the rationale for Beit Shammai?

Image result for menorah first night

Beit Shammai’s opinion is that the number of lights corresponds to the bulls of the festival of Sukkot: Thirteen were sacrificed on the first day and each succeeding day one fewer was sacrificed (Numbers 29:12–31). On simple level the Maccabees missed Sukkot during their war and rebooted the holiday when they could. This left us with a holiday with Sukkot‘s footprint in the middle of winter. But I think that there is a deeper level still to this.

Too often we choose to remember Chanuka as a story of the small Jewish soldiers defeating the much larger Greek army. It seems closer to the facts that the unrest was actually a civil war between Jews who were aligned to the Temple tradition and Jews who had aligned to the Greeks. The miracle of the Chanuka lights is not just that the small army beat the larger one, or that a small amount of oil lasted for 8 days, but that we could reconcile a civil war. In light of this reading of history I think that Beit Shammai’s tradition makes a whole lot of sense. Yes, Beit Hillel is right that it is dark out, but as the holiday moves on we move from 8 groups or factions to one group. By the end of Beit Shammai’s Chanuka we are left with a real vision of unity.

I think about the significance of Beit Shammai’s message at this moment in history while we find ourselves embroiled in fierce political discord and irreconcilable cultural difference in our Jewish and American communities. If by the end of Beit Shammai’s celebration we reunified our community, surely even Beit Hillel would agree that we would have elevated to a higher level in matters of sanctity and not decreased.


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