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Insiders-outsiders: My favorite dvar Torah

If we divide humanity into 'Moses personalities' and 'Isaac personalities,' I find myself a natural Moses -- and remade myself to be an Isaac
Illustrative. 'Isaac blessing Jacob,' by Govert Flinck. (Wikimedia Commons)
Illustrative. 'Isaac blessing Jacob,' by Govert Flinck. (Wikimedia Commons)

How do Moses and Isaac connect to academia and barn dancing?

To answer, I’d like to quote my favorite and most oft-cited dvar Torah, which is from this week’s parsha. It starts with a concisely expressed idea by the Hasidic master, Rabbi Mordechai Joseph Leiner of Izhbitz, who writes in vol. 1 of his work Mei Hashiloah:

And it came to pass, that when Isaac was old, his eyes were dim so that he could not see (Gen 27:1). The aspect of Isaac our father is the converse of the aspect of Moses our teacher. For Isaac was not permitted to leave the land of Israel, yet the faculty of sight was taken from him; while Moses was not allowed to set foot in Israel, but he was told (Deut 3:27): “And see with your eyes.

I first heard this text taught by poet and teacher Yonadav Kaploun[1] many years ago. As much as the Izhbitzer’s words themselves, it was what Yonadav drew from this brief observation that has stayed with me until now. He explained that the world seems to divide into Isaac types and Moses types. The Isaac types fall under the heading of “being.” They are wholly immersed within whatever experience they are in; they do, they act with tremendous presence. Yet, at the same time, they are oblivious to the larger picture and cannot analyze their actions within a larger frame. In contrast, the Moses types are “seeing” personalities. They are analytical, curious, inquisitive, and discerning. However, along with this they can often be seen standing outside of the experience, observing from a point of distance those who are in it.

Here, we have Isaac, who lives his entire life within the land of Israel, immersed in its atmosphere and its holiness. This is no mere happenstance — it is God’s will for him.[2] Yet Isaac’s eyes are dim; he cannot properly see the land in which he spends his days. Here, on the other hand, we have Moses. He stands at the top of on Mount Nevo on his last day on earth, seeing the entire promised land spread out before him like a map, in a way that Isaac would never have known. Yet he is never to step foot in the land; he will always remain outside of it – the exact mirror image of Isaac.

Isaac can be fooled by others. He is not as aware as his wife and both of his sons are. He is perhaps the least aware of anyone in his environment. Though growing up in the home of his cosmopolitan father, tent open to visitors on all sides, Isaac is, in my view, more sheltered, a quiet man who would habitually go out to “meditate in the field” (Gen: 24:63) — not a meditation on his environment, but more upon his inner state. This inborn tendency might well have been exacerbated by the indescribable experience of the Akedah, sending Isaac inwards, even causing his blindness — as the midrash suggests, with its image of angels crying into Isaac’s eyes on Mount Moriah.[3]

Speaking of which — during the Akedah story, we notice that Isaac remains present and acquiescent, even when he cannot grasp what is going on. “Father, if we are going up to sacrifice a burnt offering, then where is the lamb?” he asks. Abraham provides a very inadequate explanation: “God will show us the lamb, my son” and yet Isaac goes along with it, unquestioningly. He does not engage his critical senses; rather, he gives himself over to the experience.

Moses, in contrast, is far more often seen acting as an independent and questioning agent, for better or worse. From the outset, he extensively questions God’s choice of him as messenger. He contends with God, in order to defend the people. He takes his own initiative in hitting the rock, rather than speaking to it. He pleads to be allowed into the land.[4] In the end, he is (apart from the rock incident) truly God’s obedient servant, and it is of crucial significance to note that. But an Isaac would not be found questioning, arguing, and pleading in the first place. The Isaac type flows with what is.

Isaac spends his life in the promised land as a cherished son of Abraham. Though the members of the Abrahamic family are outsiders in the land of Canaan, in Isaac’s own context, he belongs in the bosom of his family, loves his wife, and never suffers the indignities and vicissitudes of exile. He is free of the endemic and ineluctable “outsiderness” that is the lot of Moses. Moses grows up in a family that is not his, genetically or culturally. He must undergo the (possibly jarring or painful) experience of constantly seeing his own people from a distance. At age 40 — and due to his very nature, resisting and questioning the status quo —  he is booted out of the only home he has ever known, by his putative adoptive grandfather, Pharaoh. He spends the next 40 years sojourning in the desert, the ultimate “home” for outsiders who cannot find their place[5]; and when he marries, it is into a family of Midianites, once again, not of his own people — though he does find a kin spirit in Jethro, perhaps for the first time in his life.

Even subsequently, as the leader and representative of his nation, Moses has still not become an insider — far from it. He functions as the intermediary between the Israelite nation and God, achieving such a rarefied level that he almost transcends the condition of being human, divorcing his wife, though subject to his siblings’ disapproval. As I wrote in another post, in their grumbling at his “marrying the Kushite woman,” we can, by doing a symbolic reading, understand the angst of Miriam and Aaron at their brother’s “embracing (marrying) his own otherness to the full” — that is, perhaps accepting fully, finally, that Moses would never be like anyone else, to the sorrow of his siblings.

At the end of his life, when all the Israelites still living may enter the land except for him, a terrible yearning overwhelms Moses to be “one of the crowd,” to enter the land — even if not as a king, then let me enter as a commoner, he pleads.[6] A commoner belongs, does not stand out, is part and parcel of the collective experience. Yet it was not to be, and at the end, Moses experiences his exceptionality and outsiderness, in all of its awful power.

At the same time, it is Moses’ very trait of being curious and noticing things “outside the box” that sets the ball rolling for the redemption of the Israelites, when he turns aside from what he is doing (the midrash describes him as being in the middle of trying to retrieve a lost sheep)[7], in order to try to understand why a bush is burning yet not consumed (Ex. 3:2). I once asked a group, mostly men, at a London synagogue seudah shlishit meal, which of them, while busy pursuing a goal, would stop to turn aside from his path in order to explore something unusual occurring on the periphery of his vision. Quite a few said they would not. These included, I imagine, some strong “go-getters,” who do not allow anything to distract them from their aims; and that is certainly one effective leadership style. Yet it was Moses’ ability to pause, to be aware of what else was going on, and to “recalculate” his route, that made him suitable to steer this particular theological-historical process.

It seems that both modes, the being-doing[8] one that keeps us within the experience, and the seeing one that involves comprehending from a higher vantage point, are legitimate and necessary for the Torah to be whole. The famous phrase, said by the people of Israel when God offered them the gift of the Torah with all of its unknown dimensions, is “Na’aseh vemishma.” One primary translation of this is “(First) we will do and then we will understand” — namely, we will immerse ourselves in the experience and its injunctions, learning and intuiting what we need to know from within that experience. The Israelites did not initially set up a point of distance, criticism, and inquiry, as did the other nations described in the midrash (Sifrei Deut. 343:6), who, when presented with the Torah, asked quizzically: “Well, what’s in it?” and based on one item of information, immediately rejected it.

This seems to point to the “being/doing” mode as superior. Yet the Torah was given specifically by Moses, the one who, by nature pauses, queries, and does not simply leap, Nahshon-like, into experiences. Conceivably, Moses’ inborn mode of operation was needed in order to balance the powerful yet impulsive “being-doing” energy of the Israelites, and together, they create an excellent balance for spiritual well-being.

* * *

Let’s return now to Yonadav, our poet-teacher, speaking back then to his eager young listener (me), and shift into a more personal place of reflection.

I can say that the true impact for me of the Izhbitzer’s words emerged when Yonadav built upon the Izhbitzer’s paradigm to suggest that we are all either one type or the other: a Moses or an Isaac.

Never having carried out a survey, I don’t know if this is quite true. Is it clear to you, reader, in which category you would put yourself? As for me, when I heard his words all those years ago, I experienced a jolt. I realized that I was a Moses who was sick of being one. My BA was in psychology. While I enjoyed conversation, I’d also find myself at social events sitting at the side and observing the body language of the people, thinking psychological thoughts and (to be embarrassingly honest) feeling superior to these unaware people, whom I could comfortably watch without any peril to myself. Yet some inner intuition signaled to me that it was time to stop watching people live their lives, and instead to jump in and live my own — even at the risk that others might now scrutinize and analyze me. Willing to risk making a fool of myself, I jettisoned to some degree the accursed self-consciousness that can (paraphrasing the words of my hometown band, the Smiths, referring to shyness) “stop you from doing all the things in life you’d like to.” And thus I made start moving into Isaac territory. I never fully left the Moses mode, but my life journey has been one of “Isaacification.”

This dichotomy also comes to mind in the context of the world of academia. While I have spent significant time in academic frameworks and am familiar with the mindset, my choice to go down the Isaac route led to a reticence when it meant committing myself fully to that world. I attained advanced degrees and enjoyed them, but stopped short (to date) of doing a PhD and entering the world of academia as a career. This would be the ultimate in Moses activity, involving stepping out of “life” and into the world of analysis for four, five, 40, 50 years. I recall friends sitting in the National Library, day after day, week after week, slogging through their doctorates, while I (mea culpa) cruelly teased them that there were birds and trees outside that they might want to check out once in a while.

In doing a PhD (Moses), I mulled, one is basically documenting the life and work of other people who actually did something (Isaac). Very few people write a PhD about someone else sitting and writing a PhD. Academia is, at least partially, the minute analysis of other people’s lives instead of living one’s own. (Yes, I know that this an extreme position, and somewhat funny coming from a writer in the genres of biography and fiction, which is more or less the same thing).

The question also arises: to what extent may someone understand a thing if they are standing outside of it. This question is asked within academia and has given rise to entire schools of thought that are much closer to their object (the phenomenological approach), and to anthropologists who live with their subjects for lengthy periods. One could argue that a pure outsider can never really “get it.” Moses was not a pure outsider, for he belonged to the Israelite people and began his life right there with them. He felt their pain and pleaded their cause, throwing in his lot with them and asking to be wiped from the Torah if they were to be killed. In this, Moses is a model for academics who do not disconnect emotionally from their subjects, managing to maintain objectivity, while still being emotionally invested in the topic.

Today, I aim to achieve a balance between these two sides: living, and writing about living. I am certain that many academics are able to likewise do so. This past summer, I attended a conference of academics who teach Hasidism in colleges in Israel, America, and the Ukraine, along with other interested scholars, artists, and participants. The conference took place in the Ukraine (primarily Uman and Medzhbyizh) because the organizers wished to encompass an experiential component beyond the requisite lectures. As such, the program included singing, visiting sites of massacres and saying kaddish, time for prayer, and other non-academic activities. So different was it from the usual academic vibe that, at its end, the oldest participant, an 80-year old retired professor, said in some bemusement: “I’ve never been to an academic conference such as this one.”

One of my primary motivations in attending was to meet a group of what I assumed would be insider-outsiders like me. I spend time in worlds of only insiders (Torah without critical thought) or outsiders (critical thought with no, or little, sense of holiness). I need places in my life where these two modalities meet and embrace. While I have no desire to create essentialist gender-boxes, I can say that, for better or worse, in my experience, this binary to some degree follows gender lines, with men being more excited to analyze and categorize the experiential life, while women simply live it. Indeed, the conference included far more men than women.

I did end up meeting some kindred spirits, and was fascinated to witness them navigating the tension between being passionately devoted to Hasidism as living experience, and writing articles and giving lectures, not infrequently concerning abstruse minutiae and in dense jargon.

The tension is difficult to navigate. I was not the only one who found it moving when one (female) academic summed up her experience — something academics do well — by saying, “I have realized here that academic work is actually another form of hitkashrut” (connection to the tzaddik, a primary spiritual channel in Hasidic living). When I suggested on the final day doing an experiential workshop — a Bibliodrama on a parable of the Baal Shem Tov, together with Levi Weinstein, a drama therapist — many of the participants were open to seeing it and participating, and it was moving to have that experience together.

I always prefer Judaica academics who are also insiders. I can’t help but think of the Baal Shem Tov’s parable of the deaf person who shows up at a party and cannot fathom why everyone is writhing around and throwing their body about — because he cannot hear the music. Obviously, this is not very realistic in terms of deaf people’s actual knowledge and experience; but it’s a powerful and useful parable to describe someone who has not grasped what the people s/he is observing are really doing, and is trying to fit their behavior into some preconceived structure of concepts that do not necessarily fit them.

I’d like to end by quoting a friend, Sam Ta’ir, who is currently inspiring me greatly in his inner work. In mid-life stride, with a wife, kids and a demanding job, he is making great effort to come into an Isaac-like presence with himself, through meditation, and through dancing in a barn before he leaves for work (yes, in a barn). He wrote, in a powerful and courageous post on his Facebook page:

Dancing by myself, for myself, is a lot like meditation in a way. It’s really hard. Moving to music is not natural for me. And I need to stay present, unthinking, and connected to my body, or I will lose the beat, get rigid and jerky, and then feel self conscious and stop dancing. Yes, I am alone in a dark barn at 4:30 in the morning with the doors closed… and I still feel insecure about dancing badly and looking ridiculous. It’s crazy. I agree. And I’m working on it.

Some of the same patterns keep emerging: I’ll connect with a song, move and feel great, and then thoughts come in of describing the experience to someone, or writing about it, or some cool fantasy that involves dancing, or I’ll start seeing myself from the side and judging my movements; and I am back in my mind and not in my body, and my dancing immediately goes to crap.

I have a moment of just being in my body, and having fun, and then my mind has to jump in and ruin it. I wasn’t as sensitive to this before meditating, but now I really notice this dynamic. I can’t control my mind, and it won’t let me be. Like a crazy jealous ex, with boundary issues, it will show up uninvited and take over every experience that I might try to have without it.

I am dance strutting across the floor, headbanging, jazz hands out, breaking into some ungodly version of river dance for the chorus… and then I think about it and it all crashes. And I am standing panting in the dark, wondering if anyone has seen me, utterly unable to move again to the same song. It sucks… and it’s a visceral metaphor for the rest of my life.

I need a new metaphor… I don’t know if I can keep up my barn dancing practice everyday. But I am going to try. And I think it offers an interesting counterpoint to the stillness of meditation. I need to move. It’s good for my body. And I really need to work on my self-consciousness. And keep noticing how my mind keeps robbing me of moments of joy.

I sent Sam a link to this thoughtful short piece by Rabbi Simon Jacobson, entitled “Can a Maskil Dance,” as I thought it would resonate to some degree. But the profound, raw truth of my friend’s words and his final sentence surpass any polished piece. While witnessing his struggle to break through this barrier, I once again I find myself resuming dialogue with the wonderful and deceptively simple dvar Torah by the Izhbitzer rebbe. It will, it seems, continue to inform and enlighten me, possibly for the rest of my life.

[1] When my family lived in Australia, my father was often mistaken for Yonadav’s father, Uri, so I feel an affinity for Yonadav, as my ” doppelganger sibling.”

[2]  In this week’s portion of Toledot (Gen. 26:3), God tells Isaac: “Sojourn in this land, and I will be with you, and will bless you…” God specifically positions Isaac in Canaan, and it is there that “….to your seed, I will give all these countries, and I will perform the oath which I swore to Abraham your father…” (continuation of Gen. 26:3).

[3] Interestingly, we have a midrash portraying Isaac as definitively seeing and not blind, just before the Akedah occurs. “What did [Abraham]  see? He saw a cloud hovering on the mountain. He said [to himself]: It seems that this is the place that the Holy One, blessed be He, told me to sacrifice my son there. He said to him: Isaac, my son, do you see what I see? [Isaac] answered: Yes. He said to his two servants: Do you see what I see? They answered: No. He said: Since you do not see, “stay here with the ass”” (Bereshit Rabbah 56:2, ed. Theodor-Albeck, 595-6, translation by Marc Bregman from his article “Aqedah: Midrash as Visualisation”, Journal of Textual Reasoning, 2:1 (2003).

[4] I thank Hillel Spielman for his valuable comments that led to these insights and to others in this essay.

[5] The Israelite nation, outsiders to the nations of the world, with no homeland as of yet, following their God, likewise wander in the desert. They seem to be acting out Moses’ earlier script. Moses himself finds himself meandering through the desert for a second lot of 40 years, as if the first were not enough. Elijah, who similarly does not find his place in society, due to his fiery nature, also spends 40 days in the desert.

[6] Sifrei Deut. 357.

[7] Shemot Rabbah 2:2 and onwards.

[8] For the purposes of this essay, I am not differentiating between being and doing, which is a different binary, though a very interesting one worthy of extensive discussion. I address it briefly in this blog post.

About the Author
Yael Unterman is a Jerusalem-based international author, lecturer, Bibliodrama facilitator and life coach. Her first book "Nehama Leibowitz, Teacher and Bible Scholar" was a finalist in the 2009 National Jewish Book Awards . Her second book, a collection of stories that (mostly) fiction, "The Hidden of Things: Twelve Stories of Love & Longing", was a finalist for the USA Best Book Awards. www.yaelunterman.com
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