Last night, Motzei Shabbos, I celebrated the bar mitzvah of my nephew, Avreimi. MAZAL tov! Among the joyous family members whom we don’t see often enough was his brother, Moishe — the beautiful yid in the pic above with the machine gun strapped across his chest. He was home briefly from reserve duty … in Gaza.
That’s my son, Shalom, with him.
Me and my departed brother, peace unto him, were raised as non-religious, average assimilated American Jews, and both became hassidim (of different shades) in our twenties and moved to Israel, where we found our wives and raised our kids within our respective communities. Our children always enjoyed our get-togethers, but since Moishe started shedding his hassidic ways, about a decade ago, a dark cloud of estrangement began to creep in … until last night. We all felt overwhelming desire to connect, as well as profound appreciation for what he’s doing to protect us.
I was asked to speak. For my brother’s sake – who always enjoyed a good laugh – I thought I would just emphasize my identification with Avreimi, the youngest in his clan, as I’m the youngest in mine, and then suggest a parallel to our present Torah portion about the younger brother, Yaacov Avinu, struggling to find his place of prominence within his holy family.
I could imagine my bro cracking up at my attempt to finally get one over on him!
Then it dawned on me. This is actually a powerful Jewish truth. Yaacov is one of many “youngests” in Jewish history who ended up being incredible leaders. Yitzhak, Yosef, Moshe & Dovid are just the beginning of the illustrious list. There’s also that great adage in Pirkei Avos (ch. 4) about not staring at the external vessel, but its contents – as a dispute with the previous teaching that discourages us to learn from young people (according to the authoritative Rav Bartanura). It’s true that youth is often characterized by immaturity, but not always. That’s the external part of the vessel. Sometimes the contents, the inner reality of the youngster, is unbelievably mature, and thus very fitting to learn from.
I then recalled a Meor V’shemesh, a sacred hassidic Torah commentary by Polish Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Halevi Epstein (1753-1825), which explains the strangeness of Amram, Moshe’s father, taking Yoheved, his aunt, who was much older than him, as a wife. When the Torah would be given at Sinai, marrying one’s aunt would become a grave sin – so why, he asks, didn’t Amram follow the tradition that the whole Torah should be intuitively kept by our forefathers even before it was given??
This great Torah scholar and saint explains that Jewish marriage requires that the husband is spiritually “bigger” than his wife, so that she can be receptive to his guidance, and that this dynamic is reflected in the common practice to marry a younger woman. And while it happens that the wife may be a few years older, it’s inconceivable to marry a woman from an earlier generation (although sometimes that happens in reverse). Thus, Amram’s marriage was not only strange due to her being his aunt, and how much older she was, but because Yoheved was actually, in real life, greater than Amram (she was proactively encouraging the enslaved Israelites to never despair and keep up a healthy family life, while Amram, for a period, had been profoundly pessimistic about salvation and respectively tried to discourage the people from procreating within such a hell hole).
Indeed, concludes the Meor V’shemesh, we must all conclude that such dramatic upending of a sacred principle of couplehood was orchestrated from above in order for a Moshe Rabbeinu to be born, as he was meant to bring us the Torah and it’s a golden principle of Torah learning that we should learn from ANY one who teaches the truth. It can be from a very young child, a water carrier, a woman. If they’re giving over the real thing, we must embrace it …
Back to Yaacov. The greatness which his older bro needed to recognize in him was not some momentary enlightenment, but because his whole life was devoted to being a “dweller in the tents” of Torah learning, in contrast to Esaav’s immersion in the culture of “trapping (deceiving) in the fields.” They were two entirely different lifestyles, about which it should have been obvious who was the rabbi. Alas, Esaav refused to receive any spiritual guidance from Yaacov, to the extent that our Sages claimed a metaphysical principle that “Esaav hates Yaacov.”
The actual language is that it’s “HALAKHA,” Jewish law, that this hatred exists. What a strange language. Jewish law always tells us about how to DO something. What does this idea tell us to DO??
It’s usually explained as the need to be suspicious of any gentile affection for the Jewish people. Esaav was a brother turned vicious enemy, and so too we must be prepared for any gentile brotherliness to really be a wolf in sheep’s clothing.
I’ve always had a hard time with this interpretation, since the language specifies only Esaav, not all gentiles. Those with the specific traits of Esaav should be included, but certainly not every single goy! In fact, we have another principle that there are hasidei umos ha’olam, “pious amongst the nations.” So why is this “halakha” taught without immediate clarification that we’re only referring to those obviously infected by antisemitism??
Indeed, this is one of the conflicts I have with the hassidic education that my grandchildren receive. While I’ve educated my children to fully embrace the hassidic world, I did so for them to gain the tremendous spiritual wealth contained within that culture, knowing that I’d supplement that with the truths I had gained from my more worldly education. But now my kids, who deeply respect this fine balance I taught them, don’t have the time, nor passion, to imbue their own kids with it. Thus I hold my breath and pray for whatever opportunities I have to broaden their horizons …
And so it was, this last Shabbos, right before the Bar Mitzvah, that I was telling my grandchildren a story I had read about how some righteous gentiles — Israeli Bedouin — saved numerous Jews from that horrendous massacre on October 7. Suddenly, my 14 yr grandson perked up and asked: “But how can that be if it’s HALAKHA that Esaav hates Yaacov??!
All eyes hovered in my direction, awaiting my umbrage.
Then he smiled, and gave one of the best punchlines I’ve ever heard:
“My teacher told us that HASSIDIM NEVER OBSESS OVER HALAKHA!”
Yes, in this war, we need hassidim. TRUE hassidim. Soldiers, within or without uniform, to fight for the spiritual CONTENT driving our nation. Forget all the external shtick of tribal pride and about who has a monopoly on halakha, and let’s get on with the real work of simply helping each other find our place within the holy Torah.
The palpable love between these cousins strengthened my belief that this is a very real, attainable goal.