Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Moral lessons from parshat Vayeitzei

Over-focus on the fine points of grammar, philology, and the meaning of particular pesukim might make us forget an important and overarching goal of learning Torah -- it is to make us into better human beings. Ralbag addresses this aspect in his commentary on Torah, by discussing what lessons we are to draw from the parsha, in terms of conduct and belief.

Of course, one can only derive these lessons once we arrive at the true meaning of the narrative. For how can one learn the Torah's lesson that X if the Torah never said X? Well, one could. But still, we would like to ascertain that the Torah actually said X.

This means that while I like many of the lessons Ralbag teaches, I might nitpick on whether the Biblical text really is teaching us this. Three first three lessons from Ralbag follow.
1. The first purpose is in traits, and that is that it is fitting for a person to listen to the voice of his parents. And therefore Scriptures testified that Yaakov's leaving from Beer Sheva was to go to Charan, as his parents instructed him.

2. The second purpose is in traits, and that is that it is fitting for a person, when he takes his actions, to do them with zeal, and not be lazy in it. For laziness is an extremely disgraceful trait, which distances a person from all completeness. And therefore, the Torah relates that Yaakov slept in that place because the sun already set. And if not for this, he would not have been lazy in traveling further on that day. And for this reason, as well, it mentioned that he already got up {early} in the morning to go on his way.

3. The third purpose is in traits, and that is that it is not fitting for a person to put himself into danger. And therefore, it related that Yaakov already slept there because the sun set, because at night, danger is found on the road. And therefore, it is fitting for a person to distance himself from traveling on the road at night, if not in a matter that he is certain to be safe from danger.

All good lessons. In terms of lesson (1), this close reading seems more like a derash that Ralbag is innovating.

Yes, it says that he went to Charan, and it duplicates what was stated before, and indeed it is irregular because he didn't actually arrive at that point in Charan. But reading like either Rav Saadia Gaon or Ibn Ezra, it works out fine. And the meaning is that Yaakov set out from Beer Sheva on his trip towards Charan. And this is either Charan-ward, or else that he arrived in Charan, but the narrative subsequently zooms from the macro-scale to the micro-scale. And there are good stylistic reasons for this which don't have to do particularly with kibbud av vaem. Even so, Yaakov likely did this as kibbud av vaEm. Yes, it was to flee from Esav so as not to be killed, and it was to get married, but even so, both his mother and father instructed him to do this, and so he was following their request.

In terms of (2), I see the merit of the idea. He traveled until it was dark, and arose early in the morning to continue of his way. But is the vayashkem baboker really zeal, or is it stylistically what is done after a sleeping and a having a dream? Avimelech also arises in the morning after his prophetic dream (Bereishit 20). And he got up early to make the pillar, even though after he erects the pillar he continues on his way. And we don't really know how slowly he traveled, just that he stopped at night, presumably because it is dangerous or inefficient to travel in this way at night. And this might be typical safe and efficient travel. Even so, we do get the overall impression of Yaakov as a dedicated worker and actor. See e.g. his conversation with the shepherds and how he watches over the sheep.

In terms of (3), yes, it could indeed be because it was not safe to travel at night.

So one can "nitpick" each of these items. But on the other hand, because these lessons depend on a particular interpretation, we can derive just how Ralbag interpreted these pesukim -- even where he didn't already spell it out in his regular commentary.

Perhaps more later.

1 comment:

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