Shiur #21: Vayikra Rabba 20:2 “How (Not) to Enjoy Life”

  • Dr. Moshe Simon-Shoshan

Vayikra Rabba 20:2 picks up on the previous petichta’s concern with suffering in this world, but from a different angle. As in previous midrashim, this petichta surveys a series of biblical figures in order to find examples of its main point.


The opening of this section is a fairly straightforward explication of the first half of the petichta verse:


Another exposition of the text,

"After the death of the two sons of Aaron."

R. Levi opened his discourse by citing:

"I say unto the arrogant (la-hollelim): Deal not arrogantly" (Tehillim 75:5). "La-hollelim" means "to those who create confusion,"

those whose hearts are full of evil intrigues. 

R. Levi used to call them "woe-makers"

because they bring woe into the world.


Immediately after the midrash cites the line from the verse, it explains the difficult word "hollelim."  Unfortunately, the midrash translates this word with an Aramaic word "maarbvaya," whose own meaning is not entirely clear. The Soncino translation used above renders the word, “those who create confusion.” Michael Sokoloff, in Dictionary of Palestinian Aramaic, suggested “one who creates destruction” or “sadness.”


R. Levi suggests another translation of hollelim - “allaya.The meaning of this word is also in dispute; while Soncino renders the word
“woe makers,” Sokoloff uses almost the exact opposite meaning, “revelers.” This would appear to be based on the assumption that hollelim comes from the root hallel, “to rejoice.” This reading has the advantage of picking up on the larger theme of the petichta, expressed in the next line, that only the wicked rejoice in this world:


            "And to the wicked: Lift not up the horn "(Tehillim, ibid.).

The Holy One, blessed be He, said to the wicked:

"The righteous were never happy in this world of Mine,

and you seek to be happy!"


The connection between the second half of the petichta verse, “And to the wicked: Lift not up the horn,” and the midrash’s conclusion about being happy in this world is not immediately apparent. The image of “raising a horn” in the Bible generally carries a meaning of something along the lines of “to triumph.” The midrash here, however, apparently understands the term as meaning "to rejoice." Perhaps it refers to blowing a shofar in celebration.


The phrase, “The righteous are never happy in this world of Mine, and you seek to be happy,” is the central message of the petichta. The rest of the passage will be devoted to providing illustrations of this point. This is quite a sobering message, but it is not clear exactly what it means. Does it mean that, contrary to R. Nachman of Breslov’s famous dictum that “it is a great mitzvah to always be happy,” in fact happiness is an inappropriate emotion for this world? This is one possible reading. However, based on the continuation of the petichta, it seems to mean something slightly different. God makes the righteous suffer in this world, and it is for this reason that they are never happy. Once the righteous are unhappy, it is presumptuous of the wicked to enjoy themselves either.


One way or another, this statement represents a remarkably pessimistic worldview, in which this world is defined by suffering and unhappiness. It is important to recognize that such a view has an important, though hardly exclusive, place in rabbinic thought.


The rest of the petichta consists of a series of illustrations of Biblical figures who suffered and where unhappy in this world: Adam, Avraham, Yisrael, God Himself as it where, and finally Elisheva, daughter of Aminadav.


Not coincidentally, the midrash begins with Adam:


Adam was never happy in this world of Mine,

and you seek to be happy!

Resh Lakish, in the name of R. Shimon the son of Menasya, said:

The apple of Adam's heel outshone the globe of the sun;

how much more so the brightness of his face!

Nor need you wonder -

In the ordinary way, if a person makes serving trays,

one for himself and one for his household,

whose will he make more beautiful?

Not his own?

Similarly, Adam was created for the service of the Holy One, blessed be He, and the globe of the sun for the service of mankind.  


Each section begins with a restatement of the petichta’s central message, specifying the individual who is about to be discussed, “X was never happy in this world of Mine.” However, in this case, the midrash does not immediately proceed to describe in what way Adam was unhappy in this world. Rather, it presents a description of Adam’s luminous nature. This passage represents part of a larger tradition that Adam was originally created as a sort of super-human, or even quasi-divine, being. He was tremendously large and had extraordinary powers. Similarly, he glowed with a great light, so great that even his heel out-shown sun.  It was only after sinning that Adam was reduced to the humble human form we know today. 


Adam’s great stature, in this case expressed by his brilliant luminescence, reflects his position in the universe. Man is the only being in the universe created expressly for God’s purposes; as such, he is more prominent than even the sun.


The midrash continues to describes Adam’s great stature:


R. Levi said in the name of R. Chama the son of Chanina:

The Holy One, blessed be He,

fitted up for him thirteen canopies in the Garden of Eden,

as it says,

"You were in Eden, the garden of God;

every precious stone was your covering -

the cornelian, the topaz, and the emerald, the beryl, the onyx,

and the jasper, the sapphire, the carbuncle, and the smaragad, and gold;

the workmanship of your settings and of your sockets was in you.

In the day that you were created, they were prepared (Yechezkel 28:13).

R. Shimon ben Lakish said there were eleven canopies,

and our Rabbis say there were ten.

And they are not in disagreement.

The authority who reckons them as thirteen makes the expression.

"Every precious stone was your covering" represent three.

The authority who reckons them as eleven makes these words represent one, while the authority who reckons them as ten

does not make these words represent even one.


Taken out of context, this verse from Yechezkel appears to be speaking about Adam. In fact, this verse is taken from a prophecy directed at the king of Tyre, whom the prophet metaphorically compares to Adam.  The midrash removes any reference to the king of Tyre and transforms the verse into one describing Adam himself. The midrash portrays Adam as surrounded by precious gems and metals in Eden; the rabbis debate exactly how many of these “canopies” actually surrounded Adam. However they all agree that Adam’s existence in Eden was a glorious one.


Thus far, we still have no hint as to how it is that Adam was “never happy in this world;” indeed, we have only seen reasons why Adam should have been happy with his lot. Now, at last, the midrash gets to its point:


And after all this glory, he is told:

"For dust you are, and unto dust shall you return (Bereishit 3:19)!


The message seems straight out of Kohelet: all of man’s greatness and accomplishments are for naught. Man is mortal and he can not take his glory and accomplishments to the grave. However, the midrash leaves out one crucial detail in its account of Adam’s tragic fate; it does not mention that Adam was only expelled from the Garden and condemned to mortality because of his sin. The theme of this passage is the suffering and death of the righteous and their blameless in this world, and to mention Adam’s sin would undermine this theme. Instead, Adam is portrayed as an innocent whose glorious reign in Eden ended tragically with his death.


Now the midrash moves on to Avraham, who we learn did not rejoice in this world either:


Abraham was not happy in this world of Mine,

and you seek to be happy!

A son was born to him when he was a hundred years old,

and in the end the Holy One, blessed be He, said to him:

"Take now your son... and offer him... for a burnt-offering (Bereishit 22:2)!

Avraham went a distance of three days’ journey.

After three days, he perceived a cloud resting on the top of a mountain.

Said he to Yitzchak: "My son, do you see what I see?"

"Yes," he answered him.

"What do you see?" he inquired.

He told him: "I see a cloud resting on the top of the mountain."

He said to Yishmael and Eliezer: "Do you see anything?"

"No," they answered him.

Said he to them:

"Since you perceive nothing and this ass perceives nothing,

'Abide you here with (im) the ass" (ibid., 22:5).

By the expression "im the ass,"

he implied that they were a people (am) resembling the ass.

He took Yitzchak his son and led him up mountains and down hills.

He took him up on one of the mountains,

built an altar,

arranged the wood,

prepared the altar pile,

and took the knife to slay him.

Had not an angel from heaven called him,

Isaac would have already been slain.


This passage is a retelling of the story of the binding of Yitzchak. The main detail that it adds to the biblical account is the fact that only Avraham and Isaac, and not Yishmael and Eliezer, saw the smoke rising from Mount Moriah. As result, Avraham left Yishmael and Eliezer with the ass, while he and Isaac went up to the sacrifice. This added scene emphasizes that only Isaac was the inheritor of God’s special relationship with God; Avraham’s other two potential inheritors were left behind, of no more significance than the donkey.


The midrashic story teller also adds some details that subtly emphasize the tragic drama of the akeidah. He begins the story by noting that Isaac was finally born to Avraham after he was one hundred years old, emphasizing just how devastating the order to sacrifice Isaac must have been for Avraham. The midrash ends its retelling by noting, “Had not an angel from heaven called him, Isaac would have already been slain.” This emphasizes just how close Avraham came to actually killing Isaac.


Following the story, the midrash adds in two additional scenes that describe the responses of the various characters to the events on Mount Moriah. The first of these portrays Isaac and Sarah:


There is proof that this is so,

for Isaac returned to his mother and she said to him:

"Where have you been, my son?"

Said he to her:

"My father took me and led me up mountains and down hills," etc.

"Alas," she said, "for the son of a hapless woman! 

Had it not been for the angel you would by now have been slain!"

"Yes," he said to her.

Thereupon, she uttered six cries, corresponding to the six blasts.

It has been said:

She had scarcely finished speaking when she died.

Hence it is written,

"And Avraham came to mourn for Sarah, and to weep for her" (ibid., 23:2).

Where did he come from?

R. Judah son of R. Simon said: He came from Mount Moriah.


This scene describes Sarah’s suffering and possible death as a result of hearing about the events of the akeida. When she understood just how close her son came to dying that day, it was too much for her to bear. The notion that Sarah died as result of the akeida is a natural midrashic deduction from the fact that the announcement of Sarah’s death comes almost immediately after the story of the akeida in the Torah.


This scene fits in perfectly with the overall theme of the petichta, the suffering of the righteous in this world. It is interesting that the midrash does not explicitly list Sarah as one of the Biblical figures who did not have any enjoyment in this world. The next scene, however, would appear to undermine the petichta’s argument with regard to Abraham:


Now Abraham harbored doubts in his heart and thought:

Perhaps, heaven forefend,

some disqualifying blemish has been found in him

and his offering had not been accepted.

A heavenly voice went forth and said to him:

"Go your way, eat your bread with joy...for God has already accepted your works" (Kohelet 9:7).


Avraham was concerned that his sacrifice of Isaac/the ram was not acceptable to God because of some blemish, but God reassured Avraham that his sacrifice was indeed accepted. The midrash ends its account of Avraham’s life with God telling him to “eat your bread with joy.” Thus, it seems that God actually commanded Abraham to be happy! This directly contradicts the notion that the righteous are not happy in this world.


This would appear to be a prime example of the way in which the midrash is not afraid to embrace contradictory ideas and interpretations. Truth, for the rabbis, is a complex and multifaceted matter, which sometimes can only be expressed through contradictions.


Now the midrash turns away from individuals to two larger entities, Israel and God.  They, too, do not rejoice in this world:


Israel did not enjoy happiness in this world of Mine,

as may be inferred from the fact that it does not say:

"Israel rejoiced in his Maker,"

but "shall rejoice" (Tehillim 149:2),

as much as to say:

They are destined to rejoice in the works of the Holy One,

blessed be He, in the Time to Come.


The Holy One, blessed be He, if the expression be permitted,

did not enjoy happiness in this world of His,

as may be inferred from the fact that it does not say,

"The Lord rejoiced in His works"

but, "The Lord will rejoice" (ibid., 104:31),

as much as to say:

The Holy One, blessed be He, will in the Time to Come

rejoice in the works of the righteous.

Both God and Israel defer all of their rejoicing until the World to Come. At that juncture, they will rejoice in each other; Israel will celebrate God’s deeds and God will celebrate the deeds of the righteous.


The midrash learns this from two instances in Tehillim in which the verb form yismach is used, one with reference to Israel and once with reference to God. In both cases, this form is probably best understood as a wish or a desire, “Let Israel rejoice” and “May the Lord rejoice.” However, the midrash understands this term as being a future tense; hence, these verses describe God and Israel as celebrating only in the future and not in the present.


At this point, the midrash has fairly well made its case that this world is one of pain and suffering, even, or especially, for the righteous. This world is not one in which it is worthy to be happy. It has cited two examples of great Biblical personages, as well a proof from Israel and God Himself. The midrash could easily rest its case here, but the midrash here does not simply have an ideological agenda - it also has an interpretive and aesthetic agenda. As a petichta, this section must ultimately lead us to the parasha verse, connecting it with the petichta verse. To this end, the midrash supplies us with one more example:


Elisheva the daughter of Amminadav did not enjoy happiness in the world.

True, she witnessed five crowns [attained by her relatives] in one day:

her brother-in-law was a king,

her brother was a prince,

her husband was High Priest,

her two sons were both Deputy High Priests,

her grandson Phinehas was a Priest anointed for war.

But when her sons entered to offer incense and were burnt,

her joy was changed to mourning.

Thus it is written,

"After the death of the two sons of Aaron."


This is perhaps the most poignant example in the petichta of the tragic nature of the human condition. It illustrates how all a person’s happiness can be wiped out in an instant and be replaced with unspeakable pain. Elisheva was a daughter of the princely house of Judah who married into the greatest family of the tribe of Levi. Her position within Israel was thus unequalled among women. She was the matriarch of the priestly clan, married to the founding high priest himself. She was the sibling of one of the most prominent leaders in Israel, Nachshon ben Aminadav, prince of Judah, and her brother-in-law was Moshe himself. She had much satisfaction to take from the accomplishments of her various relatives.  But in an instant all of this became irrelevant, as her two sons were taken from her by God.


As in the previous petichta, this petichta portrays the deaths of Aaron’s sons as a tragic, apparently unjustified event. This petichta adds an extra perspective on this event - we are urged to look at it from the point of view of the victim’s mother. This adds a dimension of sorrow and suffering which absent from the biblical text, in which Nadav and Avihu are identified only as Aaron’s sons. This is also an example of the midrash encouraging us to take a woman’s perspective when the Bible has ignored it. It should be clear, however, that this is no feminist text; Elisheva in this midrash has no identity of her own. For good and for bad, she exists through the accomplishments and experiences of her male relatives.