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Honor, Friendship and Pursuing Ideals

Rav Yitzchak Blau
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Understanding Aggada
Yeshivat Har Etzion

Shiur #10: Honor, Friendship and Pursuing Ideals


By Rav Yitzchak Blau


Rabbi Abba said: "The Holy One, Blessed be He, seized Yeravam by his garment and said to him 'Repent, and I, you and [King David,] the son of Yishai will walk together in Gan Eden.' Yeravam asked, 'Who will be first?'  [God answered:] 'The son of Yishai will be first.'  {Yeravam responded:] 'Then I am not interested.' (Sanhedrin 102a)


This story certainly conveys the destructive potential of human egotism.  Yeravam turns down a choice for a portion in the World to Come simply because David Ha-melekh will receive a more prominent position.  Rabbi Ya'akov Ettlinger, in his Arukh La-Ner, finds an additional element in this tale.  He notes that God's original offer was "I, you and the son of Yishai;" the ordering of the three parties implies that Hashem was giving Yeravam the opportunity to come before David.  Rabbi Ettlinger indeed suggests that the original offer did involve Yeravam coming first, as it was based on his repenting out of the purest idealism; however, once Yeravam responded with the question of who would get to be first, it became clear that he was only capable of a much less refined type of teshuva, motivated by reward and the divine offer changed.


If Rabbi Ettlinger is correct, this story reminds us that the ravenous desire for honor ironically often prevents the hungry individual from satiating his appetite.  Those who strive after other ideals may end up admired by others, but those who shamelessly pursue it will only find themselves the subject of ridicule.  Honor falls into a broader category of achievements that one can only arrive at only through the pursuit of a different goal.  Both happiness and friendship may also depend on such an indirect approach.


C. S. Lewis says it beautifully in The Four Loves:


That is why those pathetic who simply "want friends" can never make any.  The very condition of having Friends is that we should want something else besides Friends.  Where the truthful answer to the question Do you see the same truth? would be "I see nothing and I don't care about the truth; I only want a Friend," no Friendship can arise - though Affection of course may.  There would be nothing for the Friendship to be about and Friendship must be about something, even if it were only an enthusiasm for dominoes or white mice.  Those who have nothing can share nothing; those who are going nowhere can have no fellow-travelers.


I am certainly not suggesting that choosing the right ideals leads to a life in which all desires and aspirations are achieved and all problems go away; this is patently false.  Nonetheless, I think that the degree to which achieving honor, happiness and friendship truly depends upon the pursuit of other ideals and not the direct pursuit of the above is striking.  Of course, one cannot pretend to want real ideals while only acting for the sake of honor; the indirect method only works when one has an authentic desire to strive for the noble.


The Material, the Spiritual and the National Revival


            Rav Avraham Yitzchak Kook offers a different reading of this aggada in his eulogy for Theodor Herzl (Ma'amarei Ha-ra'aya, pp. 94-99).  He sees Yeravam as representing Malkhut Yisra'el, and therefore, the gemara refers to the relationship between Malkhut Yehuda (David) and Malkhut Yisra'el (Yeravam).  To understand the relationship between these two monarchies, Rav Kook outlines his perspective on the goals of Am Yisra'el. 


            In Rabbi Kook's view, the Jewish nation must strive to achieve both material and spiritual success.  While the former works primarily on the universal plane which we share with non–Jews, the latter touches more on our particularistic vision.  Of course, it remains clear that the material success is the means and the spiritual success the ultimate goal; just as each individual tries to stay healthy in order to accomplish spiritual aspirations, so too the nation requires robustness in order to realize its own spiritual vision.


            Why do we need the material component?  On both individual and communal levels, material poverty often gets in the way of spiritual achievement.  The individual who cannot find a steady job may find it difficult to concentrate on study and prayer.  A national collective suffering the torments of persecution and exile may have analogous problems. 


            Perhaps there is a second factor as well.  In Orot (p. 104), Rav Kook argues that the full flourishing of Torah depends upon a national political entity because Torah is not restricted to hermits and ascetics; rather, it relates to every political, economic and social issue in a polity.  Note how the modern state of Israel has spawned a host of halakhic discussions regarding questions about military issues, national economics, the rights of minorities and so on.  Thus, the material success not only allows us the breathing space for the spiritual; it also expands the playing field for the spiritual.


            Yehuda and Yosef, the two leaders among Ya'akov's children, already embody these twin themes in the end of Sefer Bereishit.  Yosef provides material comfort in Egypt, and he excels on the universal plane in his interaction with the broader environment.  Yehuda provides the unique spiritual message of Torah.


The Davidic dynasty initially united the material and spiritual.  However, a rupture occurred and the kingdom divided into two.  For Rabbi Kook, this split is not just a political argument but also a divide between our two themes: Yeravam, a descendant of Yosef from the tribe of Efrayim, stood for the material success of the Jewish people; the descendents of David, on the other hand, passed on an ideal vision of our spiritual heritage.


While Rabbi Kook views the split as problematic, he argues that the two kingdoms could still have engaged in mutually beneficial interaction if not for the fact that Yeravam's pride interfered.  In our aggada from Sanhedrin, God’s offer means that each kingdom can provide what it is able to, and the joint effort will enable these partners to walk with God.


When Yeravam asks who will be first, God answers that the material flourishing represented by Yeravam must take a backseat to the essential goal of spiritual striving represented by David.  Yeravam refuses to accept such a hierarchy, and the partnership crumbles.  The rest of Jewish history thus reflects the problems of a split between the two realms.


Finally, Rav Kook sees these two themes emerging from the idea of a Mashiach ben Yosef and a Mashiach ben David: the former reflects the material efforts of Yosef while the latter represents the spiritual ideals of Yehuda.  According to Chazal, Mashiach ben Yosef dies because ultimately, it becomes clear that the spiritual goal is paramount.


Clearly, Rav Kook talks here not only about Herzl the man; he speaks in broader terms about secular Zionism in general.  In keeping with his fundamental orientation, Rabbi Kook grants it significant value, but he sees it as lacking something crucial: one must respect its desire to grant the Jewish people a state and a homeland as crucial elements of our vision; at the same time, when not animated by a spiritual perspective, such nationalism misses out on the most significant element of our worldview.  




Postscript to shiur 8b


            Two astute readers questioned me about the heroism of Nikanor.  They asked that he seems to risk his life for a material object, albeit an object for the Beit Ha-mikdash, and this seems to be anti–halakhic behavior.  Why celebrate a person who seemingly makes the incorrect choice?


            I found two commentaries that discuss this point.  Rabbi Yaakov Reisher, in his Iyun Yaakov, suggests that Nikanor relies on the rule that "sheluchei mitzva einan nizakin," messengers for a mitzva are not harmed.  This explanation is quite difficult, as the gemara (Kiddushin 39b) explicitly states that this principle does not apply in a situation of significant danger.  Indeed, based on this principle, we would not choose to drive recklessly on the way to giving a shiur


            Rabbi Chayim David Azulai (the Chida) gives a different answer in his Marit Ha-ayin.  He explains that Nikanor did not truly plan on clinging to the door as the sailors tossed it into the ocean; rather, Nikanor would have relented had they decided to cast it in.  He was simply asking that they wait longer to see if the sea would calm.  Any case of rough waters involves balancing the degree of danger with the desire to not rashly toss important items overboard.  According to the Chida, Nikanor was balancing these factors differently than the sailors and not giving up his life for a door.


            Lastly, one might investigate the possibility that he was willing to give up his life as an act of supererogation.  Does Halakha allow for such acts?  The Rambam (Yesodei Ha-torah, fifth chapter) says that in any case that Jewish law does not command martyrdom, it is forbidden to give up one’s life.  Other Rishonim allow acts of martyrdom even when not obligatory; however, even those other rabbinic voices might limit that possibility to scenarios in which the martyrdom enables the fulfillment of an obligation.  It seems unlikely that they would allow such an act from Nikanor when it would not have accomplished this goal.


            I thank these writers and all others who have commented on my shiur over the last year and a half.  I apologize to those to whom I have not yet responded to and hope to write back to all eventually.


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