Wednesday, 02 Oct 2013

Written by Rabbi Larry Tabick

In the Reform and Liberal movements, we don’t usually read the ‘begots,’ the genealogies in Genesis. (I do in my community, but that is my personal meshugas, my eccentricity. I like to read the whole Torah over 3 years, like the late Rabbi Jakob Kokotek used to in Belsize Square Synagogue.)

Although these ‘begots’ are not, on the whole, especially interesting, they do on occasion offer little gems, or at least some of the comments on them do, if you know where and how to look.
One of these comments relates to Genesis 10:26-29. These verses read as follows:

Yoktan begot Almodad, Shelef, Chatzarmavet, Yerach, Hadoram, Uzal, Diklah, Oval, Avima’el, Sh’va, Ofir, Chavilah, and Yovav; all these were the descendants of Yoktan.

Not at first sight, the most exciting of verses! But who was this Yoktan? He is the second son of Ever (from whose name the term ‘Hebrew’ derives), while Ever in turn is the great-grandson of Shem, Noah’s eldest son. A couple of the descendants of Yoktan (Ofir and Chavilah) also figure as place names, but otherwise little or nothing more is ever heard of them.

This is all very interesting, I’m sure, but are their any ‘secrets’ or ‘messages’ hidden in these verses, any ‘lessons’ that we should be learning?

The classical bible commentator Rashi, following the midrash Bereshit Rabbah (6:4 & 37:7), wonders why Yoktan should have been privileged to have thirteen sons. (Even more than Jacob who became Israel!) The answer, he says, is in his name. Yoktan means ‘made small,’ from katan (‘small’).  He was worthy of so many children because of his humility. But why should humility have this result?

This question was addressed by Rabbi Avraham Hayyim ben Gedaliah of Zlatchov (1750-1816), one of the lesser known disciples of the Maggid of Mezritch, successor to the Ba’al Shem Tov, founder of the Hasidic movement. Here is what he has to say:

We must understand this worthiness on account of smallness that allowed him to establish clans [even] in the Generation of the Dispersion who ‘said to one another, Come let us built [a city]’ (Genesis 11:3,4). It is possible to say that the real descendants of the righteous are their good deeds. [Thus the verse] comes only to show us that the total of the clans that he established was thirteen, which is [the same as] the numerical value of [the word] ’eCHaD (‘one’). Essentially, [it intends] to show us that because he made himself small, he was worthy of being attached to the One who rests upon ‘the contrite and lowly in spirit’ (Isaiah 57:15).
Abraham Hayyim ben Gedaliah of Zlatchov, Orach LeHayyim (‘A Way to Life’ [Proverbs 10:17]) (Jerusalem, 1960), p.36.

The rabbi of Zlatchov points out that Yoktan’s humility was all the more remarkable in the Generation of the Dispersion, when the attempt to build a tower up to heaven resulted in the people being dispersed throughout the world, with mutually unintelligible languages, as described in the very next chapter of Genesis. That attempt must be the supreme example in biblical literature of hubris, of human arrogance. Yoktan must have been humble indeed!

Next, following a midrash (Bereshit Rabbah 30:6), Avraham of Zlatchov suggests that perhaps Yoktan’s children aren’t actual children, or at least, that they symbolize more than real children: ‘It is possible,’ he says, ‘that the real descendants of the righteous are their good deeds’ – i.e., rather than their descendants. So, why does Yoktan have thirteen descendants?

Thirteen, the Zlatchover suggests, is not some random number. We know that thirteen is supposed to be the number of attributes of God as listed in Exodus 34:6-7, which we recite innumerable times during Yom Kippur. But R. Avraham notes that thirteen is also the numerical value of the word ’echad (‘One’) which characterises God, according to the first line of the Shema‘. (It works out like this: ’echad is made up of three letters, each of which has a numerical value, thus, ’alef = 1, chet = 8, dalet = 4; total = 13). Thirteen thus represents the divinity.

So, according to the Rabbi of Zlatchov, it would appear that Yoktan’s humility wasn’t a case of having low self-esteem. It was a deliberate spiritual choice, and because of that choice, Yoktan was worthy of having the spirit of God rest upon him. Hence, his thirteen children, or, if you prefer, his good deeds that lived on after him.

What is the Zlatchover trying to tell us? He is not just commenting on the Torah. He is suggesting that it is not enough for us to be good people. The world is filled with good people, and yet it also seems full of violence and evil. We need to be humble, not because we might have low self-esteem, but because we live in God’s world and in God’s presence. We need to recognise that God lives within us, and within all human beings, and within the natural world. Only then can our good deeds have real lasting value.

We live in a world of arrogance. We build Towers of Babel in reality and in our minds, Towers that look great on paper but which bring in their wake the destruction of the environment and the oppression of others. We imagine that all will be well with our world, despite all the damage we do to it and to each other. Only real humility, under God, can save us.

Rabbi Larry Tabick
Ordained LBC 1976

The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.