The ultimate lesson of Hanukkah is for world peace that we hope and pray for but have not yet achieved. Rabbi Nir Menussi gives us a mirror to illuminate how this may be brought about.
This week, I listened to two podcasts by Rabbi Nir Menussi *2, which address this issue of individual and communal behaviour change. Behaviour change for good is called “teshuva” – return to your better self in Hebrew.
In the first podcast, Awakening Teshuvah,*3 Rabbi Menussi was asked whether his weekly talks on the Torah lead people to change their ways. For example, to become more observant of the Jewish religion – “hozer be teshuvah” in Hebrew.
Rabbi Menussi explains:
“People awaken to teshuvah – self-improvement and spiritual growth – not when censured or rebuked, but when they are helped to recognize their sins on their own.
There is something inherently paradoxical about the awakening of Teshuvah. On the one hand, it must start from within. On the other hand, only the chick knows when to break out of its egg. If someone tries to hatch the egg, prematurely , its growth can be ruined. This is what criticism and rebuke often do. They make a person shrink back, thereby hindering their development… because teshuvah entails the unpleasant realization that we’re not living optimally, we react with defence mechanisms. These can manifest as either self-justification or self-flagellation. In either case, the result is the same. We further entrench ourselves in our everyday lifestyle and don’t change.”
The upshot of this paradox is that the ability to stir a person to Teshuvah is a subtle art.
In this week’s Torah portion, we see it masterfully demonstrated by Tamar, Judah’s daughter-in-law, in a way that changed history.
Let’s recall the story. Tamar marries Judah’s firstborn son, but he dies because of his sins, leaving her a childless widow. Following the Biblical laws of levirate marriage, she is married to the next brother, but he too sins and dies. Judah is now obligated to marry Tamar to his third son, but he is afraid that Tamar might have caused their deaths, unaware of his sons’ sins. So to buy time, Judah instructs Tamar to wait in her father’s house until the third son grows up.
Time passes, and Tamar sees that Judah is postponing the wedding indefinitely. She then concocts a daring plan.
Judah and Tamar, school of Rembrandt
She dresses up as a prostitute and seduces Judah himself at the crossroads. Having nothing to compensate her, he leaves her his staff, signet ring, and cloak as a deposit. The next day he sends a messenger to pay her and take back his belongings, but she is nowhere to be found.
Three months go by, and Tamar’s pregnancy becomes apparent. Judah – whose son Tamar is still officially betrothed – is furious that she has committed adultery and commands that she be burned at stake. In response, Tamar sends him the three articles she had received from him and adds vital sentences.
From the man to whom these belong, I am pregnant… Please recognize whose signet ring, cloak, and staff are these?
Notice Tamar’s words. She could have said, “I’m pregnant from you, and here’s the proof!” Yet she decided to use the third person.
“From the man to whom these belong I am pregnant.”
Only after this does she address Judah in the second person, and even then in a way that leaves things open.
“Please recognize whose signet ring, cloak, and staff are these?”
Tamar’s actions are ingenious. She had planned everything from the outset and now finds herself poised at the most crucial crossroads. If she remains silent, she would undoubtedly be put to death, but confronting Judah will publicly humiliate him, and then there’s no knowing what he’ll do. So, in her wisdom, she chooses a middle path. She presents Judah with a metaphorical mirror, allowing him to recognize his wrongdoings on his own and repent for them. Judah, in his pride, had climbed up a high tree. Tamar, in her humility, placed a ladder for him to climb down with.
The plan succeeds. Judah admits his guilt, and Tamar lives and gives birth to twins, who descend no other than King David and the future Messiah.
Point to ponder: People awaken to Teshuvah – self-improvement and spiritual growth – not when censured or rebuked, but when they are helped to recognize their sins on their own. However, this requires the helpers themselves to work on their self-rectification. If they degrade the other in any way, they will only hinder their progress. But if they approach them with a pure heart, they will awaken them to accurate, complete Teshuvah.
In the second podcast, The Secrets of Jewish Progress, Rabbi Menussi expounds on how social change comes about. He speaks about the brothers Jacob and Esau, rivals from birth, as they meet after twenty years and how their behaviour reflects on the long-term story of Western culture alongside the story of the Jews.
Peter Paul Rubens, The Reconciliation of Jacob and Esau, 1624.
“The king is dead; long live the king!”
This well-known cry is heard in monarchies whenever a new king is crowned. Part of what makes it powerful is that, at first, it sounds self-contradictory. How can we wish him a long life if the king is dead? We realize that the two kings mentioned are different people after a moment. This is intentional. It is meant to emphasize the totality of the change in rulers. The moment the old monarch dies, it’s as if he’s gone and forgotten, and from now on, the new monarch is the one and only king, the new exclusive, eternal bearer of the crown.
The existence of this custom is more than anecdotal. The pattern of erasing the past and starting with something completely new is deeply embedded in Western culture and comprises one of the most fundamental differences between Judaism.
After bidding farewell to Esau, the Torah enumerates the great people and kings destined to come from him. The Torah also includes a list of “kings who ruled the land of Edom before the children of Israel had a king.” After each king is named, it is written that he died and immediately afterwards, a new king reigned in his place.
According to tradition, Edom represents Rome or the West. The description of the kings of Edom can therefore be seen as alluding to a recurring pattern characterizing Western civilization. Western history is replete with revolutions attempting to destroy what came before and establish a new order that promises to solve all previous problems – until, of course, a new order is overthrown by the next revolution.
A HISTORY OF UPHEAVALS
The hedonistic cultures of Greece and Rome were replaced by a Christian theology espousing asceticism and abstinence, only later to be replaced by worldly secularism. The French revolution rebelled against the ancien régime but deteriorated into a reign of terror that had to fall before it could become a democracy. The communist revolution overturned the Czarist rule but quickly turned into a dictatorship that eventually collapsed.
The “he died… he reigned” dynamic is found even in the history of science, art, and culture. Antitheses refute these; new paradigms topple the old, modern movements succeed outdated ones – and each time, there’s the feeling that this is “the last word,” the pinnacle of progress.
We are now witnessing the fallout of several such hasty revolutions:
- Drunk on smartphone technology, society was quick to equip every child with their screen of delights. It took a whole generation to begin seeing the resulting damage and pedalling back with apps like YouTube Kids and Google Families.
- The leaders of the sexual revolution broke almost all traditional sexual mores, leaving society to deal with children exposed to pornography, a loneliness epidemic, and a wave of “me-too” litigants.
- A short-sighted academic fad portrayed all gender differences as oppressive “social constructs,” and now a whole generation of parents and educators are facing an unprecedented wave of gender-confused children seeking to do irreversible damage to their bodies.
MY OWN SLOW PACE
We can see this pattern with Esau himself. In a moment of fatigue, he scorns his birthright and sells it to Jacob for some lentil stew, but later regrets it and claims he was tricked into it. One moment he honours his father, preparing a meal for him, and the next, he starts making plans for what he’ll do after his father passes away.
Esau selling his birthright to Jacob by Matthias Stom, 1640s.
First, he wants to kill Jacob, but further down the line embraces him and suggests they live together. Western revolutions are rooted in the fluctuating character of their founder. Opposite Esau stands Jacob, who embodies a different approach. When the brothers unite, and Esau invites Jacob to join him, the younger brother replies in the following words:
“My master [i.e. Esau] knows that the children are tender, and the flocks and the cattle, which are raising their young, depend upon me… Now, let my master go ahead before his servant, and I will move at my own slow pace, according to the pace of the work that is before me and according to the pace of the children, until I come to my master, to Seir.”
The keywords here are “I will move at my own slow pace.” Jacob doesn’t rule out joining Esau. He, too, wants all the beautiful things Esau wants. But, Jacob doesn’t want to act hastily. He wants to advance “toe to heel,” each foot touching the previous one as he befits his name. He doesn’t want to rush things and discover he left something behind.
What causes Jacob to proceed so slowly? Two factors are noted:
“according to the pace of the work that is before me”
and “according to the pace of the children.”
The Hebrew term used here for “according to the pace of” is le-Regel, which comes from the word for “leg.” The verse thus brings to mind two weights attached to the legs, slowing the walker’s pace.
The first is work. On a superficial level, this refers to Jacob’s sheep and cattle. However, in another place, the Sages tell us the word “work” alludes to the building of the Sanctuary. “Work” can be interpreted as the ambition to turn this world into a dwelling place for the Divine Presence. Jacob isn’t interested only in practical solutions that “work,” but in life based on spirituality and an affinity for what’s beyond this world.
The second consideration is children, representing concern for the next generation. The novel and the revolutionary are not necessarily suited to the tender souls of children, nor every generation. Multi-generational thinking allows us to examine things from a broader, more far-seeing perspective. But, unfortunately, it tends to break on adopting new ideas favouring a stable and flourishing future.
SUSPECT THE NEW
Jacob’s level-headed approach doesn’t necessarily state that “the new is forbidden according to the Torah,” but it does view innovation with some wariness. Is it indeed all good? What is hidden within it? Does it sit well with the old ways? The word “new” in Hebrew, “chadash,” is made up of the same letters as the word for the suspect, “chashad.” So the new is something to be suspected.
This is the secret of Jewish progress. We don’t get mired in the past, but we also don’t throw it away; we carry it with us towards the future. We don’t march in place, but we also don’t jump ahead; we walk with moderation step by step. We aren’t satisfied with the old interpretations, but we also don’t dismiss them; we add to the new variations that respond to the times.
Point to ponder: The Sages say, “the innovator has the lower hand.” The simple meaning is that he who seeks to change the status quo is always at a disadvantage. But, I heard from Rabbi Moshe Genuth a new interpretation of this expression, both conservative and revolutionary. Anyone who wants to innovate must place their hand on the lowest, earliest level of the structure, and from there, raise the whole system upward. Innovators need to take and include everything before them and elevate it with them. Their innovations will connect to previous generations, be accepted by all, and carry the past into the future.
- The Hill lessons from London: You can’t fix Jihad by A.J. Caschetta, February 26, 2020
- Nir Menussi, identified on the Aish Website, is an author, public speaker and teacher. He has written and edited several books on Kabbalah and Hassidut and lectures widely in Israel and abroad. His work is characterized by its unique combination of scholarly knowledge, psychological depth, and clear, lucid explanations.
- Nir Menussi Podcast, Points to Ponder Awakening Teshuvah
- Nir Menussi Podcast, Points to Ponder The Secrets of Jewish Progress