Living with the Tension
Yaakov Avinu represents the highest level of perfection among the Avos. Avraham Avinu produced a Yishmael; Yitzchak Avinu produced an Esav. But Yaakov’s progeny became the Twelve Tribes; each one of them entered into Klal Yisrael.
Avraham’s defining middah (characteristic) was chesed (loving-kindness); Yitzchak’s was the opposite, gevurah (strict judgment). Yaakov’s characteristic of emes (truth) can be viewed as a synthesis of the two.
The above schema is well-known. But it raises an interesting question. Why did HaKadosh Baruch Hu have to proceed through Avraham and Yitzchak to reach Yaakov? Why could He not have just started with the embodiment of emes in Yaakov? Apparently, emes could only arise out of a creative tension between chesed and din. That tension was a necessary condition for reaching the ultimate perfection.
My friend Rabbi Aharon Lopiansky first articulated this insight while counseling a young ba’al teshuva who was torn between his desire to deepen his own Gemara learning and his sense of obligation to share what he had already learned with the great majority of Jews who have never tasted Torah in their lives. The most important thing, Rabbi Lopiansky told him, was to continue to live with the tension rather than try to deny the validity of either goal.
Many of the most difficult choices in life are of this nature. The choice is not between life and death, good and evil, but how to balance two Torah values. The easiest course is often to suppress one side of the equation and to remove the tension. But from such a course, emes will not emerge.
Avraham Avinu and Yitzchak Avinu both were tested in ways that required them to act against their dominant middah. For Avraham, the greatest test was Akeidas Yitzchak, which required him to act contrary to the message he had taught the entire world for decades by sacrificing his own son. Yitzchak’s greatest test, as described by Rabbi Dessler in Michtav M’Eliyahu, came when he affirmed the blessings to Yaakov.
Yitzchak knew that Yaakov was at a higher spiritual level than Esav, and thought therefore that Yaakov should not receive any material blessing but rely exclusively on strict justice. When Yitzchak sensed, because of Yaakov’s voice and the scent of Gan Eden emanating from his clothes, that it was Yaakov standing before him, he recognized a Divine hint to depart from his lifetime emphasis on strict judgment and that Yaakov might also need a blessing of material bounty. Thus his great fear and trembling.
Avraham and Yitzchak were severely tested. But only Yaakov, the man of emes, experienced a life of unbroken travail – from being forced to flee from his brother Esav, to the twenty years in Lavan’s house, to the confrontation with Esav, to the twenty-two years that he mourned for Yosef. Only Yaakov could have said, “Few and bad have been the days of the years of my life. . . (Bereishis 47:9). From Yaakov we learn that fashioning a new synthesis, while holding fast to two competing poles, is the most difficult task. But only by doing so can emes emerge.
Too frequently, when we hear something with which we disagree our initial inclination is to suppress it. Yet often times, both on an individual and a communal level, we would benefit from an airing of both sides of the debate. On most important issues that affect us as individuals and as a community, there is more than one perspective that is relevant. And the truth is more likely to emerge from the clash between the varying approaches than from one side of the debate trying to censor the other.
The great historian of the Italian Renaissance Jakob Burkhardt wrote in the 19th century that the future would belong “to those who see things simply.” And in the next century, we witnessed totalitarian regimes that slaughtered tens of millions of human beings in the name of some easily grasped ideal promising to free human existence from all tension and complication.
THE NECESSITY OF Avraham Avinu and Yitzchak Avinu, with their diametrically opposed defining characteristics, preceding Yaakov Avinu also has important implications for our understanding of Jewish history. Far from being static, Jewish history follows certain cycles and patterns. The Ohr Somayach, in a famous passage, describes one such pattern with respect to recently exiled Jews arriving in a new land and the change from one generation to the next.
After every catastrophic event that destroys the previous equilibrium, there is a pendulum swings until a new equilibrium is found. Let us take one contemporary example. The period between the beginning of World War I and end of World War II completely destroyed a European Jewish civilization built over nearly two millennia. In order to rebuild the entire world of Torah learning destroyed by the Nazis, Rabbi Aharon Kotler in the United States and the Chazon Ish in Eretz Yisrael declared a societal ideal of long-term Torah study for all males that had few precedents in Jewish history. The pendulum swung in one direction, as part of the rebuilding.
As the original small flock of dedicated idealists who rallied to the banner of Reb Aharon and the Chazon Ish has miraculously swelled today to an entire community of hundreds of thousands, encompassing a wide range of abilities and spiritual levels, the pendulum has begun to swing in the other direction in search of a new equilibrium.
But whatever happens in the future it is s crucial to understand that the extreme response was absolutely necessary, just as the pure chesed of Avraham and the pure din of Yitzchak were necessary for Yaakov to emerge. And so it has been with many of the great conflicts in Jewish history, like that between Chassidim and Misnagdim. In retrospect, the extremes of the early Chassidic movement and the fierceness of the Misnagdic response can be seen as necessary for the synthesis of the qualities of both that has emerged.
We could all gain a great deal in the way of tolerance if we recognized that approaches that we dismiss out of hand are often the necessary expression of one pole of an inherent tension. Our task as individuals and a community is too forge our own synthesis from the tension.