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Who’s Doing the Talking?

“Does marriage change one’s personality?” Greg asked his buddy Mike. “In a way,” says Mike. “You see, when I was engaged, I did most of the talking and she did most of the listening. When we just got married she did most of the talking and I did most of the listening. Now we both do most of the talking and the neighbors do all of the listening.”

Firstborn Rights

This week’s Torah portion (Ki Seitzei) states the following law[1]:

“If a man will have two wives, one beloved and one unloved, and both the loved and unloved wives have sons, and the firstborn son is that of the hated one; on the day that this man wills his property to his sons, he cannot give the son of the beloved wife birthright preference above the son of the hated wife, the firstborn.

“Rather, he must recognize the firstborn, the son of the hated one, to give him the double portion in all his property.”

On the most literal level, these biblical verses mandate that a firstborn son shall inherit a double portion of his father’s estate, while each subsequent son shall inherit an equal portion of the property. A father does not have the power to bequeath the double portion reserved for the firstborn to one of the other sons he loves, and any attempt to do so is ignored by Judaic law.  As the Talmud makes clear[2], a person is certainly empowered to distribute his entire estate to one of the other sons (or to any other individual for that matter), as long as he conveys it as a gift.

But if he chooses to bequeath the estate to one of the sons as an inheritance and so deny his firstborn son’s rights as a natural heir, then the father’s attempt has no legal validity in the Jewish judicial system[3].

What is disturbing, however, is the Torah’s need to state the point via a shameful example of a man who loves one of his wives and loathes the other. Why was it necessary to use a crude and offensive illustration in order to make the simple point that the firstborn son is entitled to a double portion of the inheritance regardless of the father’s preferences?

A spiritual Manual

One of the most essential factors to bear in mind during biblical study is the idea that each mitzvah, law and episode described in the Torah contains—in addition to its physical and concrete interpretation—a psychological and spiritual dimension as well[4]. In his commentary on the Bible, 13th century Spanish sage, Nachmanides, writes[5]:

“The Torah discusses the physical reality, but it alludes to the world of the spirit.” Another great Kabbalist went even further. 17th century mystic Rabbi Menachem Azaryah of Fanu (in Italy) states that “The Torah discusses the spiritual reality, and it alludes to the physical world[6].”

This means that stories and laws in the Torah ought to be understood first and foremost as events and laws in the spiritual realm, and this is actually the primary method of Torah interpretation. But in its communication of spiritual truths, the Torah also lends itself to be interpreted from a physical and concrete vantage point.

What then is the spiritual meaning of the seemingly coarse description in this week’s portion, of “a man who will have two wives, one beloved and one hated, and both the loved and unloved wives have sons, and the firstborn son is that of the hated one”? How are we to understand this verse in the universe of the spirit?

The Struggling Vs. the Romantic Soul

Judaism teaches that the relationship between each husband and wife in this world reflects the cosmic relationship between G-d (the Groom) and the Jewish people (the Bride). The entire book of Song of Songs by King Solomon is based on the notion that our human and flawed relationships are capable of reflecting the Divine marriage with Israel[7].

There are two types of human beings who enter into a marriage with G-d: the “beloved spouse” and the “despised spouse.” The “beloved spouse” represents those unique individuals who enjoy a continuous romance with G-d. Their souls are overflowing with spiritual ecstasy, selfless idealism and fiery inspiration. They cannot stop loving G-d, and G-d cannot stop loving them. On the other end of the spectrum stand the “despised spouses,” all those human beings possessing numerous qualities that ought to be spurned and hated: immoral urges, vulgar passions and ugly temptations.

These are the people whose hearts are not always ablaze with love toward G-d; rather, they struggle each and every day to remain married to their Divine soul and not fall prey to the lure of their animalistic tendencies and the array of confusing paradoxes filling their psyches. Throughout their life they must battle not to become a victim of many a natural instinct and craving[8]. Egotism, fear, selfishness, arrogance, corruption, short-sightedness, guilt, shame, threaten to overcome their daily living patterns and they must constantly stand on guard to preserve their integrity and innocence.

The Torah teaches us that G-d’s “firstborn son” may very well come not from His union with the beloved spouse but rather from His relationship with the despised spouse[9].

This means that the spiritual harvest that a struggling human being produces as a result of his or her grueling and stormy relationship with G-d, may often be far deeper and more powerful than that of the spiritually serene person.

For it is precisely in our daily struggle against the forces of darkness within ourselves and the world around us that we generate a powerful explosion of G-dliness and holiness in the world, unparalleled in the tranquil life of G-d’s “beloved spouse.” [10] The morality and the integrity that emerges from the midst of a battle between good and evil contain a unique depth and splendor not possessed by the straightforward spirituality of the saint.

Thus, “On the day that He wills His property to His sons, He cannot give the son of the beloved wife birthright preference above the son of the hated wife, the firstborn. Rather, He must recognize the firstborn, the son of the hated one, to give him the double portion in all His property.”

On a spiritual level this means, that on the day that Moshiach will come, when humanity will finally taste the full-Divinity in the world, a “double portion” of G-dliness will be revealed in the arduous labor and sweat of the individual who never stopped fighting for his soul.

During the Struggle

You might recall the moving poem written by a profound heart:

One night I had a dream. I dreamed I was walking along the beach with G-d. Many scenes from my life flashed across the sky. In each scene I noticed footprints in the sand.

Sometimes there were two sets of footprints, other times there was only one.

I noticed that during the low periods of my life, when I was suffering from anguish, sorrow or defeat, I could see only one set of footprints. So I said to G-d, “You promised me Lord, that you would walk with me always. But I have noticed that during the most difficult times of my life, there has only been one set of footprints in the sand. Why, when I needed you most, you were not there for me?”

G-d replied, “My precious child, I love you, and would never leave you. The times when you saw only one set of footprints, was when I was carrying you.”

(This essay is based on a discourse by Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi delivered in 1793[11]).

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[1] Deuteronomy 21:15-17.

[2] Mishnah Bava Basra 126b. Cf. Rambam Hilchos Nachalos chapter 6; Tur and Shluchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat section 281; Sefer Hachenuch Mitzvah 400.

[3] For an explanation of this law see Sefer HaChinuch ibid.

[4] See Likkutei Sichos vol. 23 pp. 37-38 and references noted there.

[5] At the conclusion of his commentary to Genesis 1:1.

[6] Asarah Maamaros Maammar Chekur Din 3:22.

[7] Cf. Rambam Laws of Teshuvah chapter 10.

[8] See Tanya chapter 27 for an elaborate discussion of these two types of souls.

[9] See Tanya ibid. Cf. Likkutei Sichos vol. 20 pp. 108-115 that this constituted the essential distinction between the souls of Jacob and his twin brother Esau and this was the superior potential of Esau’s soul, for which reason Isaac desired to grant him his blessings. This fits well with Or Hatorah Ki Seitzei (vol. 6 p. 2359) where the author explains that the “two wives” discussed in this week’s portion reflect the spirits of Jacob and Esau.

[10] Cf. Or Hachaim on the verse, who explains on the literal level, that the Torah is promising the firstborn son to the unloved wife.

[11] Maamarei Admur Hazaken Haktzarim pp. 118-119 (for the date of this discourse  — see footnote there). See also Likkutei Torah Seitzei pp. 37-38 and Or Hatorah quoted in footnote # 9 for a similar explanation on the subject.







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