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Rereading Job; the sabra's other legacies.



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Job’s Path to Enlightenment
TO THE EDITORS:
According to the traditional commentary on the book of Job, God presents a pious and simple man with difficult trials, but Job’s faith and confidence in God withstand these tests. Job’s character and the events that come upon him so suddenly teach us to trust God with full confidence, to believe in him, and to see the good in everything. We must do so without pondering God’s attributes and without pretending to understand divine reward and punishment, i.e., the conundrum of “a pious man who is suffering, an evil man who is fortunate.”
This is only one of many stories from the Bible and the writings of the Sages whose purpose is to teach us to be confident in God: Abraham was tested and successfully passed ten trials (see Mishna Avot 5:3). Isaac contended with starvation in the Land of Israel. Jacob was forced to flee from his brother, Esau. Joseph suffered many tribulations and in spite of them said to his brothers, “But as for you, you thought evil against me; but God meant it for good, to bring it to pass at this day that much people should be saved alive” (Genesis 50:20). Moses fled to Midian after killing an Egyptian. This tradition continues through the tannaitic tales, such as that of Nahum of Gimzu, who would recite at times of distress, Everything that is God’s doing, it is all for the best (Taanit 21a); and R. Akiva, who, although his donkey and chicken were devoured and his candle blew out while he was walking, still believed it was all for the best (Brachot 60b).
Ethan Dor-Shav’s informative and comprehensive essay “Job’s Path to Enlightenment” (AZURE 32, Spring 2008) rejects this classic interpretation, and offers instead a reading that presents the character of Job and the entire book in a new light. According to Dor-Shav, the book is not just another story in the series of stories regarding pious men who are tested. He claims, rather, that Job was not an entirely pious and God-fearing man whose acceptance of his fate was the perfect embodiment of honest and undisputed faith. Rather, he lived a life of avoidance and was more careful to “do no wrong” than to do good. As a result of his sufferings, Job undergoes a process of internal transformation from a man who “avoids evil” into a man of “good deeds,” who obeys the commandments out of love and not out of fear. All the tribulations he undergoes are thus directed toward an explicit purpose: to cleanse his soul, to educate him, and to assist him in his metamorphic progression, until he reaches a state of enlightenment and the status of a prophet.
Dor-Shav’s reading is indeed well supported by the text of the book of Job, and, furthermore, it seems that his interpretive model can be applied to other biblical characters. By means of this new method, behaviors and situations found in the Bible that have yet to be comprehended fully can be understood in a new light. Among these stories are the bereavement of Adam and the story of King Solomon.
For example, after experiencing the loss of all his children, Job suffered terribly. His reaction to their tragic death—“the Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord” (Job 1:21)—has been perceived throughout the generations as an expression of utter surrender to God’s will, and this is the reason we customarily recite this verse in the prayer of Justification of the Divine Decree (Tziduk Hadin). Dor-Shav rejects this classic approach, however, and instead explains Job’s words not as a justification of the divine decree, but rather as an expression of apathy and fatalistic acceptance. Job’s response to the news of the death of his sons, claims Dor-Shav, results from his initial spiritual state of paralysis and fear. Since his attitude toward God was based on the fear that the weak naturally feel toward the strong, Job assumed that one cannot assess the actions of God according to standard rules of fairness in reward and punishment. This fascinating interpretation may also explain the mystery of Adam’s disturbing silence in response to the news of the murder of his son Abel. The sole expression of anger over the first murder in the history of man comes not from the heart of a bereaved father, but from God. The speechlessness of Adam is peculiar and can be better understood once the circumstances of his life are compared to those of Job.
Like Job, Adam knew nothing of want or hard labor. He lived in the Garden of Eden and was born into abundance. His sole mission was to take care of it, “to till it and to keep it” (Genesis 2:15). But after he ate from the Tree of Knowledge, Adam hid from God because he feared him. Thus we see the same combination of abundance and fear that appears at the beginning of the book of Job. On the one hand, Job enjoys physical abundance and has no need for labor, while on the other hand, he fears God. Abundance and fear have a paralyzing effect on Job.
The resemblance between Adam and Job does not end here. Like Job, Adam does not accept responsibility for eating from the Tree of Knowledge, but rather blames his wife, Eve, when God berates him: “The woman who thou didst give to be with me” (Genesis 3:12). In so doing, according to Rashi’s commentary, Adam shows ingratitude and expresses his self-image as a passive actor, subject to the will of others. After Adam is exiled from the Garden of Eden and encounters a new reality where “in the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread” (Genesis 3:19), he moves into a state of uncertainty. Like all workers of the land, Adam depends on the graces of the dew and the rain, the sun and the land—and in this way he is transformed, against his will, from a state of passive abundance into one of coping and consequent enlightenment.
When Adam’s son was murdered, he was—like Job—still in his initial state of mind, which accounts for his apathetic reaction to the news of the murder. Only after he has lived in the real world and internalized its features does Adam have another child, Seth, who comforts him for the loss of Abel. Earlier, Adam felt no need to be consoled, but now he has experienced the love of God as well as sorrow over the loss of his son. This is most likely the stage of enlightenment in which man realizes the righteousness of God, loves him, and only then, like Job, is reborn—a transformation that, among other things, moves him to grant life to others.
Dor-Shav’s interpretation of Job’s internal journey—from a fearful existence to one based on love—helps to explain the difference between the fate of Job and that of King Solomon. The similarities between Solomon and Job are obvious: both were wealthy in terms of capital and property, and both ask questions that may initially seem to be heretical—Job in his eponymous book, and Solomon in the book of Ecclesiastes. But if this is true, why was Job condemned to sorrow and suffering, while Solomon ruled peacefully over the united Israelite kingdom?
It appears that the difference lies in the spiritual foundations of the respective characters—the initial point from which each raises his doubts and queries. Solomon loved and admired God with all his heart, and God, who sees into the intentions of all hearts, chose him to build the Temple. Solomon’s questions concerning God and the way the world is ruled stem from love and a sincere desire to know and comprehend. Job, on the other hand, acted not out of love, but rather out of fear, and so, as long as he sat under his grapevine and fig tree, he remained uninterested in the ways of the world and asked not a single question. He began the process of questioning only after God harmed him, and even then, his questions did not stem from a passion for wisdom or an honest and deep-rooted desire to understand the ways of God. Nor did they derive from surrender, or an understanding that the human mind is much more limited than the mind of God. Job asked his questions in protest, demanding an explanation from God as to why he had been sentenced to such suffering.
Put simply, Job asks questions not for the purpose of gaining knowledge, but rather as a means of registering complaint. He assumes that both reward and punishment exist in this world, and therefore, if there is no correspondence between his behavior and the events that happen to him, God “owes him” an explanation. Job accepts God’s supremacy, but only on certain conditions: As long as God acts according to the equation “a pious man who is fortunate, an evil man who suffers,” Job has no problem. But once God’s actions deviate from this expectation, he demands explanations and begins to doubt.
This is exactly why suffering is imposed upon Job: It is meant to direct him toward the proper outlook, to confront him with his false surrender, and to teach him that life under God is not part of a deal with predetermined rules. Job must learn what a life of unconditional and full acceptance of God truly is—an acceptance that is possible not in a state of fear, but only in a state of love.
Solomon, on the other hand, has no need to suffer: In his questions he does not demand explanations for God’s actions. He asks because he wishes to understand the philosophy governing how the world is ruled. Solomon knows that comprehension leads to devotion, and he wishes to be devoted to God out of love—as opposed to Job, for whom love of God is only the final result.
In his essay, Dor-Shav also analyzes the meaning of the book’s description of Job as “simple.” He distinguishes between “simple” (tam) and “honest” (tamim). He compares Job to the simple son (tam) in the Passover Hagada who asks, “What is this?” Following this same line of thought, one could add that if “simple” Job is also the “simple” son from the Hagada, then it is possible to compare Solomon, the wisest of all men, to the wise son in the Hagada. This comparison strengthens Dor-Shav’s interpretation of the book of Job, because the wise son in the Hagada also asks, “What mean the testimonies, and the statutes, and the judgments, which the Lord our God has commanded you?” This question was clearly preceded by considerable thought, and it is therefore gladly answered in detail, because God wants us to ponder and ask questions. God is interested in not a mechanical fulfillment of his Tora, but rather one that stems from great devotion, based in investigation and understanding. The function of inquiry is therefore to spur faith and to strengthen it. Job the simpleton, however, has no true desire to know, and thus his question—“What is this?”—stems from inflexibility.
After Job achieves enlightenment comes the final, purifying chapter—the catharsis. In this chapter, God appeases Job and compensates him for all his suffering. Job’s assets are doubled, new children are born to him, and happiness spreads through his life, which is now illuminated with new light.
It is interesting to notice the difference between Job’s “assets” in the opening chapter and the concluding chapter, in which Job no longer has “much labor”—meaning slaves. This reinforces Dor-Shav’s interpretation of the “enlightened” Job, because he who loves God as well as man cannot treat humans—created in the image of God—as property. This brings to mind the saying from the Mishna, “More maidservants, more lewdness; more menservants, more thieving” (Mishna Avot 2:7). The enlightened Job steers away from lust and theft, and that is why the slaves do not return to his home.
Finally, the positive conclusion of the book illustrates the changes in Job’s personality and life. “Turn us to thee, O Lord, and we shall be returned; renew our days as of old” (Lamentations 5:21). “Renew” and not “return,” because after disaster comes enlightenment, and subsequently life becomes new and altered, appreciated and loved.
Because of this, the death of the elderly Job is also perceived as a positive thing, because he died after achieving his goal. His soul rises up to heaven, giving new meaning to the verse, “The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord,” a meaning that stems from surrender to and recognition of the supremacy of God, and the belief that a man’s soul, as Job himself came to learn, will reach its ideal place after death. The day of death, which Job first mentions in defiance, becomes in the end a day of festivity, as Kohelet wrote, “The day of death [is better] than the day of one’s birth” (Ecclesiastes 7:1).
Dor-Shav’s reading can also explain the meaning of Job’s name—Iyov, from the word oyev, or “enemy.” The question is, who is this enemy? According to the classic interpretation, the enemy is without doubt the devil, the evil inclination, or fate. However, according to Dor-Shav’s understanding of Job’s character, the devil is concealed within Job himself, and actually within every one of us. The enemy is the acceptance of mediocrity and the preservation of the extant, instead of further exploring and increasing our knowledge of God. Otherwise, there is no real meaning to the life we have been granted by him.
Yael Adoram
Bar-Ilan University
 
TO THE EDITORS:
Ethan Dor-Shav’s essay is both fascinating and thought-provoking. His innovative interpretation of Job as a man who is undergoing the process of self-discovery and divine revelation transforms Job from a passive character to whom everything “happens” to one whose world has been caught up in a whirlwind, and whose life has become unambiguous and clear. Beyond the discussion of biblical interpretation, I see this as a reminder of the importance of internal spiritual efforts. Dor-Shav explains that Job is an example of the creation of a prophet, and of the shift from a routine and shallow day-to-day life to a complete joining of man and his creator. Want internal growth? challenges Dor-Shav, pass through the eye of the storm.
The worldview of the author, it seems, does not consider suffering to be a state we must endure until the fury passes, while hoping for the good that will follow. Suffering is the heart of the matter. It is a gift from God that allows us to overcome what we perceive to be limitations, to experience ourselves with the full capacity of our own strengths, and to discover an internal backbone with which we are able to stand upright and argue, even with God himself. The experience of suffering is thus the true essence of things. Although Dor-Shav does not directly refer to it, it seems that the post-storm Job will never again harshly reject an expression of pain such as that of his wife after the death of their children.
While reading the essay, however, I began to wonder, how much is suffering really necessary for this process? To what extent does the outlook according to which God “shakes” Job reject the possibility of a spiritual growth that leads specifically to internal calm and the sort of effortless “flowing” ordinarily associated with Eastern religions? Is this a clear contradiction between worldviews, or can they coexist? Simply put, has the process that Job underwent reached its completion? Or are we dealing with an infinite process that can, and ideally should, be undertaken, even though one cannot expect it to end or reach any point of maturation? If an essay is intended to spur discussion and raise questions, then this mission has been accomplished. I am now interested in the next phase of this discussion—Dor-Shav’s attempt to tackle the questions raised above.
Adi Ayal
Bar-Ilan University
 
ETHAN DOR-SHAV RESPONDS:
Yael Adoram’s profound response to my essay is the kind of reply that encourages further investigation and writing. I am intrigued by her fascinating and multifaceted comparisons between Job and Adam, and between Job and “everyman.” As to the comparison of Job and Solomon, I ask to draw the readers’ attention to my essay “Ecclesiastes, Fleeting and Timeless” (AZURE 18, Autumn 2004). Even though Solomon is certainly worthy of the title of the wise son from the Hagada, I am far from convinced that his life was without periods of harsh suffering—similar to the suffering of Job—which preceded the enlightenment expressed in the book of Ecclesiastes.
Additionally, the wonderful challenge presented by Adi Ayal diverges from the framework of biblical interpretation into the realm of pure spirituality. However, I am uncertain whether an existential awakening that stems from pain and turmoil does indeed stand in opposition to the possibility of continued spiritual growth from out of an internal calm and the “flowing” of consciousness. In the end, the author of the book of Job teaches that the revelation of God out of a storm and its redemptive emotional impact are an unavoidable response in light of the suffering hero’s criticisms. The solution that is thus presented to the question of “a pious man who is suffering” is both simple and profound: Within the depths of the existential experience, he who is a completely pious man does not suffer, regardless of the circumstances of his life and the pain he undergoes in this world.
 
The Sabra’s Lawless Legacy
TO THE EDITORS:
Assaf Sagiv’s essay “The Sabra’s Lawless Legacy” (AZURE 33, Summer 2008) offers a novel explanation for the endemic corruption of Israel’s political classes, a problem that is undeniably a matter of deep concern to most of the public. While agreeing wholeheartedly with Sagiv that something must be done to put a stop to this corruption and its associated culture of presumed impunity, I am concerned that the effect of his argument will be to throw out the Zionist baby with the post-Zionist bathwater.
Sagiv argues that “from its very beginnings, Zionism was distinguished by a penchant for illegalism.” He claims that this illegalism was historically rooted in the “new Jew” of the Yishuv, who was brought up on the practice of “stealing livestock from farms, raiding orchards and groves, ‘lifting’ equipment from offices and army bases, defacing signposts.” In Sagiv’s view, the Spartan education of the early Yishuv gave way, over time, to a selfish individualism lacking in both nobility and charm. The common denominator of past and present is “a glorified Israeli tradition of misconduct.” Today, he concludes, is the time for Israel to learn respect for the Law and push past its “half-century-old arrested addescence.”
Sagiv’s analysis mentions the heavy-handed Israeli bureaucracy and the virtually unprecedented arrogation of powers by the Supreme Court, but it does so chiefly to dismiss them as a reaction to the country’s entrenched “illegalism.” Can this argument be sustained? Does Israel’s infamously byzantine maze of paperwork—its sprawling system of authorizations, signatures, and duplications—really find its source in mere reaction? Is it not rather another side, no less deeply entrenched, of the Israeli character? In fact, one could easily find a salient feature of Israeli culture in the ubiquity of Israel’s bureaucracy, which rears its plodding head in every national institution from the army all the way down to the municipalities. Bureaucracy and legalism run through the core of the national character, conjuring, alongside the grinning face of the mischievous sabra which Sagiv sketches, a petulant one declaiming in Hebrew: “Forbidden! Forbidden! Where’s your authorization?”
And if one is inclined to criticize the Israeli character, why stop here? The service industry in Israel is very often marked by rudeness and the absence of any desire to please the reasonable client. In this behavior, it is possible to detect a national tendency toward lack of respect for self-interest.
These examples, along with others I have not mentioned, are intended to bring me to a more general point. Israel today finds itself in the throes of a pan-national bad mood. This fact can be discerned in the habit displayed by people on the street of ending (or beginning) personal arguments with a hearty denunciation of the state in its entirety. “Post-Zionists” inform us from the academy that Israel was born in sin. In this climate, I wonder at the wisdom of associating the vigilantism of Meir Har-Tzion—whose deed was in any case carried out beyond Israel’s effective sovereignty and according to the customs and norms of those he killed—with the very origins of the Zionist ethos.
In Sagiv’s demand that Israel “grow up” one hears echoes of the perennial call for Jewish normality. The question is which normality. Amos Elon, whose disappointment with Israel Sagiv mentions in his essay, stated in a 2004 Haaretz interview that Israel’s “political primitiveness” is no surprise “when you look at the population. We know where it comes from. Either from the Arab countries or from Eastern Europe.” Personally, I have always felt the particular absence in Israel of what I believe Mark Twain once called the “pride of the Christian with five acres”—but one may perhaps hope that a greater respect for law will go some way to rectifying this.
Overall, Sagiv is without doubt justified in his call for the reform of some aspects of the Israeli character and his denunciation of the current wave of corruption and lawlessness. It may also be that he is not entirely incorrect in arguing that the present lawlessness finds its origins in the pioneering ethos of the early Zionists, though for the most part this contention seems to rest on the singular person of former prime minister Ariel Sharon. It goes but a little way toward explaining the corruption of the diplomats and technocrats who replaced him.
In pursuing the improvement of the national character, one might do better to employ the subtlety and balance of a Sholem Aleichem (subtlety and balance in Israel?!) rather than blanket denunciations which disparage the state’s founders and its army. In today’s climate, there may possibly be nothing less normal or mature about Israel than its own unrestrained and burning self-dissatisfaction.
Jonathan Yudelman
Jerusalem
 

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