Choosing a person or adhering to the path
Rabbi Eliezer Shenvald
The Parasha in our everyday life - Vayechi - 5781
The Parasha opens with Yaacov's will before his death.
וַיִּקְרְב֣וּ יְמֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֘ל לָמוּת֒ וַיִּקְרָ֣א לִבְנ֣וֹ לְיוֹסֵ֗ף וַיֹּ֤אמֶר לוֹ֙ אִם־נָ֨א מָצָ֤אתִי חֵן֙ בְּעֵינֶ֔יךָ שִֽׂים־נָ֥א יָדְךָ֖ תַּ֣חַת יְרֵכִ֑י וְעָשִׂ֤יתָ עִמָּדִי֙ חֶ֣סֶד וֶאֱמֶ֔ת אַל־נָ֥א תִקְבְּרֵ֖נִי בְּמִצְרָֽיִם׃ וְשָֽׁכַבְתִּי֙ עִם־אֲבֹתַ֔י וּנְשָׂאתַ֙נִי֙ מִמִּצְרַ֔יִם וּקְבַרְתַּ֖נִי בִּקְבֻרָתָ֑ם
"And when the time approached for Israel to die, he summoned his son Yosef and said to him, “Do me this favor, place your hand under my thigh as a pledge of your steadfast loyalty: please do not bury me in Egypt. When I lie down with my fathers, take me up from Egypt and bury me in their burial-place.” (Bereshit 47:29-30)
The main part of the testament was the request not to be buried in Egypt! According to the literal meaning of a text this request stemmed from the desire to be buried in the tomb of his ancestors in the Cave of the Patriarchs. But the sages also showed another side to this request:
מִפְנֵי מָה בִּקֵּשׁ יַעֲקֹב אָבִינוּ שֶׁלֹא יִקָּבֵר בְּמִצְרַיִם, שֶׁלֹא יַעֲשׂוּ אוֹתוֹ עֲבוֹדַת כּוֹכָבִים, שֶׁכְּשֵׁם שֶׁנִּפְרָעִין מִן הָעוֹבֵד כָּךְ נִפְרָעִין מִן הַנֶּעֱבָד
"Why did our father Yaacov ask that he not be buried in Egypt? He was afraid that the Egyptians might use him as an object of idolatrous worship. Just as punishment is exacted from the worshipper of an idol, so is it exacted from the (idol) which is worshipped" (Bereshit Rabbah 96:5).
Yaacov fears that the Egyptians will turn him into an idolatry point! They will erect a mausoleum, or a huge burial pyramid, and turn it into an Egyptian place of worship, a destination for pilgrimage in time of need: "We will be afraid, when the plagues come upon the Egyptians, lest they come and turn his tomb to beg for them" (Mishnah of Rabbi Eliezer 19).
But where did this fear come from? Why would the Egyptians turn Yaacov, the immigrant from Canaan, into idolatry?! Apparently, the reason for this is that when Yaacov came down to Egypt there was a miraculous change that redeemed Egypt from the severe famine, and stayed in the consciousness of the Egyptians:
עד שלא ירד יעקב למצרים היה רעב
"Until Yaacov came down to Egypt there was famine as it written
כִּי־זֶ֛ה שְׁנָתַ֥יִם הָרָעָ֖ב בְּקֶ֣רֶב הָאָ֑רֶץ....
" It is now two years that there has been famine in the land… And after he arrived it is writtenהֵֽא־לָכֶ֣ם זֶ֔רַע וּזְרַעְתֶּ֖ם אֶת־הָאֲדָמָֽה ׃
here is seed for you to sow the land."(Tosefta Sota 10 Halacha 3).
Yaacov knew that this was a divine miracle, and it was not him causing it. The Egyptians tended to attribute the wonders to men, and as a result to attribute to Yaacov superhuman qualities.
It seems that the intention is not fear "that they will turn him into idolatry" but that he will be a focus of adoration and reverence attributed to divine, super-human powers which in turn succeeded in causing the end of famine. To direct to him the human longing for authority and personal security in times of existential distress. Ritual admiration is detrimental to admirers and revered alike. The heritage of our ancestor Yaacov is the adherence to the way of faith, values, and commandments he bequeaths to his offspring and not the adoration of man, as great as he might be.
We also found this fear with Moshe Rabbeinu:
ומפני מה לא נודע קבורתו של משה כדי שלא יהו ישראל הולכין ומניחין שם בית המקדש ומזבחים ומקטרים שם.
"And why is the burial of Moshe not known? So that Yisrael should not go and place the Temple there, make sacrifices and complain there" (Midrash Lekach Tov, Devarim 34:7).
There is a human tendency, for a person to develop a kind of 'cult of personality' to admire himself, to attribute himself super-qualities, and to ignore his shortcomings. Some of these tendencies are very strong among some, more than the norm. They tend to strive for positions of power and public leadership, in which they may be admired. Initiate etiquette and rituals that enhance this. On the other hand, the public has a human spiritual need for leadership. To an authority that will provide security in the face of the existential sense of helplessness, in things beyond its control. Especially in times of distress and crisis. To super-figures who will give them hope, to admire them, trust them and entrust their fate to them. Hence the tendency to attribute superhuman qualities to leaders, to invent 'legends' about their rare abilities, to justify this attitude towards them.
‘Cult of Personality’ can be destructive to the public and the leader. To the public - when during times of test they will reveal the truth and will be disappointed. And to the leader, when the 'cult of personality' intensifies he may believe that he really has superhuman abilities and is admirable. In such a situation he may believe that he can 'afford' things that are forbidden to others, he deserves them. Hence the slippery slope that could lead to his crash. Apparently, this was one of the reasons for the late Rabbi Kook's opposition to "devotion to the righteous" that developed in Chassidut (Orot Yisrael 3: 3).
A leader needs a personality with an added value, but he is still flesh and blood, with weaknesses and limitations, and we should not be confused. It is strange that precisely in the age of the development of knowledge there are still people who place their absolute trust in man and not in the way and in the ideal that he represented.
In recent years we have seen this process in the political sphere as well. A shift from choosing parties that represent a way and an ideal, to political frameworks that draw their power from the man at their head. And every party adorns itself with celebrities. The election campaign focuses on people instead of on the ways and ideas. And naturally it changes from an ideological argument to personal slanders. Things get low when the parties hire the services of bodies designed to monitor their private lives to blacken them in the eyes of the public. And feed the media with wrong information.
Such 'parties' do not last, and as soon as the personal commitment of its members is unraveled, it disperses everywhere.
It is time to demand that politicians return to loyalty to the ways and not to elect the person. To represent the variety of opinions and perceptions of the diverse Israeli society and not as a personal competition between celebrities.