Disclosing the Leader’s Words after His Death

Disclosing the Leader’s Words after His Death

By: Hayyim David Mimran*

Many parents complain that the first words their toddlers say are “I don’t want!”  This is indeed an educational tragedy.  Although parents want to teach their children independence from a young age, they are discomfited by what seems to them an early manifestation of excessive independence in their children. 

In a certain sense, leaders are likely to find themselves in a similar situation:  on the one hand they expect the people under their leadership to show wisdom and creativity in carrying out tasks, on the other hand they are discomfited by a display of excessive independence on the part of those being led when they do not ask the opinion of their leaders or when they think differently from them.

Three paradigms of relations between leader and follower:

In relations between leader and follower we find three main paradigms.  The first we shall call the “errand boy.”  The followers efface their own opinions in favor of the opinion of their master, both regarding objectives and the means of achieving them.  Some parents and leaders tend to favor this option, for it means that those under their tutelage will follow the path they outline with absolute loyalty, to the last letter.  Such educands serve as the long arm of the one who sends them and are nothing more than a reflection of the figure in charge.  That is how the Sages defined the figure of Abraham’s steward, Eliezer:  “Drinking in the teaching of his Master and promulgating it to others.”[1]

The second paradigm of leader-follower relations is that of followers who know how to hone in on the desired objective of the leader, although in the methods used they are at times less faithful to the leader’s instructions.  We shall call this model the “goal oriented” one.  The prime example of this model is Bezalel son of Uri, the chief architect of the Tabernacle.  While Moses instructed him how to build the Tabernacle, Bezalel in his wisdom understood things a bit differently from Moses and won the praise of his master, as the Sages said:

At the time when the Holy One, blessed be He, said to Moses:  Go and tell Bezalel to make me a tabernacle, and ark and vessels, Moses went and reversed the order saying:  Make an ark and vessels and a tabernacle.  Bezalel said to him:  Moses, our Teacher, as a rule a man first builds a house and then brings vessels into it; buy you say, Make me an ark and vessels and a tabernacle.  Where shall I put the vessels that I am to make?  Can it be that the Holy One, blessed be He, said to you, Make a tabernacle, and ark and vessels?  Moses replied:  Perhaps you were in the shadow of G‑d [Heb. be-zel El] and knew![2]

The third paradigm in leader-follower relations is what we call the “independent” follower.  The identifying characteristic of such followers is to “invent on their own but ascribe it to their master.”  Permitting us to use an anachronism, we could approach this week’s reading in the light of current events and say that it reveals a transcript of “recordings” of the patriarch Jacob close to the time of his death.  One actually took place and the other is nothing but a fanciful invention by its publisher.[3]

The transcription of the first “recording” says that Jacob gathered all his sons prior to his death and set out before them his last will and testament.  It was very important to him on that occasion to reiterate and make perfectly clear to present and subsequent generations that Simeon and Levi had not acted at his behest when they massacred the men of Shechem. 

It was not enough for Jacob to have censured them immediately after the act:  “You have brought trouble on me, making me odious among the inhabitants of the land, the Canaanites and the Perizzites; my men are few in number, so that if they unite against me and attack me, I and my house will be destroyed” (Gen. 34:30). 

He saw fit to recapitulate and condemn their action, distancing himself from any possible connection with it.  This, for two reasons:  one, because his condemnation at the time the act was committed might be perceived as stemming from apprehensions which, in hindsight, proved to be ungrounded.  The other, Jacob’s silence all those years might be interpreted as tacitly consenting, at least after the fact, to what they had done in Shechem. 

Fearing lest after his death certain thoughts and actions be unfairly ascribed to him, Jacob sought to make his stand clear regarding the actions of Simeon and Levi, speaking in no uncertain terms:  “Let not my person be included in their council, let not my being be counted in their assembly” (Gen. 49:6).

The second “recording,” which, as we have said, is but a product of the imagination of those who made it public, was brought to light after Jacob’s burial.  The brothers, fearing possible revenge on the part of their brother Joseph, addressed him through an intermediary, as described in Scripture (Gen. 50:15-17):

When Joseph’s brothers saw that their father was dead, they said, “What if Joseph still bears a grudge against us and pays us back for all the wrong that we did him!”  So they sent this message to Joseph, “Before his death your father left this instruction:  So shall you say to Joseph, ‘Forgive, I urge you, the offense and guilt of your brothers who treated you so harshly.’  Therefore, please forgive the offense of the servants of the G‑d of your father.”  And Joseph was in tears as they spoke to him.

The brothers were of the opinion that the only way to prevent Joseph from taking revenge on them was to enlist the figure of his father Jacob, who most likely had not been aware that Joseph had been sold into slavery.  They made up a story out of whole cloth,[4] with the good intention of safeguarding their welfare and perhaps also preserving a sense of brotherhood among them.  In this instance the brothers were of the opinion that being faithful to the source and to historical truth was overridden by the value of peace.

Sometimes disciples attribute to their rabbi sayings that were never said.  For the most part this is done after the death of the rabbi (so he can no longer respond to what they say), out of the belief that even if he did not actually say such a thing, it was something he might well have said.  Indeed, the great challenge in studying Torah lies both in the ability of the student to preserve the Torah that has been handed down to him by his ancestors and rabbis, and to produce innovative views of his own; this is far from simple.  It is told of Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus that he took great care not to say “that which he never heard from the mouth of his rabbi.”[5]  At the same time, on one occasion, as he was expounding before his colleagues, he said “things which no ear has ever heard.”[6]

In the light of the above, the following question of halakhah has been raised:  Is a person entitled to ascribe his own halakhic ruling to a great halakhic authority, so that what he says will be accepted by his audience; for if he were to speak in his own right, his words would not be accepted?[7]

In this context, it is interesting to note what Rabbi Meir Mazuz, head of Kisse Rahamim Yeshivah in Bnei Brak, wrote regarding what goes on behind the scenes on the editorial board of his publishing house:

Several disciples, may they have good health, add and thereby detract…each according to his station and talents; and then all the complaints come down on my head.  If there were some final editor who were responsible, well and good.

In the mahzor for Rosh ha-Shanah, in the evening and morning prayers, the following was printed:  “Ve-ha-El ha-kadosh nikdash [with a kamatz] bi-tzedakah,” and a note was added beneath:  “the letter daled is with a kamatz and this is not to be changed.”  The naïve reader will be puzzled by the great insistence that “this is not to be changed.” 

This, however, is clarified by the following story of what actually happened:  I received galleys for proofreading, with nikdash pointed with a patah, and I marked that it be changed to a kamatz in accordance with the Keter and Brauer Bibles.  The page came back to another editor, and he corrected it to a patah.  Then it came back to me and I corrected it to a kamatz.  And again, patahkamatz, patah—kamatz.  This went on until all the vertebrae of my spine rattled up and down, pa-ka-pa-ka-pa-ka.  Finally I wrote:  “this is not to be changed,” as much as to say: enough of this nonsense! So what did these brilliant chaps do?  They printed in the body of the book, “this is not to be changed”![8]

Translated by Rachel Rowen


* Hayyim Mimran is a doctoral student in Jewish history. Originally published in Hebrew in 2016. The translation has not been reviewed by the author.

[1] Yoma 28b.   Absolute loyalty to the teachings of one’s father or rabbi undoubtedly helps preserve this teaching and further promulgates it, but it almost completely eliminates the possibility that the person promulgating his rabbi’s teaching will develop his own scholarly abilities.  It is like, “They made me guard the vineyards; my own vineyard I did not guard” (Song 1:6).

[2] Berakhot 55a.

[3] David’s testament, as it appears in the haftarah, ought also to be discussed here, but space limitations preclude that.

[4] Rashi:  “Your father left this instructionthey altered the facts for the sake of peace, for Jacob had given them no such command since Joseph was not suspect in his sight.”

[5] Sukkah 28a.

[6] Avot de Rabbi Nathan, Version A, ch. 6.  Also see Maharsha, Hiddushei Aggadot, Berakhot 27b:  “but we have several instances where Sages based their opinions on reason rather than on tradition handed down by their Master; but Rabbi Eliezer never said in the name of his rabbi even that which is not based on reason [i.e., that which is tradition], as long as he had not heard it directly from his mouth, and this is how we see it.”

[7] Rabbi Abraham Gombiner (Magen Avraham on the Shulhan Arukh, Orah Hayyim par. 156) cast this in doubt.  Also cf. Tractate Kallah, ch. 1, halakhah 24:  “He who says in the name of a Rabbi something that he did not learn from him causes the Shekhinah to distance itself.”  For further elaboration, cf. Shulhan Arukh, Yoreh De`ah par. 242.24; Shakh, loc. cit.; Encyclopedia Talmudit, under kevod Rabbo, Vol. 26, p. 724, notes.

[8] Rabbi M. Mazuz, Assaf ha-Mazkir:  Kontras ha-Ma`arakhot,  Bnei Brak 2014, pp. 11-12.

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Last modified: 09/01/2017