The Degel Maḥane Ephraim on Jacob and Torah Study

The following Ḥasidic homily, of Rabbi Moshe ayim Ephraim of Sudylkiv (1748-1800), explicates the vow taken by Jacob on his journey to Ḥaran. Rabbi Moshe ayim Ephraim was a grandson of the Baal Shem Tov, founder of the Ḥasidic movement, and his teachings, collected in Degel Maḥane Ephraim (Korets 1810), record many traditions received from his grandfather and his disciples. Like many collections of Ḥasidic homilies, the work consists of Hebrew summaries of discourses originally delivered in Yiddish. Reflecting this process of transmission, the rudimentary Hebrew is constructed according to Yiddish syntax. The translator must take these characteristics into consideration.

In chapter 28 of Genesis, Jacob travels to Ḥaran to escape the wrath of his brother Esau, stopping to sleep at the place which would become known as Beit El. There he experiences a wondrous dream of a ladder ascending to heaven, and an assurance from God that he would be protected and ultimately return home. Following his dream, Jacob issues a vow, which is the subject of the homily. 

אם יהיה אלהים עמדי ושמרני בדרך הזה אשר אנכי הולך ונתן לי לחם לאכול ובגד ללבוש וגו’ (בראשית כח, כ). הנה רבים תמהו על ענין לאכול וללבוש בודאי ידוע מזה שלחם אוכלים ובגד מלבישים

If God remains with me, if He protects me in this way on which I go, and gives me bread to eat and clothing to wear…” (Genesis 28:20): Many have been perplexed by the mention of “to eat” and “to wear”. Is it not obvious that bread is eaten and clothes are worn!

Following the classic form of the Hasidic homily, Rabbi Moshe ayim Ephraim begins his discourse with a question on an apparent textual redundancy: Why does Jacob need to specify that his food was for eating, and his clothing to be worn?

ויש לומר שיש בזה רמז נפלא על דרך שאמר הרב ר’ פנחס על והמלך דוד זקן בא בימים ויכסוהו בבגדים ולא ייחם לו (מלכים – א א’, א’) שהוא רמז כי ידוע שדוד הוא תורה שבעל פה וכשאין בה התחדשות התורה בכל יום ובכל עת רק שעוסק בדברים ישנים אף על פי שבכל פעם מלביש אותם הדברים בלבושים אחרים פעמים בגמרא זו ופעמים הוא מלביש אותם בגמרא אחרת ובפסוק אחר וזהו ויכסוהו בבגדים ועל כל זה ולא ייחם לו היינו שאין לו התלהבות מזה כיון שתוכם דברים ישנים הם אף על פי שהלבוש משתנה

This can be resolved by the wondrous matter hinted at in the verse, in accordance with the exposition of Rabbi Pinḥas [of Korets] upon the verse, “King David was now old, advanced in years; and though they covered him with bedclothes, he never felt warm.” (1 Kings 1:1) It is known that David symbolizes the Oral Torah. When the Torah is not made new every day and moment, one merely engages in old Torah. Though the Torah may be garbed in a different attire, on some occasions a certain Gemara, at other times another Gemara with a different verse — this being the meaning of “they covered him with bedclothes” — nevertheless, “he never felt warm”. That is to say, he has no burning enthusiasm for such Torah, for its inner content is old, although its outer appearance may have changed.

In order to resolve his textual difficulty, Rabbi Moshe Hayim Ephraim turns to a teaching he received from his teacher Rabbi Pinḥas of Korets, disciple of the Baal Shem Tov. Rabbi Pinḥas’ teaching is based upon the verse in the book of Kings describing the illness of King David. Utilizing a Kabbalistic system of symbols, David is read as a symbol of the Oral Torah. Just as an ailing David remained frigid despite the numerous layers placed upon him, “old” Torah will remain unsatisfactory despite the new forms of expression it is given. It is important to note that from an objective perspective, the “old” Torah should not look old anymore. After all, it has been garbed in a different attire, given a new presentation. That being said, although the outer form and appearance of the Torah one is studying may be different, if the inner core remains old, the new additions will be of no avail. How then, may one make their Torah “new”?

רק עיקר הוא שיהיו חדשים לבקרים וכמאמרם ז”ל (פסיקתא זוטא ו’, ו’) בכל יום יהיו בעיניך כחדשים

Rather, it is essential that “they are renewed every morning” (Lamentations 3:23), as our Sages, of blessed memory, state: “Every day they [the words of Torah] should be new in your eyes.” (Pesikta Zuta 6:6).

The freshness of the Torah one studies is a matter of perspective. It does not matter how different the material one studies may appear, however long one does not make the personal effort to experience the Torah as new, it will remain old, “never feeling warm”. We are speaking of a subjective attitude. How does Rabbi Moshe Hayim Ephraim apply this teaching of his teacher Rabbi Pinḥas to the problematic text of Jacob’s vow?

זהו יש לומר שרימז יעקב אבינו ע”ה שהוא היה התורה כולה כנ”ל כמה פעמים אם יהיה אלהים עמדי ושמרני בדרך היינו בענין התורה הנקרא דרך אשר אנכי הולך עליה שהוא היה סוד כל התורה כנ”ל ונתן לי לחם לאכול היינו שיהיו בעיני כחדשים תמיד לחדש בכל יום דברים ויהיה לי תאוה והתלהבות מזה כמו איש הרעב לאכול לחם ורוצה מאוד להחיות את נפשו וגם בגד ללבוש היינו שגם הלבוש יהיה גם כן חדשים בכל יום ויהיה בעיניו ממש להחיות נפשו בתורתו הקדושה מרוב החידושים ורוב תשוקת נפשו אליה והבן זה:

This is the matter hinted at by Jacob our forefather, of blessed memory, for his words are entirely in reference to the Torah, as has been established in several places. “If God remains with me, if He protects me in this way on which I go”, refers to the quality of Torah called “the way on which I go”, which is the foundation of all of the Torah, as has been established. “And gives me bread to eatthat the Torah should always be new in my eyes, being renewed every day. This shall give me desire and burning enthusiasm, like a ravenous person greatly desirous of bread to revive themselves. “And clothing to wear” — that even the outer garb should be new every day, truly new in his eyes, giving life to his soul through the holy Torah from its many new teachings and the great longing of his soul for it. Understand this.

The answer is that “bread to eat” and “clothes to wear” in fact symbolize something deeper than the assumed surface meaning. The words in fact reflect a declaration by Jacob about the nature of his Torah study. Jacob conditions his vow on his Torah always being new in his eyes, that his desire for it be comparable to that of a ravenous person for bread. Even his clothing, the outer appearance of his Torah, should be new, thanks to his perspective.

Why was Jacob concerned about suffering the same ailment as King David, that he too would fail to be warmed up by the old Torah he studied? It is worth noting here the Midrashic tradition according to which Jacob’s dream was preceded by fourteen years of Torah study in the yeshiva of his forebears Shem and Eber. No wonder the Torah he studied no longer felt new to him!

Although not cited by Rabbi Moshe ayim Ephraim, the vow concludes (Genesis 28:21):

וְהָיָ֧ה יְקוָ֛ק לִ֖י לֵאלֹהִֽים

…then shall the LORD be my God.

Jacob’s avowed determination for newness, that the Torah he study always appear new in his eyes, ultimately leads to a personal relationship with God.

In conclusion, Rabbi Moshe ayim Ephraim reads the narrative of Jacob’s vow as an insight into the experience of the seasoned Torah scholar who worries that the Torah they study no longer excites them. The story of the ailing King David serves to teach that changing the appearance of the material being studied is not the solution, as long the inner content remains the same. The inner content may only be made new through the personal determination of the student that it should feel new to them. In other words, the Torah is not made new by an objective change in its structure or content, but rather by the subjective attitude adopted by its student. As Jacob felt his excitement waning after fourteen years of study, so too many veteran students of Torah struggle to generate the same excitement they once enjoyed. Rabbi Moshe Hayim Ephraim’s answer is clear: the solution is not a change of content, but rather the perspective of the student. Such a change in attitude ultimately leads to the establishment of a personal relationship with God.

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