The River of Shabbas

With this week’s post, you are receiving the benefit of my new collaboration with a dear colleague: Maggidah Shoshannah Brombacher, PhD, of Brooklyn, NY. M’ Shoshannah is, as you will readily recognize, an accomplished artist with a high neshamah. She is originally from Denmark, and her work receives international acclaim.

It is our intent to coordinate our work so that most weeks you will see her artistic interpretation of the midrash I am presenting.

Naturally, I would encourage you to contact her or visit her online catalog. I am pleased to say that I have a beautiful piece of hers adorning my study, where I reflect on it constantly as I am studying and writing!

Now, onto the midrash…

The Sambatyon River

Art by Maggidah Shoshannah Brombacher, Ph.D.
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In this week’s portion, Vayeitze, there is a word that gives our Sages pause. Well, more than one word, of course! But the one that gives rise to this particular midrash is from the verse Genesis 30:24:

"And she called his name Joseph, saying: ‘G!d add to me another son.’" (Gen. 30:24)

This is Rachel speaking, and the troubling word is "another:" Joseph is her first born, in what way is he "another?"

The simple answer would be that the offspring of her maid Bilhah and Jacob were "hers," but only in a legal sense. So what do the Sages do? They begin by saying that “another” refers to a different exile from that of other tribes. What, you ask, was there more than one exile for the twelve tribes? Listen:

R. Judah b. R. Simon said: The tribes of Judah and Benjamin were not exiled to the same place as were the other ten tribes. The ten tribes were exiled beyond the River Sambatyon, whereas the tribes of Judah and Benjamin are dispersed in all countries.

Midrash Rabbah – Genesis XXX:24

Here’s where we enter another world. The Sambatyon is a legendary river, the name being a version of something like "shabbatian," or having to do with Shabbat. It is said to run with tremendous force the whole week, carrying along stones and earth, making it impossible to cross, and then resting on Shabbat.

There are many stories about the Sambatyon; one of my favorites is recounted as The Eternal Light in Howard Schwartz’s collection, "Elijah’s Violin." The constant feature of these stories is that one or more of the tribes of Israel is surrounded by this river and therefore unable to return to the Promised Land (as they won’t travel, of course, on Shabbas). In Schwartz’s story, one intrepid troupe makes it into and out of this special land by means of a tunnel beneath the river, which collapses before it can be used by the lost tribe.

So, beyond being a story bordering on fantasy, what does this river hold for us in spiritual terms?

To me, it holds a conundrum, a paradox regarding observance. On the one hand, the tribe awaits the return to the Promised Land, which will be part of the coming of Moshiach, may it be soon and in our day! And yet, what holds them back, and presumably the End of Days? Their observance of Shabbat! But shouldn’t their observance hasten that time, not defer it?

Ah, here for me is the secret: so long as we are performing a mitzvah for a benefit, we have missed the point of the mitzvah. On Shabbat, they are in Shabbat already – the taste of the World to Come that is given to us every week! In that moment, that time, there is no future destination, only the Eternal Now.

The most we can do is to live our lives fully Jewishly, by whatever definition of "Jewishly" holds for us. Then we and those around us will be blessed with everything we can be, in its proper time and season.

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