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Last, But Not Least

 

Is the first the best, or do we save the best for last? Is the last one really the most cherished one, or is it a hackneyed phrase thrown at the luckless losers to put them at ease? Is there a Torah source for this concept?

The first time the concept appears is when Yaakov approached Eisav, his vengeful brother. In preparing his family for the potentially explosive encounter Yaakov hoped for the best, but prepared for the worst. While praying and sending gifts in an attempt to make the meeting peaceful and pleasant, he was well aware it could end up as a battlefield. Therefore, he arranged his family in a tactile formation described in the pasuk: “And he placed the maidservants and their children first and Leah and her children last, and Rachel and her Yosef last” (Bereshis 33:2). Why were Rachel and Yosef situated in the back of the lines? Rashi quotes from Midrash Raba: “The further back the more beloved.” Rachel and her son Yosef, beloved to their father, were placed last in the line. The more cherished one is, the further down the line he was placed.

While here is it clear why the most cherished was placed farthest away from danger, does this concept have halachic implications or is it generally just a platitude used to comfort the last in line? There are times in which we are halachically obligated to place things in order of preference. Where does the preferred, or beloved one, come in – last or first?

First or Last

Generally, items listed in the Torah appear in order of importance. The higher up a fruit is in the list of the Seven Species the more important it is, and when choosing which fruit to recite a blessing it is one should say it on the fruit that is earlier on the list. People in the Torah are listed according to chronological age, wisdom, prominence, public status, or any other parameter, but always the earlier one is listed the greater he is in whatever parameter is being used. Any change of order calls for explanation – Zlofchad’s daughters are listed differently every time they are mentioned, indicating that they each had unique qualities which called for listing them differently whenever each different quality was highlighted.

The same is true for items – in listing the donations to the Mishkan, items are listed according to value or rarity, starting from gold, then silver, copper, etc.

“The further back the more beloved” as Rashi quotes from the Midrash, seems, therefore, to contradict this rule. Is Rashi here introducing a concept that inverts the accepted sequence, or is he simply indicating the appropriateness of this order here, for the dangerous meeting with Eisav?

[As an aside, there are some Achronim (Ksav Sofer, Vayishlach; Divrei Yechezkeil, Vayishlach; Tzitz Eliezer, chapter 22:9) who explain that since “G-d seeks the pursued”, when facing a dangerous situation the afflicted could be placed first because they benefit from Heavenly protection, whereas the beloved ones – Rachel and Yosef – didn’t have that benefit and required extra physical protection, requiring them to be placed in the back of the line. ]

Sources

The Midrash (Bereshis Raba 78:8) writes: “And he placed the maidservants and their children first, as it is said: The further back the more beloved.” Apparently, the Midrash sees this pasuk as the source for the rule of “last but best”. The Psikta Zutra (Bereshis 33:2; and also Midrash Shocher Tov, ibid) also seems to follow this line in teaching here: “As we learn: The further back the more beloved.”

These Midrashim teach us that saving the best for last is not a comforting catchphrase but a real Torah rule that is being taught here, and the double mention of “Last…last” in the pasuk teaches that the reason they were placed last is not merely for technical reasons but follows a new halachic order of preference in which the most cherished is saved for last. In this week’s editorial we explain the lesson to be learned from this rule according to the Beni Yissachar’s approach to the concept.

Abarbanel

Rabbi Yitzchak Abarbanel explains this pasuk differently. In his opinion, Yaakov fearlessly approached his brother, confident in his good deeds and G-d’s promise that Eisav would not harm him. While initially he had been frightened by the possibility of a violent confrontation and split the encampment to two, once he prayed and was promised nobody would be harmed he was calm and relaxed. The arrangement of “the further back the more beloved” was in place — not out of concern for their safety — but rather a display of appropriateness. And this is, as the Midrash explains, the source for this rule in the Torah.

Additional Sources

Yalkut Shimoni (Bo, 208) infers a similar lesson from the list of items that the Jews took from the Egyptians when they left their land: “…And they borrowed from the Egyptians silver objects, golden objects, and garments” (Shemos 12:35). Here we learn that the clothing was more beloved to them than the silver and gold, because ‘the further back — the more beloved’.”

When Hashem promised their redemption from Egypt He told Avraham Avinu: “…And afterwards they will go forth with great possessions” (Bereshis 15:1). Therefore, when Bnei Yisroel left Egypt they took objects made of three substances in fulfilment of the promise: gold, silver, and garments. The commonly used listing order in the Torah — of items according to their importance — seems to be the reason behind the sequence here, but the Midrash explains that the rule of “the further back the more beloved” is behind the sequence. Since the garments were most appreciated, they appear last on the list.

(The Midrash doesn’t explain why clothing were so important to them. If I may suggest a reason, perhaps, as slaves, they were forced to wear humiliating clothing that didn’t offer sufficient protection. Once granted their freedom, the joy of honorable clothing overrode the joy of riches.)

Another source for this rule can be found in the story of how Yisro, Moshe’s father-in-law, joined the Jewish nation in the desert: “Now Moshe’s father-in-law, Yisro, and his [Moshe’s] sons and his wife came to Moshe, to the desert where he was encamped, to the mountain of G-d” (Shemos 18:5). Rav Hirsch explains: “…That is why here the sons are mentioned before the wife, who, in any case, as the father-in-law is mentioned first, comes last as being the dearest and the nearest.”

Another Order of Preference

Until now we have established that the Torah uses two listing orders: one according to preference with the first being the best, and the other inverts the sequence saving the best for last. There is, however, another listing option which is used in several instances: one that places the worst in the middle.

The Mate Moshe (Ho’il Moshe, Bamidbar 25:15) and Taz (Divrei David, Bamidbar 25:15) find it in the pasuk listing the kings of Midian: “And they killed the Midianite kings upon their slain: Evi, Rekem, Zur, Hur, and Reba, the five kings of Midian…” (Bamidbar 31:8). While Zur was the leader of the Midianite nation and the most important of the five kings on the list, once he sent his daughter to desecrate the holiness of the Jewish people he was dropped to the third spot.

The Be’er Moshe and Taz explain that due to the part his daughter played he lost his status completely and became the most despised of the kings. Therefore, he was listed third — the farthest from any possibility of being important – neither last which is important according to the rule of “the further back the more beloved”, and neither first according to the more prevalent sequencing method.

Halachic Application

The method of grading things according to the rule of “the further back the more beloved” has several halachic applications. One is the order of calling up people to the Torah. The Gemara (Gitin 59a) rules that people are called up according to their prominence – the first is most important, the second less so, and so on. In order to prevent discord, the first aliya is reserved for a Kohen (keeping in line with the mitzva of honoring Kohanim); the second for Levi; and the third – for the most prominent person in attendance. This ruling also appears in the Shulchan Aruch (OC 135-136).

Some Rishonim point out (Maharm M’Rotenburg, quoted in Mordechai, Gitin 403; Leket Yosher, YD 59:1; Maharshal, Gitin 5:25; Beis Yosef OC 136) that there is also importance in the final aliya, under the rule of “the further back the more beloved”. The Mishna Brura (136:5) rules accordingly: the most prominent of the congregation is customarily called up to complete the Torah reading. The Chasam Sofer (OC 68) adds that his rebbe, Rabbi Nosson Adler, was always careful to receive the last aliya.

Coming in Last

The Tosefos Yom Tov explains the importance of completing the Torah reading: in the times of the Gemara, only the first and last of the people called up recited the blessing for reading the Torah. Therefore, the Kohen was called up first and honored with reciting the blessing, while the most prominent member of the community was honored with the final aliya and blessing.

The Elya Raba (138:5) disagrees with this explanation, pointing out that the rationale behind this halacha is “we increase in kedusha and do not decrease”, as well as following the rule of “the further back the more beloved”.

Additionally, as a rule no additional Kohen can be called up after the first one so the second is not suspected as an unqualified Kohen. However, the Mishna Brura writes (135:36) that where more than seven are called to the Torah, a second Kohen can be called for the final aliya because it is the most honorable of aliyos. This coincides with the Mate Moshe and Taz’s opinions that see the middle aliya as the least important of all.

The Magen Avraham rules (135:20) is that in a minyan comprised of Kohanim, with only one Levi and one Yisroel in attendance, the Yisroel should be called up first, followed by the Levi. The Kohanim should be called up last following the rule of “the further back the more beloved” (Machatzis Hashekel, ibid). The Mishna Brura, however, maintains (135:43) that the regular sequence must be preserved regardless of the people in attendance: Kohen, Levi, Yisroel, followed by Kohanim for the rest of the aliyos.

The final aliya of the year on Simchas Torah is also an example of “the further back the more beloved” – the Chossen Torah’s aliya which completes the reading of the Torah is customarily given to the rabbi or greatest Torah scholar in attendance (Rama OC 669:1).

Two Routes to Honor

The term “Vekidashto” – “And you shall honor” appears twice in the written Torah. The first mention refers to the mitzva of honoring Kohanim, G-d’s servants. The second appears in Parasha Yisro where Moshe is commanded to sanctify Mount Sinai in preparation for receiving the Torah. This, explains the Ba’al Haturim (Shemos 19:23), teaches us that there are two routes to honor. One is inherited, innate — it has nothing to do with one’s efforts. That is the honor shown to Kohanim, whose honor is their birthright, not a result of effort. The Kohen is honored with the first aliya, and also anywhere where being first has importance. The other route to honor comes from hard work, exertion, and toil. That is the honor shown to the talmid chacham. He earned his honor by mighty effort and work. His honor arrives at the end, not at the start. This is why the Gemara writes (Megillah 32a): he who rolls up the Sefer Torah collects the merit of all the previous, as it is written, “the further back the more beloved”.

The talmid chacham’s honor appears at the end — and sometimes, only posthumously. Only after all is said and done can we be assured that he fulfilled his mission properly. His is earned honor, one he acquired himself. And here, the rule of “the last is best” applies.

Another instance where this rating system applies is the four cups of wine drunk at the Seder. The Mate Moshe (Amud Ha’avoda, Leil Haseder, chapter 661) explains that the four cups are arranged according to importance, with the final one being the most important. The Shela (Pesachim, Drush revi’i 427) explains that the first cup alludes to the connection of This World to the Next World. The second – to the yearning of the soul to G-d. The third – to the Messianic Era; and the fourth – to the eternal, final World.

Creation of Man

Early sources (More Nevuchim II, chapter 11; Akeidas Yitzchak, Bereshis Sha’ar 5; Abarbanel Bereshis 1:2 and others) debate on the sequence of creation – were the things created on the first day more important than those created on the sixth, or is it just the opposite and the Six Days of Creation functioned under the rule of “the further back the more beloved”?

According to the Gemara (Sanhedrin 38a) both forces are embedded in creation:

Adam the first man was created on Shabbos eve at the close of the six days of Creation. And for what reason was this so? So that the heretics will not be able to say that the Holy One, Blessed be He, had a partner, i.e., Adam, in the acts of Creation. Alternatively, he was created on Shabbos eve so that if a person becomes haughty, G-d can say to him: The mosquito preceded you in the acts of Creation, as you were created last. Alternatively, he was created on Shabbat eve, after all of the other creations, in order that he enter into a feast immediately, as the whole world was prepared for him. This is comparable to a king of flesh and blood, who first built palaces, improved them, prepared a feast and only afterward brought in his guests.

This quote requires an entire article to explain in depth, however even superficial examination shows that the regular sequence — the first is most important — was inappropriate here. Had he been created first, man might have mistakenly thought he had innate value, irrelated to his actions. Therefore, so as not to be mistaken as G-d’s partner, he was created last. But there is another order – the order of “the last is the more beloved”. According to this sequence, it is the man who makes full use of his abilities, who spends his entire lifetime building and developing himself and, in extension, the entire world, who is the Crown Jewel of Creation.

For haughty people who see themselves as most important and invest no effort in perfecting themselves, the Torah shows they were created last — even the slightest mosquito was created before them. One who rates himself according to the simple sequence of “who came first” is taught that humans came last. But one who fulfils his mission in the world and builds upon his forefathers’ foundation to bring the spiritual world closer to its final purpose is important and beloved. He is the ultimate reason and purpose – he is the end product, culmination of generations before him. Indeed, this last is most beloved.

 

 

 

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