The Tisch: Breaking Barriers

Posted by Levi Cooper on January 16, 2017
Topics: Hasidic Lore Series

A single Hebrew word can tap into rich veins of history, spirit and significance.

Every year, the Religious Zionist youth movement Bnei Akiva chooses a yearly theme around which it bases its educational activities. The youth leaders strive to prepare educational programming that highlights different aspects of this theme. The year kicks off with the hodesh irgun (month of organization) – an intensive period of educational and recreational activities, which serves as a recruitment platform and helps each age level coalesce as a group. The success of this jam-packed month reverberates throughout the year; a successful hodesh irgun lays the foundation for a great year.

For 2016-17, Bnei Akiva leadership chose the topic “Ufaratzta” – a word that appears in this form only once in the Bible. After Jacob leaves Beersheba, fleeing from his brother, he sleeps in a certain place and has a magical dream where he sees angels of God going up and down a stairway to heaven.

At the top, Jacob perceives the Almighty, who offers a blessing: “The ground on which you lie – I will give to you and to your offspring.

And your offspring will be like the dust of the earth, and you will spread out [ufaratzta in Hebrew] to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south. And all the families of the earth shall bless themselves by you and your offspring” (Genesis 28:13-14).

The term ufaratzta can take several connected meanings. The educational literature produced by Bnei Akiva for its youth leaders indicates an awareness of the malleability of the term. Notwithstanding, it seems that the primary meaning adopted by Bnei Akiva is growth in numbers: the subtitle of the theme is “Expanding the Movement.” Bnei Akiva is in good company: the great Spanish commentator Rabbi Avraham ibn Ezra (1089/90- 1164/67) read the verse in this sense.

The idea of adopting the ufaratzta verse as a slogan is not an innovation of Bnei Akiva. I have no idea whether or not they considered the relatively recent hassidic roots of the ufaratzta slogan amongst Lubavitch Hassidism. The educational literature produced by Bnei Akiva gives no clear indication, though an appendix discusses the outreach efforts directed by Rabbi Yosef Yitzhak Schneersohn (1880-1950), the previous Lubavitcher Rebbe.

In 1958, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson of Lubavitch (1902-1994) adopted ufaratzta as central mission. For Lubavitch, this meant spreading out geographically to all corners of the world. The results are apparent to anyone who has traveled the globe: emissaries of the Lubavitcher Rebbe can be found in almost every locale, faithfully offering religious services to all Jews who knock on their doors. Since this time, the biblical verse beginning ufaratzta, sung to a rousing tune, has become a Lubavitch theme song.

The term ufaratzta can also bear different meanings. The great French commentator, Rashi (1040-1105) understood the term to mean “and you will be strong.” Indeed, Lubavitch has demonstrated such strength over time, particularly since the last Lubavitcher Rebbe died in 1994, leaving a leadership vacuum. Undoubtedly, in choosing ufaratzta, Bnei Akiva strives for strength.

Alternatively, ufaratzta can be understood as “and you will break through.” The sages of the Mishna tell us that a king has the license to break down (poretz) a wall or fence in order to make a road for himself (M. Sanhedrin 2:4). Rabbi Ovadya Seforno (born between 1468 and 1473, died 1550 or later) adopts this reading, suggesting that God promised Jacob that his descendants would break through the borders of the Land of Israel. Lubavitch Hassidism has demonstrated its ability to break down barriers – interpersonal barriers and situational impediments – in its determined efforts to fulfill its mission.

The educational material produced by Bnei Akiva also talks about breaking through barriers – personal obstacles and communal hurdles – in an effort to realize latent strength and talent.

Strangely , the Lubavitch “Ufaratzta” song has always been sung with an ever so slight change in the words of the biblical verse: tzafona (northwards) rather than ve-tzafona (and northwards).

I cannot suggest a good reason for the change, except that the beat of the tune may have resulted in the adulteration of the original word.

In a 2008 interview, Rabbi Moshe Feller, the Lubavitch emissary in Minnesota, related that he once prepared a song booklet for a Shabbat gathering that he had organized in his community. Naturally, the booklet included “Ufaratzta” – a song that had already become a theme song for Lubavitch emissaries. Feller showed the booklet to the Lubavither Rebbe, who returned it with one correction: a solitary additional Hebrew letter – ve-tzafona instead of tzafona.

Yet recordings of Lubavitch gatherings indicate otherwise. A priceless video shows Lubavitch hassidim fervently singing “Ufaratzta” as the Lubavitcher Rebbe encourages them by clapping with zeal and orchestrating enthusiasm. Passionately the hassidim sing tzafona rather than ve-tzafona.

Here, too, Bnei Akiva has unwittingly followed in the footsteps of Lubavitch, with the error clearly appearing in the educational booklet prepared for the youth leaders.

Its seems that ufaratzta – the slogan, the dream, the aspiration … and the mistaken citation – has transcended its Lubavitch origins.

About Levi Cooper

Levi teaches Bible, Hasidut, Maimonides and Midrash at Pardes. Originally from Australia, Levi holds an LL.B., LL.M. and Ph.D. from the Law Faculty of Bar-Ilan University, and is a member of the Israel Bar Association. He is currently an adjunct professor in the Law Faculty of Bar-Ilan University and post-doctoral fellow in the Law Faculty of Tel Aviv University. Click here to read more.

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