as good as it gets

hanukah

Confronting the December Dilemma I have always felt that Hanukah never had a chance.  Christmas is an “Imagine” holiday where we are invited to aspire to a world of Peace-on-Earth and Goodwill-to-Man.  Hanukah is a (nother) Jewish survival holiday… They tried to kill us, we survived, now let’s eat.

In my first post on this blog Imagining Shabbat, I argued that to have a winning horse in the “Imagine” race, I would suggest Shabbat; a Jewish holiday that actually comes 52 times a year and aspires to Peace-on-Earth and Goodwill-to-Man as well, if not better, than any holiday I know.

That being said, conflicting feelings about the Hanukah remain.

Certainly the Maccabees serve as a wonderful model of Jews standing up for their rights and fighting…. literally fighting, for their independence. I also admire Judah the Maccabee’s pragmatism for establishing the precedent that Jews can defend themselves on the Shabbat.  But certainly tolerance and pluralism is not a word associated with the Maccabees and later generations of Maccabee priests/rulers were known for their corruption. The Hasmonean dynasty was a precursor for King Herod and the Herodian dynasty.  The Maccabees thrived on power and we all know the power of power to corrupt.

I have always figured that it was a pacifistic strain in Rabbinic Judaism that was responsible for emasculating the Maccabees and modulating the militaristic nature of their victory by providing a cute story of miraculously energy efficient oil.  I attributed this pacifism with the Rabbi’s decision not to include the Book of the Maccabees in the Canon of the Hebrew Bible.

It turns out that the Rabbinic ambivalence to the Maccabees was for another reason… a reason that actually makes me a fan of the Maccabees and gives me added reason to celebrate Hanukah.

Since I love going to the sources, I bought myself a copy of the Anchor Bible‘s Book of First Maccabees and it turns out that this book which we now have only in Greek, but which was originally written in Hebrew may have included a heresy that the Rabbis wished to hide.  It turns our that “First Maccabees, rejects Daniel 7-12 [1] and the belief in the resurrection and suggests that martyrdom can be in vain”. It turns out that Judah the Maccabee’s real ideological polemic was not with the Jewish Hellenists,  but rather with compatriot Jews who wished to conquer the Greek Hellenists and curry God’s favor (and redemption) by way of martyrdom.  (see Jonathan A. Goldstein, I Maccabees, a new translation with introduction and commentary, The Anchor Bible 1976, p 56)

First Maccabees is actually a first class work.  “The author is generally well informed on Seleucid institutions.  He probably intended to add his work to the sacred scriptures of the Jews.  However, it was destined to be rejected. The later history of the Hasmonaeean dynasty proved false our author’s claim that God had chosen mattathias’ line to be both high priests and kings.  Belief in the resurrection, denied by our author, became a fundamental of Judaism. Already Josephus was amending the text of First Maccabees and departing from its narrative as he would never have done with sacred scripture.  In the times of Origen and Jerome, when the Hebrew was still being read by Jews, First Maccabees was clearly outside the canon of the Jewish scriptures.  The book is never mentioned or quoted by the tannaim and the amoraim.  Medieval Jews begin to know its contents from the Latin and Greek versions and from Josephus.” [Goldstein ibid. p 26)

According to Goldstein, what is blatantly missing from I Maccabees I 50 -64 is any glorification of the death of the Jewish protagonists:

50 Whoever refused to act according to the command of the king was to be put to death.
57 Whoever was found with a scroll of the covenant, and whoever observed the law, was condemned to death by royal decree.
60 In keeping with the decree, they put to death women who had their children circumcised,
61 and they hung their babies from their necks; their families also and those who had circumcised them were killed.
62 But many in Israel were determined and resolved in their hearts not to eat anything unclean;
63 they preferred to die rather than to be defiled with food or to profane the holy covenant; and they did die.
64 And very great wrath came upon Israel. (see)

Writes Goldstein: “Pietists before had tried to rouse God’s vengeance against the persecuting gentiles by displaying helpless martyrdom, …. Martyrdom was unnecessary, they held; display of mere helplessness by the pious would rouse God to act… (Goldstein ibid p. 262)

Compare also I Maccabees 2: 29 – 41

29 At that time many who sought righteousness and justice went out into the wilderness to settle there,
30 they and their children, their wives and their animals, because misfortunes pressed so hard on them.
31 It was reported to the officers and soldiers of the king who were in the City of David, in Jerusalem, that those who had flouted the king’s order had gone out to secret refuges in the wilderness.
32 Many hurried out after them, and having caught up with them, camped opposite and prepared to attack them on the sabbath.
33 The pursuers said to them, “Enough of this! Come out and obey the king’s command, and you will live.”
34 But they replied, “We will not come out, nor will we obey the king’s command to profane the sabbath.”
35 Then the enemy attacked them at once.
36 But they did not retaliate; they neither threw stones, nor blocked up their secret refuges.
37 They said, “Let us all die in innocence; heaven and earth are our witnesses that you destroy us unjustly.”
38 So the officers and soldiers attacked them on the sabbath, and they died with their wives, their children and their animals, to the number of a thousand persons.

39 When Mattathias and his friends heard of it, they mourned deeply for them.
40 They said to one another, “If we all do as our kindred have done, and do not fight against the Gentiles for our lives and our laws, they will soon destroy us from the earth.”
41 So on that day they came to this decision: “Let us fight against anyone who attacks us on the sabbath, so that we may not all die as our kindred died in their secret refuges.” (see)

To appreciate how Mattathias and his friends disparage the martyrdom of these pietists we need to contrast this account in I Maccabees with the (originally) Greek II Maccabees 2: 6: 18 -31 (Martyrdom of Eleazar)

18 Eleazar, one of the foremost scribes, a man advanced in age and of noble appearance, was being forced to open his mouth to eat pork.
19 But preferring a glorious death to a life of defilement, he went forward of his own accord to the instrument of torture,
20 spitting out the meat as they should do who have the courage to reject food unlawful to taste even for love of life.
21 Those in charge of that unlawful sacrifice took the man aside, because of their long acquaintance with him, and privately urged him to bring his own provisions that he could legitimately eat, and only to pretend to eat the sacrificial meat prescribed by the king.
22 Thus he would escape death, and be treated kindly because of his old friendship with them.
23 But he made up his mind in a noble manner, worthy of his years, the dignity of his advanced age, the merited distinction of his gray hair, and of the admirable life he had lived from childhood. Above all loyal to the holy laws given by God, he swiftly declared, “Send me to Hades!
24 “At our age it would be unbecoming to make such a pretense; many of the young would think the ninety-year-old Eleazar had gone over to an alien religion.
25 If I dissemble to gain a brief moment of life, they would be led astray by me, while I would bring defilement and dishonor on my old age.
26 Even if, for the time being, I avoid human punishment, I shall never, whether alive or dead, escape the hand of the Almighty.
27 Therefore, by bravely giving up life now, I will prove myself worthy of my old age,
28 and I will leave to the young a noble example of how to die willingly and nobly for the revered and holy laws.” He spoke thus, and went immediately to the instrument of torture.
29 Those who shortly before had been kindly disposed, now became hostile toward him because what he had said seemed to them utter madness.
30 When he was about to die under the blows, he groaned, saying: “The Lord in his holy knowledge knows full well that, although I could have escaped death, I am not only enduring terrible pain in my body from this scourging, but also suffering it with joy in my soul because of my devotion to him.”
31 This is how he died, leaving in his death a model of nobility and an unforgettable example of virtue not only for the young but for the whole nation. (see)

And II Maccabees chapter 7  Martyrdom of a Mother and Her Seven Sons

1 It also happened that seven brothers with their mother were arrested and tortured with whips and scourges by the king to force them to eat pork in violation of God’s law.
2 One of the brothers, speaking for the others, said: “What do you expect to learn by questioning us? We are ready to die rather than transgress the laws of our ancestors.”
3 At that the king, in a fury, gave orders to have pans and caldrons heated.
4 These were quickly heated, and he gave the order to cut out the tongue of the one who had spoken for the others, to scalp him and cut off his hands and feet, while the rest of his brothers and his mother looked on.
5 When he was completely maimed but still breathing, the king ordered them to carry him to the fire and fry him. As a cloud of smoke spread from the pan, the brothers and their mother encouraged one another to die nobly, with these words:
6 “The Lord God is looking on and truly has compassion on us, as Moses declared in his song, when he openly bore witness, saying, ‘And God will have compassion on his servants.’”
7 After the first brother had died in this manner, they brought the second to be made sport of. After tearing off the skin and hair of his head, they asked him, “Will you eat the pork rather than have your body tortured limb by limb?”
8 Answering in the language of his ancestors, he said, “Never!” So he in turn suffered the same tortures as the first.
9 With his last breath he said: “You accursed fiend, you are depriving us of this present life, but the King of the universe will raise us up* to live again forever, because we are dying for his laws.”
10 After him the third suffered their cruel sport. He put forth his tongue at once when told to do so, and bravely stretched out his hands,11as he spoke these noble words: “It was from Heaven that I received these; for the sake of his laws I disregard them; from him I hope to receive them again.”
12 Even the king and his attendants marveled at the young man’s spirit, because he regarded his sufferings as nothing.
13 After he had died, they tortured and maltreated the fourth brother in the same way.
14 When he was near death, he said, “It is my choice to die at the hands of mortals with the hope that God will restore me to life; but for you, there will be no resurrection to life.”
15 They next brought forward the fifth brother and maltreated him.
16 Looking at the king, he said: “Mortal though you are, you have power over human beings, so you do what you please. But do not think that our nation is forsaken by God.
17 Only wait, and you will see how his great power will torment you and your descendants.”
18 After him they brought the sixth brother. When he was about to die, he said: “Have no vain illusions. We suffer these things on our own account, because we have sinned against our God; that is why such shocking things have happened.
19 Do not think, then, that you will go unpunished for having dared to fight against God.”
20 Most admirable and worthy of everlasting remembrance was the mother who, seeing her seven sons perish in a single day, bore it courageously because of her hope in the Lord.21Filled with a noble spirit that stirred her womanly reason with manly emotion, she exhorted each of them in the language of their ancestors with these words:22e “I do not know how you came to be in my womb; it was not I who gave you breath and life, nor was it I who arranged the elements you are made of.
23 Therefore, since it is the Creator of the universe who shaped the beginning of humankind and brought about the origin of everything, he, in his mercy, will give you back both breath and life, because you now disregard yourselves for the sake of his law.”
24 Antiochus, suspecting insult in her words, thought he was being ridiculed. As the youngest brother was still alive, the king appealed to him, not with mere words, but with promises on oath, to make him rich and happy if he would abandon his ancestral customs: he would make him his Friend and entrust him with high office.
25 When the youth paid no attention to him at all, the king appealed to the mother, urging her to advise her boy to save his life.
26 After he had urged her for a long time, she agreed to persuade her son.
27 She leaned over close to him and, in derision of the cruel tyrant, said in their native language: “Son, have pity on me, who carried you in my womb for nine months, nursed you for three years, brought you up, educated and supported you to your present age.
28 I beg you, child, to look at the heavens and the earth and see all that is in them; then you will know that God did not make them out of existing things. In the same way humankind came into existence.
29 Do not be afraid of this executioner, but be worthy of your brothers and accept death, so that in the time of mercy I may receive you again with your brothers.”
30 She had scarcely finished speaking when the youth said: “What is the delay? I will not obey the king’s command. I obey the command of the law given to our ancestors through Moses.
31 But you, who have contrived every kind of evil for the Hebrews, will not escape the hands of God.
32 We, indeed, are suffering because of our sins.
33 Though for a little while our living Lord has been angry, correcting and chastising us, he will again be reconciled with his servants.
34 But you, wretch, most vile of mortals, do not, in your insolence, buoy yourself up with unfounded hopes, as you raise your hand against the children of heaven.
35 You have not yet escaped the judgment of the almighty and all-seeing God.
36 Our brothers, after enduring brief pain, have drunk of never-failing life, under God’s covenant. But you, by the judgment of God, shall receive just punishments for your arrogance.
37 Like my brothers, I offer up my body and my life for our ancestral laws, imploring God to show mercy soon to our nation, and by afflictions and blows to make you confess that he alone is God.
38 Through me and my brothers, may there be an end to the wrath of the Almighty that has justly fallen on our whole nation.”
39 At that, the king became enraged and treated him even worse than the others, since he bitterly resented the boy’s contempt.
40 Thus he too died undefiled, putting all his trust in the Lord.
41 Last of all, after her sons, the mother was put to death.
42 Enough has been said about the sacrificial meals and the excessive cruelties. (see)

If Goldstein is correct and the Hebrew original of First Maccabees was sentenced to the dust heap because it failed to show any enthusiasm for martyrdom, an eternal life or resurrection of the dead then our celebration of the Maccabees becomes a celebration of a Judaism free of the eschatology of end-of-day Armageddons and Messiahs, both real and false.

As troubling to our modern ears as the violence and intolerance of Judah and his band may be, at least it was not informed by a desire for a New Jerusalem or a Greater Israel.  Theirs was a battle for cultural, religious and physical independence, and nothing more.

In the final analysis, it may be that Hanukah is actually the perfect antidote for a messianic Christmas.

If the Peace-on-Earth and Goodwill-to-Man of Christmas is of the Second Coming variety, then the Hanukah of the Maccabees can be taken as a rejection of such change of world orders through martyrdom (whether of a god or a foot soldier) ideologies.

If so much vitriol and violence in our world is the result of this insane desire to harken a savior, messiah, hidden Mahdi or second coming, then the Maccabees that I celebrate, for all their faults, at least believed that independence is as good as it gets and that, my friends, is worth its weight in hanukah gelt.

————-

 

[1] Especially Daniel 12: 2 “And many of them that sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to reproaches and everlasting abhorrence.” and further discussion in II Maccabees, Anchor Bible pp 63.. and see full discussion pp 293 .. and pp 303

 

 

 

 

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Filed under Bible, Jewish jesus, Judaism, miracle, Shabbat, Torah

holy crap

Ashar Yatzar

To the best of my knowledge, there is no other religion that has a blessing upon taking care of one’s business in the latrine.  Washing hands after relieving oneself is just good hygiene, and probably prescribed by many religious orders, but saying a blessing prior to and after a visit to the loo is, to my mind, unique to Judaism.  [students of comparative religion and anthropologists: please correct if you know differently].

For better or worse, we no longer recite the prayer before entering a bathroom (in Hebrew בית הכסא lit. house of the chair) [1], but the prayer prescribed after-the-fact is not only still recited by the faithful, but preserved in the standard prayer book and part of the morning prayers.  It is called Ashar Yatzar (אשׁר יצר ) Here is the text of the prayer:

Blessed are You, Hashem our God, King of the universe, Who formed man with wisdom and created within him many openings and many hollows. It is obvious and known before Your Throne of Glory that if even one of them ruptures, or if even one of them becomes blocked, it would be impossible to survive and to stand before You (even for one hour). Blessed are You, Hashem, Who heals all flesh and acts wondrously.

ברוך אתה ה’ א-להינו מלך העולם אשר יצר את האדם בחכמה וברא בו נקבים נקבים חלולים חלולים גלוי וידוע לפני כסא כבודך שאם יפתח אחד מהם או יסתם אחד מהם אי אפשר להתקיים ולעמוד לפניך  (אפילו שעה אחת ***)  ברוך אתה ה’ רופא כל בשר ומפליא לעשות

All bathroom humor aside… the blessing is actually quite beautiful and the English does not do it justice.  “many openings and many hollows” actually echoes the biblical method of emphasis by repeating a word (Epizeuxis) such as “Justice Justice shall you [certainly] pursue of Deut. 16:20.   Or more appropriately, think of Carl Sagan’s “billions ans billions”  Here it is “openings and [more] openings, hollows and [more] hollows… it is a paean of awe to the workings of the human body, in all it’s incomprehensible and unquantifiable complexity.  No wonder so many Jews became doctors! [2] From the most humble and humbling activity comes a prayer of radical wonder.

The Talmud records the discussion regarding the exact text of the benediction at the end.

How does the blessing conclude? Rab said: ‘[Blessed art Thou] that healest the sick’ (רופא חולים). Said Samuel: Abba has turned the whole world into invalids! No; what he says is, ‘That healest all flesh’. R. Shesheth said: ‘Who doest wonderfully’. R. Papa said: Therefore let us say both, ‘Who healest all flesh and doest wonderfully’.

אמר רב רופא חולים אמר שמואל קא שוינהו אבא לכולי עלמא קצירי אלא רופא כל בשר רב ששת אמר מפליא לעשות א”ר פפא הלכך נמרינהו לתרוייהו רופא כל בשר ומפליא לעשות

According to Rab, this could have been our blessing for the healing of the sick..  The final form of the blessing relates to healing and wonder, in equal measure.

According to Maimonides [3], we recite the Ashar Yatzar in conjunction with the other blessings upon rising and dressing, but according to our prayer book, the Ashar Yatzar is placed right before the prayer for learning torah.  The irony is not missed by Ellen Frankel, a commentator in the My Peoples Prayer Book series, who also brings a feminist perspective to her comments.  She writes:

“what a strange juxtaposition it is – thanking God simultaneously for teaching us Torah and for giving us internal plumbing that works!  Could any two spheres be further apart?  And yet in this odd pairing we find the genius of Jewish prayer: on the one hand, if our tubes and valves fail to function, how difficult it is to focus our minds on study!  But on the other, how healing it can be for us to “make the words of Your Torah sweet to us and to the house of Israel, your people,” despite physical distress.

Frankel continues: For women, whose anatomical system is far more complex than men’s, this blessing is especially meaningful.  The very word for duct “n’kavim (נקבים), shares its root with n’kevah (נְקֵבָה), the Hebrew word for “female.”

Frankel  goes on to point out, that while, by tradition, every human is a vessel and void created to hold holiness and life, yet it is a woman whose spaces and hollows permits the birth and wonder of new life.    For those of you who are students of Jewish mysticism, you certainly appreciate the meaning of a void and how mankind redeems the world through filling the void… מלא את החלל‎ל.. this sense of “hollows and hollows” חלולים חלולים was certainly not lost on the author of this prayer.

If I am even partially correct that this prayer does not exist or at least feature in other religions and cultures, did it come out of a vacuum, what were it’s author’s intentions and were its they aware of it’s radical nature and potential for derision?

I first came across a derogatory reference to this prayer as an undergraduate student while reading… of all people, Karl Marx. It’s possible that this unique prayer was part of a long list, compiled by anti-Semites to demonstrate Judaism’s embrace of the physical, mundane and crass.  It maybe that it was his own innovation, due to a rabbinic background or a fixation on feces [4], but in one of his earliest works written in 1843 called: On the Jewish Question Karl Marx writes:

The monotheism of the Jew, therefore, is in reality the polytheism of the many needs, a polytheism which makes even the lavatory an object of divine law. Practical need, egoism, is the principle of civil society, and as such appears in pure form as soon as civil society has fully given birth to the political state. The god of practical need and self-interest is money. (see )

I would argue that it was Judaism’s embrace of the physical and material which made Marx possible.  Afterall, it was Marx wo championed Historical materialism and material modes of production.  Marx would not be the first thinker to distance himself and rebuke his mentors and those antecedent thinkers who influenced his thought.  In fact the “Jewish Question” was itself a diatribe against his mentor Bruno Bauer.  In any case, the uniqueness of Jewish law’s attention to the lavatory and the Asher yatzer and it’s materialism was noted in 19th century thought.

In a Pulitzer Prize (1974) work named The Denial of Death, Ernest Becker dedicates a complete chapter to the bathroom (The meaning of anlality).  I quote this student of 19th century psychoanalysis at length because it seems to me, more than any contemporary thinker, Becker appreciates the significance of literature and, in our case, a prayer relating to the movement of the bowels.  He writes:

The tragedy of man’s dualism, his ludicrous situation, become too real… We now understand that what psychoanalysts have called “anality” or anal character traits are really forms of the universal protest against accident and death. …  To say that someone is “anal” meant that someone is trying extra-hard to protect himself against the accidents of life and danger of death, trying to use the symbols of culture as a sure means of triumph over natural mystery, trying to pass himself off as anything but an animal.  … We read that men of the Chagga tribe wear an anal plug all their lives, pretending to have sealed up their anus and not to need to defecate.  An obvious triumph over mere physicalness. Or take the widespread practice o segregating women in special huts during menstruation and all the various taboos surrounding menstruation….

Anality explains why men yearn for freedom from contradictions and ambiguities, why they like their symbols pure, their Truth with a capital “T”. …. The upsetting thing about anality is that it reveals that all culture, all man’s creative life-ways, are in some basic part of them a fabricated protest against natural reality, a denial of the truth of the human condition, and an attempt to forget the pathetic creature that man is.  …

Excreting is the curse that threatens madness because it shows man his abject finitude, his physicalness, the likely unreality of his hopes and dreams.

But even more immediately, it represents man’s utter bafflement at the sheer non-sense of creation; to fashion the sublime miracle of the human face, the mysterium tremendum of radiant feminine beauty, the veritable goddesses that beautiful women are; to bring this out of nothing, out of the void, and make it shine noonday; to take such a miracle and put miracles again within it, deep in the mystery of eyes that peer out – the eye that gave even the dry Darwin a chill: to do all this, and combine it with an anus that shits! It is too much. Nature mocks us, and poets live to torture.  pp 55 – 58

In my reading, the Ashar Yatzar prayer, by itself, embraces physicality and implicitly rejects a worldview that claims that the spirit, the intellect and beauty are all mocked by our finite, putrid and decaying nature.  Combined with the prayer for Torah learning, the Ashar Yatzar is a radical rejection of any attempt to insert a wedge between body and soul.

But is my read, also the rabbi’s read?  Did the authors of the Ashar Yatzar prayer recognize, nay, intend it to be such a rejection?

As they say in the Talmud…. Come and listen.

God instructs Moses to meet with Pharoah, in the morning at the Nile (Exodus 7:15)

Go to Pharaoh in the morning; behold, he is going forth to the water, and you shall stand opposite him on the bank of the Nile, and the staff that was turned into a serpent you shall take in your hand.

Rashi comments:

behold, he is going forth to the water: to relieve himself, for he had deified himself and said that he did not need to relieve himself; so, early in the morning he went out to the Nile and there he would perform his needs. — [from Mid. Tanchuma, Va’era 14; Exod. Rabbah 9:8]

הנה יצא המימה - לנקביו, שהיה עושה עצמו אלוה ואומר שאינו צריך לנקביו ומשכים ויוצא לנילוס ועושה שם צרכיו

Like Becker’s Chagga tribe, Pharaoh knew that gods don’t shit.  If he wanted to be taken as a god, he needed to hide this aspect of his being.  More importantly, for our purposes, the Rabbis who composed the Ashar Yatzar were aware of the conflict between the most basic bodily movement and any aspirations to godliness.

I will argue below, that for the authors of the Ashar Yatzar the emphasis on the wonder of man’s physicality not being at the expense of his spirituality differentiated Judaism from paganism but also differentiated Rabbinic Judaism from some emerging ascetic sects; namely the Essenes who are considered by many to be precursors of the early Christians.

It is only when we visit the “latrines of the Essenes” that we understand that the Ashar Yatzar was not simply an embrace of physicality.. it was a polemic against those that would have use deny our physical nature and aspire to be angels.

In The Jewish War, Josephus writes of Jewish sects in the First Century AD including the Essenes who, he explains, had a year-long trial before joining the sect in which they:

 “Observe the same rule of life as the members, receiving from them a hatchet, the loin-cloth mentioned above and white garments.”..  He goes on to explain that “they abstain from seventh-day work more rigidly than any other Jews; for not only do they prepare their meals the previous day so as to avoid lighting fire on the Sabbath, but they do not venture to remove any utensil or to go and ease themselves.  On other days they dig a hole a foot deep with their trenching-tool (for such is the hatchet they give to the novices) and draping their cloak round them so as not to affront the rays of the god, they squat over it; then they put the excavate soil back in the hole.  On these occasions they choose the more secluded spots; and through emptying the bowels is quite natural they are taught to wash after it, as if it defiled them.”  (See The War of the Jews, Excursus I – Jewish Sects)

To be sure, the Bible includes provisions to take care of one’s needs outside of the camp:

And thou shalt have a paddle among thy weapons; and it shall be, when thou sittest down abroad, thou shalt dig therewith, and shalt turn back and cover that which cometh from thee. (Deuteronomy 23: 14)

 וְיָתֵד תִּהְיֶה לְךָ, עַל-אֲזֵנֶךָ; וְהָיָה, בְּשִׁבְתְּךָ חוּץ, וְחָפַרְתָּה בָהּ, וְשַׁבְתָּ וְכִסִּיתָ אֶת-צֵאָתֶךָ

But this provision is only for an individual who becomes impure and in order to purify himself must leave the camp. (Deuteronomy 23:11)

It was the Essenes who universalized the shameful nature of the most basic bodily function to the extent that moving one’s bowels on the Sabbath became prohibited!

Josephus is no longer our only source for this animus to the anus… The Dead Sea scrolls provide additional support.  Temple Scroll prohibits the act of defecating in the city of Jerusalem.

Note: While the rabbis refer to the bathroom as a “house of the chair” בית הכסא in the Dead Sea scrolls it is referred to as “place of the hand” מקום היד …

(11Q19 46.13-16a)

Temple Scroll

 

 

 

13 And you will make for them a place of the hand outside of the city where they shall go;

14 outside to the northwest of the city – houses with beams and pits in their midst

15 into which excrement shall drop and shall not be visible to anyone at a distance

16a from the city of three thousand cubits vacat

Similarly, the Qumran community built latrines to the northwest of Khirbet Qumran in the War Scroll:

(1QM 7.6b-7)

War ScrollTemple Scroll

 

 

 

 

6b And there shall be a distance

7 between all of their camps and the place of the hand two thousand cubits. And any immodest nakedness shall be seen around any of their camps.

(see A SCROLL IN ONE HAND AND A MATTOCK IN THE OTHER: LATRINES, ESSENES, AND KHIRBET QUMRAN by Ian Werrett, Saint Martin’s University for a review of the current literature/controversy over the Dead Sea Scrolls and this issue).

I believe that the Rabbis who wrote the Ashar Yatzar were profoundly aware of the asceticism, escapism and rejection of the physical that characterized the Essenes and the author’s of the Dead Sea scrolls, living in the desert.  Which brings us to our closing text and the rejection of the Jewish version of the Greek’s nectar of the gods.

The Rabbis record a tradition whereby the manna contained nutritious matter only, without any waste products, so that during the whole time the Israelites lived upon it the grossest office of the body remained unexercised. The Israelites, nevertheless, complained of it [seemingly anticipating Modern medical science which suggests that the lack of microbes associated with feces would cause severe bowel problems]

but now our soul is dried away; there is nothing at all; we have nought save this manna to look to.’—(Numbers 11: 6)

 וְעַתָּה נַפְשֵׁנוּ יְבֵשָׁה, אֵין כֹּל–בִּלְתִּי, אֶל-הַמָּן עֵינֵינוּ

 

“Shall a human being not discharge of what he eats? our bowels will surely be swollen” (Yoma l.c.; Sifre, Num. 87-89; Tan., l.c.). see and  see

שהיה המן נבלע באברים ולא היו צריכים לנקבים, והתאוננו שמכיון שאין מוציאים מה שמכניסים הלא עתיד המן לתפח כריסים, כי כלום יש ילוד אשה שמכנים ואינו מוציא.

According to the Rabbis of the Talmud, the Jews of the Exodus rejected the godliness of the manna for continence …which confirms the punch line of most Jewish bathroom humor and also confirms the intention of the Ashar Yatzar.

Ultimately, the Ashar Yatzar is a radical rejection of those who would have us be angels, of those who would have us live our lives devoted to a future life not confined to the physical and the material.  To paraphrase the famous Midrash [5] … The angels want God to give them the Torah and not Moses.  According to the Midrash, God asks the angels, do you earn a living that you need a commandment not to steal, do you eat that you need commandments on being kosher… to which I would add: do you crap that you need to elevate the mundane and spend a moment every morning on the contemplation of holy crap?

latrines of the essenes

 

 

 

 

 

 

————————–

[1] see BT Berachot 60b

On entering a privy one should say: ‘Be honored, ye honored and holy ones (angels) that minister to the Most High. Give honor to the God of Israel. Wait for me till I enter and do my needs, and return to you’. Abaye said: A man should not speak thus, lest they (the angels) should leave him and go. What he should say is: ‘Preserve me, preserve me, help me, help me, support me, support me, till I have entered and come forth, for this is the way of human beings’.

הנכנס לבית הכסא אומר התכבדו מכובדים קדושים משרתי עליון תנו כבוד לאלהי ישראל הרפו ממני עד שאכנס ואעשה רצוני ואבא אליכם אמר אביי לא לימא אינש הכי דלמא שבקי ליה ואזלי אלא לימא שמרוני שמרוני עזרוני עזרוני סמכוני סמכוני המתינו לי המתינו לי עד שאכנס ואצא שכן דרכן של בני אדם  [ברכות ס ב]

Shulhan Arukh (Orach Chaim 3) Misha Brura (Chovetz Chaim) writes that this is a prayer to God that the angels who accompany a person should wait until he returns from the bathroom. We no longer say it since people are no longer presumed to be God fearing people who have angels accompanying them. The Sharay Teshuva writes that many authorities disagree and say one should say this.  (see note 1)

[2] Not surprisingly, on the previous folio of Talmud that establishes this blessing is a discussion which records rav Aha who takes the position (similar to the Christian Scientists) that people should not practice medicine and that healing should be left to God  שאין דרכן של בני אדם לרפאות אלא שנהגו to which Abbai responds:

Abaye said: A man should not speak thus, since it was taught in the school of R. Ishmael: [It is written], He shall cause him to be thoroughly healed. (Exodus 21: 19)  From this we learn that permission has been given to the physician to heal.

אמר אביי לא לימא אינש הכי דתני דבי רבי ישמעאל (שמות כא, יט) ורפא ירפא מכאן שניתנה רשות לרופא לרפאות

[3]

Mishneh Torah: Ahava: Tefilah and Birkat Kohanim – Chapter Seven Halacha 4

When one hears the crow of a rooster, he recites: Blessed are You, God, our Lord, King of the universe, who gives the rooster understanding to distinguish between day and night.

When he puts on his clothes, he recites: Blessed are You, God, our Lord, King of the universe, who clothes the naked.

When he puts his cloth on his head, he recites: Blessed are You, God, our Lord, King of the universe, who crowns Israel in glory.

When he passes his hands over his eyes, he recites: [Blessed…] who opens the eyes of the blind.

When he sits up in his bed, he recites: [Blessed…] who unties those bound.

When he lowers his feet from the bed and rests them on the ground, he recites: [Blessed…] who spreads the earth over the waters.

When he stands up, he recites: [Blessed…] who straightens the bowed.

When he washes his hands, he recites: [Blessed…] who has sanctified us with His commandments and commanded us regarding the washing of hands.

When he washes his face, he recites: Blessed are You, God, our Lord, King of the universe, who removes the bonds of sleep from my eyes and slumber from my eyelids. May it be Your will, God, my Lord and Lord of my fathers, that You accustom me to the performance of [Your] commandments and do not accustom me to sins or transgressions. Cause the positive inclination to rule over me and not the evil inclination. Strengthen me in Your commandments and grant my portion in Your Torah. Allow me to find favor, lovingkindness, and mercy in Your eyes and the eyes of all who see me and bestow upon me benevolent kindnesses. Blessed are You, God, who bestows benevolent kindnesses.

Halacha 5

Whenever one enters the toilet, before entering, he says:

Be honored, holy honorable ones, servants of the Most High. Help me. Help me. Guard me. Guard me. Wait for me until I enter and come out, as this is the way of humans.

After he comes out, he recites:

Blessed are You, God, our Lord, King of the universe, who formed man in wisdom and created within him many openings and cavities. It is revealed and known before the throne of Your glory that if one of them were to be blocked or if one of them were to be opened, it would be impossible to exist for even one moment. Blessed are You, God, who heals all flesh and works wonders.

Halacha 6

When one fastens his belt, he recites: [Blessed…universe,] who girds Israel with strength.

When he puts on his shoes, he recites: [Blessed…universe,] for You have provided me with all my needs.

When he walks to depart on his way, he recites: [Blessed… universe,] who prepares the steps of man.

[Also,] every day, a person should recite:

Blessed are You, God, our Lord, King of the universe, who has not made me a non-Jew.

Blessed are You, God, our Lord, King of the universe, who has not made me a woman.

Blessed are You, God, our Lord, King of the universe, who has not made me a servant.

Halacha 7

These eighteen blessings do not have a particular order. Rather, one recites each of them in response to the condition for which the blessing was instituted, at the appropriate time.

What is implied? One who fastens his belt while still in his bed recites [the blessing] “who girds Israel with strength.” One who hears the voice of the rooster recites [the blessing] “who gives understanding to the rooster.”

Any blessing in which one is not obligated should not be recited.

 

[4] see

An insight into Marx’s psychology may be garnered by examining his attitudes towards bodily functions. According to Weyl “his favorite expression in his correspondence with Engels is shit”. In his attack on the Jewish editor of the Daily Telegraph Marx wrote that just as “all the lavatories of London spew their physical filth into the Thames” so too did all the “social filth” pour into the “central sewer called the Daily Telegraph.” He suggested that, as Levy was the presiding alchemist of this sewer system, he should have a plaque on his office building inscribed “Wayfarer, stop and piss”. In attacks on everyone, Marx would call them “that shit”. Even when he was tired of writing his own books, he would describe his work as “this shit”. When an infant daughter died, Marx wrote Engels that “this time the whole shit has affected me deeply”. After his death, Marx’s youngest daughter made a diligent effort to piece together scraps of information about her late father’s childhood in Trier. Although she “idolized her father and made up the most beautiful legends” there is a ring of truth to this vignette of his childhood:

“I have heard my aunts say that as little boy, he was a terrible tyrant to his sisters whom he would ‘drive’ down the Markusberg in Trier at full speed. And worse, he would insist on their eating the ‘cakes’ he made with dirty dough and dirtier hands. But they stood the ‘driving’ and the ‘cakes’ without a murmur for the sake of the stories Karl would tell them as a reward for their virtue.”

Two familiar Marxian characteristics emerge from this story. First, Marx’s passionate need to dominate others; and second, his almost obsessional preoccupation with dirt and excrement, or as he would put it in his correspondence with Engels, crap (“Dreck“) and shit (“Scheiss“).

[5] Devarim Rabba, Parasha 2, Section 37

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it’s just a story

parshat vayetze

In a previous post (first refusnik) I explore how Jacob was the first Refusnik… in the fullest sense of the word.

I make reference to a seminal concept in the way the rabbis read the Bible, especially Genesis: The stories of our predecessors are a sign for future generations.

מעשה אבות סימן לבנים

Normally this concept is translated as “the narrative of the Patriarchs is a sign for their children”. So that if Abraham, Isaac and Jacob all were individually exiled because of a famine and ultimately returned to the promised land, so too would their progeny many years latter… and as a people.

But a more radical understanding could certainly be: All those stories about our patriarchs, matriarchs.. our origins, are nothing more than symbolic.

Afterall, the word avot (אבות), especially in Rabbinic usage means origin or sources (e.g. the 39 core forms of work prohibited on shabbat ל״ט אבות מלאכות )

After All, Maimonides in his Guide for the Perplexed II, 42 states unequivocally that many of the iconic stories in the Bible were just dreams….

the appearance or speech of an angel mentioned in Scripture took place in a vision or dream; it makes no difference whether this is expressly stated or not, as we have explained above. This is a point of considerable importance. In some cases the account begins by stating that the prophet saw an angel; in others, the account apparently introduces a human being, who ultimately is shown to be an angel; but it makes no difference, for if the fact that an angel has been heard is only mentioned at the end, you may rest satisfied that the whole account from the beginning describes a prophetic vision.

What this means is that not only is the story of Jacob struggling with the Angel just a vision… never happened.. but so is the story of the Fall which ends with Angels guarding the entrance to Eden…. and so is the sacrifice of Isaac which ends with an angel calling out to Abraham to lay off the boy.  (so it turns out that the sacrifice of Isaac was not only a dream… it was a particularly bad dream… a nightmare..)

In my mind, to say that much, if not all of the bible is merely a dream, a vision, a sign is not a defect.  The Hebrew Bible contains the dreams, visions and nightmares of my people… ones that have impacted humankind in ways unimaginable.

But when it comes to impacting the lives of other human beings, created in the image of the divine… let’s remember… it’s just a story.

 

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a thanksgiving meal

Maimonides writes in his letters that after he survived a life threatening ocean voyage he established an annual family thanksgiving meal of thanks to God. [1]

Every 19th of Kislev, Chabad Hasidim have a thanksgiving feast to celebrate the release from Tzarist prison of Rabbi Schneur Zalman, the founder of the movement.

There is also a custom amongst families that have made Aliya to Israel, to commemorate the date with a festive meal held on the anniversary.

These festive meals are called a Seudat Hodeyah (סעודת הודיה) and have biblical antecedence.  In Genesis 21: 8 Abraham has a festive meal of thanksgiving at the weaning of Isaac.

And the child grew and was weaned, and Abraham made a great feast on the day that Isaac was weaned.

וַיִּגְדַּל הַיֶּלֶד, וַיִּגָּמַל; וַיַּעַשׂ אַבְרָהָם מִשְׁתֶּה גָדוֹל, בְּיוֹם הִגָּמֵל אֶת-יִצְחָק

Rashi, citing the midrash, lists amongst the guests: Shem, Eber, and Abimelech.

When there was a Temple, there was a Thanksgiving offering (קרבן תודה) intended to give thanks to God.  It was a discretionary offering, which like the Passover sacrifice, was to be completely eaten by the participants.

If he offer it for a thanksgiving, then he shall offer with the sacrifice of thanksgiving unleavened cakes mingled with oil, and unleavened wafers spread with oil, and cakes mingled with oil, of fine flour soaked.

And the flesh of the sacrifice of his peace-offerings for thanksgiving shall be eaten on the day of his offering; he shall not leave any of it until the morning. (Leviticus 7: 12 and 15)

אִם עַל-תּוֹדָה, יַקְרִיבֶנּוּ–וְהִקְרִיב עַל-זֶבַח הַתּוֹדָה חַלּוֹת מַצּוֹת בְּלוּלֹת בַּשֶּׁמֶן, וּרְקִיקֵי מַצּוֹת מְשֻׁחִים בַּשָּׁמֶן; וְסֹלֶת מֻרְבֶּכֶת, חַלֹּת בְּלוּלֹת בַּשָּׁמֶן

וּבְשַׂר, זֶבַח תּוֹדַת שְׁלָמָיו–בְּיוֹם קָרְבָּנוֹ, יֵאָכֵל:  לֹא-יַנִּיחַ מִמֶּנּוּ, עַד-בֹּקֶר

With a Temple, the concept was to share a meal with God ….  sans Temple, the tradition is to invite friends and to provide a meal for the less fortunate. [2]

The American Thanksgiving Holiday has always appealed to Jews as an American holiday, albeit a religious one, which we could and should all celebrate.

Mordecai Kaplan believed that we needed to reconstruct our Judaism to incorporate the American Experience.  His controversial The New Haggadah was also known as the New American Haggadah.  True to his philosophy, in 1951 he also co-wrote a book called The Faith of America in which he suggested liturgy for “The Celebration of American Holidays”

Below I am happy to provide some scans of the contents and Thanksgiving prayers found in that book, which contain echoes of John Muir’s and Teddy Roosevelt’s environmentalism along with a healthy dose of anti-consumerism . (full scan of Thanksgiving chapter here)

Kaplan 1 kaplan 2

 

 

kaplan 3Alan Brill in his wonderful blog The Book of Doctrines and Opinions: has posted:

Service for Thanksgiving Day 1940 – Rabbi Joseph Lookstein as well as

Service for Thanksgiving Day 1945 – Rabbi David de Sola Pool (here’s the pdf) which includes a liturgy of Thanksgiving Psalms reminiscent of Hallel.

Wishing all my fellow travelers a most thankful Thanksgiving….

 

———–

[1]

הרמב”ם באגרת מספר שבאחת הנסיעות שלו באוניה הים רעש וכמעט הם מתו בספינה, ופתאום הסערה רגעה. הרמב”ם קבע את יום זה כיום הודיה שבו הוא עורך סעודה וקובע אותו כיום טוב לו ולזרעו.

(see)

[2]

כאשר בית המקדש היה קיים, ניתן היה להקריב קרבן תודה. קרבן זה מוקרב בתודה לקב”ה, והוא נאכל ע”י הבעלים: “וכי תזבחו זבח תודה לה’ – לרצונכם תזבחו: ביום ההוא יֵאכל, לא תותירו ממנו עד בֹּקר…”. בנקודה זו, סעודת ההודיה דומה לקרבן התודה; אך כמובן שקיים הבדל חשוב בין קרבן התודה לבין סעודת הודיה: בקרבן תודה, אכילת הקרבן נספחת לפן העיקרי – הקרבת הקרבן. מדוע בסעודת הודיה אין אנו מברכים ברכה מיוחדת, במקביל להקרבת קרבן התודה? מדוע אין אנו משתפים את הקב”ה בשמחתנו?

ייתכן שבמקום לשתף את הקב”ה בסעודת ההודיה, אנו משתפים אנשים נוספים. כשם שהקב”ה היטיב עמנו – כך אנו מיטיבים עם אנשים אחרים. סעודת ההודיה, אם כן, היא מעין צדקה שאנו נותנים בהודאה על הנס שאירע לנו. ואכן, בעל ה”תניא” מסביר שמצוַת הצדקה שקולה כנגד כל המצוות כי היא מעלה את הנפש הבהמית – האדם נותן לאחרים מהממון שיכל ליהנות ממנו בעצמו. במקביל, גם בסעודת ההודיה – האדם מרגיש צורך להעלות את נפשו ולקדשה, ולשם כך הוא עורך סעודה לו ולאחרים.

(see)

The first joint Thanksgiving as envisioned by artist Jennie Augusta Brownscombe (1850-1936)

The first joint Thanksgiving as envisioned by artist Jennie Augusta Brownscombe (1850-1936)

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what’s in a name

parshat toldot

In a recent post (Isaac’s smile) we explored how Isaac’s name reflected his origins, personality and resolution of the angst in his narrative.

With the birth of Jacob (Yaakov) one has to conclude that the Biblical giver-of-child names deserves an award for choosing the most demeaning and pejorative patriarchal names.  Isaac’s name basically was “joke” and Jacob’s is “heel”….

There has to be something more than malicious name-calling going on here.

The modern day scholar who focuses most closely on the original Hebrew sounds of the biblical text is Everett Fox, who has written a translation of the Torah following on the heels of Martin Buber and Franz Rosenzweig.  Fox takes the Bible, if not as an oral document, certainly as an aural one.  Fox believes that using echoes, allusions, and powerful inner structures of sound, the text of the Bible is often able to convey ideas in a manner that vocabulary alone cannot do.  Fox argues that virtually every major (usually male) character in Genesis has his name explained by a play on words many times hinting at an eventual fate or character trait.

Let’s listen to the story of Jacob in Genesis 25:26

26 And after that came forth his brother, and his hand had hold on Esau’s heel; and his name was called Jacob. And Isaac was threescore years old when she bore them.

וְאַחֲרֵי-כֵן יָצָא אָחִיו, וְיָדוֹ אֹחֶזֶת בַּעֲקֵב עֵשָׂו, וַיִּקְרָא שְׁמוֹ, יַעֲקֹב; וְיִצְחָק בֶּן-שִׁשִּׁים שָׁנָה, בְּלֶדֶת אֹתָם

The association of Jacob – Yaakov with a heel is strange.  Jacob is not the only mythical hero with a famous heel, but in Achilles case, he was the owner of the heel.  Jacob’s relationship with his brother’s heel is vicarious.  If the biblical author, let alone his parents, want to be flattering, they do a lousy job.   Jacob is to be known, at best, as a “hanger on”. Fox’s translation: “Heel-Holder”

Even if we choose to think of Jacob as a bootstrapper, we can’t forget that he pulls himself up by a bootstrap attached to his brothers heal.  And let’s not forget that Esau’s heal, like Achilles, is his most vulnerable body part. Metaphorically, the heel[ii] is the exposed rear of an army (see Joshua 8:13 and Genesis 49:19).  When God curses the snake for tempting Eve, it is on the snake’s metaphorical heel that man shall forever stamp (Genesis 3:15).  Attacking an enemy’s heel is an insult to both the attacker and the victim.

Our unflattering association is echoed by Esau himself later in the story.  After Jacob steals the birthright, Esau taunts (Genesis 27:36):

And he said: ‘Is not he rightly named Jacob? for he hath supplanted me these two times: he took away my birthright; and, behold, now he hath taken away my blessing.’ And he said: ‘Hast thou not reserved a blessing for me?’

וַיֹּאמֶר הֲכִי קָרָא שְׁמוֹ יַעֲקֹב, וַיַּעְקְבֵנִי זֶה פַעֲמַיִם–אֶת-בְּכֹרָתִי לָקָח, וְהִנֵּה עַתָּה לָקַח בִּרְכָתִי; וַיֹּאמַר, הֲלֹא-אָצַלְתָּ לִּי בְּרָכָה.

Here Ekev-heel is used in the sense of “to throw one down, to trip one up, to supplant, to circumvent, to defraud.[iii]  Fox’s translation: “Heel-Sneak”. Check out Jeremiah 9:3

Take ye heed every one of his neighbour, and trust ye not in any brother; for every brother acteth subtly, and every neighbour goeth about with slanders.

אִישׁ מֵרֵעֵהוּ הִשָּׁמֵרוּ, וְעַל-כָּל-אָח אַל-תִּבְטָחוּ:  כִּי כָל-אָח עָקוֹב יַעְקֹב, וְכָל-רֵעַ רָכִיל יַהֲלֹךְ

Jeremiah is pulling no punches, he uses “ekov Yaakov” the “heel of Jacob” as a synonym for acting deceptively.

What kind of parents would the biblical author have Isaac and Rebecca be?  Who gives a child such a name?

Clearly, Jacob is in need of a name change… and in fact, this is what happens after he wrestles with the Angel at the River Jabbok (literally: wrestling river).

There is nothing flattering that one can say about Yaakov’s name.  His name can only portend a change.  A change from a swindler, a scrapper, a kniver… someone who by choice or circumstance is forced to steal his blessings and eke out a living and a life.  Yaakov is the outsider, the Ghetto Jew, but his name portends another name, where he crosses the river into his homeland and can stand on his own feet and pull himself up from his own bootstraps … attached to his own heel.  This is what hopefully lies ahead for him in his future name and this is what presumably is up for grabs in the blessing that he steals.

So far in the text, you don’t have to listen to the Hebrew words of the text, you can look the words up in a dictionary or Biblical Lexicon… but when it comes to the patrimony and blessing that Jacob coveted… you have to listen: (Genesis 26: 3-5)

3 Sojourn in this land, and I will be with thee, and will bless thee; for unto thee, and unto thy seed, I will give all these lands, and I will establish the oath which I swore unto Abraham thy father;

4 and I will multiply thy seed as the stars of heaven, and will give unto thy seed all these lands; and by thy seed shall all the nations of the earth bless themselves;

5 because that Abraham hearkened to My voice, and kept My charge, My commandments, My statutes, and My laws.’

גּוּר בָּאָרֶץ הַזֹּאת, וְאֶהְיֶה עִמְּךָ וַאֲבָרְכֶךָּ:  כִּי-לְךָ וּלְזַרְעֲךָ, אֶתֵּן אֶת-כָּל-הָאֲרָצֹת הָאֵל, וַהֲקִמֹתִי אֶת-הַשְּׁבֻעָה, אֲשֶׁר נִשְׁבַּעְתִּי לְאַבְרָהָם אָבִיךָ

וְהִרְבֵּיתִי אֶת-זַרְעֲךָ, כְּכוֹכְבֵי הַשָּׁמַיִם, וְנָתַתִּי לְזַרְעֲךָ, אֵת כָּל-הָאֲרָצֹת הָאֵל; וְהִתְבָּרְכוּ בְזַרְעֲךָ, כֹּל גּוֹיֵי הָאָרֶץ

עֵקֶב, אֲשֶׁר-שָׁמַע אַבְרָהָם בְּקֹלִי; וַיִּשְׁמֹר, מִשְׁמַרְתִּי, מִצְו‍ֹתַי, חֻקּוֹתַי וְתוֹרֹתָי

The word translated as “because” is our old friend “ekev”[iv]. Used in this fairly rare sense, it has the sense of “as a consequence, a gain, a reward, end”.  It is that which results from a long, tedious, painful, tortuous and circuitous journey. A pilgrimage full of blisters.  Esau, might have been, like Achilles, the golden boy and favorite son and Yaakov, the parasite, but Yaakov struggled with what little he had.  Esau may have been well heeled, but Yaakov had the fortitude and faith in a God of history to grab steadfastly for a better future[v].  He deserved the blessing… it had his name on it.

Listening to the lyricism of the words in the original Hebrew and opening our ears to the playful and suggestive way the writer weaves one word; ekev into the narrative, we can do what Fox[vi] suggests we do; move explanation and commentary from the footnotes, back to the body of the text.


[i] See Strongs Biblical lexicon tsachaq H6711

Lexicon :: Strong's H6711 - tsachaq

Lexicon :: Strong’s H6711 – tsachaq

[ii] See Strongs Biblical lexicon aqeb H6119

Lexicon :: Strong's H6119 - `aqeb

Lexicon :: Strong’s H6119 – `aqeb

[iii] See Stongs Biblical Lexicon aqab  H6117

Lexicon :: Strong's H6117 - `aqab

Lexicon :: Strong’s H6117 – `aqab

[iv] See Strongs Biblical Lexicon 86118

Lexicon :: Strong's H6118 - `eqeb

Lexicon :: Strong’s H6118 – `eqeb

[v] It is no surprise that this last sense of Ekev, came to represent the promise of the future and messianic times.  The bad times and trial preceding the coming of the messiah were referred to as the “footsteps [heel steps] of the messiah”  Sotah 49a-b
R. ELIEZER THE GREAT SAYS: FROM THE DAY THE TEMPLE WAS DESTROYED, …. THERE WAS NONE TO ASK, NONE TO INQUIRE. UPON WHOM IS IT FOR US TO RELY? UPON OUR FATHER WHO IS IN HEAVEN. IN THE FOOTSTEPS OF THE MESSIAH   עקבות המשיח  INSOLENCE WILL INCREASE AND HONOUR DWINDLE;  …  THE GOVERNMENT WILL TURN TO HERESY  AND THERE WILL BE NONE [TO OFFER THEM] REPROOF; THE MEETING-PLACE [OF SCHOLARS] WILL BE USED FOR IMMORALITY; …. THE WISDOM OF THE LEARNED6  WILL DEGENERATE, FEARERS OF SIN WILL BE DESPISED, AND THE TRUTH WILL BE LACKING; YOUTHS WILL PUT OLD MEN TO SHAME, THE OLD WILL STAND UP IN THE PRESENCE OF THE YOUNG, A SON WILL REVILE HIS FATHER, A DAUGHTER WILL RISE AGAINST HER MOTHER, A DAUGHTER-IN-LAW AGAINST HER MOTHER-IN-LAW, AND A MAN’S ENEMIES WILL BE THE MEMBERS OF HIS HOUSEHOLD;  THE FACE OF THE GENERATION WILL BE LIKE THE FACE OF A DOG,  A SON WILL NOT FEEL ASHAMED BEFORE HIS FATHER. SO UPON WHOM IS IT FOR US TO RELY? UPON OUR FATHER WHO IS IN HEAVEN.

[vi] Although I must admit that Fox does not pick up on the ekev of the blessing, possibly because it does not appear directly in the blessing, but in the patrimony preceding and in the narrative.  I would argue that it is nonetheless intentionally placed in the literary piece.

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the next aliyah

parshat Hayei Sarah

In a previous post (Divine Birthers II) I continue to explore the child of God in the Hebrew tradition, but since I am currently in Israel and spending most of my time meeting with Israelis and traveling the land… a welcome opportunity to revisit the notion of the “people of the Land”….  עַם הָאָרֶץ

And Abraham bowed down before the people of the land. And he spoke unto Ephron in the hearing of the people of the land, saying: ‘But if thou wilt, I pray thee, hear me: I will give the price of the field; take it of me, and I will bury my dead there.’ (Genesis 23: 12-13)

וַיִּשְׁתַּחוּ, אַבְרָהָם, לִפְנֵי, עַם הָאָרֶץ

וַיְדַבֵּר אֶל-עֶפְרוֹן בְּאָזְנֵי עַם-הָאָרֶץ, לֵאמֹר, אַךְ אִם-אַתָּה לוּ, שְׁמָעֵנִי:  נָתַתִּי כֶּסֶף הַשָּׂדֶה, קַח מִמֶּנִּי, וְאֶקְבְּרָה אֶת-מֵתִי, שָׁמָּה

I had dinner with a long-time friend of my family; a card-carrying member of the Labour Party who at 95 had participated, in one way or the other in every war and served his country in the ministry of defense for many years.  When discussing the current difficult situation, he said with a twinkle in his eye… the Problem with the Jewish State is the Jews..  I had heard the comment before and it follows a long tradition of blaming the problems in the Holy Land on those who came before or after the blamer…..

In Abraham’s case, the “people of the land” are the Hittites who preceded the Hebrew in the land of Canaan.  Abraham wants to buy his first plot of land and the Hittites would prefer that he just visit and bury his wife on land that is charitably provided to him with limited recourse. Somehow, the concept of the People of the Land always means the people that immigrated there to the land before me.  Somehow these previous immigrants are always a thorn in the butt and the source of problems inherited by those that follow.

Many years latter, in Talmudic times, the term Am Ha-Aretz” was used to refer to an ignorant Jew, but the source of this pejorative which became popular with the rise of the Pharisees and Rabbinic Judaism was actually with the return of the exiled Jews from Babylonia.  Writes Aharon Oppenheimer in his classic: The Am Ha-Aretz: A Study in the Social History of the Jewish People in the Hellenistic-Roman Period, 1997 (note to page83):

AmHaaretz

The Jews in Babylonia, led by Ezra and Nechemia had changed the face of Judaism.  When the first temple was standing, washing and purification before eating food was relegated to the priests and Levites and to eating temple sanctified food.  The returning Babylonian Jews had extended this requirement to every Jew and for all foodstuff.  Similarly tithing was continued by the Babylonian Jews, even though the priests, who benefited from such tithing, no longer had a Temple to work in.  The Jews who had remained in Israel, known as the Amei Ha-aretz had not gotten this memo and probably thought that the Babylonian Jews were living in denial… there was no longer any reason to ritually wash nor tithe.  And finally, the Jews in Babylonia had come up with this idea of the resurrection of the dead and possibly other such elements of eschatology such as belief in the world-to-come and a messianic age…. here too the Am Ha’aretz did not get the memo.  The Am Ha’aretz, were for the Pharasees and annoying reminder that they had, in fact, re-invented Judaism… not rediscovered it.

In current parlance, Am ha’aretz (or AMHA) refers to a movement arising from the early pioneers in Israel and their love of the land. Members of AMHA in Israel tend to be in elite military units and kibbutzim and reflect the traditional values of the secular Israeli pioneers. The leaders of AMHA are called Shoftim, and are elected by the membership. AMHA has also spread to the USA in recent years, where the first Shofet outside of Israel now resides. (see: Wikipedia: Am ha’aretz).

There is a profound irony about this too holy land that brings immigrants based on their love and connection to it’s history but who at the same time deride and blame the achievements of the immigrants who preceded them… the am ha’aretz.

The late Arik Einstein and Uri Zohar, in a wonderful comic skit, portray the common social phenomenon where every immigrant group is disparaged by the group that precedes it and disparages the one to follow.  The skit, which I am happy to provide below,  pokes fun at the deep cultural rifts in Israel till today.  It would have been equally entertaining and relevant to make a skit about how, only in the land of Israel, each subsequent immigration disparages and undermines the contributions of those who preceded it… the am ha’aretz.

Maybe for the rifts to heal, we need a new aliya… a new immigration where we all accept our immigrant status at the same time as accepting our being people of the land… maybe we all need to live more in the moment of aliya and less in the various strata of the land.  Maybe that’s the message of the current seventh Shemita/Sabbatical year where we need to separate from the land, in order to live in it.  Shemita Shalom.

Arik

 

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[1] For more recent scholarship on this subject see Daniel Boyarin , Border Lines: The Partition of Judaeo-Christianity p. 251 note 122

AmHaaretz boylerin

 

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Isaac’s smile

Parshat Vayera

In a previous post Divine Birthers I, I explore the concept of miraculous birth and resurrection in Judaism.  It’s ironic that such a heavy discussion is raised by the birth and life of a guy named Isaac … יִצְחָק which literally means to laugh and in context, means to laugh at God.

And Sarah laughed within herself, saying: ‘After I am waxed old shall I have pleasure, my lord being old also?’  And the LORD said unto Abraham: ‘Wherefore did Sarah laugh, saying: Shall I of a surety bear a child, who am old?  Is any thing too hard for the LORD. At the set time I will return unto thee, when the season cometh round, and Sarah shall have a son.  Then Sarah denied, saying: ‘I laughed not'; for she was afraid. And He said: ‘Nay; but thou didst laugh.’ Genesis 18: 12-16

וַתִּצְחַק שָׂרָה, בְּקִרְבָּהּ לֵאמֹר:  אַחֲרֵי בְלֹתִי הָיְתָה-לִּי עֶדְנָה, וַאדֹנִי זָקֵן

וַיֹּאמֶר ה’, אֶל-אַבְרָהָם:  לָמָּה זֶּה צָחֲקָה שָׂרָה לֵאמֹר, הַאַף אֻמְנָם אֵלֵד–וַאֲנִי זָקַנְתִּי

הֲיִפָּלֵא ה’, דָּבָר; לַמּוֹעֵד אָשׁוּב אֵלֶיךָ, כָּעֵת חַיָּה–וּלְשָׂרָה בֵן

וַתְּכַחֵשׁ שָׂרָה לֵאמֹר לֹא צָחַקְתִּי, כִּי יָרֵאָה; וַיֹּאמֶר לֹא, כִּי צָחָקְתְּ

 

And Abraham was a hundred years old, when his son Isaac was born unto him and Sarah said: ‘God hath made laughter for me; every one that heareth will laugh on account of me.’  Genesis 21: 6-7

וְאַבְרָהָם, בֶּן-מְאַת שָׁנָה, בְּהִוָּלֶד לוֹ, אֵת יִצְחָק בְּנוֹ

וַתֹּאמֶר שָׂרָה–צְחֹק, עָשָׂה לִי אֱלֹהִים:  כָּל-הַשֹּׁמֵעַ, יִצְחַק-לִי

This past Rosh HaShanah, my Rabbi, Rabbi Jeremy Wiederhorn asked why, Isaac, the “middle Father” of the three patriarchs was featured in the Torah readings of the High Holidays?  The first day of Rosh Hashanah we read the story of the expulsion of Hagar and Ishmael after the birth of Isaac:  Genesis 21: 9.   Ironically, Ishmael is banished by Sarah because he exhibits the same trait as Isaac… he’s a jokester….

And Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne unto Abraham, making sport.

וַתֵּרֶא שָׂרָה אֶת-בֶּן-הָגָר הַמִּצְרִית, אֲשֶׁר-יָלְדָה לְאַבְרָהָם–מְצַחֵק

On the second day of Rosh Hashanah we read of the Sacrifice of Isaac, which is admittedly not a laughing matter.

Even the Torah makes a connection between the Sacrifice of Isaac.. the Akeda and what lies before… the account of he Akeda begins with Genesis 22:1

And it came to pass after these things, that God did prove Abraham, and said unto him: ‘Abraham'; and he said: ‘Here am I.’

 וַיְהִי, אַחַר הַדְּבָרִים הָאֵלֶּה

Like any middle child, argued Wiederhorn, Isaac had a conflicted life and much to teach us…. ergo we read both of these troubling stories that revolve around him on the high holy days.

What connects Isaac and his jokester brother Ishmael is how these two brothers came to reconcile with each other, and forgive their father.

According to the the Talmudic sage Raba in Baba Batra 16b  quoted by Wiederhorn, these two feuding brothers reunited at their father’s funeral and shiva.

Ishmael repented in the lifetime of his father. [We know this] because it says, And Isaac and Ishmael his sons buried him. (Genesis 25: 9) But perhaps the text arranges them in the order of their wisdom? — If that were so, then why in the verse, And Esau and Jacob his sons buried him (Genesis 35: 29) are they not arranged in the order of their wisdom? What we have to say is that the fact of the text placing Isaac first shows that Ishmael made way (‘made him lead’)  for him, and from the fact that he made way for him we infer that he repented in Abraham’s lifetime. [1]

According to a conversation imagined by Rabbi Wiederhorn…. Ishmael was bitter and complained to Isaac that that their father had cruelly rejected and exiled him…. said Isaac “Dad rejected you… but he tried to kill me!”.  It was this humor shared by these two victims of exile and persecution that brought them together.

But there’s more joking going on in this narrative.  When in Genesis 26: 8 the Abimelech, king of the Philistines catches Isaac “sporting” with his wife Rebecca, many commentaries provide sexual innuendo…

And it came to pass, when he had been there a long time, that Abimelech king of the Philistines looked out at a window, and saw, and, behold, Isaac was sporting with Rebekah his wife.

וַיְהִי, כִּי אָרְכוּ-לוֹ שָׁם הַיָּמִים, וַיַּשְׁקֵף אֲבִימֶלֶךְ מֶלֶךְ פְּלִשְׁתִּים, בְּעַד הַחַלּוֹן; וַיַּרְא, וְהִנֵּה יִצְחָק מְצַחֵק, אֵת, רִבְקָה אִשְׁתּוֹ

I must say, I have always loved the Torah’s humor in “Isaac was sporting” “Yitchak Mitzahek”  יִצְחָק מְצַחֵק  but Wiederhorn makes the point that not only does the author of the Torah make us smile with this word play… but maybe, just maybe it was not gratuitous sex that was part of this screenplay …  maybe for once we should take the text literally and Isaac was making his wife smile in a way that only one who is intimately connected can.  Isaac, true to his name, used humor, charm and a gratuitous smile to navigate through the trials and tribulations of life.  that was what Isaac was doing too…. making Rebeca smile in a way that showed the closeness of the relationship.

According to Wiederhorn’s sometimes we need to look on the bright side of life…

Writing this post in Israel, after a difficult few weeks of conflict over the Temple Mount and terror attacks with cars mowing down innocent victims waiting for a light rail, the message of Isaac could never be more timely… we … all parties.. the children of Sarah and the children of Hagar, need to smile more and make each other smile more.  We share enough tragedy to smile in a way that only those sharing the same fate and suffering can.  If we can’t smile together, we may never get out of the rut we’re in.

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[1]

baba batra 16bWiederhorn was inspired by the commentary to Genesis 25:9 in the Etz Hayim Chumash: “Isaac and Ishmael are reunited at their father’s funeral, a sign that Ishmael changed his ways as he matured [BT BB 16b].  Although he could not have forgotten how his father had treated him and how his brother had supplanted him, he seems to have forgiven Abraham for having been a less-than-perfect father.  Isaac too seems to have come to terms with his father’s nearly killing him on Mount Moriah.

Might these reconciliations have occurred in Abraham’s lifetime and be the reason for the Torah’s describing him as “contented” in his old age (Gen. R. 38:12)? Can we see this as a model for family reconciliations, forgiving old hurts? And can it not be a model for the descendents of Ishmael and Isaac, contemporary Arabs and Israeli Jews, to find grounds for forgiveness and reconciliation?”

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