Category Archives: Chosen People

What’s New with the Jewish New Year

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The Source Sheet is below:

What’s new about the Jewish New Year

The three components of Rosh HaShannah

Malkhiot – Kingship – מלכיות

Zikhronot –  Remembrances – זכרונות

Shofarot – Shofar Blast – שופרות

1.

Source in the Mishnah

one says avot and gevurot and kedushat Hashem, and [then] includes malkhiot with kedushat hayom, and [then] blows [the shofar; then] zikhronot and [then] he blows; [then] the ‏shofarot‎ and [then] he blows [a third time];

We may not have less then ten [verses] of malkhiot‎, ten of zikhronot‎ and ten of shofarot‎‎.  (Mishneh Rosh Hashanah 4: 5-6)

2.

Source in the Torah

Speak unto the children of Israel, saying: In the seventh month, in the first day of the month, shall be a solemn rest unto you, a memorial proclaimed with the blast of horns, a holy convocation.

 דַּבֵּר אֶל-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, לֵאמֹר:  בַּחֹדֶשׁ הַשְּׁבִיעִי בְּאֶחָד לַחֹדֶשׁ, יִהְיֶה לָכֶם שַׁבָּתוֹן–זִכְרוֹן תְּרוּעָה, מִקְרָא-קֹדֶשׁ

Leviticus 23:24

Rashi: a remembrance of Scriptural verses dealing with remembrance and Scriptural verses dealing with the blowing of the shofar (R.H . 32a)

זכרון פסוקי זכרונות ופסוקי שופרות

Where is the source for Malkhiot – Kingship – מלכיות ?

Where is the source for the New Year?

Where is the source for repentance and new beginnings?

 

Review of Last year’s session….

The Kingship of God is the core message of Judaism.

3.

מודה אני לפניך מלך חי וקים

I give thanks before You, Living and Eternal King

4.

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה’ אֱ-להֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעולָם

Blessed art You Lord our King

5.

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה’ הא-ל הָקדוש

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה’ המֶלֶךְ הָקדוש

  1. The 9th and 10th proof text for Malchiyot:

The 9th proof text brought for malchuyot (kingship) is the verse from Zechariah  14, 9 used to close the Aleinu prayer. [Some believe Aleinu was written by Tanna Rav in 3rd century Babylonia for Rosh Hashanah services.]

 וְהָיָה ה’ לְמֶלֶךְ, עַל-כָּל-הָאָרֶץ; בַּיּוֹם הַהוּא, יִהְיֶה ה’ אֶחָד–וּשְׁמוֹ אֶחָד

And the LORD shall be King over all the earth; in that day shall the LORD be One, and His name one.

The 10th and last proof text:

שְׁמַע, יִשְׂרָאֵל: ה’ אֱ-לוהֵינוּ, ה’ אֶחָד

Hear Oh Israel the Lord your God, the Lord is one.

7.

the whispered [subversive] proclamation said out loud…

ברוך שם כבוד מלכותו לעולם ועד

Blessed be the name of the glory of His kingdom forever and ever.

8.

אבינו מלכנו א’ן לנו מלך אלא אתה

“Our father. our king we have no king other than you.

[author: Rabbi Akiba – Babylonian Talmud, Ta’anit 25b  highpoint of Selichot services leading up to Yom Kippur and of the Yom Kippur service itself and the closing prayer at the Neila service]

9.

Biblical rejection of a human king

But the thing displeased Samuel, when they said: ‘Give us a king to judge us.’ And Samuel prayed unto the LORD.
And the LORD said unto Samuel: ‘Hearken unto the voice of the people in all that they say unto thee; for they have not rejected thee, but they have rejected Me, that I should not be king over them.
According to all the works which they have done since the day that I brought them up out of Egypt even unto this day, in that they have forsaken Me, and served other gods, so do they also unto thee.
( see Samuel I 8: 4-22)

כִּי לֹא אֹתְךָ מָאָסוּ, כִּיאֹתִי מָאֲסוּ מִמְּלֹךְ עֲלֵיהֶם. כְּכָל-הַמַּעֲשִׂים אֲשֶׁר-עָשׂוּ, מִיּוֹם הַעֲלֹתִי אוֹתָם מִמִּצְרַיִם וְעַד-הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה, וַיַּעַזְבֻנִי, וַיַּעַבְדוּ אֱלֹהִים

10.

The New Year

The four new years are: On the first of Nisan, the new year for the kings and for the festivals; On the first of Elul, the new year for the tithing of animals; Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Shimon say, on the first of Tishrei. On the first of Tishrei, the new year for years, for the Sabbatical years and for the Jubilee years and for the planting and for the vegetables. On the first of Shevat, the new year for the trees according to the words of the House of Shammai; The House of Hillel says, on the fifteenth thereof.

[Mishnah Rosh Hashanah 1:1]

Rabbi Chisda said, ‘They only taught [that the year begins in Nissan] this in regard to Jewish kings. But for the kings of the nations of the world, we count from Tishrei, (Babylonian Talmud 3a)

   א”ר חסדא

לא שנו אלא למלכי ישראל אבל למלכי אומות העולם מתשרי מנינן

 

11.

Babylonian New Year – Akitu – Akkadian: rêš-šattim, “head of the year”) 21 Adar – 1 Nisannu.

There were twelve days of public ritual which according to Henri Frankfort in his seminal work: Kingship and the Gods, was a time of purification, of renewal of the vegetation. It was also a time of dramatic reenactments, it was at this time that the destinies of both gods and mankind were fixed, and the king began his reign on new year’s day.

Highlights:

4th day – During the day the Epic of Creation Enuma Elish would be recited. The Enuma Elish, is most likely the oldest story concerning the birth of the gods and the creation of the universe and human beings. It then explains how all the gods united in the god Marduk, following his victory over Tiamat. The recitation of this Epic was considered the beginning of preparations for the submission of the King of Babylon before Marduk on the fifth day of Akitu.

5th day – The submission of the king of Babylon before Marduk. The king would enter to the Esagila accompanied by the priests, they would approach all together the altar where the high priest of the Esagila impersonates Marduk then he approaches the king, begins to strip him of his jewelry, scepter and even his crown then he would slap him hard while the altar would kneel and begins to pray asking for Marduk’s forgiveness and submitting to him saying: “I have not sinned O Lord of the universe, and I haven’t neglected your heavenly might at all”… Then the priest in the role of Marduk says: “Don’t be afraid of what Marduk has to say, for he will hear your prayers, extends your power, and increases the greatness of your reign”. The removal of all worldly possessions is a symbol of the submission the king gives to Marduk. After this the king would stand up and the priest would give him back his jewelry, scepter and crown then slaps him hard again hoping for the king to shed tears, because that would express more the submission to Marduk and respect to his power. When the priest returns the crown to the king that means his power was renewed by Marduk, thus April would be considered not only the revival of nature and life but also to the State as well. [i]

12.

Egypt there was theSed Festival

The Egyptian Sed Festival held in the Fall and celebrated the continued rule of a pharaoh. The ancient festival might, perhaps, have been instituted to replace a ritual of murdering a pharaoh who was unable to continue to rule effectively because of age or condition. … They primarily were held to rejuvenate the pharaoh’s strength and stamina while still sitting on the throne, celebrating the continued success of the pharaoh.   The Sed-festival developed into a royal jubilee intended to reinforce the pharaoh’s divine powers and religious leadership.

13.

When was Kingship introduced to the Jewish New Year?

In the critical view, the Pentateuchal legislation in which the festival appears belongs to the Priestly Code (P) and, therefore, to the post-Exilic period, when the Babylonian influences had become particularly pronounced. The older critical views consider the whole institution to be post-Exilic, pointing out, for instance, that there is no reference to it in the lists of the feasts in Deuteronomy (16: 1—17). More recently, however, Sigmund Mowinckel has advanced the suggestion that there existed in pre-Exilic Israel an autumnal New Year festival on which God was “enthroned” as King (analogous to the Babylonian enthronement of *Marduk).

(Encyclopedia Judaica; Louis Jacobs article “Rosh Hashannah’)

14.

Earliest significance to Tishrei 1 -10 (Leviticus 25)

  1. Then shalt thou make proclamation with the blast of the horn on the tenth day of the seventh month; in the day of atonement shall ye make proclamation with the horn throughout all your land.
    15. And ye shall hallow the fiftieth year, and proclaim liberty throughout the land unto all the inhabitants thereof; it shall be a jubilee unto you; and ye shall return every man unto his possession, and ye shall return every man unto his family.
  2. And if thy brother be waxen poor with thee, and sell himself unto thee, thou shalt not make him to serve as a bondservant.
    40. As a hired servant, and as a settler, he shall be with thee; he shall serve with thee unto the year of jubilee.
    41. Then shall he go out from thee, he and his children with him, and shall return unto his own family, and unto the possession of his fathers shall he return.
    42. For they are My servants, whom I brought forth out of the land of Egypt; they shall not be sold as bondmen.
  3. For unto Me the children of Israel are servants; they are My servants whom I brought forth out of the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God.
  4. In the Talmud Tishrei 1 -10 (Babylonian Talmud Rosh Hashana 8b)

According to the Talmud, servants were formally freed on the 1st of Tishri, but were allowed to remain on the homesteads of their former masters and to enjoy themselves for ten days, until Yom Kippur, when the trumpet was blown (Lev. xxv. 9) as a signal for their departure, and for the restoration of the fields to their original owners (R. H. 8b).

15.

Significance of remembering the sound of the Shofar (Exodus 21)

2. If thou buy a Hebrew servant, six years he shall serve; and in the seventh he shall go out free for nothing.
5. But if the servant shall plainly say: I love my master, my wife, and my children; I will not go out free;
6. then his master shall bring him unto God, and shall bring him to the door, or unto the door-post; and his master shall bore his ear through with an awl; and he shall serve him forever.

Babylonian Talmud, Kiddushin 22b

Now, why was the ear chosen to be bored out of all the organs of the body? According to Rabban Jochanan ben Zakkai The Holy One Blessed be He said said: The ear that heard on Mount Sinai, “For the children of Israel are slaves to Me ” (Lev. 25:55) and not slaves to slaves… and [then] went and acquired a master for himself, [this ear] shall be bored.

“You shall not steal” (Exod. 20:13) and [then] went and stole, shall be bored. And if [the text is referring to] one who sold himself [into servitude, the reason is that]

רבן יוחנן בן זכאי היה דורש את המקרא הזה כמין חומר מה נשתנה אזן מכל אברים שבגוף אמר הקב”ה אזן ששמעה קולי על הר סיני בשעה שאמרתי (ויקרא כה, נה) כי לי בני ישראל עבדים ולא עבדים לעבדים והלך זה וקנה אדון לעצמו ירצע

Conclusion

17.

Eric Fromm – You Shall be as Gods pp 73 – 75

“Obedience to God is also the negation of submission to man.”

“The idea of serfdom to God was, in the Jewish tradition, transformed into the basis for the freedom of man from man.  God’s authority thus guarantees man’s independence from human author

——

[i] Compare to the accounts of the High Priest in the Holy of Holies:

The first mishna in Yoma stipulates that the Kohen Gadol must be sequestered for one compete week prior to Yom Kippur to purify himself and prepare for the holiday.

Prior to entering the Holy of Holies the Kohen Gadol removed his golden garments, immersed in the mikvah, and changed to a new set of linen garments, again washing his hands and feet twice.

There was good reason for the High Priest’s decision not to elongate his prayer at this particular time: many a High Priest was struck down dead while in the Holy of Holies. Although the First Temple stood for 410 years, in all there were only 12 High Priests during that entire period; because they were very righteous, they were blessed with longevity. However, the Second Temple, which stood for a total of 420 years, was presided over by more than 300 High Priests. This is because in the spiritual decline of those days, many of these men were corrupted, and bought their office through influence. The Zohar, mentions that a rope was tied around his foot, to drag him out in case he dies.

Additionally, if he would change any detail of the incense service within the Holy of Holies (as we mentioned with regard to the Sadducees), he would also die. With this is mind, it is understandable that the eyes of all Israel awaited the exit of the High Priest with bated breath. Being aware of his people’s agitation, the High Priest’s first concern was that he should not cause them any unnecessary anxiety… and the longer he stayed within, the more Israel’s apprehension grew. Thus the High Priest saw fit to forego the opportunity to engage in a long personal prayer, and recited the shorter version so as to exit the Sanctuary with reasonable speed.

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October 1, 2016 · 11:13 pm

the chosen blessing

parshat Vayechi

Given the choice between an heir and a spare, God will always pick the spare.  If the theme of the first book of the Hebrew Bible is the election of the twelve tribes of Israel then the sub-plot is the rejection of the first-born.  Unlike Greek mythology and its oedipal complex, the story of the choosing the tribes of Israel revolves around sibling rivalry more than parental passion/aggression.

God chooses Abel’s sacrifice over Cain’s, Isaac over Ishmael[i] and Jacob over Esau.  Going forward, Moses is selected over Aaron and David over a bunch of older siblings. To paraphrase Adam Sandler: “all spares”.

The first choice of Abel over Cain ends in the first genocide, the last choice of Joseph’s second born is  recounted at the end of Genesis and provides a welcome conflict resolution and a valuable lesson.

The lesson is clear.  The opposite of chosen is not rejected.  The opposite of Chosen is Entitled.  If the Jews were singled out as a Chosen People, it is not because they were exceptional; it was because they lacked all class title or land title, all prior rights or natural rights.  The Chosen People are the personification of the unentitled and dispossessed.

In our liturgy, we recite many blessings, but besides the Priestly Blessing, there is only one blessing that is of biblical origin.  It is the blessing which parents bless their children on a weekly basis and it makes no sense unless one understands it within the context of entitlement reform.  It is a blessing that contains within it the simple message to every child (and therefore, I suggest, appropriate for daughters too).

“Child, nothing in this wonderful world is yours by right or by privilege.  You must earn your blessings and learn to respect those who earn their blessings, even if they outperform you”  “God make thee as Ephraim and as Manasseh”

Here’s the back story of this simple blessing in Genesis 48

1 And it came to pass after these things that someone said to Joseph: ‘Behold, thy father is sick.’ And he took with him his two sons, Manasseh and Ephraim. [in that order]
5 And now thy two sons, who were born unto thee in the land of Egypt before I came unto thee into Egypt, are mine; Ephraim and Manasseh, even as Reuben and Simeon, shall be mine.
10 Now the eyes of Israel [Jacob] were dim for age, so that he could not see. And he brought them near unto him; and he kissed them, and embraced them.
13 And Joseph took them both, Ephraim in his right hand toward Israel’s left hand, and Manasseh in his left hand toward Israel’s right hand, and brought them near unto him.
14 And Israel stretched out his right hand, and laid it upon Ephraim’s head, who was the younger, and his left hand upon Manasseh’s head, guiding his hands wittingly (literally; with Sechel – common sense); for Manasseh was the first-born.
15 And he blessed Joseph, and said: ‘The God before whom my fathers Abraham and Isaac did walk, the God who hath been my shepherd all my life long unto this day,
16 the angel who hath redeemed me from all evil, bless the lads; and let my name be named in them, and the name of my fathers Abraham and Isaac; and let them grow into a multitude in the midst of the earth.’
17 And when Joseph [Firstborn of Rachel and apple of his father’s eye] saw that his father was laying his right hand upon the head of Ephraim, it was evil in his eyes, and he held up his father’s hand, to remove it from Ephraim’s head unto Manasseh’s head.
18 And Joseph said unto his father: ‘Not so, my father, for this is the first-born; put thy right hand upon his head.’
19 And his father refused, and said: ‘I know it, my son, I know it; he also shall become a people, and he also shall be great; howbeit his younger brother shall be greater than he, and his seed shall become a multitude of nations.’
20 And he blessed them that day, saying: ‘By thee shall Israel bless, saying: God make thee as Ephraim and as Manasseh.’ And he set Ephraim before Manasseh.

וַיְהִי, אַחֲרֵי הַדְּבָרִים הָאֵלֶּה, וַיֹּאמֶר לְיוֹסֵף, הִנֵּה אָבִיךָ חֹלֶה; וַיִּקַּח אֶת-שְׁנֵי בָנָיו, עִמּוֹ–אֶת-מְנַשֶּׁה, וְאֶת-אֶפְרָיִם

וְעַתָּה שְׁנֵי-בָנֶיךָ הַנּוֹלָדִים לְךָ בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם, עַד-בֹּאִי אֵלֶיךָ מִצְרַיְמָה–לִי-הֵם:  אֶפְרַיִם, וּמְנַשֶּׁה–כִּרְאוּבֵן וְשִׁמְעוֹן, יִהְיוּ-לִי

  וְעֵינֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל כָּבְדוּ מִזֹּקֶן, לֹא יוּכַל לִרְאוֹת; וַיַּגֵּשׁ אֹתָם אֵלָיו, וַיִּשַּׁק לָהֶם וַיְחַבֵּק לָהֶם

וַיִּקַּח יוֹסֵף, אֶת-שְׁנֵיהֶם–אֶת-אֶפְרַיִם בִּימִינוֹ מִשְּׂמֹאל יִשְׂרָאֵל, וְאֶת-מְנַשֶּׁה בִשְׂמֹאלוֹ מִימִין יִשְׂרָאֵל; וַיַּגֵּשׁ, אֵלָיו

וַיִּשְׁלַח יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶת-יְמִינוֹ וַיָּשֶׁת עַל-רֹאשׁ אֶפְרַיִם, וְהוּא הַצָּעִיר, וְאֶת-שְׂמֹאלוֹ, עַל-רֹאשׁ מְנַשֶּׁה:  שִׂכֵּל, אֶת-יָדָיו, כִּי מְנַשֶּׁה, הַבְּכוֹר

וַיְבָרֶךְ אֶת-יוֹסֵף, וַיֹּאמַר:  הָאֱ-לֹהִים אֲשֶׁר הִתְהַלְּכוּ אֲבֹתַי לְפָנָיו, אַבְרָהָם וְיִצְחָק–הָאֱ-לֹהִים הָרֹעֶה אֹתִי, מֵעוֹדִי עַד-הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה

הַמַּלְאָךְ הַגֹּאֵל אֹתִי מִכָּל-רָע, יְבָרֵךְ אֶת-הַנְּעָרִים, וְיִקָּרֵא בָהֶם שְׁמִי, וְשֵׁם אֲבֹתַי אַבְרָהָם וְיִצְחָק; וְיִדְגּוּ לָרֹב, בְּקֶרֶב הָאָרֶץ

וַיַּרְא יוֹסֵף, כִּי-יָשִׁית אָבִיו יַד-יְמִינוֹ עַל-רֹאשׁ אֶפְרַיִם–וַיֵּרַע בְּעֵינָיו; וַיִּתְמֹךְ יַד-אָבִיו, לְהָסִיר אֹתָהּ מֵעַל רֹאשׁ-אֶפְרַיִם–עַל-רֹאשׁ מְנַשֶּׁה

וַיֹּאמֶר יוֹסֵף אֶל-אָבִיו, לֹא-כֵן אָבִי:  כִּי-זֶה הַבְּכֹר, שִׂים יְמִינְךָ עַל-רֹאשׁוֹ

וַיְמָאֵן אָבִיו, וַיֹּאמֶר יָדַעְתִּי בְנִי יָדַעְתִּי–גַּם-הוּא יִהְיֶה-לְּעָם, וְגַם-הוּא יִגְדָּל; וְאוּלָם, אָחִיו הַקָּטֹן יִגְדַּל מִמֶּנּוּ, וְזַרְעוֹ, יִהְיֶה מְלֹא-הַגּוֹיִם

יְבָרְכֵם בַּיּוֹם הַהוּא, לֵאמוֹר, בְּךָ יְבָרֵךְ יִשְׂרָאֵל לֵאמֹר, יְשִׂמְךָ אֱ-לֹהִים כְּאֶפְרַיִם וְכִמְנַשֶּׁה; וַיָּשֶׂם אֶת-אֶפְרַיִם, לִפְנֵי מְנַשֶּׁה

The truth is that the blessing: “God make thee as Ephraim and as Manasseh” is a culmination of all the blessings of the Book of Genesis.  Ephraim and Menashe were two nondescript kids who are never mentioned again in the Holy Text but who are linked together more than any siblings in the Bible.  Unlike their predecessor siblings there is no record of a rivalry.  While their father Joseph[ii] complains, they do not.  I suggest that their mutual respect elevated the simple mention of their names into a blessing.  In a meritocracy, titles are awarded to those like Ephraim who are deserving, by a society which rewards achievement and whose members each individually., like Menasheh, share an aspiration to achieve.  A Start-Up Nation is powered by audacious and rogue entrepreneurs who are rewarded and funded by the landed gentry of the day.  Everyone benefits. Ephraim and Manasseh is a win win… it’s a blessing.

Rashi, the great Medieval commentator in his first comment to the Bible asks why this Code of Law (Torah means Way or instruction) begins with the narrative of Genesis and not with the first commandment given to the generation of the Exodus in the book of that name?

He answers, that unlike every other nation which lays claim to its homeland because of prior and uninterrupted title, the Jews unabashedly admit that they have no entitled claim to their Promised Land.  Abraham came from the other side of the “tracks” or in his case “river” and was the personification of the “other”.  Abraham was the first Hebrew which means Other. (Ivri – Hebrew as in Me’ever HaNehar ).

It is God, as introduced in Genesis, who provides the even playing field.  Just as the opposite of Chosen is entitled, so the opposite of the Promised Land is a Land with a Title.

Since God created the Universe, it is God, not nature, not title, not bloodline and not incumbency which awards the Promised Land.

Here’s the text of that first Rashi:

In the beginning: Said Rabbi Isaac: It was not necessary to begin the Torah except from “This month is to you,” (Exod. 12:2) which is the first commandment that the Israelites were commanded. Now for what reason did He commence with “In the beginning?” Because of [the verse] “The strength of His works He related to His people, to give them the inheritance of the nations” (Ps. 111:6). For if the nations of the world should say to Israel, “You are robbers, for you conquered by force the lands of the seven nations [of Canaan],” they will reply, “The entire earth belongs to the Holy One, blessed be He; He created it (this we learn from the story of the Creation) and gave it to whomever He deemed proper When He wished, He gave it to them, and when He wished, He took it away from them and gave it to us.

אמר רבי יצחק לא היה צריך להתחיל [את] התורה אלא (שמות יב ב) מהחודש הזה לכם, שהיא מצוה ראשונה שנצטוו [בה] ישראל, ומה טעם פתח בבראשית, משום (תהלים קיא ו) כח מעשיו הגיד לעמו לתת להם נחלת גוים, שאם יאמרו אומות העולם לישראל לסטים אתם, שכבשתם ארצות שבעה גוים, הם אומרים להם כל הארץ של הקב”ה היא, הוא בראה ונתנה לאשר ישר בעיניו, ברצונו נתנה להם וברצונו נטלה מהם ונתנה לנו

Ironically, if the Jews as the Chosen People and the Land as the Promised Land, have a message to mankind, it is not that one people has inalienable privileges and natural rights to a piece of real estate but to the contrary. The election of a chosen people for a promised land is a declaration that “The earth is the Lord’s” and no man, woman or child has a claim or right to any land or social title.  (The flip side for the Jews, as the Hebrew Prophets never tire of repeating, is that if they forget that the Earth is the Lord’s they will be spit out to wander the world dispossessed and stateless).

It was in Jewish Learning, scholarship and intellectual inquiry that this rejection of entitlement and genetic patrimony paid its biggest dividends.

The story of a young Akiva as an ignorant  laborer (am haAretz) who works his way up to lead the academy is legend.  Other stories of Talmudic scholars who started out dirt poor, as converts or as petty criminals are common.  There are no glass ceilings in the pursuit of knowledge and it is this chosenness that we celebrate when we bless Torah Study.

In their reading, the First Century Rabbis insinuate that what set apart the second-born of our patriarchs wasn’t their birth-order but their dedication to learning.  According to Babylonian Talmud Yoma 28b Abraham, Isaac and Jacob all were part of a certain Scholar’s Council.

According to Genesis 25: 27 “Esau was a cunning hunter, a man of the field; and Jacob was a quiet man, dwelling in tents.”

וַיְהִי עֵשָׂו אִישׁ יֹדֵעַ צַיִד, אִישׁ שָׂדֶה; וְיַעֲקֹב אִישׁ תָּם, יֹשֵׁב אֹהָלִים

For the Rabbis, the tents in which Jacob sat (ישב) were the academies (ישיבות) of Shem [Noah’s son] and Eber [Noah’s grandson]. Genesis Rabbah 63:10 b. Yoma 28b)

Similarly in Genesis 47:1 (above) when it says that [someone] said to Joseph that Jacob was ill Rashi comments: Some say, however, that Ephraim was accustomed to study with Jacob, and when Jacob became ill in the land of Goshen, Ephraim went to his father to Egypt to tell him.

ויש אומרים אפרים היה רגיל לפני יעקב בתלמוד, וכשחלה יעקב בארץ גושן, הלך אפרים אצל אביו למצרים והגיד לו

For the Rabbis, the selection of Israel and a dedication to unconstrained study were one and the same.

The Rabbis elevated study to a religious obsession.

There are five separate blessings said over the public reading and study of Torah.

The first three are for the study of Torah and found in the introductory portion of the daily prayer service and the second two are recited before and after the public reading of the Torah on Sabbaths, Holidays and market days (Mondays and Thursdays).

Uncharacteristically, the Talmud does not pick and choose between blessings offered by different sages but includes them all… “Let us recite them all” [Bab Talmud Berakhot 11b] When it comes to study, the more blessings the better….

לימרינו לכולהו

See Daily Torah Blessings in Sim Shalom pp 6-8

Blessed are You Lord God King of the world Who has commanded us to engage (לעסוק) in the words of Torah.

And make sweet Lord God your words of Torah in our mouth and in the mouths of your nation the House of Israel and let us and our children all know your name and learn your Torah for its name sake (לשמה).  Blessed are You our God Who teaches Torah to his people Israel.

Blessed are You Lord God King of the world Who has chosen us from amongst all the nations and given us His Torah.  Blessed are You of God Who gives the Torah.

ברוך אתה ה’ א-לוהינו מלך העולם אשר קדשנו במצוותיו וציוונו לעסוק בדברי [על דברי]  תורה

והערב נא ה’ א-לוהינו את דברי תורתך בפינו ובפיות עמך בית ישראל, ונהיה אנחנו וצאצאנו כולנו יודעי שמך ולומדי תורתך לשמה, ברוך אתה ה’ המלמד תורה לעמו ישראל

ברוך אתה ה’ א-לוהינו מלך העולם אשר בחר בנו מכל העמים ונתן לנו את תורתו, ברוך אתה ה’ נותן התורה

As is the custom with any blessing, the blessing must be followed immediately by the action which it sanctifies, so these blessings are followed by a short passage from the Torah, Mishneh and the Gemara (Bab Talmud Shabbat 127a) ending with:

And the study of Torah is equal[iii] to them all

וְתַלְמוּד תּוֹרָה כְּנֶגֶד כֻּלָּם

And the study of Torah is equal to them all

The word לעסוק is translated by Sim Shalom as “study” but this robs it of all meaning.  The word “asok” means to work.  In Modern Hebrew the word means “business” so it contains also the sense of struggle (for one’s daily living) as well as barter and the give and take of the marketplace of things and ideas.

There is something revolutionary going on here in the daily prayers. Not only does the blessing celebrate the competitive exchange of ideas and opinions so characteristic of Jewish Learning but also insures that every peddler, baker, banker and blowhard had to study a text every morning or be guilty of reciting a blessing in vain.  In Judaism study has never been limited to the academy or to the scholars.[iv]

The word לשמה is translated “on its own merit” but is alternatively translated “for its own sake” or literally “for its name” and traditionally has been understood to mean to do something without looking for a reward, or in the case of scholarship, pure research without any intended outcome or obvious practical application.  All characteristics of inquiry that lead to paradigm shifting discovery.

Here too.. the revolutionary element of Jewish learning is in view, where no opinions or conclusions are out of bounds… as radical, unforeseen or even unorthodox (or should we say heterodox) that they might be.

And finally we have mention of the election of Israel, both in this daily blessing and the blessings before and after the public reading of the Torah.

The only other blessings to include mention of Israel’s selection is the blessing relating to Israelite national holidays which is to be expected.  But the mention of Israel’s choseness with regard to Torah study and public reading is less obvious… unless one appreciates the connection the Rabbis made between the entitlement reform inherent in choseness and the entitlement reforming potential of unfettered intellectual inquiry.

The Talmud asks the standard “who do you save first” question normally prefaced by “a boat-is-sinking” or “a house-is-burning” but in a nod to Jewish history is rephrased:  Hostages-have-been-taken, who do you save first?”

To release from capture, a Cohen (priest) comes before a Levi, a Levi before a Yisroel and a Yisroel before a Mamzer (bastard).  When?  When they are equal.  But if the Mamzer is a Talmud Hacham and the [even] a High Priest is an ignoramus… the Mamzer (bastard) Scholar takes precedence over a High Priest ignoramus.

Mishneh Horiot, 3, 8

ולהוציא מבית השבי

… כוהן קודם ללוי, לוי לישראל, ישראל לממזר … אימתיי, בזמן שכולן שווין

 אבל אם היה ממזר תלמיד חכמים, וכוהן גדול עם הארץ–ממזר תלמיד חכמים קודם לכוהן גדול עם הארץ

מסכת הוריות פרק ג, ח

Judaism recognized and celebrated the power of scholarship, learning and critical thinking to break all social strata, caste systems and tribal barriers.  Learning was the ultimate equalizer, the ultimate title reformer.

One final phrase of interest found in the blessings of the Torah is included in the blessing after the public reading of the Torah.

Where we bless God who has “given us the Torah of Truth, planting within us life eternal.

חיי עולם נטע בתוכנו

There is something adversarial and combative about Torah learning.  The Rabbis are always counterpointing it to something else.  Above, against (כנגד) all the commandments and here, against prayer…. The Rabbis associate “temporal life” (חיי שעה) with prayer and eternal life (חיי עולם) with study.

Raba saw R. Hamnuna prolonging his prayers. Said he, They forsake eternal life and occupy themselves with temporal life. But he [R. Hamnuna] held, The times for prayer and [study of the] Torah are distinct from each other. R. Jeremiah was sitting before R. Zera engaged in study; as it was growing late for the service, R. Jeremiah was making haste [to adjourn]. Thereupon R. Zera applied to him [the verse], He that turneth away from hearing the law, even his prayer is an abomination. [Bab Talmud Sabbath 10a]

This is a variation on the famous line attributed to Louis Finkelstein: “When I pray I speak to God; when I study, God speaks to me.”

Study is our link with eternity because knowledge is truly the only thing that we pass on to future generations.  This is the true eternal life (חיי עולם).

Maybe that explains why the blessing that parents give their children every week is actually not a parental blessing at all…. It’s a grandparental blessing originally given by Jacob/Israel to his grandchildren Ephraim and Menasha! The blessing celebrates multigenerational aspect of living a life not based on a static patrimony but on an active and chosen engagement.

And maybe that’s why, of all the Rabbis and Midrashim that Rashi quotes in his commentary, scholars have been unable to find the source of this first midrash, nor have they been able to identify this certain Rabbi Yitzchak to whom Rashi refers.  Could it be that this Rabbi Yitzchak was not a Rabbi of Midrashic times, but was actually Rashi’s own father?[v]  “Rashi” is an acronym for Rabbi Shlomo ben Itzchaki and after all it is only in learning that we honor and preserve the memory of our parents, grandparents and teachers…

[adopted from a kavanah study session at The Conservative Synagogue of Westport, CT]

——————-

[i] Abraham is an interesting possible exception. See Genesis 10: 27

[ii] The truth is, that the resolution of the birthright/chosen conflict at the end of Genesis includes not only Ephraim and Menasha, but Joseph as well.  Joseph, who as the first-born of Rachel, Jacob’s chosen first-born wife gets the double portion due a first-born by receiving two tribal portions (Ephraim and Menashe) in the promised land.

[iii] נגד as in a scale where all the commandments are on one side of the scale and the study of Torah is on the other.  Compare also נגד as in the exchange of opposite or differing opinions אזר כנגו, כנגד ההר, כנגד ארבה בנים

[iv] As Nahum Sarna writes: “the conventional treaty provision requiring periodic public reading of the treaty’s stipulations was expanded in Israel and transformed into a wholly new category: the obligation, oft repeated, to disseminate the law among the masses; that is, the universal duty of continuous self-education.” [Exploring Exodus: The Origins of Biblical Israel, Nahum M. Sarna, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Aug 10, 2011 p. 143

[v] “His impressive commentary of the Bible starts with a question asked by a Rabbi Yitzhak: ….. for some exegetes, this Rabbi Yitzhak is none other than the author’s father. If this assumption is correct, it would mean that we know at least one thing about Rashi’s father: he was himself a rabbi who posed questions worthy of contemplation. But beyond the fact that he was the father of one the greatest scholars of the biblical and Talmudic literature, we know very little.”

Wiesel, Elie (2009-08-06). Rashi (Jewish Encounters) (p. 11). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

blessing-ephraim and Menasha

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jews, buddhists and extraterrestrials

some thoughts before I go to the Orient  …. on jews, buddhists and extraterrestrials 

I’m leaving for the alien shores of China, Cambodia and Vietnam and reminded of a dialog in Rodger Kamenetz’s jewel of a book: The Jew in the Lotus:   The book tracks the journey of “eight high–spirited Jewish delegates to Dharamsala, India, for a historic Buddhist–Jewish dialogue with the Dalai Lama”

Early on in the narrative, the Jewish protagonists realize, to their dismay, that while many of the 300+ million Buddhists have heard of Islam and Christianity, they have not, for the most part,  heard of Judaism. For someone who has dedicated his/her life to a belief system that claims to be the word of the Master of the Universe (ריבונו של עולם) … this is a demeaning experience to say the least….  For a Jew, confronted with someone who has never heard of Moses to have to use the “Have you heard of Jesus.. he was Jewish?” calling-card it is no doubt humbling.  Writes Kamenetz:

Our Sikh driver had heard of Muslims and met some Christian tourists. To him, Jews were news. That pricked my vanity. I didn’t like to think that in vast areas of the planet, the story of my people is unknown. … After all, Jews make up less than half of one percent of the world’s population. There are as many Sikhs in the Punjab as Jews on the planet. … Just outside my car window there was enough human tragedy, comedy, and heartbreaking struggle to fill a dozen Torah scrolls.

He continues:

I decided that the most important baggage Jews carry is an absolute conviction of our significance because we are Jews, because we have survived. On Route One, the whole grand story of Jewish survival, the tremendous importance I attach to my history, my Torah, shrank in perspective: to a single line, a single letter. I felt absurd: in the middle of India, did it really make any difference that we were Jews?  (pp. 26-27)

Kamenetz and his band of Rabbis were not the first Jews to be asked the question: “Who is a Jew and who is this God of which you speak?.  Remember in Exodus 5: 2 Pharaoh challenges Moses and Aaron:  “Pharaoh said: ‘Who is the LORD, that I should hearken unto His voice to let Israel go? I know not the LORD, and moreover I will not let Israel go.'”

  ‘וַיֹּאמֶר פַּרְעֹה–מִי ה’ אֲשֶׁר אֶשְׁמַע בְּקֹלוֹ לְשַׁלַּח אֶת-יִשְׂרָאֵל: לֹא יָדַעְתִּי אֶת-ה

In a recent article in the Science section of the New York Times, Dennis Overbye asks Do Aliens know it’s Christmas – How Possibilities of Life Elsewhere Might Alter Held Notions of Faith.  For those interested in this new track in theology called astrotheology, the Times article provides a comprehensive survey of opinions and (primarily Christian) opinionators in this field.

I was struck by a comment from Geoffrey Marcy, an exoplanet explorer and holder of the Watson and Marilyn Alberts Chair in the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence at the University of California, Berkeley.

Surely, earthlings were not the only beings in the Milky Way blessed in God’s eyes, he elaborated, saying that he liked to tease public audiences with the question. “Conversations about religion with intelligent beings from an exoplanet might jolt humanity into realizing how parochial our beliefs are,” he said.

For a Christian the question becomes, how do extraterrestrials get “saved” if they were never visited by Jesus or if their ancestors had not participated in the Original Sin in Eden?  For Jews who believe that non-Jews need follow only  the seven laws of Noah, the question is less intense but still nagging….  How can there be fully developed religions and cultures who have not heard of the Flood, an Exodus from Egypt and a return to a geographical Zion?

With travel being so costly and with Virgin Galactic suffering a recent setback, how fortunate am I.  As a Jew, I don’t need to visit outer-space or await  the arrival of extraterrestrials to discover those who have not heard of my God, His prophets or His chosen people and their escapades…

So, I’m off to the Orient and looking forward to being both humbled and enlightened…

On another, yet related note, I cannot help but ponder the attraction that Buddhism has on Jews… to the degree that there’s even a word (Jewbu) and Wikipedia page for Jewish Buddhists.

A fascinating explanation for this affinity was given by Shlomo Carlebach in a rare interview recorded by Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi at the Torah and Dharma Conference in Berkeley in 1974. [1]

Please listen….

cambodia-e1365521895541

—————–

 

From Rabbi David Zeller book “The Soul of the Story” (see)

In 1974, there was a conference – “Torah and Dharma” – in Berkeley, California, focusing on the connections between Judaism and other traditions like Sufism, Zen Buddhism, and Yoga. Representatives of the different traditions were invited, including Reb Shlomo and Reb Zalman. Shlomo, as often happened, was double-booked and couldn’t come. There were keynote talks, smaller seminars, and panel discussions. The final panel had all the teachers together for the last questions and answers.

Someone in the audience asked the question: “It appears to me that the Sufis, the Yogis, and the Zen teachers on our panel are all Jewish! Can anyone explain what’s going on?”

There was a murmur from the audience and from the panel. Zalman rose to the occasion. “Before I left for the conference, I called up Reb Shlomo and said, ‘Shloimele, I’m about to go to the conference in Berkeley. I know you really wanted to be there, too. Do you have anything you want to say to them? The tape recorder is hooked up to the phone and recording.’ And this is what he said in answer to your question.” And with that Zalman pressed the start button on a tape recorder sitting on the table in front of him.

This is a paraphrase of what Shlomo said. It is one of those classic teachings of his that I have been retelling ever since: My sweetest friends, I’m so sorry I couldn’t be with you for this holy gathering, but I’d like to share with you one thought I have, so please open your hearts. The Torah teaches that a Cohen, a priest, must remain in a state of purity if he is to serve God in the Holy Temple. Among the things that would disqualify him was contact with a dead body. The question arises: What was the nature of the impurity? Did the dead body have cooties or carry disease? It appears that the problem was quite different. The impurity stemmed from the confrontation with death: its concept and its reality and the thoughts and feelings around it.

Coming in touch with death, a person can’t help thinking, “What kind of God makes a world with death in it? If I were God, I’d do things very different; I’d do things better.”

Let’s put it this way. When you come in contact with death, you can’t help being a little angry with God. And if you are a Cohen, how can you be angry in your heart with God, and then go into the Holy Temple to serve Him? It just doesn’t go. So the priest had to wait until sunset, and take a mikvah, a ritual bath, and then he could return to serve God the next day.

These laws of the priesthood regarding serving God became the basis for many of the Jewish laws of mourning. If your father or mother, brother or sister, son or daughter, husband or wife died, from the time of their death until they are buried, you are technically exempt from most positive commandments. For example, you don’t have to say blessings, because that’s a form of thanking and serving God, and right now, you may be in a frame of mind of being a little bit angry with God. So you aren’t obligated to say those blessings.

And you know, my sweetest friends, today we don’t have a Beit HaMikdash, a Holy Temple, and although we still have Cohanim, priests, we don’t have animal or incense offerings to serve God in the Holy Temple. Today we serve God through offerings of words of Torah study and words of prayer. Today our rabbis are like our priests, serving God through teaching Torah. But if you are angry with God, you can’t teach Torah. You can say the words, but the love and light within them do not flow through them.

So please open your hearts. The saddest thing is that today our teachers and rabbis haven’t just touched one dead person. They’ve been touched by Six Million dead people. And they are so angry with God, so angry with God. Gevald, are they angry with God! And because they are so angry with God, all their words of Torah are just that: words. There’s no light, no taste, no meaning, no melody in them.

But young people today are so hungry for that light, for that meaning, for that melody – for the deepest inner dimensions of truth. And if they can’t get it from Judaism, they’ll go anywhere that love and light are to be found.

Thank God our hungry, searching, younger generation found some traditions that weren’t so angry with God, and they could get the love and light and meaning that they so craved. And today in Judaism, Baruch HaShem, thank God, we have a whole new generation of teachers who haven’t been touched directly by the Six Million (or maybe they have taken Six Million mikvahs from tears of sadness and then another Six Million mikvahs from tears of joy). And their words are filled with light and joy and love.

God willing, now people can come back to Judaism to quench that deep, powerful, longing for God’s love and from our own tradition. I bless us all that we should find that beauty in Torah, in Shabbos, and in the deepest depths of the heart of our holy and ancient and living tradition.

Thank you so much. God bless you all. Good Shabbos, Good Shabbos.

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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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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 has participated, 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 come 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 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.  Similarly, 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 an 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 likewise 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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still crazy after all these years

Ki Tavo

Call me crazy, but I love it when I spot the first time a word is used in print, especially when it’s a Hebrew word in the Bible.  And I go Crazy-Eddie crazy when it’s a seminal word whose meaning and associations are closely associated with our people.

So what’s the word of the day? It’s Meshugah and it first appears in Deuteronomy 28.

In the original version of the Sermon on the Mount, Moses has half the tribes stand on one mountain; Gerizim, and the other half stand on an opposite mountain; Ebal, and details all the blessings the chosen people will receive if they obey the commandments. So far so good and so ends the similitude to the other Sermon on the Mount.  It’s in detailing all the curses that will befall the Jewish people for disobedience that Meshuga, the quintessential word for Jewish idiosynchronicity, even exceptionalism, gets it’s first mention.

But it shall come to pass, if thou wilt not hearken unto the voice of the LORD thy God, to observe to do all His commandments and His statutes which I command thee this day; that all these curses shall come upon thee, and overtake thee…. (28: 15)

The LORD will smite thee with madness, and with blindness, and with astonishment of heart. (28: 28) [see Strongs H7697]

 יַכְּכָה ה’, בְּשִׁגָּעוֹן וּבְעִוָּרוֹן; וּבְתִמְהוֹן, לֵבָב

The fruit of thy land, and all thy labours, shall a nation which thou knowest not eat up; and thou shalt be only oppressed and crushed away:
so that thou shalt be mad for the sight of thine eyes which thou shalt see. (28: 33-4) [see Strongs H7696]

 וְהָיִיתָ, מְשֻׁגָּע, מִמַּרְאֵה עֵינֶיךָ, אֲשֶׁר תִּרְאֶה

In it’s first instance, being meshugah is not a good thing.  It’s a curse and relates to the primal response one has when viewing something so abhorrent and hurtful that one loses one’s mind.

The word always retained this meaning as in Zachariah

And it shall come to pass in that day, that I will make Jerusalem a stone of burden for all the peoples; all that burden themselves with it shall be sore wounded; and all the nations of the earth shall be gathered together against it.
In that day, saith the LORD, I will smite every horse with bewilderment, and his rider with madness; and I will open Mine eyes upon the house of Judah, and will smite every horse of the peoples with blindness.  (Zechariah 12 3-4)

 בַּיּוֹם הַהוּא נְאֻם-יְהוָה, אַכֶּה כָל-סוּס בַּתִּמָּהוֹן, וְרֹכְבוֹ, בַּשִּׁגָּעוֹן

But madness also was used in conjunction with creative genius and vision.

First as a false prophet as in:

for every man that is mad, and maketh himself a prophet, that thou shouldest put him in the stocks and in the collar. (Jeremiah 29: 26)

 לְכָל-אִישׁ מְשֻׁגָּע וּמִתְנַבֵּא; וְנָתַתָּה אֹתוֹ אֶל-הַמַּהְפֶּכֶת, וְאֶל-הַצִּינֹק

And next as a prophet of truth to a false people – the man of spirit to a people without spirit:

The prophet is a fool, the man of the spirit is mad! For the multitude of thine iniquity, the enmity is great. (Hosea 9: 7)

 אֱוִיל הַנָּבִיא, מְשֻׁגָּע אִישׁ הָרוּחַ–עַל רֹב עֲו‍ֹנְךָ, וְרַבָּה מַשְׂטֵמָה

Ultimately, when the world becomes crazy, it is the crazy who speak the truth.

As it says in the Talmud (Baba Bathra 12b): Rabbi Johanan said: Since the Temple was destroyed, prophecy has been taken from prophets and given to fools and children.

But it is madness as a strategy that seems to have really resonated with our leaders and our people.. starting with David.

David is running away from King Saul and went to Achish the king of Gath. David’s reputation precedes him and the servants of Achish  question: “Is not this David the king of the land? Did they not sing one to another of him in dances, saying: Saul hath slain his thousands, and David his ten thousands?”  David takes these words to heart and is fearful and plays the madman.

And he changed his demeanour before them, and feigned himself mad in their hands, and scrabbled on the doors of the gate, and let his spittle fall down upon his beard.
Then said Achish unto his servants: ‘Lo, when ye see a man that is mad, wherefore do ye bring him to me?
Do I lack madmen, that ye have brought this fellow to play the madman in my presence? shall this fellow come into my house?’ (1 Samuel 21: 11-16)

 חֲסַר מְשֻׁגָּעִים, אָנִי, כִּי-הֲבֵאתֶם אֶת-זֶה, לְהִשְׁתַּגֵּעַ עָלָי; הֲזֶה, יָבוֹא אֶל-בֵּיתִי

And thus was born the Meshugenah Defense.

The word Meshugah is more well known as a Yiddish word than as a Hebrew word, because it was in exile and using the language of exile that we Jews really perfected craziness as a defense mechanism. Was it not meshugah to think that we could survive without a land or borders.  Was it not crazy to believe that one day we would be back in Jerusalem.  Jewish humor, at it’s core is a survival mechanism, and at its best, it reveals and helps us cope with the absurd.  Only a madman can believe in mankind after the atrocities of the Holocaust…

Thomas Friedman, cannot be accused of being an apologist for the State of Israel or the current Netanyahu government, but even he understands that in a world gone crazy, you are forced to act crazy.  In a recent column he characterized the recent Israel strategy in in Gaza:

No one here will explicitly say so, but one need only study this war to understand that Israel considers it central to its deterrence strategy that neither Hamas nor Hezbollah will “outcrazy us.” I don’t believe Israel was targeting Gaza civilians — I believe it tried to avoid them  — but, at the end of the day, it was not deterred by the prospect of substantial collateral civilian casualties. Hamas used Gaza’s civilians as war-crimes bait. And Israel did whatever was necessary to prove to Hamas, “You will not outcrazy us out of this region.” It was all ugly. This is not Scandinavia. (Thomas Freidman, Dear Guests; Revelations in the Gaza War).

What’s the lesson to all of this mushugas?  I suppose we need to always remember that one day’s curse is another day’s blessing.  We need to nurture and cultivate the life of our language and explore our cultural tics. And for the survival of the Jewish People and the good of the world, we Jews need to stay still crazy after all of these years.

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