Category Archives: Hebrew

The land that never has been yet – Lech Lecha

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A journey through Freud, the Hebrew Bible, the classical commentators and modern Near Eastern linguistic scholarship to discover the meaning of the radical Hebrew message of destiny and people-hood…. with a tribute to Leonard Cohen.

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Filed under Bible, Chosen People, Hebrew, Israel, Judaism, Religion, social commentary, Torah

prove it

The problem with proofs is that they convince only the believer. The upside, is that proofs can provide an innovative out-of-the-box way of thinking. I will get to Yehuda Halevi’s proof for the authenticity of the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai…. But first my favorite example of an unconvincing proof which gave birth to innovative, nay, paradigm-shifting thought.

Saint Anselm (1033 – 1109) proved God’s existence in the “ontological proof” as follows:

Agreed that God is a being of which nothing is greater. So …. since to exist is profoundly greater than not to exist…. [Think 1 million imaginary dollars as compared to 1 million real dollars] …  It follows that … God must exist.

Not convinced?  Want to construct a similar argument for unicorns or based on a crazy person’s imagination? It’s all in St. Anselm’s mind, you say? Well, according to the history of ideas, there’s a direct link between St. Anselm’s proof and the birth of the modern Cartesian philosophy of René Descartes who famously opined “I think therefore I am” …. All we can know is that we know….. Which gave birth to Phenomenology and Existentialism where all we can intelligently talk about is not any “real” world, but only experiences and phenomena as we perceive them, and on a higher level, patterns, perceived conflicts within the structure of our own thought. Ontological thinking gave birth to Emanuel Kant’s Categorical Imperative and to logical positivism where the only thing that is necessarily true, moral or intelligible is what our minds can conjure up themselves as not dependent on experience or can articulate in a language the mind can produce.

St. Anselm – Not bad for a Medieval Saint!

So, here is Yehudah Halevi’s (1075 – 1141) paradigm shifting proof (also referred to as The Kuzari Principle[i]):

The proof that the Torah was given at Sinai and that Judaism is superior to all other Abrahamic faiths is that you can’t bullshit 1.5 million people. [ii]

That’s it. If 600,000 men plus an equal number of women plus some precocious kids don’t disagree with a text which says they heard thunder and saw lightning from the Mt. and received the Torah, then it must be true. If the Torah, which these million-plus parents are willing to pass down to the next generation, contains prohibitions which make life difficult and opinions which are not popular, all the more reason not to question the veracity of the event that occurred at Sinai and the authenticity of the text in question.  [iii]

Halevi is convinced and his literary or actual King of the Khazars is convinced as well.  The public nature of the event at Sinai witnessed by a multitude is contrasted to the establishment myths concerning Jesus and Mohamed which were experienced, witnessed and documented by a select few.

Similar to Saint Anselm’s proof this proof is problematic and wouldn’t convert any non-believer.  We live in a world where conspiracy theories arise simultaneously with historic events, even if witnessed by billions of humans…. Think of the moon landing, or better yet, 911.  Humanity witnessed these events together, but there are millions of us who claim the events never happened, happened differently than meets the eye or that they were entirely fabricated.

Parents don’t pass on to children difficult or destructive character traits, beliefs or practices you say? Try that on any abuser, child of an abuser or anyone caught up in the cycle of generation’s old ethnic conflict perpetuated by hate and bias feeding on hate and bias.

So what’s the Paradigm shift hidden in Halevi’s argument? It is nothing less than a radical new understanding of “tradition” מסורה

If from Anselm we intuit that the individual and his interior mental perceptions are all that we can really know, from Halevy we are lead to conclude that as a social entity, a community, as a people, maybe even as a species, all we really know is our narrative of history, our story, our Tradition (מסורה).  As social animals all we really know is what has been passed down to us and which we pass on to our children…. not that it is true mind you… but that it is ours.  “we transmit therefore we are”. The activist corollary is that while we cannot create change by changing the “facts” we can own and create change by changing our interaction to those “facts” and to our history. Ultimately, receiving the Torah (קבלת התורה) means taking ownership of what, how and to whom our narrative is transferred.  By truly accepting the that which was given at Sinai we become בעל מסורה  Masters of Tradition.

The most forceful modern-day thinker to articulate this conception of Jewish faith as reaction and action triggered by communal experience is Emil Fackenheim who wrote God’s Presence in History: Jewish Affirmations and Philosophical Reflections 1970.  Fackenheim is most famously known for his 614th commandment which exhorts us to continue Jewish life and deny Hitler a posthumous victory.  But what lies behind this one-liner is a complex and multidimensional philosophy of God as or in History מסורה

For Descartes and Kant, the surest belief is not what we experience or perceive but that we experience.  If for the phenomenologists and existentialists the only certain process that we can discern is the dialectical processes of the mind as filtered through the categories of our mind.  For Fackenheim the faith that constitutes and energizes us as social beings is not based on any historical event per se, but rather on the reaction to that event in the past, present and future and the action caused by that reaction.[iv]

Fackenhiem bases his thesis on a Mekilta de-Rabbi Ishmael on Exodus 15:2 “this is my God, and I will glorify Him” זֶה אֵלִי וְאַנְוֵהוּ

In a well—known Midrash it is asserted that what Ezekiel once saw in heaven was far less than what all of Israel once saw on earth. Ezekiel, and indeed all the other prophets, did not see God but only visions and similes of God; they were like men who perceive a king of flesh and blood surrounded by servants of flesh and blood, and who are forced to ask, “which one is the king?” In the sharpest possible contrast, the Israelites at the Red Sea had no need to ask which one was the King: “As soon as they saw Him, they recognized Him, and they all opened their mouths and said, “This is my God, and I will glorify Him’ “

Fackenheim coins a term he calls a root experience which he attributes to Martin Buber.  For the Jewish people, root experiences include the Exodus from Egypt, the giving of the Torah at Sinai and the holocaust.

Buber writes:

What is decisive with respect to the inner history of Mankind . . . is that the children of Israel understood this as an act of their God, as a “miracle”; which does not mean that they interpreted it as a miracle, but that they experienced it as such, that as such they perceived ” it.. . .

The concept of miracle which is permissible from the historical approach can be defined at its starting point as an abiding astonishment.  The . . . religious person . . . abides in that wonder; no knowledge, no cognition, can weaken his astonishment. Any causal explanation only deepens the wonder for him. The great turning-points in religious history are based on the fact that again and ever again an individual and a group attached to him wonder and keep on wondering; at a natural phenomenon, at an historical event, or at both together; always at something which intervenes fatefully in the life of this individual and this group. They sense and experience it as a wonder. This, to be sure, is only the starting—point of the historical concept of wonder, but it cannot be explained away. Miracle is not something “supernatural” or “super historical,” but an incident, an event which can be fully included in the objective, scientific nexus of nature and history; the vital meaning of which, however, for the person to whom it occurs, destroys the security of the whole nexus of knowledge for him, and explodes the fixity of the fields of experience named “Nature” and “History.” . . . [Highlighting here and throughout by ed]

Fackenheim elaborates:

The divine Presence thus far considered is a saving Presence. Salvation is not here, however, what it might be in a different religious context. It occurs within history, not in an Eternity beyond it, nor for a soul divorced from it, nor as an apocalyptic or Messianic event which consummates history. … At the same time, the divine presence requires the self and its freedom in the very moment of its presence.  There is no abiding astonishment unless we exist who can be astonished; moreover, the divine Presence – saving as well as commanding – remains incomplete unless human astonishment terminates in action.

Like Halevi (who surprisingly along with Saadia Gaon is never cited) Fackenheim requires the public nature of a root experience.  He writes:

At the Red Sea, however, the whole people saw, the lowly maidservants included, and what occurred before their eyes was not an opening of heaven but a transformation of earth – an historical event affecting decisively all future generations. … Moreover, as regards private, authoritative experiences, no Jewish believer could ever stake much on these.  Ezekiel’s vision may have been an experience of this kind.  What happened at the Red Sea and Sinai, in contrast, were public events, accessible even to the maidservants to the extent they were accessible to all. (pp 10 and 42)

Where Fankenheim goes beyond The Kuzari Principle is with regard to authentication and validation.  Fackenheim and Buber imply an open invitation for nondoctrinaire and heterodox reactions to the root experience.  For Fackenheim the root experience implies a challenge to participate and includes a risk of commitment. Fackenheim compares the multiplicity of reactions to the root event to the multiplicity of reasons a hypothetical Jew might participate in a Passover Seder:

… whereas as a historian he may and must suspend judgment, he cannot do likewise as a man and Jew, if only because every Passover Seder constitutes a challenge to participation. How can he participate? No longer in a religious immediacy which has never thought of stepping outside the Midrashic framework. Not at all in a stance of critical reflection which stands outside only and merely looks on. Nothing is possible except an immediacy after reflection which is and remains self-exposed to the possibility of a total dissipation of every divine Presence, and yet confronts this possibility with a forever reenacted risk of commitment.

Fackenheim’s essay is primarily focused on the Holocaust and the possibility or impossibility of God in history after that root event… hopefully my extensive quotations of his poetic and profound writing will entice you to read the original.  But the final element that Fackenheim introduces to Halevy’s “proof” paradigm is the fragmentary nature of any root experience, least of which being the experience at Sinai.

For Halevy the proof of Sinai is in the fact that everyone at Sinai not only shared an experience, but that they shared the same experience.  For Fackenheim the greatest threat to the root experience is reflective philosophical thought which would have us believe that the experience is uniform; general, unchanging and abstractable from history. (p16).   In contrast God’s presence in History requires Midrashic thinking which reflects upon root experiences but (i) is not confined to their immediate reenactment, (ii) becomes aware of the contradictions in these experiences, (iii) refuse to destroy the immediacy of these experiences even as it stands outside and reflects upon them, (iv) is conscious of the contradictions and fragmentary nature of these experiences and (iv) these experiences can only be expressed in story, parable and metaphor. For Fackenheim we must retell the old Midrash  – or create a new. (pp 20-21).

A contemporary scholar at Machon Hadar; Rabbi Jason Rubenstein has recorded a wonderful 3-part lecture on Revelation with the third and final part titled: Between “Mosaic Authorship” and “mosaic composition”: Hearing Conflict in Revelation and Revelation in Conflict (see here).  What Rubenstein argues, quite compellingly is that while in prior generations, the concept of truth and value was inherently connected to the concept of uniformity, consistency and harmony.  With the emergence of science and the internet of ideas, our concept of truth and value is rather associated with dissonance, multiplicity and a cacophony of ideas, images and sounds.  When describing what could be described as Yehudah Halevi’s concept of 1 million plus people all hearing the same message a Sinai, one of Rubentstein’s students exclaimed… if it were so “it would become flat, it would become dull ”

 

The truth is that pre Internet-of-ideas, this same confluence of passionately argued and differing opinions and visions was always present in the Midrash and Talmud and I would argue…. also at Sinai.

 

When all is said and done, our reading of Halevi through the lens of Fackenheim produces a radical new conception of what happened at Sinai (Mesorah) and for that matter our concept of God… which it turns out is God in, through, and by, human history.

“ ‘Ye are My witnesses, saith the Lord, and I am God’ (Isa. 43:12).   וְאַתֶּם עֵדַי נְאֻם-ה’, וַאֲנִי-א-ֵל That is, when ye are My witnesses, I am God, and when ye are not My witnesses, I am, as it were, not God?“  (p23)

The concept of God in and as history is ultimately that we need to live a life… as individuals but more so as a society… where we are and become the Proof itself.  What lies implicit in the giving of the Torah is an imperative on the part of the recipient to receive and transfer.  Implicit in the giving of the commandments is the underlying command to become the proof of the giving and transmission itself.  … to prove it….

—————–

[i] For the Kuzari Principle see here and for critiques see here, here , here  and here….

[ii] Kuzari Book 1:9

 

  1. The Doctor: Is not our Book full of the stories of Moses and the Children of Israel? No one can deny what He did to Pharaoh, how He divided the sea, saved those who enjoyed His favour, but drowned those who had aroused His wrath. Then came the manna and the quails during forty years, His speaking to Moses on the mount, making the sun stand still for Joshua, and assisting him against the mighty. [Add to this] what happened previously, viz. the Flood, the destruction of the people of Lot; is this not so well known that no suspicion of deceit and imagination is possible?

 

  1. Al Khazari: Indeed, I see myself compelled to ask the Jews, because they are the relic of the Children of Israel. For I see that they constitute in themselves the evidence for the divine law on earth.

 

  1. The Rabbi replied: I believe in the God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel, who led the children of Israel out of Egypt with signs and miracles; who fed them in the desert and gave them the land, after having made them traverse the sea and the Jordan in a miraculous way; who sent Moses with His law, and subsequently thousands of prophets, who confirmed His law by promises to the observant. and threats to the disobedient. Our belief is comprised in the Torah — a very large domain.

 

  1. The Rabbi: Surely the beginning of my speech was just the proof, and so evident that it requires no other argument.

 

  1. The Rabbi: In this way I answered thy first question. In the same strain spoke Moses to Pharaoh, when he told him:’The God of the Hebrews sent me to thee,’ viz. the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. For Abraham was well known to the nations, who also knew that the divine spirit was in contact with the patriarchs, cared for them, and performed miracles for them. He did not say: ‘The God of heaven and earth,’ nor ‘my Creator and thine sent me.’ In the same way God commenced His speech to the assembled people of Israel: ‘I am the God whom you worship, who has led you out of the land of Egypt,’ but He did not say: ‘I am the Creator of the world and your Creator. Now in the same style I spoke to thee, a Prince of the Khazars, when thou didst ask me about my creed. I answered thee as was fitting, and is fitting for the whole of Israel who knew these, things. first from personal experience, and afterwards through uninterrupted tradition, which is equal to the former.

 

  1. The chronology was established through the medium of those sainted persons who were only single individuals, and not a crowd, until Jacob begat the Twelve Tribes, who were ail under this divine influence. Thus the divine element reached a multitude of persons who carried the records further. The chronology of those who lived before these has been handed down to us by Moses.

 

  1. Al Khazari: An arrangement of this kind removes any suspicion of untruth or common plot. Not ten people could discuss such a thing without disagreeing, and disclosing their secret understanding; nor could they refute anyone who tried to establish the truth of a matter like this. How is it possible where such a mass of people is concerned? Finally, the period involved is not large enough to admit untruth and fiction.

 

  1. Al Khazari: Let us now return to our subject, and explain to me how your belief grew, how it spread and became general, how opinions became united after having differed, and how long it took for the faith to lay its foundation, and to be built up into a strong and complete structure. The first element of religion appeared, no doubt, among single individuals, who supported one another in upholding the faith which it pleased God should be promulgated. Their number increases continually, they grow more powerful, or a king arises and assists them, also compels his subjects to adopt the same creed.

 

  1. The Rabbi: In this way only rational religions, of human origin, can arise. When a man succeeds and attains an exalted position, it is said that he is supported by God, who inspired him, etc. A religion of divine origin arises suddenly. It is bidden to arise, and it is there, like the creation of the world.

 

  1. …. they came to the desert, which was not sown, he sent them food which, with the exception of Sabbath, was crested daily for them, and they ate it for forty years.

 

  1. Al Khazari: This also is irrefutable, viz. a thing which occurred to six hundred thousand people for forty years. Six days in the week the Manna came down, but on the Sabbath it stopped. This makes the observance of the Sabbath obligatory, since divine ordination is visible in it.

 

  1. The Rabbi: I do not maintain that this is exactly how these things occurred; the problem is no doubt too deep for me to fathom. But the result was that everyone who was present at the time became convinced that the matter proceeded from God direct. It is to be compared to the first act of creation. The belief in the law connected with those scenes is as firmly established in the mind as the belief in the creation of the world, and that He created it in the same manner in which He–as is known–created the two tablets, the manna, and other things. Thus disappear from the soul of the believer the doubts of philosophers and materialists.

 

  1. … The prerogative of Isaac descended on Jacob, whilst Esau was sent from the land which belonged to Jacob. The sons of the latter were all worthy of the divine influence, as well as of the country distinguished by the divine spirit. This is the first instance of the divine influence descending on a number of people, whereas it had previously only been vouchsafed to isolated individuals.

 

See: http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/Judaism/kuzari.html

 

[iii] See: Saadia Gaon: The Book of Beliefs and Opinions  Introduction, part VI pp 29-30.  Both Yehuda Halevi and Saadia Gaon cite the Manna as a proof to the existence and requirement of observing the Shabbat… and as the best example of a miracle, viewed by many, occurring multiple times and over time whose acceptance by subsequent generations is proof to its veracity.

 

When, furthermore, He says: And ye are My witnesses (Isa. 44:8), [Fear ye not, neither be afraid; have I not announced unto thee of old, and declared it? And ye are My witnesses. – הֲלֹא מֵאָז הִשְׁמַעְתִּיךָ וְהִגַּדְתִּי, וְאַתֶּם עֵדָי   ] He alludes to the marvelous signs and the manifest proofs witnessed by the [Jewish] people. These [were revealed] in many forms, such as the visitation of the ten plagues and the cleaving of the [Red] Sea and the assemblage at Sinai. Personally, however, I consider the case of the miracle of the manna as the most amazing of all miracles, because a phenomenon of an enduring nature excites greater wonderment than one of a passing character. Aye it is hard for the mind to conceive of a scheme whereby a people numbering something like two million souls could be nourished for forty years with nothing else than food produced for them in the air by the Creator. For had there been any possibility of thinking up a scheme for achieving something of this nature, the philosophers of old would have been the first to resort to it. They would have maintained their disciples therewith, taught them wisdom, and enabled them to dispense with working for a livelihood or asking for help.

 

Now it is not likely that the forbears of the children of Israel should have been in agreement upon this matter if they had considered it a lie. Such [proof] suffices, then, as the requisite of every authentic tradition. Besides, if they had told their children: “We lived in the wilderness for forty years eating naught except manna,” and there had been no basis for that in fact, their children would have answered them: “Now you are telling us a lie. Thou,

so and so, is not this thy field, and thou, so and so, is not this thy garden from which you have always derived your sustenance?” This is, then, something that the children would not have accepted by any manner of means.

[iv] See also: Fackenheim’s Jewish Philosophy: An Introduction Michael L. Morgan, and review by Michael Zank here especially:

 

According to Morgan, the early Fackenheim’s conception of the manner in which human agency is transformed into a religious response to revelation is reminiscent of the neo-Kantian conception of “self-fashioning.” It is within human consciousness that the contents of Jewish history, literature, folklore, and custom are elevated to the level of absolutely binding commandments. This transformation of the products of human inventiveness into the contents of revelation is also similar to what we might find in other mid-twentieth century hermeneutical theologians, especially Paul Tillich. But there is also a Barthian (or Rosenzweigian) element entailed in it, namely, when the condition of the possibility of any human response to revelation is seen as implicit in revelation itself. Without the “event” of revelation, no answer to revelation would be possible. Revelation remains initiated by God (though possibly eclipsed by the acute absence of God in the face of human suffering), which may be another way of saying that we are conditioned and embedded beings rather than absolute selves.

proof

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Filed under Bible, Emil Fackenheim, haggadah, Hebrew, Israel, Judaism, Martin Buber, miracle, Religion, Saadia Gaon, Sabbath, Shabbat, shavuot, Torah, Yehudah Halevy

Ha lachma

הָא לַחְמָא עַנְיָא דִּי אֲכָלוּ אַבְהָתָנָא בְאַרְעָא דְמִצְרָיִם.

Ha – This is the bread of destitution that our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt.

We begin the Seder in the vernacular. Aramaic – the lingua Franca of the Middle East and the first international language. How fitting for a story that spans so many generations, crosses so many borders and has inspired liberation for so many that it starts in a language which is supra-national. But the story of liberation transcends even language. We actually begin the Haggadah with a sound, or to be more precise, a breath. Ha We begin the seder/Exodus with the sound of the letter Heh, a sound that according to our tradition and many other ancient traditions, requires no movement of the tongue and therefore has the same meaning in any tongue.  According to our tradition God began creation with the sound of the letter Hey…

These are the generations of the heaven and of the earth w-he-n they were created, in the day that the LORD God made earth and heaven. (Genesis 2:4)

אֵלֶּה תוֹלְדוֹת הַשָּׁמַיִם וְהָאָרֶץ, בְּהִבָּרְאָם:  בְּיוֹם, עֲשׂוֹת יְהוָה אֱלֹהִים–אֶרֶץ וְשָׁמָיִם

When they were created – BeHebaram – Rabbi Abahu in the name of Rabbi Yochanan said: BeHibaram, With [the letter] Hey He created. And what is this Hey? All the letters require the tongue and this [the Hey] does not require the tongue. Similarly, it was not with effort and not with toil that the Holy One created the world, rather, (Psalms 33:6) “By the word of the LORD were the heavens made; and all the host of them by the breath of His mouth.” Bereshit Rabbah 12:10

 בהבראם – ר’ אבהו בשם ר’ יוחנן אמר: בהבראם, בה’ בראם. ומה ה’ זה, כל האותיות תופסין את הלשון וזה אינו תופס את הלשון, כך לא בעמל ולא ביגיעה ברא הקדוש ברוך הוא את עולמו, אלא, (שם לג): בדבר ה’ וכבר שמים נעשו

 

Unlike Divine creation, human liberation requires a lot of preparation and work. God created the world and presumably redeemed us from Egypt without effort. One imagines God effortlessly  passing over the homes of the Hebrews.  Pesach – Passed Over – פסח

For the Hebrews, there was much pain, suffering, and physical and spiritual travail before the Exodus just as prior to a seder much physical and spiritual cleaning and other preparations are necessary.  According to tradition, the Hebrews left Egypt with great effort…  פִּסֵחַ limping… a different type of breath… maybe an in-breath.

But as the seder begins, maybe the aramaic text is inviting us to stop, gather our thoughts and center ourselves and exhale… before we begin our personal Exodus.

http://www.sefaria.org/sheets/33182?embed=1

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the evil son exposed

The images in our Haggadah reveal as much about the haggadah and those who used it as any commentary.  This is nowhere more apparent than in the diverse renderings of the Rasha; the evil son.

My favorite is from a Kibbutz Haggadah.  (for a full treatment of this subject see: Rabbi Mishael Zion’s blog post: Wicked: 20th Century Lessons from the Art of the Wicked Child.. I have borrowed liberally from this post as well as from Etan Mark’s haggadah published on Haggadot.com, in the captions below).

Kibbutz rasha

Tzvi Livni 1952, in this zionist renderings of the four children, the Wicked child is the financier-speculator in the shirt and tie, dollar bills creeping out of his shirt  “What is all this ‘avodah’ to you?” is reinterpreted. While “avodah” in the traditional Haggadah refers to “services,” the “cultic” rites of the seder, here it is translated as pioneering “agricultural” work, of making the desert bloom along with the military defense of the land represented by the towers.  In other Haggadot, it is the Labour-loving Socialist who is portrayed as the Evil son.

 

Siegmund Forst, USA 1959 many American Haggadahs of the 50’s and 60’s save the Wicked child’s place to the communist cousin.

Siegmund Forst, USA 1959 many American Haggadahs of the 50’s and 60’s save the Wicked child’s place to the communist cousin.

Rasha Syck Hagaddah

Poland 1939 – the wicked figure is a middle-aged bourgeois Jew dressed to show off his aspirations to Western European modernity. The wicked figure sports a riding crop, a cigarette with cigarette holder, and a stylish monocle. He is dressed in a hunting outfit with a jaunty Tyrollian hat with a feather, an ascot around his neck, silk gloves and sharp spurs on his leather boots. His stance is self-confident, self-contained and arrogant

 

Rasha as boxer

Leon David Israel, 1920 The Boxer as Rasha, 1920, illustrated by Lola The wicked child is a new kind of soldier. The culture of the naked physique, of sports, of the aggressive boxer is contrasted with a middle class seated scholar with a tie, glasses and a book. The passivity and introspection of the intellectual whose head is supported by his arm reflects the defensive status of traditional Jewish culture, when contrasted with the rise of American sports and perhaps contemporary Zionist youth movements that praised the values of the body. For example, two in a series of great Jewish boxers of this era were “Battling Levinsky” (nee Barney Lebrowitz, light heavy weight, 1916-1920) and Al McCoy (see Albert Rudolph, middle weight, 1914-1917)

 
Rasha Passover towel

Wicked son as Roman Gladiator seems to have been a popular theme .. here’s a detail from a Austrian/German Passover Towel, circa 1900, embroidered with the image of four sons that I recently purchased at Auction in Westport, CT.


But what I have never seen, is where the evil son, besides excluding himself from the other participants, is portrayed as an ostensibly observant Jew or an otherwise good guy with a fatal flaw.
Here is the text of the Evil son:

What does the evil [son] say? “‘What is this worship to you?’ (Exodus 12:26)” ‘To you’ and not ‘to him.’ And since he excluded himself from the collective, he denied a principle [of the Jewish faith]. And accordingly, you will blunt his teeth and say to him, “‘For the sake of this, did the Lord do [this] for me in my going out of Egypt’ (Exodus 13:8).” ‘For me’ and not ‘for him.’ If he had been there, he would not have been saved.

רָשָׁע מָה הוּא אוֹמֵר? מָה הָעֲבוֹדָה הַזּאֹת לָכֶם. לָכֶם – וְלֹא לוֹ. וּלְפִי שֶׁהוֹצִיא אֶת עַצְמוֹ מִן הַכְּלָל כָּפַר בְּעִקָּר. וְאַף אַתָּה הַקְהֵה אֶת שִׁנָּיו וֶאֱמוֹר לוֹ: “בַּעֲבוּר זֶה עָשָׂה ה’ לִי בְּצֵאתִי מִמִּצְרָיִם”. לִי וְלֹא-לוֹ. אִלּוּ הָיָה שָׁם, לֹא הָיָה נִגְאָל

The standard interpretation and corresponding image of the evil son is of the non-believer who separates himself from the Jewish community.  As Yossi Klein Halevi recently pointed out in a wonderful blog post, what indicts the evil son is not that he does not believe, but that he separates himself from the Jewish people.

“the Hagaddah’s definition of Jewish heresy offers us a precise definition of Jewish identity. The “evil child” of the Hagaddah refers to the Jewish people as “you” rather than “us.” Unlike Christianity and Islam, say, where heresy is the rejection of belief, for Judaism heresy is self-exclusion from the community.”

Halevi argues that it is not the wicked son’s lack of belief that damns him, but his self-exclusion.  It’s a great  blog post and important message… but Halevi nonetheless joins traditional commentators in assuming that the wicked son is a non-believer or non-observant.

But since, especially during the seder, every question is on the table, let me ask why don’t we assume that the evil son is in all other ways blameless and outstanding?  Who says he’s not a believer? And while I’m at it…. Why do we assume that that the community which this son excludes himself from …. is so virtuous?

Any reading of the Hebrew Bible will reveal the generation of the Exodus with a lot left to be desired. They murmured, complained and suffered from congenial stiffening  of the neck.  The truth is, even a cursory reading of the later prophets paint a picture of a Jewish People who stumbled and limped (ed the Hebrew word for lame is Pisayach פִּסֵחַ – same root as Pesach) a lot more than handled themselves in an upright fashion.

So here’s an image that I invite you to imagine for the wicked son. He’s a holier-than-thou self-righteous religious zealot…. beard, black hat and peyyot.  To be fair, maybe he’s an uncompromising liberal political activist who wishes to delegitimize the State of Israel or alternatively a religious nationalist settler who questions a secular Israeli’s connection and commitment to the Land. You probably could add a few more zealots of your own, but you get the idea.

Here are my alternative optics for the evil son.

This Haredi guy shows up at your seder and indignantly questions your right to celebrate the Exodus from Egypt.  “What could these laws and texts possibly mean to an Am HaAretz and Sabbath desecrator like you?  You, who accept same-sex marriage, support egalitarian prayer at our holy sites and convert any non-Jew who walks in the door.”

This child of the radical Left storms into the Seder screaming “How dare you celebrate  liberation and workers’s rights. How dare you Passover-wash your ties to Wall Street and your support for the Occupation and repression of Palestinians in Israel. This holiday of liberation means nothing to you!”

Maybe this child is a National Religious Settler who barges into our Seder and questions our right to sing Next Year in Jerusalem, a united Jerusalem, and laughs as we squeam when asking God to take vengeance on our enemies and conquer the land.

All of these caricatures are evil, not only, as Halevi argues, because they seperate from our community, but also, I argue, because they separate from our history and the crooked timber of our humanity.

These Evil children idealize the past at the expense of simplifying the present and delegitimizing a diverse group of people caught up in a complex world.  According to our traditions, those who left Egypt were a mixed lot (ערב רב) and we remain a mixed lot, struggling to survive in a tough environment and complicated, complex and not always solvable problems.  Those who left Egypt limped and complained and suffered from PTS, as do we.

The haggadah instructs us to “blunt his teeth” (הַקְהֵה אֶת שִׁנָּיו) ….. a strange phrase which seems to legitimize corporal punishment. In fact setting teeth on edge as the result of sour grapes planted by ones parents is short-hand for saying. Hey buddy, we all suffer the sins of our parents, we all have baggage, we are all refugees and victims. Non of our narratives are pure, non of our texts and rituals can be sanitized in accordance with your idealized version of progress. In fact sour grapes of our forebears causing their children to wince might be the seminal message of the Seder.  

The haggadah itself is an inelegantly edited compendium of conflicting texts and our liberation story, like the story of any liberation, whether national or personal … is messier than we’d like to admit.

Thus said Ezekiel 18 speaking of idyllic future times:

What mean ye, that ye use this proverb in the land of Israel, saying: The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge? As I live, saith the Lord GOD, ye shall not have occasion any more to use this proverb in Israel. … As for his father, because he cruelly oppressed, committed robbery on his brother, and did that which is not good among his people, behold, he dieth for his iniquity. Yet say ye: Why doth not the son bear the iniquity of the father with him? When the son hath done that which is lawful and right, and hath kept all My statutes, and hath done them, he shall surely live. The soul that sinneth, it shall die; the son shall not bear the iniquity of the father with him, neither shall the father bear the iniquity of the son with him; the righteousness of the righteous shall be upon him, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon him.

מַה-לָּכֶם, אַתֶּם מֹשְׁלִים אֶת-הַמָּשָׁל הַזֶּה, עַל-אַדְמַת יִשְׂרָאֵל, לֵאמֹר:  אָבוֹת יֹאכְלוּ בֹסֶר, וְשִׁנֵּי הַבָּנִים תִּקְהֶינָה

חַי-אָנִי, נְאֻם אֲדֹנָי יְהוִה:  אִם-יִהְיֶה לָכֶם עוֹד, מְשֹׁל הַמָּשָׁל הַזֶּה—בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל…

אָבִיו כִּי-עָשַׁק עֹשֶׁק, גָּזַל גֵּזֶל אָח, וַאֲשֶׁר לֹא-טוֹב עָשָׂה, בְּתוֹךְ עַמָּיו; וְהִנֵּה-מֵת, בַּעֲו‍ֹנוֹ

וַאֲמַרְתֶּם, מַדֻּעַ לֹא-נָשָׂא הַבֵּן בַּעֲו‍ֹן הָאָב; וְהַבֵּן מִשְׁפָּט וּצְדָקָה עָשָׂה, אֵת כָּל-חֻקּוֹתַי שָׁמַר וַיַּעֲשֶׂה אֹתָם–חָיֹה יִחְיֶה

הַנֶּפֶשׁ הַחֹטֵאת, הִיא תָמוּת:  בֵּן לֹא-יִשָּׂא בַּעֲו‍ֹן הָאָב, וְאָב לֹא יִשָּׂא בַּעֲו‍ֹן הַבֵּן–צִדְקַת הַצַּדִּיק עָלָיו תִּהְיֶה, וְרִשְׁעַת רשע (הָרָשָׁע) עָלָיו תִּהְיֶה

The Rabbis of the Haggadah are saying that there might come a time in the idyllic future where this proverb might not hold true….  A time that Ezekiel imagines where children do not carry the baggage left to them by their forebears and the shortcomings of their less enlightened peers do not slow them down, but… and here’s the message of the Haggadah…  in the meantime our teeth still sting from the sour grapes planted by our parents.  In the meantime, separating ourselves from our dirty past and complicated present, is not a luxury, is not idealism.. it is a sin, and it takes you off the stage.

While I have not found other sources for my interpretation, thanks to Sefira I did find a commentary called (very appropriately) Yismach Yisrael (rejoice Israel) which, while not making the evil son into a misguided idealist, does understand his question as questioning the bone fides and deservedness of the participants in the seder and the original generation of the exodus to participate in such a lofty mission.

The wicked one asks according to his wickedness: “What is this service for you?” (Page 67b) The wicked person argues that we do not deserve to be redeemed so all our efforts in performing these acts of divine service are a waste of time. Even worse, we are so sinful that these actions are really self-serving and not for the sake of God. The wicked person says that we perform them for you and not for Him!  We answer the wicked person by saying that “God did this for me” because of my trust and faith in Him. God redeemed us from Egypt even though we were immersed in the forty-nine levels of impurity and every aspect of our being was in exile. However, because we displayed real trust in God we were redeemed from Egypt even earlier then we were supposed to be redeemed. Had the wicked person been in Egypt he would not have merited this early redemption because he lacked trust in God.  (Yismach Yisrael on Pesach Haggadah p 51)

Maybe that’s a more positive answer that we can give the self-righteous evil son.. and by extension ourselves. Yes, we are the product of the mud from which we grew and yes, we sink or swim together, but if we have faith… blind as it is, that there is a spark of the divine in ALL of us, then by the grace of God, maybe together we can be redeemed…

SOnes with Question mark

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Filed under Bible, Hebrew, Israel, Passover, Religion, Torah, Uncategorized, Zionism

wise guy

Blessed is God, Blessed is He; Blessed is the One who Gave the Torah to His people Israel, Blessed is He. Corresponding [lit. against or opposite] to four sons did the Torah speak; The wise, the evil one, one who is innocent and one who doesn’t know to ask. (see  Sefaria )”

בָּרוּךְ הַמָּקוֹם, בָּרוּךְ הוּא, בָּרוּךְ שֶׁנָּתַן תּוֹרָה לְעַמּוֹ יִשְׂרָאֵל, בָּרוּךְ הוּא. כְּנֶגֶד אַרְבָּעָה בָנִים דִּבְּרָה תוֹרָה: אֶחָד חָכָם, וְאֶחָד רָשָׁע, וְאֶחָד תָּם, וְאֶחָד שֶׁאֵינוֹ יוֹדֵעַ לִשְׁאוֹל.

Contrary to popular opinion, the Four Children is not a popularity contest.  The Wise Son is not meant to be a role model and the Wicked Son is not the big loser.

Against Four Sons against the Torah speaks   כנגד ארבעה בנים דיברה תורה

Think of “against” כנגד as in opposition. Against – כנגד asks us to engage in discourse and debate these personality types; to confront, admonish, affront…  Think of it as a pedagogic teaching-moment.  Think of the friction and counter-balance in a healthy relationship. Think of the first relationship, of Eve with Adam:

And the Lord God said, “It is not good that man is alone; I shall make him a helpmate opposite him.” Genesis 2:18

וַיֹּאמֶר הֹ אֱ-לֹהִים לֹא טוֹב הֱיוֹת הָאָדָם לְבַדּוֹ אֶעֱשֶׂה לּוֹ עֵזֶר כְּנֶגְדּוֹ

Rashi: a helpmate opposite him: If he is worthy, she will be a helpmate. If he is not worthy, she will be against him, to fight him. — [from Gen. Rabbah 17:3, Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer , ch. 12. See also Yev. 63a]   זכה עזר, לא זכה כנגדו להלחם  עזר כנגדו

The type of relationship and conversation demanded by the Torah for the Four Children is the same type of interaction associated with a marriage… If the child is missing the point of the Seder, you need to speak up for both your sakes.

When you think of “against” you can also think of  מתן תורה the Revelation at Sinai… This is after all how the haggadah introduces the Four Sons.

Blessed is He that gave the Torah to His People Israel    ברוך שנתן תורה לעמו ישראל

The Torah uses the same word כנגד when talking about the Children of Israel in juxtaposition to Mt. Sinai.

They [the Children of Israel] journeyed from Rephidim, and they arrived in the desert of Sinai, and they encamped in the desert, and Israel encamped there opposite the mountain [Mt. Sinai]. Exodus 19:2

וַיִּסְעוּ מֵרְפִידִים וַיָּבֹאוּ מִדְבַּר סִינַי וַיַּחֲנוּ בַּמִּדְבָּר וַיִּחַן שָׁם יִשְׂרָאֵל נֶגֶד הָהָר

When the Torah confronts the four children think of a revelation, think of a life changing moment, an epiphany, an intervention.

Getting back to the Four Children,  let’s begin by leveling the playing field.  Each of these children desperately needs a wake-up call.  A gentle caress for some, a jarring blow for others… but trust me, all are missing the point of the Exodus/Seder.

And lets keep to the facts.  We know nothing about all of these types besides the one character trait which stands between them and an Exodus.

All we can say of the Wise son is that he is Wise.  He might be a bore, a miser, a fornicator, a dead-beat, or an arrogant son of a bitch.

The Simple Child might be an artist or clairvoyant.  The child who doesn’t know how to ask might be a survivor… Who are we to say?

And the Evil Child. The Evil child, besides the one character fault impugned,  might be or appear for all intents and purposes, a tzadik (righteous man).. more about that in my next post…

The personality trait that requires an intervention is the only one to which the Torah and by extension, we, the participants in a Seder, are meant to address.

The character deficit we are meant to address lies exclusively in his question and our answer.

I will focus only on the Wise son (in this post) and the Evil son (in my next post) because …. They interest me (and my guess.. you) the most and because it is these two that the text of the Haggadah singles out.

It is only for these two that we are told “and even you” אף אתה   should respond.  “And even you” is not simply emphatic, it is reflective and reflexive.    “And even you” is a tagline that we should recognize and that challenges us to venture a comparison.

Hama son of R. Hanina further said: What means the text: Ye shall walk after the Lord your God?( Deut. XIII, 5) Is it, then, possible for a human being to walk after the Shechinah; …But [the meaning is] to walk after the attributes of the Holy One, blessed be He. As He clothes the naked, … so do thou also clothe the naked. The Holy One, blessed be He, visited the sick, …  so do thou also visit the sick. The Holy One, blessed be He, comforted mourners, …  so do thou also comfort mourners. The Holy one, blessed be He, buried the dead, …  so do thou also bury the dead. (Babylonian Talmud Sotah 14a)

להלך אחר מדותיו של הקב”ה מה הוא מלביש ערומים דכתיב ויעש ה’ א-להים לאדם ולאשתו כתנות עור וילבישם אף אתה הלבש ערומים הקב”ה ביקר חולים דכתיב ירא אליו ה’ באלוני ממרא אף אתה בקר חולים הקב”ה ניחם אבלים דכתיב ויהי אחרי מות אברהם ויברך א-להים את יצחק בנו אף אתה נחם אבלים הקב”ה קבר מתים דכתיב ויקבר אותו בגיא אף אתה קבור מתים

The expression אף אתה  “Even You” is used to dare us… in the one case to dare us to try to imitate God and likewise, in the Haggadah’s case, to dare us to find the “wise” and “evil’ child in ourselves.

The Haggadah is telling us “grownups” that you need this medicine too אף אתה.  You’re more similar to this child than you think אף אתה. You share the malady more than you might be willing to admit…. EVEN YOU.. need to speak this question and listen to the answer.

What does the wise [son] say? “‘What are these testimonies, statutes and judgments that the Lord our God commanded you?’ (Deuteronomy 6:20)” And accordingly [and even] you will say to him, as per the laws of the Pesach sacrifice, “We may not eat an afikoman [a dessert or other foods eaten after the meal] after [we are finished eating] the Pesach sacrifice.”

חָכָם מָה הוּא אוֹמֵר? מָה הָעֵדוֹת וְהַחֻקִּים וְהַמִּשְׁפָּטִים אֲשֶׁר צִוָּה ה’ אֱלֹהֵינוּ אֶתְכֶם. וְאַף אַתָּה אֱמוֹר לוֹ כְּהִלְכוֹת הַפֶּסַח: אֵין מַפְטִירִין אַחַר הַפֶּסַח אֲפִיקוֹמָן

It seems to me that the Wise child has all the book knowledge and knows all the facts. But he’s missing something.  He like the Wicked child distances himself from the participants by saying “you” and not “us”. In the answer we are to give, we get a sense of exactly what he is distancing himself from.  We are to discuss the Passover Sacrifice – a historical artifact of a temple no-more and it’s replacement; the Afikomen replete with its folklore, superstition, and childish hide-and-go seek game to which it owes its brand identity…

We are to discuss with this Wise Guy son the cultural, emotional and historical baggage that our people, his people, carry.  And we are to discuss with him the unwritten, undocumented and unquantifiable, sometimes child-like, sometimes humorous, sometimes superstitious and sometimes ahistorical parodies and cultural tics that enable us to survive.  Most of all we confront him with two emotions not found in any text book.  Compassion and wonder.

Here’s where I leave you to your own wise guy answers and imagine how some of my favorite thinkers and story tellers might have answered

Abraham Joshua Heschel

 “ Indifference to the sublime wonder of living is the root of sin.”

(God in Search of Man: A Philosophy of Judaism, Abraham Joshua Heschel  p. 43) (see here)

Shlomo Carlebach

“Our holy Rabbis teach us that the chacham, the clever boy, is very beautiful as long as you think that being clever is everything.  The chacham is intellectual, he needs to be taught.  How about stopping being only intellectual? How about tasting the Afikoman, tasting the depths of life, feeling deep emotion and serving god with it? The clever person isn’t far away from the wicked person. “ 

“The Koznitzer Maggid says about Yachatz [the broken Afikomen], “The world is so broken, but our children can make the world whole again. We break the matzah; the small piece we keep, and the big piece – the bigger brokenness – our children take away.  Then they bring it back to us whole, to serve as the Afikomen at the end of the seder.” Our children they are the ones that are taking brokenness away from us.”

  The Carlebach Haggadah: Seder Night with Reb Shlomo by Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach p 39-40 and 19-20

And best for last…

Chaim Potok in the Chosen when Reb Saunders explains why he stopped talking to his son Danny…

The Chosen 1The Chosen 2

The Chosen By Chaim Potok pp 285-6

 

Benson3

 

 

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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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Filed under Bible, Chosen People, divine right, Hebrew, Israel, Judaism, prayer, Religion, Shabbat, Torah, tribalism

the practice of prayer

kavanah – madlik goes to shul

What’s the logic of repeating the same prayers, daily, weekly and mindlessly?

Abraham Joshua Heschel answered this question with a story:

“There is a story, told by Rabbi Israel Friedman, the Rizhiner, about a small Jewish town far off from the main roads of the land.  But it had all the necessary municipal institutions; a bathhouse, a cemetery, a hospital, and a law court; as well as all sorts of craftsmen – tailors, shoemakers, carpenters, and masons.  One trade, however, was lacking; there was no watchmaker.  In the course of years many of the clocks became so annoyingly inaccurate that their owners just decided to let them run down and ignore them altogether.  There were others, however, who maintained that as long as the clocks ran they should not be abandoned.  So they wound their clocks day after day, though they knew that they were not accurate.  One day the news spread through the town that a watchmaker had arrived, and everyone rushed to him with their clocks.  But the only ones he could repair were those that had been kept running – the abandoned clocks had grown rusty!

Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity: Essays By Abraham Joshua Heschel, Susannah Heschel p. 352 [1]

Take this as the Jewish version of the idiom:

“Even a broken clock is right twice a day”

If there are moments that prayer adds meaning to our lives, we probably should not wait for that moment …  to cultivate the art-of-prayer.

Heschel was undoubtedly thinking about moments of wonder, tragedy, joy and radical amazement. I’d like to focus on something more mundane – moments in the cycle of the year.

There are daily prayers that we say which provide the vocabulary and rhythm for special days of the year.

The most obvious example is the Exodus from Egypt

זכר ליציאת מצרים

We say “as a token to commemorate the Exodus from Egypt” for so many commandments and occasions that in the Kiddush for holidays, recited on Passover, the formula creates the irony of remembering to remember, as we remember.  We create a token, when we have the coin in hand…. We remember the Exodus.. even as we celebrate and re-live it!

“Praised are You…. You have given us .. this day of Passover, season of our liberation… as a token recalling the Exodus from Egypt..”

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה’ אֱ-לֹהֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם אֲשֶׁר… תִּתֶּן לָנוּ … מוֹעֲדִים לְשִׂמְחָה חַגִּים וּזְמַנִּים לְשָׂשׂוֹן אֶת יוֹם חַג הַמַּצּוֹת הַזֶה, זְמַן חֵרוּתֵנוּ מִקְרָא קֹדֶשׁ זֵכֶר לִיצִיאַת מִצְרָיִם

I suppose this might be considered an example of rehearsing during the performance or winding the watch even when it is keeping good time… But it does confirm the importance in Jewish prayer for practicing for the moment… even in the moment.

Another example of prayer as a practice is the most basic blessing formula.  “Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the universe.”

מלכויות

Kingship is the central theme of the Jewish New Year, where unlike the Babylonians who crowned their king as a god on their New Year, we crown God as our King … the only king.  The King of Kings.

“God is King, God was King, God will be King for ever and ever!” [repeat as necessary…]

ה’ מלך, ה’ מלך; ה’ ימלוך, לעולם ועד

As the early Christian followers of Jesus would tell you, there is something seditious about proclaiming anyone king besides the ruling king of the day … and we Jews, on our holiest days proclaim God (and not King George, Caesar or Jesus) to be our only King. In the context of the ancient near east, this was a powerful statement.

We practice for this climactic moment of Kol Nidre every day when we make the most trivial blessing:  “Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the universe.”

We also practice for this crowning moment when we finish our daily prayers with the Aleinu prayer

We bend the knee and bow, before the King, King of Kings,  the Holy One blessed be He….

Thus it has been said, Adonai will be King over all the earth, On that day, Adonai will be one, and God’s Name will be one.

וַאֲנַֽחְנוּ כּוֹרְעִים וּמִשְׁתַּחֲוִים וּמוֹדִים לִפְנֵי מֶֽלֶךְ מַלְכֵי הַמְּלָכִים
הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא

 וְנֶאֱמַר:

וְהָיָ֧ה ה’ לְמֶ֖לֶךְ עַל־כָּל־הָאָ֑רֶץ

בַּיּ֣וֹם הַה֗וּא יִהְיֶ֧ה

ה’ אֶחָ֖ד

וּשְׁמ֥וֹ אֶחָֽד

Here too, Jewish liturgy doubles down.  Even though every blessing uses a formula that includes Kingship and therefore prepares us for the High Holy Days, nonetheless, during the High Holy Days the Rabbis change the third blessing of the Silent Amidah from “The holy God” to “The holy King”

האל הקדוש  – המלך הקדוש

But the daily preparation for the holiest day of the year goes beyond God’s Kingship.

Listen to this prayer we recite daily after the “Blessings of the morning”.

Preserve me from misfortune and from powers of destruction. Save me from harsh judgements; spare me from ruthless opponents, be they members of the covenant or not. We should always revere God, in private as in public. We should acknowledge the truth in our hearts, and practice it in thought as in deed.

On arising one should declare: Master of all worlds! Not upon our merit do we rely in our supplication, but upon Your limitless love. What are we? What is our life? What is our piety? What is our righteousness? What is our attainment, our power, our might? What can we say, Lord our God and God of our ancestors? Compared to You, all the mighty are nothing, the famous nonexistent, the wise lack wisdom, the clever lack reason. For most of their actions are meaningless, the days of their lives emptiness. Human preeminence over beasts is an illusion when all is seen as futility.

But we are Your people, partners to Your covenant, descendants of Your beloved Abraham to whom You made a pledge on Mount Moriah. We are the heirs of Isaac, his son bound upon the altar. We are Your firstborn people, the congregation of Isaac’s son Jacob whom You named Israel and Jeshurun, because of Your love for him and Your delight in him.

רִבּון כָּל הָעולָמִים לא עַל צִדְקותֵינוּ אֲנַחְנוּ מַפִּילִים תַּחֲנוּנֵינוּ לְפָנֶיךָ כִּי עַל רַחֲמֶיךָ הָרַבִּים. מָה אֲנַחְנוּ מֶה חַיֵּינוּ מֶה חַסְדֵּנוּ מַה צִּדְקֵנוּ מַה יְשְׁעֵנוּ מַה כּחֵנוּ מַה גְּבוּרָתֵנוּ. מַה נּאמַר לְפָנֶיךָ ה’ אֱלהֵינוּ וֵאלהֵי אֲבותֵינוּ הֲלא כָל הַגִּבּורִים כְּאַיִן לְפָנֶיךָ וְאַנְשֵׁי הַשֵּׁם כְּלא הָיוּ וַחֲכָמִים כִּבְלִי מַדָּע וּנְבונִים כִּבְלִי הַשכֵּל כִּי רב מַעֲשיהֶם תּהוּ וִימֵי חַיֵּיהֶם הֶבֶל לְפָנֶיךָ. וּמותַר הָאָדָם מִן הַבְּהֵמָה אָיִן כִּי הַכּל הָבֶל:
אֲבָל אֲנַחְנוּ עַמְּךָ בְּנֵי בְרִיתֶךָ. בְּנֵי אַבְרָהָם אהַבְךָ שֶׁנִּשְׁבַּעְתָּ לּו בְּהַר הַמּורִיָּה. זֶרַע יִצְחָק יְחִידו. שֶׁנֶּעֱקַד עַל גַּבֵּי הַמִּזְבֵּחַ. עֲדַת יַעֲקב בִּנְךָ בְּכורֶךָ. שֶׁמֵּאַהֲבָתְךָ שֶׁאָהַבְתָּ אותו וּמִשּמְחָתְךָ שֶׁשּמַחְתָּ בּו. קָרָאתָ אֶת שְׁמו יִשרָאֵל וִישֻׁרוּן

The similarity of the themes and motifs in this simple prayer and the prayers of the High holidays are too obvious to miss.. here are a few examples:

O my God, before I was formed I was nothing worth, and now that I have been formed I am but as though I had not been formed. Dust am I in my life: how much more so in my death. Behold I am before thee like a vessel, filled with shame and confusion. O may it be thy will, O Lord my God and God of my fathers, that I may sin no more, and as to the sins I have committed, purge them away in thine abounding compassion though not by means of affliction and sore diseases. O my God! guard my tongue from evil and my lips from speaking guile; and to such as curse me let my soul be dumb, yea, let my soul be unto all as the dust. Open my heart to thy Law, and let mv soul pursue thy commandments. If any design evil against me, speedily make their counsel of none effect, and frustrate their designs. Do it for the sake of thy name, do it for the sake of thy right hand, do it for the sake of thy holiness, do it for the sake of thy Law. In order that thy beloved ones may be delivered, O save with thy right hand, and answer me. Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable before thee, O Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer. (Ne’eilah Service, Yom Kippur)

And what about the iconic Unetanneh Tokef:

Our origin is dust, and dust is our end. Each of us is a shattered urn, grass that must wither, a flower that will fade, a shadow moving on, a cloud passing by, a particle of dust floating on the wind, a dream soon forgotten.

אָדָם יְסוֹדוֹ מֵעָפָר
וְסוֹפוֹ לֶעָפָר
בְּנַפְשׁוֹ יָבִיא לַחְמוֹ
מָשׁוּל כְּחֶרֶס הַנִּשְׁבָּר
כְּחָצִיר יָבֵשׁ וּכְצִיץ נוֹבֵל
כְּצֵל עוֹבֵר וּכְעָנָן כָּלָה
וּכְרוּחַ נוֹשָׁבֶת וּכְאָבָק פּוֹרֵחַ וְכַחֲלוֹם יָעוּף

For those fortunate to have mumbled through the daily prayers, these words and tropes are old friends who roll off the tongue. When the special moment comes.. we are free of the letters and syllables to focus on the heart and emotions.

When at the concluding prayer of Yom kippur we plead: “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable before thee” it is a phrase that is used three times daily to introduce the silent prayer.

So now… let’s wind our watches for the upcoming holiday of Shavuot

After the introductory Psalms (Pesukei DeZimra) as the Shabbat morning service proper begins.. pay attention to the Nishmat prayer:

Were our mouth as full of song as the sea, and our tongue as full of joyous song as its multitude of waves, and our lips as full of praise as the breadth of the heavens, and our eyes as brilliant as the sun and the moon, and our hands as outspread as the eagles of the sky and our feet as swift as hinds — we still could not thank You sufficiently, HaShem our God and God of our forefathers, and to bless Your Name for even one of the thousand thousand, thousands of thousands and myriad myriads of favors, miracles and wonders that you performed for our ancestors and for us.

אִלּוּ פִינוּ מָלֵא שִׁירָה כַּיָּם
וּלְשׁוֹנֵנוּ רִנָּה כַּהֲמוֹן גַּלָּיו
וְשִׂפְתוֹתֵינוּ שֶׁבַח כְּמֶרְחֲבֵי רָקִיעַ
וְעֵינֵינוּ מְאִירוֹת כַּשֶּׁמֶשׁ וְכַיָּרֵחַ
וְיָדֵינוּ פְרוּשׂוֹת כְּנִשְׁרֵי שָׁמָיִם
וְרַגְלֵינוּ קַלּוֹת כָּאַיָּלוֹת
אֵין אֲנַחְנוּ מַסְפִּיקִים לְהוֹדוֹת לְךָ ה’ אֱלֹהֵינוּ וֵאלֹהֵי אֲבוֹתֵינוּ
וּלְבָרֵךְ אֶת שְׁמֶךָ
עַל אַחַת מֵאָלֶף אֶלֶף אַלְפֵי אֲלָפִים וְרִבֵּי רְבָבוֹת פְּעָמִים הַטּוֹבוֹת שֶׁעָשִׂיתָ עִם אֲבוֹתֵינוּ וְעִמָּנו

This is one of my favorite prayers of the weekly Shabbat service, not least because it foreshadows the most famous piyyut (liturgical poem) recited on Shavuot.  Akdamot were every line ends with a taf and an aleph.. the last and first letter of the hebrew alphabet. (see also E-Hazzan Blog).  This like the Nishmat prayer is an “A-Z” prayer proclaiming the limitation of human communication to describe and praise God’s infinite glory.

Before reading the ten divine commands,
O let me speak in awe two words, or three,
Of the One who wrought the world
And sustained it since time’s beginning.

At God’s command is infinite power,
Which words cannot define.
Were all the skies parchment,
And all the reeds pens, and all the oceans ink,
And all who dwell on earth scribes,
God’s grandeur could not be told….

akdamot

 

 

 

 

[3]

The Akdamot poem, one of the high points of the Shavuot service and the Nishmat prayer recited every Shabbat are cut from the same cloth.  Jewish prayer as a practice is ultimately possible only because of the uniform messaging in Jewish prayer.  The same themes appear in different intensity and on different days, but whether it is on a sleepy tuesday morning or the closing prayer on Yom Kippur those who enjoy the practice are prepared for those rare moments where prayer is in the air.

broken clock
———-

[1] See also:

“Once, in a village far from the noise of the world, the only watchmaker there died.  One after another, the villagers stopped winding their watches.  All except one man who, although he knew without a doubt that his clock was not working well, continued winding it every day.  Years later, another watchmaker finally arrived in the village: he was unable to repair any of the broken clocks because their delicate mechanisms had rusted, except for the man who had diligently wound his watch day after day.  The same happens with prayer.  We must continue praying even when we don’t always feel that we are really concentrating in our prayer, because the delicate mechanism of the human spirit can also easily become rusted.”  (You Are My Witness, pg. 79)

[2]

“The uniqueness of their (the Jewish People’s] relationship is reflected in the vision of God wearing tefillin as a parallel to .. the people of Israel.  God’s tefillin are said to contain the verse “Who is like your people Israel, singular on earth?” (See Siddur Sim Shalom p. 526)

[3] “Sabbath and Festival Prayer Book” edited by Morris Silverman with Robert Gordis, 1946. USCJ and RA, 185-88 see

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