Category Archives: Hebrew

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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Filed under Hebrew, Judaism, prayer, Religion, shavuot, yom kippur

Where is God?

Parshat Terumah

And let them make Me a sanctuary, that I may dwell among them.  (Exodus 25, 8)

וְעָשׂוּ לִי, מִקְדָּשׁ; וְשָׁכַנְתִּי, בְּתוֹכָם

As the commentary in Etz Hayim notes: “The text does not tell of God dwelling “in it,” i.e. in the sanctuary, but “among them,” i.e., among the people of Israel.

Similarly, with regard to the First Temple and as memorialized on the Haftorah selection:

in that I will dwell therein among the children of Israel, and will not forsake My people Israel.’

וְשָׁכַנְתִּי, בְּתוֹךְ בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל; וְלֹא אֶעֱזֹב, אֶת-עַמִּי יִשְׂרָאֵל

This resonates with us moderns:  God does not inhabit an edifice of bricks and mortar; he dwells in the hearts and minds of his faithful.  For a humanist this translates into God lives inside of man. Dare we attribute such an enlightened interpretation to our forebears?

For classical  theologians and mystics the question posed by a temple was more basic… how can it be that God can be confined to one place… any place?

By tradition, Jacob’s dream of the ladder with ascending and descending angels  occurred at The Place (מקום) of the future First and Second Temple.  the Rabbis assert:

“God is the place (makom) of the world, but the world is not His place” [1]

“שהוא מקומו של עולם ואין עולמו מקומו”

For the mystics the bigger problem is how to explain a finite physical world when God is infinite.  If God is the Eyn Sof … an existence that suffers no beginning and no end, how is a created world with beginnings, ends and finite dimensions, let alone “evil” permitted to exist.

The standard answer in the kabbalah .. the Jewish mystical tradition, is that of the 10 sefirot.  Everything is contained in God, but there are different emanations that shine and are reflected, in various degrees of physicality, which ultimately create a perception of a created world.

The same holds true for the temple.  There is an eternal and entirely spiritual temple which God inhabits and which inhabits God… our material temple is simply a reflection of that celestial temple.

When Moses is commanded to build the tabernacle in Exodus 25:9, God instructs Moses:

And see that thou make them after their pattern, which is being shown thee in the mount. (Exodus 25: 40)

וּרְאֵה, וַעֲשֵׂה:  בְּתַבְנִיתָם–אֲשֶׁר-אַתָּה מָרְאֶה, בָּהָר

 

As the Etz Hayim notes:  “Exactly as I show you The tabernacle and its furnishings are conceived of as earthly replicas of heavenly archetypes… ”

According to this approach, the earthly temple is a reflection or emanation of a Celestial Temple. [2]

This concept of our Temple and services mirroring the Celestial Temple and prayer services of the Angels is institutionalized in our prayers especially the Kedusha where:

“We proclaim Your Holiness on earth as it is proclaimed in heaven above.” (see Siddur Sim Shalom p. 357)

נְקַדֵּשׁ אֶת שִׁמְךָ בָּעוֹלָם
כְּשֵׁם שֶׁמַּקְדִּישִׁים אוֹתוֹ בִּשְׁמֵי מָרוֹם
כַּכָּתוּב עַל יַד נְבִיאֶךָ

 

In the Pesikta D’Rav Kehana, which contains material that dates back to the times of the Midrash (3rd and 4th century) we find an fascinating rendering of this theology.

The Holy One, blessed be He, said to Moses: If you pattern the tabernacle here below after the one in heaven above, I will leave My heavenly counselors, come down, and so shrink My presence as to fit into your midst below. (Pesikta de-Rav Kahana 1:3)

כך אמר הב”ה למשה, משה אם אתה עשה מה של מעלה למטה אני מניח סנקליטין שלי של מעלן ויורד ומצמצם שכינתי ביניכם למטן.

For anyone who has heard of Lurianic Kabbalah and the system of Tzimtzum this is a truly revolutionary midrash and the only Midrashic/Talmudic reference to the Tzimtzum of God in Rabbinic literature.

Let me explain…  According to Gershom Scholem, the preeminent authority on the development of the Kabbalah, the de facto solution to the infinite God creating a finite world conundrum; not to mention His dwelling in a wordly temple, was the theory of emanation. In the theory of emanation God’s totally spiritual and infinite presence is reflected through a series of increasingly degraded and physical illuminations and reflections until the physical is possible.

This solution is philosophically unsatisfying since it literally kicks the can down the road… but it was the best that the mystics could do and it survived from the earliest days of the Kabbalah and Zohar until the expulsion from Spain in 1492… close to 1,000 years after our Tzimzum midrash was written.

The expulsion from Spain disrupted Jewish thought and sensitized the mystics to the dialectic between Exile and Return and suffering and redemption.

Isaac Luria who lived only to the age of 38 turned the theory of emanation on it’s head.  According to Luria, God didn’t so much as create the physical world as He contracted Himself into Himself in order to permit the existence of a physical world, including matter, evil and … a temple.

In my view, this emanation on-it’s-head approach is as philosophically unsatisfying as emanation.  It begs the same question.  But from a poetic, humanist, existential let alone pedagogic perspective it is stellar.  Any parent who learns to step back in order to permit a child to move forward will appreciate Tzimtzum!

According to Scholem, Tzimtzum (contraction) “is one of the most amazing and far-reaching conceptions ever put forward in the whole history of Kabbalism.  Tzimtzum originally means “concentration” or “contraction” but if used in the Kabbalistic parlance it is best translated by “withdrawal” or “retreat”…

“Instead of emanation we have the opposite, contraction. The God who revealed himself in firm contours was superseded by one who descended deeper into the recesses of his own Being, who concentrated Himself into Himself, and had done so from the very beginning of creation.

צמצם עצמו מעצמו אל עצמו

To be sure, this view was often felt, even by those who gave it a theoretical formulation, to verge on the blasphemous.  Yet it cropped up again and again, modified only ostensibly by a feeble ‘as it were’ or ‘so to speak.’ (p 260-261)

Another way of phrasing contraction would be diminution.  In a very real and radical way, tzimtzum implies that God commits the ultimate blasphemy/sin.. he diminished Himself.. the Godhead.

Tzimtzum is a variation on the old conundrum… If an all powerful God can make anything… can He make a weight that is too heavy for He Himself to lift?  In the case of tzimtzum the answer is Yes.  God can diminish himself to a point that He alone cannot repair the damage…. As it were.

It is clear to me that tzimtzum is a dialectical process.  As in our original midrash, God withdraws from the celestial temple to concentrate into the temporal temple. And, according to Luria, when God withdraws He leaves [concentrated] traces of His holiness called Reshimu or residue similar to the residue of oil or wine in a bottle the contents of which have been poured out.  The process is not smooth, it is disruptive to the point that Luria coined a term “Breaking of the vessels” Shevirat haKelim to refer to this big bang of contraction.

When God contracts, the vessel that holds Him is ruptured into pieces.  Both the residue and broken pieces contain remnants of the infinite. God is removed, exiled (c.f. “the Divine Presence in Exile” –  שכינתא בגלותאand separated from these remnants and only man can unite God by repairing these broken pieces and this is redemption – Tikun.

This is the mystical concept of Tikkun Olam, fixing the world. What it has in common with the social-action concept of Tikkun Olam is that both are thoroughly dependent on Man.

Getting back to our Temple…

We now come full circle and have a radically humanistic conception of God’s presence in our world.. hinted at first by the Rabbis of the Fourth Century Midrash and flushed out in a radical theology by a 30 year old decedent of refugees from the Spanish inquisition in Safed.

God’s dwelling in the Mishkan is dependent on man.  The tabernacle and Temple represent a poetic dance between God and man, exile and return, suffering and redemption… for both parties.  The vision of Jews and God outside of the temple, willingly withdrawing from the temple appears less absurd.

The Kotzke Rebbe’s answer to the question “Where is God?” is both empowering and obligating.

“Where is God?  Wherever we let Him in.”

——————————

[1]

 “ר’ הונא בשם ר’ אמי אמר: מפני מה מכנין שמו של הקב”ה וקורין אותו “מקום”? שהוא מקומו של עולם ואין עולמו מקומו” – בראשית רבה, ס”ח, י’

[2] For a comprehensive review of this literature see:

The Celestial Temple as viewed in the Aggadah by Victor Aptowitzer found in Binah: Volume I; Studies in Jewish History (Washington Papers) Paperback – June 6, 1989 PRAEGER, NY Westport, CT, London

tzimtzum

 

 

 

 

tzimzum -pesikta drav kehana 1

 

tzimzum -pesikta drav kehana 2
tzimzum -pesikta drav kehana English

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rounding the corner

Thoughts on religious iconography from Cambodia and Vietnam

There is an impressive and seamless continuity between texts, mythologies, art, ritual objects, and architecture within Hinduism and Buddhism.  A perfect example is the lotus.  In mythology and sacred Hindu texts the lotus grows from the navel of Vishnu,  the sleeping god whose dream is the universe. Brahma sits on the lotus, the symbol of divine energy and divine grace.

Reclining Vishnu at Valley of 1000 Lingas, Cambodia

Reclining Vishnu at Valley of 1000 Lingas, Cambodia

This theme of the lotus growing from the navel of the deity is echoed in Buddhist literature.  Siddharta dreams that a lotus tree rises from his navel up through the worlds to the Heaven of the “Final Limit of Form” and the very summit of the cosmos of formal manifestation… In this symbolic formula the flowering of the lotus is the attainment of Enlightment: the petals open to disclose the Buddha seated on the lotus, and in the “lotus position”. (see The Symbolism of the Stupa,  By Adrian Snodgrass pp 205

Brahma sitting on Petals, at Mỹ Sơn, Vietnam

Brahma sitting on Petals, at Mỹ Sơn, Vietnam

Brahma sits on Lotus flower, Valley of 1000 Lingas, Cambodia

Brahma sits on Lotus flower, Valley of 1000 Lingas, Cambodia

In fact, the design of the Temples at Angkar follows the pattern of the lotus flower (un-open) emerging from a base representing the lotus petals.

Banteay Prei Temple in Angkor Cambodia

Banteay Prei Temple in Angkor Cambodia

The complex Angkor Wat with it’s central lotus surrounded by four lotuses is no exception.

Layout of Angkor Wat

Layout of Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat Temple, Cambodia

Angkor Wat Temple, Cambodia

At its core the image of the lotus plant arising from the navel and the flowering of the lotus is the essence of creation and sexual in nature. The phallic nature of the temples at Angkar are oblivious.

In its most minimalistic form the lotus flower/petal motif  takes the shape of the linga and includes the mountain iconography most noticeable in the structure of the Angkar temples.  The lingam is often represented alongside the Yoni, a symbol of the goddess or of Shakti, female creative energy.

Linga assembled into square Yoni at Mỹ Sơn Vietnam

Linga assembled into square Yoni at Mỹ Sơn Vietnam

 

Round Yoni at Mỹ Sơn Vietnam

Round Yoni at Mỹ Sơn Vietnam

The yoni is the creative power of nature and represents the goddess Shakti. The linga stone represents Shiva, and is usually placed in the yoni. The lingam is the transcendental source of all that exists. The linga united with the yoni represents the nonduality of immanent reality and transcendental potentiality.

Buddha on Yoni, at Mỹ Sơn, Vietnam

Buddha on Yoni, at Mỹ Sơn, Vietnam

The Yoni represents the petals out of which the Linga emerges and rests and more ancient specimens from matrilineal societies are square, while later versions, have their power reduced by rounding.

 

Square Yoni with multiple Lingas at Valley of 1000 Lingas, Cambodia

Square Yoni with multiple Lingas at Valley of 1000 Lingas, Cambodia

Round Yoni with multiple Lingas at Valley of 1000 Lingas, Cambodia

Round Yoni with multiple Lingas at Valley of 1000 Lingas, Cambodia

In fact this combination of Famale petals and male lotus flower is the brand of Buddhism and I might add, a lot of Cambodian and Vietnamese companies.

IMG_2340

This brand is called the Linga and nowhere more apparent than at the River of A Thousand Lingas a 40 minute drive from the temples at Angkor.

Judaic Iconographic Tour 1.01

So I get it.  Judaism does not condone images.  It hardly has a brand mark.  Unlike the menorah, the Lion of Judah, the shofar and the lulav (our lotus?), the Star of David, considered by most to be the Trademark of Judaism, was never a uniquely Jewish symbol.”  Our ancient art is limited and mostly derivative of other pagan cultures in the neighborhood (see: signs of the Zodiac).

But certainly there must be some iconography which a tour guide of Judaism could point out.  Are there primal and seminal shapes and messages hidden in our texts and rituals, that we just ignore or have left buried under the surface?

So here’s a stab at giving such a tour…

Enter the SQUARE…

I have always been intrigued by the ambiguous relationship of the Hebrew Bible to corners and squares.

The word in Classical and Modern Hebrew for square is ribu’a (ריבוע) which really just comes from the word 4.  This word, along with the word for Circle (עיגול) do not to my knowledge appear in the ancient biblical texts. Geometry was not the Bible’s favorite subject… But we do have the word for corner “Payah”  (פֵּאָה) which not only appears, but appears to play an important role.

Keeping the “corners” of the beard is the source for Jewish beards and side curls.. called Payot (corners).

You shall not round off the corner of your head, and you shall not destroy the edge of your beard.(Leviticus 19: 27)

לֹא תַקִּפוּ פְּאַת רֹאשְׁכֶם וְלֹא תַשְׁחִית אֵת פְּאַת זְקָנֶךָ

The word for “round” used in the verse is (נָקַף ) which means to go around, surround, encompass, enclose, to make the round, complete the circuit. [1]  (Compare: Hakafa הקפה  “[to] en/circle” or “going a/round” in Hebrew, referring to the times when celebrations in Judaism have its adherents dance or walk or celebrate by moving in circles.)

For the Torah, the corners seem to be holy or consecrated, which means that they need to either be dedicated to God or to his chosen on earth… the poor and the stranger.  The biblical editor establishes an obvious thematic link between the corners of the beard and the corners of the field. Just a few verses earlier in Leviticus 19 we read:

When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not fully reap the corner of your field, nor shall you gather the gleanings of your harvest. .. You shall leave them for the poor and the stranger. I am the Lord, your God.     (Leviticus 19: 9 – 10)

וּבְקֻצְרְכֶם אֶת קְצִיר אַרְצְכֶם לֹא תְכַלֶּה פְּאַת שָׂדְךָ לִקְצֹר וְלֶקֶט קְצִירְךָ לֹא תְלַקֵּט

לֹא תְלַקֵּט לֶעָנִי וְלַגֵּר תַּעֲזֹב אֹתָם אֲנִי ה’ אֱ-לֹהֵיכֶם

And of course, what discussion of sanctifying the square or corner would be complete without mention of the four-cornered garment and the requirement for fringes.  The word Kanaf (כָּנָף) usually means wings as in the Cherubs in Exodus 25:20

who shall spread out their wings on high, screening the ark-cover with their wings, ….

 וְהָיוּ הַכְּרֻבִים פֹּרְשֵׂי כְנָפַיִם לְמַעְלָה, סֹכְכִים בְּכַנְפֵיהֶם עַל-הַכַּפֹּרֶת, וּפְנֵיהֶם, אִישׁ אֶל-אָחִיו; אֶל-הַכַּפֹּרֶת–יִהְיוּ, פְּנֵי הַכְּרֻבִים

It is tempting to suggest a connection between wings/corners and the Hebrew creation myth which begins by God fluttering (rä·khaf’) over the abyss.

Now the earth was unformed and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the spirit of God hovered over the face of the waters. (Genesis 1:2)

וְהָאָרֶץ, הָיְתָה תֹהוּ וָבֹהוּ, וְחֹשֶׁךְ, עַל-פְּנֵי תְהוֹם; וְרוּחַ אֱ-לֹהִים, מְרַחֶפֶת עַל-פְּנֵי הַמָּיִם

Writes Rashi:

and the spirit of God was hovering: The Throne of Glory was suspended in the air and hovered over the face of the water with the breath of the mouth of the Holy One, blessed be He and with His word, like a dove, which hovers over the nest, acoveter in Old French, to cover, hover over.

ורוח א-להים מרחפת כסא הכבוד עומד באויר ומרחף על פני המים ברוח פיו של הקב”ה ובמאמרו, כיונה המרחפת על הקן אקוביטי”ר בלע”ז] לכסות]

Similarly, the bird hovering/fluttering metaphor is used for both the Exodus and Revelation myth as well:

He [God] found them in a desert land, and in a desolate, howling wasteland. He encompassed them and bestowed understanding upon them; He protected them as the pupil of His eye.   As an eagle awakens its nest, hovering over its fledglings, it spreads its wings, taking them and carrying them on its pinions. (Deuteronomy 32: 10-11)

כְּנֶשֶׁר יָעִיר קִנּוֹ עַל גּוֹזָלָיו יְרַחֵף יִפְרֹשׂ כְּנָפָיו יִקָּחֵהוּ יִשָּׂאֵהוּ עַל אֶבְרָתוֹ

Writes Rash:

He encompassed them: [Rendered by Onkelos :] “He made them encamp round about His Divine Presence”-the Tent of Meeting [where the Divine Presence rested] was in the middle [of the camp] and the four divisions [i.e., the tribal camps, surrounded it] from all four directions.

hovering over its fledglings: [The eagle] does not impose its [whole] body upon them. Rather, it hovers above them, touching them and yet not quite touching them. So too, is the Holy One, Blessed is He. [As in the verse:] “We did not find the Almighty great in power” (Job 37:23). When He came to give the Torah to Israel, He did not reveal Himself to them from one direction [thus concentrating His power at one point, as it were], but rather, from four directions, as Scripture states, “The Lord came from Sinai, and shone forth from Seir to them, and appeared from Mount Paran” (Deut. 33:2). [This accounts for three directions.] The fourth direction is referred to in [the verse], “God comes from Teman” (Hab. 3:3). – [Sifrei 32:11]

spreading its wings, taking them: When it [the eagle] comes to move [its fledglings] from place to place, it does not pick them up with its feet, as do other birds. Other birds are afraid of the eagle, which soars very high and flies above them. For this reason, it [the other bird] carries them with its feet because of the eagle [above them]. The eagle, however, is afraid only of an arrow. Therefore, it carries its young on its wings, saying, “It is better that an arrow pierce me, rather than pierce my young.” So too, the Holy One, Blessed is He, [says]: “I carried you on eagles’ wings” (Exod. 19:4). [I.e.,] when the Egyptians pursued [the children of Israel] and overtook them at the [Red] Sea, they cast arrows and catapulted rocks [at Israel]. Immediately, “The angel of God moved… [behind them… and the pillar of cloud] came between the camp of Egypt [and the camp of Israel]” (Exod. 14:19-20) [for Israel’s protection]. — [Mechilta 19:4] (see for hebrew text)

Not only does the hovering wings motif include the trifecta of Creation, Exodus and Revelation, but according to the sources that Rashi references, the Biblical hovering “kenafim” wings is a four cornered force field of tenderness and protection.

If we are discussing holy squares and rectangles, we need to mention the Mishkan – Tabernacle  (מִשְׁכַּן) and the Beit HaMikdash – Temple (בֵּית־הַמִּקְדָּשׁ ) which, like Hindu and Buddhist temples was to be situated on the top of a hill/mount (הַר הַבַּיִת).

soltemp

Solomon’s Temple

Mishkan1

The Mishkan – Tabernacle

 

 

The shape of both were rectangular.  Of interest for our discussion is that the word used for side is actually our friend corner-Peyah.

 

 

 

 

 

 

And thou shalt make the boards for the tabernacle, twenty boards for the south side southward (Exodus 26: 18)

וְעָשִׂיתָ אֶת-הַקְּרָשִׁים, לַמִּשְׁכָּן, עֶשְׂרִים קֶרֶשׁ, לִפְאַת נֶגְבָּה תֵימָנָה

 

In addition to corner, Peyah can also mean extremity, edge or border.

As Rashi writes:

for the southern side: Heb. לִפְאַתנֶגְבָּה ךְתֵּימָנָה. [The word לִפְאַת is derived from פֵּאָה, which usually means “corner.”] This [use of the word] פֵּאָה is not an expression meaning “corner,” rather the whole side is referred to as פֵּאָה, as the Targum [Onkelos] renders: לְרוּחַ עֵיבַר דָרוֹמָא, to the side toward the south.

לפאת נגבה תימנה אין פאה זו לשון מקצוע, אלא כל הרוח קרויה פאה, כתרגומו לרוח עיבר דרומא

 

We will conclude our survey of ambiguous sanctification of the corner/square with the one object in Judaism which cries out for a contextual reference, and whose cries have been met with a deafening silence. This ritual object are strange to the extreme.  I am referring, of course,  to the Tefillin (תפילין )… The fact that this pair of black leather boxes with black leather straps do not really have a name [2] might point to their ancient origin.  In any case, they are so distinctive in the eye of the beholder that they carry a Greek name which has survived until today – phylacteries (from Ancient Greek φυλακτήριον phylacterion, form of phylássein, φυλάσσειν meaning “to guard, protect”).  The first use of this name is in Matthew 23:5 in the New Testament where Matthew complains about the Jews: “Everything they do is done for people to see: They make their phylacteries wide and the tassels on their garments long;”  [2a]

A_set_of_Tefillin

We know that their square shape is ancient since Yigal Yadin found a pair of tefillin in a cave belonging to 1st century Jewish partisans serving under bar Kochba. (see)

For a wonderful scholarly treatment on Tefilin feel free to visit Probing the Earliest Origins of Tefillin (phylacteries) in a blog called Yomin D;min Alma which includes a picture of tefillin found in the Cairo Geniza that are conical in shape (so much for corners and squares!) and look a lot like our Lingas (Lehavdil)…

tefillin-from-geniza

 

Whenever I have thought about a context for odd shape of tefillin I have always thought of the Kaaba in Mecca [3] … not only because they look so similar, but also because the tefillin are also referred to as a Bayit or house… or Battim in the plural.  Since the Jewish temple is also referred to as a Bayit, (as in Beit HaMikdash and Har HaBayit), it seemed to me natural to think of it as a miniature temple and to look to our rectangular temple for context.

Fortunately, I am not the only one who has thought of this comparison.

Billy Phillips, in his blog kabbalahstudent.com argues for a connection between tefilin and the Kaaba (here)

His picture is worth a thousand words (or maybe lingas):

kaba tefilin

 

Granted that he shows a traditional tefillin box and not uncovered tefilin, but I think his visual comparison is well taken.

He goes on to argue that the Sephardim  wrap the tefillin around the left arm seven times, counter-clockwise and compares this to Muslims circumventing the Ka’ba at the end of the Haj.  Whether he is guilty of sharing too much detail or not, his point is well taken.  There seems to be a tradition of circumvention when it comes to our squares.    Today’s Jewish custom of dancing in a circle (Hora dance) and of circling the alter in the Synagogue on Sukkot (Hoshanot) comes from ancinent times.  “It was customary to make one procession around the altar on each day of Sukkot, and seven on the seventh day” (Sukkah 4:5)

It may even be that on each of the three Pilgrim festivals, ancient Jews ascended to the temple and completed their pilgrimage, by circling the square Temple.

hakafot3_text(1)

 

Think also of a bride circling the groom under the square wedding canopy (Chuppah).

The Female shall circle the male נְקֵבָה תְּסוֹבֵב גָּבֶר Jerimiah 31:21

The Female shall circle the male נְקֵבָה תְּסוֹבֵב גָּבֶר Jerimiah 31:21

This post is more of a question than a statement.  It is more of a request for further comment and research.  But certainly students of Judaism need to explore this interest in sanctifying the corner.

Comments and suggestions are welcome!

 

 

 

 

———————–

[1] See Rashi

You shall not round off the corner of your head: This refers to someone who [cuts his hair in such a way that he] makes [the hair on] his temples even with that behind his ear and on his forehead [i.e., the front hairline], thereby causing [the hairline] surrounding his head to become a circle, since the main hairline behind the ears is at a much higher level than [the hair on] his temples. — [Mak. 20b]

the edge of your beard: [meaning:] The end of the beard and its borders. And these are five: two on each cheek at the top [edge of the cheek] near the head, where [the cheek] is broad and has two “corners” [i.e., extremities, one near the temple and the other at the end of the cheek bone towards the center of the face]-and one below, on the chin, at the point where the two cheeks join together. – [Torath Kohanim 19: 74; Mak. 20b]

לא תקפו פאת ראשכם זה המשוה צדעיו לאחורי אזנו ולפדחתו, ונמצא הקף ראשו עגול סביב, שעל אחורי אזניו עקרי שערו למעלה מצדעיו הרבה

פאת זקנך  סוף הזקן וגבוליו. והן חמש שתים בכל לחי ולחי למעלה אצל הראש שהוא רחב ויש בו שתי פאות, ואחת למטה בסנטרו מקום חבור שני הלחיים יחד

[2}

The ultimate origin of Hebrew “tefillin” is uncertain.[3] The word “tefillin” is not found in the Bible, which calls them ṭoṭafot. The Septuagint renders “ṭoṭafot” ἀσαλευτόν, “something immovable.”[2] Some believe it refers to a charm, similar to the Hebrew neṭifot, “round jewel.”[2] The Talmud (Sanhedrin 4b) explains that the word ṭoṭafot is combination of two foreign words: Tot means “two” in the “Caspi” language and Fot means “two” in the “Afriki” language,[4] hence tot and fot means “two and two”, corresponding to the four compartments of the head-tefillin.[5] Menahem ben Saruq explains that the word is derived from the Hebrew Ve’hateif and Tatifoo, both expressions meaning “speech”, “for when one sees the tefillin it causes him to remember and speak about The Exodus from Egypt.”[6]

The first texts to use “tefillin” are the Targumim and Peshitta[2] and it is also used in subsequent Talmudic literature, although the word “ṭoṭafah” was still current, being used with the meaning of “frontlet.”[2] “Tefillin” may have derived from the Aramaic palal, “to plead, pray,” a word closely related to the Hebrew tefillah, “prayer.”[3] Jacob ben Asher (14th century) suggests that “tefillin” is derived from the Hebrew pelilah, “justice, evidence,” for tefillin act as a sign and proof of God’s presence among the Jewish people.[7]

The only instance of the name “phylacteries” in ancient times occurs once in the Greek New Testament (Matthew 23:5) whence it has passed into the languages of Europe. “Phylacteries” derives from the Greek phulaktērion – φυλακτήριον, “defences,” and in late Greek, “amulets” or “charms.” Neither Aquila nor Symmachus use the word “phylacteries.” see

[2a]  Interesting to note that the Jews are identified by two square shaped “cornered” wearable objects… the Talit and the Tefillin.  This charge of the demonstrative nature of the commandment is, in fact, confirmed by the rabbis, who interpret the verse “and all the peoples of the earth shall see that the name of the Lord is called upon thee” (Deut. 28:10) to refer to “the tefillin of the head” (Ber. 6a). (see Encyclopedia Judaica Tefilin).  Imagine a Jew walking by wearing talit, tefillin and sporting a beard and/or payos… that would make three sanctified squares all identifying the individual as a Jew!

For more on tefillin see: Yonatan Adler, The Content and Order of the Scriptural Passages in Tefillin: A Reexamination of the Early Rabbinic SourcesIn Light of the Evidence From the Judean Desert

[3]

The Kaaba

The Arabic word Kaaba comes from the Arabic ka’bah meaning “square house,” which in turn comes from ka’b meaning “cube.”… According to tradition the Kaaba was built by Ibrahim (Abraham). It is stated in the Qur’an that this was the first house that was built for humanity to worship Allah (God).

In her book, Islam: A Short History, Karen Armstrong asserts that the Kaaba was at some point dedicated to Hubal, a Nabatean deity, and contained 360 idols that probably represented the days of the year. In Guillaume’s translation of Ibn Ishaq, an early biographer of Muhammad, the Ka’aba itself was addressed using a feminine grammatical form.[25] Circumambulation was often performed naked by men and almost naked by women,[26] and linked to ancient fertility rites.[27]

Also of interest, is that reference is not made to the four sides of this cube, but rather to its four corners: Corner of the Black Stone (East), Corner of Yemen (South-West). Corner of Syria (North-West). Corner of Iraq (North-East).

 

For more on what the Jewish/Hebrew God looks like see: Seeing God(s) in Temples, the Heavens, and in Model Shrines: A Problem in Ancient Metaphysics by Ziony Zevit, American Jewish University, Los Angeles and Seymour Gitin Distinguished Professor

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holy crap

Ashar Yatzar

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

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

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

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

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

The Talmud records the discussion regarding the exact text of the closing benediction.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rashi comments:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(11Q19 46.13-16a)

Temple Scroll

 

 

 

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

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

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

16a from the city of three thousand cubits vacat

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

(1QM 7.6b-7)

War ScrollTemple Scroll

 

 

 

 

6b And there shall be a distance

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

latrines of the essenes

 

 

 

 

 

 

————————–

[1] see BT Berachot 60b

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

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

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

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

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

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

[3]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Halacha 5

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

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

After he comes out, he recites:

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

Halacha 6

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Halacha 7

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

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

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

 

[4] see

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

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

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

[5] Devarim Rabba, Parasha 2, Section 37

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Filed under Bible, Hebrew, Judaism, miracle, Religion, Sabbath, Shabbat, Torah

what’s in a name

parshat toldot

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


[i] See Strongs Biblical lexicon tsachaq H6711

Lexicon :: Strong's H6711 - tsachaq

Lexicon :: Strong’s H6711 – tsachaq

[ii] See Strongs Biblical lexicon aqeb H6119

Lexicon :: Strong's H6119 - `aqeb

Lexicon :: Strong’s H6119 – `aqeb

[iii] See Stongs Biblical Lexicon aqab  H6117

Lexicon :: Strong's H6117 - `aqab

Lexicon :: Strong’s H6117 – `aqab

[iv] See Strongs Biblical Lexicon 86118

Lexicon :: Strong's H6118 - `eqeb

Lexicon :: Strong’s H6118 – `eqeb

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

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

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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.

———————

[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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my children are my buildings

parshat noach – haftarah Isaiah 54

This is my first post after completing a post on each of the parshat of the week… so I haven’t really decided yet what the focus of future posts will be.

To see previous posts on parshat noach you can go to of noah’s ark, cathedrals in time and jewish ships where I explore how Noah’s ark may have been the first temple…. or cathedral in time.

In a recent post sustainable kashrut, I explore the origins of kashrut and the biblical predisposition for vegetarianism… which Rashi cites in reference to Noah.

Since Noah was my Bar Mitzvah portion, I’d like to share something I learnt from Dan Bahat, a noted archaeologist in a car returning from a visit to Masada.  I was telling the archaeologist what I planned to say on the occasion of the dedication of a building for Graduate Studies dedicated by my dad Jerome Stern at Bar Ilan University.  I was going to quote Isaiah 54 and the Talmud’s interpretation.

The verse from Isaiah 54:13 is the haftorah for parshat Noah.  It says:

And all thy children shall be taught of the LORD; and great shall be the peace of thy children.

וְכָל-בָּנַיִךְ, לִמּוּדֵי יְהוָה; וְרַב, שְׁלוֹם בָּנָיִךְ

The talmud in Berachot 64a goes as follows:

R. Eleazar said in the name of R. Hanina: The disciples of the wise increase peace in the world, as it says, And all thy children shall be taught of the Lord, and great shall be the peace of thy children.  Read not banayik [thy children] but bonayik [thy builders].

berachot

This piece of Talmud is actually cited in the Sabbath prayers after the Eyn Keloheynu prayer.

In my comments at the building dedication, I planned to say that this might be the first building that my dad had built…but  in the tradition of the Talmud in Berachot, he had been setting an example for his kids and mentoring artists and supporting education all his life…  building human beings…

The archaeologist turned to me and said…. “the talmud in Berachot is actually not an interpretation of Isaiah… it is based on a variant reading of Isaiah that has been preserved in the Dead Sea Scroll version of Isaiah.. whose text is actually thy builders!”

and here it is:

The Israel Museum, Jerusalem, The Great Isaiah Scroll

The Israel Museum, Jerusalem, The Great Isaiah Scroll – the waw was not there originally but was added above the line. Old correction of the text itself? Old midrash? [DJ]

There are a number of lessons here…1)  It’s a good idea to talk Torah while riding or walking… especially if one’s companion is a scholar.  2) We are always discovering new material that helps us understand our sources and text. 3) our sense of oral traditions needs to include variations in texts… and finally… our kids are really our greatest building.. not just according to the Rabbis of the Talmud, but even according to the Ancient Prophets.

gs and dan bahat

Geoffrey Stern with Dan Bahat (right) at Masada

 

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regarding moses

parshat Vezot Hab’rachah and simchat torah

Eight verses before we finish reading the Torah, Moses dies.  Since in Deuteronomy 31:24-26 Moses is purported to have given the completed book of theTorah (סֵפֶר הַתּוֹרָה הַזֶּה  ) to the Levites, this is problematic… How could Moses have finished the Torah … posthumously?

So Moses the servant of the LORD died there in the land of Moab, according to the word of the LORD.

 וַיָּמָת שָׁם מֹשֶׁה עֶבֶד-ה’, בְּאֶרֶץ מוֹאָב–עַל-פִּי ה’

Rashi

And Moses… died there: Is it possible that Moses died, and [then] wrote, “And Moses… died there”? But [the answer is:] Moses wrote up to that juncture, and Joshua wrote from then on. Says Rabbi Meir: But is it possible that the Torah Scroll would be lacking anything at all, and yet Scripture states (Deut. 31:26),“Take this Torah Scroll” [and Moses commanded this to the Levites; so, according to the above opinion, is it possible that the Torah Scroll referred to there was an incomplete one, up to the juncture of Moses’s death? This cannot be!] Rather, [continues Rabbi Meir, we must say that] The Holy One, blessed is He, dictated this [i.e., the verse “And Moses… died there”], and Moses wrote it in tears. — [B.B. 15b, Sifrei 33:34]

וימת שם משה: אפשר משה מת וכתב וימת שם משה, אלא עד כאן כתב משה, מכאן ואילך כתב יהושע. ר’ מאיר אומר אפשר ספר התורה חסר כלום, והוא אומר (לעיל לא, כו) לקוח את ספר התורה הזה, אלא הקב”ה אומר ומשה כותב בדמע

The image of Moses writing his own epitaph, in addition to not making it to the Promised land… is heart wrenching. on a human level But as students of the Bible, we cannot help but note that whichever Rabbinic opinion one accepts, either the Torah had at least one additional author besides Moses, or, at a minimum, the writing of this book continued even after the death of it’s author… whether his actual death or his literary death.

In a previous post I have referenced a legend in the Talmud, where the rabbis declare that the Torah is no longer in God’s hands and it is up to future generations to decide the law.  God smiles at this affront and says “My children have defeated (or eternalized) me!”

Now it is Moses turn to discover his eternity in the eternity of his Torah.

tagin

Rab Judah said in the name of Rab, When Moses ascended on high he found the Holy One, blessed be He, engaged in affixing coronets to the letters. Said Moses, ‘Lord of the Universe, Who stays Thy hand?’ He answered, ‘There will arise a man, at the end of many generations, Akiba ben Joseph by name, who will expound upon each tittle heaps and heaps of laws’. ‘Lord of the Universe’, said Moses; ‘permit me to see him’. He replied, ‘Turn thee round’. Moses went and sat down behind eight rows [in the cheap seats for the less gifted students ed] [and listened to the discourses upon the law]. Not being able to follow their arguments he was ill at ease, but when they came to a certain subject and the disciples said to the master ‘Whence do you know it?’ and the latter replied ‘It is a law given unto Moses at Sinai’ he was comforted. Thereupon he returned to the Holy One, blessed be He, and said, ‘Lord of the Universe, Thou hast such a man and Thou givest the Torah by me!’ He replied, ‘Be silent, for such is My decree’. (Babylonian Talmud, Menachot 29b)

  אמר רב יהודה אמר רב

בשעה שעלה משה למרום

. מצאו להקב”ה שיושב וקושר כתרים לאותיות

אמר לפניו

רבש”ע מי מעכב על ידך

אמר לו

אדם אחד יש שעתיד להיות

בסוף כמה דורות

ועקיבא בן יוסף שמו

שעתיד לדרוש על כל קוץ וקוץ

תילין תילין של הלכות

אמר לפניו

רבש”ע הראהו לי

אמר לו

חזור לאחורך

הלך וישב בסוף שמונה שורות

ולא היה יודע מה הן אומרים

תשש כחו

כיון שהגיע לדבר אחד

אמרו לו תלמידיו

רבי מנין לך

אמר להן

הלכה למשה מסיני

נתיישבה דעתו

אמר לפניו

רבונו של עולם

יש לך אדם כזה

ואתה נותן תורה על ידי

אמר לו

שתוק כך עלה במחשבה לפני

The term “a law from Moses at Sinai”   (הלכה למשה מסיני ) is used profusely in rabbinic literature, and unlike the phrase “The Torah is not in heaven”, “a law from Moses at Sinai”   has legal standing.  It is used whenever there is not a clear textual source for a law, but the contemporary rabbinic authority believes it to be binding.  In modern Hebrew one uses this expression to characterize a rule, belief or practice that is not to be questioned… Speaking of one’s boss: “What does he think … it’s a law from Moses at Sinai?”

For me, the power of this story is that it not only provides a justification for reinterpreting and modifying Jewish practice, but in so doing, it reveals the secret of the immortality of the Torah and Jewish learning.  By linking Moses with Akiba and putting them in the same study hall this magical aggadah showcases what is done on every page of Talmud, when multiple scholars, not to mention you the student, engage in a conversation bridging the constraints of time.  Biblical characters refute sages of the Ancient world who in turn have their words sliced and diced by medieval Rabbis.

At the end of the day… and it was the end of Moses’ day.. this story gives us all the secret of immortality and… for Moses, it gives him his promised land.

I am reminded of a scene in a movie starring Harrison Ford called Regarding Henry.  Henry, is a highly paid and ruthless corporate lawyer who gets shot in the head and needs to re-claim his identity and re-learn everything he ever knew.  In the scene, his  daughter is reading him a book and Henry is spellbound…. Henry can’t read a simple children’s book.  “Who taught you that?” asks Henry.  Replies his daughter…  “You did dad… you did.”

To follow in the footsteps of Moses, we need to teach our children (and friends) well… for it is in our teachings, questions and comments… that we live forever.

With this post I finish what I set out to do over three years ago… to write a post on every one of the weekly Torah portions… and with the help of my readers…. touch eternity.

Hazak Hazak Venitchazek

חֲזַק חֲזַק ונתחזק

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sweet new year

rosh hashanah and parshat ha’azinu

There’s a custom to dip apples, Challah and pretty much anything else into honey on Rosh Hashana… for a sweet new year.  It’s important that we begin the new year with transparency, so let’s come clean… the honey of “milk and honey” is not bee honey… it is fig honey.  And in the spirit of full disclosure, let’s note that bee honey’s kashrut bona fides is problematic.

If you pay attention to the Rashi on Deuteronomy 32: 13 you will note that honey, when mentioned in the bible is fig honey….

He made them ride upon the high places of the earth, that they would eat the produce of the field. He let them suck honey from a rock, and oil from the mighty part of the crag.

יַרְכִּבֵהוּ עַל בָּמֳתֵי אָרֶץ וַיֹּאכַל תְּנוּבֹת שָׂדָי וַיֵּנִקֵהוּ דְבַשׁ מִסֶּלַע וְשֶׁמֶן מֵחַלְמִישׁ צוּר

Says Rashi:

He let them suck honey from a rock: It once happened in [a place in Israel called] Sichni, that a man said to his son, “Bring me pressed figs from that barrel.” The son went [to the barrel, but instead of finding pressed figs,] he found honey flowing over its brim. The son retorted, “But this is [a barrel] of honey [not figs]!” His father responded, “Dig your hand deep into the barrel, and you will bring up pressed figs from it!” [Pressed figs are as hard as a rock. Thus, we have an illustration in the Land of Israel of “sucking honey from a rock.”]- [Sifrei 32:13]

ינקהו דבש מסלע  מעשה באחד שאמר לבנו בסיכני הבא לי קציעות מן החביות. הלך ומצא הדבש צף על פיה. אמר לו זו של דבש הוא. אמר לו השקע ידך לתוכה ואתה מעלה קציעות מתוכה

So if tradition wanted us to start off the new year with sweetness… why not good old fig honey from the land of milk and honey ? (Exodus 3: 8  אֶרֶץ זָבַת חָלָב וּדְבָשׁ)  Afterall… “sucking honey from a hard date, might even make a good sermon….

As for the presumed kashrut of bee honey….

The Talmud in Bekorot 7b is discussing the Mishnaic principle that: That which goes forth from the unclean is unclean and that which goes forth from the clean is clean”

An objection was raised.  Why did [the Sages] say that honey from bees (   דבש דבורימ   ) is permitted? One opinion suggests that the bees do not excrete honey as an animal does milk, but rather that bees just produce it: “Because the bees store it [from the sap of flowers and plants) up in their bodies but do not drain it from their bodies”  (literally “They (the bees) bring it into their bodies, but do not bring it out of their bodies”

devash

 

 

 

Clearly, not all the sages were satisfied with this explanation… “As Rav Yaakov says, saying “Honey, the torah ( רחמנא  “Rachmana” from “Rechem” womb meaning merciful) permits it (by Divine decree)..

So this sweetness that we begin the new year with, is a complex sweetness.  It is a sweetness that proclaims that sweet, pure and holy things can come from forbidden places.  It is a sweetness that proclaims that good can come from bad, that every dog has his day, that even the sinners among us, nay maybe, only the sinners among us, can produce the nectar of our God.  The bee honey produces sweetness from a hidden, secret place… an unexpected place… or as the great Shlomo Carlebach sang… “you never know, you never know, you never know..”

At the end of the day, the sweetness of the honey is permitted only by God’s decree.. God’s concession to mankind.  Our first taste of the sweetness of a new year is by the grace of God.. It’s as if God is smiling and reminding us with a wink … ‘Stolen waters are sweet, and bread eaten in secret is pleasant.’ (Proverbs 9: 17)

מַיִם-גְּנוּבִים יִמְתָּקוּ;    וְלֶחֶם סְתָרִים יִנְעָם

…. not such a bad message for a deviant jew such as I….

It’s nice to know that we not only start the year with this sweet touch of the perverse, but to know that, by tradition, children who learn the Hebrew aleph bet for the first time… learn it with this same sweet bee’s honey.

cheder honey 1

Rituals of Childhood: Jewish Acculturation in Medieval Europe ,  by Ivan G. Marcus

Sweet……

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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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