parshat vaera, exodus 8-9
Join Geoffrey Stern and Rabbi Adam Mintz recorded on January 19th 2023. The Rabbis learn from Moses the importance of Hakarta HaTov; recognizing good and showing gratitude even to inanimate objects. We explore this character trait as it relates to personal conduct and current Israeli politics.
Sefaria Source Sheet: www.sefaria.org/sheets/460393
Welcome to Madlik. My name is Geoffrey Stern and at Madlik we light a spark or shed some light on a Jewish Text or Tradition. Along with Rabbi Adam Mintz, we host Madlik Disruptive Torah on clubhouse every Thursday and share it as the Madlik podcast on your favorite platform. This week’s Torah portion is Vaera. The Rabbis learn from Moses the importance of Hakarta HaTov; recognizing good and showing gratitude, even to inanimate objects. We explore this character trait gratitude as it relates to personal conduct and current Israeli politics. So join us as we Thank the Donkey of the Messiah.
Well, Rabbi, welcome you are in Dubai, I’m in Tel Aviv. As I said in the intro, we are going to talk about gratitude, which is a wonderful subject to talk about. And it occurs in a very strange place. So in Exodus 7: 19 it says, And God said to Moses, Say to Aaron, take your rod and hold out your arm over the waters of Egypt. And this was the first plague, it was the plague of turning the Nile, which was the heartbeat of Egypt, into blood. In Exodus 8:1 we get to the second plague. And here it says, And God said to Moses, Say to Aaron, hold out your arm with the rod, over the rivers, the canals, and this was plague number two; the frogs. And then we get to the third plague in Exodus 8:12. And then now God said to Moses, Say to Aaron, hold out your rod and strike the dust of the earth, and it shall turn to lice throughout the land of Egypt. Now, besides being miraculous plagues, there is nothing particularly interesting about what I just read you. And if we didn’t have the sages, we might just pass over this and move right on to plague number four. But starting with plague number four, going all the way to the last of the 10 plagues, all of the plagues are executed by Moses, and the rabbis were very quick to notice that the first three plagues were not executed by Moses, but they were executed by Aaron, at God’s request. And so they were struck by that, and I say kudos to them. But how they answered it is kind of really surprising. They could have gone in many directions, don’t you think, Rabbi Adam?
They sure could have it’s a fantastic, you know, rabbinic tradition about what makes the first three plagues different. And you’re right, it’s kind of a typical rabbinic thing to notice. You know, the difference when everything is the same, the rabbis noticed the difference.
And, you know, if I was keeping to the narrative, I think it would be very easy to say that throughout the narrative last week, Moses says, אני לא איש דברים. I am not a man of words. Moses is portrayed as somebody who is very shy, you could very well come up with an explanation, that until Moses got the hang of it, until he warmed up, God said, Let Aaron do it. But what seems also unique about the answer that the rabbi’s give is, there’s only one kind of string that poses the question, and there is really, as far as I can tell one answer that they give. And that’s kind of rare that you have that kind of unanimity. The answer I’ll give, and then I’d love your comments, is that Rashi in Exodus 7:19 says, “Say unto Aaron”, because the river had protected Moses when he was cast into it, therefore it was not smitten by him, neither at the plague of blood, nor at that of frogs, but it was smitten by Aaron. And then in Exodus 8:12 he says, that again, quoting “say unto Aaron”, he says the dust did not deserve to be smitten by Moses, because it had protected him when he slew the Egyptian for he hid him in the sand, and it was therefore smitten by Aaron. So he quotes a singular Midrash which says in the name of Rabbi Tarfon. Who said that, again, the dust protected Moses. If you recall, he struck the Egyptian slave master, who was beating up his two fellow Jews, he looked here, he looked there, and he buried him in the sand and he escaped. And because of that, we are told he could not strike these inanimate objects, because they saved him. What do you make of it, Rabbi?
First, the first interesting thing is that the three verses have the same punch-line that they were done by Aaron. But the explanation is different, I think we need to notice that the first two has to do with water and water protected Moses. The third it has to do with the dust, and the dust protected Moses. Though, it’s kind of funny to say the dust protected Moses. Because the dust didn’t really protect Moses; the dust was just the way in which Moses buried the Egyptian so that nobody would see. Now the truth of the matter is that somebody did see. Because the Torah says he went out the next day, and two people were fighting, and they were: “are you going to do to me like you did to the Egyptian?”. So clearly, people saw. So, to me, the third example of the dust, is actually a stretch, the idea of the water makes a lot of sense, the dust is kind of once you were already, going down that path, they kind of looked for a way in which the dust helped him out.
So I, as you were talking, I started looking at the Hebrew to see what exact language was used to describe “protected”, and the word it uses is הֵגֵן Hagen. And because in the intro, I said, I promised we will get to Israeli politics, you can’t but miss the word הֵגֵן is to protect in the same way as the Haganah was the early troops of Israel was to protect and the modern day Haganah Tzava L’Yisrael (Israel Defense Forces), so they protected him, but as you point out, they didn’t really do anything. I’m not sure I caught the nuance between the water and the dust. Because in both cases, the water and the dust were just that…. they were water and dust, you know, they were passive. And they were just there. And from a tradition that doesn’t believe in worshipping inanimate objects that has almost a single refrain, a one-liner, a broken record about idol worship, and that is don’t worship something of stone and clay that you made a few seconds ago. It does strike me as a little strange that here, Moses, and really, as one of the commentaries points out, and this is kind of fascinating to me. It doesn’t say that Moses said to Aaron to take over. In all three of the verses, it says God commanded that Aaron execute this, and the Birkat Asher, who’s a fairly recent commentary says as a result, we can learn that Hakerat haTov, which is kind of the universal word used to describe this particular message. Recognizing good gratitude is not simply a good character trait. It is a commandment from God. Now, I don’t think he’s really saying it’s one of the 613 commandments, but he’s certainly saying that the Torah goes out of its way to say that this is a command from God. But it is odd that we are thanking an inanimate object for us Jews that are so adverse to thanking inanimate objects.
I would agree with you. I mean, you know, sometimes we exaggerate to get support. And that, of course, that needs to be pointed out thanking inanimate objects. But I want to tell you, gratitude is so important. Look how far the Torah goes to express gratitude. It doesn’t really mean that you need to express gratitude to inanimate objects, but it’s over-exaggerated, did that teach us how important it is?
You know, I totally agree. It’s kind of like a Rorshaw Test . I mean, it’s funny, we’re going to come across some verses, where it’s pretty clear that the message of the Torah is gratitude. I don’t think anyone would say that it’s clear from these verses that that is the message here. But nonetheless, and maybe it’s because you know, you talk about where the rabbi’s come up with their explanations. I’m almost imagining that just as you and I kind of both know, this is the traditional reason. I’m just wondering whether this was something that was passed down from father to son from mother to daughter. That yeah, that’s the reason why because there’s such a sense of unanimity. It’s so far away from the simple meaning of the text. It’s kind of not even there, that it’s an amazing Rorshaw test …. if we’re going to make a case that Hackarat HaTov, that gratitude; that recognizing one’s sources, recognizing those things that helped one get through the quagmire of life is something that’s very basic to Judaism. I think that the fact that there’s unanimity coming about some kind of verses that just simply feature Aaron kind of tells us as much about us as much as about the rabbi’s as it does about the text that we’re looking at.
I would agree with that. That’s so interesting that you say that we went from kind of father to son or mother to daughter, meaning that these kinds of traditions, which are so outside the simple meaning of the text, these were things that people grew up with the same way we grew up with this story, we went to school, we went to yeshiva, and this is what we were taught. It goes all the way back. This is the way they explain the story. So yes, understand that for most people in the ancient world, these stories were oral, yes, they had a written Torah. But these stories were oral. What do I mean, they were oral, most people couldn’t read. And even the people who could read had no access to books, like there could have been a written Torah, but no one had access to it. And so it took a long time, it takes a whole year to write a Torah. Nobody has access to these books. So these are stories, Geoffrey and parents tell their children around the table. And you know, and these are the kinds of things some of them stick and some of them don’t, this is the kind of thing that sticks the same way we remember it from year to year. This is the kind of thing that sticks. So that’s why there is unanimity here. Because these are those kinds of stories. It’s not Peshat, it’s not literal, where you can argue I can tell you this is the literal explanation, or this is the literal explanation. No, it’s a tale and tales generally are passed down just like this.
I couldn’t agree more. So now, let’s go to some verses where the message of gratitude is a little more obvious. So in Deuteronomy 23: 8, and this relates to our story in a way, it says You shall not abhor an Edomite for such is your kin כִּ֥ י אָ חִ֖ יךָ ה֑ וּא, you shall not abhor an Egyptian, for you were a stranger in that land כִּ י־ גֵ֖ר הָ יִ֥י תָ בְ אַ רְ צֽ וֹ, and Rashi says: Thou shalt not abhor an Egyptian. And he adds the word. And we’ve discussed this before מִ כֹּ ל וָ כֹ ל, utterly, you can utterly hate them, although they cast your male children into the river. And what is the reason that you shall not abhor him utterly, because they were your hosts in time of need, during Joseph’s reign in the neighboring country suffered from famine, therefore, although they sinned against you do not utterly abhor him. And I think in this verse, in this pasuk, you cannot think of a reason other than recognizing, admitting the good of the Egyptians, even though they’ve done some terrible things to us. I mean, that takes this to a whole new level. But at least you can see that Rashi is not stretching here, in terms of that’s the kind of crux of this verse, you know, the Edomites might be related to you somehow, but the Egyptians, they took you in when there was a famine, and that you always have to remember and be grateful for it.
So I think that you talked about inanimate objects. Actually, the Egyptians are the opposite. Not only are they animate, are they people, but actually they’re bad people. And even though they’re bad people, we still need to be grateful because they did something nice to us. So it’s interesting, the here were thanking inanimate objects, and there we’re thanking bad people. But if somebody does something good to you, you need in fact you need to be grateful. That’s also an extreme of gratitude, it seems to me and we can look at the other verses you have have to quote. But it seems to be that when it comes to gratitude, because gratitude is so important, therefore, this there’s an exaggeration element in the examples that the rabbis bring.
You know, it doesn’t say so but I think and correct me if I’m wrong, there’s almost an implication here, that it’s not simply you can’t abhor them. But somehow it might have to affect not only the way you think, but maybe the way you act, it’s, it’s hard to say, but certainly the two examples that we have are both surprising. Inanimate objects that you should have any sort of relation with them. And of course, the answer there would typically be, it’s not the sand, it’s not the water, it’s you, you need to develop that muscle, you have to exercise that muscle of gratitude. But here we’re talking about not just any enemy, we’re talking about the Egyptians were quoting this while we’re in the middle of the Exodus story, and it cannot not, but impact us, that you still have to remember the good parts of them. And it seems to imply that somehow that might even affect how you act, I don’t know. But clearly, it’s fascinating. You know, you think of, of Christianity, turning the other cheek, so to speak. But here definitely, there is this sense of you need to exercise this muscle of gratitude to the extent that you can even find something to thank something, to appreciate something to be thankful for in your enemy. And that’s kind of powerful.
That’s great. Now, let me just say turning the other cheek is the opposite. turning the other cheek means you have to turn the other cheek, even to one who doesn’t deserve it. Our whole point is you have to express gratitude to someone or something who deserves it. The Christians say, you have to be good to people, even if they don’t deserve it. That’s a whole different religious value.
I get what you’re saying. But clearly, in the middle of this, it says, even though they threw your babies into the water to kill them, they are an enemy. But it’s saying that you can parse it. And I think what you’re saying is true that you cannot overlook the injustice and the bad of the Egyptians. You have to be able to recognize the good nonetheless because of that, but not whitewash it and I think turning the other cheek you’re probably correct has more of a sense of just forget about the bad and that’s not just and that’s not right. So, the Talmud in Baba Kama says the following Rava said to Rabba bar Mari, from where is this matter derive where people say, if there is a well that you drank from, do not throw a stone into it. בירא דשתית מיניה לא תשדי ביה קלא
Rabba bar Mari said to him that the source is as it is written: “You shall not abhor an Edomite, for he is your brother; you shall not abhor an Egyptian, because you were a stranger in his land” (Deuteronomy 23:8).. So this is a fascinating little pitgam; a little expression, a well that you drank from do not throw a stone into it. Is that simply gratitude? Is there a sense here also of precedence; of chronology? You drank from it yesterday. You might not need to drink from it any more. But the good that it gave you perseveres, it seems to me this is kind of adding a little bit of texture to the discussion.
So that’s really interesting that the question here is, will you need it in the future? Maybe, maybe it’s not exactly gratitude. Maybe it’s, planning for the future. You know, when you use a well what will happen in the future., but you’re wondering whether that’s the same message or a different message. I think that’s fair. I don’t think you can know the answer.
But it adds it adds some texture. So, I think part of gratitude, the flip side of gratitude is obviously ingratitude; an ingrate. And I think I can make the case Rabbi, here on Madlik that in a certain sense in Judaism, Original Sin was ingratitude. So where do I get this from? If you look at Genesis 3:12 Adam and Eve have eaten from the apple, of course, Eve takes it first and gives it to husband to eat. God comes through the Garden of Eden asks where Adam is? Hineni, “I’m here”. And he says, What have you done? I gave you one commandment. What did you do? In Genesis 3:12. Adam said, “The woman you put at my side, she gave me of the tree and I ate” עִ מָּ דִ֔ י הָֽ אִ שָּׁ ה֙ אֲ שֶׁ֣ ר נָ תַ֣ תָּ ה. She was the one and of course Rashi says here he showed his ingratitude כָּ פַ ר בַּ טּוֹ בָ ה. He uses this language of Kofer which …. when we say that the wicked son says “You” we said he is “Kofer B’Ikar” he rejects a primary principle. Even in Arabic, Kofer is an apostate, an infidel. A total rejection of everything that is right. And here he was kofer b’tovah, and the Rashi gets this as he gets everything that he says from the Midrash or from the Talmud. And this comes from the Talmud in Avodah Zara 5a and the Gomorrah is talking about times where the Jewish people were had ingratitude, such as when they complained about the manna from heaven, you know, they go it every day, and complained it doesn’t taste so good anymore. And it says, The Sages taught with regard to the verse: “Who would give that they had such a
heart as this always, to fear Me, and keep all My commandments, that it might be good for them, and with their children forever” (Deuteronomy 5:26). Kivi Yachol (as if to say) God is dreaming of what would happen if the Jewish people were really good and appreciated everything that he did. And he says, And Moses said to the Jewish people, you are Ingrates, children of ingrates! כפויי טובה בני כפויי טובה who are you children of you are children of the original Adam, the original man who after sinning and eating from the Tree of Knowledge said to God, the woman you gave me made me sin. So here we have Kafui b’Tov, the opposite of Hakarat hatov; of gratitude. Ingratitude is the original sin! That might have been the straw that broke the camel’s back. What do you think, Rabbi?
That’s so interesting that you connect the two cases to one another. You’re right. I mean, I don’t know whether this was the straw that broke the camel’s back. But there definitely seems to be a connection between all of these cases. I liked that a lot.
Well, you know, we don’t know exactly why they were punished. We all know that if our kids do something wrong. Half of it is how they own up to it. Half of it is what happens after the crime. We know that Adam and Eve weren’t supposed to eat of the tree. But what happened if he had been a little more diplomatic when God caught him in the act? Certainly, this didn’t help his case. Whether it was the straw that broke the camel’s back, you’re right, we have we have no clue. But it is kind of fascinating.
That how you read it. You know that’s what’s so beautiful about it is you could read it anyway. And that’s the way you’re reading it. I have no response other than I like that read. I can’t tell you you’re right. But I liked that reading.
Well, thank you. That means a lot to me. So, we’re talking today about gratitude. And this is a Jewish podcast. And I started to think about what, makes us Jewish and realized that it might be this sense of graditude. I started thinking about Yehudi and Yehudah. If you look at Genesis 29 It says that when Leah conceived again and bore a son and declared this time, I will praise God. Therefore, she named him Judah, then she stopped bearing. So the word Yehudah comes from the word same word as Modeh like in Modeh Ani or Modim Anachnu Loch. We Thank God.
Todah, of course.
Hodu L’shem, Ki Tov.
The most popular word that you’re using this week in Israel is the same word: Todah
Todah Rabah! So, in Berakot 7a it says Rabbi Yoḥanan said in the name of Rabbi Shimon ben Yohai: From the day the Holy One, Blessed be He, created the world, no one thanked the Holy One, Blessed be He, until Leah came and thanked Him, as it is stated:, and he quotes our verse. So now, this is fascinating, because not only is this sense of being thankful, clearly important, (you could argue that Jews are those who are [or need to be] thankful to God. Not only is ingratitude the source of sin, but here are poor God Kiviyachol, God has to wait until Leah has her fourth child before He gets thanked for anything! It’s almost a piece of Talmud that has you feeling for the Kadosh Baruch Hu (the Holy One Blessed be He). And I think if you just took this as an introduction to the Torah, and then read the Torah, from this perspective, in terms of being grateful to God, you would go through a lot of it and say, Boy, oh, boy, whether it’s mankind or the Jewish people, we certainly don’t give enough thanks, do we?
I would say that that is correct. And I think going back to the beginning, I think that that’s why the rabbi’s exaggerate the need for gratitude. It’s because human beings tend not to be grateful enough and that the rabbis have to exaggerate the need.
I think absolutely. And I think that if you look at the Torah from this lens it changes everything.
And let’s talk a second about gratitude, you know, we’ve given a few examples till now, it’s not simply gratitude when you give me something I am grateful. But there’s an element of moda, of Hoda, of Hicar a Tov… of recognizing it. And this gets back to our first example of an inanimate object, that inanimate object can do nothing with your gratitude. But the recognition on your part, people talk about many of the laws that we have like sending away the mother bird before the child, there is this, I said it before I’ll say it again, this muscle that we need to exercise of recognizing, from where comes our current situation. Thankful, recognizing it. There’s in the Talmud, it talks about Modeh B’mikzat, Acknowledging a little. When you’re in a litigation, just recognizing that maybe there is something to what the other said, you know, we’re coming to the end, I think this concept of Jews, and we find this in the Talmud all the time, quoting their sources, gets to what I was touching upon before, which is this antecedence. There’s this. What is the provenance? What is the history of an idea? It’s so important in Jewish choices, there’s a whole monologue that I quote in our source sheet titled: “Why Jews quote”, but we do quote, that’s why I put together a source sheet every week, because if we Rabbi were just talking about things that entered into our head, it would be meaningless, but we quote our sources, we recognize our sources. We’re thankful for our sources. It is absolutely very Jewish.
Very, very Jewish. So why don’t we finish the last two minutes… you said we’d talk about Israeli politics…, let’s talk about Israeli politics.
Fantastic. So there is in Israel today, we have what I would call hyper Zionists and ultra-Orthodox. And the hyper Zionists, whether they were a Kipa Seruga, a knitted yarmulke, or whether they are Haredim, they looked at the last election as between the Jews meaning themselves and the Israelis, they look at secular society, whether it is the Hagana (the IDF) who is protecting them, whether it is early Zionists, who were totally secular, who founded the state, [or the secular population] and in a sense, they ignore them (if not patronize them). And there is a line of thought there was actually a book written about 10 years ago, called Hamoro shel Mashiach, the donkey of the Messiah. We all know that picture of the Messiah riding in on his donkey. What they did is they quoted Rav Kook, one of the great thinkers of religious Zionism and Rav Kook looked at the early Zionists who were clearly very secular and he had to explain to his co-religionists how anything good could come out of them. And in the process, he developed a philosophy that we, the Messianic Jews, the Jews that are going to bring the final redemption, are riding on what the secular Jews created. You can call it a Hamor, a donkey, or he actually had a play on words where he called it החומר, the material, we’re getting back to the sand now, but the material that the land of Israel is built on. And I don’t want to get into a deep philosophical discussion about what I agree with, or what I don’t agree with (with regard to the recently elected Israeli government). But one thing that I think comes clear from our parsha is that one, we are taught to recognize our antecedents, we are taught to recognize what came before us and the importance; and more to the point we have to have gratitude. And if we don’t, we don’t know who we are. And I think whether that was the intent of Rav Kook, or whether it is a misinterpretation of Rav Kook, my one blaring critique of what is happening in the world of ultra-religious Zionism and Ultra-Orthodox Judaism today is a lack of recognition and of Hakarat HaTov, for the antecedents of the Jewish state. And I believe everything begins there.
I think that’s a really good lesson to end with. So, what we wish everybody Shabbat Shalom from Israel from Dubai next week, we’ll do another Lunch & learn the same time works for me and Geoffrey I hope it works for you. And hopefully we’ll see everybody.
Fantastic. We will do a lunch and learn next week. And the main message of today is for God’s sake, be thankful. Be thankful of what we have. Recognize who we are, and that we stand on the shoulders of others. There’s a history there. Shabbat shalom, whether you’re in Dubai, Morocco, or Israel, Shabbat Shalom!
Sefaria Source Sheet: www.sefaria.org/sheets/460393
Listen to last year’s Vaera Podcast: Holy Crap
First Fruits – First Prayers
parshat ki tavo – Deuteronomy 26
Join Geoffrey Stern and Rabbi Adam Mintz recorded on clubhouse on September 15th 2022. As we approach the high prayer season we trace the evolution of the oldest prayer preserved in the Torah. The First Fruits Declaration, a once iconic prayer made by a farmer on Shavuot; the Harvest Festival. We see how this prayer was censored, repurposed and reinterpreted up until today and wonder what license it provides to us.
Welcome to Madlik. My name is Geoffrey Stern and at Madlik we light a spark or shed some light on a Jewish Text or Tradition. Along with Rabbi Adam Mintz, we host Madlik Disruptive Torah on clubhouse every Thursday at 8:00pm Eastern and share it as the Madlik podcast on your favorite platform. As we approach the high prayer season, we trace the evolution of one of the oldest prayers preserved in the Torah. The Bikurim or First-Fruits Declaration, made by a farmer on Shavuot; the Harvest Festival. We explore how this prayer was censored, re-purposed and re-interpreted and wonder what license it provides to us. So grab a bowl of fruit and a siddur and join us for First Fruits – First Prayers.
Well, welcome back another week. And as we said, in the pre-show, the High Holidays are coming, they’re coming. They’re coming. They’re not waiting for us. And that’s what I meant when I referred to the “prayer season”, because isn’t that actually what it is, I mean, there’s no time of year that we pray more, that we are engaged with our liturgy. And before we get to the exact text from our parsha, that I want to discuss, and the Parsha is Ki Tavo in Deuteronomy, it just seems to me, Rabbi that Deuteronomy is the source of many prayers, much of our liturgy, I mean, the most famous Shema Yisrael is in Deuteronomy 6: 4. Last week, while not liturgy, we talked about the paragraph that says that you have to remember what Amalek did to you. And I referenced that there is a whole Shabbat called Shabbat Zachor, that we focused just on saying that little chapter in public, and some say, that’s one of the rare occasions that literally by Torah law, we have to make that declaration. So am I wrong here? There’s little avoid liturgy comes from the Chumash, The Five Books of Moses itself, but that that does, there’s a lot in Deuteronomy.
Adam Mintz 02:34
So you’re absolutely right. And the fact that Shema, not only the paragraph of Shema. But the second paragraph of the Shema Vehaya Im Shemoa וְהָיָ֗ה אִם־שָׁמֹ֤עַ also comes from the book of Deuteronomy (11: 13), I think the reason is probably a simple reason. And that is Deuteronomy is the kind of the summary, the review of the Torah. So, it has paragraphs that have a lot of different ideas all together. Like in the paragraph of Shema, you have belief in God, you have study Torah, you have Tefillin and you have Mezuzah. Yeah, you have all these things, you have reward and punishment. It’s all there in one paragraph, you don’t have that in the rest of Torah. So actually, in terms of prayers, and in terms of kind of covering all the bases, Deuteronomy is a great place to get prayers from.
Geoffrey Stern 03:22
And you know, I would kind of add, and I’ve said this before, that, modern scholarship believes that Deuteronomy was probably written closer to when Ezra came back from the exile, we’re talking about a period where there was maybe no temple anymore, the synagogues were starting to be formed. But even if you don’t buy into higher criticism the whole angst of Deuteronomy is when you come into the land. And certainly, coming into the land, the central Mishkan was over. And there was this beginning of what we could see as decentralized Judaism. And certainly, it had a prophetic sense of there would be a time where Jews would need to pray and our religion would change. So, I think from all different perspectives, there is no question that Deuteronomy is a great source for later liturgy. I think we’re on the same page there.
Adam Mintz 04:28
Good. I think that’s 100%. Right. And I think you know, that just makes the point stronger, but you know, whatever the explanation is just making the point is interesting, right, just realizing that so much of our prayer service and the Shema itself comes from Deuteronomy is a super interesting point.
Geoffrey Stern 04:46
Great. So, we’re going to start with one of the most iconic little prayers; declarations if you will, certainly something that we’ll see ended up in our liturgy by way of the Haggadah. It is a farmer’s declaration of bringing the first fruits of the harvest to the temple. And it starts in Deuteronomy 26: 3 it says, You shall go to the priest in charge at that time and say to him, I acknowledge this day before your God that I have entered the land that God swore to our fathers to assign us. The priest shall take the basket from your hand, and set it down in the front of the altar of your God. You shall then recite as follows before your god, my father was a fugitive Aramean he went down to Egypt with meager numbers and sojourned there. But there he became a great and very populous nation. The Egyptians dealt harshly with us and oppressed us they imposed heavy labor upon us. If this sounds familiar to any of us, it’s because it is quoted in the Haggadah. And what the Hagaddah does is literally take every one of the words that I just said, … when it says the Egyptians dealt harshly with us. When it says that we became לְג֥וֹי גָּד֖וֹל עָצ֥וּם וָרָֽב when it says they oppressed us וַיְעַנּ֑וּנוּ it has a standing commentary, which actually becomes the most fundamental core part of the whole Haggadah-Seder moment. And it says, We cried to God, the God of our ancestors, and God heard our plea. God heard our plea. You’ll see in the Passover Haggadah, it says, When God heard our plea, he understood what they were doing to us. Maybe he was separating men from women. It goes into this running commentary in the Haggadah, he saw our plight, our misery and our oppression. God freed us from Egypt by a mighty hand, you remember in the Haggadah talks about what does it mean by בְּיָ֤ד חֲזָקָה֙ by an outstretched arm וּבִזְרֹ֣עַ נְטוּיָ֔ה and awesome powers and by signs and portents…. So, this is as far as the Haggadah goes, but the literary piece the parsha of Bikkurim continues, bringing us to this place, וַיְבִאֵ֖נוּ אֶל־הַמָּק֣וֹם הַזֶּ֑ה and giving us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. Wherefore I now bring the first fruits of soil which you God have given me, you shall leave it before your God and bow low before your God, and you shall enjoy together with the Levite and the stranger in your midst, and all the bounty that your God has bestowed upon you and your household. And then if you were looking at this text in a Sefer Torah, there is an end of literary piece, the end of Parashat Bikkurim, we have finished. So this clearly is a very old piece. It is in a sense quoted, you are literally quoting what the farmer says in front of the Cohen. So Rabbi, how many prayers like this do we have that are verbatim? And what does it mean to you?
Adam Mintz 08:48
Well, you said a mouthful here. The first interesting thing is that this is probably the earliest prayer that we have, which means that this was said as a prayer. In the time of the Torah, when they brought the first fruits, they recited this as a prayer. We just a minute ago, talked about Shema. Now Shema in the Torah is not written as a prayer, meaning that Moshe tells the people to believe in God and to put on tefillin and to put up a mezuzah, but he doesn’t say recite this every day. It wasn’t a prayer. We took it to become a prayer. But this actually was a prayer. And that’s really interesting. It’s interesting because what you see is that we have prayers, from the very beginning of time we have prayers, there are very few prayers in the Torah. There’s one another example of a prayer when Miriam, Moshe’s sister is sick. So Moshe says to God וַיִּצְעַ֣ק מֹשֶׁ֔ה אֶל־הֹ’ לֵאמֹ֑ר אֵ֕-ל נָ֛א רְפָ֥א נָ֖א לָֽהּ (Numbers 12: 13) , God, please cure her. It’s the shortest prayer in history. But that’s an example of a prayer and here we have another prayer. So, it’s interesting that the Torah recognizes the value of prayers, and even gives us some prayers that we actually recite.
Geoffrey Stern 10:10
You know, you saying that reminds me of the key prayers of the High Holidays? הֹ’ ׀ הֹ’ אֵ֥-ל רַח֖וּם וְחַנּ֑וּן אֶ֥רֶךְ אַפַּ֖יִם וְרַב־חֶ֥סֶד וֶאֱמֶֽת. This is something we’re going to start saying Selichot on Saturday night. These prayers are not only old, but because they’re old. They almost seem to have power, don’t they? If you really can count on your fingers, whether their prayers like this one, or whether like the Shema we’re quoting verses, I mean, some of the other ones that come to mind is with Ballam מַה־טֹּ֥בוּ אֹהָלֶ֖יךָ יַעֲקֹ֑ב (Numbers 24: 5). We start our service every day with that we quote, How goodly are the tents of Jacob”, it’s maybe written over the ark. We have the prayer that maybe parents say on their children on Friday night, יְשִֽׂמְךָ֣ אֱ-לֹהִ֔ים כְּאֶפְרַ֖יִם וְכִמְנַשֶּׁ֑ה (Genesis 48: 20) which is what Joseph said. But you’re absolutely right. This is, along with רְפָ֥א נָ֖א לָֽהּ which is with Miriam is one of the few places where, at least in the Chumash, The Five Books of Moses, you have actually texts of prayers.
Adam Mintz 11:27
Yeah, that is interesting in the history of prayer. That’s interesting that prayer is biblical. That’s not the prayers we say. The prayers we say are basically rabbinic. The Amidah that we recite is not found in the Torah, the Amidah that we recite the rabbi’s made up. So, we generally think of prayer as being rabbinic. But the truth is a prayer is biblical. There is a biblical source for prayer.
Geoffrey Stern 11:51
I mean, I think if you look at for instance, the Shemoneh Esrey, the Eighteen Benedictions, the Amidah, the Silent Prayer, a lot of stuff is taken from Psalms, Psalms is a rich source of if not prayers, but at least phrases or expressions; ways of talking about the, you know, healing people or making them stand up straight or reviving them in the morning. But here, actually, it’s very few times that in our liturgy, we have stuff directly from the Five Books of Moses. But there are a few cases. And this is a very, very old prayer, no question about it.
Adam Mintz 12:36
Right that so so that’s, that’s the beginning of what’s interesting here. Now, the text of the prayer is also interesting, because what the prayer is, is it’s kind of a review of Jewish history, to allow us to be grateful to God, recognizing not only that God gave us new fruits, but that God gave us everything beginning with taking us out of Egypt.
Geoffrey Stern 13:00
I mean, isn’t it amazing if you step back for a second, and the two prayers that we’ve identified as biblical and old, one had to do with healing, and the other one had to do with thanks and gratitude. And what more can you talk about thanks Then the harvest? You know, I think of he who sows in tears reaps in joy הַזֹּרְעִ֥ים בְּדִמְעָ֗ה בְּרִנָּ֥ה יִקְצֹֽרוּ (Psalms 26: 5), There is nothing more primal than the thankfulness and it comes all the way to the Puritans and the Thanksgiving festival and Sukkot that we’re going to have. You can almost track the three major festivals, the pilgrimage festivals, all around agriculture, which ultimately becomes that we are dependent on the earth we’re dependent on rain, we’re dependent on God. And the flip side of that is we are so thankful when we have a basket of fruit that we can we can bring to God to thank Him or Her.
Adam Mintz 14:09
Right. I think all that all that is exactly right. I think that’s, that’s wonderful here, and then the use of this prayer in the Seder also needs to be discussed. Why do we choose this verse? To make the question better? Let me ask it like this. The Seder on Passover, remembers the Exodus from Egypt. If we’re going to choose verses that talk about the Exodus from Egypt, why don’t we take verses from the book of Exodus that talk about the Exodus from Egypt? It seems kind of ridiculous that we choose verses from the book of Deuteronomy that talk about the Exodus from Egypt. We might as well choose to have the original story I might as well you know if I’m if I’m reading the story, I don’t know what your story the story of of the you know, of the I have the respect that they’re paying to the Queen. I might as well read it as it’s happening now. I’m not interested 10 years from now and they write a book about it, they IV the story in the moment is actually more accurate and more reflective of the way people are thinking later on, you kind of just have a perspective. So why do we choose the verses from Devarim? from Deuteronomy? And not the verses from Exodus?
Geoffrey Stern 15:24
So that is an amazing question. And I think that also will give us an insight into some prayers of the High Holidays. So, one of the commentaries on the Haggadah, that that I love, he claims he says that the Mishna wanted that …. and by the way, the Mishna in Pesachim actually dictates that these verses are said in Pesachim 10: 4 it says that, when teaching his son about the Exodus, he begins with the Jewish people’s disgrace, and concludes with their glory, מַתְחִיל בִּגְנוּת וּמְסַיֵּם בְּשֶׁבַח, וְדוֹרֵשׁ מֵאֲרַמִּי אוֹבֵד אָבִי, and he expounds from the passage an Aramean tried to destroy my father, which is our verse with a new translation we’ll find out in a second, the declaration one was cites when presenting his first foods at the temple. And here the Mishnah says until he concludes explaining the entire section. So the Mishna says you have to read it, עַד שֶׁיִּגְמֹר כֹּל הַפָּרָשָׁה כֻלָּהּ. The Mishna, in fact says to answer your question, not why, but that you have to say this whole section about bringing the first fruits on the night of the Seder from beginning to end. But the commentaries and modern scholarship, argue that the Mishna wanted to find a text and integrated commentary that was well known to the Jewish masses. And when we say well known to the Jewish masses, remember, there were many centuries, generations of Jews who did not even speak Hebrew, they spoke Aramaic, they spoke other languages. Because this prayer of giving the Bikkurim was so iconic, these scholars argue, we pick the one that people knew they not only knew the words in Hebrew, but they also kind of knew in a singsong way, the commentary on it. So, there was a great scholar named David Tzvi. Hoffman, who wrote a book called The First Mishna. And he actually uses the Haggadah and the way it goes from וּבִזְרֹעַ נְטוּיָה, and it gives an explanation, בְּיָד חֲזָקָה and gives an explanation. He says, this is a prime example of Midrash Halacha, and the earliest use of reading the written law and adding ongoing explanatory Midrash and interpretations. So, his answer to your question is, there are many other verses that talk about the exodus of Egypt, that might do it in a more poetic way, in a more discursive way, but the rabbi’s of the Mishna picked these because as we started by saying, it was an old prayer that everybody knew. And clearly, this is a prayer unlike the Shema that is not household to every Jew nowadays. But there was a time …. you knew The Bikkurim, and that we could we could talk about…
Adam Mintz 18:50
Well, everybody had first fruits, everybody had a harvest. We don’t we don’t live in agricultural life anymore. But if everybody lived in agricultural life, you would all have it.
Geoffrey Stern 19:00
so so again, I think that it’s fascinating that when we look at prayers, and some prayers are so well known, and we don’t even remember the reason that we know them. I mean, I think, and I’d love your take on this. We come to services on the night of Yom Kippur, the holiest night of the holiest day of the year. And this service is named after a prayer that we all sing in the same tune, and we probably all get choked up over; it’s called Kol Nidrei. And it is basically a prayer that has to do with a legal formula for canceling your oaths that you made. And we might not even know the meaning of the words we might not know the meanings of a lot of words of prayers, but this one has lived way beyond its expiration date, but it still has all the power and the meaning. And that’s a fascinating insight, I think into prayer.
Adam Mintz 20:00
Yeah, that is an interesting point, the power of the prayer and you raise the power of the tune of Kol Nidrei. You know exactly what its history is not clear. The key is that everybody has been doing it. Right. And everybody sings the same tune. And that’s what’s so powerful.
Geoffrey Stern 20:22
Do you know if the Sefardim, the Mizrachim also have the same tune?
Adam Mintz 20:26
I don’t know if they have Kol Nidre, I think Kol Nidrei is an Ashkenazim thing?
Geoffrey Stern 20:31
Well, it’s certainly for the for the Ashkenazi him. And again, it’s a little bit like the beginning of the Seder, where we sing the Seder itself. It’s like singing the table of contents of a book. You’re right, it is the music. But I think the rabbis and the scholars who say that the reason Bikkurim was bought into the Haggadah are touching upon this aspect of some of our prayers, that a prayer can be more than the words that are written in it becomes like a mantra, it becomes something that we share with each other. And it goes beyond the meaning of the words or the original context. And I think that if we stopped right here, that would be a fascinating lesson about the power of prayer, or how prayer is used, or what its power on us is, don’t you think?
Adam Mintz 21:28
I think that that that really is a very interesting point. Now, I’ll just compare for a minute Kol Nidrei. And this prayer for the first fruit, you know, this prayer for the first fruit is biblical Kol. Nidrei is actually in Aramaic, right? I mean, it’s not even in Hebrew. So, some of the power is and you know, Aramaic is like English. That was the language that people spoke. So, you know, sometimes prayer in the vernacular is what’s so powerful. And obviously, we have that, especially in the kind of in the more liberal movements that you know, prayer in the vernacular has a certain power to it.
Geoffrey Stern 22:12
Yeah. And so there’s definitely this issue of lack of language. And those, those scholars who say that Bikkurim was something that people who didn’t speak Hebrew and Aramaic was their language, still new because it was so popular. That’s one message and what you said a second ago, which is to walk into a synagogue, where most of the services for the rest of the day are going to be in Hebrew, and you see something you hear something that’s in Aramaic is welcoming the codices in Aramaic. So the language is an important part. So I said in the beginning, that this was going to be a history of the censorship, and the reinterpretation of a prayer. So when I read the verses in in Deuteronomy itself, and I said, אֲרַמִּי֙ אֹבֵ֣ד אָבִ֔י. The translation was my father was a fugitive, Aramean. Oved is typically translated as someone who is lost and we’ll get a little bit into it for a second. In the Haggadah, however, it introduces before we get into this first fruits declaration, it says as follows and those of you who have been at a Seder will remember וְהִיא שֶׁעָמְדָה לַאֲבוֹתֵינוּ וְלָנוּ, and this is what stood for our ancestors for us, since it is not only one person that has stood against us to destroy us, but rather each generation they stand against us to destroy us. But the וְהַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא מַצִּילֵנוּ מִיָּדָם, God rescues us. So that’s the introduction to this prayer of the farmer. And then lo and behold, it changes the meaning. And in the Haggadah, it says, An Aramean was destroying my father Avood. I guess, when Esther was about to go in front of Achashveros when she wasn’t beckoned. She says וְכַאֲשֶׁ֥ר אָבַ֖דְתִּי אָבָֽדְתִּי (Esther 4: 16), Avood definitely can also mean, not lost, but lost in the sense of my life is in danger. And the rabbis in a sense, re interpreted this, this whole Parshat Bikkurim, this whole declaration of the first fruits in a different way. Do you agree? Before I asked that question Rashi in his interpretation on the Chumash actually goes out of his way to bring the Haggadah’s as interpretation, but if you look at the source sheet, most of the classical commentary say it’s clear that what he was talking about is we were wandering, landless people. And here I am a farmer living in my land, bringing my crop. So how do you account for this change of interpretation?
Adam Mintz 25:20
I mean, that that’s easy, because the change the interpretation, because the new interpretation works out better within the Haggadah,
Geoffrey Stern 25:30
Especially after that introduction, Right, meaning the simple explanation, which is that we were wandering and now we’re in the land of Israel, and now we have our own fruits etc. and all that kind of stuff. That makes a lot of sense, given the context of the Chumash, but that’s not relevant to the Seder. The Seder wants the big picture, which is that Laban tried to destroy us אֲרַמִּי אֹבֵד אָבִי, the word Avad, means from the word … tried to make us disappear, and therefore tried to get rid of I think, and we’ll see this comes up in another aspect of what the rabbi’s did. That there was a an evolution in the Haggadah itself. There is the Haggadah that was written and used in the land of Israel. And then when the Jews were exiled, it almost became a Haggadah of the exile. And so, the commentary that I have in the source sheet, it’s a by Joseph Tabori, he says as follows. He says while the temple existed, they understood the whole passage as truly representing their radical change in status. Remember, you’re in the land of Israel, you’re talking about the Exodus from Egypt, you actually parallel that farmer in a very profound way. The people had started out as fugitives, wandering nomads, and now they stood in their permanent home. But he says, After the destruction of the temple, there was no longer any parallelism between the lowly beginnings as nomads and their present status as people saved from persecution. And therefore, they talk about oppression rather than landlessness. So what he is saying and you can either buy it or not, is that the prayer itself evolved based on the needs of the time, and that when the mission of might have said say these verses of the first fruits, it might have been talking to people that their patriarchs, their ancestors had been in Egypt. Now they were in the land. They were spot on, like that farmer and the Seder was a question of being thankful just like the farmer, but when they were exiled, that message almost missed its mark, and therefore the rabbi’s put this introduction about how in every generation, they come to kill us, and it changed the interpretation of the verse. What do you think of Tabor’s theory?
Adam Mintz 26:12
That I love the idea that the that the interpretation of the verse evolves, and being grateful for it to having our own first fruit may not make sense if we don’t have our own land. I liked that a lot. That’s a really good explanation. Thank you.
Geoffrey Stern 28:37
So that explanation explained something else that I mentioned when I read the verses from our parsah, which is that in the Haggadah, it quotes are from our verses, but it doesn’t follow the advice of the Mishnah. It doesn’t read it till the end. It stops at verse 8. Verse 8 says, God freed us from Egypt with a mighty hand you will remember, that’s where the Haggadah says, What’s a mighty hand by an outstretched arm by awesome Power by signs and portents? There’s at least two pages in the Haggadah that talks about each one of these words, but get to verse 9, it says bringing us to this place. וַיְבִאֵ֖נוּ אֶל־הַמָּק֣וֹם הַזֶּ֑ה no interpretation, giving us this land, no interpretation a land flowing with milk and honey, no interpretation, all the way till the end. And I’ve spoken about this before the last verse, it says, And you shall enjoy together with the Levite the stranger in your midst, all the bounty that God gave you. So, in the introduction, I talked about censorship, in a sense and Tabori goes on to say this for people that were once more in exile. You It would be almost too much to pretend that they weren’t, it would be almost too much to talk about coming into the land, a land of milk and honey, and therefore the Haggadah decided not to quote those verses, and not to provide this singsong commentary about it. And if we step back and we look at prayers, that means that the prayers do evolve based on our condition where we are. But it’s also an open question. And I would say an invitation, is it not?
Adam Mintz 30:36
I think that that’s 100%. right. I mean, I really liked to Tabori’s explanation, I think he got it right. It also is good for us. Because what it does is it links the Torah portion to the Haggadah. Usually, the Haggadah just borrows these verses, but they’re not really relevant. And what he does is he really connects one to the other. So, I like that also.
Geoffrey Stern 31:01
So at the end of my source sheet, I quote just one, one section from a whole Google Doc, which comes out of Israel from young scholars in Israel. But literally, there is a revival in the Haggadah today, where they continue and they say וַיְבִאֵ֖נוּ who brought us in, and they say then is now as it is said, How I bore you on eagles wings and brought you to me in the same kind of tradition, this singsong thing they quote another verse, and אֶל־הַמָּק֣וֹם הַזֶּ֑ה this place refers to the temple, and it comes from Rabbi David Mishlove, supplement for Seders in Israel. So here we have an example of a prayer that starts in the Five Books of Moses in Deuteronomy, that was changed, maybe censored out of sensitivity to people living in exile, and is today being rewritten, and re-positioned for a new generation of Jews who are in the land. And I just find that to be so. So fascinating.
Adam Mintz 32:14
I think that’s great. I think this was really the sources I give you credit, Geoffrey, because the sources tonight were really, really good.
Geoffrey Stern 32:20
Well, and I think it’s an invitation to all of us as we, as we begin this prayer season, as I call it. There are different ways to approach the prayers. You know, many of us just focus on what does this prayer mean. But I think tonight, we’ve really seen that there were so many other reflective and reflections that can have meaning to us beyond just the simple meaning of the words, and we’re gonna be in synagogue for so many hours. We need all the tools we can get.
Adam Mintz 32:50
Fantastic. And we still got one more next week. So well, Shabbat Shalom, everybody, and we’ll see you next Thursday. Looking forward. Be Well, everybody.
Geoffrey Stern 32:57
Shabbat shalom. Thank you, as always, Rabbi. And for any of you who have a comment. Oh, Miriam, I’m going to invite you on
Miriam Gonczarska 33:08
I posted something a little comment that we have another prayer in our siddurs from the Torah. Not from Deuteronomy but from Numbers and its יְבָרֶכְךָ֥ יְהֹוָ֖ה וְיִשְׁמְרֶֽךָ (Numbers 6: 24)
Geoffrey Stern 33:32
Of course, the Priestly Blessing, the Cohen’s benediction. That’s, that’s perfect. We did miss that.
Miriam Gonczarska 33:39
Yeah, and I wanted to add that because I think it’s fascinating, although it’s not from sefer Devarim. But the beautiful part is it’s about Cohanim. It’s about temple, temple rituals. And we say it every day, every morning, but this is a beautiful, beautiful player.
Geoffrey Stern 34:07
Thank you for that. It is fascinating how few of our prayers come from the Torah itself, the rabbi kind of mentioned that. But those that do obviously have great power. And again, you look at Bikkurim It’s a prayer of a farmer being thankful with a historical memory. You look at the priestly blessing that you just mentioned, you know, it doesn’t talk about ritual, it talks about that God should bless you and keep you and shine his light upon you and give you peace. I mean, they’re just powerful.
Yes. And what is very interesting that apparently, archeologists in Israel found this prayer on a very early materials and there is this concept of biblical criticism, which we might like or not like, but they say that this is one of the oldest texts in the five books of Moses. It’s beautiful words, and that the entire idea that Hashem should bless you and keep you and turn his face and shine upon you and be graceful into you. I mean, there’s different translations, and there’s so much in this play of words, because it’s the וִֽיחֻנֶּֽךָּ, you can translate it as chinuch (education), and Hanukkah, and there’s just so much written here plays so much, so much in this prayer. And again, it’s not from first book of Moses, it’s that from the fourth one. But the observation that you write I really liked that is that most of our prayers are from the sefer Devarim. That’s a fascinating observation and, and there is something very deep about it. Even if I found to be prayer here, taken from Bamidbar (Numbers)
Geoffrey Stern 36:05
So Miriam, if I remember you are a graduate, you got smicha Maharat, is that correct?
Miriam Gonczarska 36:10
Yes. And Rabbi Mintz is my teacher. I took all his classes.
Geoffrey Stern 36:15
And you serve the Polish community, if I remember correctly. So, what do you do during the High Holidays? Are you conducting services?
Miriam Gonczarska 36:26
No, it’s kind of public knowledge. So I can tell you I’m struggling right now with cancer. So I am in New York, but I am not able to be insured in a long you know, for long periods of time. So, I’m undergoing chemo right now. So, I’m laying low on the days themselves, but I teach online before I’m preparing my class, and I actually I want to teach this material to my students. So, I was so excited I need the source Sheet. I want to teach them in Polish. I’m going to translate parts of what you taught and teach it in Polish
Geoffrey Stern 37:07
Amazing! I wish you a life and vibrance and Refuah Shelema and all those good things that were included in Miriam’s Refa Na La
Miriam Gonczarska 37:23
So actually, definitely means knows about my illness, and it was extremely moving when he actually said it knowing that I’m in the audience and my name is Miriam. And I love this moment and it’s like, it’s my teacher, but it’s like this this you know, I was warm and fuzzy.
Geoffrey Stern 37:41
As you should have been.
Miriam Gonczarska 37:43
Yeah. It might be just accidental, but I love that type of accidents.
Geoffrey Stern 37:47
Yeah, there are no accidents. Right? Anyway, Shana Tova, Shabbat shalom. Thank you all for joining us. Thanks Miriam for coming on.
Miriam Gonczarska 37:56
And it was fantastic. Fantastic to talk to you and thank you for all the Torah that you’re sharing with Rabbi Mintz this is this a beautiful class and I’m so happy that there such a zchut for clubhouse to have such a high level Torah on this platform.
Geoffrey Stern 38:14
Thank you so much. Shabbat Shalom Thank you. Bye bye.
Miriam Gonczarska 38:17
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