Category Archives: magic

Walk like an Egyptian

parshat bo (exodus 13)

A live recording of Disruptive Torah recorded on the Madlik Clubhouse with Geoffrey Stern, Rabbi Adam Mintz, Rabbi Abraham Bronstein and “The Haftorahman”, Reuben Ebrahimoff on January 6th 2022.

Can Biblical commandments evolve and have alternative meanings at different times and to different people? Mitzvot; for some an obligation, for others a political, cultural or fashion statement and for still others a magical charm. In Exodus 13 we are introduced to the first formal commandments given in the Torah; a book of Law. These laws relate exclusively to the celebration of the first and subsequent Passovers. Out of nowhere we discover the first reference to what was to become the commandment of Tefillin. We explore the classical commentators and modern scholarship to discover the multiple layers and nuances behind tefillin and possibly all mitzvot.

Sefaria Source Sheet: www.sefaria.org/sheets/373717

Transcript:

Geoffrey Stern  00:04 Welcome to Madlik. My name is Geoffrey stern and at Madlik we light a spark was shed some light on a Jewish text or tradition. We also host Madlik Disruptive Torah on clubhouse every Thursday at 8pm. Eastern. And this week with Rabbi Adam Mintz we learn of the first commandments the Jews were given as they left Egypt. They were instructed to mark their doorposts with blood and put a sign on their hands and between their eyes. We explore how a commandment like this can mean different things to different people and at different times. So get ready for our weekly journey and walk like an Egyptian. Well, welcome. It’s great to have you here. Very excited about this discussion. You know, we’ve been studying the Torah week in and week out those of you who remember when we studied Bereshit, we studied a very famous Rashi. Which said Why does the Torah begin from when God made the first commandment? It’s a book of law. It should be “HaHodesh Ha’zeh L’chem” (Exodus 12: 10), and here we are in Parshat  Bo, and we’re getting some commandments. Things are changing, we’re moving from stories, from narratives to actual commandments, the rubber is hitting the road.

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So today, we're going to focus on the beginning of one commandment, we're going to start with Exodus 13, where it kind of starts by talking about the stuff we'd expect it to talk about. It says: "Throughout the seven days, unleavened bread shall be eaten. No leavened bread shall be found with you, and no leaven shall be found in your territory. And you shall explain to your children on that day, it is because of what the Lord did for me, when I went free from Egypt. And this shall serve you as a sign on your hand. And as a reminder on your forehead, in order that the teaching of the Lord may be in your mouth, that with a mighty hand, the Lord freed you from Egypt, you shall keep this institution at its set time from year to year." So I like to read the posture of fresh every year. And when I read it this year, I was absolutely struck by this introduction of what many of us will recognize to be a law of Tefillin; these frontlets these phylacteries, these leather objects that traditional Jews put on their arms and put on their heads, and it's smack in the middle of what we absolutely expected to hear, which is the story of unleavened bread, how they had their first Seder, how they had their first Passover, and how that influenced further celebrations of the Passover. But right in the middle, is this law that resonates clearly the the law of Tefillin, but it doesn't really say anything about writing, it says "this shall serve to you as a sign". So the first question is, what is this? When we read it later into Devarim; in Deuteronomy, we kind of say, oh, okay, so it's this, this paragraph that we need to put inside of the Tefillin. But here there's a question of what is the this in the this, and then an Exodus 13" 16. Just a little bit later, it says, "and so it shall be a sign upon your hand and a symbol on your forehead, that with a mighty hand, the Lord freed you from Egypt." And here we have this strange word in the Hebrew that not only should it be a sign an "Ot", a word that we have come across before, but it should be "ul'totafot bein enecha" , this "Totefot" between your eyes? So am I the only guy who read the parsha this week, and said, What is Tefillin doing here? It's not something that we normally associate with either leaving Egypt, or with the first commandments that are given. And it's not quite talking about writing anything. And it just seems so strange to appear. And this was, frankly, the first year that I realized that here when we're listing the first mitzvot the first commandments, boom, we're hit by this non sequitur, I would say, of the law of what ultimately became Tefilin. Anybody share my surprise?

Adam Mintz  04:50

There's no question that that point is right. Let's just review for a minute that in the tefillin that you described, there are actually four selections from the Torah. Two of those selections are from this week. Actually, chapter 13 is divided in half, because there were two references, as you said to tefillin. So, there's the first portion, that's "Kadesh Li" and then the second portion "Vehaya Keviacha". And then there are two more portions, the first two paragraphs of the Shema, which are found in the Book of Devarim of Deuteronomy, also which have mentioned Tefillin. And they're also included. So there are four selections in the Torah, that talk about Tefillin, all those four are in the Tefillin that we wear. And the question I think, is, as you said, Why is it here? What does that have to do with the Exodus? So let me Geoffrey, make the question bigger. This is actually the first parsha that we have, in which we have a combination of law and narrative. Up to now the Torah has been completely narrative, and there've been a couple of little laws here and there. But basically, the Torah has been completely narrative. All of a sudden, in this week's portion, chapter 12, we switch. And we have a combination of law and narrative. That's the first important lesson. And that is that the Torah is a combination of law and narrative, Each one plays on the other to understand the laws, the rituals of Passover, you have to understand the narrative of the Exodus. So that's interesting. Now, why fill in here, the reason tefillin in this here is very simple. And that is because the remembering the exodus is primary in everything that we do. That seems to be the most basic, if not one of the most basic laws that we have, and therefore the villain in chapter 13, those paragraphs remind us of the Exodus, and we put them on our hands and on our head, because we need to remember the Exodus, we need to remember the slavery and then we need to remember how God took this out of out of Egypt.

Reuben Ebrahimoff  07:17

I just wanted to first say, every morning, we have this zoom Parshat HaShavua class. So I'm following along. You know, Yetziat Myzrayim, Pharaoh and all this and then I it just struck me this year, I didn't understand what was this text doing, like smack in the middle of your storyline? So just to say I resonated with your question. I did.

Geoffrey Stern  07:46

Reuben, there must have been something in the water this year. I don't know.

Reuben Ebrahimoff  07:49

Oh, so then the other thing Rabbi Mintz you taught me about the website, Al Hatorah (https://alhatorah.org/) And in the morning as they're reading, I try to find the Hapax legomenons (see:  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hapax_legomenon ) in the parsha or words with very low frequency. And here 'l'totafott" is once in this parsha. And then when it comes around back in Devarim it mentions it two more times. So it's a very, very rare word in the Torah.

Geoffrey Stern  08:26

But, but let me just you know, add to the question a little bit, if you look at Rashi when Rashi says "VeHaya l'cha l'Ot", it should be to you a sign, he says "The Exodus from Egypt shall be to thee a sign" "Yetziat Miztrayim ti'hie l'cha l'Ot" There's already a sensitivity to what is this in the this? What is the sign? Now, we sometimes talk about this personalities that we're talking about. I think the Rashi family had a little bit of a monopoly on tefillin. First of all, it's pretty well known that the daughters of Rashi wore tefillin and the Rabbenu Tam was a grandson of Rashi and the very very observant Jews put on two pairs of tefillin every day, they put on Rashi tefillin and Rabbenu Tam tefillin.  because the the grandson argued with the grandpa about the order of the parshiot (scrolls). But there was another grandson; Rabbenu Tam had an older brother, and his name was Rashbam, and Rashbam says something amazing on this verse. He says, "According to the true meaning and exhortation that this memory should be with you permanently, "as if", "K'ilu". The matter is literally inscribed upon you hand. And he says we have similar metaphorical expressions about putting things on your body. He says in Song of Songs, it says place it on your heart, as if it had been engraved there." And take it. On my, my word. There are commentaries like the Ibn Ezra and others who understand exactly what the Rashbam is saying. He's saying, don't talk about the other instances of the mention of this law that ultimately became tefillin, these black boxes of leather that we put on our body parts. Here. It is a metaphor. Here it is in the tradition of a Jeremiah who says, "and you should write these words on your heart", he goes and quotes multiple verses, where this concept of wearing God on one's body is a metaphor. So there's clearly a fascinating aspect of how........ it's easy for us to say we're talking about tefillin. But it's not totally clear that we're talking about tefillin as we know it, we're talking about an aspect of tefilin. And that blew me away,

Avraham Bronstein  11:19

I want to say something to what you just said. And then something back to what Rabbi Mintz just said, I think that when the Rashbam is talking about the metaphor of you know, "on your heart", "between your eyes", in those ways, he's talking more about where you wear the tefillin, right, because he's telling you that you wear the tefillin on your arm corresponding to your heart. You don't wear literally on your chest. And likewise, you wear that go on your head, between your eyes on top of your head, not literally on your nose between your eyes. And I think he's trying to use the term metaphors that way. So that the practice of wearing tefillin corresponds with the verse But even so, even if you take them metaphorically, he's describing a very, very embodied experience. You're literally taking these reminders of the Exodus, and you're strapping them to your physical body and you're walking around with them, you're wearing them and feel them and you're touching them. And they're part of how you get around your day. And so much of what we do to remember the Exodus on a day-to-day basis are the mitzvot that are connected to it, are very embodied mitzvot, right. We eat things, we drink things, we say things, we hear things. And what I meant and was talking a little bit about before about the combination between law and narrative and how those two formats kind of play into each other and inform each other. I think what this is showing you also is that there's even a deeper level to it or a deeper connection, because even the remembering even the mitzvah itself is so physical, it's so embodied and still it really sums it up more than almost anything else

Adam Mintz  12:59

Rabbi Avraham. I think that's really such a good point. That actually the relationship between law and narrative is reflected in the in the selections that we use for the villain, and that actually when we put them on our arms, and on our head, we're thinking about that relationship, not just the law of putting on tefillin, but the narrative, the Exodus from Egypt. I just will add one thing, Geoffrey. And that you made reference to the fact that there are two traditions, Hasidim put on two pairs of tefillin, they put on Rashi tefillin at the beginning of davening (prayer) and at the end of davening, they take off their Rashi tefillin they put on the Rabbenu Tam and they look the same, but inside there's a difference. And the difference is what the order of the portions is. Rashi's tefillin which is the tefillin that are generally used by most people have the order of the portions in the order they appear in the Torah. So therefore, you have the two portions from Exodus chapter 13. Then you have the portion of Shema. And then you have the pope the portion of V'haya im Shemoha". And that's the order in which they appear in the Torah. Rabenu Tam has it different.  Rabenu Tam says you start with the two selections from this week's parsha "Kadesh" "VayaHi kiviyach"  but he switches the order of the two chapters in Devarim and he says first is "V'haya im Shemoa" and finally is Shema. He switches the order of "Shema" and "V'haya im Shemoa". The question is what difference does it make? It would make sense....  Rashi makes sense. You should have the port the selections in the order in which they appear in the Torah. And Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik gave an amazing explanation. He said actually the four selections are actually two different themes.... This is what Rabbi Avraham was referring to.... the selections from our portion are talking about the Exodus. The selections from the book of Deuteronomy, talk about tefillin as an expression of our acceptance of God's kingship over us. So actually, according to Rabbenu Tam, they are in order, but one you read from left to right, and one you read from right to left. So the two portions from our from our chapter, you read from left to right, "Kadesh" "VayaHi kiviyach" , but the portions from Devorim, you read from right to left "Shema" and "V'haya im Shemoa". And the reason we do it that way is because we want to separate the two, to show those are two different things. One is about remembering the Exodus, and one is about remembering that God is King over the world. And those are two very distinct themes in our Jewish lives. So I think that that's just interesting, at least for a moment to, you know, to pay respects to rabbenu Tam and his different villain than Rashi tefillin.

Geoffrey Stern  16:14

So I love this discussion, because we are discussing the first mitzvot that are commanded to the Jewish people, in a sense, and some of the commentaries make this distinction there pre-Sinai revelation as well. And here we are, and we're looking at all of the different perspectives that you can have on this one; I would say it's a seed of a mitzvah, because I am not willing to concede yet that the mitzvah of tefillin is fully played out yet. I want to get back to the rush bomb. One of the commentaries that I have in the source sheet says

רשב"ם אינו רואה בפסוקנו אזכור של מצוות תפילין, אלא מפרשו כמטפורה.

This commentary is saying is at this point in time, does the Rashbam believe that there's a commandment of tefillin? He does, he's not a Karite. He's not a Samaritan. There were fundamentalists who read not only these verses, but the later verses. And they said, you know, it says you should write these words on your door post, the Samaritans wrote them literally on their door post. They talked about writing these words on your arm and on your head, they took it as a metaphor, the Rashbam is "Lahavdeel", not in that camp. But what he is saying is at this point, it's a metaphor. And what I love when we discuss Rabbenu Tam and Rashi and their different views of what should be inside of the to fill in, is here we have the first commandment. Yes, the first commandment that piqued Reuben and my curiosity... because it was literally made as a commandment, it didn't fit into the narrative that much. And all of a sudden, we can parse it in so many ways. And I'd like to think that this is an example of all the mitzvot to that are to come. And yes, there is an aspect of this commandment that is totally physical. But the Rashbam is saying something very profound; that you can take a commandment as a metaphor. And that doesn't detract from taking it also, as a physical, tactile directive as to what to do in the first four hours of the morning. And that I think, is an amazing thought. And I'd like to use that as a segue to then get into the various interpretations and explanations that Reuben talked about which is; what does this "totafot" mean at this point in time? Where are we? What does this mean? It's clearly using a foreign term and making reference to something that the audience that it was written to understood but that we do not. What what do you all feel is going on here in terms of what is "totafot"?

Geoffrey Stern  16:57

Haftorahman what do you think?

Reuben Ebrahimoff  19:40

I'm gonna digress for a second, on purpose. These prayers are in two places. One on the Mezzuzot and two on the tefillin. And not that this adds credibility But the story was told to me by Mr. Shlomo Musayev. And Shlomo said, originally, they didn't have doorposts. They lived in tents. And that this, this scroll was a Kamia, and they would hang it like a lintel. And that when somebody would go into their tent, they would have to move their hand in front of them across to the side, and they would touch the mezzuza, thereby merging the heaven and earth by touching the Mezuzah, which was this go-between area. So, to me, that sounds beautiful on a thought level. Then the other thing I think about is the name of God. You only have two places .... Rabbi Mintz, correct me if I'm wrong, where you have the shin on the Mezuza bayit and the Shin on the tefillin boxes for the shin dalet Yud name of God. So I always found that interesting, too.

Adam Mintz  21:13

Okay, what is uh, how does that relate to the word "totafot"?

Reuben Ebrahimoff  21:17

Okay, so I'm just gonna read what they had Al Hatorah....  it says, bands, so they must have just tied these things. And I think also, Geoffrey, that the Samaritans, like put it like in between their eyes there to fill in, like right down on the forehead. If I'm not mistaken

Geoffrey Stern  21:41

Well, let's get to the band's the the most straightforward explanation is in the Gomorrah in Shabbat 57B. And it says, "The Mishna said that a woman may not go out with the ornament called a totefet. The Gemara asks: What is a totefet? Rav Yosef said: A packet of spices to ward off the evil eye. Abaye said to him: And let the legal status of this packet be like that of an effective amulet, whose effectiveness is proven, and it should be permitted, as an effective amulet may be moved on Shabbat. Rather, Rav Yehuda said in the name of Abaye: A totefet is an appuzainu, an ornament worn on the forehead. This opinion was also taught in a baraita: A woman may go out with a gilded hairnet worn to hold the hair in place, and with the totefet, and with the sarvitin that are fastened to the hairnet, since a woman would not remove her head covering to show her friend those ornaments. And they said: Which is a totefet and which is sarvitin? Rabbi Abbahu said: Totefet is that which goes around her forehead from ear to ear...." and I think that's the opinion that you quoted. But the point is even modern scholarship and if you look at the notes on Safera to this episode, it gets into great detail and basically says, you know, I think the rabbis of the Talmud had it right. Totafot, as you said, Reuben; a headband. And we come across for the first time, it's to ward off [evil]. It's an amulet. Again, the tefillin strikes us Western, Moderns, as very strange. But my guess would be that, whether you called it a Kamia or Oh, whatever. In the ancient world, people wore charms people wore amulets, and it was an accepted practice to wear an amulet as a headband and on one's arm. I'd like to point out that one of our faithful listeners, Bob, who's in the audience today, pointed out a few weeks ago, that they just discovered a pharaoh. They were able to do a scan of him without actually touching him. And they found that he was circumcised which is interesting. Yeah, but they also found a bunch of amulets, a bunch of jewelry on his arm and stuff. So I gave the subject matter of tonight's talk "Walk like an Egyptian". It seems to me that, number one, we can all assume that unlike us, when the Torah said "totafot", everybody understood what it was referring to. It wasn't speaking in riddles. And so it seems pretty clear that this was some sort of an amulet both on one's head and on one's arm. You know this question... and I'll just give two other references to trigger further discussion. It has this strange expression of "between the eyes" , "l'zicharon Beyn Eynecha". Those of us whose children ask us, are you allowed to have a tattoo? We always said, no, no, no, no, you can't have a tattoo. It says in in the Bible itself. In Deuteronomy 14, "You are children of the Lord your God, You shall not gash yourselves or shave the front of your heads because of the dead." Now I just read a translation. But the Hebrew says, "Lo Karocha beyn einechem l'Meit" You can't make a mark on yourself. You can't cut yourself "beyn einechem"  between your eyes. And it's fascinating that when the rabbi's discuss that Karocha means to make oneself bald. So they actually learn from here that tefillin is not to be actually between one's eyes, but it's to be above the hairline. So they actually learned from the law against gashing and pulling out one's hair, maybe making tattoos and signs that it is above the hairline. There's a real connection here. And these are not stuff that was made out of nowhere. Yesh, me'ayin these were amulets, these were signs that were made. The other word that's used is an "Ot". And of course, we find that with Cain, the sign of Cain. And in the Midrash, it says, What is the sign of Cain the "ot" of Cain? Well, God took one of the "otiyot", one of the letters of the 22 letters of the alphabet and wrote it on Cain. So we almost have tattooing here, which is kind of fascinating. So that kind of really opens up the discussion, in terms of what.... from a metaphor to a tattoo, to an amulet, what this could be referring to and what its antecedents are.

Adam Mintz  27:21

So I would add the following. And that is that maybe we don't know what the word totafot leads. And maybe that's the idea. Maybe tefillin is the perfect model of the integration of the Written Torah, and the oral tradition, that without the oral tradition, we can't know what tefillin in really are. The Gemara says and another Gemara, it says that Tat means two and pat means two. And totafot just means for that we have four selections from the Torah. And maybe that's what we need, maybe we have to be willing to admit that if all we have is the Written Torah that's not enough. We need an oral tradition; we need a living tradition. A bunch of years ago, there was an exhibition of the Dead Sea Scrolls have the things they found in Qumran. And one of the things they had in the exhibition was a pair of tefillin. And I was always struck.. Qumran is about 2,100 years ago. And the tefillin from 2,100 years ago, looks basically the same as the tefillin we put on today. That's an amazing statement about Jewish tradition. Jews have been thrown out of places Jews have been prosperous in places, a lot has happened to the Jews over 2,100 years. But the tefillin are still the same tefillin that we had. And probably 1,000 years before that they were the same tefillin. And that's part of our living tradition. It's similar, by the way, Geoffrey to the Etrog. You know, the Torah says you should take a fruit of from a tree. We don't even know what the fruit is "Pree Etz Hadar" and the way we know what an Etrog is, that's part of the living tradition. We need the living tradition without the living tradition, we have nothing. And I think that totafot the tefillin actually is a great model of that.

Geoffrey Stern  29:28

I totally agree with you. The only thing that I would add .... and we've talked about so many facets of one of the first commandments that we've come across, is .... you know, one of the questions and I'll save this for my Shabbat Hagadol drasha is the obvious question of why Mezuzah isn't mentioned here after they put the blood on the doorposts and maybe Rabbi you'll talk about that on Shabbat

Adam Mintz  29:59

That's good also

Geoffrey Stern  30:00

But it seems to me that there's another element here. And in the New Testament, when Jesus talks about the Jews wearing tefillin, he says in Matthew 23:5-7, "everything they do is done for people to see they make their phylacteries wide and tassels on their garments long." And what he captures is this sense of pride, their sense of who we are. And it seems to me and you were talking about this living tradition, I'm not a scholar, I thought of the Egyptians have every time you see an Egyptian pharaoh, you see that little snake [uraeus snake] that comes out, right on the forehead, as a sign, it was not one by a foreigner, it was not one by a layman. It was only worn by a king. And I'd like to think that another aspect of tefillin is that these Jews, they might have put on the blood on the doorposts, so that the God would pass by and spare them. But then when they were told to put these ornaments on, they were like kings, a "Mamlechet Cohanim v'goy kadosh". And I would like to think that, that is also part of the aspect of what we're talking about, that this tefillin and this commandment here is this sense of being like a pharaoh walking like an Egyptian so to speak. And the ultimate lesson and the ultimate takeaway is in half an hour, I think we've probably touched upon 13, or 14 different ways of looking at one of these first commandments of mitzvah. And I think what we can learn from this, and I'd like to extrapolate going forward, is that not only are there "shivim Panim L'Torah"  70 faces to every verse and every idea of Torah, but a mitzvah, whether it's Shabbat, whether it's tefillin, whether Pesach can be taken at a metaphorical level, it can be taken as an amulet and a little bit of superstition. It can be taken as a political statement; it can be taken as a fashion statement. It's all there. It's all acceptable. And all that we are asked to do is to study the texts and become a part of that tradition. And I'd like to think that's the element of living that you were describing in terms of what the Oral law is.

Adam Mintz  32:35

That's beautiful Geoffrey. What a way to end enjoy the parish everybody. Shabbat Shalom and look forward to taking the Jews out of Egypt and crossing the sea next week. Shabbat shalom,

Geoffrey Stern  32:49

Amen. Shabbat shalom. We will see you all next week and discover another hidden aspect of the Torah and hopefully find something that resonates with us. So, with that I bid you all Shabbat Shalom, and let's all leave Egypt together this week. Shabbat shalom.

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Moses – Reluctant Magician

parshat shemot (exodus 3-4)

Join Geoffrey Stern and Rabbi Adam Mintz recorded on December 23rd 2021on Clubhouse as we discuss Judeo-Christian Magical Thinking….. Moses encounters a miraculous burning bush, receives a magical rod and learns an incantation of the name of God. But the Rabbis of the Talmud call Jesus a magician…. We explore the Hebrew Bible and Rabbinic Judaism’s uniquely ambivalent attitude to the miraculous.

Moses – Reluctant Magician

Join Geoffrey Stern and Rabbi Adam Mintz recorded on Clubhouse as we discuss Judeo-Christian Magical Thinking….. Moses encounters a miraculous burning bush, receives a magical rod and learns an incantation of the name of God. But the Rabbis of the Talmud call Jesus a magician….

Sefaria Source Sheet: www.sefaria.org/sheets/371145

Transcript:

Geoffrey Stern  00:04

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. We also host Madlik disruptive Torah on clubhouse every Thursday at 8pm. Eastern. And this week with Rabbi Adam Mintz we discuss Judeo Christian, magical thinking, Moses encounters a miraculous burning bush, he receives a magical staff and learns an incantation of God’s name, but the rabbi’s of the Talmud accuse Jesus of being the magician. Judaism’s ambivalent attitude to the miraculous is what our subject matter is tonight. So take out your magic wand and put on a top hat and let’s meet Moses, the Reluctant Magician. So welcome. You know, they say every parsha ultimately turns out to be very relevant to the times we’re in. And I think that the calendar this year is such that we probably don’t have the first chapter or the first parsah of Exodus called Exodus Shemot coincide with Christmas, very often, but here we are and because so much about this time of year is about miracles, I think that it suits us to read the story of Moses from the lens of the Miraculous;  Magic, and see how the text of the Torah, how later rabbinic tradition and how even Christianity saw the use of magic and miracles, in their narrative, their story and their belief system. So let’s start with Exodus 3.  You all know that Moses was tending the flock, and he went into the wilderness and came to Horeb, the mountain of God, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a blazing fire out of a bush, he gazed, and there was a bush all aflame, yet the bush was not consumed. Moses said, I must turn aside to look at this marvelous sight. Why doesn’t the bush burn up? When the Lord saw that he had turned aside to look, called him and said, Moses, Moses, he answered who I am, Hineni. And he said, Do not come close to remove your sandals from your feet, for the place on which you stand is holy ground. I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob, And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God. And we all know that God then told him that he has remembered the children of Israel, and he’s seen their plight. And he continues in verse 10, “come, therefore, I will send you to Pharaoh, and you shall free my people, the Israelites from Egypt. But Moses said to God, who am I, that I should go to Pharaoh and free the Israelites from Egypt, and he said, I will be with you, that shall be your sign that it was I who sent you “ze l’cha ha’ot”, this will be the sign. And when you have freed the people from Egypt, You shall worship God at this mountain. Moses said to God, when I come to the Israelites, and say to them, the God of your fathers has sent me and they ask me, What is his name? What shall I say to them? And God said to Moses, “Ehiye Asher Ehiye” he continued, thus shall you say to the Israelites, Ehiye sent you to me. So so far, we have a miracle of a burning bush. And we have what many could consider an incantation, a secret name of God, that he was to tell to the children of Israel, to establish himself. Then it goes on. Go and assemble the elders of Israel and say to them, the Lord, the God of your forefathers, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob has appeared to me and said, I have taken note of you, and what is being done to you in Egypt. And he says, yet I know that the king of Egypt will let you go only because of great might. So I will stretch out my hand and smite Egypt with various wonders. “niflaot”, another word for miracle, which I will work upon them. After that, he shall let you go. And then Moses starts complaining and saying, what what about me? He says, What if they do not believe Me and do not listen to me? But say the Lord did not appear to you and the Lord had said to him, What is that in your hand, and he replied, Rod, and he said, cast it on the ground, he cast it on the ground, and it became a snake, a nachash. And Moses recoiled from it. Then the Lord said to Moses, Put out your hand and grasp it by the tail, he put out his hand and seized it. And it became a rod in his hand, that they may believe that the Lord, the God of their fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, did appear to you. And then he goes on says, if they don’t believe that miracle, stick your hand into your vest and pull it out. And all of a sudden, it was encrusted with scales. And he says, now put it back into your vest, he put it back in, and Miraculously, he was healed. And he says, Well, what happens if they still don’t believe me, and he says, You will be able to take that magic rod that I gave you, and you’ll be able to touch the water and the water of the Nile, pour it onto the ground, and it will turn into blood. And then, of course, we know as the story progresses, that actually all of these miracles do happen. So let’s stop here. I think I can coin a phrase of gratuitous miracle. I think this is the first time in the Torah and we’ve read it all the way through Genesis, we’ve seen miraculous things. But this in terms of the burning bush, at least, is the first time that we’ve seen a miracle for its own sake to grab attention. I mean, we’ve seen miracles of Lot’s wife leaving Sedom turning around and being turned into a pillow of soil. That was a punishment. We’ve seen miraculous births. We’ve seen all sorts of miracles. But Rabbi, am i right, if we just focus on the first of the many miracles in these passages, that this is a gratuitous miracle.

Adam Mintz  06:57

There’s no question that that’s right. I mean, this is a gratuitous miracle. And it’s a miracle that kind of comes from nowhere, like you’re not quite sure you know why there’s a need for the miracle. Moses says, Who am I to go to Pharaoh? And God says, I’m going to be with you. And as the proof that I’ll be with you, I’m going to perform a miracle. Why does God need to perform the miracle doesn’t make sense. If you can’t trust God, who can you trust? So I mean, I think that the other miracles even that we’ve mentioned till now, where he teaches them how to use this magic rod, or he teaches him the trick of healing the leprosy. At least, that’s forward thinking, and that’s looking towards, you’re going to have to get out there, you’re going to have to convince people, you’re going to have to speak their language, if you will. But with that first miracle of the burning bush, and you know, the Jewish Theological Seminary, the conservative movement, they took that as their theme. It’s an iconic moment. It’s hard to understand how that fits into the tradition. And I think what I’m trying to get at is, we don’t have gratuitous miracles in our tradition that really lies at the basis of my question is, is it valid?

Adam Mintz  08:24

So I want to go back to what you call the incantation. Ehiye asher Ehiye Iwill be that I will be what is God telling Moses? What kind of name of God is that? Ehiye Asher Ehiye Maimonides actually says that that is one of the names of God. God has many names. One of God’s names is that Ehiye Asher Ehiye, I will be that I will be. I’ve always understood, Moshe says to God, who am I to go to Pharaoh? And God answers says, Don’t worry so much. I’ll be there with you. Ehiye Asher Ehiye, I will be there. To me what that means is that God is promising Moshe that he’s going to be there in the moment. You know, you think about presidents or kings? The last they’re never in the moments, right? They have to deal with the with the big picture. They can deal with every, every single person’s moment. And what God says to Moses is, even though I’m God, Ehiye Asher Ehiye I will be there in the moment with you. You don’t have to worry about going to Pharaoh, I will be there in that moment. And I think that that’s a very, very powerful incantation. Because what that really says about God generally is Ehiye Asher Ehiye God promises to be there for everybody in their moment. God doesn’t doesn’t rule The way kings or presidents rule to be just kind of over the, to kind of, you know, can administer the big picture and to leave the details to others. God actually is interested in the details. And that’s an amazing comment. Now that doesn’t answer why we need a gratuitous miracle. I think that’s the second question. But the first question about the incantation, probably that’s the most important identification of God that we have had yet kind of identifying God telling Moshe what and who God really is that God is in the moment.

Geoffrey Stern  10:38

So I think that what you and I Rabbi have in common is, we just can’t take a miracle by itself. We can’t take an incantation by itself. We as Jews need to see symbolism. It has to mean something. We’re not just looking for someone to say, boom, I did something miraculous, I pulled a rabbit out of the hat. Therefore, you have to believe me. And one of my arguments tonight is that is very deeply Jewish. So supplement or even emphasize your interpretation of Ehiye Asher Ehiye, Let’s go back to the bush for a second Rashi comes and says as follows. He says, Why is it an “Ot” and now we’re starting to get into the multiplexity of what a miracle is in Judaism. It calls it an “ot” but all of us know that the Tephilin the phylacteries that we put on our arm and on our head is called an “Ot” it’s a sign. It’s a something designed to symbolically transmit a message we call Shabbat an “ot”, a sign. So it could be that the rabbinic tradition doesn’t even take the burning bush, as a miracle. It takes it as a sign. And Rashi says that just as thou has seen the bush carrying out its mission I laid upon it, and it was not consumed. So you too shall go on your mission, and you shall not be consumed. And the Ramban gives a different explanation. But all of them are kind of like Jungians looking at this from a symbolic message-oriented approach, they’ve almost ignored the fact that it was a miracle. I would almost argue that they don’t consider it a miracle. They consider it a sign. It’s like looking at a painting, what does it mean to you? And so they are taking from the burning bush, a sign that God will be with you, Moses, and Ramban takes it to mean God will be with the Jewish people. And that is one of the interpretations that especially Buber and Rosensweig give to Ehiye Asher Ehiye, it’s similar what you said, you said that I will be with you in the present. The way they look at it is again, I will be down there with you, I will be there with you.

Adam Mintz  13:23

I think that’s what they mean. But I’m really shouting channeling their view, I will be down there with you, I’ll be there in the moment with you. You don’t need to worry.

Geoffrey Stern  13:35

So So again, all of a sudden, we have taken the first miracle and kind of neutralized it because we’ve said it’s more of something symbolic that is designed to catch the attention. And the emphasis is not on changing the rules of nature. And now we’re taking what I called an incantation. And we’re saying no, no, it’s not a mumbo jumbo magical words. It actually is again a message. And Everett Fox who wrote a commentary on the Bible. He says the following. He says it’s also possible that Ehiye asher Ehiye is a deliberately vague phrase, whose purpose is anti magical, and an attempt to evade the question. And he goes and gives  the fascinating history of this term that was used by the kabbalists , who, as you say, gave many names to God, who used it as a kind of a magical charm word in the Middle Ages. And then he talks about how then it turned full cycle and again, became something that was just a meaningful message. So it really is so fascinating how we Jews…..  It’s like you know, somebody can’t take Yes for an answer, We at this point in time of the commentaries and the discussion that we’ve had, we find it hard to accept a miracle, don’t we?

Adam Mintz  15:10

We definitely do. I mean, I think that’s right now, you talk about whether it’s a miracle or aside, I think the fact that the bush was not consumed, that, to me is a miracle.Right? Isn’t a miracle by definition, something that breaks the laws of nature, the fact that the bush was not consumed. Sounds to me like a miracle.

15:36

I agree with you. But I also would like to emphasize that the takeaway for the commentaries was, Well, you see that bush wasn’t consumed and it was doing God’s will, we won’t be consumed either. So So again, it was a lack of interest, even in the miraculous aspect of it. So we’ve looked at the word “Ot” is a word that can be used as a sign as a symbol, and also a miracle. The, the, the other one that I’d love to talk about is the “Nes” a word that we’ve we probably know. But again, as we’ve probably commented before, has multiple meanings. So of course, before the sacrifice or the binding of Isaac, it says, And God, “Nisa, et Avraham”. And, the word there, there seems to be no miracle, unless, again, you want to go to the end of the story, and an ox miraculously shows up. But all of the commentaries there say that a Nes, and I think the Ramban is the most famous, he talks about how a Nes, a trial of a person brings from potential into actual, it tests you. So it shows what you’re capable of both to yourself, and to God. But again, it’s this sense that the word for miracle “nes” is is also a miracle of inspiration, aspiration, and something that tests us.

Adam Mintz  17:25

So that’s fascinating, the use of the word NES, to test and also to be a miracle is a very, very interesting thing. So God tests Avraham, I don’t buy the fact that that means that there’s going to be a miracle. I mean, God tested Abraham, that’s what it means. And that’s the explanation is that he wanted to bring out the potential in Abraham. And that’s what a miracle does. A miracle brings out the potential. Now the potential of what the miracle is, or what the miracle represents, as you want to say. So actually, it’s the same word. It’s bringing out the potential in something. But it’s so interesting that the same word is used to work to test and for a miracle, even though there’s so much they’re so different from one another….. that’s what’s so interesting, how can they be so different from one another?

Geoffrey Stern  18:32

I agree. And I and I want to emphasize that this is not a supposition or a kind of a comparison that we’ve come up …. with the rabbi’s play with it themselves. I think I’ve quoted in the past Perkei Avot chapter 5: 6, which says that the 10 Obvious miracles that happened, things such as the Earth swallowing up Korach, or the mouth of the donkey of Billam. Speaking, these 10 things, according to the Mishenh of Pirkei Avot were created in The Twilight Hours of creation. In other words, I always use this to show that the rabbi’s was so adverse to breaking the laws of nature, to a miracle that what they did was they said no, no, no, it’s not an exception to the program. When God was writing the code for the future. He wrote these little hacks into it. So it’s not a miracle little interestingly, the burning bush is not in that list……  But what I had never realized is if you go up a few paragraphs, a few Mishnaot in Pirke Avot, you get the following 10 trials was Abraham or father may he rest in peace tried assara nisaynot nitnase Avraham and it says and 10 Miracles were wought for ancestors is in Egypt, Asara Nisim naaseh l’avotentu it is freely going between the use of the word of Nes as a trial and Nes as a miracle. And then of course, it says that there were 10 Miracles were wought for our ancestors in Egypt and 10 at the sea, those of you who have been to a Seder, one of the most annoying I think parts of the seder is when Rabbi Akiva is saying it wasn’t 10, but it was 10 times 10. And it was 10 times 10 times 10. So to say that we don’t have an element of infatuation with miracles, I think would be false. But it does certainly say we take them in a fascinating new new way. I would say there’s an ambiguity here.

Adam Mintz  20:52

Well, let’s, let’s just take one second, that part of the Haggadah that talks about 10 times 10. And that whole thing, you know, how many miracles were there? That’s a different kind of miracle, because that’s about destroying the enemy. And you know, so that’s not a miracle in the sense of breaking the laws of nature. That’s how God is able to be victorious in a way that breaks the usual rules. He was totally victorious over the enemy. So I think that that is a slightly different use of the term.

Geoffrey Stern  21:29

Okay, I definitely accept that. Let’s look a little bit further. When you look at Judaism in terms of magic, you have to go to the code of law as well. And in Deuteronomy 18: 9 it says, Let no one be found among you who consigned his son or daughter to the fire, or who is an auger a soothsayer, a diviner, a sorcerer, one who cast spells or one who consults ghosts, or familiar spirits, or one who inquires of the the dead. And the words that are used here is Kosem kisamim,, m’onen, minachesh um’kasef. Michasefa is a witch. But I want to focus for a second on Minachesh . Minachesh. Haste is a word that’s used for a making magic. We are in the west or in the east, I should say, have a tradition of a snake charmer. Nahash is a snake. And here seconds ago, when we read from our Parsha, they take the rod and they throw it down. And in this version, it becomes an Nachash. So I don’t want to say that we’re having wordplay here. But there is no question that these themes of playing with reality I think the Nahash has a sense of dishonesty of screwing, and defacing reality is part of this magic, but it’s prohibited in Judaism, which is kind of fascinating as well.

Adam Mintz  23:19

Well, we have to remember a very important thing. In Egypt, Pharaoh has his own magicians. So at the beginning of the story this week, and next week, it’s actually a game between Moses and Pharaoh’s magicians, Moses performs a miracle, and they match the miracle. So magic clearly had a different role in Egypt than it does in the Torah. And it might just be, and I’m not making this up a lot of the commentaries say this, that the reason the Torah in Deuteronomy prohibits magic, is because the Egyptians thought that magic was so important that they believe that magic somehow was God-like, and therefore to kind of uproot that, we say that magic is not allowed. So actually, what you read from the code might actually be a reaction to the stories we’re reading now, which makes it even more interesting. So that God really descends to the level of the Egyptians, in order to make a point, and Moses, in a lot of ways is an Egyptian. And therefore Moses understands the idea of magic. God was actually speaking to Moses and Moses in terms that Moses understood. And I think we need to go back to something that you read at the beginning. And that is God says Moses, you need to go to Pharaoh and Moses It says to God, who am I to go to Pharaoh? Now on one hand, that’s humility and humility is always good. But at the same time when God says do something, isn’t it automatic that God’s gonna make sure that you’re successful? Isn’t it a little bit of a Chuzpah for Moshe to say, I’m not going who am I to go?

Geoffrey Stern  25:20

Well, absolutely. And I think that raises the question of what was Moses’ objection? We normally say that Moses says, I am not a man of words, the Hebrew is Lo Ish Dvarim anochi I am not a man of words. I’m not a man of things. In the context of the conversation, all God is asking him to do is to tell the story that he saw the bush that was not burned, the “mareh” (miraculous vision) that he saw, he’s asking him to repeat over the incarnation of the power of this God-word. He’s asking him to throw down his rod and turn it into a snake. And then something happens. And this is early in the relationship of God to Moses. And he said, “Please, oh, Lord, make someone else your agent. The Lord became angry with Moses.” And he said, Get your brother. When was another time that God was angry with Moses? When was God so angry with Moses, that he changed his life

Adam Mintz  26:41

when he hit the rock,

Adam Mintz  26:42

When he hit the rock, and what was hitting the rock if not doing a miracle, and Moses didn’t do it, right. So he that he was not good at being a magician, or, remember, God said, Speak to thee. This is, this is a modern day Alexa story. You know, God says, talk to them. He didn’t listen. So he hit it. But but the point is, that we as we do with any biblical character, we try to understand what is behind that character, who that character is. And I don’t want to project on Moses and make it sound like he was anti miracle. But in a sense, we don’t know for sure that he was slow to speech. We know within the context of this discussion, that the things that he was being asked to do, and to repeat in front of Pharaoh was these types of things, symbolic acts, miraculous acts, and God got angry at him. And God got angry at him again, in the end of his life. So it certainly does give us a little bit of a perspective on Moses that I had not thought of before.

Adam Mintz  28:03

I think that’s really good god getting angry at Moses, is the word anger or the word frustrating. You see God’s frustrated, the relationship between God and Moses is a unique relationship in the Torah. Because actually, in a way, the conversation that takes place between God and Moses, in chapter three this week, is actually a conversation doesn’t happen anywhere else in the Torah, of someone talking to God that way, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob did not speak to God, the way Moses speaks to God. And I think that’s something that’s interesting. This is something we’re going to see again, after the sin of the worshipping of the golden calf. God says, I want to destroy the people. And Moses says, No, you will not. And God listens to Moses. So it seems to be that there’s a kind of understanding between the two of them, that Moses can speak to God in a way that nobody else can speak to God. And I think that that’s really, really important.

Geoffrey Stern  29:06

I totally agree. But I do think that we are privy to an aspect of Moses that seems to have issues with miracles one way or the other. And, and what I’d like to do as we finish I promised that because of the confluence of Shabbat, and Christmas, we would talk a little bit about Christianity and Jesus, there was a professor at Columbia named Morton Smith, and he wrote a very controversial book called Jesus The Magician. And his argument basically is and it comes from sources outside of Christianity. So some of those sources are ones like Celsus, who was a Greek thinker, and some of them were the Talmud. But the main opponents of Christianity, one of their main arguments was that Jesus was nothing more than a magician. And Morton Smith takes a look at the types of miracles that Jesus did. And by the way, he got a PhD in Talmudic at Hebrew University, he was a close friend of Grershom Scholom and Saul Lieberman. And he says that you know, the stories of turning the water into the wine, he just wanted to outdo Moses turning or the editors wanted to, to outdo Moses turning the water into the blood, walking on the water wanted to outdo crossing, the Red Sea, healing, which was a very big part of the magician’s work. Again, we came across those typos in this week’s parsha with a three miracles, the three types of miracles that God shows to his would-be magician, Moses is curing the hand of leprosy, turning the water into blood, and of course, the miracle of the staff. So he tries to make an argument about the historic Jesus, I would tend to say, we can’t do that. All we can say is that with the competition, sometimes healthy, sometimes not so much. between Christianity and Judaism, it made both religions rethink their relationship with miracles, the Church Fathers, even according to Morton Smith, hid these criticisms, they censor the Talmud, where it said that Jesus was a magician, and could heal the sick. But there were other thinkers who have come in and said, you know, really, that Judaism and Christianity, Rabbinic Judaism and Christianity came at the same moment. And some things were influenced in one direction, and others in another. So as we approach Shabbat, which is also Christmas, I think we can safely say that in our texts in our parsah in the texts that are going to be lived and celebrated by our Christian brothers and sisters. There is an open question about what is magical, and what is meaningful. What is wonder, and, and what is simple magic… playing with nature and trying to impress, and I think that’s a fascinating discussion. And if you look at the source notes, books, like Jesus in the Talmud, written by another scholar, and Morton Smith are fascinating. I think we learn about ourselves by learning about other religions that grew at the same time as us.

Adam Mintz  32:58

I think that’s that’s a great way to end. And I think, you know, we raised a whole bunch of fascinating questions about the beginning of the story of Moses, and about the beginning of the relationship of God and Moses, and Morton Smith, who obviously was a legend. You know, and one of the great scholars who was knowledgeable and Talmud and wrote about Christianity, I think he’s the perfect scholar to quote, as we approach Christmas…. he would smile to know that he was quoted as we get ready to, to observe Shabbat, which is also Christmas. So I want to wish everybody Shabbat Shalom, enjoy the beginning of the book of Exodus. It’s a great book, and we look forward next week to continue next week, Geoffrey will start talking about the plagues. And there’s nothing more fascinating than the plagues.

Geoffrey Stern  33:45

So thank you so much, Rabbi, Shabbat Shalom. But I do think that, at least on Madlik, we do have a moment of goodwill to man and peace on earth, we are discussing each other’s texts with respect and learning. And I think we live in a golden age of dialogue, especially between Judaism and Christianity. And any of you who have an opportunity to read some of the books, whether by Levinson, or by Daniel Boyarin , or Morton Smith, or whatever. You’ll be surprised at the level of learning of our Christian brothers and sisters, and their willingness and thirst to learn our texts as well. Michael, welcome to the Bima

Michael Stern  34:34

Thank you, Geoffrey, today’s talk about miracles and what’s a miracle and the burning bush that didn’t burn and using miracles to compete. I’m always relating it to life today is I find it’s a miracle to grow up in an alcoholic home and somehow forgive or to grow up as a gay boy in a religious Jewish home and feel part of the family or to marry a non-Jewish person and be a Jew and be loved and accepted, be ADD …. You made some life situations that we all live with. You turn them into miracles for me a miracle of who each of us are to come out of this evolving time. And I just want to thank you and ask… I know I take it to this different place if, if this resonates and Christmas and bringing it all together and talking about it. As Jews, you just really did a lot of beautiful making magic in real life.

Michael Stern  35:55

Well, thank you so much. I think miracles are kind of like beauty they are in the eye of the beholder. And those of us who want to see miracles can see them everywhere. And maybe that’s ultimately the real message of the burning bush that he saw it and that’s what God saw in him that he was someone who could recognize a miracle when it was there. So Shabbat Shalom, thank you so much all for joining us, and we’ll see you next week.

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Listen to last week’s episode: Members of the Tribe

Members of the Tribe

Parshat Vayechi – Join Geoffrey Stern and Rabbi Adam Mintz recorded on Clubhouse December 16th 2021 as we recognize that Jacob introduced the handle #TwelveTribes. The book of Genesis ends, as does Deuteronomy with blessings over these iconic Twelve Tribes of Israel but the count is unclear.

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Filed under Bible, Jewish jesus, magic, miracle, Religion, Torah

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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Filed under Bible, Hebrew, Israel, Judaism, magic, Religion, social commentary, Torah

judaism: a dirty business

Parshat hukat

The Red Heifer is actually a rather simple ritual.  Death, the result of man’s original sin in Eden and the ultimate insult to our spiritual immortality; makes us ritually impure and is in need of an antidote.  The Red Heifer is that antidote.

The sacrificial cult and culture contained in the Hebrew Bible provides the mother of all sacrifices, an unblemished red cow, which is to be sacrificed, and whose ashes are to be mixed with water and sprinkled by a priest onto those defiled by contact with the dead.  End of story.

But for reasons to be explored below, the Red Heifer represents THE puzzling paradox of the Jewish Religion. (Numbers 19: 2-10)

This is the statute of the law which the LORD hath commanded, saying: Speak unto the children of Israel, that they bring thee a red heifer, faultless, wherein is no blemish, and upon which never came yoke. [1] And a man that is clean shall gather up the ashes of the heifer, and lay them up without the camp in a clean place, and it shall be kept for the congregation of the children of Israel for a water of sprinkling; it is a purification from sin. And he that gathereth the ashes of the heifer shall wash his clothes, and be unclean until the even; and it shall be unto the children of Israel, and unto the stranger that sojourneth among them, for a statute for ever.

 זֹאת חֻקַּת הַתּוֹרָה, אֲשֶׁר-צִוָּה יְהוָה לֵאמֹר:  דַּבֵּר אֶל-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, וְיִקְחוּ אֵלֶיךָ פָרָה אֲדֻמָּה תְּמִימָה אֲשֶׁר אֵין-בָּהּ מוּם, אֲשֶׁר לֹא-עָלָה עָלֶיהָ, עֹל.

[2]

 וְכִבֶּס בְּגָדָיו הַכֹּהֵן, וְרָחַץ בְּשָׂרוֹ בַּמַּיִם, וְאַחַר, יָבֹא אֶל-הַמַּחֲנֶה; וְטָמֵא הַכֹּהֵן, עַד-הָעָרֶב.

וְהַשֹּׂרֵף אֹתָהּ–יְכַבֵּס בְּגָדָיו בַּמַּיִם, וְרָחַץ בְּשָׂרוֹ בַּמָּיִם; וְטָמֵא, עַד-הָעָרֶב.

  וְאָסַף אִישׁ טָהוֹר, אֵת אֵפֶר הַפָּרָה, וְהִנִּיחַ מִחוּץ לַמַּחֲנֶה, בְּמָקוֹם טָהוֹר; וְהָיְתָה לַעֲדַת בְּנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל לְמִשְׁמֶרֶת, לְמֵי נִדָּה–חַטָּאת הִוא.

 וְכִבֶּס הָאֹסֵף אֶת-אֵפֶר הַפָּרָה, אֶת-בְּגָדָיו, וְטָמֵא, עַד-הָעָרֶב; וְהָיְתָה לִבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, וְלַגֵּר הַגָּר בְּתוֹכָם–לְחֻקַּת עוֹלָם.

Rashi immediately goes on the defensive:

This is the statute of the Torah: Because Satan and the nations of the world taunt Israel, saying, “ What is this commandment, and what purpose does it have?” Therefore, the Torah uses the term “statute.” I have decreed it; You have no right to challenge it. — [Yoma 67b]

זאת חקת התורה; לפי שהשטן ואומות העולם מונין את ישראל לומר מה המצוה הזאת ומה טעם יש בה, לפיכך כתב בה חקה, גזירה היא מלפני ואין לך רשות להרהר אחריה 

Sprinkling some water and “poof” your sins are washed away give us moderns the Heebie jeebies, but also seemed to trouble non-Jews of the 1st Century. (Pĕsikta Dĕ-Rab Kahăna, Chapter 4 Parah Aduma)

RHeifer pesikta rav kahana 4 1[3]

But what really made the Red heifer into a theological flash point was the fact that while it purified the impure, the priests involved with it’s preparation and with the sprinkling, were made impure.

מטהרת את הטמאים ומטמאה את הטהורים

[as formulated by Saadia Gaon, The Book of Beliefs and Opinions 3:10] [4]

 

RHeifer pesikta rav kahana 4 2It is hard to understand what made this paradox so perplexing.  After all, if you take a glowing piece of molten metal and put it into a cold pot of water…. The water gets hot and the metal gets cool.  In physics, we call this the law of conservation of energy which states that the total energy of an isolated system cannot change.

Which brings us to God and religion…

The Pĕsikta Dĕ-Rab Kahăna devotes a whole chapter to the Red Heifer and starts as follows:

RHeifer pesikta rav kahana 4 start 1

RHeifer pesikta rav kahana 4 start 2What makes the Red Heifer so audacious is that ultimately it is God who purifies the world and according to the law of the Red Heifer (and the law of the conservation of energy) … God must become impure in the process.

This heresy lies behind the Lurianic Kabbalistic concept of Tzimtzum (צמצום   contraction/constriction/condensation/withdrawal”) that God began the process of creation by “contracting” his infinite light in order to allow for a “conceptual space” in which finite and seemingly independent realms could exist.  If God’s purity is in His infinite nature, then to allow a finite world to exist, He had to contract, or compromise His purity.

This heresy lies behind a lesser known concept sported by Maimonides known as the “gracious ruse” a concept perhaps borrowed from the second-century-C.E. philosopher Alexander of Aphrodisias who developed the theory of divine condescendence (Greek synkatabasis; cf. Arabic talattuf Hebrew:   הערמה האלהית  ibn tibbon ).  Maimonides uses this concept of the Divine trick to explain why God permitted Judaism to be compromised with so many artifacts of paganism:  “It was in accordance with the wisdom and plan of God (literally “gracious ruse”), as displayed in the whole Creation, that He did not command us to give up and to discontinue all these manners of service; for to obey such a commandment it would have been contrary to the nature of man.  Part III, chapter 32

Ultimately, this is the heresy that gave birth to the concept that the suffering, even death of a holy person can purify and redeem the Chosen People. (read Isaiah 53 excerpted below )

He was despised, and forsaken of men, a man of pains, and acquainted with disease, and as one from whom men hide their face: he was despised, and we esteemed him not. Surely our diseases he did bear, and our pains he carried; whereas we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted. But he was wounded because of our transgressions; he was crushed because of our iniquities: the chastisement of our welfare was upon him, and with his stripes we were healed. All we like sheep did go astray, we turned everyone to his own way; and the LORD hath made to light on him the iniquity of us all. … Yet it pleased the LORD to crush him by disease; to see if his soul would offer itself in restitution אָשָׁם נַפְשׁוֹ, that he might see his seed, prolong his days, and that the purpose of the LORD might prosper by his hand: Of the travail of his soul he shall see to the full, even My servant, who by his knowledge did justify the Righteous One to the many, and their iniquities he did bear.  Therefore will I divide him a portion among the great, and he shall divide the spoil with the mighty; because he bared his soul unto death, and was numbered with the transgressors; yet he bore the sin of many וְהוּא חֵטְא-רַבִּים נָשָׂא, and made intercession for the transgressors.

Of no surprise, scholars, even Jewish scholars, have seen this Suffering Servant as a precursor of the, initially Jewish expectation that a messiah will come who will die for our sins (see The Jewish Gospels: The Story of the Jewish Christ by Daniel Boyarin pp150-)

See also “Said R. Ammi, Wherefore is the account of Miriam’s death4 placed next to the [laws of the] red heifer?5 To inform you that even as the red heifer afforded atonement [by the ritual use of its ashes], so does the death of tie righteous afford atonement [for the living they have left behind].  (Moed Katan 28a)

It’s a slippery slope and a short walk to go one step further and require that not the messiah, but God Himself must commit the ultimate compromise and …. Die, so that we can live.

It’s no wonder that when Moses goes up to heaven to visit God he finds God studying the Torah portion of the Red Heifer!

When Moshe went up to the heights of heaven, he heard the voice of the Holy One, blessed be He, as He sat engaged in the study of the passage on the Red Heifer, citing a law in the name of the sage who stated it: “Rabbi Eliezer said: The heifer whose neck is to be broken must be [not more than] one year old; and the red heifer [not more than] two years old.”

Moshe said before the Holy One, blessed be He: “Master of the Universe, worlds above and worlds below are in Your domain, yet You sit and cite a law ascribed to flesh and blood!”

The Holy One, blessed be He, replied: “Moshe, there will arise in My world a righteous man who, [in his concern for the purification of Israel], will begin his instruction of the Oral Law with the passage on the red heifer, and so I, [also concerned for the purification of Israel], say: ‘Rabbi Eliezer said: The heifer whose neck is to be broken must be [not more than] one year old; and the red heifer [not more than] two years old.'” [Pĕsikta Dĕ-Rab Kahăna, Chapter 4] [5]

Fortunately for us Jews, Christianity took this heresy and ran with it.  We Jews replaced the laws of the Red Heifer and the sacrificial cult with prayer and water works… washing our hands and dunking in the mikva (ritual bath). Mishna Yoma 8:10

Rabbi Akiva says: Fortunate are you O Israel! Before whom do you purify yourselves? [And] who purifies you? Your Father in Heaven! As it is said: “I will sprinkle upon you pure water and you shall become purified” (Ezekiel 36:25), and it is further said: “The hope [dewn] of Israel is the Lord” (Jeremiah 17:13), just as a mikvah purifies the defiled so too, does the Holy one Blessed is He, purify Israel

אָמַר רַבִּי עֲקִיבָא

אַשְׁרֵיכֶם יִשְׂרָאֵל

לִפְנֵי מִי אַתֶּם מִטַּהֲרִין

וּמִי מְטַהֵר אֶתְכֶם

אֲבִיכֶם שֶׁבַּשָּׁמַיִם…

וְאוֹמֵר, (ירמיה יז) “מִקְוֵה יִשְׂרָאֵל יְיָ” –

מַה מִּקְוֶה מְטַהֵר אֶת הַטְּמֵאִים

אַף הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא מְטַהֵר אֶת יִשְׂרָאֵל

Akiva changed the model.  Unlike the water of the Red Heifer, the water of the ritual bath (mikveh) is not a zero sum game.  The impurity removed from the impure in the mikveh is not transferred to the living water (בְּמַיִם חַיִּים) of the mikva (Leviticus 15:13), and so presumably God need not be compromised and made impure when He purifies His people.

Judaism may be a dirty business, but fortunately we have Akiba and God Himself reviewing the texts and massaging the data.  As for me… and it’s hot outside… I’m going to take my pre-shabbat dip.

—————–

For a wonderful (hebrew only) source of texts on Parah Adumah go here.

[1] And ye shall give her unto Eleazar the priest, and she shall be brought forth without the camp, and she shall be slain before his face. And Eleazar the priest shall take of her blood with his finger, and sprinkle of her blood toward the front of the tent of meeting seven times. And the heifer shall be burnt in his sight; her skin, and her flesh, and her blood, with her dung, shall be burnt. And the priest shall take cedar-wood, and hyssop, and scarlet, and cast it into the midst of the burning of the heifer. Then the priest shall wash his clothes, and he shall bathe his flesh in water, and afterward he may come into the camp, and the priest shall be unclean until the even.

[2]

וּנְתַתֶּם אֹתָהּ, אֶל-אֶלְעָזָר הַכֹּהֵן; וְהוֹצִיא אֹתָהּ אֶל-מִחוּץ לַמַּחֲנֶה, וְשָׁחַט אֹתָהּ לְפָנָיו.

וְלָקַח אֶלְעָזָר הַכֹּהֵן, מִדָּמָהּ–בְּאֶצְבָּעוֹ; וְהִזָּה אֶל-נֹכַח פְּנֵי אֹהֶל-מוֹעֵד, מִדָּמָהּ–שֶׁבַע פְּעָמִים.

וְשָׂרַף אֶת-הַפָּרָה, לְעֵינָיו:  אֶת-עֹרָהּ וְאֶת-בְּשָׂרָהּ וְאֶת-דָּמָהּ, עַל-פִּרְשָׁהּ יִשְׂרֹף.

וְלָקַח הַכֹּהֵן, עֵץ אֶרֶז וְאֵזוֹב–וּשְׁנִי תוֹלָעַת; וְהִשְׁלִיךְ, אֶל-תּוֹךְ שְׂרֵפַת הַפָּרָה

[3]

שאל עובד כוכבים אחד את רבן יוחנן בן זכאי: אילין עובדייא דאתון עבדין [הדברים האלה שאתם עושים] נראין כמין כשפים. אתם מביאים פרה, ושורפין אותה, וכותשין אותה, ונוטלין את אפרה, ואחד מכם מטמא למת מזין עליו שתים ושלוש טיפין [=טיפות (של מי הפרה)], ואתם אומרים לו: טהרת

[4]

R saadia gaon egel arufa-english1

The Book of beliefs & Opinions, trans Samuel Rosenblatt pp 177-8

The Book of beliefs & Opinions, trans Samuel Rosenblatt pp 177-8

R saadia gaon egel arufa

R. Saadia Gaon, Emunah Vedayot, 3:10

[5]

RHeifer pesikta rav kahana 4 moshe up at sinai

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kavanah – modeh ani

Madlik goes to shul …

My favorite prayer is the first prayer of the day.  The prayer goes as follows:

modeh-ani

Here’s a nice melody for Modeh Ani:


What’s not to like?
The prayer starts with gratitude.
It is  לפנך …. in the moment.
The prayer does not reference God.
It is a prayer of gratitude, in the abstract, without an address… just gratitude.
It is imminently personal, in the first person (unlike the prayers to follow).
And finally, the first reference to belief (emunah) every day, is not to our faith in…. , but rather in a higher being’s faith in us.

Here’s the source in Lamentations 3:22-23

Surely the LORD’S mercies are not consumed …… They are new every morning; great is Thy faithfulness.

….חַסְדֵי יְהוָה כִּי לֹא-תָמְנוּ

חֲדָשִׁים, לַבְּקָרִים, רַבָּה אֱמוּנָתֶךָ.

What’s the back story to this gem of a prayer that comes too early in the day for anyone to notice but sets the tone for the whole morning service?

It turns out that the modeh ani prayer was not written by a humanist. The simple reason that God’s name is not mentioned, is that the awakening individual has not yet washed his/her hands so God’s name cannot be spoken. Not surprisingly, the next prayer is the prayer on washing one’s hands. Which begs the question; why not wash one’s hands and then say a proper prayer?

Unlike the simple washing of one’s hands before prayer or study, this first morning wash is done with a blessing.
One is washing one’s hands after a night’s sleep and a night’s sleep was profoundly important to the Rabbis of the Talmud:

Five things are a sixtieth part of something else: namely, fire, honey, Sabbath, sleep and a dream. Fire is one-sixtieth part of Gehinnom. Honey is one-sixtieth part of manna. Sabbath is one-sixtieth part of the world to come. Sleep is one-sixtieth part of death. A dream is one-sixtieth part of prophecy. [Berachot 57b and See: On Prayer: I Thank You by Rabbi Avi Stewart ]

sleep 1 60th
I’ve always enjoyed thinking of Shabbat as a taste of Olam Haba’ah (the world to come), unfortunately, thinking of sleep as a taste of death doesn’t give me the same lift.

But the Rabbis are doing something quite remarkable here. Death lies at the heart of all impurity (tumah) טָמְאָה. Whether one comes into contact with a corpse, menstruates, gives birth to a child, has a nocturnal emission or is afflicted with leprosy, in one form or another one has been separated or deprived of life or exposed to decay. In biblical times, the opposite of tumah was access to the temple upon becoming clean.
The rabbis introduced a radical dogma to post temple Judaism.. the belief in the resurrection of the dead. And in the prayerbook they have an agenda to weave their belief in the ressurection of the dead (techyat Hametim) into our prayers. They start with Modeh Ani.

But here’s the punch line: If sleep is a taste of death, then waking up is a taste of resurrection!

…..or as R. Alexandri interpreted it: From the fact that You renew us every morning, we know that great is Your faithfulness to resurrect the dead.

I’m not a big believer in the resurrection of the dead, but even I consider resurrection of the dead, diluted to 1/60th (batel b’shishim) to be kosher! If when the Rabbis woke up they got a taste of resurrection, when I get up and read the same prayers, I am refreshed with a taste of the possibility of being re-born on a new day… every day!

With this resurrection-lite in hand, I can follow the rabbis through the morning prayers with new insight and gratitude.
If the Shabbat is a taste of a better world, the morning prayers, starting with Modeh Ani become a taste of being reborn…. radical renewal.

Washing our hands and face when we first wake up and again before prayers (something that has remained more within the ritual and sanctuary architecture of Christianity and Islam) should refresh us.

The next place we encounter rejuvenation is Elohie Neshama

elohaineshama2
The prayer is beautiful, but if you have said it before, you may not have noticed the ending.. “who restores souls to dead bodies”. Armed with our understanding of rising in the morning as an exercise in rising from the dead, not only does the prayer make sense, but, as only a taste of rising from the dead, it retains its beauty but with new empowerment.

The other morning blessings also take on new meaning. The whole list of blessings that thank God “who made me “in His image”, “a Jew”, “free” make more sense if we are newly created … each morning.

“Clothing the naked”, “releasing the bound” מתיר אסורים and “straightens the bent” זוקפ כפופים relate directly to the steps of rising in the morning… but also the steps of being born again, and tie directly into  the Ashrei (Psalm 145 and Psalm 146) and the second blessing of the Silent Prayer (amidah). We are beginning to see how central to the theme of the morning service, this thread of reviving the dead becomes.

The climax of the early morning blessings is the last one… Thank you God for giving strength to the weary…which is what I ask of my morning coffee, revival of the dead and which, it appears, is the goal of our morning prayers, if said properly.

As we move on, in the Psalm of Shabbat we pick up this theme again (Psalms 92: 3)

To declare Thy lovingkindness in the morning, and Thy faithfulness in the night,
לְהַגִּיד בַּבֹּקֶר חַסְדֶּךָ; וֶאֱמוּנָתְךָ, בַּלֵּילוֹת
Here again… the faithfulness that is referenced is God’s faith for man…

With Psalm 90 “A Prayer of Moses” we catch up again with earlier, Biblical themes of morning as rebirth and night as sin, decline and death.

For a thousand years in Thy sight are but as yesterday when it is past, and as a watch in the night.
Thou carriest them away as with a flood; they are as a sleep; in the morning they are like grass which groweth up.
In the morning it flourisheth, and groweth up; in the evening it is cut down, and withereth.
For we are consumed in Thine anger, and by Thy wrath are we hurried away.
Thou hast set our iniquities before Thee, our secret sins in the light of Thy countenance.
For all our days are passed away in Thy wrath; we bring our years to an end as a tale that is told….

O satisfy us in the morning with Thy mercy; that we may rejoice and be glad all our days.

כִּי אֶלֶף שָׁנִים, בְּעֵינֶיךָ– כְּיוֹם אֶתְמוֹל, כִּי יַעֲבֹר;
וְאַשְׁמוּרָה בַלָּיְלָה.
זְרַמְתָּם, שֵׁנָה יִהְיוּ; בַּבֹּקֶר, כֶּחָצִיר יַחֲלֹף.
בַּבֹּקֶר, יָצִיץ וְחָלָף; לָעֶרֶב, יְמוֹלֵל וְיָבֵשׁ.
כִּי-כָלִינוּ בְאַפֶּךָ; וּבַחֲמָתְךָ נִבְהָלְנוּ.
שת (שַׁתָּה) עֲו‍ֹנֹתֵינוּ לְנֶגְדֶּךָ; עֲלֻמֵנוּ, לִמְאוֹר פָּנֶיךָ.
כִּי כָל-יָמֵינוּ, פָּנוּ בְעֶבְרָתֶךָ; כִּלִּינוּ שָׁנֵינוּ כְמוֹ-הֶגֶה.

שַׂבְּעֵנוּ בַבֹּקֶר חַסְדֶּךָ; וּנְרַנְּנָה וְנִשְׂמְחָה, בְּכָל-יָמֵינוּ.

As mentioned above, we encounter the sources of the early morning blessings in Psalm 145 and Psalm 146

The LORD upholdeth all that fall, and raiseth up all those that are bowed down.

סוֹמֵךְ יְהוָה, לְכָל-הַנֹּפְלִים; וְזוֹקֵף, לְכָל-הַכְּפוּפִים.

Who executeth justice for the oppressed; who giveth bread to the hungry. The LORD looseth the prisoners;
The LORD openeth the eyes of the blind; the LORD raiseth up them that are bowed down; the LORD loveth the righteous;

עֹשֶׂה מִשְׁפָּט, לָעֲשׁוּקִים–נֹתֵן לֶחֶם, לָרְעֵבִים; יְהוָה, מַתִּיר אֲסוּרִים.
יְהוָה, פֹּקֵחַ עִוְרִים–יְהוָה, זֹקֵף כְּפוּפִים; יְהוָה, אֹהֵב צַדִּיקִים.

Clearly there are other themes besides waking in the morning and rebirth which the curator of the siddur is weaving into our prayers, but this radical renewal is certainly the first theme and one that is sustained until the Silent prayer; the Amidah.

Here’s the second blessing of the Amidah which recycles many of the terms we have been seeing and adds “those who sleep in the dust לישני עפר to our repertoire:

You are mighty forever, my Lord; You resurrect the dead; You are powerful to save.

He sustains the living with loving kindness, resurrects the dead with great mercy, supports the falling, heals the sick, releases the bound, and fulfills His trust to those who sleep in the dust. Who is like You, mighty One! And who can be compared to You, King, who brings death and restores life, and causes deliverance to spring forth!
You are trustworthy to revive the dead. Blessed are You Lord, who revives the dead.

2nd blessing of amidah

Our theme ends with Modim Anachnu מוֹדִים אֲנַֽחְנוּ, the public version of the very private Modeh Ani מודה אני which which we began our morning. It is not only in the plural, but since the Amidah is chanted morning, afternoon and night, it covers our whole waking day, and besides repeating the sense of dependency it introduces the wonder and awe we have for the miricle that is life.  It ends, as Modeh Ani began; with gratitude (Thanks – הוֹדוֹת).

We thankfully acknowledge that You are the Lord our God and God of our ancestors forever. You are the strength of our life, the shield of our salvation in every generation. We will give thanks to You and recount Your praise, evening, morning and noon, for our lives which are committed into Your hand, for our souls which are entrusted to You, for Your miracles which are with us daily, and for Your continual wonders and beneficences. You are the Beneficent One, for Your mercies never cease; the Merciful One, for Your kindnesses never end; for we always place our hope in You. And for all these, may Your Name, our King, be continually blessed, exalted and extolled forever and all time. And all living things shall forever thank You, and praise Your great Name eternally, for You are good. God, You are our everlasting salvation and help, O benevolent God. Blessed are You Lord, Beneficent is Your Name, and to You it is fitting to offer thanks.

מוֹדִים אֲנַֽחְנוּ לָךְ,
שָׁאַתָּה הוּא, ה’ אֱ-לֹהֵֽינוּ וֵא-לֹהֵי אֲבוֹתֵֽינוּ, לְעוֹלָם
וָעֶד,
צוּר חַיֵּֽינוּ, מָגֵן יִשְׁעֵֽנוּ, אַתָּה הוּא לְדוֹר וָדוֹר,
נֽוֹדֶה לְּךָ וּנְסַפֵּר תְּהִלָּתֶֽךָ,
עַל חַיֵּֽינוּ הַמְּסוּרִים בְּיָדֶֽךָ,
וְעַל נִשְׁמוֹתֵֽינוּ הַפְּקוּדוֹת לָךְ,
וְעַל נִסֶּֽיךָ שֶׁבְּכָל יוֹם עִמָּֽנוּ,
וְעַל נִפְלְאוֹתֶֽיךָ וְטוֹבוֹתֶֽיךָ שֶׁבְּכָל עֵת, עֶֽרֶב וָבֹֽקֶר
וְצָהֳרָֽיִם,
הַטּוֹב, כִּי לֹא כָלוּ רַחֲמֶֽיךָ,
וְהַמְרַחֵם, כִּי לֹא תַֽמּוּ חֲסָדֶֽיךָ, מֵעוֹלָם קִוִּֽינוּ לָךְ.
וְעַל כֻּלָּם יִתְבָּרַךְ וְיִתְרוֹמַם שִׁמְךָ מַלְכֵּֽנוּ תָּמִיד
לְעוֹלָם וָעֶד.
וְכֹל הַחַיִּים יוֹדֽוּךָ סֶּֽלָה,
וִיהַלְלוּ אֶת שִׁמְךָ בֶּאֱמֶת,
הָאֵ-ל יְשׁוּעָתֵֽנוּ וְעֶזְרָתֵֽנוּ סֶֽלָה.
בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה’, הַטּוֹב שִׁמְךָ וּלְךָ נָאֶה לְהוֹדוֹת.

Looking forward to exploring more themes in Jewish Prayer the future…..

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purim torah

purim

Did you know that on Purim we celebrate the acceptance of the Torah.

The Talmud reveals that the original acceptance of the Torah at Mt. Sinai, was under duress and therefore non-binding:

And they stood under the mount (Exodus 19:17)

וַיִּתְיַצְּבוּ, בְּתַחְתִּית הָהָר

R. Abdimi b. Hama b. Hasa said: This teaches that the Holy One, blessed be He, overturned the mountain upon them like an [inverted] cask, and said to them, ‘If ye accept the Torah, ’tis well; if not, there shall be your burial.’ R. Aha b. Jacob observed: This furnishes a strong protest against the Torah. Said Raba, Yet even so, they re-accepted it in the days of Ahasuerus, for it is written, [the Jews] confirmed, and took upon them (Esther 9:27) what they had already accepted.

ויתיצבו בתחתית ההר, אמר רב אבדימי בר חמא בר חסא: מלמד שכפה הקדוש ברוך הוא עליהם

את ההר כגיגית, ואמר להם: אם אתם מקבלים התורה – , מוטב ואם לאו – שם תהא קבורתכם. אמר רב אחא

בר יעקב: מכאן מודעא רבה לאורייתא. אמר רבא: אף על פי כן, הדור קבלוה בימי אחשורוש . דכתיב

קימו וקבלו היהודים, קיימו מה שקיבלו כבר

[Babylonian Talmud: Tractate Shabbath 88a]

One wonders what was going through Raba’s mind that Purim popped into his head in terms of the final acceptance of the Torah…. What was he thinking… or drinking?[i]

Maybe Raba was on to something.  There’s something special about Purim and the Esther Megillah. Purim is the last Biblically ordained holiday and the scroll that we read on the evening and morning of Purim is actually the last book of the Torah.  Could it be that for Raba, Purim and the Book of Esther represented the last chapter, the Jewish people’s last chance and God’s last word? Could it be that for Raba, Purim celebrates the last echo of revelation?

If we are right, then Raba’s association of Purim with the acceptance of the Torah is both profound and ironic given that the Book of Esther’s claim to fame was so tenuous. Megilat Esther does not contain God’s name, was not written in or mention the Promised Land of Israel and includes highly unorthodox behavior including Esther’s marriage to a non-Jew, probable ingestion of non-kosher food (Megilah 13a) and no reference to any Jewish practices or the Temple. [ii]  It’s inclusion in the Canon (Torah, Prophets and Writings – Tanakh) was openly debated. [iii]

To my mind, the winning Talmudic argument for including the Scroll of Esther in the canon of the Hebrew Bible provides an insight into Raba’s understanding of the last revelation.

The Talmud[iv] asks “What is the source in Torah for Esther?  And cites Deuteronomy 31:18  “I will surely hide my face from you on that day” playing on the meaning of the name “Esther” to hide.

In a brilliant essay, Richard Elliot Friedman identifies the underlying plot of the Hebrew Bible.  He writes:  “Specifically, the major unifying component of the biblical plot is the phenomenon of the continually diminishing apparent presence of Yahweh among humans from the beginning of the book to the end, the phenomenon of Deus absconditus or, in the book’s own terms, Yahweh hammastir panav [hiding my Face]…”. Over a number of pages, Friedman shows how there is a clear transition, from Eden, when God takes care of everything through Noah, where Noah must build his own ark and to Jacob where Jacob must steal his own birthright. “Something is happening. For whatever reason, Yahweh is transferring (relinquishing?) ever more control of the course of human affairs to members of the human community.”

“In Moses’ own time, ..the people’s experience of the divine is mediated through Moses, or “masked” through the Kabod [glory] and the anan [cloud], or channeled through a series of layers…. Finally, Yahweh’s last words to Moses before summoning him to Abarim, he says, “I shall hide my face from them..” “After Moses, prophets are to experience only dreams and visions….” [v]

Commenting on The Book of Esther, he writes: “The narrative from Genesis to Esther has come full cycle from a stage on which God is alone to one on which humans are on their own. Through no longer in control of miraculous powers, humans have arrived at complete responsibility for their fortunes.”

For my fellow Feminists, interested in the connection between Eve and Esther go to the footnote[vi], but be assured that the Humantasch is the antidote for the Apple of Eden!

(see The Hiding of the Face: An essay on the literary unity of Biblical Narrative, by Richard Elliot Friedman in Judaic Perspectives on Ancient Israel ed Jacob Neusner Wipf and Stock publishers 1987).

On Purim, let’s celebrate the final giving and acceptance of the Torah. The lesson of reading the Esther Megillah with a blessing (the only one of the Ketuvim to be read with a blessing)  is to finalize what began at Sinai. On Purim we accept the end of revelation and the end of magical thinking and complete acceptance of our responsibilities as humans. We masquerade to remember, that at this giving of the Torah, we do not see or hear God, He is hidden from us and maybe we from Him. We exchange food with each other in the way that two lonely humans touch. Whether lovers, neighbors or strangers, that touch, hug or deliver a box of welcome-brownies we show that we are not alone. We experience real Simcha knowing that we as a people and as individuals have survived against all odds. And….  and like survivors since Noah after the flood… we might need a drink.  And finally, we celebrate women.. who may get us into trouble.. but more often… like Esther… save us.

Purim as a holiday celebrating the acceptance of the Torah, is transformed.  Think of the audience participation… the shouting, cheering and booing as a variation, maybe an improvement on the custom to solemnly stand as the Ten Commandments are read. Look to the side at the cross-dressing Jew standing next to you, and reflect that now that we are all alone, we are also all together, and yes, we all stood at Sinai and maybe we didn’t look that different than this crazy mixed multitude in attendance.

L’Chaim!

Esther


[i] As long as we’re connecting the story of Purim to the giving of the Torah, we might as well mention the Fast of Esther.

Before Esther goes, uninvited to the King to  plead for the Jews she tells Mordechai:

‘Go, gather together all the Jews that are present in Shushan, and fast ye for me, and neither eat nor drink three days, night or day; I also and my maidens will fast in like manner; and so will I go in unto the king, which is not according to the law; and if I perish, I perish.’ (Megilat Esther 4:16)

A three day fast appears in only one other place:

And the LORD said unto Moses: ‘Go unto the people, and sanctify them to-day and to-morrow, and let them wash their garments, and be ready against the third day; for the third day the LORD will come down in the sight of all the people upon Mount Sinai. (Exodus 19: 12)

[ii] see A Jewish Reading of Esther, Edward L. Greenstein, pp 231 – 233 in Judaic Perspectives on Ancient Israel ed Jacob Neusner Wipf and Stock publishers 1987.

[iii] Reb Judah said in the name of Samuel “The scroll of Esther does not defile the hands (unlike a Sefer Torah) and as such was not divinely inspired [Megilah 7a). “All of the Hebrew scripture is represented at Qumron (Dead Sea Scrolls) except for the Scroll of Esther [and] it is possible that the sectarians did not observe the Purim festival and rejected the book which enjoins its observance. (see pp 106-107, 113 – 114 and note 301, The Canonization of the Hebrew Scripture by Sid Z. Leiman, Archon Books, 1976)

[iv] Hullin 139b

[v] The last major public miracle… is that of Elijah at Carmel (Kings 1:19). … In a fascinating juxtaposition.. is followed by the portrayal of Elijah at Horeb. Again we see a lone prophet on Horeb/Sinai, but Elijah’s experience there is a reversal of Moses. In the place of the supreme theophany come three phenomena… (earthquake, wind, and fire), each followed by the specific qualification “Yahweh was not in (it),”.. With the destruction of the Temple at the conclusion of the Book of Kings, the last channel is removed. The prediction that Yahweh’s face will be hidden is fulfilled… Yahweh plays no apparent role whatever in the Books of Ezra and Nehemiah, and he is not mentioned in Esther.

[vi] Friedman continues: “Seen in the light of the increasing responsibility ascribed to humans through the course of the narrative, Esther is no less interesting,… Woman, Eve, has been blamed for millennia for entering upon the course of action that brought humans out of their initial state of harmonious relations with Yahweh (Genesis 3). It seems only fair, ironic, and appropriate that the narrative concludes with a story in which humans, now in a world, in which the presence of god is hidden, turn to a woman as their chief hope of rescue. One may interpret the Eve-to-Esther connection differently, but one can hardly ignore it. Each of the Bible’s bookends has a woman’s face carved on it.”

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sacrificing the truth

Parshat Vaiyikra

On Rosh Hashanah morning, the Rabbi noticed little Adam staring up at the large plaque that hung in the foyer of the synagogue. It was covered with names, and small flags were mounted on either side.
The seven-year old had been staring at the plaque for some time, so the Rabbi walked up, stood beside the boy.
Still focused on the plaque Adam asked. “Rabbi, what is this?” “Well, it’s a memorial to all the young men and women who died in the service.”
Soberly, they stood together, staring at the large plaque. Little Adam’s voice was barely audible when he asked: “Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur service?” (Jewish humor)

The truth in this joke is that much of our “service” (hebrew: Avodah) relates to sacrifice, death and transferring to our youth guilt and victimhood from the past.  You might be surprised to learn that it is traditional for children to begin their study of the Torah, not with the wonderful stories of Genesis but rather with the sacrifices of Leviticus.

Rabbi Assi said: Why do young children commence with [the Book of] ‘The Law of Priests, and not with [the Book of] Genesis? – Surely it is because young children are pure, and the sacrifices are pure; so let the pure come and engage in the study of the pure. (Leviticus Rabbah 7:3)

It also has been suggested that Jewish learning began here to teach from the outset that life involves sacrifice. One contemporary writer suggests, “In sacrifice, we could for a fleeting moment imagine our own death and yet go on living… No other form of worship can so effectively liberate a person from the fear of living in the shadow of death.” [i]

I am dubious of these contemporary writers and doubt that the experience of an animal being butchered and burnt is liberating.  I have no doubt that exposing a child to animal sacrifice is anything but liberating.  Animal sacrifice is in inextricably connected to human sacrifice, fear and guilt and should be used with care when it comes to child rearing.. especially at the kindergarten (cheder) level.

With regard to an emphasis on the “They died in Service” mentality, it’s ironic (or is it?) that the word Holocaust comes from the Greek ὁλόκαυστος holókaustoshólos, “whole” and kaustós, “burnt” and is ultimately a Leviticus term for a wholly burnt offering.

Although I am sure that your child’s Hebrew School or Hebrew Day School does not follow Rabbi Assi’s pedagogical approach and may not even teach Leviticus, it seems to me that too much of Jewish Education carries his baggage.  When Jewish education is not focused on Holocaust studies and anti-semitism, it focuses on pro-Israel studies that force-feed the purity of our cause to children at as young and pure an age as possible.

Back in 2007, two prominent sociologists Steven M. Cohen and Ari Kelman published a study named “Beyond Distancing,” which “found a consistent increase in alienation in each younger generation, with middle-aged Jews less attached to Israel than older Jews, and younger Jews less attached than middle-aged Jews. (See: The Jewish Daily Forward: Attachment to Israel Declining Among Young American Jews).  These findings where complimented by the more recent PEW survey of Jews in America.

Alex Pomson, senior researcher at the Melton Centre for Jewish Education at Hebrew University did a study of Hebrew Day School students based on multiple interviews and found that a one-sided approach to Israel Studies was not preparing our youth for the college campus and actually creating distance rather than closeness to Israel.

Here are some examples of the interview responses Pomson based his study on:

For instance, “Mike” (a pseudonym), who attends an Orthodox school, said he felt a strong and unwavering commitment to Israel as “the foundation of my existence.” But he also acknowledged that he believed he has been “spoon fed propaganda” about the Jewish state by his teachers over the years.

“It’s too late for me,” he said wistfully, at the tender age of 16, in terms of changing his mind about Israeli policies. He and several other students who spoke almost robotically about their views sounded like their connection to Israel was a mile wide and a few inches deep.

“Naomi,” another student at an Orthodox school, said she was reluctant to talk about Israel and was not sure she would call herself a Zionist but plans to spend a post-high school year in the Jewish state.

(In general, the students were vague and uncomfortable when asked to define “Zionism,” and whether they considered themselves “Zionists.” Clearly, the terms have taken on negative baggage; one teacher at a conference session geared to high school educators noted that it was “painful to watch these day school students who can’t define one of most simple values of the Jewish community,” adding: “And I’m sure the students in our school would answer the same way.”)
See: Students Seen ‘Suspicious’ Of Israel Education – Study released at national day school conference February 8, 2011 and, Day Schools Need New Israel Ed Approach, editorial; Gary Rosenblatt February 16, 2011 [ii]

“The challenging conclusion,” he [Pomson] said at a plenary of the three-day conference, is that students are “suspicious” of what they hear from adults and “distance themselves from what they hear in the classroom.” And a frequent criticism is that the schools and teachers are “biased,” These findings indicate it may be more effective to present students with information on both sides of an issue — particularly one as complex as Israel — and let them form their own opinion rather than shielding them from criticism or being perceived as forcing on them the “correct” response.

I just returned from the AIPAC (The American Israel Public Affairs Committee) policy conference and was struck by the diversity of the speakers, presenters and performers.  I attended a breakout session on “Civilian Coexistence” in Israel which featured an entire panel identified with the Israeli left,

As reported in the JTA

The room of about 100 people was warm and welcoming. Ali Waked, an Arab Israeli who heads Merchavim, a dialogue group, drew applause when he said, “I want to be a first-class citizen of the state of Israel, with keeping my Arab and Palestinian identity.”

He discussed discrimination against Arabs in Israel. “When 20-25 percent of citizens are uncomfortable, it should be a warning,” he said. No one contradicted him; instead, there were vigorous nods.

Another speaker was Yarden Leal from the Peres Center for Peace.  I met with her later in the week and she confirmed how pleasantly surprised she and her fellow panelists were by the genuinely warm and supportive reception from AIPAC attendees. As a longtime (and liberal) AIPAC member, I can tell you that this has always been the case.  I wonder if J Street hosts such a diverse spectrum of panelists…..

That’s not to say, that there wasn’t a lot of one-sided propaganda and a prime minister who defamed all critics of Israel’s policies who support a boycott, as anti-Semites, but there was still, and always has been, a healthy exposure to policy makers from all over the political spectrum at AIPAC.  I believe that the best approach to pro-Israel advocacy is to emphasize the complexity of the issues and situation, not the purity of the pro-Israel position.

We can’t sacrifice the truth to fear, persecution anxiety, guilt or ideological or rhetorical purity…. especially when it comes to educating our children.

bound_lamb_3


[i] (see Etz Hayim: Torah and Commentary intro to Leviticus by Baruch Levine p. 586 and How to Look Death in the Eyes: Freud and Bataille by Liran Razinsky for a treatment of such contemporary writers, including Hegel and Heidegger..)

[ii] If you’re interested in the subject of Jewish Education, I suggest that you read in-full the two articles in the Jewish Week (above) and if you’re really ambitious, you can read the original finding by Pomson.

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the hiker’s guide to zionism

Parshat Vayishlach [i]

Genesis could be read as the recurring tale of exile and return.  Adam and Eve are exiled from Eden, Cain is marked as a wonderer on the earth and the flood removes Noah from the face of the earth and famine causes the temporary migration of both Abraham and Isaac.  Sin is usually associated with, or the cause of exile.  In the case of Adam and Eve and Cain, the sin is Original Sin or fratricide, respectively. In the case of Noah, the sin is of humankind, and in the case of Abraham and Isaac, it is exile itself that makes them into liars as they both claim their wives are their sisters.

If the purpose of a grim fairy tale is to help the reader master a difficult subject, then the repetition of the exile and return motif may be designed to help the reader internalize a core component of the Jewish pathos.

It is with Jacob that the return to the homeland takes gets some meat on its bones.  Maybe because Jacob is exiled as a child, without a wife, without a profession and without any possessions, when he returns with all of the above, it is a true return from exile.  In any case, one could argue that Jacob was the first Zionist.

Zionism as a 19th century movement, was not simply a migration ideology or even as some of it’s critics would argue, a movement of physical or cultural imperialism.  Rather, Zionism, at it’s core, was a 19th century articulation of an earlier Jewish (Hebraic) belief that Judaism could be practiced only in the historical land of Israel and by extension, that Jews (Hebrews) could only be themselves (normal) in the land of Israel.

This view did not emerge in the 19th century, it actually lies at the heart of the word Zion.

Deuteronomy 11, 18 (the 2nd paragraph of the Shma prayer recited twice a day and containd in both the tephilin and the mezuzah):

And you shall set these words of Mine upon your heart and upon your soul, and bind them for a sign upon your hand and they shall be for ornaments between your eyes.

 וְשַׂמְתֶּם אֶת דְּבָרַי אֵלֶּה עַל לְבַבְכֶם וְעַל נַפְשְׁכֶם וּקְשַׁרְתֶּם אֹתָם לְאוֹת עַל יֶדְכֶם וְהָיוּ לְטוֹטָפֹת בֵּין עֵינֵיכֶם:

Rashi:    And you shall set these words of Mine: Even after you have been exiled, make yourselves distinctive with My commandments: Put on tefillin and make mezuzoth , so that these will not be new to you when you return. Similarly, it is said, “Set up markers for yourself” (Jer. 31:20). – [Sifrei]

ושמתם את דברי: אף לאחר שתגלו היו מצויינים במצות, הניחו תפילין, עשו מזוזות כדי שלא יהיו לכם חדשים כשתחזרו. וכן הוא אומר (ירמיה לא, כ) הציבי לך ציונים:

There have always been a category of the commandments which are only practiced in the land of Israel (מצוות התלויות בארץ), but Rashi (based on the Sifrei Deuteronomy 43) is saying something much more radical here…. Namely, that Judaism can only be practiced in the land of Israel!

This is also the position of the Ramban which is that the fulfillment of even personal obligations in the Diaspora is meant to serve as training for fulfilling those same mitzvot in Israel; rituals, rites and commandments fulfilled in exile serve as signposts, leading the way back to living in the Land of Israel according to the Torah.  Rabbeinu Bachya similarly holds with regard to all mitzvot for which the essential obligation is in Israel, “These are the statutes and judgments which you shall observe to do in the land” (Devarim 12:1) — for all the mitzvot are the judgments of the God of the land.

It is interesting that none of the commentaries note the play on words of Zion and signposts… markers.

The word Tzion[ii] is usually taken to mean a sunny or parched place… another name for Jerusalem especially in the prophetic books… but as Rashi notes, it can also mean a signpost, monument, market[iii]… some have suggested: migration paths…

Only fro mthis perspective are statements in the Talmud such as:

Whoever lives in the Land of Israel may be considered to have a God, but whoever lives outside the Land may be regarded as one who has no God. For it is said in Scripture, ‘To give you the Land of Canaan, to be your God’ (Leviticus 25:38). Has he, then, who does not live in the Land, no God? But [this is what the text intended] to tell you, that whoever lives outside the Land may be regarded as one who worships idols. Similarly it was said in Scripture in [the story of] David, ‘For they have driven me out this day that I should not cleave to the inheritance of the Lord, saying: Go, serve other gods’ (First Samuel 26:19). Now, whoever said to David, ‘Serve other gods’? Rather, [the text intends] to tell you that whoever lives outside the Land may be regarded as one who worships idols” (Ketubot 110b)

Clearly there are other religions and cultures that have holy sites at which special rituals need be fulfilled.  Think of Mecca for the Hajj.  The Parsis in India who consider certain geographical locations critical to rights such as burial, do not accept converts and have a healthy diaspora.

One can certainly imagine the original Zionism as the belief of a migrating tribe in the holiness of the land of Canaan, where rituals practiced outside of the land were only previews and rehearsals and were the real show opens and runs only in the Holy Land.

Jewish thinkers, leaders and masses carried these notions through two thousand years of diaspora and nineteenth century secular Zionist thinker simply adopted this primal concept into a modern, but unique ideological movement.  Zionism was neither imperialism nor racism.

For those of us who live outside of the land of Israel and consider ourselves Zionists it is humbling to know that Zionism (and Judaism) is not an ideology but rather a zip code but it is also radically exciting.  Location specific Judaism confirms what we feel as we drive around this country and meet Israelis of every variation.  It is confirmed when we take a hike on the clearly marked Israel trail with a secular Israeli pointing out ancient aqueducts, iconic kibbutzim and modern day borders…and without a hidden agenda or political lesson to be learnt. This is truly the holy land and one of the best ways to feel it, breath it and experience it is to follow the markers and take a hike.

israel trail


[i] For a previous Madlik post on parshat vayishlach, see appeasement first.

[ii] Strong’s H6726 – Tsiyown

Tzion-1

[iii] Strong’s H6725 – tsiyuwn

Tzion-2

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The Fast of Yitzchak

Parshat Chayei Sarah

In uncomfortable situations we don’t always say what we mean.  Sometimes we even say the opposite of what we mean.. sometimes we call something the opposite of what it is.  Depending on the inflection or context such misnomers come off as irony, sarcasm, dementia or a Freudian slip.  Sometimes a word or an expression simply change meaning. [i]

The portion of the annual Torah reading cycle, Chayei Sarah, is a perfect example.  Chayei like Chai, means “life” as in the Life of Sarah, but the reading is about Sarah’s death.

Of course the best misnomer is the Akedát Yitzḥák the “Binding of Isaac” commonly known as the “Sacrifice of Isaac”.  As we should all be aware, Isaac was not sacrificed.  This non-event should be called the Non-Sacrifice of Isaac or simply “The Un-Binding”.

The mischaracterization of this non-event is possibly an outcome of the ambivalence, ambiguity, irony and generally high level of discomfort that is the legacy of this troubling narrative.

But here’s the news flash: The unbinding of Isaac killed his mother Sarah.

Says Rashi: The account of Sarah’s demise was juxtaposed to the binding of Isaac because as a result of the news of the “binding,” that her son was prepared for slaughter and was almost slaughtered, her soul flew out of her, and she died. — from Gen. Rabbah 58:5]

לספוד לשרה ולבכתה: ונסמכה מיתת שרה לעקידת יצחק, לפי שעל ידי בשורת העקידה שנזדמן בנה לשחיטה וכמעט שלא נשחט, פרחה נשמתה ממנה ומתה:

Events have repercussions.  The bizarre urge to sacrifice to God or the gods and the equally grotesque desire for martyrdom were strong within Judaism and Christianity up until modern times and survive in radical Islam till today…. and some would argue survive as a tumor in remission in most religions, including ours.

It is for this reason that the Unbinding of Isaac plays such a central role in our commentaries and liturgy.  Isaac’s blindness is attributed to the tears shed over him by his father, the Angel and maybe God.

The chapter of the Akeda is read on the first day of Rosh Hashanah, the new year…. The sacrifice of the Ten Martyrs is memorialized (glorified?) on Yom Kippur.  The angst of the Unbinding lives on.

A religion such as Judaism which believes in a God in History becomes irrelevant when it stops marking history, it’s religious and community leaders lose their mantel.   Our tradition lost no time in marking the significance of the unbinding of Isaac … starting with Sarah’s death.

Human sacrifice, even attempted human sacrifice can never be a footnote. Murder, and even attempted murder needs to be signified.  Which brings me to the Fast of Yitzchak …. By way of the Fast of Gedaliah.

Gedaliah, an unremarkable governor of Judea was murdered by fellow Jews, which ended Jewish autonomy following the destruction of the First Temple.  Our leaders instituted a Fast Day on the anniversary of Gedaliah’s assassination which occurred, ironically, the day after Rosh Hashanah.  Was the fast day to mourn the loss of Jewish autonomy or was it to mourn the Jew-on-Jew violence and virus of human sacrifice which lay behind this loss?  Who knows. There are those that say that Gedaliah was actually an appeaser and his killers were zealots.  Who is to say… but the fast was institutionalized and is observed by observant Jews till today.

The Sacrifice of Yitzhak Rabin z’l, was not a non-event, not an allegory .. unlike the Unbinding, it actually happened.  What is an affront to Judaism is that  the Fast of Yitzchak has not made it into the Jewish Calendar. This year the 18th anniversary of Rabin’s assassination (12th of Marcheshvan)  fell on October 16th the week that the parsha of the Akeda was read.  The common date will be on November 4th.

The poverty of our religious, communal and political leadership is nowhere more apparent than in the non-event of  the Fast of Yitzchak.

Is it because the event is still too recent and raw or is it just politics? Surely we can all agree that no matter what one’s politics; human sacrifice, martyrdom and Jew-on-Jew violence let alone assassination will destroy us.

One educator in Israel asks the same question of Israeli students every year:

“What does your school do on Rabin Day?”

The most painful answer, that I received in several different orthodox schools, was always delivered with a combination of defensiveness and dismissiveness: “Well I didn’t kill him…”

That our youth demonstrate such ambivalence and discomfort with Yitzchak Rabin’s death is surely sign enough that we should consider making the Fast of Yitzchak into reality.

This November 4th I will remember Rabin, but I will mourn the Children of Sarah, who unlike their matriarch cannot rise above political ideology and eschatological end-of-days planning to feel revulsion for child sacrifice… sacrificing one of our own.  I will mourn a nation without leaders and without a Fast of Yitzchak.[ii]

rabin 18

Event commemorating the 18th anniversary of Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination, Rabin Square, Tel Aviv, October 12. Photo by Daniel Bar-On.


[i] One of my favorite examples is the word for “good for nothing” “batlan.  In the Talmud it means, not only unemployed, but especially those who are unemployed and hang around the synagogue during prayer time and/or spend their day in study.  Nowadays, especially in the Yeshiva world, a Batlan is someone who does not study!  I suppose that Paul Simon was correct, “one man’s ceiling is another man’s floor.see Mishnah Megilla 1,3 and R”N and Meiri

[ii] See also: The Fast of Gedaliah: Fear and loathing in Jerusalem: Fast of Gedaliah commemorates a political assassination after the destruction of the First Temple. Have we learned its 2,600-year-old lesson? By Arie Hasit  Sep. 9, 2013

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God’s Crooked Red Line

Hoshana Rabbah

If you practice your Judaism only once a year, it’s probably shrewd to binge on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur… after all, it’s a matter of life and death….

On Rosh Hashanah it is inscribed,
And on Yom Kippur it is sealed.
How many shall pass away and how many shall be born,
Who shall live and who shall die… [Unetanah Tokef prayer]

It’s pretty clear that once the sun sets on Yom Kippur the gates are closed and all bets are off… after all the service is called Ne’ilah… as in “closing time”.

Everyone knows that Ne’ila is God’s ultimatum…. Except when it’s not…

Tradition holds that contrary to what you figured when you overpaid for those high holiday tickets, the “Gates of Repentance” remain open until Hoshanah Rabbah, which is more than a week latter and a free for all. [See: Hoshanah Rabbah as a Day of Judgment, Prof. Yosef Tavori, Bar Ilan University]

So, now your thinking that Hoshanah Rabbah is God’s Red Line… You have until Hoshanah Rabbah to repent… or else.

Except in a leap year… that is….

In a leap year, such as this year of 5774, when Rosh Hashanah falls before we’ve had a chance to put away our white (not-after-labor-Day) shoes and Hanukah coincides with Thanksgiving, we need to add a whole month (Adar II) to the calendar to get back in sync.

In such a year the Rabbis added two words to the Rosh Hodesh Musaf Prayer of the intervening months.  The words “Ulechaprat Pesha” which mean for the “forgivenenss of sin”.    There are many reasons suggested for the addition of these words, but they all have one thing in common.  The additional 13th month is a fashla…. a screw-up.  If we had a decent calender, it wouldn’t be possible to celebrate the Fall Harvest in the middle of the summer or the Spring rites of renewal in the middle of he winter.  By adding a month we apply a temporary fix, but who knows if we’re doing it right, who knows whether we’re eating pita when we should be eating matzah?  Is it our fault or is it God’s?  Who knows and who cares… we’re in this mess together. Maybe that’s why we get and give a little more sympathy and understanding during a leap year and add “Ulechaprat Pesha” until the Leap Month of Adar Sheni.  According to Rabbi Robert Tobin (in a private conversation) the addition of  “Ulechaprat Pesha” signifies that the gates of judgment are open for an additional six months.

In the meantime, if you have an opportunity to visit a traditional synagogue on Hoshana Rabbah morning you will experience a unique (* religio-magical pagan originating and surviving in Christianity) ritual and service where willows are rustled, smacked against the ground and Yom Kippur-like prayers are chanted, weekday cloths are worn, food is served and seats are free….

———————

* See:  Some Significant Antecedents of Christianity. By Julian Morgenstern

pagan willow beating

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