Category Archives: magic

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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