Category Archives: magic

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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animated gratitude

parshat va’era

The first three of the ten plagues were performed by Aaron and not by Moses to show Moses’ gratitude (hakarat hatov הקרת הטוב  ) to the water; which saved him as an infant in a basket and to the soil; previously used to dispose of the Egyptian slave-master Moses slew.

The Lord said to Moses, “Say to Aaron, ‘Take your staff and stretch forth your hand over the waters of Egypt, over their rivers, over their canals, over their ponds, and over all their bodies of water, and they will become blood, and there will be blood throughout the entire land of Egypt, even in wood and in stone.’  (Exodus 7: 19)

וַיֹּאמֶר יְהֹוָה אֶל משֶׁה אֱמֹר אֶל אַהֲרֹן קַח מַטְּךָ וּנְטֵה יָדְךָ עַל מֵימֵי מִצְרַיִם

עַל נַהֲרֹתָם עַל יְאֹרֵיהֶם וְעַל אַגְמֵיהֶם וְעַל כָּל מִקְוֵה מֵימֵיהֶם

וְיִהְיוּ דָם וְהָיָה דָם בְּכָל אֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם וּבָעֵצִים וּבָאֲבָנִים:

Rashi: Say to Aaron: Since the Nile protected Moses when he was cast into it, it therefore was not smitten by him, neither with blood nor with frogs, but was smitten by Aaron.  [from Tanchuma, Va’era 14]

אמר אל אהרן

לפי שהגין היאור על משה כשנשלך לתוכו, לפיכך לא לקה על ידו לא בדם ולא בצפרדעים, ולקה על ידי אהרן

See also Rashi to Exodus 8: 12

Say to Aaron It was inappropriate for the dust to be smitten through Moses since it had protected him when he slew the Egyptian and had hidden him in the sand. [Therefore,] it was smitten through Aaron [instead].  [from Tanchuma, Va’era 14, Exod. Rabbah 10:7]

אמר אל אהרן

לא היה העפר כדאי ללקות על ידי משה לפי שהגין עליו כשהרג את המצרי ויטמנהו בחול ולקה על ידי אהרן

While gratitude is certainly a wonderful thing, showing gratitude to inanimate objects such as water and soil smacks of animism.  Was not Abraham’s great achievement that he rejected the worship of the stars and of wood and stone (See Maimonides Laws of Worshiping the Stars Chapter 1) and recognized a singular higher authority?

It’s infantile to “make nice” to an object which is helpful and hit a “bad” table after we stub our toe on it.  If idolatry is ultimately misplaced faith, then showing gratitude to a clump of soil is misplaced affection if not outright idolatry. Since it was God who dictated that Moses not show a lack of gratitude, Moses can certainly be forgiven (as he was not forgiven many years later when he hit a rock without such a commend), but why sanction animism in the first place?

I am reminded of the wonderful story attributed to the founder of the Musar Movement, Rabbi. Yisrael Salanter who was invited to the home of a wealthy Jew for the Sabbath meal.  When the man of the house was about to recite the Kiddush, he realized that the two Challah loaves had not been properly covered.  In front of Salanter and the gathered guests, he shouted to his wife that she had neglected to cover the challah.  After an embarrassed wife rectified the travesty, Salanter asked his host if he knew why it was customary to cover the loaves. The host replied, “Sure… every heder (kindergarten) child knows that you cover the challah so as not to embarrass it, since on weekdays bread is blessed at the start of every meal and on the Sabbath it takes second billing to the Kiddush wine”.  Salanter replied “You fool, you should only listen to your own words.  You have embarrassed your wife so as not to embarrass an inanimate loaf of bread.  I’m sorry but the food in your house is not kosher.” And he left.

Moses’ show of respect for the water and soil and Salanter’s understanding of the true meaning of kosher certification are good bookends for 3,000 years of Jewish ritual observance. .. maybe, taking a license from Hillel we can suggest that the rest is commentary.

We need to acknowledge that every ritual act proscribed or prescribed in the Hebrew Bible is in a sense the assignation of holiness or taboo to an act that is human.. not divine.  There are numerous examples of inanimate objects which in the Bible and by the command of God are invested with spiritual power; positive or negative (Kadosh, Tahor, Tamei) otherwise known as a system of Totem or Taboo… one could argue that all of ritual is nothing more than vesting an action or an object with misplaced holiness or profanity.

But if we follow the trail from the first three plagues to Salanter’s redefinition of kashrut, the message is clear and consistent.  In the service of a higher good, the God of the Hebrew Bible can tolerate, condone or even prescribe activities that may include elements of misplaced-faith and animism similar to those found in idol worship.  It’s called “talking in the language of man”. דברה תורה כלשון בני אדם  (Sifre, Num. 112).  It may be that we are actually invited to ignore all the layers of theology, legalism and learning and react at a primal level when it comes to gratitude and respect for the dignity of our fellow man or woman.

What the Hebrew Bible, especially the Book of Exodus, has zero tolerance for is indifference to the suffering of others and hard heartedness. In the service of teaching Gratitude – recognition of the good that we receive, the Bible may turn a blind eye to the most primal and primitive rituals or superstitions.

The only act which is totally taboo… not-Kosher, is a ritual… an act in the name of God which shows a lack of gratitude (כפר בטוב  kofer baTov  literally: “denier of what is good” where kofer has the sense of a heretical denial cf arab kāfir  non-believer) or sensitivity to the suffering of another.

When, in Genesis (3: 12) after eating from the forbidden fruit, Adam answers God “The woman whom You gave [to be] with me she gave me of the tree; so I ate.” Rashi comments:

“Here he [Adam] showed his ingratitude.  [from Avodah Zarah 5b]” כאן כפר בטובה

In the haggadah the wicked son asks “what does this meant to you” saying “you” in such a way that it is clear he lacks all sensitivity to the suffering of his people and has no gratitude for what was done to save them.  This son is tagged as a kofer be’ikar;  a denier of the basic principle of our faith.

The Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer [Chapter 7] writes, “There is nothing harder for the Almighty to live with (as it were) than an ungrateful person.”  And brings the example of Adam’s lack of gratitude for the gift of Eve.

The Midrash continues that our ancestors in the Wilderness also angered God with their failure to recognize His Goodness towards them. They bemoaned the loss of the “good old days” in Egypt when they had melons, cucumbers, and garlic, and complained about the Manna bread.

The Midrash equates the sin of ingratitude with fundamental theological denial (kefira b’Ikar) of the Almighty. One who is ungrateful towards his fellow man is ultimately ungrateful towards the Almighty as well. (quoted by Yissocher Frand)

In the service of denying the suffering of others or of ingratitude, there is no ritual, theology, ideology or lip-service to piety that the Almighty will tolerate.

Thank God for that…



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gratuitous miracles

Parshat Shemot

Not until Book II of the Five Books of Moses do we have an incidence of a gratuitous miracle.

And the angel of the LORD appeared unto him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush; and he looked, and, behold, the bush burned with fire, and the bush was not consumed. (Exodus 3: 2)

Exodus 3-2

Gratuitous miracles like gratuitous sex or gratuitous violence are unnecessary…  they don’t add  anything to the plot but instead are just thrown in as a ‘freebie.’  Deep into the Hebrew Bible, we realize that all miracles that preceded the burning bush were either functional or medicinal (or should I say; punitive).  Sure, the creation of the world was miraculous, but like the Big Bang, necessary.  Certainly, people are not turned into pillars of salt, but Lot’s wife had been forewarned and like Pharaoh who suffered the ten plagues…  she had it coming.

The Hebrew Bible, especially the first five books are for a religious text, miraculously miracle-adverse.

The Rabbis were so uncomfortable with the miraculous that they attempted to neuter any super-natural biblical event by claiming that all so-called miracles were actually pre-ordained and thus written into the code that God wrote when He create the world:

Ten things were created at twilight of Shabbat eve. These are: the mouth of the earth [that swallowed Korach]; the mouth of [Miriam’s] well; the mouth of [Balaam’s] ass; the rainbow; the manna; [Moses’] staff; the shamir; the writing, the inscription and the tablets [of the Ten Commandments]. Some say also the burial place of Moses and the ram of our father Abraham. And some say also the spirits of destruction as well as the original tongs, for tongs are made with tongs. (Mishna Perkai Avot 4: 8)

10 miracles-avot

Since so much of what is commonly valued in religion and the world of the spirit is the miraculous, it is worth stopping to consider this ambivalence, if not downright adversity to the supernatural .

If it is claimed that the Eskimos have a multitude of words for snow, let us consider the Biblical Hebrew words for “miracle”.

The first word for miracle that we encounter is nes
see Numbers 26: 10

10 and the earth opened her mouth, and swallowed them up together with Korah, when that company died; what time the fire devoured two hundred and fifty men, and they became a sign.

, has less of a sense of miracle and more of a sense of a sign or a lesson.  In fact the word nes is closely related to a test nisayon
nes test
When God tested Abraham at the Binding of Isaac, the word used is nisayon.
1 And it came to pass after these things, that God did prove Abraham, and said unto him: ‘Abraham’; and he said: ‘Here am I.’ (Genesis 22: 1)

The truth is that the Rabbis intermingled the word nes miracle, with nisayon test:

With ten tests our father Abraham was tested …
Ten miracles were performed for our forefathers in Egypt…
With ten tests our forefathers tested God in the desert…
Ten miracles were performed for our forefathers in the Holy Temple (Mishna Avot 5: 3-5)


It turns out that nes and the biblical connotation of miracle that it contains is less a magical break with the laws of nature as much as it is a sign.  As the Ramban (Nahmanides) writes in his commentary to the Binding of Isaac, it is for the one being tested an experience which brings “forth the matter from potential into actuality so that he may be rewarded for a good deed, not for a good thought alone.” A nes is an act which is an outward sign, first to the protagonist himself and secondly to the observer or the reader, that a challenge has been overcome and a higher level of existence achieved. “These aren’t just miracles for their own sake – they are trying to show something, to act as a sign.” [1]

Another word commonly taken as a miracle is ot

This word ot is used on a daily and weekly basis in reference to tefillin which should be “a sign for you upon your hand” (Exodus 13:9) and the Shabbat which you shall keep “for it is a sign between Me and you throughout your generations” (Exodus 31: 13).

Again, the connotation of miracle is subsumed under the larger meaning of a sign of a covenantal relationship.

Finally, the word mofet


which appears for the first time in Exodus 4: 21
21 And the LORD said unto Moses: ‘When thou goest back into Egypt, see that thou do before Pharaoh all the wonders which I have put in thy hand; but I will harden his heart, and he will not let the people go.

Unlike nes and ot, mofet is never used as a symbolic sign.  In the Bible mofet is inextricably connected to the shock and awe perpetrated upon Pharaoh and the Egyptians.  On the receiving end, mofet falls into the non- gratuitous miracle category of a functional and bitterly medicinal miracle. But to the beneficiaries of the ten plagues there is nonetheless a message:

And they shall be upon thee for a sign and for a wonder, and upon thy seed for ever; (Deuteronomy 28: 46)
ot umofes
The root of mofet is unclear.  It has been suggested that its eytomology is from yafe

beauty…  “and that it properly means a beautiful or splendid deed”, albeit a bitter-sweet beauty given the suffering of the recipient (e.g. drowning Egyptians).

Returning to our burning bush, we are struck by the lack of a caption.  No mention of a nes, of an ot or even a mofet.  Is this not-consumed burning bush the first and possibly only instance of a gratuitous miracle or are we missing the point?  Was this Moses, the reluctant (and ultimately recalcitrant[2]) miracle-worker of the Exodus in need of a gratuitous miracle? Why not take another track? After all, there’s no mention of a miracle, maybe, for someone less than a Moses, there was no miracle?  Maybe it was all in the eye of the beholder.  Maybe we are seeing this lonely bush through the eyes of one who at the height of his powers saw God in all His glory (Exodus 33: 18).  Maybe in that moment, when time stopped it was that the bush was not consumed and Moses achieved what we all strive to achieve… a moment of wonder.

The narrative continues:

13 And Moses said unto God: ‘Behold, when I come unto the children of Israel, and shall say unto them: The God of your fathers hath sent me unto you; and they shall say to me: What is His name? what shall I say unto them?’
14 And God said unto Moses: ‘I AM THAT I AM’; and He said: ‘Thus shalt thou say unto the children of Israel: I AM hath sent me unto you.’

i will be

Everett Fox in his amazing translation and commentary on the Torah records that according to Martin Buber and Franz Rosensweig God’s answer to Moses “ehyeh asher ehyeh” means “I will be there with you” in the present….  They interpret hayot as signifying presence, “being there” and hence see God’s words as a real answer to the Israelites’ imagined question – an assurance of his presence. .. and may we suggest, also an answer to our question of wherein lied the miracle… in the beauty of the moment.

Fox continues: “It is, however, also possible that ehyeh asher ehyeh is a deliberately vague phrase, whose purpose is antimagical and an attempt to evade the question (Rosenzweig speaks of this as well), as if to suggest that possession of the true name cannot be used to coerce this God.  In this interpretation, it would follow that, just as God is magicless, he is nameless, at least in the conventional sense of religion. (The Five Books of Moses, Everett Fox page 270)

With that said…. Let the miracles, gratuitous and otherwise…. begin.

[2] Moses fatal flaw – he refused to do a miracle Numbers 20: 11


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