Category Archives: miracle

no miracles today

parshat balak

My sister (the famed chocolatier and proprietor of Bond Street chocolate) recently told me the following joke:

So there’s these 2 muffins in an oven. They’re both sitting, just chilling and getting baked. And one of them yells “God Damn, it’s hot in here!” And the other muffin replies “Holy Crap, a talking muffin!”

I thought of this joke when reading the account of Balaam; the pagan prophet-for-hire, conversing with his talking donkey.  The donkey senses a threat on the road ahead and refuses to proceed.

Numbers 22: 28-30

And the LORD opened the mouth of the ass, and she said unto Balaam: ‘What have I done unto thee, that thou hast smitten me these three times?’  And Balaam said unto the ass: ‘Because thou hast mocked me; I would there were a sword in my hand, for now I had killed thee.’ And the ass said unto Balaam: ‘Am not I thine ass, upon which thou hast ridden all thy life long unto this day? was I ever wont to do so unto thee?’ And he said: ‘Nay.’

וַיִּפְתַּח יְהוָה, אֶת-פִּי הָאָתוֹן; וַתֹּאמֶר לְבִלְעָם, מֶה-עָשִׂיתִי לְךָ, כִּי הִכִּיתַנִי, זֶה שָׁלֹשׁ רְגָלִים

וַיֹּאמֶר בִּלְעָם לָאָתוֹן, כִּי הִתְעַלַּלְתְּ בִּי; לוּ יֶשׁ-חֶרֶב בְּיָדִי, כִּי עַתָּה הֲרַגְתִּיךְ

וַתֹּאמֶר הָאָתוֹן אֶל-בִּלְעָם, הֲלוֹא אָנֹכִי אֲתֹנְךָ אֲשֶׁר-רָכַבְתָּ עָלַי מֵעוֹדְךָ עַד-הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה–הַהַסְכֵּן הִסְכַּנְתִּי, לַעֲשׂוֹת לְךָ כֹּה; וַיֹּאמֶר, לֹא

The story culminates with the historic blessing of the people of Israel: How goodly are thy tents, O Jacob, thy dwellings, O Israel!

מַה-טֹּבוּ אֹהָלֶיךָ, יַעֲקֹב; מִשְׁכְּנֹתֶיךָ, יִשְׂרָאֵל

We start our prayers every morning with this blessing and it is engraved on most Synagogue Arks.  The blessing is deemed so seminal that it was considered to be included in the Shema Yisrael declaration of faith [1]

What intrigues me is why Balaam, the biblical editor or the major commentators fail to exclaim the classical Hebrew version of: “Holy crap… a talking ass!”

One can only assume that the issues raised were judged too important and the majesty of the poetry put into Balaam’s mouth, too sublime, for anyone to have a Disney moment.  But it may have to do with the deep aversion in our tradition for gratuitous miracles.

Says the Mishna (Ethics of the Fathers / Perkai Avot 5: 6)

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.

The Mishna is saying that all the apparent miracles that appear in the Bible and later Jewish history, were actually pre-ordained and not miracles at all.  They were written into the DNA of creation, and like a mutation, are not outside of nature, but a force within it.

Maimonides takes this Mishna quite seriously, in his commentary to Avot, in his Shemona Perakim and again in his Guide for the Perplexed. [2]  In a previous blog I have expanded on the aversion to miracles in classic Judaism (gratuitous miracles).  For the purposes of our discussion, let’s agree that there’s no crying in baseball and no miracles in Judaism.

All miracles were pre-scripted into creation.  Some like the splitting of the Red Sea were scripted into creation on the day; day two of their creation. Some miracles which were critical to the survival of the Jewish People (the Meiri’s opinion) were scripted into creation during that amorphis and magical twilight time of sunset between the sixth day of toile and the holy habbat.

But let’s also recognize the corollary, namely, that everything in nature now becomes a miracle of creation.  Every moment, becomes a “Holy crap it talks” moment.

It is this lesson that is ultimately the lesson of Balaam and the power of his simple prophesy.

How goodly are thy tents, O Jacob, thy dwellings, O Israel! מַה-טֹּבוּ אֹהָלֶיךָ, יַעֲקֹב; מִשְׁכְּנֹתֶיךָ, יִשְׂרָאֵל

The tents of these simple Israelites camping in the desert was more miraculous than a talking donkey or a splitting sea.

It is this lesson that tempted the Rabbis to include Balaam’s blessing in the twice daily shema declaration of every Jew.

It’s called an everyday miracle and it’s worth remembering, every day and especially at those times between darkness and light, holy and profane, war and peace, hope and despair… it’s all we have and it’s as good as it gets.

בין השמשות

 

 

 

 

——————–

[1] (Berachot 12b

berachot 12a shma

Berachot12a copy

[2]

Our Sages, however, said very strange things as regards miracles: they are found in Bereshit Rabba, and in Midrash Koheleth, namely, that the miracles are to some extent also natural: for they say, when God created the Universe with its present physical properties, He made it part of these properties, that they should produce certain miracles at certain times, and the sign of a prophet consisted in the fact that God told him to declare when a certain thing will take place, but the thing itself was effected according to the fixed laws of Nature. (Guide II:29)

In the Eight Chapters  (pp 90-91) Maimonides writes:

The Mutakllimun (Islamic school of philosophy) are, however, of a different opinion in this regard, for I have heard them say that the Divine Will is constantly at work, decreeing everything from time to time. We do not agree with them, but believe that the Divine Will ordained everything at creation, and that all things, at all times, are regulated by the laws of nature, and run their natural course, in accordance with what Solomon said, “As it was, so it will ever be, as it was made so it continues, and there is nothing new under the sun”. This occasioned the sages to say that all miracles which deviate from the natural course of events, whether they have already occurred, or, according to promise, are to take place in the future, were fore-ordained by the Divine Will during the six days of creation, nature being then so constituted that those miracles which were to happen really did afterwards take place. Then, when such an occurrence happened at its proper time, it may have been regarded as an absolute innovation, whereas in reality it was not. 1

 

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wear big tzitzit and follow a rebbe whose not afraid

Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach on parshat shalach

Earlier this week I was randomly browsing SoundCloud and I came across an audio recording of a young  Shlomo Carlebach.   There are only three audio files posted and one,  from a late 80’s Ruach Retreat in upstate New York was on parshat shalach.  Ok, Ok,.. so when it comes to Reb Shlomo, maybe there’s no such thing as random….

Carlebach, known as “The Singing Rabbi” who wrote melodies that have enhanced every aspect of every denominational liturgy also wrote Am Yisroel Chai;  the anthem of the Soviet Jewry movement.  You may have also heard his stories preserved in a CD set.  But he was much more than a singer or story teller.  Carlebach was an original thinker and charismatic leader who affected thousands of change makers in the Jewish world.

The audio talk that you are about to listen to is brilliant in its audacity and passion and surprisingly timely.  It relates to those living outside of Israel who criticize Israel.  It relates to “small” and fearful rabbinic authority and leadership and, with a little extrapolation, it relates to a modern Israeli trend of secular Jews (hilonim) taking back Judaism on their terms.

I am pleased to share this audio file on Madlik and in the tradition of the Yeshiva, I provide below the imagined sources (mareh mekomot) and context of Rabbi Calrebach’s talk below.

 https://soundcloud.com/carlebach-legacy/reb-shlomo-on-shlach-how-does-one-make-it-in-this-world

  1. Meraglim – These are the 12 biblical “spies” appointed by Moses to scout out the land of Israel (Eretz Yisroel) in Numbers 13.  Ten of these scouts returned with a negative report which resulted in a 40 year delay in entering the land of Israel.
  2. Carlebach talks about the positive commandment to wear ritual fringes (tzitzit) and he talks about the morality play of the biblical scouts.  These two themes adjoin each other in the text of Numbers 13 – 15 and Reb Shlomo, like Rabbinic scholars before him provides an explanation for the connection between the two seemingly unrelated subjects.The traditional answer relates the word  “to EXPLORE (la-tur) the land… TO EXPLORE the land of Canaan” (13:16-17) with “You shall not EXPLORE AFTER (lo taturu acharei) your hearts…” (15:39) (for more see: “You Shall Not Explore After Your Heart and After Your Eyes…” By Rav Amnon Bazak).  The scouts sinned by what they observed, the fringes are meant to correct one’s moral vision. Carlebach takes this implicit connection further by contrasting “little” tzitzit to small vision (see below)
  3. Reb Shlomo talks about little ztitzit and big zitizit and compares them to the little Shabbos and the Big Shabbos.  This is based on a statement in the Talmud Berachot 57b that our weekly Shabbat is one sixtieth of the world to come.  This concept is the source of the prayer in the Sabbath grace after meals “May the Merciful One grant us a day that shall be entirely Shabbat and eternal rest.הָרַחֲמָן הוּא  יַנחִילֵנוּ לְיוֹם שֶׁכֻּלּוֹ שַׁבָּת וּמְנוּחָה לְחַיֵּי הָעוֹלָמיםand the sixth stanza of Ma Yedidiut, a song sung at the Shabbat Table: Meayn Olam haba Yom Shabbat Menucha
    מעין עולם הבא יום שבת מנוחהI believe that Carlebach’s extension of this concept to another commandment, such as tzitzit is novel.  In any case, his point is that the spies or scouts could only see the small fringes, and we need leaders or rebbes who have the large tzitzit.
  4. Reb Shlomo tells an outrageous miracle tale typical of Hasidic stories about a student (talmid) of the Baal Shem Tov (the founder of the Hasidic Movement).  You can hear the smile in his voice and laughter in the background. The Zanser Rebbe is reputed to have said of such miracle tales, “If you believe them, you’re a fool (“tippish”). If you don’t believe them, you’re a heretic (apikoris).”
  5. Baal Teshuva – A Baal Teshuva is literally a master of repentance and is traditionally a term applied to a sinner who changes his ways and returns to a life of observance.  In the 80’s, in large part through the efforts of Chabad and outreach yeshivot such as Eish HaTorah, many young Jews (yiddin) who were searching for their spiritual roots returned to Judaism and gave birth to what has been called the Baal Teshuva Movement.  Shlomo Carlebach and Zalman M. Schachter-Shalomi  both started as Chabad emissaries but as they addressed the spiritual needs of the children of the ‘60s they broke out of the constrains of Orthodoxy and created a Jewish Renewal that has enhanced all aspects of Judaism.  There is a tension between these newly inspired Jews and the pre-existing Orthodox community that Carlebach makes reference to. (his quote that Baal Teshuva is a nechtiga baal avera and a hyntica Am Ha’aretz Yesterday’s sinner is today’s ignorant Jew; is priceless..)
  6. Hayim Nahman Bialik (1873–1934), Israel’s national poet, famously exclaimed, “we will be a normal state only when we have the first Jewish prostitute the first Hebrew thief, and the first Hebrew policeman.” Carlebach uses this quote as if he is quoting a traditional Jewish text.  This is radical in and of itself.  What is more radical is where he takes it.  Reasons Carlebach, if we will be normal when we have secular Jewish thieves and a Jewish Underground, then we will really (mamash) become normal when we have our own [secular Jewish] Rebbes.  I’m not sure Carlebach envisioned the secular (hiloni) movement in contemporary Israel to take back Jewish texts and learning spearheaded by Bina, Elul, Beit Hillel and Ein Prat and other organizations, but his Bialik proof text works for me.
  7. Shietal is a wig for head covering
  8. Majority decides – see Exodus 23:2 “after a multitude to pervert justice”
    אַחֲרֵי רַבִּים—לְהַטֹּת
    and Babylonian Talmud Hulin 11a “From here we learn we go after the majority”. See also the story of The Oven of Akhnai (Babylonian Talmud Baba Metzia 59b) which ends with the punchline  “the Torah was already given on Mt. Sinai, and it says in it, “Follow the majority’s ruling” (Ex. 23:2). So we do not obey voices from Heaven.”Carlebach argues here, that when it comes to big decisions like going to the Land of Israel and seeing it’s potential, or …. Choosing a mate… or women learning Torah… we should not follow the majority, nor any rebbe, but follow our inner voice.
  9. “Thousands of Jews would have stayed alive if they had not listened to their Rebbes” Carlebach’s family fled Germany and where spared the Holocaust.  Carlebach is here squarely putting the blame for the death of thousands of faithful Jews on their rabbinic leaders who advised them not to emigrate to the secular yishuv in Israel.  Those same Rabbis are advising us on whether women can study Torah, and I would add are advising us (on the left) to take part in BDS boycotts of Israel and (on the right) to indefinitely occupy land located in Greater Israel.  I think that Carlebach is saying that we learn from the meraglim that we cannot be governed by fear, rebbes or majority opinion … we need to consult our conscience.

I believe that this SoundCloud recording was posted by the Shlomo Carlebach Foundation which can be supported with a tax free contribution via PEF Israel Endowment Funds here.

young shlomo

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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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parallel worlds

parshat terumah

Many religious world-views include a belief in other worlds.  As stated in other posts, the Hebrew Bible is refreshingly slim in its descriptions or dependence on worlds to-come, worlds below, pre-existing worlds and parallel worlds.  To my mind, this is significant and requires diligence on the part of the reader to make sure that hellish “twilight zones” and utopian “better places” are not surreptitiously introduced by commentators, teachers or preachers.

Which brings us to Parshat Terumah and Exodus 25:9 regarding the construction of the Tabernacle….

“According to all that I am going to show you, as the pattern of the tabernacle and the pattern of all its furniture, just so you shall construct it.”

כְּכֹל, אֲשֶׁר אֲנִי מַרְאֶה אוֹתְךָ, אֵת תַּבְנִית הַמִּשְׁכָּן

וְאֵת תַּבְנִית כָּל-כֵּלָיו; וְכֵן, תַּעֲשׂוּ.

A simple reading would take this verse to mean that although God was going to verbally describe the details of the construction of the Tabernacle, He was, like any good architect, also going to provide a hard-copy pattern or blueprint. But the Rabbis… showing their Neo-Platonist colors.. took this pattern as a reference to God showing Moses the Ideal form of a transcendent Tabernacle. As Harry Austryn Wolfson writes in his seminal work on the Jewish philosopher Philo:

“According to this Jewish tradition there had been in existence an ideal tabernacle or, as it is usually called, sanctuary, prior to the building of the visible tabernacle in the wilderness; and it was that ideal tabernacle which God showed to Moses as a pattern for the visible tabernacle.” [i]

Wolfson suggests that “For the Hellenistic Jews it was quite natural to blend such beliefs in the preëxistence of things with the Platonic theory of Ideas.”

The Tabernacle and it’s vessels were not the only things that the Rabbis, under the influence of neoplatonism, suggested existed or preëxisted in other worlds.  According to this line of thought, the Torah itself preëxisted before the world (and before its revelation at Sinai).[ii]  Similarly, the absurd belief that the Patriarchs observed the Torah was introduced.  The ahistorical notion that  laws such as not eating leavened bread during Passover could exist before the Exodus had even occurred is a heresy.  [iii]

It is important to point out the introduction of these eternal worlds and preëxistent  truths because they dilute that which is so radically revolutionary about Judaism… Creation and the Giving of the Law.[iv]

Creation… especially creation from nothing (ex nihlo – Yeysh meAyin) means that there is NOTHING inevitable about our world. Our world and our lives truly do and did not have to be. Our world is radically contingent… Creation (Briot haOlam) means that the world as we know it is unthinkably different from the philosopher’s notion of the Divine.

The Philosopher’s God is eternal and perfect; our world is material, finite, imperfect, made up of disconnected moments and in flux.  All creatures, including man, are similarly radically contingent.. Man is ultimately made of dirt and is given a name; Adam, to prove it.

The same is true of the radical nature of Matan Torah.. the giving of the Torah. It is radically contingent on the shared history of God and a particular people who began a journey at a particular moment in time. The Passover holiday is radically contingent on the shared experience of the Exodus and to imagine it celebrated centuries before the exodus shows a lack of wonder at the radically contingent world and Torah we have been given. A belief in an immutable and eternal world and timeless Torah is an implicit rejection of the possibility of God’s presence in history, the covenantal interaction, the evolution of our law and beliefs and ultimately, a rejection of the responsibility that radical contingency places on us.

John, in the Fourth Gospel consummates the marriage between Biblical Creation and the Eternal worlds and forms of Neo-Platonism and Greek Hellenism.  “In the beginning was the Idea”. [v]  Christianity rejected the radical contingency of the giving of the Hebrew Torah and the covenant, but ‘ק can expect more from our Rabbis and scholars and we need demand more of ourselves as we celebrate a Hebrew Bible that includes only One World…. A world that we, it’s accidental inhabitants need to accept full responsibility for.

new jerusalem


[i] Wolfson continues: “This tradition is expressed in two ways, Sometimes it is said that the ideal sanctuary was created by God prior to the creation of the world (Babylonian Talmud Pesachim 54a Nedarim 39b  Tanhuma Numbers, Naso 19 ) … This ideal sanctuary is referred to as the “celestial sanctuary” (Genesis Rabbah 55:7 bet Ha-mikdash le-ma’alah..). Besides the sanctuary, there were also ideal models of all its vessels, and these, too, were shown to Moses when he was in heaven. This belief in the preëxistence of the tabernacle and its vessels is part of a more general belief in the preëxistence of certain objects or actions which were subsequently to play a part in scriptural history. … The preëxistence of some of these occurs also in the apocalyptic literature. Two of these preëxistent ten are also mentioned by Hellenistic Jewish writers. First, the preëxistence of the Law is affirmed by them in their identification of it with wisdom which in Scripture is said to have existed prior to the creation of the world. Second, the preëxistence of the tabernacle is stated in the following verse: “Thou gavest command to build a sanctuary in the holy mountain and an altar in the city of thy habitation, a copy of the holy tabernacle which Thou preparedst beforehand from the beginning.” Wisdom of Solomon 9:8 (Philo: Foundations of Religious Philosophy in Judaism, Christianity and Islam, Harry Austryn Wolfson, Harvard University Press (1947) p182-184)

[ii] In the first verse of the Torah the Rabbis play on the similarity between a description of the preëxistent Wisdom in Proverbs 8:22 The LORD brought me forth as the first of his works, before his deeds of old: and Genesis 1:1 “In the beginning” .. or with “Reshit” … now Wisdom-Torah.

The Torah declares: ‘I was the working tool of the Holy One, blessed be He.’ In human practice, when a mortal king builds a palace, he builds it not with his own skill but with the skill of an architect. The architect moreover does not build it out of his head, but employs plans and diagrams to know how to arrange the chambers and the wicket doors. Thus God consulted the Torah and created the world, while the Torah declares, IN THE BEGINNING GOD CREATED (1:1), BEGINNING referring to the Torah, as in the verse, “The Lord made me as the beginning of His way” (Prov. 8:22). (Genesis Rabah 1:1)

[iii] This perverse belief is commonly accepted in the Orthodox Jewish community today, which is surprising since the primary sources for these historical anachronisms, is in the extra-biblical Book of Sirah (included in the Septuagent but not Hebrew Bible) and the Pseudepigrapha such as the Book of Jubilees whose relevant verses are paraphrased here:

The (Book of Jubilees) author’s … practice of founding essential legal practices in the time of the ancients of Genesis rather than in the age of Moses. For example, … Noah first celebrated the Festival of Weeks (see 6:17–22) and later Abraham, too, observed this holiday, which became the anniversary of the Noahic, Abrahamic, and Mosaic covenants (6:17–22; 15:1–2). The Festivals of Tabernacles (16:20–23; 32:4–9, 27–29) and Unleavened Bread (18:18–19) and the Day of Atonement (34:17–19, which commemorates Jacob’s torment on learning of Joseph’s “death”) also were introduced in the age of the fathers. The author’s reason for antedating these practices can only be surmised, but it is clear that he wished to impress upon his audience that these essential acts of obedience to the covenant were not the innovations of a later age that were imposed upon the religion of the patriarchs. They had been in force since earliest times, were inscribed immutably and eternally on the heavenly tablets (of the numerous cases, see, for example, 3:10, 31; 6:17; 15:25; 16:28–29; etc.), and in some instances were practiced in heaven (Sabbath [2:30]; Festival of Weeks [6:18]; circumcision [15:27]). These provisions were to be observed scrupulously in the present if the ideal future was to be realized. (Anchor Bible Dictionary, Book of Jubilees see also (Two Views of the patriarchs: Noachide and pre-Sinai Israelites, Joseph P. Schultz in Texts and responses: Studies presented to Nahum N. Glatzer.. ed. Michael A. Fishbane, Brill Archive, 1975)

[iv] I don’t use the inaccurate translation of Matan Torah as “revelation” since it is tainted by preëxistence. Reveal-ation presupposes an already existent law that is now being revealed.

[v] The natural progression of this thought process, is of course that since the world of Ideas or Platonic Forms is superior to the messy world below (Beit hamikdash shel matah) then our focus should be towards this ideal world. The early Christians took this leap by emphasizing the New Jerusalem. This Jerusalem was no longer a contingent and particular Jewish Capital city, but a universal idea… a Form a Logos. Such thinking produced a new covenant (aka The New Testament – Brit Hadash) which, unlike the Old Covenant, was not based on a reciprocal relationship and shared history between God and a particular people, but was an immutable ideal. A new covenant, based not on shared history, practical deeds and commandments, but based on faith… on an Idea. No surprise that The Fourth Gospel of John comes directly from the previously referenced rabbinic interpretation of Genesis Rabah 1:1 “In the Beginning was the Idea (Logos)

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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
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.
nes-numbers


Nes
, 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)
nisa-tested

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)

nes-nissim

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
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

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.
mofsim

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
yaphe

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.
PIC00526.JPG


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

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