Category Archives: miracle

holy crap

Ashar Yatzar

To the best of my knowledge, there is no other religion that has a blessing upon taking care of one’s business.  Washing hands after relieving oneself is just good hygiene and probably prescribed by many religious orders, but saying a blessing prior to and after a visit to the loo is, to my mind, unique to Judaism.  [students of comparative religion and anthropologists: please correct if you know differently].

For better or worse, we no longer recite the prayer before entering a bathroom (in Hebrew בית הכסא lit. house of the chair) [1], but the prayer prescribed after-the-fact is not only still recited by the faithful, but preserved in the standard prayer book and part of the daily morning prayers.  It is called Ashar Yatzar (אשׁר יצר ) Here is the text of the prayer:

Blessed are You, Hashem our God, King of the universe, Who formed man with wisdom and created within him many openings and many hollows. It is obvious and known before Your Throne of Glory that if even one of them ruptures, or if even one of them becomes blocked, it would be impossible to survive and to stand before You (even for one hour). Blessed are You, Hashem, Who heals all flesh and acts wondrously.

ברוך אתה ה’ א-להינו מלך העולם אשר יצר את האדם בחכמה וברא בו נקבים נקבים חלולים חלולים גלוי וידוע לפני כסא כבודך שאם יפתח אחד מהם או יסתם אחד מהם אי אפשר להתקיים ולעמוד לפניך  (אפילו שעה אחת ***)  ברוך אתה ה’ רופא כל בשר ומפליא לעשות

All bathroom humor aside… the blessing is actually quite beautiful and the English does not do it justice.  “many openings and many hollows” actually echoes the biblical method of emphasis by repeating a word (Epizeuxis) such as “Justice Justice shall you [certainly] pursue of Deut. 16:20.   Or more appropriately, think of Carl Sagan’s “billions and billions”  Here it is “openings and [more] openings, hollows and [more] hollows… it is a paean of awe to the workings of the human body, in all it’s incomprehensible and unquantifiable complexity.  No wonder so many Jews became doctors! [2] From the most humble and humbling activity comes a prayer of radical wonder.

The Talmud records the discussion regarding the exact text of the closing benediction.

How does the blessing conclude? Rab said: ‘[Blessed art Thou] that healest the sick’ (רופא חולים). Said Samuel: Abba has turned the whole world into invalids! No; what he says is, ‘That healest all flesh’. R. Shesheth said: ‘Who doest wonderfully’. R. Papa said: Therefore let us say both, ‘Who healest all flesh and doest wonderfully’.

אמר רב רופא חולים אמר שמואל קא שוינהו אבא לכולי עלמא קצירי אלא רופא כל בשר רב ששת אמר מפליא לעשות א”ר פפא הלכך נמרינהו לתרוייהו רופא כל בשר ומפליא לעשות

According to Rab, this could have been our blessing for the healing of the sick..  The final form of the blessing relates to healing and wonder, in equal measure.

According to Maimonides [3], we recite the Ashar Yatzar in conjunction with the other blessings upon rising and dressing, but according to our prayer book, the Ashar Yatzar is placed right before the prayer for learning Torah.  The irony is not missed by Ellen Frankel, a commentator in the My Peoples Prayer Book series, who also brings a feminist perspective to her comments.  She writes:

“what a strange juxtaposition it is – thanking God simultaneously for teaching us Torah and for giving us internal plumbing that works!  Could any two spheres be further apart?  And yet in this odd pairing we find the genius of Jewish prayer: on the one hand, if our tubes and valves fail to function, how difficult it is to focus our minds on study!  But on the other, how healing it can be for us to “make the words of Your Torah sweet to us and to the house of Israel, your people,” despite physical distress.

Frankel continues: For women, whose anatomical system is far more complex than men’s, this blessing is especially meaningful.  The very word for duct “n’kavim (נקבים), shares its root with n’kevah (נְקֵבָה), the Hebrew word for “female.”

Frankel  goes on to point out, that while, by tradition, every human is a vessel and a void created to hold holiness and life, yet it is a woman whose spaces and hollows permits the birth and wonder of new life.    For those of you who are students of Jewish mysticism, you certainly appreciate the meaning of a void and how mankind redeems the world through filling the void… מלא את החלל‎ל.. this sense of “hollows and hollows” חלולים חלולים was certainly not lost on the author of this prayer.

If I am even partially correct that this prayer does not exist or at least feature in other religions and cultures then I  wunder … Did it come out of a vacuum, what were its author’s intentions?  Were the original authors aware of it’s radical nature and potential for derision?

I first came across a derogatory reference to this prayer as an undergraduate student while reading… of all people, Karl Marx. It’s possible that this unique prayer was part of a long list, compiled by anti-Semites to demonstrate Judaism’s embrace of the physical, mundane and crass.  It may be that it was his own innovation, due to a rabbinic background or a fixation on feces [4], but in one of his earliest works written in 1843 called: On the Jewish Question Karl Marx writes:

The monotheism of the Jew, therefore, is in reality the polytheism of the many needs, a polytheism which makes even the lavatory an object of divine law. Practical need, egoism, is the principle of civil society, and as such appears in pure form as soon as civil society has fully given birth to the political state. The god of practical need and self-interest is money. (see )

I would argue that it was Judaism’s embrace of the physical and material which made Marx possible.  Afterall, it was Marx who championed Historical Materialism with its focus on material modes of production.  Marx would not be the first thinker to distance himself and rebuke his mentors and those antecedent thinkers who influenced his thought.  In fact the “Jewish Question” was itself a diatribe against his mentor Bruno Bauer.  In any case, the uniqueness of Jewish law’s attention to the lavatory and the Asher yatzer and it’s materialism was noted in 19th century thought.

In a Pulitzer Prize (1974) work named The Denial of Death, Ernest Becker dedicates a complete chapter to the bathroom (The meaning of anlality).  I quote this student of 19th century psychoanalysis at length because it seems to me, more than any contemporary thinker, Becker appreciates the significance of literature and, in our case, a prayer relating to the movement of the bowels.  He writes:

The tragedy of man’s dualism, his ludicrous situation, become too real… We now understand that what psychoanalysts have called “anality” or anal character traits are really forms of the universal protest against accident and death. …  To say that someone is “anal” meant that someone is trying extra-hard to protect himself against the accidents of life and danger of death, trying to use the symbols of culture as a sure means of triumph over natural mystery, trying to pass himself off as anything but an animal.  … We read that men of the Chagga tribe wear an anal plug all their lives, pretending to have sealed up their anus and not to need to defecate.  An obvious triumph over mere physicalness. Or take the widespread practice of segregating women in special huts during menstruation and all the various taboos surrounding menstruation….

Anality explains why men yearn for freedom from contradictions and ambiguities, why they like their symbols pure, their Truth with a capital “T”. …. The upsetting thing about anality is that it reveals that all culture, all man’s creative life-ways, are in some basic part of them a fabricated protest against natural reality, a denial of the truth of the human condition, and an attempt to forget the pathetic creature that man is.  …

Excreting is the curse that threatens madness because it shows man his abject finitude, his physicalness, the likely unreality of his hopes and dreams.

But even more immediately, it represents man’s utter bafflement at the sheer non-sense of creation; to fashion the sublime miracle of the human face, the mysterium tremendum of radiant feminine beauty, the veritable goddesses that beautiful women are; to bring this out of nothing, out of the void, and make it shine noonday; to take such a miracle and put miracles again within it, deep in the mystery of eyes that peer out – the eye that gave even the dry Darwin a chill: to do all this, and combine it with an anus that shits! It is too much. Nature mocks us, and poets live to torture.  pp 55 – 58

In my reading, the Ashar Yatzar prayer, by itself, embraces physicality and implicitly rejects a worldview that claims that the spirit, the intellect and beauty are all mocked by our finite, putrid and decaying nature.  Combined with the prayer for Torah learning, the Ashar Yatzar is a radical rejection of any attempt to insert a wedge between body and soul.

But is my read, also the rabbi’s read?  Did the authors of the Ashar Yatzar prayer recognize, nay, intend it to be such a rejection?

As they say in the Talmud…. Come and listen.

God instructs Moses to meet with Pharoah, in the morning at the Nile (Exodus 7:15)

Go to Pharaoh in the morning; behold, he is going forth to the water, and you shall stand opposite him on the bank of the Nile, and the staff that was turned into a serpent you shall take in your hand.

Rashi comments:

behold, he is going forth to the water: to relieve himself, for he had deified himself and said that he did not need to relieve himself; so, early in the morning he went out to the Nile and there he would perform his needs. — [from Mid. Tanchuma, Va’era 14; Exod. Rabbah 9:8]

הנה יצא המימה – לנקביו, שהיה עושה עצמו אלוה ואומר שאינו צריך לנקביו ומשכים ויוצא לנילוס ועושה שם צרכיו

Like Becker’s Chagga tribe, Pharaoh knew that gods don’t shit.  If he wanted to be taken as a god, he needed to hide this aspect of his being.  More importantly, for our purposes, the Rabbis who composed the Ashar Yatzar were aware of the conflict between the most basic bodily movement and any aspirations to godliness.

I will argue below, that for the authors of the Ashar Yatzar the emphasis on the wonder of man’s physicality not being at the expense of his spirituality differentiated Judaism from paganism but also differentiated Rabbinic Judaism from some emerging ascetic sects; namely the Essenes who are considered by many to be precursors of the early Christians.

It is only when we visit the “latrines of the Essenes” that we understand that the Ashar Yatzar was not simply an embrace of physicality.. it was a polemic against those that would have us deny our physical nature and aspire to be angels.

In The Jewish War, Josephus writes of Jewish sects in the First Century AD including the Essenes who, he explains, had a year-long trial before joining the sect in which they:

 “Observe the same rule of life as the members, receiving from them a hatchet, the loin-cloth mentioned above and white garments.”..  He goes on to explain that “they abstain from seventh-day work more rigidly than any other Jews; for not only do they prepare their meals the previous day so as to avoid lighting fire on the Sabbath, but they do not venture to remove any utensil or to go and ease themselves.  On other days they dig a hole a foot deep with their trenching-tool (for such is the hatchet they give to the novices) and draping their cloak round them so as not to affront the rays of the god, they squat over it; then they put the excavate soil back in the hole.  On these occasions they choose the more secluded spots; and through emptying the bowels is quite natural they are taught to wash after it, as if it defiled them.”  (See The War of the Jews, Excursus I – Jewish Sects)

To be sure, the Bible includes provisions to take care of one’s needs outside of the camp:

And thou shalt have a paddle among thy weapons; and it shall be, when thou sittest down abroad, thou shalt dig therewith, and shalt turn back and cover that which cometh from thee. (Deuteronomy 23: 14)

 וְיָתֵד תִּהְיֶה לְךָ, עַל-אֲזֵנֶךָ; וְהָיָה, בְּשִׁבְתְּךָ חוּץ, וְחָפַרְתָּה בָהּ, וְשַׁבְתָּ וְכִסִּיתָ אֶת-צֵאָתֶךָ

But this provision is only for an individual who becomes impure and in order to purify himself must leave the camp. (Deuteronomy 23:11)

It was the Essenes who universalized the shameful nature of the most basic bodily function to the extent that moving one’s bowels on the Sabbath became prohibited!

Josephus is no longer our only source for this animus to the anus… The Dead Sea scrolls provide additional support.  Temple Scroll prohibits the act of defecating in the city of Jerusalem.

Note: While the rabbis refer to the bathroom as a “house of the chair” בית הכסא in the Dead Sea scrolls it is referred to as “place of the hand” מקום היד …

(11Q19 46.13-16a)

Temple Scroll

 

 

 

13 And you will make for them a place of the hand outside of the city where they shall go;

14 outside to the northwest of the city – houses with beams and pits in their midst

15 into which excrement shall drop and shall not be visible to anyone at a distance

16a from the city of three thousand cubits vacat

Similarly, the Qumran community built latrines to the northwest of Khirbet Qumran in the War Scroll:

(1QM 7.6b-7)

War ScrollTemple Scroll

 

 

 

 

6b And there shall be a distance

7 between all of their camps and the place of the hand two thousand cubits. And any immodest nakedness shall be seen around any of their camps.

(see A SCROLL IN ONE HAND AND A MATTOCK IN THE OTHER: LATRINES, ESSENES, AND KHIRBET QUMRAN by Ian Werrett, Saint Martin’s University for a review of the current literature/controversy over the Dead Sea Scrolls and this issue).

I believe that the Rabbis who wrote the Ashar Yatzar were profoundly aware of the asceticism, escapism and rejection of the physical that characterized the Essenes and the author’s of the Dead Sea scrolls, living in the desert.  Which brings us to our closing text and the rejection of the Jewish version of the Greek’s nectar of the gods.

The Rabbis record a tradition whereby the manna contained nutritious matter only, without any waste products, so that during the whole time the Israelites lived upon it the grossest office of the body remained unexercised. The Israelites, nevertheless, complained of it [seemingly anticipating Modern medical science which suggests that the lack of microbes associated with feces would cause severe bowel problems]

but now our soul is dried away; there is nothing at all; we have nought save this manna to look to.’—(Numbers 11: 6)

 וְעַתָּה נַפְשֵׁנוּ יְבֵשָׁה, אֵין כֹּל–בִּלְתִּי, אֶל-הַמָּן עֵינֵינוּ

 

“Shall a human being not discharge of what he eats? our bowels will surely be swollen” (Yoma l.c.; Sifre, Num. 87-89; Tan., l.c.). see and  see

שהיה המן נבלע באברים ולא היו צריכים לנקבים, והתאוננו שמכיון שאין מוציאים מה שמכניסים הלא עתיד המן לתפח כריסים, כי כלום יש ילוד אשה שמכנים ואינו מוציא.

According to the Rabbis of the Talmud, the Jews of the Exodus rejected the godliness of the manna for continence …which confirms the punch line of most Jewish bathroom humor and also confirms the intention of the Ashar Yatzar.

Ultimately, the Ashar Yatzar is a radical rejection of those who would have us be angels, of those who would have us live our lives devoted to a future life not confined to the physical and the material.  To paraphrase the famous Midrash [5] … The angels want God to give them the Torah and not Moses.  According to the Midrash, God asks the angels, do you earn a living that you need a commandment not to steal, do you eat that you need commandments on being kosher… to which I would add: do you crap that you need to elevate the mundane and spend a moment every morning in contemplation of holy crap?

latrines of the essenes

 

 

 

 

 

 

————————–

[1] see BT Berachot 60b

On entering a privy one should say: ‘Be honored, ye honored and holy ones (angels) that minister to the Most High. Give honor to the God of Israel. Wait for me till I enter and do my needs, and return to you’. Abaye said: A man should not speak thus, lest they (the angels) should leave him and go. What he should say is: ‘Preserve me, preserve me, help me, help me, support me, support me, till I have entered and come forth, for this is the way of human beings’.

הנכנס לבית הכסא אומר התכבדו מכובדים קדושים משרתי עליון תנו כבוד לאלהי ישראל הרפו ממני עד שאכנס ואעשה רצוני ואבא אליכם אמר אביי לא לימא אינש הכי דלמא שבקי ליה ואזלי אלא לימא שמרוני שמרוני עזרוני עזרוני סמכוני סמכוני המתינו לי המתינו לי עד שאכנס ואצא שכן דרכן של בני אדם  [ברכות ס ב]

Shulhan Arukh (Orach Chaim 3) Misha Brura (Chovetz Chaim) writes that this is a prayer to God that the angels who accompany a person should wait until he returns from the bathroom. We no longer say it since people are no longer presumed to be God fearing people who have angels accompanying them. The Sharay Teshuva writes that many authorities disagree and say one should say this.  (see note 1)

[2] Not surprisingly, on the previous folio of Talmud that establishes this blessing is a discussion which records rav Aha who takes the position (similar to the Christian Scientists) that people should not practice medicine and that healing should be left to God  שאין דרכן של בני אדם לרפאות אלא שנהגו to which Abbai responds:

Abaye said: A man should not speak thus, since it was taught in the school of R. Ishmael: [It is written], He shall cause him to be thoroughly healed. (Exodus 21: 19)  From this we learn that permission has been given to the physician to heal.

אמר אביי לא לימא אינש הכי דתני דבי רבי ישמעאל (שמות כא, יט) ורפא ירפא מכאן שניתנה רשות לרופא לרפאות

[3]

Mishneh Torah: Ahava: Tefilah and Birkat Kohanim – Chapter Seven Halacha 4

When one hears the crow of a rooster, he recites: Blessed are You, God, our Lord, King of the universe, who gives the rooster understanding to distinguish between day and night.

When he puts on his clothes, he recites: Blessed are You, God, our Lord, King of the universe, who clothes the naked.

When he puts his cloth on his head, he recites: Blessed are You, God, our Lord, King of the universe, who crowns Israel in glory.

When he passes his hands over his eyes, he recites: [Blessed…] who opens the eyes of the blind.

When he sits up in his bed, he recites: [Blessed…] who unties those bound.

When he lowers his feet from the bed and rests them on the ground, he recites: [Blessed…] who spreads the earth over the waters.

When he stands up, he recites: [Blessed…] who straightens the bowed.

When he washes his hands, he recites: [Blessed…] who has sanctified us with His commandments and commanded us regarding the washing of hands.

When he washes his face, he recites: Blessed are You, God, our Lord, King of the universe, who removes the bonds of sleep from my eyes and slumber from my eyelids. May it be Your will, God, my Lord and Lord of my fathers, that You accustom me to the performance of [Your] commandments and do not accustom me to sins or transgressions. Cause the positive inclination to rule over me and not the evil inclination. Strengthen me in Your commandments and grant my portion in Your Torah. Allow me to find favor, lovingkindness, and mercy in Your eyes and the eyes of all who see me and bestow upon me benevolent kindnesses. Blessed are You, God, who bestows benevolent kindnesses.

Halacha 5

Whenever one enters the toilet, before entering, he says:

Be honored, holy honorable ones, servants of the Most High. Help me. Help me. Guard me. Guard me. Wait for me until I enter and come out, as this is the way of humans.

After he comes out, he recites:

Blessed are You, God, our Lord, King of the universe, who formed man in wisdom and created within him many openings and cavities. It is revealed and known before the throne of Your glory that if one of them were to be blocked or if one of them were to be opened, it would be impossible to exist for even one moment. Blessed are You, God, who heals all flesh and works wonders.

Halacha 6

When one fastens his belt, he recites: [Blessed…universe,] who girds Israel with strength.

When he puts on his shoes, he recites: [Blessed…universe,] for You have provided me with all my needs.

When he walks to depart on his way, he recites: [Blessed… universe,] who prepares the steps of man.

[Also,] every day, a person should recite:

Blessed are You, God, our Lord, King of the universe, who has not made me a non-Jew.

Blessed are You, God, our Lord, King of the universe, who has not made me a woman.

Blessed are You, God, our Lord, King of the universe, who has not made me a servant.

Halacha 7

These eighteen blessings do not have a particular order. Rather, one recites each of them in response to the condition for which the blessing was instituted, at the appropriate time.

What is implied? One who fastens his belt while still in his bed recites [the blessing] “who girds Israel with strength.” One who hears the voice of the rooster recites [the blessing] “who gives understanding to the rooster.”

Any blessing in which one is not obligated should not be recited.

 

[4] see

An insight into Marx’s psychology may be garnered by examining his attitudes towards bodily functions. According to Weyl “his favorite expression in his correspondence with Engels is “shit”. In his attack on the Jewish editor of the Daily Telegraph Marx wrote that just as “all the lavatories of London spew their physical filth into the Thames” so too did all the “social filth” pour into the “central sewer called the Daily Telegraph.” He suggested that, as Levy was the presiding alchemist of this sewer system, he should have a plaque on his office building inscribed “Wayfarer, stop and piss”. In attacks on everyone, Marx would call them “that shit”. Even when he was tired of writing his own books, he would describe his work as “this shit”. When an infant daughter died, Marx wrote Engels that “this time the whole shit has affected me deeply”. After his death, Marx’s youngest daughter made a diligent effort to piece together scraps of information about her late father’s childhood in Trier. Although she “idolized her father and made up the most beautiful legends” there is a ring of truth to this vignette of his childhood:

“I have heard my aunts say that as little boy, he was a terrible tyrant to his sisters whom he would ‘drive’ down the Markusberg in Trier at full speed. And worse, he would insist on their eating the ‘cakes’ he made with dirty dough and dirtier hands. But they stood the ‘driving’ and the ‘cakes’ without a murmur for the sake of the stories Karl would tell them as a reward for their virtue.”

Two familiar Marxian characteristics emerge from this story. First, Marx’s passionate need to dominate others; and second, his almost obsessional preoccupation with dirt and excrement, or as he would put it in his correspondence with Engels, crap (“Dreck“) and shit (“Scheiss“).

[5] Devarim Rabba, Parasha 2, Section 37

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Filed under Bible, Hebrew, Judaism, miracle, Religion, Sabbath, Shabbat, Torah

it’s just a story

parshat vayetze

In a previous post (first refusnik) I explore how Jacob was the first Refusnik… in the fullest sense of the word.

I make reference to a seminal concept in the way the rabbis read the Bible, especially Genesis: The stories of our predecessors are a sign for future generations.

מעשה אבות סימן לבנים

Normally this concept is translated as “the narrative of the Patriarchs is a sign for their children”. So that if Abraham, Isaac and Jacob all were individually exiled because of a famine and ultimately returned to the promised land, so too would their progeny many years latter… and as a people.

But a more radical understanding could certainly be: All those stories about our patriarchs, matriarchs.. our origins, are nothing more than symbolic.

Afterall, the word avot (אבות), especially in Rabbinic usage means origin or sources (e.g. the 39 core forms of work prohibited on shabbat ל״ט אבות מלאכות )

After All, Maimonides in his Guide for the Perplexed II, 42 states unequivocally that many of the iconic stories in the Bible were just dreams….

the appearance or speech of an angel mentioned in Scripture took place in a vision or dream; it makes no difference whether this is expressly stated or not, as we have explained above. This is a point of considerable importance. In some cases the account begins by stating that the prophet saw an angel; in others, the account apparently introduces a human being, who ultimately is shown to be an angel; but it makes no difference, for if the fact that an angel has been heard is only mentioned at the end, you may rest satisfied that the whole account from the beginning describes a prophetic vision.

What this means is that not only is the story of Jacob struggling with the Angel just a vision… never happened.. but so is the story of the Fall which ends with Angels guarding the entrance to Eden…. and so is the sacrifice of Isaac which ends with an angel calling out to Abraham to lay off the boy.  (so it turns out that the sacrifice of Isaac was not only a dream… it was a particularly bad dream… a nightmare..)

In my mind, to say that much, if not all of the bible is merely a dream, a vision, a sign is not a defect.  The Hebrew Bible contains the dreams, visions and nightmares of my people… ones that have impacted humankind in ways unimaginable.

But when it comes to impacting the lives of other human beings, created in the image of the divine… let’s remember… it’s just a story.

 

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Filed under Bible, Chosen People, divine right, Israel, Judaism, miracle, Religion

Isaac’s smile

Parshat Vayera

In a previous post Divine Birthers I, I explore the concept of miraculous birth and resurrection in Judaism.  It’s ironic that such a heavy discussion is raised by the birth and life of a guy named Isaac … יִצְחָק which literally means to laugh and in context, means to laugh at God.

And Sarah laughed within herself, saying: ‘After I am waxed old shall I have pleasure, my lord being old also?’  And the LORD said unto Abraham: ‘Wherefore did Sarah laugh, saying: Shall I of a surety bear a child, who am old?  Is any thing too hard for the LORD. At the set time I will return unto thee, when the season cometh round, and Sarah shall have a son.  Then Sarah denied, saying: ‘I laughed not’; for she was afraid. And He said: ‘Nay; but thou didst laugh.’ Genesis 18: 12-16

וַתִּצְחַק שָׂרָה, בְּקִרְבָּהּ לֵאמֹר:  אַחֲרֵי בְלֹתִי הָיְתָה-לִּי עֶדְנָה, וַאדֹנִי זָקֵן

וַיֹּאמֶר ה’, אֶל-אַבְרָהָם:  לָמָּה זֶּה צָחֲקָה שָׂרָה לֵאמֹר, הַאַף אֻמְנָם אֵלֵד–וַאֲנִי זָקַנְתִּי

הֲיִפָּלֵא ה’, דָּבָר; לַמּוֹעֵד אָשׁוּב אֵלֶיךָ, כָּעֵת חַיָּה–וּלְשָׂרָה בֵן

וַתְּכַחֵשׁ שָׂרָה לֵאמֹר לֹא צָחַקְתִּי, כִּי יָרֵאָה; וַיֹּאמֶר לֹא, כִּי צָחָקְתְּ

 

And Abraham was a hundred years old, when his son Isaac was born unto him and Sarah said: ‘God hath made laughter for me; every one that heareth will laugh on account of me.’  Genesis 21: 6-7

וְאַבְרָהָם, בֶּן-מְאַת שָׁנָה, בְּהִוָּלֶד לוֹ, אֵת יִצְחָק בְּנוֹ

וַתֹּאמֶר שָׂרָה–צְחֹק, עָשָׂה לִי אֱלֹהִים:  כָּל-הַשֹּׁמֵעַ, יִצְחַק-לִי

This past Rosh HaShanah, my Rabbi, Rabbi Jeremy Wiederhorn asked why, Isaac, the “middle Father” of the three patriarchs was featured in the Torah readings of the High Holidays?  The first day of Rosh Hashanah we read the story of the expulsion of Hagar and Ishmael after the birth of Isaac:  Genesis 21: 9.   Ironically, Ishmael is banished by Sarah because he exhibits the same trait as Isaac… he’s a jokester….

And Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne unto Abraham, making sport.

וַתֵּרֶא שָׂרָה אֶת-בֶּן-הָגָר הַמִּצְרִית, אֲשֶׁר-יָלְדָה לְאַבְרָהָם–מְצַחֵק

On the second day of Rosh Hashanah we read of the Sacrifice of Isaac, which is admittedly not a laughing matter.

Even the Torah makes a connection between the Sacrifice of Isaac.. the Akeda and what lies before… the account of he Akeda begins with Genesis 22:1

And it came to pass after these things, that God did prove Abraham, and said unto him: ‘Abraham’; and he said: ‘Here am I.’

 וַיְהִי, אַחַר הַדְּבָרִים הָאֵלֶּה

Like any middle child, argued Wiederhorn, Isaac had a conflicted life and much to teach us…. ergo we read both of these troubling stories that revolve around him on the high holy days.

What connects Isaac and his jokester brother Ishmael is how these two brothers came to reconcile with each other, and forgive their father.

According to the the Talmudic sage Raba in Baba Batra 16b  quoted by Wiederhorn, these two feuding brothers reunited at their father’s funeral and shiva.

Ishmael repented in the lifetime of his father. [We know this] because it says, And Isaac and Ishmael his sons buried him. (Genesis 25: 9) But perhaps the text arranges them in the order of their wisdom? — If that were so, then why in the verse, And Esau and Jacob his sons buried him (Genesis 35: 29) are they not arranged in the order of their wisdom? What we have to say is that the fact of the text placing Isaac first shows that Ishmael made way (‘made him lead’)  for him, and from the fact that he made way for him we infer that he repented in Abraham’s lifetime. [1]

According to a conversation imagined by Rabbi Wiederhorn…. Ishmael was bitter and complained to Isaac that that their father had cruelly rejected and exiled him…. said Isaac “Dad rejected you… but he tried to kill me!”.  It was this humor shared by these two victims of exile and persecution that brought them together.

But there’s more joking going on in this narrative.  When in Genesis 26: 8 the Abimelech, king of the Philistines catches Isaac “sporting” with his wife Rebecca, many commentaries provide sexual innuendo…

And it came to pass, when he had been there a long time, that Abimelech king of the Philistines looked out at a window, and saw, and, behold, Isaac was sporting with Rebekah his wife.

וַיְהִי, כִּי אָרְכוּ-לוֹ שָׁם הַיָּמִים, וַיַּשְׁקֵף אֲבִימֶלֶךְ מֶלֶךְ פְּלִשְׁתִּים, בְּעַד הַחַלּוֹן; וַיַּרְא, וְהִנֵּה יִצְחָק מְצַחֵק, אֵת, רִבְקָה אִשְׁתּוֹ

I must say, I have always loved the Torah’s humor in “Isaac was sporting” “Yitchak Mitzahek”  יִצְחָק מְצַחֵק  but Wiederhorn makes the point that not only does the author of the Torah make us smile with this word play… but maybe, just maybe it was not gratuitous sex that was part of this screenplay …  maybe for once we should take the text literally and Isaac was making his wife smile in a way that only one who is intimately connected can.  Isaac, true to his name, used humor, charm and a gratuitous smile to navigate through the trials and tribulations of life.  that was what Isaac was doing too…. making Rebeca smile in a way that showed the closeness of the relationship.

According to Wiederhorn’s sometimes we need to look on the bright side of life…

Writing this post in Israel, after a difficult few weeks of conflict over the Temple Mount and terror attacks with cars mowing down innocent victims waiting for a light rail, the message of Isaac could never be more timely… we … all parties.. the children of Sarah and the children of Hagar, need to smile more and make each other smile more.  We share enough tragedy to smile in a way that only those sharing the same fate and suffering can.  If we can’t smile together, we may never get out of the rut we’re in.

———————

[1]

baba batra 16bWiederhorn was inspired by the commentary to Genesis 25:9 in the Etz Hayim Chumash: “Isaac and Ishmael are reunited at their father’s funeral, a sign that Ishmael changed his ways as he matured [BT BB 16b].  Although he could not have forgotten how his father had treated him and how his brother had supplanted him, he seems to have forgiven Abraham for having been a less-than-perfect father.  Isaac too seems to have come to terms with his father’s nearly killing him on Mount Moriah.

Might these reconciliations have occurred in Abraham’s lifetime and be the reason for the Torah’s describing him as “contented” in his old age (Gen. R. 38:12)? Can we see this as a model for family reconciliations, forgiving old hurts? And can it not be a model for the descendents of Ishmael and Isaac, contemporary Arabs and Israeli Jews, to find grounds for forgiveness and reconciliation?”

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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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