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Wash your hands

parshat ki tisa – exodus 30

Join Geoffrey Stern and Rabbi Adam Mintz recorded on March 9th on Clubhouse. The Torah commands the Priests to wash their hands and feet before conducting the Temple service. The Rabbis command hand washing upon waking, before prayer, before eating and on multiple other opportunities. We review the Rabbinic and comparative Christian and Muslim sources and discuss hand washing; a rite historically identified with the Jews.

Sefaria Source Sheet:


Welcome to Madlik.  My name is Geoffrey Stern and at Madlik we light a spark or shed some light on a Jewish Text or Tradition.  Along with Rabbi Adam Mintz, we host Madlik Disruptive Torah on clubhouse every Thursday and share it as the Madlik podcast on your favorite platform. This week’s Torah portion is Ki Tisa. The Torah commands the Priests to wash their hands and feet before conducting the Temple service. The Rabbis command hand washing upon waking, before prayer, before eating and on multiple other opportunities. When I studied in the Yeshiva, I had a bowl and cup of water under my bed so that I could wash my hands before my feet touched the floor.  If you’ve been to an Orthodox wedding or a rest room in Israel you’ve likely seen a washing cup with two handles.  What’s with all the washing you say.  I say, watch your mouth and….. Wash your hands!


This year, it’s a second or third year-round. You never know what we’re gonna discuss a good topic we’re gonna discuss washing, washing your hands of all things. In Exodus 30: 17, which is part of our parsha it says God spoke to Moses, saying: (18) Make a laver of copper and a stand of copper for it, for washing;  לְרׇחְצָ֑ה and place it between the Tent of Meeting and the altar. Put water in it, (19) and let Aaron and his sons wash their hands and feet [in water drawn] from it. (20) When they enter the Tent of Meeting they shall wash with water, that they may not die; or when they approach the altar to serve, to turn into smoke an offering by fire to ה’, (21) they shall wash their hands and feet, that they may not die. It shall be a law for all time for them—for him and his offspring—throughout the ages.  So, this is a real thing. This is a this is a law. And you know many times we go to the prayer book, the first blessing that you make in the prayer book, the first blessing you make over a commandment every day is blessed are you oh Lord our God אֲשֶׁר קִדְּ֒שָֽׁנוּ בְּמִצְוֹתָיו וְצִוָּנוּ עַל נְטִילַת יָדָֽיִם . You wash your hands under the bed is something called Negel Vaser We’re gonna get into all of that.

Adam Mintz  02:39

Do you know what the word Nagel means.

Geoffrey Stern  02:42

Nagel means nail, I think we might, we might get into that as well.

Adam Mintz  02:47

That’s correct. I think that’s what Negel means

Geoffrey Stern  02:49

And it doesn’t mean nail like hitting the nail with a hammer. It means nail as the end of your fingertip. So, you know, there’s a lot of washing going on. I might have mentioned before that Jews are recognized as Sabbath observers. So, I think in India, the word even that they call Jews are people that keep the Shabbat. [shanivār telī (“Saturday oil-pressers”)] But I think and maybe it’s an urban legend or whatever. People understand there’s a lot of hand washing going on amongst us Jews. So we are going to try to dig down to the bottom of the well, so to speak, and get into all of the ins and outs of washing your hands. What do you think, Rabbi?

Adam Mintz  03:40

I love it. This is a great topic take it away.

Geoffrey Stern  03:44

So first of all, Torah Temimah, which is a kind of a compendium of the Talmud says from this verse, washing of the hands is associated with prayer. So, as I said, the first blessing that you make in the siddur is this blessing of, of washing your hands, and it comes from this verse. The Rabbi’s felt very strongly about washing your hands in the Talmud in Berakhot 15a Rabbi Ḥiyya bar Abba said that Rabbi Yoḥanan said: Anyone who relieves himself, washes his hands, dons phylacteries, recites Shema, and prays, the verse ascribes credit to him as if he built an altar and offered a sacrifice upon it, as it is written: “I will wash in purity my hands, and I will encircle the altar of the Lord” (Psalms 26:6).   So clearly there is a connection that the rabbi’s take to our verse, and washing of the hands and if prayer duplicated if prayer was put in place of the temple service here you have the Talmud saying it and we see that right from the beginning. And it says, Robert said to him Rava said to him: Do you not maintain, Master, that one who does so, it is as if he immersed his entire body, as it is written: “I will wash in purity,” and it is not written: “I will wash my hands”?  So, we’re going to see already from the beginning. And I was tempted to use this episode to talk about mikvah, which is something that you Rabbi are intimately involved with, because you do so many conversions. But the truth is, there is a little bit of a tension between washing the hands and immersing in the mikvah. And that is mentioned right here. And it’s almost like a Mikdash katan that washing your hands is somehow different than immersing oneself in the mikvah. But nonetheless, as we just saw, it’s as if one has immersed themselves in the mikvah. It says as if one is re-born and rejuvenating Ravina said to Rava: My Master, look at this Torah scholar [tzurva merabbanan] who came from Eretz Yisrael and said something astonishing: One who has no water with which to wash his hands, it is sufficient that he wipes his hands with earth, a rock, or a sliver of wood. Rava replied to Ravina: He spoke well, as, is it written: I will wash with water? In purity, is written referring to anything that cleans.  So it’s almost as though this washing is clearly washing. But it’s also a metaphor for holiness. Do you do l that washing hands is number one I associated with Jews identified with Jews? Is it a critical part of Rabbinic Judaism?

Adam Mintz  06:47

Well, first of all, let me tell you how its associated with Jews in the 1300s, there was a terrible plague in Europe. And the Jews, and like a third of all European population was killed. And Jews were killed at a smaller rate than that. And there was a theory that it’s because Jews keep the laws of cleanliness, better than everybody else, that they’re washing their hands all the time. So, I want to tell you no. And that led to anti semitism, of course, because they didn’t like that. But it’s interesting that even in that context, Jews are associated with washing your hands, I’m going to tell you an interesting law. The law is that you’re not allowed to wash your hands ritually, unless your hands are clean. That’s a very interesting law. It means you can’t wash your hands for bread. If your hands are dirty. If your hands are dirty, you have to go to the sink, you have to wash your hands with soap, get them clean, then you can wash your hands for bread. So washing for bread or washing in the morning, what we call Negel, Vaser is a ritual, it’s not for cleanliness, which I think is very interesting.

Geoffrey Stern  08:01

So you almost said something, you know, your self-contradictory. On the one hand, you gave the hygienic argument for…

Adam Mintz  08:09

I showed you the way they look at it, the world looks at it at as hygienic. But I’m saying that in in Halacha, it’s exactly the opposite, which is interesting. That would be our answer to that, right.

Geoffrey Stern  08:22

So as all of you faithful Madlik, listeners know, we have Sephira notes that go with every episode. And if you look into the notes for this week’s episode, we quote an article from the Jewish Review of books published in 2021. And it says Jews, Genes and the Black Death, it’s towards the end of the notes, and it talks about, for lack of a better word, I’m going to say this bubba meiser, that every good Jewish mother would tell their kids wash your hands, because this saved us from the bubonic plague. And what’s fascinating about it, as you say, Rabbi is we’re not sure that it came from the Jews, or it came from the non-Jews, we do know that there was anti-semitic outbursts during the plague, because the Jews were blamed. That’s just a reflex, I assume. But it’s fascinating. The article goes into it and actually goes through the numbers. And it comes out if you’re interested in saying that if and that’s a big if the Jews did not die in the same numbers as the non-Jews, it may have something to do with DNA. And I just suggest that you read the article because we are not a DNA podcast here. But in any case, it is fascinating that nonetheless, what you’re saying emanates this concept that it washing hands was clearly identified with The Jews, it was a a mark, so to speak. In the Gomorrah and Hulan 106a, it says, When Rav Dimi came from Eretz Yisrael he said: Due to the failure to wash with the first waters, meaning the washing that you do before you eat, they ultimately fed a Jew pig meat. So, what happened? A Jew shows up to a butcher shop that carries both kosher meat and pig meat. And based on the fact that the guy didn’t wash his hands, the proprietor figured he must not be Jewish. So again, what the Talmud is, in effect, saying between the lines is that washing of hands was an identifier. And I think that is kind of fascinating.

Adam Mintz  10:50

That is fascinating. I mean, that not your point that you’re making. It’s that it’s an identifier. And that’s, that’s interesting socially, I’m interested in how we identify one another. Like, it seems to be that people are always washing their hands. Not everybody does this. And I’ll admit that I don’t do this either. But actually, the tradition is to wash your hands before you daven as well. Before every prayer service, you’re supposed to wash your hands. That’s why sometimes outside of a shul, you’ll see a basin or you know, a sink in order to be able to wash your hands.

Geoffrey Stern  11:32

Well, absolutely. And I said that a little bit in the intro. These strange cups that have two handles on them,

Adam Mintz  11:39

Right. That’s correct.

Geoffrey Stern  11:40

Yeah, you go to an orthodox wedding and you see them you go to a synagogue, you see them, if you’re in Israel, and you go to a restaurant, nine times out of 10 outside of the bathroom, and they might even have the sink outside of the bathroom. It’s made for ritual washing, whether it’s washing because you’ve relieved yourself or washing because you’re about to partake of a meal and eat bread. I mean, let me give you a sense of how many washing opportunities there are. We know when we go to a cemetery. We wash our hands upon leaving. After cuttings, one hair or nails and we’ll get a little bit into the nails association here because you already mentioned that the water that one keeps at the side of one’s bed called Nagel vaser that one washes one’s fingertips upon waking up, has in the Yiddish Nagel means nails so your washing your fingertips. Some people wash before prayer, and again, this reminded me of my yeshiva days when I we did wash before prayers. I had forgotten about that. But it is kind of fascinating now to see how important it was to the rabbi’s go to Sotah 4b The Gemara continues its discussion of washing hands. Rabbi Zerika says that Rabbi Elazar says: Anyone who treats the ritual of washing hands with contempt is uprooted from the world.  הַמְּזַלְזֵל בִּנְטִילַת יָדַיִם נֶעֱקָר מִן הָעוֹלָם  The rabbi’s took this very seriously. Rav Ḥiyya bar Ashi says that Rav says: With regard to the first water, so let’s stop here for a second before you start a meal before you eat. There’s מַיִם רִאשׁוֹנִים  That’s what we all know where you wash your hands before you say hamotzi but there’s also מַיִם אַחֲרוֹנִים  which you wash at the end of the meal. You may have seen these little wonderful Judaica pieces that look like a well with a little cup hanging down.

Adam Mintz  13:59

They’re fantastic, aren’t they?

Geoffrey Stern  14:01

Oh, they are. And that is מַיִם אַחֲרוֹנִים . And that is to to wipe off what it’s called the מלח סדומית the salt from Sodom. And again, the health explanation would be that in those days, they used a lot of salt to preserve things…

Adam Mintz  14:21

Well something else. They didn’t have cutlery. So, the salt got on your fingers today, you would say What do you mean wash your hands, but at the end of the meal you’re using a fork and a spoon and a knife, but they didn’t have cutlery so the salt from the food and they needed salt in the food because they didn’t have refrigeration. So, the only way they preserve the food was by salting the food.

Geoffrey Stern  14:44

And of course there are more theological answers because who can talk about Sodom without thinking about מידת סדום (the evil character of Sodom) so when you finished eating and you’re satiated, which is the time that you might not focus on people that are less fortunate wash off the salt of Sodom, is a beautiful explanation I once heard. Getting back to the Talmud, it says so when you do the first washing, you must raise your hand upward, שֶׁיַּגְבִּיהַּ יָדָיו לְמַעְלָה . And when you do the מַיִם אַחֲרוֹנִים, you put your hands downward, there is something and we’ve already touched upon it, this association between holiness and cleanliness, holiness, and cleaning one’s hands. And so, while you definitely have a point, when you say this is not just cleaning one’s hands, your hands actually have to be cleaned before this ritual washing. There is this sense of, of raising your hands to a higher level raising you to a higher level. You know, we have a Mishnayot that talks about people being excommunicated, because they questioned the laws of purifying the hands. This actually was a very big, big deal. And it was a controversial idea. I think I could say that it not only was I an identifier of Jews, but because we Jews are the heirs of the Pharisees the Perushim, the Rabbinic Judaism in its day when there were other sects, it was a identifier of someone who was loyal to the rabbis. And therefore, if one did not wash or ascribe to washing or when put down washing, one was Kofer B’ikar, one was somehow undermining the whole project.

Adam Mintz  15:19

Yeah, I think that that makes a lot of sense. I think that’s, that is good. And that’s, you know, it’s interesting, I wasn’t thinking about מַיִם אַחֲרוֹנִים. But that’s another good example of kinda the balance between the hygiene piece of it, and the ritual piece of it. You don’t wait to wash until after Birkat HaMazon, you wash before Grace after meals, because it’s part of the ritual.

Geoffrey Stern  17:24

So what I love about scholarship today, and many times I will quote comparative religion, from the New Testament from the Quran. But in this case, it actually helps us understand the Talmud, because clearly the Talmud is excommunicating people who don’t wash, it is judging people as to identity if they don’t wash, something was going on. And if it was just in a vacuum, we would say maybe it’s a paper tiger. But in Mark 7 we have this long story, which I’m going to read. 1The Pharisees and some of the teachers of the law who had come from Jerusalem gathered around Jesus 2 and saw some of his disciples eating food with hands that were defiled, that is, unwashed. 3 (The Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they give their hands a ceremonial washing, holding to the tradition of the elders. 4 When they come from the marketplace they do not eat unless they wash. And they observe many other traditions, such as the washing of cups, pitchers and kettles.  I don’t know if that’s referring to being tovel kelim in a mikvah? Who knows. 5 So the Pharisees and teachers of the law asked Jesus, “Why don’t your disciples live according to the tradition of the elders instead of eating their food with defiled hands?” 6 He replied, “Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written: “‘These people honor me with their lips,     but their hearts are far from me. 7 They worship me in vain;     their teachings are merely human rules.’[b] 8 You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to human traditions.” And then it goes on, and it compares it to honoring your mother and father. And to cut a long story short, because I welcome you all to read it in the original and it appears twice in the New Testament. It’s also in Matthew 15. They basically make the argument that while the Bible itself says that you have to honor your mother and father, the rabbi’s say if you make an oath, if you make a neder, that you won’t do something that involves your parents, you have to keep the oath. The argument that Jesus and the New Testament on making here is that this law of washing that we just read about in the Torah that relates only to the priests in the temple is only by rabbinic decree made for everybody else. And what they are undermining is rabbinic authority. They are undermining the oral tradition. They are fundamentalists in a sense, but the fact that they picked this particular lawyer twice as their use case is kind of fascinating. And of course, at the end, it ends up with something that I had always associated with Jesus saying about kosher, but he in fact, says it about washing your hands. And he makes the famous comment, it’s not important what goes into your mouth. It’s what comes out of it. And what he meant to say, following up on the Isaiah quote, is that this purity needs to come from inside and not from outside. I call it a cheap shot, if you will. But it’s fascinating to me that this was documented not only in the Talmud, but also in the New Testament, that this was a point of discussion of a separation between the sects.

Adam Mintz  21:17

I mean, that’s so interesting, they argued about this ritual. And of course, they argued about this ritual, because this ritual is not biblical, but it was something that was added by the rabbi’s. So the Pharisees liked it, because they were part of the rabbinic tradition. The other sects rejected it, because they didn’t have such a good feeling about the rabbis. Right. This is so you’re really introducing even though you had this, the you know, the the story about the sects, you’re really introducing the fact that as important as ritual washing is, it’s actually a rabbinic obligation, not a biblical obligation.

Geoffrey Stern  21:58

So I think you’re right. And I think in the normal course of events, we would talk about this just as that we would say that if the story that we read about in the Parsah is called an Asmachata אסמכתא בעלמא  that it’s kind of like a place holder, or it’s an allusion. But I think a little bit because it was so controversial. If you go to Tanna Debei Eliyahu Rabbah 15:1  it says that יש מקרא ואין בו משנה  that there are instances in the Torah of stories without an explanation or without the learning. And they actually they talk about the Jews outside of Sinai where they had to clean themselves. For three days. They had to go into the mikvah, and it says גם למדנו רחיצת ידים מן התורה  the rabbi’s are trying very hard, this is so important to them, that they are trying very hard to associate it and of course, they bring our verse as well. And they say that because it says you shall be holy. When you wash your hands, it doesn’t relate totally, or exclusively to the Kohanim. But also to all of Klal Yisrael, so it is kind of fascinating. I think the real the real elephant in the room here is that the rabbi’s introduced a whole culture of food that was either Chulan, Demai or it was holy (terumah) , and there were all sorts of degradations, and you had to be in a state of purity to eat them. And I think what’s fascinating at the end of the day is what the rabbi’s have done is they’ve actually made an innovation here. If you look at Maimonides, Maimonides makes a general rule. And he says Whenever the Torah mentions washing one’s flesh or laundering one’s garments from impurity, the intent is solely the immersion of the entire body or article in a mikveh. The phrase, Leviticus 15:11: “And he did not wash his hands in water,” also refers to the immersion of the entire body.  And in a sense what the rabbi’s have done because it would not be practical to go to the mikvah every time one ate, they actually made an innovation that was a practicality. They said that dipping your hands or we’ll get into a second washing your hands was enough to make you holy. I think that’s a kind of fascinating, kind of a tweak on what is at stake here.

Adam Mintz  24:49

I think that’s great. I think that that’s absolutely right. And what you said about the rabbi’s working hard to find the biblical source It’s a familiar trope in in robotics that they look for a verse to, to, to support something that they made up themselves, because they want to make it stronger than just rabbinic. They want to give it the sense as if it’s biblical.

Geoffrey Stern  25:16

Yeah, absolutely. But this was a little, the stakes were a little bit higher here, because I think that, you know, there’s this whole issue of what constituted Am Aretz. And this whole question of eating Demai, it was really a major identifier of who you were in terms of the, the holiness, the separation of the Pharisees. So let’s get a little bit into since our verse is universally taken, as the hook upon which this is hung. Let’s go to a good buddy, the safer HaChinuch, who talks about every commandment, he had to include this because it literally says you are commanded from now and forever. So he says the roots of the commandment is the fixed foundation that we have said to aggrandize, the glory of the temple and all the activities that are done there. So there’s a little bit of a sense of another tradition, where this can’t be about purity, because the only way one can get pure is by immersing in the mikvah. So what is this, and the track that many of these commentaries take is, it’s giving honor, it’s what you would do, it appears from all this, that the intention of washing at the beginning is only for the aggrandizement of the glory of the temple. So there is a sense of this isn’t about necessarily purifying you, but it’s about uplifting the moment and uplifting you to the thing. And this is where we get into raising the hands. And the way that we wash our hands, he goes on to say, and that they do not put their hands into the water, but we pour it over their hands. And this is also the way of honor, he doesn’t say necessarily who pours the water, we’re going to talk a little bit if we have time, about the whole sense of the honor of pouring water on somebody else’s hands or somebody else’s feet. But clearly, the way that we have a cup with the two handles, you can’t put your fingers under the faucet, you have to pour the water onto it. And everybody talks about the blessing that we say עַל נְטִילַת יָדָֽיִם , which has a sense of raising up one’s hands. There is this sense of elevation here.

Adam Mintz  27:55

Yeah, that’s good. That’s very, very good. The word netila is the idea of raising your hands. Some people have the custom if you watch people on Friday night, wash their hands, some people wash their hands, and they pick their hands up a little bit. They actually recite a verse שאו ידיכם קדש , that you should raise your hands there is this idea that you’re elevated. The washing is a ritual that elevates you. There’s a lot to be said there,

Geoffrey Stern  28:25

elevate, raise your hands before performing something sacred. That is clearly a part of it. And so if we go on a little bit further, and we’re not going to have time for everything, this whole washing of the feet is something that was lost. The Rabbi’s didn’t do quite the job on the washing of the feet that they did with washing of the hands. The truth is that Christianity took that and maybe it was one of those instances where in a divorce, we divide things up and it was so associated with Christianity, and maybe even Islam, that we stopped doing it. In the story of Abraham. If you recall when the angels came to visit him, the first thing that he did was he went out and he washed their feet. He said in Genesis 18 Let a little water be poured bathe your feet and recline under the tree. In the Talmud. It says in Baba Metzia Rabbi Yannai, son of Rabbi Yishmael, said that the guests said to Abraham: Are you suspicious that we are Arabs who bow to the dust of their feet? Yishmael has already issued from him, i.e., your own son acts in this manner.  So first of all, it’s fascinating that the rabbi, is the son of Rabbi Ishmael about the children of Ishmael, but clearly the Talmud is too early to talk about Islam, but already associated with Washing of one’s feet is not something that elevated but either one’s feet were dirty or because maybe one worshipped the ground. In the Source sheet, I have a lot of a sources for where Christianity took this, I did find something fascinating in terms of the reform movement, have something called Brit Rechitza for those Jews that are have a problem with a Brit Mila, they have taken this where they do a little ceremony where they wash the feet. To me, it sounds very Christian. But again, that’s because we are so remote from this sense of washing. It’s just so fascinating. What I would like to leave everybody with is this sense, we’ve talked about bracha in the past, coming from the word Berech, which is knee (bowing – bending). But bracha also comes from the same word as berecha which is pool. And in the notes, I quote, The Malbim and others who really talk about this sense of a blessing being something that is poured from God to man and back and forth. He talks in some of the commentaries that I bring talk about when a patriarch like Jacob divides up the blessing, he’s scooping out the portion of the cup that belongs to each one. It’s a beautiful image when we say a baracha and when we give a bracha this sense of pouring the water, and I’d love to leave you with that image as we think about washing our hands.

Adam Mintz  31:54

That’s great. This was a great topic. Thank you, Geoffrey. Shabbat Shalom to everybody. Enjoy your weekend. Enjoy your week. We look forward to seeing you next week. Shabbat shalom.

Geoffrey Stern  32:05

Hey, Lauren, how’s it going?

Loren Davis  32:07

This was a really interesting topic, it came to mind this week, and I was doing some reading about the Parsha. And it talked about the Cohen Gadol that the requirement was to wash their hands and their feet. And it wasn’t necessarily that the hands were more important or less important than the feet. It was a it was a ritual that included both. And I was wondering whether or not now you’ve you’ve touched on it in your in your text here, but in going into the into the Holy of Holies. Why do you think they also included the feet in that?

Geoffrey Stern  32:47

So actually, in the very verse that we started with, which was not for the Cohen Gadol it was for the standard priest, it says in Exodus 30: 21, they shall wash their hands and feet that they may not die. And the classic commentaries all say that this had to be done. They even provide provisions for how it’s done. One places one’s hand over one’s foot, let’s say your left hand on your left foot, you watch that, and you do the same for the right. So washing the feet is something that’s kind of fascinating. And I kind of hinted at that, that that got lost between the cracks in rabbinic literature culture and kind of reimagining Judaism after the temple, it survived very much in Christianity. And obviously, it’s survived in Islam, but somehow, it preserved here. And most Jews would say that at the time of the temple, we’ll we’ll be washing hands and feet again, but it didn’t translate into any of the rituals that the rabbis created. And that we follow today. I will say, even the sense of taking off when shoes because you are on holy ground. Islam, I picked that up. Judaism for the most part not [ I should mention that for the priestly blessing, the modern day Cohanim do not wear their shoes) although there are some amazing synagogues in the Caribbean, who do not have wooden or stone floors. I think it’s called Curaçao.  It’s sand. It’s made of sand and I assume in those synagogues, maybe they did pray without shoes. In Judaism taking off one’s shoe is a sign of mourning or ultra hyper holiness. We do that on Yom Kippur. But again, I think you make a good point what happened to washing the feet?

Loren Davis  35:06

The distinction that you made this evening between purity and holiness was very, very interesting to me that there was the Holiness was in honor of, I guess, what you’re suggesting of God, purity was a way of being able to prepare yourself to participate in that is that the distinction?

Geoffrey Stern  35:30

So the Pharisees which were quoted in the New Testament, tonight, the Hebrew for a PhariseePerushim  means to be separate. They, they would say, קדושים תהיו ר”ל פירושים תהיו, you want to be holy, you have to separate yourself, and we always think of the Pharisees, as the people that said, An eye for an eye, lex talionis, its monetary. We saw them as very practical and taking Judaism along the path of evolving, but a very strong part of the Pharisees were these holiness laws, they distinguish between different types of food. You have a little bit of that in the Seder. One of the four questions is, every other night we wash once, tonight, we washed twice, they kind of captured a temple rite of washing one’s hands before we even ate fruit that might have had moisture on it and therefore could accept a certain level of unholiness. They were not like the Essenes; they didn’t go into the desert and segregate themselves. But clearly what they tried to do was to pack and ship some of the rules of the temple into ordinary life. And they were known for that and the term arm Haaretz which nowadays is a word we use for an ignoramus. In the Talmud, a times academics have shown that it actually had to do with the people who stayed in the land of Israel, when many of the Jews went into Babylonia, and it was in Babylonia and the Babylonian Talmud were many of these laws were made about purity in terms of eating and washing, they came back and resident Am Ha’aretz was not willing to accept these rules. It was a major point of division. And I think that’s part of why the washing part and the holiness part was monopolized and hijacked by the rabbi’s. And they’re, you see this other trend in it, this sense of not holiness in the sense of impurity, but holiness in the sense of elevating and giving grandeur to the temple giving grandeur to God being reborn, but I do think in and I’ll stop here, I do think what the rabbi’s did, by letting you wash your hands is they created a fast-food version of the holiness code. Whereas all of the commentaries say, if you look at the Bible, the only way you can purify yourself is taking a dip … going, going into the mikvah, the rabbi’s had to be more practical, and they permitted you to just wash your hands. So it was actually a practical innovation as much as anything else.

Loren Davis  38:33

That’s really That’s fascinating. I think the rabbi was right, this is a great topic and the issue of, of cleanliness versus holiness. I do so many things during the day where I wash my hands for one reason or another. And it’s interesting to trace back where that may have come from. So, thank you for your very interesting session.

Geoffrey Stern  38:52

Thank you and I’ll only end with one language. Text The Rabbi’s say when you wake up in the morning, and otherwise, before you pray, you have to wash your hands because your hands are busy. (The Rosh in the late 13th century says that we must wash our hands because “the hands are busy.”) You never know where they’ll be. And I love that expression. So anyway, let’s all stay busy. Let’s all stay clean and holy. And we’ll see you all next week.

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Temple Politics

parshat tetzaveh, exodus 28

Join Geoffrey Stern and Rabbi Adam Mintz recorded on Clubhouse on March 2nd 2023. We survey the prophetic and Rabbinic re-imagining of a Temple culture without a Temple but we also continue our discussion from last week where we noted how messianism, including Jewish Messianism includes an eschatological, often violent break with accepted practice, intentionally breaking moral and Rabbinic norms to hasten the end. We explore how after the Six Day War, but specifically after the Oslo Accords previous Rabbinic guidance relating to the sanctity of the Temple Mount has been cast aside.

Sefaria Source sheet:


Welcome to Madlik.  My name is Geoffrey Stern and at Madlik we light a spark or shed some light on a Jewish Text or Tradition.  Along with Rabbi Adam Mintz, we host Madlik Disruptive Torah on clubhouse every Thursday and share it as the Madlik podcast on your favorite platform. This week’s Torah portion is Tetzaveh. We survey the prophetic and Rabbinic re-imagining of a Temple culture without a Temple but we also continue our discussion from last week where we noted how Jewish Messianism includes an often violent break with accepted practice, intentionally breaking moral and Rabbinic norms to hasten the end. We explore how after the Six Day War, but specifically after the Oslo Accords previous Rabbinic guidance relating to the sanctity of the Temple Mount has been cast aside. So join us for Temple Politics.


Well, welcome back another week in Madlik. And obviously, I think we’ve all been watching the news out of Israel and two, beautiful Jewish souls were killed in a terrorist attack. But afterwards, some of the video that we’ve all seen is as as I wouldn’t say, as disturbing nothing can be as disturbing as the loss of life. But some seemingly ultra orthodox Jews lit some Palestinian homes on fire. And as the sun set, decided to dive in, Maariv, and that juxtaposition of praying while people’s homes burned, was really a disconcerting to say the least. So as I said, in the introduction, we’re gonna continue the conversation of what the temple means and what it meant after it was no longer with us. But we are going to fast forward into the present in terms of how the temple has been politicized in terms of the change in halacha. And what more better subject for Madlik then to review how halacha is changing in front of our very eyes. And Rabbi Adam, how are you this week?

Adam Mintz  02:21

I’m really good. I mean, it’s not California, but we’re good here in New York, and I’m looking forward. This is a great conversation, and I’m looking forward to having

Geoffrey Stern  02:30

fantastic so in Pasha Exodus 28: 2 says make sacral vestments for your brother Aaron for dignity and adornment. Make בִגְדֵי־קֹ֖דֶשׁ  holy clothing for Aaron your brother, לְכָב֖וֹד וּלְתִפְאָֽרֶת  for Kavod and adornments, beauty, and maybe you are not aware, because we’ve really not discussed this tradition in Judaism many times before. But there is a tradition that there are a certain set numbers of commandments; 613 commandments, and at a certain time, Maimonides wrote a book called Sefer HaMitzvot. And this began a tradition of writing a book and counting the very different commandments. So the first thing that one does, when one looks at a innocuous pasuk like this, a verse like this, that simply says, do something, when wants to see did it rank to become one of those 613 commandments, and lo and behold, in safer ha mitzvah, the positive commandments, number 33. It says that is that he commanded the priests to wear special garments for glory and adornment, so they can serve in the temple. And that is his saying, and make holy garments for your brother Aaron from glory and adoration. So he quotes our verse, and he says that this is an actual commandment. And he goes on to say, and it already appears in the Sifra, which is a midrashic commentary that wearing these garments is a positive commandment. So we’ve been focused in the last week or two on building the tabernacle, the Mishkan and now we’re getting to the accessories if you will. And from this verse, we learned that wearing the clothing is an accessory. But Rabbi the first thing that struck me was the pasuk says make Sacred vestments   וְעָשִׂ֥יתָ בִגְדֵי־קֹ֖דֶשׁ  make them and all of the commentaries universally say that the commandment is to wear the special garments. Are you struck by that as well?

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Temple Politics | Sefaria

Parshat Tetzaveh – We survey the prophetic and Rabbinic re-imagining of a Temple culture without a Temple but we also continue our discussion from last week where we noted how Jewish Messianism includes an often violent break with accepted practice, intentionally breaking moral and Rabbinic norms to hasten the end.

Listen to last year’s episode: Why Blue and White?

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WHEN GOD gets small cont.

parshat terumah, exodus 25

Join Geoffrey Stern and Rabbi Adam Mintz recorded on Clubhouse on February 23rd 2023. We continue a previous discussion concerning the emergence and almost universal impact, if not acceptance of the concept of tzimzum and tikkun on the Jewish concept of redemption. We explore the writings of Gershom Scholem and ask how this radical idea manifests in a new pernicious form of post-Zionism.

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This is a continuation of last year’s Terumah podcast: WHEN GOD get small


Welcome to Madlik.  My name is Geoffrey Stern and at Madlik we light a spark or shed some light on a Jewish Text or Tradition.  Along with Rabbi Adam Mintz, we host Madlik Disruptive Torah on clubhouse every Thursday and share it as the Madlik podcast on your favorite platform. This week’s Torah portion is Toldot. .  Last year when we discussed the creation of the tabernacle, we explored a powerful theological concept called Tzimzum where God creates the world by contracting his presence.  This year we continue the discussion from a historical, ideological and political perspective.  We explore how after the expulsion from Spain this concept profoundly impacted every aspect of the Jewish Journey into modernity and up until the current political crisis in Israel.


So welcome, you know, every week, I have to make sure that I’m not talking about the same thing that I talked about in past years. So I wanted to talk about Tzimzum, I love Tzimzum, and I went back to last year’s podcast, and lo and behold, we talked about Tzimzum, and I listened to it. And I encourage any of you who haven’t listened to it recently to go ahead, because this is a continuation of that discussion, we are going to get into what tzimzum is, as I said before, in the introduction, it’s when God creates the world by contracting. And I think that at the end of last year’s podcast, to give you a sense of the direction we took last year, we asked the question of how is it possible that God on the one hand, can contract himself and withdraw from the world, but also be m’tzamzem make himself small and come into the temple. And I quoted if you remember, Rabbi, Shai Held, who said, it’s kind of like a relationship, sometimes you have to give the other person space by contracting yourself and moving away. And other times you have to get into their life and be a part of every aspect of it. And so that gives you a sense that last year, we were really talking on a very personal level, a theological level, but this year, we’re going in a whole other direction, we’re going to really look at history. And in a sense, it’s almost going to be a masterclass in Gershon Scholem, the the great historian, scholar of Kabbalah. And we’re going to use him as a guide. And I think we’re going to be kind of surprised by some of the ramifications that tzimzum had throughout history. So Rabbi, do you share even a little bit my my fascination with tzimzum?

Adam Mintz  03:11

It’s a really, really good topic. And I wasn’t sure you know, that “continued”, I wasn’t sure what angle you were gonna take in terms of in terms of tzimzum,

Geoffrey Stern  03:21

So what we’re starting with is the Parsha deals with the Israelites building God, a temple. And there’s one verse in Exodus 25, 8. And it says, And let them make me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them. And the key word that we discussed really ad nauseam last year was וְשָׁכַנְתִּ֖י בְּתוֹכָֽם . And I will dwell (amongst them) and if you hear the word Shechina, in V’shechanti, you are on the money, “I will dwell within them”. And the whole question is what is “within them mean”? And we quoted one piece of Midrash in Shemot Rabbah, where the moment when the Holy One said to Moses, make me a tabernacle, Moses was dumbfounded, and said, The glory of the Holy One fills the upper worlds, and the lower and he said, to make him a tabernacle? And he said, “but will God indeed dwell on the earth?” So really, there is this question here of how the infinite can become part of our world of finitude, and at the end it says, The Holy One replied to Moshe, I do not see things the same as you do. I will come down and contract my presence within a space of one qubit by one qubit and it says in the Hebrew שֶׁאֵרֵד וַאֲצַמְצֵם שְׁכִינָתִי בְּתוֹךְ אַמָּה עַל אַמָּה  so this word that the Kabbalists went to town with is used very rarely. And this is one of the rare occasions that it is used in a Rabbinic, Midrashic text and earliest understanding of Tzimzum, which means really to contract is that God took his infinite presence and brought it inside of the tabernacle. And what we are going to discuss today is how the Kabbalists, in Tzfat in Safed in Israel, took this concept and made it into something that I am going to argue with the help of Gershom Scholom today, affected every aspect of Jewish life, affected the thoughts that everybody listening to this podcast probably has about Judaism, affected history, ideology, theology, and even nationalism. So the first thing that Scholem does, is he explains what this meant from a theological perspective, and then how it evolved. And he said that ultimately, this concept of God creating the world instead of emanating into the world, by slowly but surely materializing himself through these different Sefirot, which I described last year, as a sense of almost kicking the can down the road. Instead, he contracted himself, he says, “the doctrines developed in the schools of Safed, apparently embodied some fundamental and universal Jewish quality that’s transcended all local variations. And he says, what they did was they had recently been exiled from Spain. And you have to understand Spain in its day was, was like American Jewry. It was. It was like Berlin right before and the Holocaust, it was Jews were in every facet of life. And they thought they had arrived, and all of a sudden, a catastrophe occurred, and they lost everything. And the Kabbalists went to Safed. And for the first generation, they really felt that this cataclysmic event had occurred, and the Messiah would come. And when that wore off, they had to figure out what everything meant. And so what they did was they took this concept of God creating the world and contracting himself into God exileing himself. “They triumphed because they provided an answer to the great problem of the time, to a generation for which the facts of exile and the precariousness of existence in it had become most pressing and cruel. Kabbalism could give an answer unparalleled in breadth and depth and vision. The Kabbalistic answer illuminated the significance of exile in redemption, and accounted for the unique historical situation of Israel within the wider, in fact, cosmic context of creation itself. What Gershon Scholem is trying to prove is that they took something that previously had only related to the creation of the world, and they brought it home to the situation of the Jews in exile. And they took this concept of God in a sense coming out of his holy abode, or God contracting himself from the world because there was a little bit of both of them, and they projected that on to the Jewish people, so now all of a sudden, this idea of being exiled, became almost something that could be compared to the divine. I’ll finish this little introduction because Gershom Scholom is almost lyrical and when you read him, he’s almost poetic. He says, There is a ruthlessness towards himself (meaning God), for he exiled himself from boundless infinity to a more concentrated infinity. There is a profound inward galut exile, not the galut of one of the creatures but of God Himself, who limited himself and thereby made place for the universe. So this is where this idea of tzimzum becomes more than just how does God create a temple? Or how does God even create a world and that is what we we’re going to explore a little bit today. How does that resonate with you Rabbi?

Adam Mintz  10:05

Well, first of all, I mean, I’m so happy that you started with Gershom Scholem. Because he’s the master of understanding this and that’s why it’s so great that he call it a continuation, the idea that God, contracting himself becomes God going into exile was such an important pivot by the Jews. And we’re still living in that pivot. That’s what you said, you said, it applies to us. Even today, we’re still living in that pivot, we still see God as going into exile, and how that relates to us and how we relate to that. So I love that idea.

Geoffrey Stern  10:45

And if I’m correct, we have had a previous podcast, where you have referenced this concept of Shechinta B’Galuta, that the Divine Presence went with the Jews into exile. That was not something that was created by this concept of Tzimzum, that like many things in the history of ideas that was existing, but it was, I think, kind of embellished and given more power, the idea of the Divine Presence also went into exile, or that even when Israel sins, God goes down with them, those are in the source sheet. We have texts; traditional texts, nothing to do with the Kabbalah that, that talk about that. And of course, we find that to be kind of a powerful. And I think it’s in a sense, these are the humanistic aspects, the Hasidic stories about how the simple little Jew or the the Jew who might not be knowledgeable in the Torah, God is with that person. I mean, that in itself is a powerful, a powerful message. But again, we’re gonna take it out of the realm of theology, and the personal and into the realm of ideology, and ideological movements and nationalism and politics. And that I think becomes kind of fascinating how that happened.

Adam Mintz  12:26

That is fascinating. Let me just say that that idea that that God is in exile is based on a very old rabbinic tradition, which is quoting a verse which says, עמו אנכי בצרה that I am with you in your suffering, and that God actually is with us in our suffering. And that’s really amazing, right? So when we go into exile, God goes into exile with us,  עמו אנכי בצרה

Geoffrey Stern  12:57

Absolutely. And I think you can even make the case that there was in rabbinic tradition, a sense of that a God would go into the exile. When it says, to make me a Mikdash. In Shemot Rabbah, it says, Make me a Mikdash, so that I not be on the outside שֶׁלֹא אֶהְיֶה בַּחוּץ . This, this concept of exile an Alien Nation, being a foreigner, being an alien, whether to oneself or in every aspect, again, it was all there. But the Jews from suffered in the tiny little town on the top of a hill, came up with an interpretation that really resounded so so strongly, that I think will show it really affected so many different occurrence within within Judaism. And that becomes kind of fascinating.

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Shadows of Sinai cont.

parshat mishpatim, exodus 24

Join Geoffrey Stern and Rabbi Adam Mintz recorded on Clubhouse on February 16th 2023. We continue our discussion of Sinai with a focus on the negative aspects foreshadowed even at the climactic moment of revelation. We survey the Rabbinic tradition as preserved in our texts and surprisingly in the Koran. Finally we wonder whether Israel and God have entered into a relationship at Sinai that neither one can resist?

Sefaria Source Sheet:


Welcome to Madlik.  My name is Geoffrey Stern and at Madlik we light a spark or shed some light on a Jewish Text or Tradition.  Along with Rabbi Adam Mintz, we host Madlik Disruptive Torah on clubhouse every Thursday and share it as the Madlik podcast on your favorite platform. This week’s Torah portion is Mishpatim. .  We continue our discussion of Sinai with a focus on the negative aspects foreshadowed even at the climactic moment of revelation. We survey the Rabbinic tradition as preserved in our texts and surprisingly in the Koran. Finally we wonder whether Israel and God have entered into a relationship at Sinai that neither one can resist? So join us for Shadows of Sinai continued


Well, welcome back, I made you promise at the end of last week that we would return to this subject. Little did I know that we would return in the following week! I guess the giving of the Torah at Sinai is a big deal.

Adam Mintz  01:14

A very big deal. And they come back to it at the end of this week’s portion. And I mean, there’s a question exactly why this was placed at the end of this week’s portion rather than last week’s portion, but whatever it is, it’s like book-ended. So, the last story is about the giving of the Torah. So that’s exciting. We get to have it for two weeks in a row.

Geoffrey Stern  01:36

Absolutely. And before we begin, every so often, we get comments from people that listen to the podcast, and I thought maybe I would quote just a few comments that we got in the last week. And what I want to do is encourage all of you who listen to this as a podcast, to give us a few stars, and maybe to write a comment on whether it’s Apple or Spotify or whatever platform you use to listen to our podcast. So, Howard writes kudos another interesting Torah study. Although I wonder if left-handed individuals with agree with the rabbi, that to the right is always better. Rabbi, I think you pissed off the left-handed people.

Adam Mintz  02:19

Yeah, that’s funny. Okay.

Geoffrey Stern  02:21

I was happy to see the sketch of the shul at vote of it. My great-grandfather, Morris Knobloch, was born in Gwodziec in 1848. Imagine my dismay when I learned that there are two Gwodziecs:  the synagogue location is in now the Ukraine; in the Carpathian Mountains almost at the junction of Slovakia, Poland and Ukraine.  Thank you, Howard. Michael wrote, I woke up feeling the beauty of  “Encircling the Mountain” Like, Passing the Talking Stick in Circle, Holding Sacred Space, and May I add; climbing the Mountain to reach God’s outstretched hand as a metaphor for our lives….. and the “opposing force” Negdo Yes, there is that Always creating the Illusion of Separation, Split from the divine Thank you. Well, thank you, Michael. And thank you, Howard, and its loyal listeners like you that make this all worthwhile. So, we are continuing last week. And in this week’s Parsha, as you say, after the parsha is called mishpatim. It has many rules and laws that are relevant even till today. One of them has to do with hitting a woman who miscarries and lo and behold, that is the source of so much of the discussion about abortion and right to life and so forth and so on. But in Exodus 24: 4, it says Moses then wrote down all the commandments of God. Early in the morning, he set up an altar at the foot of the mountain וַיִּ֥בֶן מִזְבֵּ֖חַ תַּ֣חַת הָהָ֑ר with 12 pillars for the 12 tribes of Israel. Then he took the record of the covenant and read it aloud to the people and they said, all that God has spoken, we will faithfully do that is Everett Fox’s, translation of נַעֲשֶׂ֥ה וְנִשְׁמָֽע  the JPS says, literally we will do and obey. The Koren Jerusalem Bible says. They said all that the Lord has said we will do and obey. So Na’aseh V’Nishmah is something that I grew up with. You probably grew up with Rabbi. It was the crowning, I guess, bumper sticker of the Jewish people at Sinai, they said Na’aseh, we will do v’nishmah and we will listen or possibly we shall observe. And we talked last week about this sense of being underneath the mountain, we focused on the positive aspects of that. Today we’re going to focus on maybe some of the negative foreshadowing negative aspects of it. But if you go to the Midrash Tanchuma, it really does connect both the standing under the mountain and what the Jews said, underneath the mountain. It says the Israelites did not accept the Torah until the holy one bless it be he arched the mountain over them like a vessel, as it is said, and this is last week’s Parsha, and they stood beneath the mountain, The Israelites did not accept the Torah until the Holy One, blessed be He, arched the mountain over them like a vessel, as it is said: And they stood beneath the mountain (Exod. 19:17). R. Dimi the son of Hama stated that the Holy One, blessed be He, told Israel: If you accept the Torah, well and good; but if not, your grave will be there. If you should say that He arched the mountain over them because of the Written Law, isn’t it true that as soon as He said to them, “Will you accept the Torah?” they all responded, “We will do and hear,” because the Written Law was brief and required no striving and suffering, but rather He threatened them because of the Oral Law.  And the Midrash Tanchuma goes on to say, the first explanation that we have, of what exactly we will do, and we will hear is, we will do relates to the written law, and we will hear seems to point towards listening to the Oral Law going forward. But whatever it is, we talked about this kind of this ambiguity (conflict, ambivalence) about the giving of the Torah, whether it’s the ambiguity of being under the mountain, is it something that was more like a wedding canopy? Or was it something to be fearful of?  .. if you don’t accept it, I will destroy you this Na’aseh V’Nishma that we all think of in terms of, as we’ll see some of the positive commentaries as a very positive thing. It lends itself to so many explanations. So, what’s, what’s it all about? Rabbi?

Adam Mintz  07:04

Well, first, let me let me comment on the first explanation that you gave, Na’aseh V’Nishma, it’s going to be the Written Torah and the Oral Torah. That’s very interesting, just in the history of law, because law is a combination of the written and the oral tradition. It’s interesting that today, that’s not really true. If you want to know what is American law, if a lawyer goes to law school, they study the Constitution, then post-constitution, there are cases, case law about what the Constitution meant. And there are 250 years’ worth of case law, about the Constitution. Everything is written down just the question of whether it’s the Constitution, or whether it’s the explanation of the Constitution. But 4,000 years ago, 3,500 years ago, it didn’t work that way. You had a written tradition, then you had an oral tradition. The truth of the matter is that all three of the religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, all have that idea. They have a written text, right? We mentioned the Koran before they have a written text, and then they have an oral tradition (Ḥadīth). The problem with the oral tradition is how can you convince people that the oral tradition is, you know, is is authentic, the way that the written tradition is authentic, and what the rabbi’s do is, and it’s a little trick because the rabbi’s are actually authenticating their own tradition. But what they say is not V’Nishmah. It’s the written tradition. And it’s the oral tradition. Our tradition was taught by God to Moses on Mount Sinai, it wasn’t written down for whatever reason, but it was taught to Moses on Mount Sinai, and therefore it’s just as authentic as the written tradition. That’s a very important kind of statement by the rabbi’s to authenticate the oral tradition, without that, the oral tradition, which is everything, right, there are 39 categories of work that are forbidden on Shabbat. That is not in the Torah. That is the oral tradition. How do we know that that’s true? There’s a certain amount of faith that goes along with it. The rabbis are reading it into the text.

Geoffrey Stern  09:23

So, I totally agree with you. I think the Rashbam says something beautiful that takes this concept of oral tradition out of the very technical sense of what we call the Mishnah and the Talmud, and he says that we will do what God has said already. And we are also prepared to listen/obey to what he will command from here on in נעשה מה שדיבר וגם נשמע מה שיצונו עוד מכאן ולהבא ונקיים . And I think what that is saying more than anything else, is it’s not so much that the oral tradition was given in parallel to the written tradition, but the oral tradition shows that whatever was given was the beginning of a conversation. And that if we take away anything from last week, and this week, it is that revelation did not happen in just a moment and just a place, but that it was a beginning of a conversation. And I love that concept of it. And I think that kind of really jives very well with what you were saying, because the old tradition was always living and always developing. And we’ll see that about the oral traditions about the giving of the Torah at Sinai.

Adam Mintz  10:39

Yeah, there’s no question that That’s right. I mean, and we understand why that’s so important. I mean, the whole Torah is important, and the whole Torah is interesting. But somehow when you talk about the Written Torah, and the Oral Torah, you’re talking about something that really is at the foundation of all of the traditions that we have.

Geoffrey Stern  10:58

So let’s get to the traditional interpretation of Na’aseh V’nishmah. Because definitely, it is that bumper sticker that I described before, which is used as an accolade for the Jewish people. And the truth is, the simplest explanation comes not as an accolade, but almost as an insult. In Ketubot 112a, it talks a story about Rabbi Zeira was going to come back to the Land of Israel, and he needed a ferry, to cross, so He took hold of a rope that was strung across as a makeshift bridge and crossed the Jordan. A certain Sadducee said to him: Hasty people who put your mouths before your ears, when you said at the time of the giving of the Torah: “We will do” before “we will hear” (Exodus 24:7), you remain hasty to this day.  So basically, he was cutting line he was in our hurry to get across the river. And the Sadducee said to him: Hasty people who put your mouths before your ears, when you said at the time of the givi says, You guys are hasty. You put your mouths before your ears. And what he meant to say was that when the Jews accepted the Torah they said Na’aseh. Let’s do, and we’ll listen afterwards. You know, it’s like, shoot, first ask questions later. I think that is the typical explanation of why the Jews are pride themselves with saying Na’aseh V’nishmah, they were had such faith in God, that they said, We’re gonna do it. And then you can tell us the fine print where in! we are committed!

Adam Mintz  12:29

Yeah, I mean, I’m with you. 100%. On that I think that’s 100% Correct. I mean, that’s really, it needs both pieces. Without both pieces, something is missing.

Geoffrey Stern  12:40

You could however, see it as criticism. I mean, Sadducee definitely saw it as critical, where he was saying, what sort of an acceptance is that when you accept a contract without reading it. So even here, it’s a backhanded compliment, if you will, but let’s just finish the traditional explanation of it being a compliment in Shabbat 88a, it says Rabbi Simai taught: When Israel accorded precedence to the declaration “We will do” over the declaration “We will hear,” 600,000 ministering angels came and tied two crowns to each and every member of the Jewish people, one corresponding to “We will do” and one corresponding to “We will hear.”  but then it goes on. And when the people sinned with the Golden Calf, 1,200,000 angels of destruction descended and removed them from the people, as it is stated in the wake of the sin of the Golden Calf: “And the children of Israel stripped themselves of their ornaments from Mount Horeb onward” (Exodus 33:6).  So, talk about backhanded compliments. On the one hand again, this is seen as an amazing showing of faith. But we will now go through multiple Midrashim multiple oral traditions that talk about the hypocrisy almost of Na’aseh V’nishmah here this people say we will do and then we’ll understand later, and then 15 minutes later, maybe it’s 30 days later, they sin with the golden calf and maybe that proves that the Sadducee was right, maybe their acceptance was very superficial,

Adam Mintz  14:22

Good that that is an interesting point. And that is why are they sinning so quickly after they are saying Na’aseh V’Nishmah we will do when we will listen something’s wrong with, we will do when we will listen. So you started by saying what’s the traditional explanation? Clearly the traditional explanation is that it shows total commitment to God to be able to say we will do and we will listen even though they didn’t have it yet. That’s what you just called the traditional explanation But what’s interesting is that the rabbi’s don’t seem to be satisfied with the traditional explanation. They understand that it’s kind of the double-edged sword. And they emphasize that which is interesting, because they understand that the Jews in the desert are not just a simple law abiding, God abiding people. They are a very complicated people. And they try to see that in the phrase, Na’aseh V’nishmah.

Geoffrey Stern  15:32

Complicated people and a complicated moment. It really punctures the myth of this importance of the giving of the Torah at Sinai, as this hyper important moment that began and ended at Sinai, even at the end of this Talmud, it says, In the future, the Holy One, blessed be he will return them (the Crowns) to us, as he is said. And it talks about quoting Isaiah that בְּרִנָּה וְשִׂמְחַת עוֹלָם עַל רֹאשָׁם that with joy and singing Zion, I will return this to your heads, it’s almost as if the rest of Jewish history is trying to make up and to fulfill the promise of the revelation at Sinai.

Adam Mintz  16:23

And if that’s so that would be a good thing. You know, it says that every day you’re supposed to feel as if you receive the Torah that day, you’re supposed to wake up, and you’re supposed to have the energy and the excitement as if you’re receiving the Torah that day. And what you’re doing is you’re adding to that and you’re saying it’s not only you received the Torah, but that your part of this evolution of the tradition that goes from generation to generation that continues. So, it’s not only that you receive the Torah, in the sense of the Ten Commandments, is it you received the written and the oral tradition together?

Geoffrey Stern  17:02

The oral tradition, and maybe even the written tradition wasn’t fully accepted. There’s a real there’s a real challenge here, I think that the giving of the Torah at Sinai becomes almost a challenge. And if we go to the most traditional account of this sense that the mountain was held over them, and it says, If you accept the Torah, excellent, and if not, this will be your burial. Rabbi Avdimi bar Ḥama bar Ḥasa in Shabbat 88a says, this is a major caveat, a major, a puncture a major dent in this sense of having the Torah given at Sinai. And then and this is the punch line. And I don’t know if it’s because of this year, we have the holidays are late or early. But we are what two weeks away three weeks away from Purim. This is the famous piece of Talmud and as far as I can tell, it only really occurs once

Adam Mintz  18:10


Geoffrey Stern  18:11

and it says that in the Megillat Esther, it says in Esther 9: 27 that Jews undertook and irrevocably obligated themselves and their descendants and all who might join them. קִיְּמ֣וּ (וקבל) [וְקִבְּל֣וּ] הַיְּהוּדִים֩ ׀ עֲלֵיהֶ֨ם ׀ וְעַל־זַרְעָ֜ם וְעַ֨ל כׇּל־הַנִּלְוִ֤ים עֲלֵיהֶם֙ וְלֹ֣א יַעֲב֔וֹר of course, then it goes on to say: “to observe the two days in the manner prescribed”, but the rabbi’s say and this is radical, that it was after Purim. And you can either say Purim is just a holiday like any other. Or you can say that Purim in the book of Esther is the last book of the Written Torah. They accepted the Torah, in full without a mountain held over their heads. So, this Rava says, Finally at the time of Ahasuerus, it says The Jews ordained what they had already taken upon themselves through coercion at Sinai. So I think at the most basic level, what it really proves is what we started out by saying is that accepting the Torah it doesn’t happen in one day. It’s a process it happens over time. And what they say is that the this the caveats and the dents in the acceptance of the Torah at Sinai, were finally somehow resolved at the last book of the Torah when the Jews קִיְּמוּ וְקִבְּלוּ הַיְּהוּדִים accepted upon themselves. And that’s kind of the end of this story of this mountain held over their head. What do you make of that?

Adam Mintz  19:57

So you know, you’re emphasizing the fact that the verse comes from the book of Esther, you could say that that’s just out of convenience. You know, the rabbi’s are looking for a verse to kind of hook this on. And they find a verse in the book of Esther. So that’s interesting. You know, I never made much of that verse in the book of Esther, because they kind of take that verse out of context, but you’re actually saying something that’s even better. And that is that because the book of Esther is the latest or a late book, in the canonization of the Bible, we were talking about, you know, the Bible from 900. And here you have the canonization, the decision that the Bible looks the way it does that there are 24 books in the Bible, and no more that this is the end. And only at the end, did they actually accept the Torah willingly. Like, you know, let’s be honest, that’s the way we are as people, right? Sometimes you have to be pushed to do something, and only later, are you happy about it. And maybe that’s what happened with the Jews. Maybe that’s the point. That’s the point that you’re making. Maybe that’s the point of this piece of of Talmud, and that is that at the beginning, they had to be pushed. But the key is that later on at the end, they came to appreciate, how about that?

Geoffrey Stern  21:25

I love them all. And I think as we always say, אלו ואלו דברי אלוקים חיים these and these are the words of the living God. If anything is the message here. Last week, we talked about the words of how the Jews were oriented. There’s another word that is used, and that is that they stood Yetziva, and it says From here we learn that in three places the Torah was given in the tent of meeting, at Sinai, in the plains of Moab. My point is that the rabbi’s clearly saw revelation as something that happened in every generation in every human being’s life at every moment at every time. It was an ongoing process. And I think that’s the most important thing. And, and this is a big “and”. And that the it’s not as though we are trying to somehow parallel to somehow duplicate a perfect process that happened at Sinai, because guess what, it wasn’t perfect. To the contrary, it was fatally flawed. I think that comes through almost every piece of Talmud that we will study and the Midrash that we will study tonight. There is no one who quotes Na’aseh V’Nishmah who doesn’t say But afterwards.

Adam Mintz  22:54

Yeah, that’s correct. And I mean, and what you’re saying is, I think correctly, so is that that’s part of the tradition to say Na’aseh V’nishmah then to say “but”.

Geoffrey Stern  23:05

I mean, even last week, I was trying to keep the conversation very positive about the mountain being held over. And I said, you know, it’s kind of like a huppah. And it even had l’crat in it like we have l’crat to greet the Sabbath bride. Rabbi Shimon, Ben Khalifa said, wretched is the bride who sins under the wedding canopy in this regard. There was no rabbi who could look at what they said, and not see a level of hypocrisy and not see a level of superficiality and be critical. And that’s an amazing part of our tradition. I think, if you have to think in terms of revelation at Sinai, that is our Jewish aha moment. That is the moment that we were exposed to the divine message that gave us the Torah that is going to go on sale at Sotheby’s for $50 million. I mean, that was the moment. It’s not sugar coated. I think that’s amazing. The other part of that moment that we can never forget, was it wasn’t a singular moment between God and a single individual. It was the whole expanse of the Jewish people with all their flaws. And I think this is helping us understand, I think, the magic of that moment.

Adam Mintz  24:31

 Yeah, that’s an important point. You know, the Rabbis say, that the entire world was quiet, when God gave the Ten Commandments to the Jews. And that’s an important point. God gave it to the Jews, but everybody else stood back and watched so that everybody knows that God has chosen the Jews. That’s a very powerful moment.

Geoffrey Stern  24:55

So I want to prepare us for something that that’s rather unique. And that is that while many of us have never heard of this Midrash, that God held the mountain of Sinai over the Jewish people as almost a threat, it figures a rather large within the Quran, and we are going to go to the Quran in a second and quote it. But before I do, I want to go over some of our Midrashim who really twist and turn and go into all of the different ways that one can understand what happened there. In Midrash Tanhuma   stood at Mount Sinai, Hos. 9:10): I HAVE FOUND {YOUR ANCESTORS} [ISRAEL] LIKE GRAPES IN THE DESERT; [I HAVE SEEN YOUR ANCESTORS LIKE EARLY FIGS ON A FIG TREE IN ITS FIRST SEASON]. < The text > speaks about Israel. When it stood at Mount Sinai, it resembled grapes. Just as grapes are beautiful on the outside and ugly on the inside, so was Israel when it stood at Mount Sinai and responded (according to Exod. 24:7): WE WILL DO AND OBEY. Note that < the response was > with their mouth, but their heart was not steadfast.  , there is other Midrashim that compare the Jewish people to a lover/wife, we’ve kind of seen that when we talk about the הָר כְּגִיגִית  this mountain held over their head, as a huppah. And there are a verses that said that God picked the Jewish people. And it says, In Eichah Rabbah, I am the man who has seen affliction by the rods of his fury. And that is from Lamentations. And it says, No Woman except you other than me. So it kind of talks about this dialectic between God and you’ve kind of hinted about this, God offering the Torah to all the peoples and none of them would say anything close to Na’aseh V’nishmah we will, we will do and we will hear but the Jewish people did. And then God realizes that this woman who he just (as if to say) Married has cheated on him, because she has built this, this golden calf. And God says, you have been impudent. And at the end of the day, like lovers/a married couple, who is destined to be together. The Midrash continues that almost in a sense, and I talk about this in the in the in the introduction about how they’re almost destined to be close together, they she lied in order to get him, he fell for the lie, but he fell in love. And here they are destined to dance this dance of, of faithfulness and infidelity. (a co-dependent relationship)  It’s, it’s really amazing. If you look at the source sheet, and look at all of the different ways that the Israelites by saying Na’Aseh V’nishma, but then sinning right afterwards are crafted. But I think what ultimately, remains is that nonetheless, there is this (co-dependent) relationship between the two, whether a god was fleeced or not, ultimately, the two of them stick together. And I think that also is a message of this story of the revelation at Sinai.

Adam Mintz  28:44

I think that that is true. Now you’re here, you’re raising an interesting question. And that is you’re kind of introducing God as you know, as the player here. What did God decide what did God want? You know, God, let’s go back to the first Gamora… we’ll end where we started, you know, the first Gamora about holding the mountain over them. Did God feel like that was a you know, that was a necessity, but it wasn’t ideal, or the God think, no, that’s okay. That’s what the people need the same way a parent might need to be a little firmer with a child to make sure they do the right thing, but they understand that’s just what the child needs. It’s not a bad thing. So how do you understand that about holding the mountain out over them? Was that what God wanted to do? Or that was a necessity that God felt he was forced to do?

Geoffrey Stern  29:37

You know, we don’t have an answer for that. I promised last week that i would talk about the Quran… I’m gonna do it this week.

Adam Mintz  29:46

Here you go, take it away.

Geoffrey Stern  29:47

I read an amazing article that was written, oh my goodness, it was written in 1941. It’s called Koran and Agada: The Events at Mount Sinai by Julian Obermann , and literally he brings the Koran says Sura 5: 7, remember Allah’s favor upon you and His covenant which he made with you when he said, We have heard and we obey, in Sura 24: 51 He says the only response of the true believers when they are called to Allah and His messenger. So he may judge between them is to say, we hear and obey. Then in Sura 2: 63, it says in remember, when we took a covenant from you, and raise the mountain above you saying, hold firmly to the Scripture, in Sura 4: 154 We raised the mountain over them as a warning for breaking their covenant. So clearly, and the point of the article is that Muhammad whenever he quotes from the Bible, always quotes typically from the Five Books of Moses, which is what traditional Jews do when they were in synagogue on a typical Saturday. And for the most part, he doesn’t quote, the literal verse, he quotes the Midrashik the Aggadic interpretation. And the thesis is that he hung out with Jews. And in a sense, we almost get a sense of what he heard. This was no, this is something that clearly made a great impression on him. And as he was starting a movement, he wanted to make sure that his revelation was accepted in the proper way. He says in Koran 446, some Jews take words out of context, and say, we listen and we disobey. Now, that is not something that I found in the Midrash. Although if you look in the source, sheet in Avodah Zara, there is something similar. The fact is that the Koran then becomes not only a source for us of the Midrashim that were quoted by typical Jews in (Medinah) Saudi Arabia or wherever he was, but it gives us a sense of our tradition. It gives us a sense of this ongoing  revelation, that clearly in a sense, it’s only natural that a movement like Islam, a movement like Christianity, would take upon itself to make a new sermon on the mount a new revelation, we Jews clearly took it to mean that in every generation, whether it’s in Shushan, or even up to today, this is the Jewish problem. And that’s why and I talk about two thinkers and you I draw you to look at the source sheet. One is Herzl, who was trying to solve the Jewish problem. And what he considered the Jewish problem was, yes, there was anti-semitism, but how does a Jew live with his Judaism when he loves it, and his first solution, believe it or not, was a mass conversion similar to standing at Mount Sinai, but in front of the cathedral. And then of course, the second solution was to start the State of Israel, and Harry Austyn Wilson, had wrote a whole essay called leaving Judaism, and he struggles here’s a Jew who studied at Slobodka, who ended up not being religious anymore. But clearly, he couldn’t get out under the shadow of Sinai. And he spent the rest of his life pursuing the philosophy of Judaism and how it went through the medieval period up to Spinoza. But he talks about this challenge. And I think that is ultimately the challenge of Sinai, that we are constantly being provoked by the fact that we had in our DNA in our peoplehood, this mass revelation of something that has affected us that we’ve rebelled against, but we’ve tried to master throughout the ages. And I think that ultimately is the magic of the shadow of Sinai.

Adam Mintz  34:14

I think that’s great. That’s a great end. That’s I mean, that’s, that’s an end with the Quran. That’s an end with Herzl that’s an end with Wolfson. I mean, that’s just amazing there’s so much and if you look at Wolfson, you’ll see that he has a great discussion about the role of the minority, right? And he says, all the all these religions that three religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, were all minorities, and how did they deal with being minorities and they needed that moment of revelation where God spoke just to them, even though they were a minority? God spoke just to them. Thank you so much, Geoffrey. These are great sources. You know, we got two weeks in a row of Mount Sinai sources and trying to understand the tradition it deserves a whole semester worth. But these were great sources. So thank you, GeoffreyShabbat Shalom to me. Everybody, we look forward to seeing you next week, it’ll already be Hodesh Adar and we’re gonna start to talk about the tabernacle Geoffrey, we’re gonna have our work cut out for us next week.

Geoffrey Stern  35:09

Shabbat shalom, have a Shabbat Shalom every any of you who want to make a comment or provide an impression, I would love for you to come up ….

Sefaria Source Sheet:

Shadows of Sinai cont. | Sefaria

Parshat Mishpatim – We continue our discussion of Sinai with a focus on the negative aspects foreshadowed even at the climactic moment of revelation. We survey the Rabbinic tradition as preserved in our texts and surprisingly in the Koran. Finally, we wonder whether Israel and God have entered a relationship at Sinai that neither one can resist?

Listen to last year’s Mishpatim podcast: What’s New with Moses’ Code?

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Shadows of Sinai

parshat yitro, exodus 19

Join Geoffrey Stern and Rabbi Adam Mintz recorded on clubhouse on February 9th 2023. The Torah uses two words that describe the orientation of the Israelites towards Mt. Sinai. We survey the interpretation of these words in the Rabbinic tradition, and surprisingly in the Koran, to shed some light on revelation and the long shadow cast by Sinai.

Sefaria Source Sheet:


Welcome to Madlik.  My name is Geoffrey Stern and at Madlik we light a spark or shed some light on a Jewish Text or Tradition.  Along with Rabbi Adam Mintz, we host Madlik Disruptive Torah on clubhouse every Thursday and share it as the Madlik podcast on your favorite platform. This week’s Torah portion is Yitro.  The Torah uses two words that describe the orientation of the Israelites towards Mt. Sinai: נֶ֥גֶד and תַחְתִּ֥ית. We survey the interpretation of these words in the Rabbinic tradition to shed some light on revelation and even to critique synagogue architecture. So join us for The Shadows of Sinai.


Well, welcome back to Madlik. It’s the beginning of spring, we are looking at the shadows are changing. And tonight, we are going to be talking about the shadows of Sinai, and really focusing on just two verses and a few words in those verses that all relate to the disposition, the position, the orientation of the Israelites, when they accepted the Torah. So, in Exodus 19: 2 it says having journeyed from Rephidim them, they entered the wilderness of Sinai, and encamped in the wilderness, Israel encamped there in front of the mountain. And the Hebrew is וַיִּֽחַן־שָׁ֥ם יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל נֶ֥גֶד הָהָֽר. In front of the mountain, opposite the mountain, neged is a word that we’re going to explore. So as usual, we’re going to go first to Rashi. And Rashi says that naked means to the east. For wherever you find the word neged, referring to a locality, it signifies with the face towards the east of the place mentioned. Now, I don’t know how you extrapolate facing east from the word neged. But I certainly see this as a clue that we’re going to be talking about tonight, more than just facing the mount of Sinai. Any Jew knows that when we Jews pray, we face east, any Jew knows that when we construct and set up a synagogue, we place the Torah as the focal point of the synagogue is facing east. So I don’t know if you have an insight into why neged means east. But I do feel and I’m curious whether you agree rabbi, that here he’s giving us a little bit of a hint of what layout lies at stake here and what we’re going to be talking about,

Adam Mintz  03:03

there’s no question about that East, you know, East of Eden, it you know, the idea of being east, that seems to be the main direction in the Torah. So neged haHar means that they faced east, that meant that that was the right direction to face, Mount Sinai was to their east, I guess was to their right. The reason that East is considered to be the premier direction, is because if you face north, that East is to your right. And you know, in the tradition to your right is always considered to be the more powerful or the better direction. So that’s where the idea of turning East comes from,

Geoffrey Stern  03:46

Well, indefinitely. The sunrise is in the east.

Adam Mintz  03:49


Geoffrey Stern  03:49

So it’s a place of New Birth, of positivity. And as you say, this kind of sense of the Garden of Eden and beginnings there. But as usual, Rashi is only one opinion. And the Ibn Ezra comes in, and he says na, I don’t really agree with you. He says there is a verse in numbers 2: 2 that says round about the tent, מנגד סביב לאוהל So again, like Rashi, he kind of understands what’s at stake here. We’re not simply talking about a moment in history, the revelation at Sinai, there is a clear connection between that revelation at Sinai that happened in a place in a time and the movable temple. And then ultimately, I guess you could extrapolate and talk about the Temple and the synagogue and this is a major moment. And what he’s saying is that since the same word MiNeged is used with the tabernacle and there another word is used in addition to it מנגד סביב they were pitched round about the tent. So we surely have established for at least with these two commentaries, we’re talking about more than Sinai.

Adam Mintz  05:16

Right… That’s for sure.

Geoffrey Stern  05:18

So now we go to our old buddy Shadal. Shmuel David Luzzatto. He focuses on another word in our verse. So if you recall, when I started, I said וַיִּֽחַן־שָׁ֥ם יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל נֶ֥גֶד הָהָֽר , that the people encamped opposite the mountain, and he is now focusing on the word וַיִּֽחַן  and וַיִּֽחַן , Israel וַיִּֽחַן  is in the singular. So he says that Ibn Ezra and Ramban who we haven’t quoted, but we’ll take Shadal’s word for it, say they should have said ויחנו that they camped there. But the reason according to the Ramban and the Ibn Ezra that it says For econ is because the yehidim the elites, the heads of the tribes, the elders encamped around it. And the Shadal  says, and Boy oh boy, he says, and that is hevel, that is hot air. Pretty strong language. He says, because all those speaking about the people in a singular language, it is not intended to speak about a few of them. But on the contrary, the intention is to speak about the whole people in terms of there being all as one body. And then he goes on to say that they camped against the mountain, which means that the mountain was a center for them all. And they all turned to it. And here they were one association and one body.

Adam Mintz  07:10

Go on.. they All had their eyes and hearts on that mountain.

Geoffrey Stern  07:17


Adam Mintz  07:18

That’s a good end. You didn’t it is. But that’s a good end.

Geoffrey Stern  07:21

Yeah. And the Hebrew אגודה אחת וגוף אחד . Agudah means a circle if I’m correct.

Adam Mintz  07:30


Geoffrey Stern  07:31

They were one circle and one body. And he goes on if you want to talk about a verse where every word has significance. It says  וַיִּֽחַן־שָׁ֥ם יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל נֶ֥גֶד הָהָֽר and he says the name of Israel as opposed to the people of Israel, or a Bnai Yaakov is used, because all the people were as one man against the mountain. So Shadal does a very good job of tying up these last five words of a verse

Adam Mintz  08:10

But he doesn’t really explain the word neged

Geoffrey Stern  08:13

I take it that he does, because he talks about that they were around it אגודה אחת . So, I am going out on a limb here. But I am taking,

Adam Mintz  08:27

You’re saying he assumes it.

Geoffrey Stern  08:29

Yeah, so if I had to bet what he is doing is he’s combining the sense of the Ibn Ezra that we came across in the Ibn Ezra that they were around the mountain with the fact that they were as one as you beautifully quoted their eyes and their hearts were focused on the mountain of God. So he does in my mind, kind of tie it up really, really nicely into something that is rather beautiful.

Adam Mintz  08:59

That is nice. That’s really nice. So neged is וַיִּֽחַן־שָׁ֥ם יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל נֶ֥גֶד הָהָֽר , means they were around the mountain, not opposite, opposite creates a distance, but around means you’re really close to it. That’s really your point. It’s very much different than Rashi.

Geoffrey Stern  09:20

It’s different than Rashi, who says it’s easterly. But what I take from Rashi. And what I take from the Ibn Ezra, who comes up with the concept of around is we’re all talking about more than Sinai. That’s where I think they all agree that we’re talking about Sinai, we’re talking about Mishkan, we’re talking about temple. We’re talking about our places of worship, even up to today. So, whether you faced east in a synagogue, if that’s one orientation, or whether you surround something in the middle, and you’re all facing it together, whether it’s a conflict between the two of positions or It’s a kind of refraction of the two dispositions, I don’t know. But I do think that it’s amazing how in these five words, we’ve come across so much, just in the sense of where things are oriented, where intentions are. What was happening at that magical moment.

Adam Mintz  10:25

Fantastic. The Shada is fantastic.

Geoffrey Stern  10:27

So at the end of last week’s segment, where we talked about dissonance, really, we really talked about the beginning of division within Israel. My good buddy Yochana came on. And he told and I did put it in the I left it in the podcast, he talked about a great Hasidic rabbi who actually quoted this verse, how, at the moment of revelation, Israel was one and the rabbi in a very beautiful, cynical, but smiley fashion that only a Hasidic Rabbi could say, is, you know why it said they were together as one then because the Torah wasn’t given yet. Once the Torah was given, all hell broke loose, everybody was a rabbi, everybody had a different opinion. So, this was this verse that he was commenting on that I think it’s, it’s it rigged it obviously rings very, very, true.

Adam Mintz  11:25

I love it.

Geoffrey Stern  11:26

So as long as we’re talking about dissonance, and we’re talking about the word neged I bring in two different references that I would love to add, to give context to what was happening at that moment at Sinai. And I want to go back to Genesis 2: 18. When God creates woman, and he says, it’s not good, that man is alone, I will make him a help meet. And the word that is used is עֵ֖זֶר כְּנֶגְדּֽוֹ . Ezer is like Ezra it is help and keNegdo the commentary or the translation that I have from Everett Fox is a counterpart for him. But as we all know, the famous Rashi says, זָכָה – עֵזֶר; לֹא זָכָה – כְּנֶגְדּוֹ לְהִלָּחֵם , If a man is merited, his wife will be a help to him. And if he doesn’t merit him, she will be opposed to him and fight him. And I love this sense of KeNeged, that neged is obviously in counter distinction, it can mean facing the mountain neged the mountain, but obviously neged also has a flavor of opposing and Rashi brings out that opposition. And I think if you take that Rashi and then you look at the giving of the Torah, and maybe what should or does happen in a synagogue, you have this potential for dissonance. You have this sense of agreement under some circumstances, but maybe either because you have shortcomings or possibly because you take the word so seriously. You have an opposition to it.

Adam Mintz  13:31

I like it. I want to make it even stronger, according to the Rashi  לֹא זָכָה – כְּנֶגְדּוֹ לְהִלָּחֵם   Neged actually means opposite in a sense of distance וַיִּֽחַן־שָׁ֥ם יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל נֶ֥גֶד הָהָֽר , that because of the holiness of the mountain, they needed to create distance from the mountain…  it’s the opposite of shutdown.

Geoffrey Stern  13:59

I believe that and I think it’s great you know, it reminds me of the Alter of Slabodka I believe a great Musernik… and I think I’ve told this story before, but he came over to a student and the student was about to say the Kriat Shma… the Shema where you accept the Ol malchut Shamayim.. where you accept the Ol Malchut shamayim the yoke of heaven? And he says have you ever said Shema and the student looked at him in dismay, and said Rebbe, I’m just about to say Shema, I say it twice a day I say it before I go to bed and the Alter returned to him and says and you accept upon yourself, the Ol Malchut Shamayim; the yoke of heaven and he goes of course Rebbe and he says and have you ever felt like rebelling? And there was quiet and then the Rebbe says well then you’ve probably never said the Shema in your life. And I think the lesson here that I take away is keneged HaHar there has to be a level of dissonance if you accept everything, just completely and without any struggle or tribulation or a reflex, then what are you really accepting? And I think that comes out.

Adam Mintz  15:16

That’s a great story. Yeah, that really says it. I think that’s great that you need to have some dissonance you just have to do. And that’s what Keneged means.

Geoffrey Stern  15:25

So the other reference, I think of is and you know, we started talking before the podcast about Purim is coming and Passover, is coming. And one of their key points in the Seder is the four children. And it says כְּנֶגֶד אַרְבָּעָה בָנִים דִּבְּרָה תוֹרָה , that the Torah spoke….  in my translation, it says “corresponding” to four sons, but certainly if one thinks of the wicked son, and some people even think about the wise son, or certainly the son who does not know how to speak, it’s clear that the Torah is speaking in a way to create a reaction, especially if you look at the son who does not know how to speak it says “At” you talk to him, maybe it’s the mother, somehow or other, the Torah is trying to elicit a reaction. And in that regard keneged can have another nuance. Yes, it is one of dissonance. But it’s also one of positive kind of triggering a conversation bringing on a difference of opinion so that you move forward. It’s a conversation.

Adam Mintz  16:41

It’s great. I mean, that’s absolutely great. כְּנֶגֶד אַרְבָּעָה בָנִים  Neged I mean, neged there means that you look someone in the eye, I think the word you use is you engage them. Right?

Geoffrey Stern  16:55

Absolutely. And I think what’s fascinating is if we take it back to Sinai, and that’s what I’m trying to do, I’m trying to take back, there’s no question, Rabbi, I think you will agree with me that this verse in and of itself, doesn’t merit a whole lot of discussion. I mean, we all know וַיִּֽחַן־שָׁ֥ם יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל נֶ֥גֶד הָהָֽר , that they can encamped opposite the mountain ..  move on. But it’s, it’s the rabbi’s and our tradition, who saw this as an opportunity to bring all of these are the discussions that impact our life till today, and maybe and we’ll see if we’re successful, maybe one of the messages of tonight’s discussion is that Sinai has to impact you, at every moment at a at a personal level, at a historical level, for it to be a real revelation.

Adam Mintz  17:50

Good. I like it. I think that’s great. And I think that seeing it in the word neged is really good. KaNeged right? There’s some kind of conversation and some kind of dissonance. The tension here is how much dissidence there is how close is it like Shadal says, and how far is it like the Keneged idea, right in לֹא זָכָה – כְּנֶגְ ? That’s the challenge

Geoffrey Stern  18:19

Yep. So, as I said in the intro, there were two words that relate to the orientation of the Israelites to Sinai, and the second one occurs in our parsha at Exodus 19: 17. And it says Moses led the people out of the camp towards God, and they took their places at the foot of the mountain. So it says וַיּוֹצֵ֨א מֹשֶׁ֧ה אֶת־הָעָ֛ם לִקְרַ֥את הָֽאֱלֹקִ֖ים מִן־הַֽמַּחֲנֶ֑ה וַיִּֽתְיַצְּב֖וּ בְּתַחְתִּ֥ית הָהָֽר Well first of all, if you think about it, לִקְרַ֥את הָֽאֱלֹקִ֖ים , if we go to synagogue tomorrow night, and we listen to the words of the Lecha Dodi we will surely pick out לְכָה דודִי לִקְרַאת כַּלָּה  .        m לִקְרַ֥את means to greet to go out and greet Moses led the people out of the camp likrat Elohim to greet God. And one of the translations and I love some of the translations that you get in Sefaria. It’s THE RASHI CHUMASH BY RABBI SHRAGA SILVERSTEIN  says most people towards God in parentheses he writes, who was coming towards them as a groom to a bride from the encampment they stood at the foot of the mountain. So here already, and I assume there are commentaries that make this parallel that pick up the sense of likrad but in a sense, we quoted Rashi a second ago about using neged to describe familial relationships, relationships between a couple here we pick up on that. And because we said a second ago that they were at the foot of the mountain tachtit really means underneath Mitachat, the mountain, l’havdil, the word for touchus.. is tachat. This is underneath the mountain. So here we almost have an image of the mountain being a Chuppah and the Jewish people being married to their ezer kenegdo under the mountain.

Adam Mintz  20:46

It’s a great image. Obviously, they’ve made a lot of this image, but it is a great image, right, that we were under the mountain. So you say it’s a Chuppah. But obviously, the other tradition is that there’s some fear of being under the mountain. Because if you’re under the mountain, then bad things could happen.

Geoffrey Stern  21:04

You’re sounding a lot like ezer kenegdo….

Adam Mintz  21:09

It might fall on your head, so you better be careful.

Geoffrey Stern  21:14

So the Rashi that we have, I don’t know what Rashi THE RASHI CHUMASH BY RABBI SHRAGA SILVERSTEIN was referring to, but our Rashi picks up on the Midrash that you refer to Rabbi and it says a midrashic explanation is that the mountain was plucked up from its place. שֶׁנִּתְלַשׁ הָהָר מִמְּקוֹמוֹ וְנִכְפָּה עֲלֵיהֶם כְּגִיגִית  and was arched over them as a cask. So they were standing Metachat beneath under the mountain. And this comes from the Mechilta and from the Talmud in Shabbat. So, in Rashi’s short little take-away from that Midrash, he doesn’t get into what the story was between picking up the mountain above them, …. you Rabbi have gone a little bit further on in this story. But if you just look at Rashi, and you put it in combination with the previous explanation, you could make a sense that there’s nothing scary about this. There’s nothing threatening about it, that he hold, he held over them, like a Gog really,  וְנִכְפָּה עֲלֵיהֶם כְּגִיגִית  KeGigit is very similar to the word Gog (roof). And that’s another image that we have, very quickly after we move and segue from opposite now we have underneath.

Adam Mintz  22:55

That’s right. kegigit. It’s the idea of a gag, you know, yeah, held it over them as a threat. Now, that’s a whole different thing. You know, one thing is keneged. The other thing is the idea that actually, you know, God is threatening us that if you accept the Torah good, and if not, I’m going to drop the mountain on your heads.

Geoffrey Stern  23:21

So you are referring to the Talmud in Shabbat 88a.  I promise I am going to get to that.

Adam Mintz  23:29

Okay. I wanted to make sure.

Geoffrey Stern  23:31

Okay, you wanted to keep me honest tonight. So, so I wanted to stop here, because I think there’s a possibility that Rashi is picking just this part of the story and letting us let us savor it for a second. Now, if you look at the notes, there is a wonderful article that I quote, on the synagogue that was built by Frank Lloyd Wright, in 1954. And the article compares it to synagogues from Poland that were built hundreds of years before. And please go look at the source sheet to see this article. And to see the images

Adam Mintz  24:15

That is actually fascinating that that’s so.  that it’s so similar. That’s a great article.

Geoffrey Stern  24:20

Well it’s not only similar,

Adam Mintz  24:22

The Jewish Review of books. great!

Geoffrey Stern  24:22

Especially if you look at the at the synagogue from Poland, right? It is truly there’s no question about it. And it doesn’t it photographs like it’s massive as if it was the Frank Lloyd Wright. I understand it isn’t even that large. I really believe that some models have been built of it. And I believe even in the new museum in Poland, called Polin. They have a model of the synagogue but you are truly as you walk in, you are walking under Sinai. The synagogue itself is Built like Mount Sinai. And I think from an architectural translation of the verses that we just discussed, there’s not only that you are underneath this, it’s not a dome. It’s a mountain, no question about it. But the other aspect that comes out clear in the article was that the Bima was in the middle. Now Rabbi, you were once a rabbi at Lincoln Square synagogue, and that was called the Shul in the round. … it was all around that center Bima. But I would love you to confirm I wasn’t able to find a source for this. But when I grew up in the Yeshiva world, we think that the Orthodox movement in Europe, especially Eastern Europe, argued with a form about theology and they did, argued about women’s roles and they did, but one of the most major arguments that they had was where is the Bima? Where is the Torah read from? Because in the reformed congregations, they follow the model of the churches, and they put all of what the clergy was doing up on a stage up front. And the rabbi’s. Again, I’d love to hear what you have to say, Rabbi, were as vehement against that change as anything else.

Adam Mintz  24:55

You’ve just told the story. It’s amazing because tomorrow morning, I give a class at Maharat, and I’m learning the laws of Shuls; of synagogues. And we’re talking exactly about this exactly what you said in 1840. They built a synagogue in Hamburg called the Temple. And one of the changes in the Temple was that they moved all the action to the front, they moved the Bima to the front, because that’s the way the church had it, that everything happens in front. And the rabbis. The Orthodox rabbis were vehemently opposed to that. I mean, you think it’s not a very big deal, but they basically said that it was absolutely prohibited from going into that Shul. The other thing they changed was that the sermons were delivered in German. Now it’s not like the sermons used to be delivered in Hebrew. The sermons were never delivered in Hebrew. The sermons were delivered in Yiddish, but Yiddish was a holy language to them. And they thought that it was totally disrespectful to deliver the sermons in German.

Geoffrey Stern  27:27

But I want to talk about the language of the architecture and the form. And the rabbi who was working with Frank Lloyd Wright. The one thing…. and everybody knows that Frank Lloyd Wright did not listen to the people he was building his edifices is for. But he asked that the Bima the where the toe would be read, would be deep in the heart of the congregation. And that’s a quote, and Wright referred to the place where the congregation was as an auditorium. And Rabbi Cohen said, that where the bimah would be, would influence synagogue architecture for years to come. I do not know if that’s the case, if it was the Wright synagogue that influenced it. But I can tell you and my synagogue in Westport, Connecticut has just gone through a renovation. And yes, as in the Wright synagogue, you can move the Bima to the middle of the synagogue, but it’s not permanently there. And I can tell you that one lesson that we learned from today and from the portion, and we’re not going to have time rabbi to get to the mountain above their heads was a threat, we’re only going to talk about the mountain above, and the Bima in the middle as the standard that was set by Sinai. And I can tell you that there is nothing more important than having the Torah as the centerpiece, where those eyes that you described from Shadal are all focused on the same place in the center, where every congregant is at the same level, and they are no Yechidim, where there is this healthy dialogue, sometimes even dialectic and debate between us and the Torah up. But it’s all there in these two verses.

Adam Mintz  29:29

And in these two words and I think that’s great. Thank you very much, Geoffrey. The sources were amazing today. And I think it gives us a new perspective on the experience of revelation of receiving the law. Want to wish everybody a Shabbat Shalom, it’s an amazing parsha an amazing story, and we look forward to seeing everybody back next Thursday night. Shabbat shalom, everybody.

Geoffrey Stern  29:54

Sabbats Shalom and Rabbi you have to keep me to my word. We will come back to the mountain over the head of the Israelites

Adam Mintz  29:58

It’s a great Gamora… we won’t miss it…

Geoffrey Stern  29:58

Shabbat Shalom to everybody.

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High Five

parshat beshalach, exodus 13 – 17

Join Geoffrey Stern and Rabbi Adam Mintz recorded on clubhouse on Thursday February 2,2023. The Torah declares that the Israelites went up out of the land of Egypt “Hamushim” חֲמֻשִׁ֛ים , a word related to the number five. According to many commentaries this word implies that only some of the Israelites left Egypt and that they were armed and ready to fight. As divisions begin to surface within the ranks of the Israelites, we raise our hand to identify and call out the birth of Jewish sectarianism.

Sefaria Source Sheet:


Welcome to Madlik.  My name is Geoffrey Stern and at Madlik we light a spark or shed some light on a Jewish Text or Tradition.  Along with Rabbi Adam Mintz, we host Madlik Disruptive Torah on clubhouse every Thursday and share it as the Madlik podcast on your favorite platform. This week’s Torah portion is Beshalach. The Torah declares that the Israelites went up out of the land of Egypt “Hamushim” חֲמֻשִׁ֛ים , a word related to Hamesh, the number five. According to many commentaries this word implies that only some of the Israelites left Egypt … armed and ready to fight. This is the first time that distinctions are made between one set of Jews and another. So, as divisions begin to surface within the ranks of the Israelites, we raise our hand to identify and call out the birth of Jewish sectarianism. So join us for High Five.


Well, welcome to the Madlik podcast. Rabbi Adam, welcome back. from Dubai. As I said in the introduction, we’re going to focus on really one word that many of the commentators have a challenge with. And it has to do with when the Jews came out of Egypt, it’s in the first two verses of our Parsha. So in Exodus 13: 17, it says, Now when Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them by the way of the land of the Philistines. Although it was nearer, for God said, the people may have a change of heart when they see war, and return to Egypt. So God led the people round about by way of the wilderness at the Sea of Reeds. Now the Israelites went up armed, went out of the land of Egypt. So this went up armed out of the land of Egypt, is the crux of our question tonight, because the Hebrew is וַחֲמֻשִׁ֛ים עָל֥וּ בְנֵי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל מֵאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרָֽיִם  And if you look at your standard in translation, for instance, the JPS puts a little asterik and it says the meaning of the Hebrew ḥamushim  is uncertain. Everett Fox in his translation says, armed Heb. (hamush) unclear.  he says, there are some that even say the possibility of groups of five or 50. So it’s a word that I think all of us have heard before, if you’ve even seen a hamsa, which is that iconic hand, you know that Hamesh means five. And here, we have just popped into the verse, a word coming from that show us from that route, and everybody is scratching their head. And of course, the flip side of scratching your head, if you’re a rabbi is coming up with an interpretation. So we will be exploring some of those interpretations. And seeing where they do lead us. Rashi, who is always our go-to guy, he combines the two verses, and we’re gonna see a lot of that, obviously, when you study pesukim, it should be in context. So, he says, because God led them by a circuitous route through the wilderness, he brought it about that they went up from Egypt, well provided. So there’s a certain logic and at one level Hamushim, which comes from the word five as in five fingers, you can make the case it means armed, which is kind of nice. And the English, the word armed is related to the word hand, it’s provided for. And he also goes on to say, this verse is written only with the view of making the ear understand in parentheses (preparing you for later statement that you should not wonder with regard to the war of Amalek.) So, at the end of our Parsha, we have a walk with Amelek, how do you fight a war without arms? And finally, he says that the word Hamushim has been used before he quotes Joshua. And he says, if you recall, there were two and a half tribes who decided to stay on the other side of the Jordan. And it says when you pass over the Jordan, you should do so Hamushim – armed so rabbis, what is your sense of Hamushim? It’s not actually a word that you can kind of ignore. I mean, it’s right in the in the pasuk. How rare is it that we get a word that really baffles pretty much everybody?

Adam Mintz  04:54

Yeah, I mean, let’s start from the beginning. The fact that the word Hamushim is related to the word Hamesh is what’s most interesting about the word? Because the question is, what is the what is the idea of being prepared for battle have to do with the word Hamesh? Right? They couldn’t use any word. Why is the word Hamushim that always interested me?

Geoffrey Stern  05:19

I mean, I think the English is kind of helpful here, because the word armed, literally comes from something that you bear in your hand. I mean, I did a Google search.

Adam Mintz  05:32

So, you know, that’s interesting, if that’s true, meaning that’s an English phrase. The question is whether the Chumash has the same use of the word arm, that we say that in English, but we don’t say that in Hebrew, I don’t think. Right?

Geoffrey Stern  05:49

Yeah, yeah. And that’s why you get variations like, wow, she kind of, he talks about arm but he also talks about being provided for, you know, you look up in Google, for instance, handshaking. And in Wikipedia, it says people would shake hands to make sure the other person wasn’t armed. It is kind of natural, when you get arrested when you hold up your hands, to show that you’re unarmed. So I think it’s more than just linguistic. I really do think that in a world where people are fearful for their lives the way most animals are, their ears perk up, they want to know if someone is a friend or a foe…. You look at the hand. So, I mean, it’s it is kind of interesting. It doesn’t answer all the questions, but it is fascinating that the rabbi’s at least some of them jump to that kind of a conclusion.

Adam Mintz  06:45

Yeah, it is interesting. I agree with you. That is interesting. I don’t know what to make of it. But that’s interesting.

Geoffrey Stern  06:51

So, I started by talking about this is the beginning of divisions within the Jewish people. And so Rashi says, and there was another explanation. He gets away for a second from being armed. And he says commotion is only one out of five went forth from Egypt, four parts of the people died during the three days of darkness, because they were unworthy of being delivered. So here’s what I was referring to. And of course, the most interesting part here is if you look at this word, which defies a straightforward translation, and it does become a Rorschach test What pushed the rabbi’s to read into it, something that would say that not all Jews merited or deserved or chose to leave the land, all of a sudden, for the first time, the Birth of a Nation, five seconds into the birth of the nation, we already have divisions within that nation being imposed upon them.

Adam Mintz  08:01

Yeah, that mean? Well, first of all, you know, the idea that four out of five didn’t make it out. That’s a wonderful kind of Midrash. Because that’s clearly not what it means. But that the Torah is trying to hint to us something, I think, is really fantastic.

Geoffrey Stern  08:22

Well, you know, the, we’ve gotten a few different explanations so far, you know, why not throw a bunch out there. And then we can start maybe to think in terms of, on the one hand, what the verse means, which I think probably is above our pay-scale, seeing as no one has come up with a complete solution. But the other interesting part about it is, how do people react to it? How do rabbis react to it? So the first interesting thing that you pointed out, was, it’s one thing to say, as I did that, four fifths stayed in Egypt, why are we creating these divisions? The next thing is, we’re starting to see this trend that we get in the Haggadah, also, where you multiply numbers, because, you know, we all know that the Jews left Egypt, traditionally, there were 600,000 men, so you figure another 600,000 women, and then you figure it children. And so you know, you think it’s maybe a million two, a million four. But if this is the case, think of what those numbers could possibly be. And there are other commentaries like the Rabenu Bachaiya, who even goes further and he says it was one in 50. It was one in 500. It is this tendency, I think, to exaggerate, which is is kind of interesting, especially because is the miracle of a million two is a pretty big miracle by itself.

Adam Mintz  10:07

Yes, That is that is absolutely true. I mean, let’s go back to the idea that four out of five didn’t make it. I mean, so you say we’re exaggerating, but the exaggeration says something, it really tells you that the Jews were not worthy,

Geoffrey Stern  10:24

or that some Jews were not worthy.

Adam Mintz  10:26

But no, but a majority, that’s 80% weren’t worthy.

Geoffrey Stern  10:32

That is a big number.

Adam Mintz  10:34

That’s a big number. I just want to point out. That’s a huge number.

Geoffrey Stern  10:39

And so from that perspective, I guess you could take it in a different direction. And you can say that what it’s trying to show is, don’t ever take this Exodus for granted. Yeah, a bunch of slaves, few plagues got out of Egypt, started a nation. Don’t ever think that this wasn’t the most amazing story that has occurred in history. Don’t ever think how daunting this was for the participants; you’re focusing on the four fifths that didn’t leave. The commentaries are kind of interesting. When they focus even on the 1/5 that did leave. They make this connection between God taking them in a circuitous path and giving them arms and almost in a sense saying, but even though I gave them the arms. It still didn’t happen. It still didn’t work. The Seforno says they did not have the courage to face the Egyptians in combat, in spite of their being armed. There’s another Chiba Yeterah says נפל לבם Their heart felt. So, it’s almost saying that God did everything in his power to make this happen. But it was an amazingly large challenge. And I think from that perspective, that kind of makes me more in awe than any raw numbers.

Adam Mintz  12:12

Yeah, o what you’re saying is that the raw numbers, even 80% could ultimately be misleading.

Geoffrey Stern  12:23

Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. I mean, because you focus on the ones that were left behind, and you forget the ones that left how daunting it was, and how, you know, as much preparation as there was to take a people from slaves and a slave mentality. And to give them the ability to stand on their own two feet and defend themselves is something that we should never, you know, kind of take for granted. So that’s kind of one of the stories that one of the lessons that I take from this. The other interesting thing is, and I mentioned that we were starting to see now different groups. Now we have a group that didn’t leave, and a group that left at the end of last week’s Parsha, we had the mixed multitude, they a lot of love. So now we have not only people that left, and they were armed, and they believed or at least they were closer to believing than anywhere else. But we also have this mixed multitude. And this comes up even later, there’s another word for them. They’re called the Riff Raff in numbers, the soft stuff Eek, there are, all of a sudden, we see this is not the plagues were kind of easy. You had darkness, it was dark. For the Egyptians, it was light for the Jews. But now as we get out there, we’re starting to see different types of Jews, quasi-Jews, maybe Jews. It’s very early in the story. And all of a sudden, this is starting to happen to us. And I think that’s kind of fascinating. We don’t even get a honeymoon.

Adam Mintz  14:09

Yeah, that that. Now, that is an interesting point. The fact that we don’t get a honeymoon means it just seems to go from one to the next. Right. The question is why we don’t get a honeymoon. Why didn’t God just let everybody out? What Why was there this, this decision to only let out say 20% of the people means was it a punishment? What was it about?

Geoffrey Stern  14:35

So fascinatingly, there are different opinions about what went on? One of them…., it’s up pseudo Philo says “the children of Israel were split in their opinions according to three strategies. For the tribes of Reuben, Issachar, Zebulun and Simeon said: “Come let us cast ourselves into the sea. For it is better for us to die in the water than to be killed by our enemies”. The tribes of Gad, Asher, Dan and Naftali said: “No, but let us go back with them, and if they are willing to spare our lives, we will serve them”. But the tribes of Levi, Judah, Joseph and Benjamin said: “Not so, but let us take up our weapons and fight with them, and God will be with us! So, this becomes kind of fascinating because we and I am right there…. we always assumed when forfeits left behind, that they were left behind by, by God’s choice by Moses, his choice they were rejected. But what this interestingly, in given the whole arc of Jewish history suggests that maybe they didn’t want to leave, you cannot help but think back to Europe, in the 30s, when some Jews were leaving for Israel, or Palestine, and others were did not want to go. So so now we have differences of opinion as to what the right course was. And we’re starting to see opinions that in fact, there is one in our source notes, which I should post and I’ll put them up in a second. There’s an amazing article about Who with a Mixed Multitudes. And it’s by a professor called Professor Bar. And he makes the case that even some of those who are saying that the Hamushim means groups of 50. He makes the argument that the Erev Rav and these groups of 50 were paid mercenaries, were whether they were paid mercenaries, or they weren’t fighters is irrelevant in my mind. But what you’re seeing is there were those who took charge those who took the impetus. They even use the words that were later used in Yehoshua’s time, which I think is a terrible translation. They translate Halutzim as shock troops. But they talk about these armed Hamushim also referred to as Halutzim, we’re the ones who decided to leave Egypt. And there were those who did not have enough self-confidence, or as we would see later, will dream about the fleshpots of Egypt and always want to go back Datan and Avirom  there were these different groups. And according to this opinion, the Hamushim were a certain type of Jew who led the charge. Not all of them necessarily were armed. It starts to become kind of fascinating.

Adam Mintz  17:57

That is fascinating. Yeah, that is fascinating So the question is, … based on what the different explanations of  Hamushim are. If Hamushim means armed, so the question is who exactly was armed? Right? And where did the Jews get these arms from? וַחֲמֻשִׁ֛ים עָל֥וּ בְנֵי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל מֵאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרָֽיִם Where did you get the arms from?

Geoffrey Stern  18:26

According to all of those who say that Israelites were left in Egypt, they were killed during the plague of darkness. That is the tradition. And of course, we also have a tradition, that during the plague of darkness, it was pitch black for the Egyptians, but the Jews could see. And there are various traditions that say that the Jews, the Israelites, would go into the houses of the Egyptians and stake out weapons; stakeout property that they would later ask for as they left when they were provisioned. We’ve talked about that before.

Adam Mintz  19:10


Geoffrey Stern  19:10

But the interesting thing to me is that in Exodus 10, when it talks about the plague of darkness, it says לא ראו איש את אחיו . And that one could not see one’s fellow. But if you take that metaphorically, again, if if this is when the allegory the myth, the concept of some Jews were left behind comes up in the plague of darkness. It’s this division started to occur when one Israelite could not see the other. The Division started to occur even within the land of Egypt. So, it’s almost a recognition of the text that this all began. And I guess, you know, I can’t say this hasn’t occurred before. When Moses came the day after he killed the slave master, the two Jews, said to him, what are you going to do? You’re going to kill us too. But so there always were divisions, there were divisions in every people and God for sure they have divisions within the Jewish people. But this is on a much larger scale.

Adam Mintz  20:27

Yes, I think that’s right. I mean, I think you know, and that’s what you talked about the numbers. It makes a difference how many Jews left Egypt in this discussion? What did it look like? I don’t even know what 2 million people leaving Egypt look like. Right? What did that look like?

Geoffrey Stern  20:46

So so we get to, I believe I’m on safe ground to say that the reason why Hamesh was related, and maybe you don’t agree with me on this, but the reason why her Mace was related to arms was for the same reason that the English word for armaments comes from the word arm. This is where power is exerted. And I think that if you start then to look at the story of the Exodus, and look at how Yad is used as a metaphor, it starts also to make sense, I was talking to you before about how I was preparing with my grandson who’s going to be Bar Mitzvah in a few months. And we were discussing tephilin and of course, fill in his first referenced as an וְהָיָה֩ לְךָ֨ לְא֜וֹת עַל־יָדְךָ֗ וּלְזִכָּרוֹן֙ בֵּ֣ין עֵינֶ֔יךָ לְמַ֗עַן תִּהְיֶ֛ה תּוֹרַ֥ת ה בְּפִ֑יךָ כִּ֚י בְּיָ֣ד חֲזָקָ֔ה הוֹצִֽאֲךָ֥ ה מִמִּצְרָֽיִם , a sign on your arm, and it references that outstretched arm. [also וַיְחַזֵּ֣ק ה’ אֶת־לֵ֤ב פַּרְעֹה֙ מֶ֣לֶךְ מִצְרַ֔יִם וַיִּרְדֹּ֕ף אַחֲרֵ֖י בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל וּבְנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל יֹצְאִ֖ים בְּיָ֥ד רָמָֽה׃ ה’ stiffened the heart of Pharaoh king of Egypt, and he gave chase to the Israelites. As the Israelites were departing defiantly, where yad rmah is according to Ibn Ezra: They didn’t leave the impression of fleeing but rather had all the weapons of war [and so did not go out like fugitives.] ]And we have to note that the Hebrew word Yad, we always talk in terms of a hand, but I think if you look at the text of the Bible, Yad can just as easily mean arm, as it can mean hand. So now you look at all of the verses that we’re very well acquainted with, about God out stretching his arm, about the power of the hand of God. And it puts that the where it talks about whether it’s כִּֽי־יָד֙ עַל־כֵּ֣ס יָ֔הּ , whether it is the בִּזְר֣וֹעַ נְטוּיָ֔ה the out stretched arm, it is a metaphor for power, for changing, for progress. You know, when it talks about the plagues, in so many of the cases, it talks about raising up the hand. So I think that this is a major kind of part of this story. And it makes us think differently about you know, what is going on here, and what is the power of this Hamsa of this hand?

Adam Mintz  20:47

Good. You know what, I’m willing to go with you? I don’t know that we could prove it necessarily. But I’m willing to go with you that, that that what we’re talking about here is that we’re talking about here is some something based on the fact that armaments are related to the hands. I’m good with that. Let’s run with that.

Geoffrey Stern  23:30

Great. So if we look back in the story, and we look all the way back to Genesis 41, where Joseph is advising the king, it says, Joseph says to the king, and let Pharaoh take steps to appoint overseers over the land and organize the land of Egypt in the seven years of plenty. And there it says let him make וְחִמֵּשׁ֙ אֶת־אֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרַ֔יִם . So here, Rashi says that they shall prepare, and he says similar to Exodus 13: 18 and be prepared for war. So now this is another nuance. We talked about provisioning, preparing the Jews that are going to be taken on a circuitous mission. Maybe it takes a little bit away from the military nature of this, but certainly it focuses as Hamesh as something that is preparing somebody for something. It’s interesting that the word comes up and it’s not a word that falls off your tongue easily. Even when you look at that verse. You need a Rossi to explain what’s going on.

Adam Mintz  24:51

Yeah, I think that’s right. The simple explanation of the verse doesn’t really mean anything. All right. I mean, it needs an explanation. I think that’s a very smart point. We’re running to different kinds of explanations. What is the simple explanation is and I don’t know what the simple explanation means.

Geoffrey Stern  25:16

No, and, and we probably will not know. But one thing that did come to my mind is that it’s strange that while the commentaries do talk about Hamesh as being prepared, and being armed, they don’t talk so much about being armed by God, which is kind of interesting. And if I had to say, one small, little Hidush, one small, little innovation in Genesis, where it talks about what we said a second ago, that you should organize the land of Egypt, it uses Hamesh in Genesis 47, it says, “And Joseph made it into a land law in Egypt, which is still valid, that a fifth should be Pharaoh’s; only the land of the priests did not become Pharaoh’s.  So here, Hamesh, it belongs to Pharaoh.” And maybe and this is my small innovation at Pharaoh was the king Pharaoh was the god of Egypt. And so it’s almost as though the fifth the Hamesh the Yad, the mover, the shaker, that’s what belongs to God. And so it seems to me it’s a little strange that the rabbi is don’t insert God into this Hamesh when the Yad of God is all over, but instead use it to look for the differences between some Jews and another that kind of struck me, especially if my if my explanation has any soil to it at all.

Adam Mintz  27:05

That’s good. So the יד חזקה  is is actually the opposite of Hamushim, even though it both means the same thing. That’s your question really?

Geoffrey Stern  27:19

Well, I think that the Hamushim means to be prepared and protected in a very profound way. And if I had to argue from Jewish superstition, Jewish ritual objects, from Jewish tradition, if you think of that Hamsa, which, you know, people are not sure whether it come it came from Islam, or predated Islam, and it came from Judaism, in our superstitious tradition in Yemen, it’s the Yad of Miriam. But the idea is, I’ve seen pictures of hands, almost I wouldn’t say they were put in blood, but they are put on the wall as a sign of protection. They just recently discovered a hand impregnated into the wall around Jerusalem. This idea of God protecting us with his hand, to me seems to be where the Jewish people might have taken this concept of God’s hand. And from that perspective, it gives a new insight into what God gave these people, they still didn’t stand up to the task. But they were appointed by God, they were armed by God, they were prepared by God. That certainly is one way to look at it.

Adam Mintz  28:47

I have a question to ask you.

Geoffrey Stern  28:48


Adam Mintz  28:49

When did they use these armaments that they were prepared with? There’s a war with a Amalek at the end of our parsha, there’s a war with Amalek, but it’s a miraculous war. Moshe raises his hands and they win Moshe lowers his hands, and they lose.

Geoffrey Stern  29:06

So the Rashi on Exodus 13: 18, which I cut short, says that the reason why they have arms is that you should not wonder with regard to the war with Amalek. And then he continues, and the war with Sihon and Og and Midian where they obtained weapons, since they smote them with the sword.

Adam Mintz  29:22

So good. So that’s what I’m saying. It’s interesting that the pasuk here says that they’re armed. But basically, they only use the arms 40 years later.

Geoffrey Stern  29:35

And I guess once you have your first battle, there’s always an explanation of how you got your arms…  you captured them from the enemy.

Adam Mintz  29:43

But I’m saying isn’t that interesting means that they’re actually preparing to enter the land of Israel. Now before the sin of the spies. They thought they were entering the Land of Israel immediately. So therefore, they needed the arms because they had to fight these battles. And the answer is they didn’t fight them for 40 years.

Geoffrey Stern  30:03

Yep. So, yep, yep. So so the question is, you know, is is, is the, the answer worse than the question? You know, they’re clearly looking at this word and trying to figure out, you know what it means. But in the Haggadah, we have so many elements that we’ve kind of touched on today, we have this element of exaggerating, of multiplying the numbers, but to me, the most challenging one is the wicked son, because it’s the wicked son that now takes on a whole new meaning. When they say, you said, “you” had you been there, you would not have been worthy to ever be redeemed. Now we have a tradition of four fifths of the people (did not get redeemed).. But let’s forget about numbers; about a portion of the people decided or were forced not to be redeemed. And I would argue what makes this fascinating, especially for recent history, in terms of the establishment of the State of Israel, where you almost flipped the coin, where it was the God-fearing who, for many reasons, said, We are going to wait to be saved, we will stay in where we are. And it was the Halutzim, and it’s amazing that it uses the same word as these forward troops, who were the humashim, who went out and had the confidence to create a new land, which just goes to show that, you know, everybody has a lesson to take away from the portion and everybody should be struggling and bothered by the questions that are raised as we read the weekly portion, and this week is no exception.

Adam Mintz  32:01

I think that’s great. We I mean, we looked at a word you know, sometimes we look at an idea today, we looked at the word, it’s no question. It’s the best word in the parsha. It’s my favorite word in the parsha. It’s one of my favorite words in the Chumash. Just because I love that Rashi. So, we really tried to get to the bottom of it. And whether we did or we didn’t, we at least had an interesting conversation, something to think about the Shabbat. So wishing everybody a Shabbat Shalom, enjoy, and we look forward to seeing you next week.

Geoffrey Stern  32:26

Shabbat shalom. Great to have you back high five to you from one street on the Upper West Side to another and look forward to next week. Well, thank you for listening. And for all of you who listen to this as a podcast tonight, we have an extended version, because as you know, this is recorded on clubhouse live. And we have two amazing Hasidic stories from my buddy Yochanan, who is the Rosh Kollel of clubhouse. And we also have some interesting comments from my buddy Lauren. So you are welcome to leave now. You still get all of Madlik points, and all of the benefits that come with those Madlik points. But if you want to get a sense of what happens on clubhouse, stay tuned. Yochanan how are you today?

Yochanan Lowen  33:21

Hey, hey, Rob, is it’s a pleasure to be here. And Rabbi Adam said that Hamushim is his most favorite word in the Humash. Did I hear correctly?

Adam Mintz  33:31

Yeah, I like that word.

Yochanan Lowen  33:32

But Hi, how is it possible to be differently? If Hamushim is actually the same word as Humash. So obviously, this would be your most favorite word in the Humash.

Adam Mintz  33:45

That’s fantastic. Of course, they’re related words.

Yochanan Lowen  33:48

Exactly. It’s actually the same term, it’s the same route. It’s the same, you know, it’s the same word, it’s the difference in the conjugation, whatever what you call it in English.

Geoffrey Stern  34:00

And I will say that in my research of the Hamsah, the this iconic hand that we see some of the Sephardic customs are is that it represents the Hamesh Humsheh Torah the five books of the Torah. And the same goes for וְהִיא שֶׁעָמְדָה, which is the Heh, in the וְהִיא שֶׁעָמְדָה, is there Heh, of the Five Books of Moses, which will save us. So it really I think Yochanan you’re just adding another aspect to how this tree these traditions that we’ve talked about have kind of been recycled and grown and ruminate one with the other. Humash is a perfect, perfect example.

Adam Mintz  34:50

Yeah, that’s great. Thank you very much. Appreciate it. Shabbat shalom, everybody. Enjoy.

Sefaria Source Sheet:

High Five | Sefaria

Parshat Beshalach – The Torah declares that the Israelites went up out of the land of Egypt “Hamushim” חֲמֻשִׁ֛ים , a word related to the number five. According to many commentaries this word implies that only some of the Israelites left Egypt and that they were armed and ready to fight.

Listen to last years Beshalach podcast: God;s Gracious Ruse

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Hard Hearts

parshat bo, exodus 10-13

Join Geoffrey Stern and Rabbi Adam Mintz recorded on Clubhouse on January 26, 2023. God hardens the heart of Pharaoh. We ignore the question of free will and God’s omnipotence and instead we ask: What makes a man’s heart so hard that it can’t be softened?

Sefaria Source Sheet:


Welcome to Madlik.  My name is Geoffrey Stern and at Madlik we light a spark or shed some light on a Jewish Text or Tradition.  Along with Rabbi Adam Mintz, we host Madlik Disruptive Torah on clubhouse every Thursday and share it as the Madlik podcast on your favorite platform. This week’s Torah portion is Bo.  God hardens the heart of Pharaoh. We will survey, but largely ignore the question of free will and God’s omnipotence and instead we will ask: What makes a man’s heart so hard that it can’t be softened? So join us for Hard Hearts.


Well, welcome rabbi from Kuwait. It’s so great to have you. I am back in in Connecticut. And we are doing this early in the morning. I have a confession to make when we do it at night. Sometimes I have a scotch on my side. But today I have I have water. So, we’ll see how that goes. How are you, Rabbi.

Adam Mintz  01:08

I’m doing great. We’re having we’re having a great time here next week; we’ll be able to go back to our usual APM time, but it’s great to do it here. And I’m looking forward to talking about hard hearts.

Geoffrey Stern  01:17

Fantastic. So, the first verse of our parsha Exodus 10: 1 it says, Then God said to Moses, go to Pharaoh, for I have hardened his heart, הִכְבַּ֤דְתִּי אֶת־לִבּוֹ֙ and the hearts of his courtiers in order that I may display these my signs among them. And the word that is used is הִכְבַּ֤דְתִּי , which is to be made heavy, we’ll get into that a little more. But this concept of hardening God’s heart, it’s not using a single technical term. If we look at Exodus 7: 3 looking back a little bit, it says but I will harden Pharaoh’s heart that I might multiply my signs and marvels in the land of Egypt. There it says וַאֲנִ֥י אַקְשֶׁ֖ה  . I will make I would say “hard”. If I had to distinguish between the two הִכְבַּ֤דְתִּי might be heavy, and אַקְשֶׁ֖ה  might be hard in Exodus 9: 12. It says but God stiffened the heart of Pharaoh and he would not heed them just as God had told Moses. And there it uses, I would say the more the use term throughout וַיְחַזֵּ֤ק ה’ אֶת־לֵ֣ב פַּרְעֹ֔ה . He made strong.

Adam Mintz  02:41

interesting, that Sefaria translated but Hashem stiffened the heart of Pharaoh. That’s a good word stiffen.

Geoffrey Stern  02:50

In Sefaria, and by the way, I’ve posted the notes both on our podcast, but also on clubhouse above, you can look at them, you can pick the translation that you’re using, and I chose to use Everett Fox. And so that is the way that he has translated it.

Adam Mintz  03:11

Isn’t that a good word? That’s not That’s not usually the way you would think of the words Hazak , but it’s a good it’s a good word. I mean, you can you can imagine that word stiffening?

Geoffrey Stern  03:20

Yes. Although I would think that Kashe is more like stiffened, you know, Hazak, I was about to say, when we finish a book of the Torah, we go Hazak, Hazak Ve’nithazek,  and there, it kind of means strength, you should have strength. You know, because we’re looking at all these words. If I was to say, Hazek in a negotiation, I am bolstering I am giving credence, I am strengthening your position. That to me is the the way I read Veyithazek. And of all of these, it almost feels it’s more in a transaction, I could see it in terms of a legal transaction, where this guy’s case was maybe strengthened. But it’s fascinating, nonetheless, that we have so many different terms for what ultimately happened, which is somehow or another, God and Moses were able to take advantage we’re able to maybe manipulate, we’re maybe even able to exploit and encourage a reaction from pharaoh that had all of these various facets involved. And that I think is really interesting to me.

Adam Mintz  04:43

It’s fascinating. I mean, absolutely fascinating and the fact that you have identified the fact that a different word is used. You wonder you wonder whether there was a different experience or you wonder whether the Torah is not quite sure you know what that means; how you express a hardening of the heart. Because it’s not something that we see anywhere else in the Torah, this you’ll get to in a minute. The fact of course, that the idea of hardening a heart, and therefore preventing him from repenting is something that you don’t find anywhere else in the Torah. So, you know, it’s almost as if the Torah itself is struggling to express it properly.

Geoffrey Stern  05:24

Well, that’s a perfect segue….  in the introduction, I said, we were going to try to survey but nonetheless stay away from the polemics and the philosophical question of how can Pharaoh have freewill, and nonetheless, God be omnipotent. But you have to mention it. And I think the truth is that because the rabbis were so sensitive to that question of how can you judge Pharaoh, if you’re in fact, manipulating him? How can you expect him to repent if you’ve closed the gates of repentance? Because they were so sensitive to that question, it made them focus on all of the various nuances that we’re going to discuss. So, we kind of ourselves can exploit it. So, Rashi starts right from the beginning, and he is clearly sensitive to this issue, and he says in Exodus 7: 3 is commentary. He says, מֵאַחַר שֶׁהִרְשִׁיעַ , that I will allow Pharaoh’s heart to harden, since he has already wickedly resisted me. Rashi and many of the commentators are trying to say that making Pharaoh’s heart hard was a progression. And it started from Pharaoh himself, that he was evil. He had a heart that was insensitive, and was pushing him in the direction that he went. And God simply exploited it. But it started, the precipitation was from Pharaoh himself. Last week we talked about the first three plagues, and how they related to Aaron and Moses. Now the rabbi’s look at the first five plagues. And he says in the case of the first five plagues, it is not stated, The Lord hardened Pharaoh’s heart, but Pharaoh’s heart was hardened. So again, sensitivity to this issue, made them look into the weeds and come up with this thing that the first five plagues, Pharaoh hardened his own heart, if you will. And then afterwards, God took advantage of that. What How does that sound to you? Good.

Adam Mintz  07:45

I mean, that sounds exactly right. But what I find interesting, of course, when you get to get to this in a later source, is this is the idea of what we call Midah Keneget Midah…  and that is that Pharaoh deserved it, since he had wickedly resisted me. And it has manifest to me that the heathen nations by no spiritual satisfaction, and setting their whole hearts return to me, it is better than his heart should be hardened should be hardened, in order that my signs may be multiplied against him, so that he may recognize my divine power. The idea that this is the punishment, you know, this is something that I say every week in my parsha class that I give in shul before davening and that is that Rashi has the following view in terms of people in the Chumash. Rashi divides the people in the Chumash into two very binary categories. You’re either good or you’re bad. There’s nobody in the middle. All the people in Bereshit, right? Yaakov is good. Esau is bad. Yitzchak is good. Ishmael is bad. And here Rashi is very clear. Pharaoh is bad. The reason that God hardens his heart is because Pharaoh is bad. And therefore he deserves it.  That’s a strong term. Know that this is the way God punishes him. He deserves it. But I think that’s something especially because you have the Ramban and you have some other views that I think that’s important to say here, Pharaoh is a bad guy and he deserves.

Geoffrey Stern  09:18

So you mentioned the Ramban, and I think what the Ramban and the other commentaries flush out are different kinds of nuances and ways of looking at this. So on Exodus 9: 12, one of these verses that said that ויחזק ה’ את לב פרעה  Ramban says the following the magicians hardened Pharaoh’s heart in order to pride themselves in their wisdom.  החרטומים מחזקים את לבו להתפאר אצלו בחכמתם and then he goes on to say, afterwards once the magician’s gave up, and said hey, we can’t do that. Then his iniquities ensnared him עונותיו אשר ילכדונו . So this is kind of fascinating because we tend to think that it is God who is hardening Pharaoh’s heart. But clearly, it was the circumstance that he created for himself in this particular case, and I cannot not and we’ll get to this later on, think in terms of what’s going on in Russia and Ukraine. Today, in terms of Putin, you know, you have a leader, he’s surrounded, maybe he’s in a bubble, he’s surrounded by advisers. And you cannot not blame him for who he surrounds himself by. So, he is to blame. But nonetheless, the magician’s in the beginning. And here we get this sense of pride. I love pride as an explanation of what was going on here, because we’re gonna get into the words but Kaved can be heavy, but it can also mean pride Kol Hakavod, all the honors should be to you I say, l’chavod HaRav the kavod of somebody is their power, one of the Greek words that is used, is their gravitas? Gravitas is a perfect word, like Kaved, it has both gravity and weight in it. And it also has this sense of who I am and power. So here we have a struggle may be between humility, and pride. And the pride is one of pride of knowledge, the Hartumim, the magician’s feel. And they gave to Pharaoh this, this this sense of false sense of power through knowledge. But that’s a fascinating dynamic as well, is it not? And it takes the discussion a little bit away from just God hardening Pharaoh’s heart to the circumstance and the etiology of how you get into a position that Pharaoh ended up in. Where he had a hard heart that could not be softened anymore. It’s fascinating. The Ramban is completely different than Rashi. If this was a class in medieval biblical commentaries, we would say that they couldn’t be more different, because the Ramban completely ignores God, you know, giving Pharaoh what he deserves, and says that it’s really an internal Egyptian phenomenon. Isn’t that fascinating? It has to do with the magicians and how the magicians dealt with Pharaoh, what the magicians thought of themselves. I mean, you wonder what led the Ramban. And this is an interesting question, what led the Ramban to give this kind of explanation? Because I think in this case, Rashi’s explanation is more to the point, the Ramban is a little more fanciful, because you don’t see that anywhere in the text. So there’s one refrain that keeps on coming up every time or pretty much every time God says I’m going to harden his heart, he typically will say, in order that I may display these my signs among them, that I will multiply my signs and Marvels. God has an agenda, it would seem, and I think what Ramban is focused on is how God kivi’yachol (as if to say) is exploiting the situation for his own ends. So in the Ramban Exodus 10: 1, it says that God is hardening his heart, not in order that I can punish him more on account of hardening his heart, but in order so that I can give my message so that I can publicize my power. So that’s kind of interesting to where God has an agenda and is taking advantage of the situation. And at a certain point when God takes over on the sixth plague, and starts actually, whether it’s hardening Pharaoh’s heart, are creating a situation that inevitably forces Pharaoh deeper into the corner, he’s exploiting it for something.

Adam Mintz  14:42

Yeah. And that relates to another question, and that is that in this week’s Parsha we have the last three plagues. We have locusts, we have darkness and we have the death of the first born. The question is asked by the commentators and the Ramban has a very specific view on this one What was the purpose of the plagues was the purpose of the plagues to prove to the Jews that God was God? What was the purpose of the plague to prove to the Egyptians, that God was God? And it sounds from the Ramban, as if the purpose was to prove to the Egyptians, that God was God? Right. That’s interesting. It doesn’t have to be that way.

Geoffrey Stern  15:23

Yeah, it is. It is interesting. You know, the fascinating thing is, because what lies at the source of your question is Why didn’t we just fast forward to the last plague? That’s ultimately the plague that hit at the heart of Pharaoh.

Adam Mintz  15:40

He’s God. He could have snapped his fingers and done it in one second. What did we need? I mean, let’s assume that the rabbinic interpretation is right, that it took a year for the plagues. What do you need a year for? That’s a year of slavery for the Jews. I mean if you were a slave, a year’s a long time, right. It’s international Holocaust Day this weekend, you know, a year could you imagine a year, God forbid, in a concentration camp, you say, another day in a concentration camp, you’d do anything to avoid?

Geoffrey Stern  16:10

And so the year enables us to really look at this as a process. And then the question becomes, what is the process? One of the fascinating things is, you mentioned today is Holocaust Day, it’s also a day that that Germany announced that it was going to permit tanks to be given to the Ukrainians. Imagine what would have happened if they had said that on day one. They that would have made Putin react in a totally different way, I believe then he is hopefully going to react now. Because it was so incremental. First, it was only body armor, then it was defensive weaponry. Now, all of a sudden, it’s almost like the plagues, and we’re gonna get to Erich Fromm at the end, who really did make a parallel between the Cold War and this whole process, this year process, if you will, with Pharaoh, but you can really see it, you can see that God in a sense, the text is threading a needle, and it is going somewhere. And I do think that that is absolutely fascinating. And in our Parsha in 8: 28, it says גם בפעם הזאת also this time. And what Rabbeinu Bachya says is that there is clearly up progression here that the first few plagues you had the magician’s, then it was Pharaoh all alone, and it was Pharaoh hardening his own heart, then it was God starting to harden his heart again, and what it shows us and I think this is the crux of the message of one of the messages that we have to take away and is that wonderful saying and Pirke Avot that says that one good deed leads to another מִּצְוָה גּוֹרֶרֶת מִצְוָה  and one transgression leads to another in Avot 4: 2 עֲבֵרָה גוֹרֶרֶת עֲבֵרָה  there is an etiology of sin, there is an etiology of once you pick your path and you go down it, yes, initially, it can be the influence of the Hartumim; the magician’s. And then next, it can be your own pride. And then ultimately, whether it’s God forcing your hand or you’ve dug yourself so deep, you can’t get out anymore, you actually do lose your free will. And that is where I think psychology and our own experience can parallel so much of what the rabbi’s have been saying, which is there was a transition here from having free will on the part of Pharaoh to not having free will, and then having other parties who are able to exploit the situation for their own ends. It’s a fascinating studying in how we can I can can put ourselves into a corner.

Adam Mintz  19:14

I think that’s right. I mean, I think that progression, you know, this goes back to your question, why didn’t God just snap his fingers and just take the Jews out of Egypt? Go to plague 10? The answer is that it’s all in the progression. And that’s the question what the progression is the Ramban’s view is that progression was to convince the Egyptians that God was God, that can’t happen in one second. You know, basically, I think what the Ramban says whether he says it explicitly or not, is had God just done the 10th plague? You could have written it off; you would have said, you know, it was in the water or something happened to the first born, whatever you would say, you would explain it away. But a whole year of this, you can’t you can’t explain that away. That That must be something.

Geoffrey Stern  20:01

So it as the rabbi’s of evaluating this, they come up with some fascinating insights as well. And again, I think I’m not a big fan of polemics. I’m not a big fan of apologetics, which are both terms used when others say Ha-ha, you see, you’re a hypocrite you say you believe in one God, and that God permits you free will and you can do teshuva, something that a Polytheist doesn’t have to worry about because he can play one god off of another. But when you have this, this structure that Judaism introduced into the world, you have Talmudic chapters that talk about the non-Jews will point their finger at you and say, aha, you see, this is wrong, you’re not consistent. But that forces the rabbis to then look at these texts in a new way. So, you might forget about the polemics. You know, we mentioned a Hebrew University professor a few weeks ago, called Umberto Cassuto. And he says, if you read the text, just the way it was written, none of these philosophical questions come up. If you look at this as an act of war, where Moses and God are fighting for the freedom of their people, and Pharaoh is holding it back. hardening the heart is just another way of saying It’s another tool. It’s like a battering ram to knock it down. And he hardened his heart, he manipulated the situation. But nonetheless, because they were apologetics around here, it forced the rabbis to look at it in a new way. And, and one of the insights that Rashi gives is, he says, and Pharaoh’s heart was hardened in 7: 22. He says, You are doing this by witchcraft: “You are bringing straw to Afarayim”— a city that is full of straw; thus you bring sorcery to Egypt, a land that is full of sorcery (Menachot 85a; Exodus Rabbah 9:6-7). He is saying that God sunk down to the level of the Egyptians and was playing with them. Because it was kind of like selling ice to the Eskimos, since they had magicians, since they were at the top of the world in terms of the technology of magic, God could have taken a totally different route. But instead, he played by their rules. And of course, that just pulled them into it. So he threw down the staff, they threw down the staff turn the water into blood. This is a fascinating analysis of why we had to go through these 10 plagues. He took advantage of their weakness, of their hubris and of their pride, and he took it to the nth degree.

Adam Mintz  22:54

I think that’s right, that’s correct. And he made the point that your hubris, your arrogance is what gets you in trouble. Because if you realize that God is the one who controls everything, then you need to be humble, not arrogant, right. It’s all related to belief in God is the opposite of hubris.

Geoffrey Stern  23:16

So in Exodus 10: 3 it says, So Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh and said to him, Thus said God, the God of the Hebrews, how long will you refuse to humble yourself before me? Let my people go that they may worship Me, and the Hebrew is עַד־מָתַ֣י מֵאַ֔נְתָּ לֵעָנֹ֖ת מִפָּנָ֑י , “anot”is to be poor. It is to be very humble. We all know that Moses in Numbers 12: 3 says, Now Moses was very humbled more so than any other human being on Earth. עָנָ֣ו מְאֹ֑ד . So here this is fascinating, because we normally think of humility, as something that a very pious person is. But if you take humility, and you contrast it to this heavy heart, this heart full of hubris, this hot, full of rigor mortis, this stiff, heart humility, becomes something that opens you up to other ideas that opens you up to think differently. It becomes a powerful strategy, as well as something that is a characteristic thought of highly. That to me this, this kind of, if only you Egyptians would humble yourself, you would be able to take advantage and you would be able to take stock of this situation. That to me is a fascinating insight into the power of Moses, the leader, who was this humble person, as counterposed to Pharaoh, this person who was closed and rigid and stiff.

Adam Mintz  24:58

And let me make that point even stronger… it’s interesting עַד־מָתַ֣י מֵאַ֔נְתָּ לֵעָנֹ֖ת מִפָּנָ֑י . How long will you refuse to humble yourself before me? That’s not the way you should say it. How long will you be arrogant? But no, it’s not how long will you be arrogant? It’s that he refuses to be humble. It’s not that he’s arrogant, but that he has the ability to be humble, but he refuses to be humble. And that’s exactly what you’re saying. And that is that the process is to force him to be humble, because he’s refusing to be humble.

Geoffrey Stern  25:35

Absolutely. You know, a year or two ago, we did an episode on bathroom ethics. Because the first plague started with Pharaoh going down into the Nile, because he thought of himself as a God who doesn’t defecate, and in Shemot Rabbah 9: 8 in which it tells that story. It starts by saying that Pharaoh’s heart is stubborn Another interpretation of PHARAOH’s HEART IS STUBBORN (KABED). God said to him: Wretch! With word with which thou showest thy stubbornness, will I glorify Myself (mith-kabed) over thee, as it is Said: And I will get Me honor upon Pharaoh   So here, it all comes together, God is taking advantage of the stubbornness of Pharaoh to honor himself. The rabbis in this one are taking this sense of Kava aid, which can mean to honor somebody, and also bring somebody down. And typically, you think of the negative side of honor that a person thinks too highly of themselves, they have too much gravitas, that weight weighs them down. But here in a flip of words, they are saying that God strategically is taking advantage of pharaohs, perception of himself as a God, to turn that into honoring God through these miracles kind of a fun play with words, but one that shows how aware the rabbis were of what was the dynamic going on here, in terms of the power play?

Adam Mintz  27:12

I love that. I think that’s really nice. And I think that’s what it is. It’s a power play that relates to refusing to humble, it’s a power play, right? I mean, each side is trying to get the other side to budge. I think that that’s interesting, now, God wins at the end. That’s a very important point, because from the Egyptian’s perspective is you have to remember this, and that is the Egyptians have many of their own gods. So for God to win, means God wins over the ancient gods, and that the people have to recognize that God is not just one of the gods, but God is a special God. That’s a very important point. It’s not one against one, it’s one against many, and God is recognized as being the one God.

Geoffrey Stern  28:03

Absolutely, I love that the fact that we’re talking about this power plane. So Martin Luther King, Jr, two years after, on the anniversary of the rule that was passed, that permitted everybody to have a fair education. He wrote a book and in the book, he had a chapter called The death of evil upon the seashore. And it was all about the Exodus. And we talked about this a few weeks ago in terms of the power of the Exodus story. But he, like us is not focused on this dynamic of free choice. He’s focused on this dynamic of power. And he writes, “The Pharaohs stubbornly refused to respond to the cry of Moses. Plague after plague swept through the Pharoah’s domain, and yet they insisted on following their recalcitrant path.”  And here’s the punchline. “This tells us something about evil that we must never forget. It never voluntarily relinquishes its throne. Evil is stubborn, hard and determined. It never gives up without a bitter struggle and without the most persistent and almost fanatical resistance.”  I love what Martin Luther King Jr. Does with our discussion. He says, if it’s a year, if it’s a lifetime of struggling with these plagues, it’s to show us that evil doesn’t go away so easy. And that is the crux of our story here. And that is the crux of the hard heart of Pharaoh to tell you; don’t think that this is just gonna go away. And this is even more, I think, powerful coming from a man who believed in nonviolent resistance, but it is such a powerful take on this whole subject that we’ve been discussing.

Adam Mintz  29:56

It’s beautiful, it really pulled puts the whole thing kind Given perspective and you’re right the fact that he was against violence really makes the point all that much stronger I think.

Geoffrey Stern  30:07

So I want to finish up with Eric Fromm um one of my favorite books if I haven’t said it before, really impacted me in my in my journey into Judaism was You shall be as gods by Erich Fromm And Erich Fromm, clearly was a psychologist. He was a thought leader, but he was a totally engaged in his Judaism and in his texts. And if you read that book, you’ll see from his footnotes and notes, he studied these texts. And he glosses over the difference between I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and Pharaoh hardened his heart, it’s all the same. He says What the biblical text stresses here is one of the most fundamental laws of human behavior. Every evil act tends to harden man’s heart, that is, to deaden it. Every good act tends to soften it, to make it more alive. The more man’s heart hardens, the less freedom does he have to change: the more is he determined already by previous action. But there comes a point of no return, when man’s heart has become so hardened and so deadened that he has lost the possibility of freedom, when he is forced to go on and on until the unavoidable end which is, in the last analysis, his own physical or spiritual destruction, and then he goes on to bring it to history that he thought in the 60s was the past, but it’s still here. He says, Anyone who reads the story attentively will recognize that the miracles Moses and Aaron perform on behalf of God are not miracles intended to change man’s heart. In the first place they are from the very beginning meant only to impress both the Hebrews and the Egyptians. They are in their nature no different from what the Egyptian magicians are not able to do, except that eventually the Hebrews’ secret weapons prove to be a little more effective. The irony of the story is that the all-powerful God chose miracles which repeat, or only slightly improve on, Egyptian magic.  So here Fromm is saying literally what Rashi said a few seconds ago, which I called selling ice to the eskimos, that God is talking and arguing with Pharaoh, in a very infantile way, to show us that this is not a story about God. It’s a story about humanity, and how we fall into a pit and into a rut. Indeed, he says, Indeed, perhaps never in human history has it been possible to understand this part of the biblical story as well as today. Two powerful blocs of mankind are attempting to find a solution to the threat of weapons – weapons compared to which the ten plagues appear harmless. Until now both sides have shown better sense than did Pharaoh; they have yielded …. So, he goes on, and I suggest you look at the notes. But what is so fascinating as we see Putin, and Russia and Ukraine play out, and America is number one, the open question which we didn’t discuss is, is even Moses and God on the same page? God, is trying to exploit the situation to bring pride to him, Moses is trying to get out of the country, and Pharaoh is trying to protect his pride in his regime. So there were actually three actors here. And I suggest to all of you that nowhere has current events served as a better prism, to look at our Torah reading, then we are living through today.

Adam Mintz  33:53

I think that’s really beautiful. And the fact that at the very end, you brought up the fact that Moshe is not necessarily on the same page as God, and that God is worried about proving, God’s value in the fact that God should win among the gods. And Moshe doesn’t really care about that at all. But Moshe cares about is getting out of the country. I think it’s a really good topic. And I think we can look forward maybe next year in Parshat Bo to dealing with that topic. Shabbat Shalom from Dubai. I look forward to being back in New York next week on the same time zone 8pm New York Eastern Standard Time. I hope the weather is nice and Shabbat Shalom to everybody. Shabbat shalom, Geoffrey and regards to everybody.

Geoffrey Stern  34:32

Shabbat Shalom Rabbi, Shabbat Shalom to all of us. And all of us should have a soft heart, an open heart and open mind. I’ll see you all next week.

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Liberation Theology – for Jews

parshat shemot – shemot 1 -3

Join Geoffrey Stern broadcasting live from Jerusalem and recorded on Clubhouse on January 12th 2023. The Exodus from Egypt is not simply an episode in the script of the Jewish People; it is The refrain. The fact that it represents the essence of the Jewish people is captured in every commandment that is זֵכֶר לִיצִיאַת מִצְרָיִם to commemorate the Exodus from Egypt. Modern liberation movements have taken their inspiration from the exodus as a paradigm so we what does the Exodus Liberation paradigm look like for Jews and for Israel?

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Welcome to Madlik.  My name is Geoffrey Stern and at Madlik we light a spark or shed some light on a Jewish Text or Tradition.  We host Madlik Disruptive Torah on clubhouse every Thursday and share it as the Madlik podcast on your favorite platform. This week’s Torah portion is Shemot. The Exodus from Egypt is not simply an episode in the script of the Jewish People; it is The refrain. The fact that it represents the essence of the Jewish people is captured in every commandment that is זֵכֶר לִיצִיאַת מִצְרָיִם to commemorate the Exodus from Egypt. Modern liberation movements have taken their inspiration from the exodus as a paradigm so what does the Exodus Liberation paradigm look like for Jews and for Israel? Liberation Theology – for Jews


Well, welcome to Madlik. Rabbi Adam Mintz is actually traveling today, and I am broadcasting live from Yerushalayim, the holy city of Jerusalem, I’m actually looking out of my hotel window right now, and seeing the hills of Jerusalem. So as I said in the introduction, this is the beginning of the book of Exodus; of Shemot. And Exodus is the refrain of the Jewish people. It’s not simply another episode, you never say zaycher l’akedah, …. You don’t say when you do a commandment in remembrance of creation, in remembrance of the binding of Isaac even in remembrance of the giving of the Torah or the entering into the land. But in terms of zecher l’tziyat Mitzrayim. We all know it from the Haggadah, which obviously, commemorates the Exodus from Egypt, but we have in mechilta d’Rabbi YishmaeliIt says that tefillin is zecher L’tziot mitzrayim to the outstretched arm. We have in Midrash Lech Tov  מלמד שאף הסוכה זכר ליציאת מצרים. That even building and living in the sukkah is in remembrance of leaving the land of Egypt. Couldn’t say it better than Midrash lekach Tov שהרי כל המועדים על שום יציאת מצרים all of our iconic Jewish holidays, and many commandments are for remembrance of the leaving of Egypt, which leads us to ask the question, what is in fact, the message of leaving Egypt. And it also should not surprise us that we are not the only ones to recognize in the leaving of Egypt, something that becomes iconic to the Jewish people, and frankly, something that becomes almost a legacy, a gift to the world. I called the name of today’s episode liberation theology for Jews. The term liberation theology, as we shall learn shortly, was coined by the Catholic and Protestant churches of South America in their struggle to depose the ruling powers and to lead an uprising of the poor and the dispossessed. And clearly, they got their model from leaving Egypt. So, I think we stand on solid ground. When we say, what is this theology of the Exodus? What is this liberation theology? If we look in our parsha, it begins talking about God seeing hearing, feeling the suffering of his people, and even in there we start to see that this is not only a national story, but it is a universal story. In Exodus 2: 23, he says, God heard their moaning and God remembered the covenant. In Exodus 3: 7-10 It says God says, I am mindful of their suffering. He says, I have heard my people in Egypt and I’ve heard their outcry, because of their taskmasters I have come down to rescue them from the Egyptians, and to bring them out of that land to a good and spacious land flowing with milk and honey. Now the cry of the Israelites has reached me, moreover I have seen how the Egyptians oppress them, Come, therefore, I will send you (speaking to Moses), to Pharaoh, and you shall free my people, the Israelites from Egypt. And I think just based on these two passages, we can kind of see that on the one hand, the Exodus certainly has to do with a covenant that God had with a particular people. But there is also this universal “I heard there moaning”, וַיִּשְׁמַ֥ע אֱלֹקִ֖ים אֶת־נַאֲקָתָ֑ם. And I think that is very much the basis of what makes this a universal story and a universal paradigm for liberation and revolution. Michael Walzer is a world-famous political scientist, and he wrote a whole book called Exodus and Revolution, saying how of all of the myths of all of the origin stories of a new nation, it is the Exodus story, whether for the African American, the black slaves, and Martin Luther King’s metaphor of I’ve been to the mountaintop, or, as I’ve mentioned before, the liberation theology of the South American peasants who uprose. The Exodus story, because it contains words as see the oppression, heard, the suffering is so universal. In Exodus 3; 16-18, it says, I will take you out of the misery of Egypt, to the land of the Canaanites and Hittites to a land flowing with milk and honey. So, it is not only seeing and hearing the oppression and the pain, it is also a redemption story. It is a repatriation story. It is a story of God working through history, to help the dispossessed and the alienated. He says, they will listen to you, meaning the people of Israel, and you shall go to the elders of Israel. And you shall say to them, God; the God of the Hebrews, became manifest to us now therefore, let us go a distance of three days into the wilderness, to sacrifice to our God. So really in these three or four different paragraphs that are in our parsha, you get all of the ingredients that would make this such a powerful image, a powerful paradigm, and therefore easily understandable that Exodus and revolution have been so intertwined. So what exactly is this liberation theology? It is, in the words of its creators, and you’ll hear as I read some of them how really they nail to a large degree, what the Exodus means to us Jewish people. So I’m reading one, and Enrique Dussel, Exodus as a Paradigm in Liberation Theology The Exodus was the experience which created the consciousness of the people of Israel. The people formed in the structuring centre which determined its way of organizing time and space. Note that I am not saying simply that the Exodus is part of the contents of the consciousness of the people of Israel. If that were the case, the Exodus would be one item of information among others. More than an item of information, it is its structuring centre, in that it determines the integrating logic, the principle of organisation and interpretation of historical experience. That is why the Exodus does not persist as a secondary experience … It has come to be the paradigm for the interpretation of all space and all time. So truly this understanding where we begin Shemot just as we finish Bereshit by saying this was the formation of a nation. The Hebrew word for the book of Exodus is Shemot, which means names and what that means is we’re seeing the metamorphosis of names and tribes and individuals into a corporate whole, in that, too, is the story of the Exodus that is the paradigm of the Exodus, quoting another, Revd. Mathew N. Musyoki “the exodus is central within the Old Testament…the key to Israel’s understanding of both God and itself. It is repeatedly re-interpreted throughout the Bible,‟ making the hermeneutical possibilities of the exodus unique for liberation theology. Thus, its actual historical happening leaves serves liberationists as a model, done with a reading of the texts on the basis of present reality. Similarly, The Exodus…became the founding event not only for the course of Israelite history, but also, through its kerygmatic appropriation, for other oppressed communities. Hence, its foundational character is continually being reinforced through so many re-readings, a sure sign of its richness as a source. Hence this source is eminent to liberationists as a contact point.  Even when there is no reasonable ground exegetically it seems liberationists continue following this model. For instance, Croatto seems insistence by asserting that, “The creative and varied re-expression of the Exodus theme within the Bible indicates the pre-eminence of the meaning of the Exodus over the event, and this in return becomes a norm of interpretation for us.‟ Thus, Exodus can be imported to a given context, e.g. the poor, the sick and the oppressed.” So again, what we see is the fact that the exodus is referenced so many times, not only within our liturgy, but much more importantly, within our Bible itself, almost leads it to beg for interpretation, beg for reimagining. And that is what these theologians said, we are going to encounter some thinkers who felt that they maybe took too much of a license in exporting the Exodus paradigm to their own moments of repression, and revolt. But I think you can at this point, agree with these theologians, that the fact that the exodus was used and referenced so much throughout our Bible, it almost gives you that permission to do so. And in fact, one of the questions that we are going to explore today is, with all that saturation of messaging, what actually does the Exodus then become for the Jewish people and for the people of Israel. But let’s continue a little more in the history of liberation theology, as it surfaced, in the 20th century, in South America, it was involved with, with the Castro revolution, Castro compares himself to a Moses. In fact, some liberation theologians like Segundo Galilea actually prefer Moses as a model of the political leader over Jesus. So Moses is then taken to be this leader, who goes down and faces truth to power. And of course, this brings back that image of Martin Luther King Jr. and his speech of I’ve been to the mountaintop. And it’s important that it’s not one of pride in terms of his comparison to Moses or arrogance, he is comparing himself to that aspect of Moses, who doesn’t make it, who suffers with his people who is beaten up and scarred by the liberation. So really, you can understand that we, as readers of the Hebrew Bible can benefit from how other peoples have read it as well. So here’s where the story gets a little bit interesting. After the revolutions in South America, and they had a very strong Marxist bend to them, what happened was, in many cases, the people that took over were the new Pharaohs of the day. And when, in 1985, the Poles began their own exercise in self-determination. And as a very strongly Catholic country, they read their Old Testament as well. And they had a real problem because while they believed in the message and the relevance of the Exodus paradigm and story to theirs, they couldn’t help but note that they were trying to exercise themselves from the same Marxist forces that coined the term liberation theology. So they stopped using the word liberation, a fascinating insight into the history of ideas where the liberation which you could make a case was something that the theologians kind of took a little bit of liberty with, and projected on to the whole story of the Exodus, which was really, at its core, a story of redemption, if you want to look into a theological perspective, or one of being able to leave oppression, they, they took it to mean and overthrow and to re-build a society. So, the Poles came back and they started calling it redemption. And the church has followed suit, it made an interesting turn, it says this, and this is coming from the papal instructions in 1984, that started to deal with a Polish Pope, with the Pole’s revolution, and it says that is why the liberation of the Exodus cannot be reduced to a liberation, which is principally or exclusively political in nature, moreover it is significant that the term freedom is often replaced in Scripture, by the very closely related term redemption. So, in an interesting turn, in order to explain that, the, the secular antagonistically, atheistic Marxist regime that had promised happiness to everyone, and forced everyone to be “happy”. Now, their liberation became a someone else’s oppression. Now, the liberation theology started to take a little bit of a modification, in that it became a liberation to a redemption to and the focus was on the sense of maybe a spiritual redemption, maybe something more related to religious. And before we get into what the Jewish commentators, will say, we cannot if we are talking about liberation theology, not mentioned the struggle and successful fight for Soviet Jewry, where the banner was let my people go. So here it was the Jews themselves that stood up to the USSR to Mother Russia. And clearly, using the story of the Exodus, as a story of liberation, turned to Brezhnev and the Soviet regime, and said, Let my people go. So, it is a powerful political paradigm, that we as Jews, as readers of the Hebrew Bible, can only be proud of in terms of the solace and in terms of the motivation, and that light at the end of the tunnel that it has given and it will continue to give to people who are subjugated, to people who are alienated to people who are disenfranchised. But when you go to the Jewish commentaries, and I will start with, we’ve come across John D. Levinson, before profound thinker, an academician at Yale. And he has a monograph on Exodus and liberation. And he goes through all the texts, and while he certainly gives much, much respect, and enthusiasm for the way that our Exodus story has been used, he also tries to bring it back to its source. And of course, the key theme of Exodus is this sense of from slavery to freedom. The story of the Exodus, at the end of the day, is the story of emancipation of slaves. And what Levinson argues is that the truth be told that there are provisions within the Bible after Exodus after Sinai that provide for having slaves. He brings and I certainly suggest that you take a look at the Sefaria notes on today’s podcast. Because in his article, he shows how the exodus was used by both the abolitionists and by the slave-owners. To prove their case, the abolitionists would say that clearly the Bible is trying to limit slavery, you have to free your slaves after a certain amount of time, during the sabbatical year, you can’t work your slave. When you release your slave, you have to make sure that your slave has payment for the work that they have done. If a slave works hard, he can buy off his freedom. And so those that bring these arguments will say that it condones the institution of slavery as it was. But it is showing a direction in terms of where it should be, and severely limiting it. And of course, the slave-owners would say, yes, but don’t sleight-of-hand, pass over the fact that it condones slavery, it has jurisprudence for slavery the same way it has jurisprudence for marriage. And for other institutions, that means it recognizes it. So Levinson wishes to argue if you want to be really honest to the texts, you can say that the story is simply about freeing the slaves. And the direction that he goes is based on the key line that starts to appear in our parsha and gets developed more and more as the story progresses. And that is, in Exodus 3: 16 How God says, Now therefore, let us go a distance of three days into the wilderness to sacrifice to our God. And you can say that their being diplomatic or strategic. They’re saying to Pharaoh, that they simply want to go into the desert to worship their god, they don’t want their freedom. Later, it says, In Exodus 5: 1, Let my people go that they may celebrate a festival for me in the wilderness. Maybe this is why we have so many references to the Haggim; the festivals and Yetziat Mitzraim. And then it gets to the punch line in Exodus 9: 1 and there it says, And God said to Moses, go to Pharaoh and say to him, Thus said God, the God of the Hebrews, Let my people go to worship me. שַׁלַּ֥ח אֶת־עַמִּ֖י וְיַֽעַבְדֻֽנִי  And, of course, the important thing of the word וְיַֽעַבְדֻֽנִי. And worship me is that EVeD, slave, and worship (serve), or in this case, do the holy service is the same word. And so John Levinson makes the argument that if you really want to be true to the text, you have to admit that we’re not talking about pure freedom, we are talking about taking away Pharaoh, an evil taskmaster, an evil slave owner, and replacing him with the ultimate Master, which is God. But it is not a freedom if you want to be true to the texts. You who could make the case. And I think that this is a case that if you want to make a larger message out of this, you can say, the term :This idea of liberation through a change of masters shows how misleading it is to summarize the exodus through the popular slogan, “Let My people go.” The full form of the challenge is actually sallab ‘et-‘ammi w[ya’abd3ni, “Let My people go that they may serve Me.”  The term “liberty,” therefore, can indeed describe the result of redemption of the sort typified by the exodus, but only if some crucial semantic distinctions are maintained.’ One of the several meanings of “liberty” in Western thought is government by law rather than by a tyrant. If this is what we identify as the result of the exodus for Israel, then “liberty” and the process that produces it, “liberation,” are appropriate terms for the biblical process.” So as you can see, Levinson severely limits the extent of what this liberation is, but in doing so, he does make a profound case that I think because he is an academic scholar that you can really say is serious. And that is that whether the Jews were freed, or the Israelites were freed from Pharaoh, an evil, slave master, to serve God, the ultimate master, but ultimately, how do they serve that God, they serve that God by keeping His law. And at the end of the day, it is the laws, the book of laws of the Hebrew Bible. That is what ultimately provides the liberation in the Jewish mind. And I think he brings one kind of interesting example. And that example is, again, from law. If you remember, I mentioned a little bit earlier, that one of the things that he promised the Jewish people is that when you leave, Exodus 3: 21 says, and I will dispose the Egyptians favorably toward this people, so that when you go, you will not go away empty handed. Each woman shall borrow from her neighbor, and the lodger in her house objects of silver and gold, and clothing, and you shall put these on your sons and daughters, thus stripping the Egyptians. This occurs at least five times in the biblical narrative. And one wonders, what is the meaning of this? They were getting their freedom? Why is it so important that they were given the wealth of Egypt and what Levinson does, following a great theologian named David Daube, is saying here they are following the law of freeing a slave, when one frees a slave, as I said a little bit before one is required to provision that slave. So here, too, this fits very neatly into Levinson’s concept, that redemption and liberation in the Jewish sense of the Hebrew Bible is much more, I would say, pedestrian, much more limited, but nonetheless profound, and that is it is the law. And to give an example of that, we are saying to Pharaoh, you had to release these slaves, you had to follow the laws of the Hebrew Bible, and you did not. And therefore God is releasing them, taking them to worship Him וְיַֽעַבְדֻֽנִי, and he is provisioning them. This serves as an amazing segue into the thinker that I want to finish with and leave you with. And that is a thinker whose liberation theology if you will, is, as as fascinating today as it’s ever been. The name of the thinker was Yeshayahu Leibowitz, you might have heard of his sister Nechama Leibowitz, who are taught Old, Old Testament studies at the Hebrew University. But Yeshayahu Leibowitz was known as being a firebrand; a thinker, who shocked a who loved to shock. And he was a firebrand, a maverick who marched to his own drumbeat.  And he was particularly struck by the Six Day War. And he was particularly struck by the fact that the in a sense, the people of Israel were making of the victory of the Six Day War into something that was miraculous, and something that was eschatological, was messianic, and he felt that by doing that we’re actually engaging in idol worship. And he issued a bunch of articles. The first one was published (prior to Passover 1971) in Jeshurun, which is a synagogue in Jerusalem, which had the intelligentsia of the religious Zionist movement there. And he wrote a number of articles. One of them was actually called the Dis-Kotel. He said, When we have a Kotel, we will make it into a Diss-Kotel. He was very much against this celebration and worship of place. He thought that was very un-Jewish. And what he wrote about was that in fact, the Passover was an incomplete redemption first and foremost. And along with Levinson, he says that the key to the Redemption was to keep the law (to accept the Ol Malchut Shamayim… the yoke of God’s kingship) everything in Yeshayahu Leibowitz’s philosophy of Judaism was that we are a legal community, and that we achieve perfection and we worship God by keeping his laws, the dalet amot of Halacha, the four cubits of the Law. And that is ultimately along with Levinson What Let my people go to serve Thee is all about. And he said that all of those commentators and thinkers, whether they are Rav Kook, or whoever, who were trying to imbibe both the war and the victory of the Six Day the occupation of our territories to make that into this grand scheme of redemption. We’re not reading history and a God into our history. But we’re actually repudiating the whole message of the Exodus. And he too brings an example from the law. His holiday was Hanukkah, because on Hanukkah, we, the Jewish people stood up for their keeping of the Law. And he says, and this is built out in the law that says on Passover, you can only read half of the Hallel prayer, whereas on Hanukkah, you read the full Hallel. So again, it’s a trivial example. But both him and Levinson are looking at Jewish thinkers who see the book of the Torah as a book of rules, and use those rules to limit these theological flourishes. And these messianic tendencies, which they see more as idolatry than the true religion that was a given to us by Moses, and experienced with the Exodus. So it’s a fascinating read on what the message of the exodus is. And I think one that deserves further study.  I’ve listened to some podcasts written recently with the election of the new government in Israel. And one of the most interesting thinkers to listen to is someone named Yossi Klein Halevi, who is at the Shalem Center, and he’s a very open-minded liberal thinker, but he used to be a student of Maer Kahana. And he says, If you want to understand this new government, you should read a book called 40 Years by Maer Kahana. And I encourage all of you to do it. And you’ll see literally that he is saying everything that this new government is saying and what I would like to suggest today is, if you would like to see the flip side of what alternative philosophy; a Jewish philosophy would be, to that which is being espoused by what Yeshayahu Leibowitz would be calling these religious Zionists who have lost their way. is Yeshayahu Leibowitz. And maybe we will have an opportunity to explore more of his writings and to learn from him at least, who really wrote them at the time of the Six Day War, but literally was able to prophesize a time when land, occupation and Messianism  were more important. So with that, I wish you all a Shabbat Shalom. And we’ll see you all next week with Rabbi Adam Mintz back. Thank you so much.

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Imaginary Prayer

parshat vayechi, genesis 48

Join Geoffrey Stern and Rabbi Adam Mintz recorded on Clubhouse on January 5th 2023. Jacob, upon his reunion with Joseph exclaims: לֹ֣א פִלָּ֑לְתִּי “I had never imagined” that I would see my son again. The word he uses for imagining is the same word we use for praying, so we imagine what prayer would be as a form of imagining.

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Welcome to Madlik.  My name is Geoffrey Stern and at Madlik we light a spark or shed some light on a Jewish Text or Tradition.  Along with Rabbi Adam Mintz, we host Madlik Disruptive Torah on clubhouse every Thursday and share it as the Madlik podcast on your favorite platform. This week’s Torah portion is vayechi. Jacob, upon his reunion with Joseph exclaims: לֹ֣א פִלָּ֑לְתִּי “I had never imagined”.  He had never imagined that he would see his son again. The word he uses for imagining פִלָּ֑לְתִּי is the same word we use for praying להתפלל, and for prayer תְפִלָה  so join us as we imagine what prayer would be as a form of imagining. Imaginary Prayer


Well, welcome. Rabbi Mintz, you and I are both are headed to the Middle East. You’re going to be in Dubai next week, and I will please God be in Israel. So this is a bon voyage podcast. But welcome

Adam Mintz  01:15

And the end of the book of Genesis. So it’s perfect.

Geoffrey Stern  01:18

It is perfect. So, I think about two podcasts ago, I did it on body language. I really talked about prayer. And what if any aspect of physical movement was a part, could be a part of Jewish prayer. And today, as you could tell from the intro, we’re also going to be talking about prayer imagination in prayer. And I’m starting to think, you know, you question yourself, why you pick a topic. And I think, ultimately, and this is a confession at the beginning of the podcast, that I must feel when I go to my synagogue, that I am not getting the type of nurturing the type of stimulation that I want. I find that prayer in the typical American synagogue is grossly wanting. And I think that is the only way I can explain why when I read a parsha, I focus on something that has to do with prayer. So that’s my that’s my confession to you. Do you ever feel that your prayer needs recharge or reboot? You pray a lot more than me!

Adam Mintz  02:33

That’s right. Yes. I think that prayer needs a recharge or reboot, rethinking re reimagining I think that’s a great term you used.: imagination…  we need to think about it a little bit.

Geoffrey Stern  02:45

Well, great. So, in Genesis 48: 11, as I said, it says, and Israel and of course, we know that is Jacob, who had a name change after wrestling with an angel. And Israel said to Joseph, I never thought to see you again. And here God has let me see your children as well. So he’s looking at his son Joseph, who was a sold as a slave, but his kids told him that he had been torn to pieces and died. And here he is seeing that son, with grandchildren to boot. And he goes, and this is the translation. לֹ֣א פִלָּ֑לְתִּי I never thought another explanation. Another translation that you see is I never expected. So, we have thinking and expectation. But as I said in the introduction, פִלָּ֑לְתִּי comes from the same root as להתפלל to pray, and that we have come across previous times in Genesis in Genesis 20. It says, therefore restore the man’s life since he is a prophet, he will intercede for you, after Abraham pimps off Sara as his sister, and then the Pharaoh gets leprosy. And he says, why did you do this to me? Abraham says, I will pray for you I will intercede is the translation. In Genesis 20: 17. It says Abraham then prayed to God, and God healed. Avimelech, interesting that both of these referred references are to a prayer of healing. But nonetheless, להתפלל is typically taken as something that means to pray. And if you look at your typical concordance in the Sefira notes that go along with this podcast and are posted on this clubhouse. It talks about it’s a primitive word that means to pray, to entreat judgment, prayer, supplication and finally only one time, it means thought. So in our parsha, it is seemingly a very unique angle, a very unique way of taking this word to Palal. What do you think rabbi? Is it thought? Is it expected? Or is it something else?

Adam Mintz  05:21

I mean, both of those are good. And of course, the question is how it relates to prayer, להתפלל. And the amazing thing about the word להתפלל. להתפלל in grammar is called the reflexive, meaning it reflects back on you. So, prayer really means to think about yourself, or to imagine yourself, right. And I think that’s really interesting. By the way, the same word Pelilut is used later in the Torah, at the end of the book of Devarim it means to judge. To think into judges the same thing. But it’s an interesting idea that prayer might be that we judge ourselves.

Geoffrey Stern  06:05

So I think that there’s almost universal consensus that in  להתפלל, whatever Palel means the fact that it’s reflexive is fascinating. And so, and that really relates to what does it mean? Because whatever it means, you’re almost doubling over you’re doing upon yourself. So, I’m going to quote a few classical commentaries as we explore what it does mean, or what it could mean. So, the Hizkuni. He’s obviously troubled by the fact that if this means something different than elsewhere, how does it relate to prayer? So he says, It means he had not even prayed to see Joseph again. And at least a few commentaries say there is this concept in halacha. In Jewish law, that you can’t make a bracha l’vatala. You can’t make a prayer, especially one that uses God’s name. If you don’t have a justification to say it. In other podcasts, we’ve talked about just the idea of praying, you need permission, you almost need God to tell you, I give you permission to pray. But you can’t make a prayer over fruit if you’re not going to bite into and eat the fruit. According to the Hizkuni, because he’s struggling to connect it to prayer, is that this was so far from my mind from reality, that I didn’t even permit myself to pray, because I didn’t feel that there was any positive outcome that could happen. And that’s how he kind of relates it to this other concept of it hadn’t entered my thought, or it hadn’t entered my imagination. But I think he’s struggling with it. Do you agree?

Adam Mintz  08:01

I agree. I mean, it’s not clear exactly what it means. It’s a font. I mean, what the reason that you picked it out, it’s a funny use of the word in the context in this week’s parsha. It’s not the word you would expect. And that’s why it’s something that’s worth talking about.

Geoffrey Stern  08:19

Yeah. So I mean, like the Ibn Ezra says, and again, he this is in line with what you were saying. He says, it comes from the same root as פלילים, judges. And he says, So, in a sense, my mind never judged that I would ever see you. So, we have now two commentaries, who are trying somehow to link it to the traditional term of either prayer wouldn’t enter my name to make the prayer or to judge, I would never have judged rationally that this would be the case. And so, again, the Radak very similar to what I said before it says that he was afraid that he was saying that he had not prayed to God concerning being reunited with Joseph in this life, as he had considered it as forbidden, vain prayer. He was afraid of praying in vain. And that’s a fascinating concept as well, this concept of praying in vain. How does that strike you?

Adam Mintz  09:34

That’s a great concept; that praying in vain, because we generally feel that prayer is always good. Praying in vain. The Talmud is a great thing. The Talmud says if a woman who’s pregnant, it doesn’t pay to pray, whether it’s going to be a boy or a girl, because it either is a boy or a girl or not, your prayers are not going to change anything. So, a prayer in vain means a prayer to change something that is already reality.

Geoffrey Stern  10:04

I mean, but if you think in terms of kind of the audacity of prayer, the question of what sort of a prayer is a prayer in vain. And I think it’s pretty obvious when it comes to the example that I gave before, which is when you make a blessing, over doing something, and you don’t do it, but here, you kind of wonder, and I think this might touch on the crux of the issue here. You know, can we not pray for the impossible? Can we not pray for something that is not totally rational? And I think that’s kind of what they’re also struggling with. Where, what is this prayer that Jacob says he didn’t dare to make? I think when we go to Rashi and usually, I start with Rashi, but I think that Rashi is so much on the money here. I left him for last. And of course, all the other commentaries, saw Rashi first, Rashi says I had never dared to cherish the thought that I would again, see his face לֹא מְלָאַנִי לִבִּי לַחֲשֹׁב מַחֲשָׁבָה to think a thought. He says Politi is an expression for thinking. So now we’ve had Politi is for prayer. Politi is for judging. And now with Rashi we’re starting to come for prayer is just to think and I would dare say “imagine”. Because what he’s really saying is that I couldn’t bring myself. I was so…  I had given up I had been Me’ayesh on ever seeing my son, let alone grandchildren that I wouldn’t dare. This is a whole new level.

Adam Mintz  12:03

That’s a whole new level. That is absolutely a whole new level. That he admits that he had given up hope from ever seeing them again, is a very personal statement. Right? I mean, and it’s a statement of thanksgiving to God, like, I can’t imagine this happen and look what just happened.

Geoffrey Stern  12:24

So, before we follow up a little bit on what Rashi has instituted here, that פִלָּ֑לְתִּי is not necessarily judging, which is certainly a form of thinking. And it’s definitely not praying. It’s just It hadn’t entered my thought, or my imagination. What I did is I pulled out all my books on my shelf ….  I guess, I’m kind of a prayer aficionado,  I have Eli Munk’s book on prayer, I have Hayim H. Donin’s book To Pray as a Jew, the first thing that I realized is so much of the books on Jewish prayer have to do with less with prayer, and more on the siddur, less with prayer, and more on prayers. And each of them. And I’ve quoted a Donin in my notes. I’ve also quoted some other sources. They all seem to be focused on our prayers on the Siddur, and particular prayers. And you know, a few weeks ago, we did Nishmat Kol Chai, there are some amazing prayers. But the actual concept of praying, there’s typically one paragraph that addresses the issue that we’re discussing. And almost universally, it focuses on the fact that להתפלל is reflexive. And most of them say it means to judge oneself: introspection. If you followed most of these books, you would assume that Jewish prayer is all about introspection. That’s certainly a part of it. And of course, we have to say that in the rabbinic tradition, Tefilah is generic prayer, but it’s more specifically the silent prayer the Amidah, the Shewmona Esrai, the 18th benedictions. So am I right there.

Adam Mintz  14:26

You are definitely right there.

Geoffrey Stern  14:28

And so, what is how does that strike you? That prayer is about introspection. Is that an aspect of it or do you think that’s the whole story?

Adam Mintz  14:35

When you jump to the idea that it’s the eighteen benedictions;  what we call an Hebrew The Amidah. I think that’s a term they use in English too. You have to understand something. Prayer didn’t start off that way. Prayer started off that everybody prayed their own prayer. It was only because Maimonides says it was only because people lost the ability to articulate their feelings in words that the rabbi’s instituted a standard prayer. So when you talk about what prayer is, it’s hard to say that prayer is, you know, the 18 benedictions. Because actually, that’s too rigid. Prayer is much beyond that. It’s just that when people stopped being able to express themselves, they started expressing it through the 18 benedictions. I think it’s much better to say that prayer is the way that we kind of, say introspection that we kind of imagine ourselves standing before God, and what does that mean about us? And what does that mean about our relationship with God?

Geoffrey Stern  15:51

So I totally agree, I did a Google search for prayer, Jewish prayer, and imagining, and I came up with one hit. It was how to pray well by Rabbi David Rosenfeld, and he literally quotes our passuk. And he says, the word Jacob uses for imagine, is “filalti” of the same root as the word hitpallel. Prayer is thus not only asking God for something, it is imagining, becoming, whom I’d like to become. So, he kind of combines the concept of imagining with this reflexology that we’ve been talking about. So, it’s imagining about myself. Prayer is envisioning myself becoming a greater person, and asking God for the divine assistance to help me get there. Now, I totally agree. On the one hand, I have to say that I was surprised how few people that talked about להתפלל, quoted our verse and understood our verse was saying something slightly differently. I love what he says, the only criticism that I would have is if you put it back into context. This was not a prayer about Jacob or Israel, envisioning himself becoming a greater person. This was a Jacob an Israel, saying, I never imagined, you know, my daughter married a guy whose grandmother was a Holocaust survivor. And the first time I met her, she says, I’ve taken every one of my grandchildren to Auschwitz. And I said, if you ever go, please take me. And she was in her 90s. And she says, I’m going, my kids weren’t even married then. We went with her. She went on a trip of survivors from a single town in Poland, I never knew this. Every town has a group of people all around the world survivors, and now more and more children of survivors who stick together. So not only was my wife and I, the only people who were not related to a survivor, we were the only people not related to this town. And she goes into Auschwitz and her grandchild, got his guitar inside. They said no musical instruments, he said, this is going to be an exception. And he played Ani Ma’amin. And then she spoke, and she says, the only thing that kept me alive, was that I one day, and I have no justification for why….  I imagined that there might be “you” that there might be children and grandchildren. And this is exactly what Joseph… what Israel is doing right now.

Adam Mintz  18:48

That’s an amazing story.

Geoffrey Stern  18:50

It came to my mind when I read it.

Adam Mintz  18:54

Oh my God, that’s exactly the story! Jacob, looking at his son and his grandchildren. And I never imagined…  If she knew how to say a devar Torah, she would have said this Dvar Torah. She’s saying exactly what Jacob said,

Geoffrey Stern  19:10

Trust me, she knew. But in any case, that doesn’t come out here. I would like to pursue a little bit further, this concept of imagining, but not in imagination that is necessarily introspective, not an imagination that says, oh, if I could become a better person, because that wasn’t the imagination she was talking about in Auschwitz. It was an imagination of just ….. call it a leap of faith, call it believing in something that’s not rational that has no basis but gives you hope. That’s the type of imagination I think that Jacob and Israel was talking about. And that’s the type of imagination I’d like to pursue in terms of prayer. Are you with me?

Adam Mintz  19:15

I’m with you. Let’s go

Geoffrey Stern  20:00

So I want to start with, the Maharal…. I don’t think I’ve ever quoted the Maharalo on the Madlik podcast, but the Maharal reads Isaiah, and Isaiah 56 says, I will bring them to my sacred mount, and let them rejoice in my house of prayer. And the Hebrew for House of Prayer is בְּבֵ֣ית תְּפִלָּתִ֔י. So now we have an additional problem. Now we have not only do we not totally understand what prayer is, but we’ve got to understand what God’s prayer is. Because it says, בְּבֵ֣ית תְּפִלָּתִ֔י as though it was…..  if I was Orthodox, I would say kivi’yachol (as if to say) “God’s prayer”. And so, then you have classic rabbinic tests asking, whence do we know that the Holy One praised be, he prays.  מנין שהקב״ה מתפלל  And one lesson that the Ayn Yaakov brings from here we learn that amazing Hasidic lesson that prayers from the mouth of Brabes, prayers from the pure, those are as valuable as any other prayers, because ultimately, they are the prayers of God. And that is one of the lessons that is quoted in the in the Eyn Yaakov which brings us down Berachot,  And there were others that asked the same question of how is it that God can pray, and this is when we get to the Maharal, in his book called The Be’er HaGolah, and it’s where he is defending and exploring what Judaism is. And he says that the key is that is prayer. שהוא לשון מחשבה. Prayer is a language of thought. So what unites the previous interpretations of prayer is to judge prayer is to hitpalel is to pray. He says, it all comes from a לשון מחשבה and he says that God is as much a thinker as we are, you could even say, and he adds one additional thing, he says that it is ומה שאמרו לשון זה ‘שהקב”ה מתפלל’, ולא אמרו ‘שהקב”ה חפץ’, או ‘מבקש’, דבר זה יתבאר בסמוך למה אמרו בזה הלשון דוקאe, it is audible Machshava if you will. It’s important, we’re finishing the book of Genesis today, we have to remember how the world was created. It was created by God thinking and God saying, so it’s almost creating reality. So in a sense, the interpretation of Palel to be imaginative comes back to what Herzl said .. If you imagine it…. it is no dream. it, and we’re hoping that God will pray and enunciate in a similar fashion. There’s this kind of reflexivity, which I think is captured in the word lehitpalel. But you know, it really started me thinking about what I find it most inspiring in synagogue when I think back to the times that I have prayed the best. It’s when I’ve heard a rabbi give a drasha that inspires me. And it’s typically right in front of Mussaf. And you hear this, this, drasha, this sermon, and it inspires the way you think. And then you move it into prayer. It reminds me of before a yoga class or a meditation with a leader will give you an intention….  will kind of stroke your imagination. Today, it’s cold out let’s think of this. Today this has happened in the world think of this. And it reminded me of the Mishnah in Berachot that says that in the earlier times the rabbi’s would spend an hour before they actually prayed. So they would focus their hearts toward their father in heaven. And it’s always translated as kavanah, which is intentionality. But I’m starting to think in terms of our imagination. It’s an intention that when we pray, we need to be thinking, imagining something. That’s how I took it this week. And what do you think? Do you think it matters what we imagine, or it’s the experience of allowing ourselves to imagine whatever we imagine? What dawned on me is that the struggle that we choose have that is represented in all the books that I described, that talk about the siddur, the set prayers, is that the prayers stay the same. But their intentions can be totally different. And I imagined these rabbis an hour before prayers, fixing their intentions for that day. And I think based on one’s intentions, the same prayer can be 360 degrees different. That’s what kind of It struck me as?

Adam Mintz 

Yeah, that’s a really sophisticated point, that prayer means something different, depending on where you are. That’s why the institution of the Amidah, actually makes prayer less than it really is. Right?

Geoffrey Stern

Yes, and no, You know, it’s kind of like a Rorschach test. What do you see in it today? What does that tell me about you, but I really felt that this hour before a prayer establishing one’s intention was a game changer. And it even reflects upon a little bit of the body language at the end of that Mishnah in Berachot. It says, You have to focus your hearts towards the Father in heaven. And if the king greets him, he should not respond to him. And even if a snake is wrapped on his heel, he should not interrupt. There’s almost that you move….you take those three steps forward, and you’re in a different space, your mind is in a different space.

Adam Mintz 

So it’s so funny. You’re talking about the three steps forward. In the introduction to the ArtScroll siddur, Rabbi Saul Berman, you talked about Rabbi Riskin and Rabbi Saul Berman, who was the successor of Rabbi Riskin in Lincoln Square Synagogue. He wrote the introduction to the ArtScroll siddur. And he says that the most important part of the Amidah is the three steps forward, you’re supposed to take three steps into your own world. It’s a different world. That’s really a good a great idea.

Geoffrey Stern

And that’s totally amazing. So here’s what I did. I googled “imagination in prayer”. And I came up with Ignatius of Loyola who was the founder of the Jesuits. And there is a whole practice based on him in the source notes, but I am going to read you seven examples and seven ways he believes that you can use imagination in prayer. So he says, imagine the sights and sounds of a biblical story, either as an observant or as a participant in the scene. So the first is, again, exactly kind of what I was discussing before when you hear a great sermon, and he’s talking about feeding the hungry, that colors the way you pray. So think of a biblical story. He says to take inspiration from an object that sparks your imagination, focus on something, have a conversation with God is number three that kind of reminded me of the Bresovers, but definitely reminded me of this taking three steps forward as a sign of kind of meeting with God. Here’s a cool one….  4 imagine another person’s point of view. Ignatius suggests that we always try to put a good interpretation on another person’s actions. Can you imagine trying to step into somebody else’s mind as the reflexivity of the hitpalel? Then he talks about giving thanks. Bring to mind a series of pictures of people, relationships, communities, pets, or others, for whom you are grateful. He really focused on just this sense of what Jacob, Israel said he could not do. I couldn’t imagine it. And he’s saying, When you pray, try to just imagine somebody, and it will change your praise for the day. The he goes. Remember the Tzadikin…., he says saints. But remember that Tzadik… think of great people. The last, he says, let go of old images of God allow new ones to emerge. I mean, you know, you talk about trying to expand our horizons with prayer. This absolutely just blew me away that he was a religious thinker, that focused on combining imagination, with prayer, and what happens when you do that.

Adam Mintz 

That’s fantastic. That’s a great way to end the whole thing. It’s great that we started with Jacob, Jacob says, you know, he uses the word, the same word for prayer to mean imagine or think or contemplate or judge or whatever it is. And what we did is we showed how that same idea that same use of the word has kind of worked through the ages. And that the prayer that we have today, and like you said, the you know, the sermon or the drasha that we have today before Mussaf you know that that allows us to reflect a little bit better is really the same experience that Jacob had which is really beautiful. So you know, when we finish Vayetzei, we finished a book appreciate we worked really hard on it all the way since Bereshit. We say Hazak Hazak veHithazek. We should be strong, we should be strong, and we should strengthen one another. And we look forward to moving ahead. The book of Shemot it’s a whole different book Geoffrey, no more family now it’s all about the nation; nation-building. Next, thursday, I will be in transit. But Geoffrey has some treats and surprises for everybody. So enjoy. I look forward to catching up when I land. Shabbat Shalom, and enjoy the last parsha of the book of Bereshit.

Geoffrey Stern  32:28

Shabbat Shalom Rabbi and I just want to finish because in the pregame I said I was going to mention Harry Austryn Wolfson.

Adam Mintz 

Yeah, let’s hear

Geoffrey Stern 

I was reading an essay that he wrote called Escaping Judaism. And in it, he says many amazing things you can look in this source sheet, but he talks about our prayers. And he is not a religious Jew. He is a graduate of Slaboka. He is the most knowledgeable Jew in the ideas and in the history of ideas of Judaism. And he criticizes Reform Jews of his time for changing the prayer book. And he says, Do you not think that when Maimonides read about Mechay’yeh Hametim, about bringing the dead back to life….And he had a more sophisticated view of it, that he did not find it offensive. But and here’s where he talks about imagination. He says if you just change the word, where is the imagination? He calls them cowards. He says pray from a prayer book that has been written and stood the test of 2000 years and challenge your imagination to find new meaning in it. And that just blew me away.

Adam Mintz 

That is beautiful.

Geoffrey Stern 

So with that… Genesis if anything is imagination. We finish the book Rabbi, it’s been an absolute pleasure to do it with you. I wish you a nesiah Tova.

Adam Mintz 

You too and we look forward to doing it from the other side of the world a week from now. Shabbat Shaom.

Geoffrey Stern 

Thank you. And next time we speak, next Thursday, I hope to be in the Holy Land of Israel. And either I will do it alone or I will find somebody in Israel who wants to do it with me. But in the meantime, enjoy the last Parsha, the last portion of Bereshit. Shabbat Shalom to you all.

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Joseph and the Spirit of Capitalism

parshat vayeshev – genesis 39

Join Geoffrey Stern and Rabbi Adam Mintz recorded on December 15th 2022 on Clubhouse at. Joseph is the first and only biblical personality characterized as a success. With a nod to Max Weber who wrote the iconic socioreligious study; The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, we take this opportunity to explore the Biblical and latter Rabbinic definition of financial and other success.

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Welcome to Madlik.  My name is Geoffrey Stern and at Madlik we light a spark or shed some light on a Jewish Text or Tradition.  Along with Rabbi Adam Mintz, we host Madlik Disruptive Torah on clubhouse every Thursday at 8:00pm Eastern and share it as the Madlik podcast on your favorite platform. This week’s Torah portion is Vayeshev. Joseph is the first and only biblical personality characterized as a success. With a nod to Max Weber who was one of the first sociologists who looked at religion’s effect on economic behavior, we take this opportunity to explore the Biblical and latter Rabbinic definition of financial and other success. So join us for Joseph and the Spirit of capitalism.


Well, welcome back to Madlik. And we are in an amazing parsha. We were talking about before the number of stories we’re in a real transition; Joseph comes on to the stage. He’s put in a pit he’s parlayed into a slave goes to Egypt. And as they say, the rest is history. It’s a real transition. You don’t know if he’s a model of the Jewish people going down into Egypt or the actual actor who brings them down. That is all fascinating. But I am going to focus today on just two verses, as I said, in the intro, that refer to Joseph in a fascinating way. In Genesis 39; 2-3 It says, God was with Joseph and he was a successful man, וַיְהִ֤י ה’ אֶת־יוֹסֵ֔ף וַיְהִ֖י אִ֣ישׁ מַצְלִ֑יחַ, and he stayed in the house of his Egyptian master. And when his master saw that God was with him, and that God lent success to everything, he undertook וַיַּ֣רְא אֲדֹנָ֔יו כִּ֥י ה’ אִתּ֑וֹ וְכֹל֙ אֲשֶׁר־ה֣וּא עֹשֶׂ֔ה ה’ מַצְלִ֥יחַ בְּיָדֽוֹ. So, for the first time, not only is Joseph considered a winner, a successful person, but it’s apparent through his success that God must be with him and moving forward into later stories. If you recall when Joseph is in jail again, the chief jailer did not supervise anything that was in Joseph’s charge. It says in Genesis 39, because God was with him. And whatever he did, God made successful בַּאֲשֶׁ֥ר ה’ אִתּ֑וֹ וַֽאֲשֶׁר־ה֥וּא עֹשֶׂ֖ה ה’ מַצְלִֽיחַ. Now, it’s not that the word Hatzlacha has success hasn’t been used before. But prior, it’s all with Eliezer by the way, the servant of Abraham, it wasn’t he that was successful. It was his deeds, what he was doing. So in Genesis 24, it says, The man, meanwhile stood looking at her silently wonder whether God had made his errand successful or not הַֽהִצְלִ֧יחַ ה’ דַּרְכּ֖וֹ אִם־לֹֽא, a successful path. A successful action is mentioned five times with Eliezer. But here we have the first time it’s mentioned about a person, Rabbi, do you think it’s significant?

Adam Mintz  03:39

Well, first of all, that’s a great little point that you make. That’s not a small point. That about Joseph, it’s always about the person. It’s always about Joseph. Joseph is bigger than life. Joseph is good looking. Joseph is successful, not his actions. It’s always about Joseph. Eliezer, the servant, you know, when you’re a servant, it’s never about you. It’s about what you do. That’s a very, very, very important point. Now, that’s what gets Joseph in trouble. By the way, you know, it’s all about Joseph. So therefore, the wife of Potiphar, keeps his eye on him, and then he gets sent to prison. So being that it’s always about Joseph is not always so good. But your point that you make is a very, very good point.

Geoffrey Stern  04:23

And it’s not that we haven’t had success, even if the word hasn’t been used before. Abraham was considered greatly successful. And it’s not as though that success has not reflected on God as the source of the success. God promised Abraham that he would bless him with riches and children. And sure enough, he did. But the point is, and I think this is critical, is that with Abraham, he was promised success from God. And you know, he goes down to Egypt with his wife. He says she’s my sister. Turns out she wasn’t. The Pharaoh is embarrassed gives him riches, he benefited by being blessed by God. I think what you’re seeing with Joseph is a slight nuanced, but ultimately critical paradigm shift. Because Joseph was successful. People saw the hand of God, I think that’s different.

Adam Mintz  05:23

Yeah, there’s no question that that is different. So, you’re making a double point. One is the difference between Joseph being successful, and Eliezer’s actions being successful, then what’s the outcome of Josephs being successful? That’s a second point.

Geoffrey Stern  05:39

Yes. And so I think also, I started by making the comparison to Max Weber’s, who wrote this amazing book called The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. And he was a sociologist, but he believed that religious outlook could be responsible by how you engage in economics. And what I see here is, when we look at Joseph, you can’t but say that what he was successful at was material, mercurial things. He arrives, he’s hired by Potiphar who happens to be the sar of Shechita, the slaughterhouse king, and he arranges his house, and he makes him successful. We’re not talking about spiritual; we’re not talking about artistic success, we are definitely talking about a slave who has nothing by definition, he doesn’t control his own life. And he then shines by whoever he touches, whether it’s his first master, whether it’s his cellmate, whether ultimately, it’s Pharaoh, and the whole of Egypt, he makes material success. And through that they see, or at least the Bible sees God and believes that others see God’s through that. And I think that is, in fact, a profound statement of a religion, is it not?

Adam Mintz  07:18

I think that is a very good, really good point. Through that, to see God, that’s really what we’re looking for always, through people’s actions, that people should be able to see God. Because the problem is, is how do you see God? Right? You can see God directly. So, you go to see God through human action.

Geoffrey Stern  07:38

But it’s a particular type of action. It’s economics.

Adam Mintz  07:41

Isn’t that interesting, right? I mean, but it has to be through human action. It can’t be just seeing God that doesn’t mean it.

Geoffrey Stern  07:49

Yes. And to play devil’s advocate to drive the point home, that this doesn’t need to be the case, and that it should, in fact, surprise us, or at least put us at the edge of our chair. I could be quoting from the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Essenes, but I’ll quote the more popular, famous source for that theology, which is the New Testament. And in the New Testament, it says in Matthew, Truly I tell you, it is hard for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven. It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God. We know about them that the early Christians were very similar to the Essenes, sell your possessions and give to the poor, they are commanded. They had everything in common. This literally comes out of what we know from the Dead Sea Scrolls, about the Essenes. They sold property and possessions to give to everyone who had need. And finally, that there were no needy persons among them. Their paradigm was ….. you can call it if you have to tag it with a modern term socialism, but their paradigm was that there should be communal ownership, that we should get rid of poverty, and that would not actually see success of God in someone who made it in the economy. Even in the Sermon on the Mount, it says blessed are the poor, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. So, it’s not a knee jerk that this is the case. I do think it right. It requires some further evaluation if in fact, I’m reading something into the text, or in fact, this is saying that at least there’s a thread; a strong thread in the Joseph story, that success means right, success means touched by the hand of God.

Adam Mintz  09:55

Well, it does. I mean, let’s just take a second you quoted the New Testament and you suggested correctly that some of the other groups during the Second Temple believed in poverty. You have to remember that the ruling class in Jerusalem, the Jewish ruling class in Jerusalem, they were called the Sadducees. And they were Kohanim. They were priests, but they were also wealthy. You know, in those days, everybody brought their gifts to the priests, because they thought the priests then would pray for them, and then they would be successful. So, the priests amassed a huge amount of wealth. So, if you were a group that was battling with the priests….  I’m talking, battling in terms of socially battling with the priest, you tended to reject well, because that’s what these people stood for, or at least that’s the way they were seen. So, the Essenes or the Dead Sea sect, moved out of Jerusalem, they lived in the Judean mountains. And literally, they lived in poverty, to show that wealth was not the answer. The early Christians, the Sermon on the Mount, the early Christians, they also where big believers in the fact that money was bad, right? Money was problematic, because they were fighting against the establishment. So that was interesting. Now, what’s really interesting is that after the destruction of the temple in 70, CE, the Sadducees, and the priests lost because there’s no temple, the priests have no significance. So even within kind of standard Judaism, traditional Judaism, the Pharisees, who were the rabbis who were not the wealthy class, the regular people, they also were victorious. So therefore, the idea of not being rich of fighting the rich was something that was very much an end of the Second Temple period. That was when that was familiar.

Geoffrey Stern  11:59

There’s a philosophy behind it. You know, I mentioned a second ago, that one of the aims of the New Testament and we might say by that the aim of the communal societies built in the Dead Sea, was to eradicate poverty. And we have in the Torah itself, when it talks about the rules of lending on interest when it talks about the issue of supporting those who don’t have it, it. It says in a very powerful verse in Deuteronomy 15: 11 there will never cease to be needy ones in your land. And this actually was the source of a confrontation, of a discussion that is captured in the Talmud, in Baba Batra 10a it has this amazing dialogue between Rabbi Akiva and Turnus Rufus of famous Roman. And he asked him the following question. And he says, if God loves the poor, for what reason? Does he not support them? And Akiva said to him, so that through them we will be saved from the judgment of Gehena, in truly Jewish facts, fashion, tikkun olam fashion, Akiva says what God gave us the poor so that we could get the mitzvah of taking care of the poor. But Rufus is not finished yet. He says, No, let me tell you a parable; almost in like New Testament style. He says, let’s say that the King put away someone who he was angry at, he made him a slave, and he put them in prison. And he ordered that he should not be fed or given drink. And one person went ahead and fed him and gave him to drink. If the king heard about this, would he not be angry with that person? In other words, what he’s asking is, and this will pick up in Weber and the Protestants, where if you are poor, ….. the flip side of being blessed when you are rich, is that you must have done something wrong and you must be cursed if you are poor, and therefore you are travelling with God’s order, if you engage in that wonderful Jewish biblical dynamic of Tzedaka, of interest-free loans. That is literally the question that he’s posing to Akiva. If God wanted people to have money, he would have given it to them. You are playing God you are playing in this field. And that’s the question that he asks. And of course, Akiva gives him a wonderful answer, and says, first of all, the Jewish was people are not slaves were children. And if it was a child who the king had put in prison……  I won’t get into the answer you can figure it out. But what I loved is that the Talmud captures this schism, this dialogue, this dialectic between two totally opposite approaches to the power of the economy, to raise up those who don’t have the power of the economy, to favor those who have it. It really is fascinating, isn’t it?

Adam Mintz  15:36

Absolutely fascinating. The idea of power, the idea of being connected to people with power, see, there are actually two things, you know, they always say it’s good to be, it’s good to have wealth, or it’s good to have power. And if you can’t have power, you should be connected to someone who has power or wealth. Right? So that’s really what that story’s about, you know, do you have the power yourself or you’re connected to somebody with power? So that’s interesting when you get back to the Joseph story, is that Joseph himself is all of these things. But actually, he’s not any of these things. Because he’s a nobody, he’s a slave. The reason he’s successful is because he somehow, by chance, gets purchased by Potiphar, then he goes to jail, and he’s a nobody, but somehow the Sar Ha mashkin remembers him. And then he goes in front of Pharaoh, that’s crazy. This slave, you know, this slave goes in front of Pharaoh, how can I possibly be I think it comes viceroy over Egypt. So sometimes it’s not who you are, but how you’re connected to that person.

Geoffrey Stern  16:41

 Well, I mean, you could easily make the case that he is the personification of the entrepreneur who pulls himself up from his own bootstraps. Again, I’m using economic terms. But here’s somebody who is not part of the right caste. He’s not part of the white guild, he literally is, is designed to be someone who’s pulled from the pit. And he is a prototype, he is a paradigm of being blessed by God. And he is a role model because of it. Like I said, there doesn’t appear again, in the whole Torah, the word Ish Matzliach. A successful man, it’s kind of fascinating.

Adam Mintz  17:29

That is a fascinating point. And the fact that the word matzliach is used elsewhere, but it’s used in a different context that makes your point even stronger.

Geoffrey Stern  17:40

So we’ve talked a little bit about this challenge to economic theory of how do you deal with the have-nots? Are they cursed? Or are they a responsibility of enlightened capitalism to bring up but this other thing about? Are they responsible? Because they’re cursed by God? Or are they our responsibility as part of the organic and the, the invisible hand of the economy. So in Proverbs 13, which, by the way, is Wisdom literature, so it could appear, it’s not Torah in the sense that it really contains the real Jewish covenant and all that. But it says, Poverty and humiliation are for him who spurns discipline, but he who takes reproof to heart gets on honor. So there is this sense of the Benjamin Franklin adage .. early to be, early to rise makes a man healthy and wise. Weber quotes Franklin all the time as the prototype of the Protestant capitalist, and for good reason. It comes right out of the common sense approach Wisdom Literature which we have also. it’s this doubled edge sword. . On the one hand, having wealth, making wealth is blessed… and on the hand it’s the responsibility of the haves to support the have nots… so i think that one of the lessons of today’s episode is that it’s not black and white. It’s a mixed bag. And in that sense, I think that it’s not pure capitalism, but maybe one could call it enlightened or modified capitalism.

Adam Mintz  19:50

Okay, I think that’s fair. I mean, you’re putting nuance into it. And I think that’s only the right thing to do because the Torah doesn’t know about capitalism. The way we talk about capitalism in the 21st century, and I think that’s an important point to make. It means we talk about Ish Matzliach, but the jump from Ish Matliach to Weber is not a direct jump. I think that’s an important point to make.

Geoffrey Stern  20:13

So we’re gonna get a little bit more into Weber in a second, but he had a cohort because Weber’s, really, maybe he was a self-hating Jew. But he gave the Protestants all the credit for launching capitalism, a free market economy, a wage economy, what he referred to in terms of the biblical economy. He called it pariah capitalism. And of course, he was using the old adage of the Jew is not a producer. He’s a middleman. He’s a trader. He doesn’t actually contribute to society. And the fascinating thing about our parsha is that we do have this little side story of Judah, Yehuda and Tamar, and in it, it says something kind of fascinating. It says there Yehuda saw the daughter of a certain Canaanite whose name was Shua and he took her in as his wife and cohabited with her. Rashi says, Canaanite means a merchant. The Jews, the Israelites, who were the landed gentry in the Promised Land, and had displaced the Canaanites and made them into the pariahs refer to them almost in a derogatory way, as merchants, for those of you who have ever heard the wonderful, beautiful song, a Woman of Valor that we sing every Friday night, in it, we say, סָדִ֣ין עָ֭שְׂתָה וַתִּמְכֹּ֑ר וַ֝חֲג֗וֹר נָתְנָ֥ה לַֽכְּנַעֲנִֽי that the woman of value makes cloth and sells it, and offers a girdle. And now I’m using the English translation to the merchant. So literally, the Canaanite was considered by the landed Jews as the merchant, this is a time honored tradition in putting down the trader as not being productive. And that kind of struck me too. Just a fascinating aside, but maybe not so much an aside side, because clearly, Jewish Finance and Jewish working of markets and arbitrage has added a lot of value, but it has always been an Achilles heel.

Adam Mintz  22:50

I mean, I think that’s right. I mean, your kind of pulling all the different things together. But of course, it’s all true. And I think that, you know, that’s an interesting thing to do that and to understand that this idea of being an issue, I mean, let’s say it like this, let’s say it as a Devar Torah, right, being an Ish Matzliach is a marker that has identified Jews throughout the centuries. And it’s identified Jews in different ways. Sometimes, you know, it’s a compliment. You know, they say Koreans want to learn Hebrew, because they want to be like the Jews, because they see the Jews are so successful, they want to be like the Jewish Matzliach. They want to be an Ish Matzliach but at the same time, many anti Semites use the fact that we’re an Ish Matzliach we do something wrong to be an Ish Matzliach. So it’s so interesting that that way of identifying Jews is something that’s followed us throughout the centuries, both for good and for bad.

Geoffrey Stern  23:55

Yeah, absolutely. I just want to quote this Werner Sombart who would die in 1941. He wrote, he argued that Jewish traders and manufacturers excluded from the guilds developed a distinctive antipathy to the fundamentals of medieval commerce, which they saw as a primitive and unprogressive the desire for just and fixed wages and prices for an equitable system in which shares of the market were agreed upon exchanging. He uses this Canaanite, he uses this merchant class as literally the source of capitalism. But what’s fascinating is, if we just start back at the comment, you just made in terms of Ish Matzliach. If you listen to some of the barbs that are being flowing, being thrown at the Jewish people, you know, call it “they run Hollywood”. They run this …it’s almost as though success is considered a crime.  It really takes the argument very much back to this biblical sense that we’re talking about is it something that means that we should be proud of. If you remember Rabbi, when we had a my friend, the Reverend  Dumisani Washington on and we were talking about and I said to him, What is the challenge of the successful Jew? And he said, You know, I love it when my Jewish brothers and sisters at the Seder lean to the side, and take happiness with the fact that they were redeemed, they are proud of it. And he says that we African Americans have to be proud of what we’ve achieved. We were robbed of our culture; we were robbed of our gods. We were robbed of our names, and we became literate in one generation. I love that and I really think it’s sensitizing us to Hatzlacha; success clearly, in in Josef’s case, and in the Bible’s case, there is a very strong part of it that is considered something to be proud of, and something touched by God. And I think that’s a timely conversation.

Adam Mintz  26:10

That’s a very timely conversation. By the way, you don’t know how Joseph feels about being successful, it kind of goes to his head, and then he gets in trouble. So that idea that Ish Matzliach does well for Joseph, I think is complicated.

Geoffrey Stern  26:29

So that’s an amazing segue into Max Weber. Because what Max Weber’s argues is that what really launched Protestantism, Calvinism, in particular, as the source of American – western capitalism, was that when the Roman Catholic Church was involved, it was in charge of salvation, and everybody knew where they stood. But once it was rejected, they looked for other signs that they were saved. And Calvin and his followers taught a doctrine of double predestination, in which from the beginning, God shows some people for salvation, and others for damnation. And they translated that into a belief that one who’s chosen for salvation, is successful. And they really you read it, and you start to see echoes of modern day thought of the argument against welfare, where they literally as Rufus said, that the those who work hard should not give their money to prop up those who don’t have, it’s really kind of fascinating, but to your point of Joseph having trouble with retaining his equanimity and retaining his happiness in life. Weber goes, so far to talk about the humility and the asceticism of the real capitalists, we are kind of in in this sense of reinvesting and compounding interest, where you don’t spend your money on luxury, where you don’t stop working, everything is the opportunity cost. If I’m not working, I’m losing money. And that ultimately, Weber points out how then it became almost an idolatry. So it goes the whole nine yards, so to speak. But it’s a fascinating insight to me. The amount that a theology that a religion can affect something as basic as how we do economics, and how we control and are affected by markets that I thought was absolutely fascinating.

Adam Mintz  28:54

I mean, it is fascinating, but so much of religion depends on economics means how you give a sacrifice, you know, who had animals to give a sacrifice, probably not very many people. The Torah actually has a sliding scale for sacrifices, depending on how wealthy you are. If you gave an animal or you were able to give birds or even, you’re able to give them a meal offering. Isn’t that an interesting thing when you talk about wealth, and you talk about economy is in a sliding scale for sacrifices, something that’s amazing. Now, I never did research on this. I don’t know whether other religions had a sliding scale. But I would imagine that they did. Because if you don’t have a sliding scale for sacrifices, you can never have sacrifices because nobody could afford it.

Geoffrey Stern  29:41

And at the end of the day, you got to be able to pay your bills,

Adam Mintz  29:47

That’s a big part of it.

Geoffrey Stern  29:49

So we’ve quoted from philosophers sociologists from the New Testament, the Old Testament, but I think we have to go to the ultimate golden source and of course there is no more golden source than Fiddler on the Roof. And if I want to be a rich man, and so in that song reading from the lyrics, I really do believe it captures some real essences of the Jewish approach. And it says, you know, I realize, of course, it’s no shame to be poor, but it’s no great honor either. And he goes, if I was a rich man, he said, I would be able to pose problems that would cross a rabbi’s eye, and it won’t make one difference if I answer right or wrong, when you’re rich, they think you really know. if I were rich, I’d have the time that I lack to sit in the synagogue and pray and maybe have a seat by the eastern wall. And I discuss the holy books with the learned men several hours every day. And that would be the sweetest thing of all……  I really think he touches on many big categories, right? Yeah, it’s absolutely amazing. And I think that the key takeaway that I always took from that we can have another discussion on the fact that a wealthy person somehow got to the point where no matter what he says, The Rabbi’s considered right or wrong…. I think that gets back to who’s pays for the sacrifices that you talked about a second ago. But I think what really rings true is this contract that was made between having money and having the time to learn, and that gets back to something very basic this Yisachar and Zebulin  contract where one tribe was seafaring and worked and the other studied, but they always had to be someone to pay the bills. And you know, in getting really local to Israel. Now when you have people studying, and they can’t pay the bills, or when you have a society that only focuses on the study. They have to remember אִם אֵין דֶּרֶךְ אֶרֶץ, אֵין תּוֹרָה, and  אִם אֵין קֶמַח, אֵין תּוֹרָה   (If there’s no worldly occupation there’s no Torah, if there’s no bread , there’s no Torah) these are part of it. It is a full economic system. And I think it really does affect the Jewish success story in a profound way. And someone needs to write the book, Joseph and the Spirit of Capitalism, because it really is a very strong, I think, profound impact that the Jews have made that it’s made on us and that we have made on the world.

Adam Mintz  32:26

Fantastic. I’m looking forward to the book. Shabbat Shalom everybody, this is a great discussion. Enjoy your Shabbos and enjoy your Hanukkah happy Hanukah everybody. We look forward next week to talk about miketz and Hanukkah and a whole bunch of other things. Have a great week everybody Shabbat Shalom,

Geoffrey Stern  32:43

Shabbat shalom. All of you do not have a problem enjoying your Hanukkah Gelt. It’s okay. We Jews know how to handle money. Just turn to Yosef. So Shabbat shalom. Thank you, Rabbi once again. We’ll see you all next week. Have a lichtika Hanukkah, a Hanukkah, full of illumination in light. And look forward to seeing you all next week.

Sefaria Source Sheet:

Listen to las year’s Vayeshev podcast: Genesis as Her-story

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