Friday, December 28, 2007

"And These are the Names...." A Cup for Serach Daughter of Asher

(from a piece to appear in print before Passover, heaven willing)

“And to Asher he said, ‘Blessed above sons be Asher....’” (Deuteronomy 33:24)

What is the extra measure of blessing, entailed in the line of Asher, that surpasses even sons?

“And these are the names of the children of Israel who came into Egypt, Jacob and his sons…” (Genesis 46:8) “And the sons of Asher, Yimnah and Yishvah and Yishvi and Beri’ah, and Serach their sister.” (Genesis 46:17)

And when Moses counts the children of Israel in the wilderness, we read: “…and the name of the daughter of Asher was Serach.” (Numbers 26:46)

On this basis, our rabbis teach that Serach the daughter of Asher both went down into Egypt with Jacob and came up out of Egypt with Moses, hundreds of years later, and remained alive in the wilderness. (e.g. Mekhilta Beshalach; Shemot Rabbah 5:13)

And not only this, but also: “Then a wise woman called out from the city....” (2Samuel 20:16) In the days of King David, when Sheva ben Bichri cursed the king and fled to the hills country of Efrayim, to the town of Avel Bet Ma’achah, and Yo’av, David’s general set out after him with an army, and besieged the city, and threatened to destroy it on account of Sheva ben Bichri, and a wise woman called out from the city – this, too, say our rabbis, was Serach, the daughter of Asher. (cf. Kohelet Rabbah 9:18) who was still living and protecting the children of Israel in the time of King David.

And she said to Yo’av “Anochi shelumei emunei Yisra’el” (2Samuel 20:19, often translated, “I am of the peaceable faithful of Israel”) and our sages interpret: “Ani hi she-hishlamti minyanan shel Yisra’el be-Mitzrayim” “I am she who completed the minyan, the number, of the children of Israel in Egypt” – as it is said, “All the souls of the house of of Jacob who came into Egypt were seventy” (Genesis 46:27) – “Ani hi she-hishlamti ne’eman Yosef le-ne’eman Moshe” “I am she who connected the faithful Joseph with the faithful Moses.” (Kohelet Rabbah 9:18) How so?

How did Moses know where Joseph’s bones were buried? Our rabbis teach, Serach the daughter of Asher remained alive from that first generation, and she told Moses, ‘Joseph is hidden in the river Nile. The Egyptians made him a sarcophagus of metal and sank it in the river.’ Moses went and stood by the Nile, took a twig and threw it into the water and said, ‘Joseph, Joseph, the time has come for the oath to be fulfilled that the Holy Blessed One swore to Abraham our father, that He would redeem his children. Give honor to the God of Israel, and do not delay our redemption, for we are waiting on your account!’ Immediately Joseph’s sarcophagus rose to the surface, and Moses took it out of Egypt. (Mekhilta Beshalach)

And not only this, but also, “I have surely remembered you” “Pakod-pakad’ti etchem” (Exodus 3:17) How did Israel know to believe in Moses? When Moses first came before the elders of Israel, and performed his signs, the elders went to Serach, the daughter of Asher, and they said, “A certain man has come, and he has performed signs in our sight, thus and so.” She answered, “There is no substance in his signs.” Then they said to her, “But he has also said, in God’s name, “Pakod pakad’ti – I have surely remembered!” Then Serach said to them, “Then this is the man who is destined to redeem Israel from Egypt, for thus I have heard it from my father.” Immediately, the elders of Israel trusted Serach daughter of Asher and accepted Moses. (Pirkei Rabbi Eliezer 48).

For the first human being received the Secret of Redemption (sod ha-ge’ulah) from the Holy Blessed One. Our rabbis say that Abraham received the secret in turn and passed it on to his son Jacob, and Jacob passed it on to his son Asher, and Asher passed the Secret of Redemption to his daughter Serach, who waited through Israel’s captivity until she heard the promised words from Moses. (Shemot Rabbah 5:13)

Moreover, there are those who say that certain souls entered from this life into the Garden of Eden, without tasting the taste of death – Elijah the Prophet, and Enoch son of Yared, and rare others, some say seven, some say ten; and some say that Serach the Daughter of Asher completes this number, this minyan as well. How did she merit this reward?

Serach was a prophetess, and she knew that Joseph was not dead when his brothers betrayed him into Egypt, and to soothe her grandfather Jacob’s spirit, she hinted to him in a song, as she played the harp before him, that Joseph still lived, so that Jacob’s soul would not fly out his body with shock when he later heard the news. Jacob blessed her and said, “This mouth that has told me that Joseph still lives will never taste the taste of death.” (Alpha Beta de-Ben Sira, in Otzar ha-Midrashim)

And the holy Zohar says, “In another heavenly chamber are Serach the daughter of Asher and all the righteous women,” suggesting that Serach watches over the souls of righteous women beyond this life, just as she has watched over our people from Egypt until this time, linking generation to generation, ensuring continuity, safeguarding the Secret of Redemption.

And this is why it is fitting, at our Passover Seders, to place an extra cup of wine on the table, for Serach the daughter of Asher. For, like Elijah (and unlike even the great Miriam, who may dance with us when the dead are revived), Serach the daughter of Asher never tasted the taste of death, so that she is still present to complete our number, to connect us one to another in times of need, to visit our tables and to bless us with the Secret of Redemption.

And these are the names of the children of Israel who came into Egypt… and the name of the daughter of Asher was Serach.


Another thing. Where was Joshua the son of Nun finally buried, at the end of the one hundred and ten years of his life? “They buried him in the border of his inheritance, in Timnat Serach, which was in the hill country of Efrayim.” (Joshua 24:30) Where else would Joshua have chosen to retire, in his old age? With whom else would he have wanted to keep company and look back over the years? He alone, with Kalev, survived from the generation of the wilderness to enter into the Land. Only those two? No, there was another – someone else with whom Joshua could look back, toward the end of his life, who could remember with him the long journey they both had experienced with Israel, from Egypt to the Land, and all the signs and the wonders. That one was Serach, the daughter of Asher. So it was, when Joshua sent the people to their homes, after his triumphs, "every man to his inheritance," (Joshua 24:28) that Joshua himself went to the hill country of Efraim, to the town of Serach the daughter of Asher – although I do not know of any rabbis elder than us who have observed this.

Note: The name “Serach” is spelled in most of the biblical passages in which it appears with the letter sin and in rabbinic literature with the letter samech.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007


So Israel set out with all that was his, and he came to Beer-sheba, where he offered sacrifices to the God of his father Isaac. God called to Israel in a vision by night: "Jacob! Jacob!" He answered, "Here." And he said, "I am God, the God of your father. Fear not to go down to Egypt, for I will make you there into a great nation. I Myself will go down with you to Egypt, and I Myself will also bring you back, and Joseph's hand shall close your eyes. (Gen. 46:1-4, JPS translation)

Ya’akov was packing to see his son again—he was called Yisrael then, I always forget. And his eyes droop closed, and again, he’s standing on the side of that river bank.

Ya’akov! Ya’akov, he hears! And he says: hineini.

And when a name is repeated, Rashi says that it’s “derech hiba,” touch in a caring way, those boundaries of intimacy, the last time they spoke. Don’t touch, smile, say anything that might be construed as “I love you.”

God loves Ya’akov—had he ever told him before? Does thigh-ripping pain count as love? Did he feel that pain for what it was?

This doubling-up, doubling back nickname. God loves you most when you’re tearing yourself apart.
Avraham gets it once—by the angel, when he’s about to sacrifice his less-loved son.
Moshe gets it once—when he’s about to singe his skin for the incomprehensible miracle.
And Yisrael, I mean Ya’akov, gets it here. He hasn’t seen Yosef in too many years, and he’s ready to die. And behind it all, the story of his fathers: you will be slaves, you will be exiled, you will die in a foreign land.

Are you ready to play your part in the grand game?

Yisrael nods off during his packing. He’s old now, blind like his father, but in his dreams he’s young again. He sees the man on the hillside, ready to fight, but when he’s called by the old-time name, he hesitates. They look at each other like long-time lovers. And instead of wrestling, the angel picks him up, cradles hin lightly. Yosef will shut your eyes, he whispers.

(Was this what it’s like to be a baby held? He weighs almost nothing; his bones have nearly collapsed into dust.)

And he wakes, and everything is green for just a second, and he’s once again Ya’akov, setting out on a grand adventure. Rachel young and beautiful and not yet in his sights. And then he feels his back ache, and tasts old lentils in his mouth. Tomorrow I will see Yosef, he thinks, and then I can sleep.

--Sara Meirowitz

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Vayigash - Out Loud (LimmudLA Podcast)

The Dinah-Episode, three weeks ago, seems to have stunned us all into silence. In hopes of our raising our voices again, here is a link to a podcast on Parashat Vayigash that I recorded this time last year (ba-yamim ha-hem ba-zeman ha-zeh) for LimmudLA while I was at Limmud in England . Chag Urim Sameach, everyone!

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Vayetze - Why Does Jacob Wake Up Twice?

Consider the story of Jacob’s dream of a heavenly-earthly ladder of angels, in Genesis 28:10-19. In the space of three verses, Jacob seems to be described as waking up two times:

Jacob awoke from his sleep, and he said, ‘Surely there is God in this place, and I did not know!’ In awe, he said, ‘How awesome this place is! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.’ And Jacob got up early in the morning, and he took the stone which he had put beneath his head, and placed it as a monument and poured oil on its top. And he called the place Beit El, although Luz had formerly been the name of the place.
(Gen. 28:16-19)

Why two wakings?

Biblicists might argue that what we have here is the weaving of a Priestly agenda (supporting the idea of a central Temple as the earthly ‘gate of heaven’) into an earlier story about Jacob journeying, camping, and staking a claim to the place where he rested. (In such a reading, the original story would be made up of verses 10-11 + 18-19, with a strong suspicion that the particular name, Beit El, ‘House of God,’ was introduced at the Priestly stage of supplementary composition, along with the dream.) Each of the two component stories has its own moment of waking, and we are left with a compound story containing a waking-verse from each.

More prosaically, from a purely narrative point of view, we might say that Jacob awoke with a start after his dream, then went back to sleep, and woke again later, in the morning, to set up his monument.

But this is Sefer Ha-Bloggadah. Midrash is the order of the day, and our Torah reads as it does, however it came to be what it is (and, however that was, there was certainly some integrating intelligence and artistry involved) – and imagine going back to sleep after a dream like Jacob has here! So our question remains: Why does Jacob wake up twice?

Notice the two verbs for waking – and the other verbs that follow each one.

In the first instance Jacob awakens with the verb vayikatz, from a root that connotes a sudden mindfulness – like a warrior shaking off wine, in the simile of Psalm 78:65 – and we might also hear an overtone of ketz in the sense of ‘end.’ This is a moment of transition in Jacob’s inner experience, a certain state of being, on his part, is ceasing to be, and another is beginning. That kind of waking is followed by verbs of ‘saying,’ ‘knowing,’ and ‘being in awe,’ and an implied verb of ‘being’ and 'being present' as well. These are verbs of reflection, verbs of consciousness.

In the second instance, Jacob awakens with the verb vayashkem, which suggests getting up early with a mission to perform, and possibly derives from the root for ‘shoulder,’ shekhem – “to load backs of beasts for a day’s journey,” the Brown Driver Briggs Lexicon proposes, by way of etymology. That kind of waking is followed by verbs of ‘taking,’ ‘putting,’ and ‘pouring,’ verbs of action – and the verb of ‘naming,’ which, if not as physically active, is still transitive, affecting the state of something outside of Jacob’s self.

So at first Jacob becomes conscious, and then he acts, imprinting himself and his experience of God upon the place.

What is the nature of the sudden consciousness that leads to such action?

Here I reach to an already existing midrash, which suggests that the angels of Jacob’s dream were going up and down upon Jacob himself. Nouns are always masculine or feminine in Hebrew, and ladder, sulam, is a masculine noun, and so the preposition bo, ‘upon it (the ladder)’ actually reads as ‘upon him’ – a great opening to midrashic possibilities:

Think for a moment of Jacob, soon to be Israel, as a bridge between heaven and earth.

Another interpretation, along the same lines (in the same segment of Bereshit Rabbah, 68:2) says that the possibility of the angels ‘going up and down’ on Jacob means that they were poking him, prodding him, goading him – jumping up and down on him, in an angelic version of Hop on Patriarch. Why did they do this?

The angels ascended into heaven and saw ‘the image of him,’ says the midrash, and then descended below and ‘found him asleep.’

Like a king enthroned, says the midrash – go up to the palace and you find him sitting in judgment, but go out to the outskirts, and you find the king asleep. (In ancient days, before instant telecommunications, the farther away from the seat of power you went, the more attenuated was the influence of the sovereign, the more the king seemed to be asleep.) So the angels, in this midrash are astonished. They come upon a creature made in the image of God; they go up to heaven to check the likeness; they think of the verse, Israel, in whom I [God] shall glorify myself (Isaiah 49:3); they come back down and they wonder: How can this creature be all that if it is asleep? Wake up, and be what you should be!

Think for a moment of Israel, or Humanity, as the image of God asleep in the world.

We are the image of the Sovereign in these outskirts of heaven, or at least we are part of that Presence. And far too often we are asleep to that possibility. And so, far too often, this is a world in which God seems to be asleep, or distant – because we, creatures who should manifest God’s being in this world, and should take part in the work of divinity, are instead inert – in effect, unconscious.

If we were to wake up to all that we might be, and then rise to the tasks that such consciousness enjoins upon us, and truly consecrate the places of our waking as the abode of God, through action, then this world might not be so unlike heaven.

(I am grateful to Lila Vessid, rabbinical student at Hebrew College, for a conversation in our Beit Midrash this morning about Jacob's two wakings.)

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Sprouting Salvation

"And G!d shall give you from the dew of the heavens and from the fatness of the earth and much grain and grapes." (Genesis 27:28)

Isaac began blessing his son - Jacob, who is disguised as Esau - with precipitation and agricultural plenty. Isaac had lived through famine and had re-dug wells in the face of opposition. Before those episodes, he had another encounter with life-giving water...

After the Akeidah-Binding, Isaac needed to spend some time away from his father. He carried a walking-stick with him, which he had taken from the top of the mountain, from the thicket where the ram had been caught by its horns. It felt comfortable in his hand, supporting him as he journeyed into his unknown future.

Walking through the desert, he came across a well. As he approached, someone grabbed his legs from behind. Isaac toppled forward, snapping the walking-stick. His heart was pounding, but his fear faded when he heard a child's laughter.

"Daddy, you're home!" said a little boy. Isaac turned to look at him. "Oh, You're not my daddy. But your clothes look like his, no one else wears that kind of scarf around here."
"What's your name?"
"I'm Keydar son of Ishmael. This is our well, we call it B'er L'Chai Ro'i. Come and eat with us."
Ishmael greeted Isaac as a brother, and he stayed with Ishmael's family for many days.

Keydar was the center of attention, full of energy, running around and, most surprising to Isaac, rough-housing with his father. However, Ishmael's oldest son, Nevayot was sick. It was a mysterious illness and no one knew what was wrong. Isaac saw how concerned Ishmael was. He watched as Ishmael brought food to his son's bed, staying to talk quietly with him. Isaac wanted to help too, and to feel that closeness, but what could he bring?

Though he was very weak, Nevayot smiled at Isaac as he entered with two cups of tea. He sat down beside the bed.
"I hate being sick," said Nevayot, "Why did G!d do this to me? I don't like being in bed all the time, and I'm lonely. I'm afraid I'm going to die."
"I have a story to tell you," said Isaac, and he told him about the Akeidah. "As I was lying there, all tied up, I thought that I was dead. But G!d gave me life again. My father lifted up his eyes and saw a ram caught by its horns in the thicket, and we sacrificed the ram instead of me. The branches were put there by G!d to save my life."

Nevayot perked up. "That sounds a lot like one of my father's stories. When he had to leave his home, he almost died of thirst, but then his mother lifted up her eyes and saw a well. They were able to drink the water and live. Grandmother remembered another well that she had called B'er L'chai Ro'i, the well of the Life that watches me, so she called this one that too. And that's were we live now."

"When I first came here, your brother tackled me, and the branch I was carrying with me, the one that caught the ram, was broken. I left it there in the dust because I couldn't use it anymore. I went back there today, and through the rain and the dew, G!d made the seeds live again as a new plant. I made you tea from leaves of that plant and water from B'er L'chai Roi. Sometimes G!d makes things die, but G!d also makes us live."

Nevayot did recover, and the whole family celebrated together. Of Ishmael's many children, they each had different personalities and strengths, and Ishmael loved them all.

Isaac went from B'er L'chai Ro'i to pray in the field. It was his favorite time of day, when the sun was on it's way down, before sunset. He composed a blessing:

You are eternally mighty, my L!rd, the Resuscitator of the dead are You; abundantly able to save. He makes the wind blow and He makes the rain descend. He sustains the living with kindness, resuscitates the dead with abundant mercy, supports the fallen, heals the sick, releases the confined, and maintains His faith to those asleep in the dust. Who is like You, O Master of mighty deeds, and who is comparable to You, O King who causes death and life and makes salvation sprout. And You are reliable to resuscitate the dead. Blessed are you G!d, who gives life to the dead. (Second blessing of the Amidah)

Isaac lifted up his eyes and saw his future wife and his new life ahead of him.

And Isaac came from the way of B'er L'chai Ro'i; for he dwelt in the land of the South. And Isaac went out to meditate in the field at the eventide; and he lifted up his eyes, and saw, and, behold, there were camels coming. (Genesis 24: 62, 63)

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Chayyei Sarah: Falling

"Vatisa rivka et eneha vatereh et yitschak vatipol me'al hagamal"
(Rivka looked up, saw Yitschak, and fell off the camel -- Bereshit 24:64)

What made Rivka fall off her camel?

Rivka was privy to some of God's secrets, as it is said, "Vatelech lidrosh et Adonai. Vayomer Adonai lah shenei goyyim bevitnech" (She went for an answer from God, who told her: there are two nations in your belly -- Bereshit 25:22-23).

When she saw her promised husband Yitschak, the next fragile link in the chain that began with a covenant between his father Abraham and the one true God, Rivka foresaw that to safeguard its future she would come to pit her children against each other and deceive her spouse. The woman who had generously offered water to quench the thirsts of strangers and their animals knew that one day she would manipulate her family to the brink of murder. In shock, she lost her balance and dropped to the hard earth. Life was easy as a polytheist. But Yitschak's singular deity came with One family, One heritage, One birthright, One morality, One code of behavior, and One mission. And they didn't all mesh properly. There were internal contradictions and moral ambiguities -- the paradoxes of belief and hypocrisy, and the existential paralysis of ethical dilemmas. So Rivka could do nothing but wipe the dust off her clothes and veil her face to hide her tears after falling from her comfortable high seat, for "falling" connotes intrigue, confusion, and disaster, as we see in the Scroll of Ester (3:7)...

"Hipil pur hu hagoral lifnei haman"
(A pur, a lottery, was cast [literally: made to fall] before Haman)

From Chayei Sarah to Toledot - Three Women

Haftarot (readings from the Prophets) are paired with parshiyot (weekly Torah readings) to raise up themes and issues by way of inter-textual resonance. The prophetic messages amplify or comment upon the substance of the Torah-readings, either directly or by implication.

So it is shocking, at first, to see the biblical story that is paired by our tradition with the Torah’s narrative of Rebekah’s bethrothal to Isaac.

When King David was old and well advanced in years, he could not keep warm even when they put covers over him. So his servants said to him, "Let us look for a young virgin to attend the king and take care of him. She can lie beside him so that our lord the king may keep warm." Then they searched throughout Israel for a beautiful girl and found Abishag, a Shunammite, and brought her to the king. The girl was very beautiful… (I Kings 1:1-3)

Let us recall the way in which Rebekah was discovered, and the criteria by which Abraham’s servant set out to find her. “See, I am standing beside this spring,” says the servant in his prayer, “and the daughters of the townspeople are coming out to draw water. May it be that when I say to a maiden, 'Please let down your jar that I may have a drink,' and she says, 'Drink, and I will water your camels too'-let her be the one you have chosen for your servant Isaac. By this I will know that you have shown kindness to my master.” (Genesis 24:13-14)

The issues are care and action. Rebekah is chosen by her deeds.

By comparison, the hunt for Avishag is almost pornographic. Avishag’s personality is not at issue, and neither are her actions. The only criteria are virginity, physical beauty, and radiating heat in bed. What is going on here? Is it possible that our tradition is suggesting, This equals that, with regard to the stories of Rebekah and Avishag?

Our answer comes in the person of another woman, Bat Sheva, a wife of David's youthful days. Bat Sheva's actions, in the haftarah of Chayei Sarah, point toward the subsequent parashah, Toledot, and its topic of succession. It is Bat Sheva, in the story of this haftarah, whose deeds resonate with those of the ancestress Rebekah. Just as Rebekah, in parashat Toledot, determines that Jacob and not Esau will receive Isaac’s principle blessing and continue his line, Bat Sheva, in this haftarah of Chayei Sarah, determines which of David’s sons will inherit after the king:

Bath Sheva went to see the aged king in his room, where Abishag the Shunammite was attending him. Bat Sheva bowed low and knelt before the king. "What is it you want?" the king asked. She said to him, "My lord, you yourself swore to me your servant by the Lord your God: 'Solomon your son shall be king after me, and he will sit on my throne.' But now Adonijah has become king, and you, my lord the king, do not know about it. (I Kings 1:15-17)

The scene in David’s room is not just a fateful moment, but a horrible one, from Bat Sheva’s perspective. We must imagine Bat Sheva, coming to plead the case of her son, Solomon, and having to do so, as the text says, with beautiful young Avishag right there in her husband’s bedchamber. Even in a context of polygamy, and even though we are told that David never consummated sexual relations with Avishag, this cannot have been a pleasant moment for the aging queen. She comes to remind David of the promises he made to her in her youth, and all the while she must face the sight of David’s latest youthful female acquisition. We may imagine that Bat Sheva might well have had in mind the way she herself was first found and posessed by King David:

One evening David got up from his bed and walked around on the roof of the palace. From the roof he saw a woman bathing. The woman was very beautiful, and David sent someone to find out about her. The man said, Isn't this Bat Sheva...? (II Samuel 11:2-3)

Bat Sheva and Avishag start out with David in much the same way, as a beautiful objects of desire, as playthings to be acquired. Yet Bat Sheva manages to transit, in her actions, from one pole of possibility to another – from the actionless paradigm of Avishag to the ancestral paradigm of Rebekah. Bat Sheva refuses to accept being put aside and forgotten, along with David’s promises to her, as the next pretty young girl takes her place in the king’s bed. It is as though Bat Sheva were reminding David, I am your partner in this story of Israel, a woman whose voice, like Rebekah’s, will be heard.

Avishag never manages to transcend her position as a chattel. Even after David’s death she remains a passive pawn, a baggage sought by the players jockeying for position in the wake of the great king. Avishag remains a cipher for the prospect of woman as object, without voice or consequential action in a world ruled by men.

At the very moment in which we are introduced to Rebekah, our tradition signals to us that she will not be an inconsequential object. Without waiting the week from Chayei Sarah to Toledot, from the Life of Sarah to the subsequent Generations, the haftarah reminds us, as well, who it is that will act to ensure that these, in particular, will be our toledot, that this will be our heritage.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Vayera: As Below, So Too Above

"Vadonai himtir al sedom ve'al amora gofrit va'esh me'et adonai min hashamayim."
(God rained brimstone and fire from the sky upon Sedom and Amora -- Bereshit 19:24)

"Vatabet ishto me'acharav, vatehi netsiv melach."
([Lot]'s wife looked behind [as she fled], and behold [the city] was a pile of salt -- Bereshit 19:26, according to Ralbag/Gersonides)

Where did the brimstone with which God scoured the streets of Sedom and Amora come from?
From the charcoal that the people of the Cities used to mark everything on earth as someone's possession, never to be shared or gifted.

Where did the fire with which God cauterized the soil under the houses of Sedom and Amora come from?
From the hearths and cookfires that the people of the Cities locked within their homes and courtyards, barred to access by cold and shivering strangers.

Where did the salt with which God pulverized and buried the remains of Sedom and Amora come from, forming the seabed of the Yam Hamelach/Salty Sea?
From the mines and the resource fields where the people of the Cities harvested basic necessities, priced so only the wealthy could obtain them.

That which is released from heaven exists in parallel with that which is released from earth, measure for measure, as we read in the story of Noach:
"Nivke'u kol ma'ayanot tehom rabah va'arubot hashamayim niftachu. Vayehi hageshem al ha'arets arba'im yom ve'arba'im laila."
(All the fountains of the deep broke open, and the curtains of the sky parted. It rained upon the earth for forty days and nights -- Bereshit 7:11-12)

It is an upwelling of sin that brings on the flood of destruction. There is a cycle in the world, as the Creator relates to us as we relate to others. The trees transpirate and the clouds gather, the good and evil that we do returns to us. All has consequences, though we are not yet wise enough to connect all the dots..

"Ki ka'asher yered hageshem vehasheleg min hashamayim, veshama lo yashuv, ki im hirva et ha'arets veholida vehitsmicha venatan zera lazorea velechem laochel: ken yihyeh devari asher yetsei mipi lo yashuv elai rekam ki im asah et asher chafatsti vehitsliach asher shelachtiv"

(Just as the rains and the snows fall from the sky and do not return without saturating the earth that it may sprout and blossom, giving seeds to the sower and bread to the diner: so will these words exiting my mouth not return to me empty, but they will complete their mission and accomplish my will -- Yeshayah 55:10-11)

Sunday, October 21, 2007

LOL: Communication and Laughter

She was in the tent when she heard one of the three guests outside say her name. It was odd to hear her new name, Sarah, after 90 years of being Sarai. She wasn’t even sure how he knew her name; not only was he a stranger, but it had only been her name for a couple of days, when the man she had always known as Avram had come home with the news that his name was now Avraham, and her name was now Sarah. He explained that this was part of G-d’s brit – covenant with them, and that all the men of the household needed to be circumcised.

Some women might have been shocked by such behavior, but Sarah was used to it by now. Avraham was spontaneous and enthusiastic, and she loved that about him. Everyone they knew could be on one side of a river, or a theological question, and Avraham would be across it, doing what he believed in, no matter what other people said. She supported him through it all. Like today, when he spotted three travelers and rushed over to her with instructions to start baking immediately.

Avraham and the guests were just outside the tent, eating the cakes she had baked. She was in the tent; not part of the conversation, but the subject of it. “Sarah your wife will have a child,” said the man with his back to the tent. Even Sarah, who was not easily shaken, was surprised. This stranger was speaking of her deepest desire as if it was possible, but Sarah had given up hope thirteen years ago.

וַתִּצְחַק שָׂרָה בְּקִרְבָּהּ לֵאמֹר: אַחֲרֵי בְלֹתִי הָיְתָה-לִּי עֶדְנָה, וַאדֹנִי זָקֵן.
And Sarah laughed within herself, saying: 'After I am waxed old shall I have pleasure, my lord being old also?' (Genesis 18:12)

She could only respond to the absurdity of it with sarcasm. It was a laugh of disbelief that didn’t even escape her lips. It stayed within her, expressed only as an ironic smile.

She thought no one noticed her, but Avraham saw her face through the opening of the tent. He also heard G-d’s voice speaking to him.

וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוָה אֶל-אַבְרָהָם: לָמָּה זֶּה צָחֲקָה שָׂרָה לֵאמֹר, הַאַף אֻמְנָם אֵלֵד--וַאֲנִי זָקַנְתִּי.
And the LORD said unto Abraham: 'Why did Sarah laugh, saying: Shall I really bear a child, when I am old? (ibid. 13)

“I told you Sarah would have a child when I changed your names, and you also laughed with disbelief, remember:

וַיִּפֹּל אַבְרָהָם עַל-פָּנָיו, וַיִּצְחָק; וַיֹּאמֶר בְּלִבּוֹ, הַלְּבֶן מֵאָה-שָׁנָה יִוָּלֵד, וְאִם-שָׂרָה, הֲבַת-תִּשְׁעִים שָׁנָה תֵּלֵד.
Then Abraham fell upon his face, and laughed, and said in his heart: 'Shall a child be born unto him that is a hundred years old? and shall Sarah, that is ninety years old, bear?' (Genesis 17:17)

“You were surprised by the news. But Sarah should not be surprised. Why didn’t you share the news with her when I told you?”

“Ribono shel olam – Master of the universe” said Avraham, “She would have laughed at me.”

Sarah objected: “I didn’t laugh out loud!”

G-d responded: “You did laugh, but you stifled it within you.”

“I didn’t want them to hear me,” Sarah said, “because I wasn’t supposed to be listening! My response would have interrupted their conversation.”

Hashem responds: “Al Menat kein- Therefore you should have laughed out loud.”

* * * * * * *

It is written:
…הָיִינוּ, כְּחֹלְמִים. אָז יִמָּלֵא שְׂחוֹק פִּינוּ וּלְשׁוֹנֵנוּ רִנָּה …
…We were like dreamers. Then was our mouth filled with laughter, and our tongue with singing… (Psalms 126:1-2)

This refers to Sarah, who heard the unbelievable, dreamlike news that she would have a son. Then when Yitzchak was born, her stifled laugh of disbelief burst forth from her mouth, changed into joyous laughter and song.

וַתֹּאמֶר שָׂרָה--צְחֹק, עָשָׂה לִי אֱלֹהִים: כָּל-הַשֹּׁמֵעַ, יִצְחַק-לִי.
And Sarah said: 'God has made laughter for me; every one that hears will laugh on account of me.' (Genesis 21: 6)

“Laughter should not be hidden. I want communicate my happiness, so others will laugh with me.”

It is also written:
וַתִּשְׂחַק לְיוֹם אַחֲרוֹן פִּיהָ, פָּתְחָה בְחָכְמָה;וְתוֹרַת חֶסֶד, עַל-לְשׁוֹנָהּ.
…and she laughs at the time to come. She opens her mouth with wisdom; and the law of kindness is on her tongue. (Proverbs 31: 25-26)

This refers to what G-d said to Avraham, when Sarah suggested that he send Hagar and Yishmael away. “Remember what happened when Sarah hid her laugh behind the tent. Her laughter is followed by wisdom.

כֹּל אֲשֶׁר תֹּאמַר אֵלֶיךָ שָׂרָה, שְׁמַע בְּקֹלָהּ: כִּי בְיִצְחָק, יִקָּרֵא לְךָ זָרַע.
…all that Sarah says to you, listen to her voice. Because through Isaac will your seed be called. (Genesis 21:12)

“For the sake of the child you have together, and all your future descendants, you need to listen to each other!”

Thursday, October 18, 2007

A Halakhic Moment in Sefer Ha-Bloggadah - A Long Entry for Lech Lecha through Vayera (with some Bereshit and Noach, too) by Jonah Steinberg

“It Came to Pass When God Caused me to Wander...”

Renewed Aggadic Steps toward a Personal Theology of Progressive Halakha

"Israel is a chosen nation, God’s chosen nation, but the reason for its chosen-ness remains obscure. It does not succeed in following traditional norms of male heroism, nor does it become an exemplary nation with high moral and religious standards."

Ilana Pardes, “Imagining the Birth of Israel: National Metaphors in the Bible”

"A way can be a guide, but not a fixed path."

Tao Te Ching, translated by Thomas Cleary

A revealing moment takes place when Abraham our father accounts for himself before Avimelekh, king of Gerar. Abraham, let us recall, has instructed his wife to pretend that she is his sister, whereupon Avimelekh has claimed Sarah for himself, very nearly bringing about his own demise, as God reveals to Avimelekh in a scolding dream. Now, apprised of Sarah’s actual identity, Avimelekh, in indignation, understandably, demands of Abraham, What on earth were you thinking when you acted as you did? (Gen. 20:9-10)

Abraham’s fumbling for an answer opens a sudden window into our progenitor’s inner journey, and his soul. At first he seems to hem and haw: Well, she is my sister, in a sense, actually, if you look at the genealogy, in a certain way. (Come on, for shame, we want to say. You know what Avimelekh means. Stop dissembling and answer like a responsible human being for what you did.) And anyhow, Abraham continues, this all happened “when God caused me to wander from my father’s house...”

"....then I said to her, This shall be your loving-kindness (your chesed), which you shall do with me, in every place we go, say of me, He is my brother."

It happened “when God caused me to wander.” The strange, transitive verb, seeming to imply Abraham’s passivity, hit’u, can also be read as ‘caused me to err,’ ‘made me be to’eh’ – ‘wandering,’ and perhaps even ‘wrong’ (the tav and tet forms of the root are cognate and closely related in meaning) – in which case Abraham seems to be attempting an ultimate passing of the buck, and of the blame. It’s not my fault, so Abraham would have Avimelekh believe – God cast me on this un-trodden way, God called me out on this path that no person has walked before. Don’t blame me, I’m doing the best I can, considering. After all, God caused me to stake my life upon this commanded journey – which, by the way, from the religious perspective of everyone I meet, is errant – so I erred.

Talk about an error! “This shall be your chesed,” your godly attribute of caring, to be misguiding and dishonest? (It is chesed perhaps only in the strange sense of Leviticus 20:17, where the word connotes egregious impropriety, but that is hardly a redeeming parallel.) Scripture furnishes Abraham with no excuse, or none better than he finds for himself. God caused him to wander, and he erred.

How can we say that Abraham was made to wander, and all the more to err? Is this not Abraham to whom God gave clear direction? Did God not say to Abraham, definitively, ‘Lekh lekha,’ get up and go, and go exactly as I point you? How can Abraham call his journey ‘wandering,’ and how can he suggest that the God-commanded path might lead to erring? For that matter, and somewhat on the other hand, would Abraham be all that misguided if he did disavow responsibility for his own course, having chosen to submit to the divine imperative?

At first glace, the Aramaic interpretive translation, the targum of Abraham’s account, seems just as evasive and dissembling as the patriarch himself does in his excuses before Avimelekh. Targum Onkelos transforms Abraham’s words into: “And it came to pass when God caused the nations of the world to err, that God drew me close to his service.” This reworking of the verse reads, at first blush, as a pious retrenchment into national cliché. It seems, as well, to be a religious effort to exclude categorically any reading in which God might have caused our forefather to wander ethically and to err – ‘Goyim make mistakes, I don’t. I serve God,’ the targum wants our father Abraham to say.

What does it mean that Abraham was drawn close to God’s service? With Abraham our father, the relationship of humanity and God-as-lawgiver seems to arrive at a novel paradigm. It is a pathway seemingly born of out of a process of divine and human cosmic trial and error, which plays out through the first chapters of Genesis.

In the beginning, in the garden, there was only one law, one clear commandment, one tree, clearly indicated, from which alone not to eat, one single misstep, total and calamitous, the only available alternative. Torah as Law, then, was a yes-or-no proposition. We were in or we were out. Humankind naturally tending to be rebellious, or impudent, or curious, or bored, the single Law was broken, and we were banished from the simplicity of Eden – end of lawgiving experiment number one: Human beings are not to be unthinking yes-people. We will have discernment.

Between the expulsion from the garden and the Flood, there comes a time of utter lawlessness. God gives no Law, and a period of nightmarish anarchy ensues. With possibly a scant few notable exceptions – Enoch and his grandson Noah, who managed to ‘walk with God’ (and perhaps some people in the time of Enosh who started to ‘call out in the name of the Lord’) – the world fills up with unredeemable wickedness. So the whole establishment, minus Noah and family, is condemned – end of lawgiving experiment number two: Our world cannot endure without a foundation of instruction – in the most literal sense, a Torah. There must be a Law.

So the rainbow-covenant with Noah comes amid a small flurry of lawgiving, a few basic principals, the so-called ‘seven noahide precepts’ (Genesis, chapter 9). A few clear laws – and total unanimity. The whole world is of one accord, “one speech,” ‘devarim achadim,’ one single-minded purpose. Call it a time of towering, monolithic, self-affirming certainty. It is also a time of the ultimate in human pretension, arrogance, and overreaching. So sure in itself is humanity, with its God-given fundamentals, and no room to admit subjective understanding, that nobody sees an impediment to claiming the very heavens. This, apparently, is also not what God intends, and the unison is shattered – end of lawgiving experiment number three: There will be disparity of articulation. There must be varied interpretation.

How, then, will a godly path be established, as the divine calls out to the father of our people? Lekh lekha, God commands, make your way. ‘Go unto yourself,’ our tradition has long interpreted, and, we might add, in newer idiom, ‘come into your own.’ Or, as God also says to Abraham (in Genesis 17:1), ‘Walk before me and become blameless.’ Hithalekh – a reflexive verb, ‘walk yourself about’, make your own going when you go as a standard-bearer before me. You must chart a way toward righteousness, of yourself, and be... Heyeh, ‘be,’ but eternally in the future tense – which is to say, you must do the work of bringing your own self into the fullness of its being, ever striving toward a distant blamelessness, ahead.

What, by contrast, was the misdeed of Haran, Abraham’s brother, who died, as the midrashic narrative has it, in the same fiery furnace that Abraham survived? Haran waited to see who would be vindicated, Abraham or the fire-worshiping Nimrod. Abraham survived the test, proving the rightness of his choice to follow God. Haran, impressed by the miracle, immediately sided with Abraham, and so was cast into the same furnace after him, and Haran died, his innards scorched, according to the story – but why? What was wrong with wanting to follow the path of a great man? Not everyone can be an Abraham himself. Or is that so?

Haran’s fault seems to be that he seeks the answer and the truth entirely outside himself and in the ways of others, illustrious as those others may be. Haran does not look inward, Haran does not engage in the way commanded to our line with lekh lekha. Haran’s religious life, in the moment of decision, is not a true expression of his own inner self, nor even an effort in that direction. Haran dies of inauthenticity – not from a lack of adherence to external norms and signposts of correctness and piety, but from a failure to discover and articulate himself in his own choices.

Haran’s innards are burnt up in the furnace. He steps out of the kiln and falls dead before his father, Terah. Apparently his outer form survives. What is the midrash teaching us? It is teaching us that Haran has made himself into the mere shell of a man. What remains of him is only the outward semblance of a human being. He may make the motions of a man pursuing a path, but he is not a person truly seeking a way in the company of his own heart. The man who makes himself a gutless outward show of loyalty and righteous decision is immolated on the inside.

Is inward immolation all that bad? Later masters of our way, inward-seeking to be sure – Elazar Azikri, for instance, author of the hymn Yedid Nefesh, and also that greatest of modern Jewish mystics, Rav Avraham Yitzchak Hacohen Kook – say, ‘In my heart I shall erect a temple for God’s splendid glory, and in that temple I shall place an altar fashioned for God’s radiance, and for eternal flame I shall take the fire of the akedah, of Abraham’s ultimate sacrifice, and for an offering I shall offer up my unique soul to God.’ I shall sacrifice my soul. I shall give my self entirely in a sacrificial response to the commanding voice of God. Is that not the self-justifying cry of everyone whose religious path is an obedience that purports devoutly to exclude the selfish cries of the subjective heart?

Then I ask: Why was your particular soul created if only for you to slit its throat on the altar that is law set in stone? What was Abraham’s true sacrifice? His own discerning heart? His son? I say that Abraham is our father because what he gave God, entirely and without reservation, and even to a fault, was his own soul – yes, indeed – but not in self-effacement. Abraham gave his erring, wandering, often wise and sometimes stupid soul, truly and entirely, to listening for the divine voice, wherever he could find it. Abraham gave himself – authentically, distinctively, unmistakably, Abraham. He gave his life entirely to responding, in action, to the utmost limits of his human ability to make out what God wanted. It was a path of the highest stakes, no doubt about it. There were any number of near-complete catastrophes, and errors, not to mention wanderings. (If you must justify every patriarch’s treatment of his wife, for instance, we have little to talk about.) Yet, buffeted and befuddled as Abraham may sometimes have been, he soldiered on, trying with all his heart to the very end – and so must we.

Halakha, as we have come to call our centuries-long and multi-tracked endeavor of way-making, should be a matter of trying to walk that Abrahamic walk. Here I do not speak of halakha in the sense of some fixed, authoritative record of what our forbears have decided, or failed to decide – nobody should walk step-for-step in Abraham’s footprints, or in anyone else’s. I mean halakha as the creative project of seeking right ways and of working to practice them – halakha the process, not halakha the reified code. Especially with its pretensions to the definite article, “The Halakha,” a stone-faced and very nearly idol-like construction, and a dubious one to boot, has been the blunt point of so many arguments, and has hurt so many, that it may be hard even to hear what I mean by halakha the searching way. I mean the distinctive and dynamic course of each way-seeking and way-making Jewish soul, Jewish family, Jewish community.

What is your halakha? Do you know that you have one – that you inscribe it in every moment of your life? What will it be? How much is it a practice of following the clear decisions of others? How much is your halakha a matter of staying supple in practice? Does it irk you to have the word halakha associated with you at all, because of connotations of the definite and of authority? I make a case for the term halakha because, to my own Jewish ears, the words “post-halakhic Judaism” ring as the words “post-dharmic Buddhism” might strike a creative Buddhist. The very essence of our religious and spiritual Jewish tradition is searching out and making and enacting paths – and why should we jettison the best term for that trail-blazing, just because in some quarters the word halakha has ossified into a brittle, stony cudgel and a few have claimed sole rights to it? Nobody else, ultimately, can make your halakha, nobody else, regardless of that person’s pretensions and your own submission, is ultimately responsible for your path. You are not to be like Haran, remember?

We will all make mistakes – you, too. Sorry, but Abraham did, so I am quite certain that we will as well. Mistakes are particularly disturbing in the realm of the most holy, not least because, like Abraham, it is so difficult for us to know when we are making them and so easy for us to feel that we are not. In fact, the history of halakha, for those who care to study the long and rich annals of the discipline, has very often been a story of discerning and correcting mistakes. Any one sage may choose a moment to propound some corrective measure in the name of God – and then life moves on, and so does halakha, and even our ways of thinking about halakha move on, and about Torah, and about structures of authority.

Not for nothing, perhaps, is the traditional term for definitively determined law halakha pesukah. ‘Versified law,’ we might translate, but also ‘walking stopped,’ or even, ‘striding broken.’ Perhaps that sense is the reason the talmudic tradition, in its truest heart of hearts, does not really desire conclusions though it delights in endlessly seeking them. There is something broken about answers settled upon, try to stamp them as we may with divine imprimatur. We are living creatures, we are made to move, we might say, lehithalekh.

That is what Abraham means, perhaps, when he says all of this happened, when God caused me to wander. People round about may choose their self-assured and stony absolutes. (Perhaps we should read that as the error of the nations to which the targum points.) As for us, the seed of Abraham, God has called us, calls us still, and God wakes us to new life every morning, and the divine call drives us on, and, responding, we search, and with all our hearts, our sometimes erring hearts, we go, we cause ourselves to walk, we make our ways, and live.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Lech Lecha: You Will Be A Blessing

When it came time for Avram to be pushed out of his homeland and onward to Kena'an, God promised him that he "will be a blessing", that "all the clans of the Earth will be blessed through" him.

As soon as they heard the news, all the Blessings in heaven milled before God's throne in agitation - which Blessing would be the one which Avram & his descendants could carry to the world?

Zocher Habrit stepped up and spoke.
But the Creator responded, "Et briti heferu."

Dayan Emet stepped up and spoke.
But the Creator responded, "Vechai bahem."

Borei Minei Besamim stepped up and spoke.
But the Creator responded, "Ketoret to'eva hi li."

Hatov Vehametiv stepped up and spoke.
But the Creator responded, "Oseh shalom uvorei ra, ani adonai oseh kol eleh."

Shehakol Nihiyeh Bidvaro stepped up and spoke.
But the Creator responded, "Hachayim vehamavet natati lefanecha... ubacharta bachayim."

Mekadesh Yisrael stepped up and spoke.
But the Creator responded, "Baruch ami mitsrayim, uma'aseh yadai ashur."

Shekocho Ugevurato Malei Olam stepped up and spoke.
But the Creator responded with a thin, silent sound.

Chanun Hamarbeh Lisloach stepped up and spoke.
But the Creator responded, "Verichamti et asher arachem."

Al Hatevila stepped up and spoke.
But the Creator responded, "Banim gidalti veromamti, vehem pash'u bi."

The last blessing to make a case was Meshaneh Habriyot, saying "Ma rabu ma'asecha adonai, kulam bechochmah asita, mal'ah ha'arets kinyanecha," and the Creator responded with a full lit countenance.

Upon hearing the Creator's decision, Shover Oyevim uMachnia Zedim yelled in offended shock: "But Meshaneh Habriyot applies equally to the righteous and the sinful, to beauty and ugliness, to victory and pain! How is this a sanctification of your name?"

At this God smiled and said, "Yadati. Salachti. I have known. I have forgiven."

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Noach: Speech like Echad

"Vayehi kol ha-arets safa echat udevarim achadim"
At this time, all humanity had one language and few words (literally: single sayings)

The Dispersed Generation spoke in "single words" -- in speeches imitating the Singular One -- for ECHAD is a name of our God, as in Rabbi Yishmael's exhortation: "Do not pass judgement alone, for there is no single judge but Echad/The One".

In search of God-like power did the builders of the Migdal Bavel/Tower of Babel tresspass into the heavens, seeking by might and altitude to enforce their will upon the Children of Adam and upon the whole Earth. And while this delusion of divinity may have been directed towards the subjugation of those below them, it was by its very nature also a rebellion against the One who Dwells Above.

The cruelty and single-mindedness of the builders of the Bavel Tower are well known, how they allowed workers crushed beneath supports and let the weak and frail fall to their deaths when they could no longer add to the Tower's height.

Those who willed and ordered the Bavel Tower's construction had first settled their people into a valley. This valley in the land of Shin'ar could have been the new humanity's cradle, but instead was turned into a prison. Topography to curtail mobility. A tower for surveillance and military advantage. A single language for thought control.

The Lord God observed all this and wondered: "If this is what the Children of Adam can do to each other, there is no limit to what they, as self-proclaimed gods, could inflict upon the world!"

Therefore did the Singular One divide the human family, multiplying its diversity across the face of the Earth: so that there will always be alternatives -- another path for God's creations to follow and different words for them to speak. For once opened within the mind, the gate to freedom remains always accessible.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

A petichta (a verse from far afield, and insights drawn from it, used to open new vistas on a present scripture) on bereshit bara “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth....” and related hagadot, from space-travelers of the past century. The idea here is to listen to the words of our first extraplanetary explorers in a way something like the way in which the redactors of classical midrash recalled and wove together the teachings of the earliest rabbinic sages – lehavdil (with due respect for the difference).

“When I see the work of Your fingers, the Moon and the stars that You have ordained – what is humanity that You should recall it, and the child of Adam that You should be mindful of him?" (Psalm 8:4)

Apollo 13 astronaut Jim Lovell says, “We learned a lot about the Moon, but what we really learned was about the Earth. The fact that just from the distance of the Moon you can put your thumb up and you can hide the Earth behind your thumb – everything that you’ve ever known, your loved ones, your business, the problems of the Earth itself, all behind your thumb, and how insignificant we really all are; but then how fortunate we are to have this body and to be able to enjoy living here amongst the beauty of the Earth itself.”

“...yet You have made him just a little less than a divine being, and have crowned him with glory and splendor” (Psalm 8:5)

Astronaut Dr. Edgar Mitchell, remembering the experience of looking out from the Apollo 14 capsule at the stars in the universe’s vastness, says: “It was a powerful, overwhelming experience. And suddenly I realized that the molecules of my body, and the molecules of the spacecraft, and the molecules in the bodies of my partners were all prototyped and manufactured in some ancient generation of stars – and that was an overwhelming sense of oneness, of connectedness; it wasn’t them and us, it was ‘That’s me – it’s one thing,’ and that was accompanied by an ecstasy, a sense of ‘Oh my God, wow, yes,’ an insight – an epiphany.

And the gathering together of the waters God called Seas” – Apollo 11 Command Module Pilot Michael Collins says, of recovery from spash-down: “I can remember the beautiful water. We were out in the deep ocean, in the Pacific. It’s such a startling, violet color. I remember looking at the ocean and admiring it, “Nice ocean you’ve got here, Planet Earth!’“

Another interpretation: “How peaceful and calm and tranquil and serene, and, Lord, how fragile it appeared. That was, oddly enough, the overriding sensation I got looking at the Earth. It was: My God, that little thing is so fragile out there!”

“It really is an oasis and we don’t take very good care of it. And I think the elevation of that consciousness is a real contribution to saving the earth, if you will.”

“And God blessed them and said to them, Be fruitful and multiply, replenish the earth and subdue it” – Astronaut John Young (Gemini 3, Gemini 10, Apollo 10, Apollo 16, Space Shuttle STS-1, STS-9) says: “Earth has changed a lot since we started flying in Gemini. There are a lot of things like urban pollution, and you can see that when you hit orbit now. You can see the big cities all have their own set of unique atmospheres, they really do. We ought to be looking out for our kids and our grandkids, and what are we worried about? The price of a gallon of gasoline. In the United States we’re worried about three-dollar-a-gallon gas; and that’s awful.”

And Apollo 12 Astronaut Al Bean says: “Since that time, I have not complained about the weather one single time. I’m glad there is weather. I’ve not complained about traffic. I’m glad there are people around. One of the things I did when I got home: I went out to shopping centers, and I’d just go around there, get an ice cream cone or something, and just watch the people go by, and think, ‘Boy, we’re lucky to be here.’ Why do people complain about the Earth? We are living in the Garden of Eden.

Another interpretation: “I felt that I was literally standing on a plateau somewhere out there in space, a plateau that science and technology had allowed me to get to – but now, what I was seeing, and even more important, what I was feeling at that moment in time, science and technology had no answers for – literally no answers. Because there I was, and there you were: the Earth, dynamic, overwhelming – and I felt that the world was just too much purpose, too much logic, it was just too beautiful to have happened by accident. There has to be somebody bigger than you, and bigger than me, and I mean this in a spiritual sense, not a religious sense. There has to be a creator of the universe who stands above the religions we ourselves create to govern our lives.”

And they heard the voice of God walking in the garden in the breeze of the day" –
Astronaut Charles Duke says: “I say my walk on the moon lasted three days and it was a great adventure, but my walk with God lasts forever.”

(Quotations are drawn from the documentary, In the Shadow of the Moon, currently in theatres. The twenty-four men who traveled to the moon between 1968 and 1972 remain the only human beings ever to have seen with their own eyes the circle of the Earth all at once, as a planet suspended in space.)

Sunday, September 30, 2007

Bereshit: The Three-Legged Stool

Adam ha-Rishon/The First Person was given only one choice and commandment by the Lord God: "You may freely eat from any tree in the garden, but you may not eat from the tree of all knowledge - for as soon as you eat of it, you will surely die."

The thrice-over repetition of the word "eat" teaches that the First Person was commanded not to eat the fruit of the tree of all knowledge three times, corresponding to the statement of our sages that "the world exists by virtue of three things: Justice, Truth, and Peace."

Just as a stool with three legs cannot stand once one has been broken, so too was the perfect world of the First Man and the First Woman destroyed by a single un-Truth.

When Chavah Rishonah/the First Woman awoke after being distilled out of the side of Adam ha-Rishon, she awoke in purity and forgetfulness, like a newborn baby, while the First Man rose from the same place as where the First Person had fallen asleep (this is why he also is called Adam ha-Rishon). The First Man, lacking faith in his partner despite their common origin, sought to distance Chavah from her only choice and commandment, telling her: "God said that we may eat from any of the trees of the garden, except for the tree of all knowledge - and neither may we touch it - for if we do so, we will die."

With this lie was the Truth of the perfect world shattered, for it is by exposing Adam ha-Rishon's lie to Chavah Rishonah that the snake exposed them both to sin. For if she did not die upon touching the tree, why should she not doubt Adam's admonition against eating from it as well?

The Peace of the perfect world then shattered with the punishments of Adam and of Chavah, of the snake and of the earth. Weapons were laid at the feet of Adam and Chavah - the plow and the striking heel. Weapons were laid at the lost feet of the snake - its snapping bite. Weapons were laid at the feet of the earth - thistles and thorns. The combatant were named, and war was declared.

(And some say, that the peace of the perfect world was shattered with the creation of the Adversary in response to the First Man's lie, in a double-form and shaped from the dust like a mirror of Adam ha-Rishon: Samael/God's Drug, Father of Demons, and Lilith/Nightborn, Mother of Demons. This is the snake, who pressed Chavah Rishonah against the tree of all knowledge, saying "You will not die, but shall be like God as soon as you eat.")

Finally, the Justice of the perfect world shattered, when the Lord God set aside the Attribute of Justice and dressed in the Attribute of Mercy, giving Adam and Chavah the world outside the garden in place of the world inside it, and eventual mortality in place of instant death. Blessed is the One who rules the universe with compassion and mercy, in our days as in days of old.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Pregame show

Our study of Sefer Ha-Aggadah will begin at the NHC Summer Institute in August 2008. However, a number of people expressed excitement about getting started right away. Therefore, as a preliminary, as we begin the new cycle of Torah reading, we're going to start an optional related project: following the weekly Torah portion, and blogging our own original aggadot (narratives). (Then, when we read the classical aggadot archived in Sefer Ha-Aggadah, we can decide which ones we like better!) This will give us an opportunity to begin studying and discussing together, and to get used to the interface and fine-tune the details.

If you'd like to be part of the procedural discussion, you can join the googlegroup at . The substantive discussion will happen right here on the blog. If you're interested in blogging periodically, join the list and drop us a line; if you'd rather just read and comment, that's great too.

Shabbat Bereishit (the first portion in the Torah, Genesis 1:1-6:8) is Saturday, October 6. That's soon! There's going to be very little (or no) time between Simchat Torah and Shabbat Bereishit, so feel free to start blogging your aggadot on Bereishit right away!

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Introducing Sefer Ha-Bloggadah!

One year from today is Shabbat at the 2008 NHC Summer Institute! On that day, the group that has been studying the Encyclopaedia Judaica for two decades will complete the very last volume. What's next? All are invited to join in the newest havurah learning project, SEFER HA-BLOGGADAH!

2008 is the 100th anniversary of the publication of Sefer Ha-Aggadah (The Book of Legends). Compiled by the Hebrew poet Hayim Nachman Bialik and the editor Yehoshua Ravnitsky, it is a collection of thousands of stories and folklore from the Talmud and throughout rabbinic literature, from the creation of the world to the world to come. At next year's Institute, people across the extended havurah network will begin studying Sefer Ha-Aggadah, reading a little bit each day for two years, and completing it at the 2010 Institute.

We'll be on a daily schedule so that everyone is on the same page. There will be a blog called Sefer Ha-Bloggadah so that we can all participate in an online discussion - a rotating team of bloggers can take turns posting each day, and everyone can discuss in the comments. If a lot of us are reading the same texts at the same time, I hope this can manifest itself in other ways as well: discussion groups in our home communities, workshops at NHC regional retreats on whatever topic we're on that weekend, etc.

I think Sefer Ha-Aggadah is an ideal text for our diverse community. The original edition is in Hebrew, and there is also an accessible English translation, so people with more Hebrew familiarity and people who would benefit from the English translation can participate on an equal footing. Bialik and Ravnitsky were two secular Jews who created this compilation to preserve the Jewish national literature, while most of their source texts are religious in nature, so we'll have the opportunity to look at these texts from all our different perspectives: religious, literary, historical, ethical, creative, ..............

If you might be interested in participating, join the email list at . This comes with no commitment (since we're not starting for a year), but it's an opportunity to keep up with what's happening and get involved with the initial planning.

I look forward to creating new Torah with you!