Wednesday, December 31, 2008

The Feast of Ahasuerus

Do we know what Ahasuerus' feast was really about? Reading Esther, the few short verses that talk of this meal set the tone for the grandeur of palatial living. We knew he ruled 127 provinces from India to Ethiopia; was wise and rich; had ornate decorations in his palace, including fine textiles and expensive gems; and offered the feast to dignitaries and commonfolk alike.

Today's reading suggests four themes for the feast: redemption, wealth, hospitality, and satisfaction. (14-17.) Of these four, it is only satisfaction and, specifically, G-d's unique ability "to satisfy the wish of every human being" that is not mirrored in the Tanakh.

But, wait, where is G-d in Esther? Before the megilla is read on Purim, the reader says three blessings, the second of which thanks G-d for performing miracles. Where was the miracle that G-d performed? How did G-d play a role in the story of Esther and Mordecai? Does today's reading (17) suggest that G-d's role was in guiding Ahasuerus, and not or Jewish protagonists? "Tomorrow two men, Mordecai and Haman, will come to you. Do you think you can possibly satisfy both as you might if there were only one? You will have no choice but to exalt one and hand the other." Was Ahasuerus a good guy or a bad guy? "No one except the Holy One can satisfy the wish of every human being. Of Him it is said, 'Thou satisfiest the wish of every living thing' (Ps. 145:16)."

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Greatness of Esther

The sages said: When a hind is thirsty, she digs a hole, fixes her horns in it, and in her distress cries softly to the Holy One. The Holy One causes the deep to come up, and the deep causes water to spring up for her. So, too, Esther: when wicked Haman decreed cruel decrees against Israel, she, in her distress, began to cry softly in prayer to the Holy One, and the Holy One answered her.

This sure plays to the female stereotype. Esther was successful because she cried, not because she took the initiative and courage to go to Ahasuerus and risk her life. Also Esther led the community, she told everyone to fast as a way of pushing G!d and later put forth rulings with Mordechai..

R. Judah bar Simon taught: You find that when a house in which a snake nests is fumigated with a hind's horn or a woman's hair, the snake immediately flees. So, too, Deborah and Esther were as effective as a hind's horn, for Deborah did not budge until she destroyed Sisera and his hosts; and Esther did not budge until she had Haman and his ten sons hanged.

Of course it seems logical to compare Esther and Deborah since they are both women. But they were so different. Esther does use her femininity while Deborah went out to war. Again, the leaning is to praise within the context of the female stereotype even when the Tanach goes beyond that stereotype. I remember studying Shoftim (Judges) with an Orthodox Rabbi. I was amazed at how negative the midrash on Deborah was. She unlike Esther seemed to break the stereotype completely and had to be brought down to a lower level.


Monday, December 29, 2008

them bones, them bones

Aggadah #3 in today's reading reveals the rabbis engaged in a debate about the nature of the narrative of the Tanach. The question at hand is how we should read the mass resurrection that occurs in the famous story of Ezekiel and the Valley of the Dry Bones: is it to be taken literally as a historical account, or figuratively as a parable meant to teach the reader that God will eventually restore the Israelites from their exile? While there are other examples in Torah of individual, recently-deceased people being restored to life (like the son of the Shunnamite woman in the story of Elisha) and of miraculous rescues, if the Valley of the Dry Bones is to be read as a historical event, it is surely one of the most fantastical events in Tanach, a dramatic reversal of the natural order. The account also occurs-- in both the book of Ezekiel and here in Sefer haAggadah-- in the context of other prophecies that are clearly framed as dreams, visions, or parables. Thus it is not surprising that this story engenders a certain amount of angst among the rabbis who have a stake in the Tanach as a literal/historical account.
In our aggadah, three opinions are presented, and each represents a different approach to the text. R. Eliezer and R. Joshua both imply that the people were brought back to life simply as a kind of rhetorical strategy for God-- a way for God to dramatically illustrate a point-- because they are revived, sing, and then die again. The quote R. Eliezer selects to put into the mouths of the resurrected emphasizes God’s role as judge and redeemer, while the quote R. Joshua selects emphasizes God’s power. According to this interpretation, all of the events in the Tanach are to be read as an exposition of God’s nature, will, and relationship to the world.
On the other hand, R. Eliezer son of R. Yose claims that the resurrected people lived out full lives, went back to Israel, married, and had children, and R. Judah ben Betera asserts that he is the descendant of one of these people and brings an artifact to prove it. This is the most literalist reading, a statement that everything in Tanach is a historical account that relates to us and to our physical being in the world.
The final option presented is that of R. Judah, who says that the story is a “true event that served as a parable.” R. Judah refuses to let the historicity go, but tells us that the story’s status as a parable is just as important a function. Here R. Judah acknowledges the power of a story as story, the strength of narrative.
The option not explored in this aggadah is perhaps the one that makes the most sense to us—that the story is (only) a parable, and is meant to be read as a prophetic vision in which God reveals to Ezekiel that despite the fact that the people of Israel are currently lifeless and abandoned, they will one day be returned to their full vitality. This story is one that has repeated itself throughout Jewish history. As one of my friends said this weekend, “Every generation thinks that Judaism is about to die out, and lo and behold, there are still Jews.”
If our tendency is to read Tanach as Myth, as powerful story that informs our understandings of the human search for relationship to God, then how do we relate to aggadot that, at most, are willing to acknowledge that a story might also be a parable in addition to being a historical account? Are we inheritors of the same interpretive tradition we are reading?

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Sefer Ha-Bloggadah: week 19

This week we cover the post-exilic period, including the latest biblical books, particularly Esther. Now that Chanukah is ending, happy Purim!

  • Monday - 1:8:1-8 (Daniel and the Dragon in Babylon; The Dead whom Ezekiel Brought Back to Life; Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah)
  • Tuesday - 1:8:9-13 (Ezra; Men of the Great Assembly; In the Days of Mordecai and Esther; Deborah and Esther)
  • Wednesday - 1:8:14-22 (The Feast of Ahasuerus; Bigthan and Teresh; The Promotion of Haman; Haman's Intention)
  • Thursday - 1:8:23 (Haman's Slander and Ahasuerus's Decree)
  • Friday - 1:8:24 (Haman's Slander and Ahasuerus's Decree)
  • Saturday/Sunday - 1:8:25-27 (The Fall of Haman and the Exaltation of Mordecai; The Hanging of Haman)

Friday, December 26, 2008

7:7:13. Zecharia's blood

(Paraphrase: R' Yehoshua b. Korha said that an old Jerusalemite told him that Nevuzaradan, the Babylonian general, killed 940,000 persons, so that their blood streamed and merged with that of Zecharia. [The murder of Zecharia the prophet is not in the Tanach; it's asserted in midrash, e.g., Sanh. 96b (one of the sources for the text here), Eicha R. petihta 5, and it may be based on Ezek. 24:7-8.] Nevuzaradan found Zecharia's blood still bubbling, and asked what it was. The priests, apparently trying to conceal the murder, claimed that it was blood from a sacrifice. Nevuzaradan was dubious, called for another sacrifice, compared its blood with the suspicious blood, and concluded that the latter was human blood. He forced the priests to confess by threatening them with torture (raking their flesh, not waterboarding), and they admitted that it was a prophet who had rebuked the city, and that they had murdered him several years before, but that his blood kept bubbling. Nevuzaradan pledged to avenge the murder; he killed the great Sanhedrin and a small (23-judge) sanhedrin, then young priests, and then young men and women, and finally young schoolchildren, but nothing stopped the bubbling of the blood. Finally, Nevuzaradan rebuked Zecharia -- "I have killed the best of them, do you want me to kill them all?" -- and the bubbling stopped. At which point, Nevuzaradan thought, "If this occurs when they killed only one person, I've killed all of these people, which is all the more serious," and he fled and converted to Judaism.)

The multiple ambivalences of this midrash are intriguing:

The particularly heinous crime of murdering a prophet is denounced not by any Israelite, but by the enemy general.

Vengeance is sought not by identifying and killing the particular individuals who committed the murder, but against the entire people, through its choicest persons -- the sages (the great and small sanhedriot), who are the intellectual elite; the priests, who are the elite caste; the youngest adult generation, who are, perhaps, the freshest individuals who have an individual identity (i.e., assuming children were not perceived as having such an identity); and the children, who are the innocent, and/or the future.

The scale of the vengeance so outweighs the original crime that even Nevuzaradan perceives the disparity. He has killed many, and threatens to kill all the rest. He turns the responsibility onto Zecharia himself -- how much damage will Zecharia demand to be appeased?

Finally, the enemy general and killer of hundreds of thousands winds up converting.

These ambivalences parallel ambivalences in other stories of the destruction. The people commit much evil and deserve destruction, but God holds off. God decides on destruction but the Patriarchs, Moshe, and Rahel intervene. The enemy enter the Temple and try to destroy it, but God's angels destroy it preemptively. The enemy brags about the destruction, but God says that the city was already condemned, so the enemy destroys a city that was, in a sense, already destroyed. God cries.

[I would like to dedicate this dvar torah to the memory of mori v'rabi, my teacher and guru, R' Arnold Jacob Wolf, who died this past Tuesday. Yehi zichro baruch.]

Richard Friedman

the exile

A tough read today. Not only are today's midrahim all about being sent out into Bavel, but it's pretty harsh on "the Ishmaelites" too. IN two of the midrashim, Israel hopes for mercy from her brother, only to be betrayed and essentially killed by them, by eating bread or salty food, and then being refused water to drink.

Given the general rabbinic focus on how exile came about, I can't help but wonder if there's any connection between these midrash and the rabbinic view of the cause of midrash. That is to say, there are a host of rabbinic commentaries in which Torah is compared to water

(in fact there's an extended analogy in the midrash Song of Songs:
The Torah has been compared to wine, water, oil, and honey and milk. Just as we find water all over the earth's surface, so do we find the Torah; water will never cease from this globe, neither will God's laws cease. Water comes from the heavens, and the Torah came from heaven. There is a noise when water descends, and the Torah descended amidst thunders. Water quickens the thirsty soul; so does the Torah quicken him who is thirsty for knowledge. Water cleanses impurities, and God's laws do the same. Water coming down by drops can form a river; so if a man acquires Torah bit by bit he may eventually become a great scholar. Water, unless one is thirsty, cannot be drunk with any degree of pleasure; in the same way, unless one has a craving for the Torah, its study, if enforced, will become a burden. Water runs from high places and seeks the lower portions of the earth; so the Torah will not remain with the haughty man, but rather seeks out the lowly. Water is not kept in golden or silver vessels, but is best kept in earthenware; so the Torah will not be retained except by him who is meek of spirit. A man of distinction will not think it beneath his dignity to ask for water from the meanest individual, neither is any one too great to despise instruction from the most insignificant person. One may drown in water if one cannot swim; so, unless one possesses a thorough knowledge of the Torah and all its meanings, one may be drowned in it. But it may be said that water gets stale if kept for a time in a vessel, and that the same should apply to the Torah. Remember therefore that it is also likened to wine, which improves with age. Again, water leaves no trace on him who tastes it, and the same, it might be said, must be the case with the Torah. But here again we must remember the comparison of the Torah to wine. just as wine has a visible effect on one who drinks it, so the studious man is at once known when one looks at him. Water does not rejoice the heart, and it might be concluded that the same is true of the Torah; hence it is likened to wine, since each rejoices the heart. Yet wine is sometimes injurious; not so the Torah, which is compared with oil. As oil is capable of anointing any part of the human body, so is the Torah an anointment to its possessor. But oil again has a bitter taste before it is purified; is this, then, equally true of the Torah? No; for the Torah is compared to milk and honey, each of which has an agreeable taste, while when blended they have healing properties as well as sweetness.--Mid. Songs 1.

and in the Talmud Baba Kama 82a Torah is compared directly to water culminating in quoting from Isaiah 55:1
"HO, all who are thirsty, come for water,
and you who have no money,
come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
without money and without cost.

2 Why spend money on what is not bread,
and your labor on what does not satisfy?
and stating bluntly, water means nothing but Torah.

Could what the rabbis really be getting at not so much be the focus on our external enemies and betrayals, but a more internal reckoning - if you had drunk the waters of Torah when you were in Israel, perhaps now you would have water to drink, if you had eaten what truly satisfies, your enemies would not have been able to overcome you.

It is a standard trope of biblical and rabbinic literature to have exile or domination be internally caused, even when delivered by outside forces.

Why the Ishmaelites in this case? Perhaps it is because it is all the more galling to be betrayed by one's brother, and not a stranger. Although there are also echoes of turnabout, since Ishmael was, too, turned out into the wilderness by our father Abraham, and his mother thought he would die without water. Yet, he survived, and so, although in great distress, did Israel.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

1:7:12: The Mourning of the Fathers

Happy Chanukah.  May the lights of the holiday illuminate the darkness of our era. 


As we go through the Tisha B’av sequence, I am reminded of the Rabbinic commandment not to study Torah on the Ninth of Av, except for the gloomy sections of Torah (and today’s Sefer Aggadah sequence certainly qualifies as gloomy!)  In the same way we have the minhag not to study Torah on Nittelnacht – the evening which is celebrated by our Gentile friends which begins with sundown on December 24th.  This extremely sad section of Sefer Aggadah discusses the agony of the Fathers in heaven at the destruction of the Temple.  The Torah and the letters of the alphabet come forward to testify against Israel, but Avraham silences them by reminding them of how holy Israel holds the Torah and the letters that comprise it.

While Israel must take responsibility for her role in the destruction of the Temple, in the end, the ultimate agent in the destruction of the Temples took place at the hands of the foreigners.  We are reminded at this time of year just how seductive the way of foreigners can be – the seductive materialism of Nittelnacht, with its pretty decorations and happy wrappings and merry little jingles.  This is the time at which Israel feels most at exile.  This year, with the tragic events of Mumbai where Islamic terrorists singled the local Chabad house for murder of Jews studying Talmud, the growing danger pozed by Hamas extremists in Gaza as they restart their program of random terror, and the shock of Bernard Madoff’s fraud (of which Jewish charities bore the brunt of the loss), and fueled by background of the increasingly grim situation in Afganistan and Pakistan and the fear of our increasingly deteriorating economy. 

At this time, we can feel the pain of loss – of which perhaps a primal exemplar was the loss of the Temple – especially acutely. 

And yet, it is also Chanukah, the festival at which we consider Hashem’s miracle:  that after the Maccabeans defeated the far mightier Greek-Syrian forces of Antiochus, that a day’s worth of oil was allowed to burn for eight days.  For me, the real miracle of Chanukah is that Jews even cared – because, after all the laws of purity are suspended during wartime.  They did not need to use kosher oil in the Menorah, and yet they did.  And this extra effort, this effort to perfect the mitzvah, was rewarded by light from Above. 

In the same way, at the dark juncture, let us rededicate ourselves to performing more mitzvah, and thus to repay the faith that Avraham, Yitzchak, Yakov, and Moshe Rabbeinu showed when they wailed before the Holy One and defended Israel.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008


The various biblical and rabbinic narratives of the destruction of Jerusalem seem to agree about a few things:
  • It was Israel's fault.
  • It was a tragedy -- both Israel's suffering and Israel's actions that led to that suffering.
But there are two different schools of thought as to how this tragedy came about:
1) God made it happen, and the humans who carried it out were simply God's agents.
2) God stepped out of the way so that humans could make it happen.

The biblical accounts in II Kings 24-25 and Jeremiah 52 fall into the first category: the Babylonians are acting "al pi Adonai" / "at God's command" [II Kings 24:3]. Ezekiel 8-11 presents a very different type of narrative (referenced in aggadah 1:7:10). Rather than talking about how many people were killed and how many were taken captive and the other historical details, Ezekiel addresses the event on a spiritual level, leading up to the departure of God's presence and of the heavenly beings.

The aggadot line up similarly into two camps.

In category 1:
In 1:7:5, Nevuzaradan seems to be taking direct orders from God: the time has come for the Temple to be destroyed, and it's his job to destroy it. He isn't really doing anything himself -- he is killing a people that is already killed, burning a Temple that is already burned (language which repeats in 1:7:8). In 1:7:6, God intervenes to prevent Egyptian troops from coming to Israel's defense.

In category 2:
In 1:6:175 and 1:7:2, Nebuchadnezzar is described as a rasha, an evil person -- an odd description of someone who is simply carrying out God's plan, but a description that makes sense if he is pursuing his own ends and God is turning Jerusalem over to him in an act of "extraordinary rendition". In 1:7:11, God says that God's presence is protecting the Temple, and so God turns away and allows the enemies to come in and destroy it.

These two strands represent two approaches to the problem of evil. Is God responsible for everything that befalls the world, good and bad? Or is God good, and evil is made possible only by God's absence?

Of course, I'm not going to resolve those questions here, but only point out that both of these approaches (and more) turn up in the ways that we have tried to place our historical tragedies into a coherent narrative.

Meanwhile, to turn our thoughts back to the happy festival of Chanukah, I'll link to another midrash that I blogged about a couple years ago, whose message includes the message of the Ezekiel narrative about the departure of God's presence, but also its inverse, in which we rededicate the Temple by bringing God's presence back to earth.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Sefer Ha-Bloggadah: week 18

Happy Chanukah! This week we'll look at the destruction of the First Temple and its aftermath, in sad juxtaposition to the joyous festival of rededication.

  • Monday - 1:7:1-7 (The Destruction of the Temple; The Ninth of Av)
  • Tuesday - 1:7:8-9 (Upon the Ruins of Jerusalem)
  • Wednesday - 1:7:10-11 (The Departure of the Presence; The Holy One Weeping)
  • Thursday - 1:7:12 (Mourning by the Fathers)
  • Friday - 1:7:13-16 (The Blood of Zechariah; The Sufferings of the Exiles)
  • Saturday/Sunday - 1:7:17-21 (By the Rivers of Babylon; Yearnings; Comforting)

Friday, December 19, 2008

1:6:171 - Rav Ashi and Menashe

"Menashe appeared to Rav Ashi in his dream. Rav Ashi said to him, 'Why did you commit idolatry?' He said, 'If you had been in that generation, you would have grabbed onto my coattails and run after me.'" (my translation)

This is an astonishing assertion, made more astonishing by its abruptness and the paucity of explanation. Menashe was perhaps the most reviled Jewish king in the Tanach. Rav Ashi was one of the greatest Amoraim; he was the long-time head of the Sura academy and was one of the two principal editors of the Gemara. Yet he is told flatly and firmly that, had he been in different circumstances, he would have succumbed to Menashe's charisma and joined in, enthusiastically, the Bible's number one bad practice, idolatry.

This midrash resonated when I read a story today about collaboration (or alleged collaboration) by celebrated authors with totalitarian governments -- Gunter Grass, Ignazio Silone, and, alleged most recently, Milan Kundera. (See It's not an argument for non-judgmentalism, but it is a lesson in humility and in the need for vigilance against possible seductive influences on one's own conduct.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

1:6:152: Study

The verse "The yoke shall be destroyed because of the oil" (Isa. 10:27) means, said R. Isaac Nappaha, that Sennacherib's yoke was destroyed because of Hezekiah's providing oil that burned in synagogues and in houses of study. What did Hezekiah do? He thrust a sword into the ground at the entrance to a house of study and said: He who will not occupy himself with Torah will be transfixed with this sword. After that, search was made from Dan to Beersheba, and no ignoramus was found; from Gabbath to Antipatris, and no boy or girl, no man or woman was found not thoroughly versed even in the laws of cleanness and uncleanness.

The task of daily study at times becomes tedious.  We so quickly sign up for Daf Yomi, a daily Mishnah, a daily Chafetz Chaim, a daily Rambam, a daily Tanya, a daily Tehillim, and, of course, our daily Chumash, our daily prayers, and other personal study.  But then our lives catch up with us:  we need to tend to so many other things, and the precious jewels that impressed us so much when we began the cycle start to look ordinary – much like the man who is surrounded by diamonds will eventually forget to treasure them.

But the essence of Jewish life, at least since the destruction of the Temple, has been study, daily study.  Our study has replaced our sacrifice offerings, it has become the center of our religion.  So, as we begin a season when the lights will displace the darkness, when those who follow the secular calendar make vows, please consider renewing your vow for daily study.  And may this blog thrive as we all generate energy for our renewed study.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Call me Everett Fox

I'm going to translate "לן הדין -- בטל הדין" as "You snooze, you lose."

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

1:6:142: What One Does in the Belly of the Big Fish

15 December 2008

Today’s reading (well, Monday’s, actually) is one long stitched-together midrash on the book of Jonah. Before getting to the substance of the story, the editor in me just wants to note what Bialik and Ravnitzky do in publishing a long midrash in its entirety, rather than presenting it in smaller segments as they do in other chapters. To be more accurate, I suspect that the editorial work they did here was actually sewing together various midrashic accounts, if the source footnote is any clue (although I have not checked the originals). As a reader, the experience of reading one midrash like this, where the whole story is retold as a piece, is a very different one than the disjointed pithy fragments of other chapters. The book of Jonah is a story told in one breath, from one voice (the omniscient narrator sympathetic to Jonah), and as such, it’s fascinating to see a gloss on the story that changes the tone by interspersing of viewpoints of other characters, as well as explaining Jonah’s motives and telling the requisite truly fantastic tales.

Our midrash opens with a couple paragraphs that gloss the first few sentences of the biblical account. I’d not realized that Jonah is mentioned in II Kings by name, nor that the commentators identify him with the “false prophet” in the story of Ahab. What’s more intriguing is the motive that the midrash attributes to Jonah: his fear or reluctance to be labeled a false prophet, should the citizens of Nineveh repent and thus not be destroyed. This very human motive sounded like a bit of a jab at the very job of a prophet, a kind of “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” acknowledgement of the ungratefulness of those who hear prophecy. We traditionally interpret Jonah’s reluctance to prophesy as a cold-hearted belief in justice. I smiled at the rabbinic attribution of this mundane character trait—the reluctance to be seen as bad at one’s job—to the high and mighty prophet of the Yom Kippur liturgy.

This tendency to humanize continues in the midrashic retelling of the sailors’ attempt to discover the cause of the storm. As told in the biblical text, while the sailors all pray to their gods, Jonah sleeps, and when they rouse him and ask his help, he gives himself up. What follows in the fourth paragraph of the midrash is a slowly-described immersion: as Jonah is lowered into the sea to knee-level, the storm slows, and when he is pulled out, the storm rages anew. This reluctance to drown the lazy prophet speaks well of the sailors, as they do their best to keep from shedding innocent blood without cause. Here, as in the text of Jonah itself, the very humanness of the non-Jews is made obvious and is praised, as is their willingness to acknowledge that “the God of the Hebrews is great.”

Up until this point, the story in the midrash is an explication, an expansion of the biblical story, adding new viewpoints and details but not changing the plot. What follows in the second half of the long midrash is a totally fantastical interaction between Jonah, the big fish, and the Leviathan itself. I’ll just comment on two images from this incredible story and leave y’all to read the rest yourself. First, the image of Jonah sitting in the belly of the fish while they swim around the ocean, looking at “everything that is in the sea and in the depths below,” depicts the rabbinic cosmology with vivid colors. The foundations of the world and the foundations of our faith live under the oceans, whether they be physical water-related sites, such as the paths in the Red Sea, or the deep core places of our belief system, such as the afterlife and the foundation stone of the world. Were I to think geographically about rabbinic cosmology, I would not necessarily think that all these places are found in locations to which fish can swim--some of them seem to more likely be in the air or on land--but this is not any ordinary fish, clearly.

And finally, the denouement of the midrash when Jonah earns God’s favor is a classic rabbinic transformation of the plot of a relatively straighforward story. In the biblical account, Jonah is spit out when he agrees to follow his calling and beseech Nineveh to repent. The midrash takes his “that which I have vowed, I will perform” to refer to Jonah’s new vow to slay the Leviathan, a story which the midrash seems to have constructed out of whole cloth. Perhaps by giving Jonah a bigger mission, the midrash is minimizing the pettiness of his earlier-discussed reluctance: Ninevah is a small task, but there are bigger jobs afoot for Jonah. Additionally, this twist in his motivation connects the whole story to bigger issues of redemption and messianism. Maybe by helping Nineveh to repent, Jonah is moving the whole world closer to the Messianic Age. A fitting tale for Yom Kippur, where each person’s repentence can help shape the fate of the world, recreated each day.

1:6:143-150: The Jewish Soul

The ten tribes will not return [to the Land of Israel], for it is said: "The Lord . . . will cast them into another land, like this day" (Deut. 29:27). Just as this day goes and does not return, so the ten tribes who have gone will not return. Such is the opinion of R. Akiva. But R. Eliezer said: Scripture's saying "like this day" implies that just as the day grows dark and then grows light again, so, too, after darkness has fallen upon the ten tribes, light shall shine for them hereafter.

The two Rabbis are writing hundreds of years after the exile of the 9 tribes so their positions reflect different attitudes not an attempt to discuss reality. Rabbi Akiva was realistic. He knew that the members of the tribes had completely assimilated as Jews and could not be found. Just as the Rabbis got rid of the rules against converting certain tribes like the Moabite men by saying we could not determine who was a Moabite since the older nations were completely intermixed and no longer had separate identities.

Rabbi Eliezer, on the other hand, may have believed that there was something built into the souls of Jews that was permanent. This would allow G!d to bring them back no matter how assimilated they were.

I admit that Rabbi Akiva's position seems much more realistic, certainly today when it is thousands of years later. But when I meet converts who discover after converting that in fact they had Jewish ancestors, it sure raises some questions about the idea of a Jewish soul.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Sefer Ha-Bloggadah: week 17

This week brings us to the end of the chapter and the end of the First Commonwealth. But before everything is destroyed, there are some spectacular stories. And we'll get to find out who Merodach-baladan was.

  • Monday - 1:6:142 (Jonah)
  • Tuesday - 1:6:143-150 (The Banishment of the Ten Tribes; The Cutheans [Samaritans])
  • Wednesday - 1:6:151-157 (Hezekiah and the Fall of Sennacherib)
  • Thursday - 1:6:158-165 (Hezekiah and the Fall of Sennacherib)
  • Friday - 1:6:166-173 (Hezekiah and Isaiah; The Reward for the Three Steps Merodach-baladan Took; Manasseh)
  • Saturday/Sunday - 1:6:174-178 (King Zedekiah, Nebuchadnezzar, Jehoiakim and Jeconiah)

1:6:135 - Mitigating Circumstances?

Like many midrashim, our midrash today is a simple story that has layers of complexity once you start probing. It reminds us of the importances of understanding all aspects of bad behavior, even mitigating circumstances. Or maybe the exact opposite, as my wife pointed out in a humorous way.

Here's the background. King Ahab was the king of Israel. (He ruled after David and Solomon, but before the Assyrian exile.) Simply put, he was a pretty bad guy. He worshiped idols and married the quintessentially wicked Queen Jezebel. He had a few run-ins with the prophet Elijah.

The Bible states simply, "But there was none like unto Ahab, who did sell himself to work wickedness in the sight of the Lord, whom Jezebel his wife stirred up." (1 Kings 21:25.) Here's where our midrash picks up:
For six months, R. Levi expounded this verse, to Ahab's discredit. Then Ahab appeared to him [in a dream] during the night and asked, "In what way have I sinned or transgressed against you? For you expand upon the verse's beginning, but ignore its conclusion --- 'Jezebel his wife stirred him up.'" Thereafter, for the next six months, R. Levi expounded on the entire verse . . . ." (1:6:135)
The question that follows is why is the last part of the verse --- the part about Jezebel stirring Ahab up --- important, either to Ahab or R. Levi or us?

From Ahab's perspective, I think the verse serves as mitigation. Of course, Ahab cannot justify his actions by blaming Jezebel for his misdeeds, and he does not try. Instead, his argument to R. Levi is a more modest one. He notes that although he did evil, he at least had a weak explanation, albeit not a justification, for this. He did not set out to do evil; he was just egged on by his evil wife. Ahab wants the complete story told. And this is certainly fair.

But what about R. Levi? He was a rabbi and a teacher, and he expounded on the story for a full year. He wanted to understand why people do evil and then teach this to help others avoid doing the same.

To do so, it is obviously important to understand the contributing factors that led to the improper actions. And a very real danger in discussing evil is to depict the wrongdoer as an otherworldly monster, completely removed from the lives and experiences of the rest of us. But doing so diminishes not only the accuracy of the story, but also its effectiveness as a teaching device or a moral story. We have nothing to learn from an evildoer who is is completely unlike us. But have much to learn from an evildoer who is like us in some ways. We can note the similarities and then try to avoid going down the same path.

Here, Ahab was influenced in some way by his wife. (I won't speculate on how exactly she "stirred him up".) Everyone can relate to that. Most of us at some point have been influenced by a family member or a friend to do take some action that we otherwise might not have taken. By noting this, R. Levi tells not only a more accurate story, but also a more powerful story.

Shakespeare recognized the power of this insight. Most of his villains are motivated by emotions that we all share, or at least that we understand. Lady Macbeth was motivated by greed (and Macbeth himself by being "stirred up" by Lady Macbeth), Richard III by lust for power, Edmund in King Lear by anger at his mistreatment as the illegitimate son. These characters have depth and complexity, and we identify --- at least to some degree --- with the villain. The sole exception to this rule (I think) is Iago in Othello, who does evil for no apparent reason. And as a result, his character comes across flat. We sympathize and empathize with Edmund during his opening soliloquy; we never do so with Iago.

What about us? Why should we care about Ahab's requested qualification?

My initial (and perhaps oblivious) answer is what I noted above. We can identify a little with Ahab, and that makes his story more interesting and poignant.

I mentioned this story on Friday night to my family, fully expecting to have the above discussion with my kids. My wife, however, took the story in a different direction.

She noted that Ahab's evil was not mitigated by Jezebel. To the contrary: Ahab listened to her time and time again. He was more culpable for continuing in this relationship, not less culpable. (In fact, the next midrash (1:6:136) makes a similar point.) This is an exacerbating factor, not a mitigating one.

That may be true, I noted cleverly, but it does not seem to be what the midrash is saying. After all, Ahab appeared to R. Levi and requested this clarification. He would not have done so if it were an exacerbating factor.

Not so, my wife replied, even more cleverly. The midrash is not saying that this was a mitigating factor. It is only saying that Ahab thought this was a mitigating factor. Ahab was oblivious in life. Why would anyone think that death would have improved him?


My wife is exactly right. The first time that Ahab listened to Jezebel and did something wrong, he might have had an excuse. But when this happened time after time, and year after year, Ahab became even more culpable. He repeatedly and knowingly places himself in a situation where he would be influenced to act wrongfully. And that was a separate (and in many ways worse) problem.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Monday, December 8, 2008

Indiana Jones would love this one

Aggadah # 115 takes Psalm 24, familiar to many of us from the liturgy, and transforms its parallel questions and answers into a conversation between King Solomon and the gates of the Temple. The gates challenge Solomon when he tries to bring the Ark of the Covenant in, and Solomon asserts that they should open for the "King of Glory," which apparently is not convincing for the gates; they respond only when Solomon claims the right to bring in the Ark based on his father's good deeds.
The textual problem is only apparent when we compare this version of the story to the Biblical story of the dedication of Solomon's Temple in both I Kings and II Chronicles. While these versions differ slightly (as is usual between Kings and Chronicles), they agree that "The priests brought the Ark of the Lord's Covenant to its place in the inner sanctuary of the Temple, in the Holy of Holies..." (II Chronicles 5:7 and a similar verse in I Kings 8:6). Neither version mentions anything about Solomon himself bringing the Ark into the Temple or about any difficulty encountered bringing it inside. In both Biblical versions of the story, the priests are able to put the Ark into its proper place inside the Temple without incident, and the cloud of the Divine Presence comes to rest in the Temple shortly afterwards. The quote from Chronicles that, in our aggadah, supposedly guarantees Solomon entrance does not actually appear until after Solomon has officially dedicated the Temple and completed his blessings and exhortations, long after the Ark is safely inside.
So why invent a scenario that directly conflicts the Biblical account? Why create a scene in which Solomon himself has so much trouble bringing the Ark inside the Temple? What textual problem is this aggadah answering?
I think this aggadah stems from anxieties or conflicts surrounding the Ark and the establishment of the Temple. The Biblical text itself evidences some discomfort about the Ark. Both Kings and Chronicles tell us, "Ein baaron rak shnei luchot haavanim asher hiniach sham Moshe..." "There was nothing in the Ark except for the two tablets of stone that Moses placed there..." (I Kings 8:9 and the parallel verse in II Chronicles 5:10) The strange negative phrasing implies that someone, at some point, alleged that there was something else in the Ark. This is the same piece of furniture that zaps people when they try to keep it from falling (II Samuel 6:6-8), strikes down whole Philistine cities with plagues (I Samuel ch. 5&6), and precedes the Cloud of the Presence pretty much everywhere. So there's clearly a danger of idolatry with this object and a fear that the barely-contained power of the Ark will suddenly be unleashed, despite the fact that if the Temple is going to be the legitimate "heir" to the Mishkan, the dwelling-place of God's presence, the Ark must come to rest there. Hence the gates' ambivalence about letting it in (and that of the rabbis of the Babylonian Talmud who authored this midrash).
This aggadah also tries to justify the idea that despite being the fruit of King David's sinful alliance with Batsheva, Solomon is worthy of being the one to build and consecrate the Temple. There is even a hint in the first question, "Who is the King of Glory?" that the gates think Solomon is referring to himself-- and perhaps he is, until the gates' question makes him reconsider. Solomon not only has to unequivocally demonstrate his humility before God, but also has to show that he recognizes that his merit derives from his father before he can establish the Temple. In one fell swoop, this aggadah justifies the claim of the entire Davidic line while simultaneously expressing deep-seated questions about whether or not the Temple itself presents the danger of idolatry. Go rabbis, and sorry, Indiana.

Challah on Shabbos

Iron was created to shorten man's days, while the altar was created to lengthen his days. What shortens life should not be listed as a tool to build what lengthens life.
I love this Midrash. It provides the basis for our personal Minhag of always tearing rather than slicing Challah on Erev Shabbos. The Shabbos table should also be thought of as that which lengthens life.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Sefer Ha-Bloggadah: week 16

This week: MostlyKing Solomon, then some highlights (or lowlights?) from the period of the divided monarchy. An as-yet undetermined number of two-headed aliens.

  • Monday - 1:6:111-117 (Solomon as Builder) - see I Kings 6-7
  • Tuesday - 1:6:118 (Solomon's Throne) - see I Kings 10
  • Wednesday - 1:6:119-121 (Solomon and the Queen of Sheba) - see I Kings 10
  • Thursday - 1:6:122-124 (Solomon -- King and Commoner)
  • Friday - 1:6:125-130 (Jeroboam) - see I Kings 11-13
  • Saturday/Sunday - 1:6:131-141 (Omri and Ahab; Elijah and the Worshipers of Baal) - see I Kings 16-18

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

1:6:71-80: An Imperfect King

1 December 2008 (again a bit late)

Monday’s selection of midrashim cover the selection, reign, and death of King Saul. One might ask BZ’s continual question: why are these incidents the ones that Bialik and Ravnitzky choose to focus on? We have less than two pages of midrashim on events that take up, oh, about half of the book of Samuel I. And indeed, this lack of focus on Saul seems to parallel the general rabbinic emphasis: David and Solomon are the kings on which we focus, while Saul is a bit of a detour into the House of Joseph before we settle down into the House of Judah and the Davidic line.

One thread that runs through a couple of these midrashim on Saul is his suitability (or lack therof) for the kingship. As the first midrash writes, “Why did Saul merit kingship? Because of his humility” (1:6:71). It then goes on to explore the compassion Saul felt for his servant, a compassion for all creatures that is also referenced in midrash 75. There, Saul’s unwillingness to kill Agag and the Amalekites—which Samuel clearly sees as selfishness and arrogance—is transmuted into compassion for every living thing. While the midrash then goes on to criticize Saul for defying Samuel and God’s will, its critique does not override the earlier compliment. Saul may be brazen, but the midrash acknowledges that what is being asked of him is possibly immoral.

The surface work of these midrashim is to reclaim Saul’s character as one who is noble and worthy of reigning, to justify God’s choice of him. We can read their compliments, however, as a deeper critical comment on Saul’s character. Saul fell because of his inability to make critical distinctions, to separate the noble from the base, to know when to sacrifice an underling and when to save them. We see this in his willingness to sacrifice Jonathan for transgressing his father’s commandment (I Samuel 14:44), a sacrifice that was only overruled because of popular uproar. While such compassion and steadfastness may be praiseworthy in an average citizen, it is the job of the ruler to make difficult decisions, to prize the royals over the commoners, and to follow God’s law even when it may seem capricious.

I connect this inability to make critical distinctions to the “evil spirit” that often comes upon Saul, a spirit that seems very similar to what we might describe as mental illness or depression. One of the hallmarks of depression is this inability to see things in shades of gray, to wrest oneself from the grips of absolutes. And despite Saul’s attempt to soothe his pain with David’s music, his jealousy at David’s simple wholeness is what finally brings him down. The final two midrashim on Saul’s death (1.6.78-80) are poignant tales of how the people mourned for this imperfect king, who “waived the honor due him” (79) and thus lost the throne.

--Sara Meirowitz

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

1:6:81-84: Answering the Why

The Section "David and the Works of the Lord" contains two lovely midrashim. The first tries to answer the question of theodicy. It finds a rationale for something considered "evil," madness and justifies it because it allowed David to escape from King Achish. While it teaches a wonderful lesson in humility, it doesn't really justify madness. Must the many suffer to save King David once?

The second story about the wasp and the spider attempts to show that all pieces fit into creation and are needed. Again, the midrash justifies the two creatures for David's personal gain. Today we are able to understand the ecology of these two insects. To me ecology and the wondrous ways in which the world fits together make me appreciate G!d all the more. Not philospically or scientifically but through emotion and feeling. I think the Rabbis who wrote this material may have had a greater sense of awe than we do so this midrash could build on that. Would that we with our knowledge of the universe would use that knowledge to praise G!d not to destroy Her universe.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Sefer Ha-Bloggadah: week 15

From anarchy to monarchy. We go from the everyone-for-him/herself period of the Judges to the reigns of Saul and David, and a little bit about Solomon. A key to understanding this week's aggadot: since the book of Psalms is ascribed to David, just about any line from Psalms can be construed as something that David said. (We'll see the same thing next week with the books ascribed to Solomon.)
  • Monday - 1:6:71-80 (King Saul; The Death of Saul) - see I Samuel 9-15, 28-31
  • Tuesday - 1:6:81-84 (David the Shepherd; David and the Works of the Lord) - see I Samuel 16-21
  • Wednesday - 1:6:85-92 (David's Harp; David's Sin and Repentance; David's Humility)
  • Thursday - 1:6:93-99 (David and Abner; David and Israel's Enemies; David and His Son Absalom) - see I Samuel 26, II Samuel 2, 8, 13-15
  • Friday - 1:6:100-104 (David and Ishbi-benob; David's Death) - see II Samuel 21
  • Saturday/Sunday - 1:6:105-110 (The Wisdom and Greatness of King Solomon) - see I Kings 3-5

Thursday, November 27, 2008

1:6:52 – A thought for Thanksgiving

R. Ze'era said: The Scroll of Ruth tells us nothing of the laws of cleanness or uncleanness, of what is prohibited or what is permitted. Why then was it written? To teach you how great is the reward of those who do deeds of kindness

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

1:6:13-22—Leadership Woes

24 November 2008 (a day late)

It’s been a few weeks since I’ve posted here—a transatlantic trip threw my posting schedule into disarray—and since I’ve been offline, both the United States and the city of Jerusalem have elected new leadership. It thus seems only right to comment today on these rather-pessimistic midrashim on leadership in the book of Judges. A few meandering thoughts:

Today’s first midrash (1:6:13) gives a pithy exhortation to leaders and followers alike to elect moral and purposeful leaders. “Woe unto the generation that judges its judges, and woe unto the generation whose judges are in need of being judged.” Living in a democratic society, we may underrate the importance of this caveat: when has a political campaign not revolved around judging the candidates? But I do see the wisdom of picking leaders who seem to stand on high moral ground, whose judgments will not be compromised by public concern about their personal failings.

One thing that makes the book of Judges so hard to read is this very element of the tragic flaw in each judge’s story. Yiftach and Shimshon stand as the quintessential examples of this paradigm: rashness and recklessness tainted their power and leadership. It’s harder for me to see Devorah’s flaw, with my modern feminist eyes, but the first midrash on Devorah punches me with what the rabbis, at least, would have seen as her flaw: “woe unto the generation that has to be led by a woman” (1:6:19). It’s even hard to type the lines in an egalitarian forum such as this one. Nevertheless, the textual analyst in me understands the ways in which Devorah’s gender prevented her from taking the initiative in the ways her fellow judges did. While R. Berekhiah condemns Devorah’s generation for needing to be led by a woman, I see his words as an outgrowth of the first midrash: when a society needs to criticize its leaders for their personal distinctions, they will be unable to learn fully from the proffered model of leadership.

Something that somewhat redeems for me the rabbinic view of Devorah is the next midrash (1:6:20), which tells the story of Devorah’s uneducated husband Lappidot. Devorah took the skills at her disposal and created a job for her husband, teaching him a trade appropriate to him that also benefited the society. In many ways, the story of Devorah is one of seeing the different paths that each person takes to harness his or her individual potential: Devorah encourages the nervous Barak to lead his army, while the secret agent Yael uses her skills to snag and eliminate Sisera.

Devorah herself knows that her main skill lies in her voice: she sits in judgment, she sings, and she gives support. May these new leaders we’ve elected know the best ways to use their divine skills to give counsel, to get counsel, and to help others in our society rise to their highest potentials.

--Sara Meirowitz

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Sefer Ha-Bloggadah: week 14

Now that Israel is settled in the land (Happy Thanksgiving!), we continue through the books of Judges, Ruth, and Samuel. Citations are provided, since these biblical stories are less familiar to many of us than the stories in the Torah.

  • Monday - 1:6:13-23 (In the Days When the Judges Judged; The Prophetess Deborah) - see Judges 4-5
  • Tuesday - 1:6:24-32 (Jephthah and His Daughter; Samson) - see Judges 11-16
  • Wednesday - 1:6:33-38 (Micah's Idol) - see Judges 17-18
  • Thursday - 1:6:39-52 (The Scroll of Ruth)
  • Friday - 1:6:53-58 (Elkanah and Hannah; The Sons of Eli) - see I Samuel 1-2
  • Saturday/Sunday - 1:6:59-70 (Samuel; The Destruction of Shiloh; The Sons of Samuel) - see I Samuel 3-8

Tuesday, November 18, 2008


We're approaching the end of the Torah, and Sefer Ha-Aggadah has been very thorough on some stories in the Torah (including some relatively obscure ones), and completely silent on others (including most of Parshat Chayei Sarah, this week's portion).

Top Ten Notable Stories in the Torah Absent from Sefer Ha-Aggadah: (listed chronologically)
1. The purchase of the cave of Machpelah (Genesis 23)
2. Abraham's servant and Rebekah (Genesis 24)
3. Dinah (Genesis 34)
4. Judah and Tamar (Genesis 38)
5. Moses seeing God's "back" and receiving the second set of tablets (Exodus 33-34)
6. The deaths of Nadav and Avihu (Leviticus 10)
7. The quail (Numbers 11)
8. Aaron and Miriam talking smack about Moses (Numbers 12)
9. Pinechas (Numbers 25)
10. The tribes of Reuben and Gad (Numbers 32)

There are certainly piles of midrashim about all these stories (as on everything else in the Torah). Thoughts on why these didn't make the cut?

Monday, November 17, 2008

Modah ani lefanecha...

Last summer, I took a short course with Rabbi Amy Kalmanofsky about sefer Bamidbar, during which we focused on analyzing the book on its own terms instead of in the context of the other books of the chumash. We know that, for the Jewish people, the chumash has a happy ending-- the Israelites eventually get to enter Canaan, conquer the other peoples, and set up their own monarchy before things start going south again. We tend to forget about what life must have been life for the generation of the exodus, the generation that died in the desert. Remember the curse that God gives them? The people say (14:2) they'd rather die in the desert than try to conquer Canaan, and here is God's response (14:28-33) "I will do to you just as you have urged me. In this very wilderness shall your carcasses drop... your children, who you said would be carried off-- these I will allow to enter; they shall know the land that you rejected. But your carcasses shall drop in this wilderness, while your children roam the wilderness for forty years, suffering for your faithlessness, until the last of your carcasses is down in the wilderness." (translation from the JPS)
Aggadah #123 emerges from this moment in the Israelite story. It imagines that exactly one-fortieth of that generation died each year on the same night, the night of Tisha B'Av. Rather than a slow attrition that could be attributed to age or illness, these deaths are sudden, predictable, and deliberate, the unmistakable hand of God. What strikes me most about the people's attitude here is their total acceptance of their fate. These people, who struggled with faith in the midst of (arguably) the greatest miracles ever, discover total belief when faced with God's harsh judgment. They are so certain about the imminence of their own deaths that when their punishment is finally over, they conclude that they've miscalculated the date and return to sleep in their graves for another six nights.
Remember, this is the generation of slavery, the generation of Israelites whose formative years were spent in oppression and degradation. For a former slave, the inevitability of death and destruction must be easier to believe in than God's lovingkindness and protection (the attributes so extensively portrayed in other aggadot in these sections). Does this aggadah also point to a generalizable aspect of human psychology? In what situations are we more inclined to believe that the worst will happen than to have faith in the potential for the best? Do we unknowingly reject love and blessing by not believing that it is real or that it will continue? Here's to not following in our ancestors' steps in this regard-- let's allow our beliefs to be shaped by daily (and possibly unremarkable) miracles instead of only being touched by the most dramatic and painful experiences.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Sefer Ha-Bloggadah: week 13

This is it: after almost three months, this is the week we finish the Torah! (Why does the story of Eldad and Medad, found in Numbers 11, appear here, rather than sometime early last week? I haven't read the aggadot yet, so I don't know the answer.) But we're not going to loop back around to the beginning; rather, we'll continue with the book of Joshua (covering it in just one weekend) and beyond. The section on Moses's death is taken up mostly by one very long (and famous) aggadah; rather than split it up, the schedule puts it all on one day (Thursday), and to compensate, the other days have less than usual. So feel free to spread out your own reading more equitably over the course of the week.

  • Monday - 1:5:121-126 (Israel's Provisioning in the Wilderness; The End of the Forty Years in the Wilderness)
  • Tuesday - 1:5:127-133 (The Prophecy of Moses; Eldad and Medad)
  • Wednesday - 1:5:134-136 (Moses and Joshua)
  • Thursday - 1:5:137 (The Death of Moses)
  • Friday - 1:5:138-142 (The Death of Moses; Moses' Burial Place)
  • Saturday/Sunday - 1:6:1-12 (The Chosen Land; Joshua)

1:5:114-117: How The Daughters of Zelophehad Radically Changed Halacha (And No One Seems to Have Noticed)

(Note: this is a revision and an elaboration of an earlier post from my other blog.)

The story of the Daughters of Zelophehad is one of the most fascinating legal stories in the Torah. It is divided into two parts, and the end of this story (at the very end of Numbers) is the last act Moses does in the Torah, apart from his long speech or speeches in Deuteronomy. Moses' final act is not to faithfully transmit a static set of law, but instead to modify an existing in the name of God and justice, and thereby set up up a flexible evolving common law approach to halacha.

Here's the background. Each of the 12 tribes was to own a specific region of the land, and all of the families in that tribe would own some portion of that tribe's land. The land would remain in both the tribe and family. If the land were sold, it would revert back to the family every fifty years in the Jubilee year. (Lev. 25:13, 23-24.) Since a person's tribe is determined patrilineally, the original scheme was that only males could inherit land. Thus, a father's land holdings would be passed down to his son or sons. A daughter would presumably marry and join the family of her husband. In short, the law set up a fairly conservative static system that would preserve family land holdings through male inheritance.

This was the state of the law until the daughters of Zelophehad showed up. (Num. 27:1-11.) Zelophehad was a member of the tribe of Manasseh, and he died with five daughters but no sons. Under the rules then in place, his daughters would be left with no inheritance. The daughters argued to Moses and everyone else that they should be allowed to inherent his share. "Let not our father's name be lost to his clan just because he had no son! Give us a holding among our father's kinsmen." (Num 27:4.) Moses then checked with God.

One of our midrashim (1:5:116) humorously reflects the attitudes of Talmudic times. It notes that the daughters of Zelophehad were wise and knew how to argue. They waited until Moses was elaborating on the laws of levirate marriage. They then argued that if their status is of sons, they should inherit, and if their status is of daughters, then their mother should be subject to a levirate marriage. This forceful argument prompted Moses to check with God. Sometimes, midrashim reflect more on the storyteller than then characters in the story, and this one --- with a clever separation of cases argument --- reflects a session of gemara in Talmudic times more than a discussion in the Sinai wilderness.

But let's continue with the story. Moses checked with God, and God said that the daughters were right. "The plea of Zelophehad's daughter is just." (Num. 27:5.) From now on, the rule is that if a man dies without sons but with daughters, the property should be transferred to his daughters. (If he dies without any children, there is a more complex hierarchy of inheritance.)

Another midrash (1:5:117) splits on whether Moses actually knew the law (but consulted God to avoid embarrassing the numerous other authorities who did not, or did not actually know the law because it was such a difficult case. The latter explanation seems right to me. There is no indication in the text at all that Moses might have actually known the law. Moreover, there is nothing in any earlier law that suggests that this exception for families with only daughters was in fact the law.

Thus, this was not merely an elaboration or clarification of the existing law but an entirely new rule. Before this "case" was brought, the daughters would have received nothing and Zelophehad's other relatives would have inherited land. Now the daughters inherent and the other relatives receive nothing. And the basis for this change in the law, according to God, is simply justice. "The plea of Zelophehad's Daughter's is just." (Num. 27:5.)

Accordingly, this story shows something important about the law. It evolves. The children of Israel started with one set of legal rules, but they proved to be unjust in a particular situation. God then modified the rules to comport with justice, producing a second set of rules.

It gets better. Eight chapters later, in the last chapter of Numbers, new people show up with a new problem with this law. And it changes again. (Num. 36:1-12.)

The family heads of Zelophehad's clan show up with a complaint. If the daughters of Zelophehad marry someone from another tribe, the sons for this new marriage will inherit not only their father's land holding (from the other tribe), but also the land holdings of Zelophehad (from Manasseh). So some family from another tribe will end up permanently owning land smack dab in the middle of Manasseh. The total amount of land that the people of Manasseh own will be permanently reduced.

Moses agreed with this argument and "commanded the children of Israel according to the word of the Lord, saying 'The pleas of the the tribe of the sons of Joseph is just.'" Moses then set forth a new rule: daughters may inherit under the old rule only if they marry members of their own tribe. If they marry members of a different tribe, they may not inherit. (The end of the story is that the Daughters of Zelophehad ended up marrying their uncles or cousins, and everyone lived happily ever after.)

So by this time, the law has now gone through three stages of development. The original law (only sons inherit), the modified law (daughters can inherit if there are no sons), and the modified modified law (only if they marry someone from their tribe).

Several points are worth noting here.

First, the Torah could have given us just the final rule without showing any of its intermediate forms of development. The fact that we see the evolution of the law suggests that the evolution itself is important, not just the final law.

Second, Moses used the identical language (and the Hebrew is identical: keyn) to describe the plea of the Manasseh tribe here that God used to describe the plea of the daughters of Zelophehad. Their plea is "just". (Some translations use "right".)

Third, the text does not say that Moses checked with God before stating the new rule. Instead, Moses himself spoke to the Children of Israel "al pi Adonai": according to the work of God.

Fourth, Moses changed the very law that God himself had earlier changed.

What do we make of this? I think requires people to modify halacha, even an explicit law of the Torah, so long as it is based on justice. This is not merely permitted, but it required as part of the divine methodology, "al pi Adonai".

God himself first changed the law when confronted with a just plea. Once God established this methodology, Moses was not only free, but obligated, to employ this methodology himself in response to the other litigants with a just plea. And doing so, he spoke "al pi Adonai."

This may seem like a radical notion of law. But in fact, it is exactly how Anglo-American common law works. Judges initially promulgate a set of rules, one case at a time. But over time, new situations arise that do not merely require the application of existing laws to new situations, but actually require the legal rules themselves to change in response to these new situations. But this is not a license for judges to change the law because of personal preferences or to ignore the law altogether. Under stare decisis, there is a strong presumption for leaving settled law alone. It takes a strong showing of injustice to change the common law. But when a party can make such a showing, the common law changes.

Law may start out static. But it cannot remain that way forever. The last act that Moses took in the Torah was a forward looking juridical act. He took an existing law, explicitly set forth by God, and changed it in the name of justice.

Friday, November 14, 2008


Like prominent Jblogger DovBear, I'm all for reversing negative perceptions of minor character traditionally cast as villains. Today's selection from Sefer Ha-Aggadah is a perfect chance to do just that.

We have been told that Balaam is a villain. In this agadah, he is compared to cheating moneychanger.
And Goc came upon Balaam, whosaid until Him: "I have prepared seven altars." [...] Balaam was like the moneychanger who gave false weights. The chief of the market, becoming aware of it, asked the moneychanger, "Why are you cheating by giving false weights?" The latter said, "I have already taken care of you with a gift sent to your home." So too Balaam.
We know that much of the specificty of sacrifice laws is designed simply to set apart the practices of the Israelites from their neighbors. No less than Rambam, corroborated by archaeological evidence in the 20th century, asserted that the prohibition against meat and milk (don't boil a calf in its mother's milk) is designed to keep not from eating cheeseburgers, but from participating in a particular pagan ritual where a calf is literally boiled in milk from its own mother's udder.

The point isn't necessarily that the pagan practice is wrong, but that it is wrong for Jews. We are to be set apart through our unique ritual practices.

All of that being said, I prefer to envision Balaam not as an evil man, but as an unaware man. He clearly has a relationship with God--not everyone talks to God with regularity that Balaam does. Indeed, the text describes him as a foreign prophet. A prophet! Is he a prophet of some evil foreign god? Clear not, given his aforementioned relationship with our own God.

Are his seven altars then to be interpereted as some evil pagan machination? No. Though not a Jew, he's also, by definition, not a pagan, given his relationship with God. Is it evil? No. He is unaware of the special nature of the Jews he's been sent to curse and he's baffled at God's insistence that he cut it out.


I have to admit, my assigned midrashim don't so much grab me this week. Nevertheless, I will say one thing about Moses and Og. Namely, to let you know I'm still pretty psyched about the election: hey those ants, they're really something when they all get together, aren't they? Isn't it great when the Holy One uses the small, in great numbers, to immobilize the great and powerful?
Moses gave the giant a whack to the knees - and apparently those were quite some knees. But even though the one who took Og down was a giant among men, it was the ants that made it possible.

I'm trying to restore myself to my usual level of cynicism soon, before people wonder who kidnapped me.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Does K represent Sadducee viewpoint?

I've been studying from the copy of Sefer Ha-Aggadah that belonged to my grandfather, Rabbi Dr. A. Stanley Dreyfus z"l. Ordinarily we just have our own interpretation of Bialik and Ravnitsky's interpretation of the rabbis' interpretation of the Torah, but this occasionally adds a fifth level. At the top of today's section on Korach, handwritten in pencil, it says "Does K represent Sadducee viewpoint?". I'd be interested in hearing thoughts on that, since I'm not entirely sure what he meant. It seems to me that Korach's main argument, as portrayed in these aggadot, is that Moses and Aaron are using the priestly cult for their own personal gain, and the rabbis'/Pharisees' beef with the Sadducees was that they were using the priestly cult for their own personal gain. The rabbis, like Korach, favored more distributed leadership, rather than a centralized priesthood. So if anyone is painted as a Sadducee here, it seems to be Moses and Aaron. Thoughts?

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Sefer Ha-Bloggadah: week 12

Speeding through the book of Numbers! We're covering about 40 years in one week.

  • Monday - 1:5:84-92 (The Scouts)
  • Tuesday - 1:5:93-99 (The Controversy of Korah and His Company)
  • Wednesday - 1:5:100-106 (The Waters of Meribah; Litigious [Impertinent, and Suspicious] Persons; Aaron)
  • Thursday - 1:5:107-110 (Aaron's Death; The Miracles in the Valley of Arnon)
  • Friday - 1:5:111-113 (Og, King of Bashan; Balaam)
  • Saturday/Sunday - 1:5:114-120 (The Daughters of Zelophehad; The War with Midian)

Giving the Torah - Angels (slightly late)

Sorry, I am late but I was under the weather.

I found section 49 fascinating because it so encapsulizes Rabbinic thinking. Anything can be questioned even G!d's actions. Then it is debated using arguments based on Torah verses and logic. The result is often a new way of seeing things.

Here the debate leads us to the point that Torah is not for those who find leading a moral life easy, like the angels, but those who need its guidance. It also points out the danger of elitism, the good things should only go to those who are or think themselves superior to others.

Section 49

R. Joshua ben Levi taught: When Moses went up on high, the ministering angels dared say to the Holy One: Master of the universe, what business does one born of woman have in our midst? God replied: He came to receive the Torah. They argued: This precious thing, which has been stored with You for nine hundred and seventy-four generations before the world was created, You are about to give to mere flesh and blood? "O Lord, our Lord, how glorious is Thy Name in all the earth! Let Thy majesty continue to be celebrated above the heavens. . . .

What is man that Thou shouldst be mindful of him, and the son of man that Thou shouldst think of him?" (Ps. 8:2 and 8:5). Then the Holy One said to Moses: Let you be the one to reply to the ministering angels. Moses spoke right up: Master of the universe, I fear that they will consume me with the fiery breath of their mouths. God said: Take hold of the throne of My glory and reply to them. Moses spoke up again: The Torah You are about to give me--what is written in it? "I am the Lord thy God, that brought thee out of the land of Egypt" (Exod. 20:2). Then, turning to the angels, he asked: Did you go down to Egypt? Were you enslaved to Pharaoh?

What need have you for the Torah? What else is written in it? "Ye shall have no gods that others worship" (Exod. 20:3)--do you live among nations who worship idols? What else is written in it? "Thou shalt not take the Name of the Lord thy God in vain" (Exod. 20:7)--are there business dealings among you [that might lead to swearing a false oath]? What else is written in it? "Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy" (Exod. 20:8)--do you do the kind of work that requires you to rest? What else is written in it? "Honor thy father and thy mother" (Exod. 20:12)--do you have father or mother? What else is written in it? "Thou shalt not murder, thou shalt not commit adultery, thou shalt not steal" (Exod. 20:13)--is there rivalry among you, is the impulse to evil within you?At that, the angels conceded to the Holy One, for at the psalm's end, they said once more, "O Lord, our Lord, how glorious is Thy Name in all the earth," although they did not add [as before], "Let Thy majesty continue to be celebrated above the heavens."

Then each of the angels came to be favorably disposed toward Moses and gave him a token of his favor, as is implied by what was said to him: "Thou hast ascended on high; thou hast taken the prize [of Torah]; thou hast received gifts [to compensate for the angels' calling thee] a mere man [a groundling]" (Ps. 68:19). Even the angel of death turned over his secret to Moses, for later, after the plague had begun, it is said of Moses that he told Aaron to "put on the incense and make atonement for the people" (Num. 17:12); and Scripture goes on to say, "And he stood between those who were about to die and those who were to remain alive" (Num. 17:13). How would Moses have been able to distinguish between the two, had not the angel of death made him a gift of the secret?

Friday, November 7, 2008

The Value of of Work

Buried in today's midrashim is a peculiar little piece. In number (English) 79, we read a little midrash from Tanhuma which suggests that the reason for the building of the MIshkan may have been, well, busywork.

It drashes the word Vayehi with the vav-yud combination being read as "woe", thus giving us, "Woe on the day that Moses made an end of setting up the Tabernacle" (hehe, I just love the word, Tabernacle. If one isn't a Mormon, how often can one use it these days? Anyhow...) So, why, "woe?" Because, says the midrash, building the mishkan can be made analogous to to someone who has a grumpy (well, wife in this case, but anyone one is tied to in some way will work) wife - the king gave her a task (one, which, by the way, required a lot of skill and effort) and while she was involved with it, she did not grumble, but as soon as the task was finished, she brought it to him and he started to grumble. She was rightfully annoyed and asked why he was moaning, and he answered that she was pleasant to be around while she was working, and now that she was done, he was afraid she would start to nag him again.

A couple of thoughts, not necessarily connected, occurred to me while reading this:
First, it reminds me of other midrashim that make clear that work is considered valuable for its own sake:

Avot d’rabbi natan (perek 2) a commentary on what is sometimes called “the sayings of the fathers” – mishna avot, comments on this passage
"Love work, hate lordship and seek no intimacy with the ruling powers."

The commentary says:
Love work: what is that? This teaches that a person should love work and that no one should hate work, For even as the Torah was given as a covenant, so was work given as a covenant; as it is said, “Six days shall you labor, and do all your work; but the seventh say is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. (Ex 20:9 ff)

We so often think of Shabbat as our only covenant, but in fact, say the rabbis, work is also a covenant. In fact, Avot D'rabbi Natan goes on to say, "Rabbi Tarfon says: The Holy One, blessed Be, likewise did not cause the Shekhinah to rest upon Israel before they did work, as it is said, 'And let them make me a sanctuary, then I shall dwell among them.' (Ex. 25:8)"

From these midrashim, we get a sense that it is the act of working itself which is part of what makes us holy, and more to the point, that the act of building the Mishkan, because it is holy work, is ennobling, but that the daily work of our lives partakes of that holiness as well (as long as, of course, the work is not something sinful in itself), that we should value work for the sake of the fact that the habit of work makes us better people both as individuals and as a nation.

The midrash presented in Sefer Ha'aggadah here, however, seems to resist that idea. There, the work of Israel is something God did to keep us out of God's hair essentially, not to ennoble us or make us holy, and when it came to an end, God worried about our future behavior.

I suppose that's not entirely in contradiction to these other midrashim: one could also read it as saying that when we were in the wilderness, when we were a people who were held in God's hand and didn't otherwise have any task to which we needed to bend ourselves, we were in danger of becoming lazy and ungrateful. We could understand it as saying that there was a need for the work of building the Mishkan because otherwise we would fall out of the habits that made us deserving of redemption.

Now, that would be an interesting reading. And I say this because with the recent election, my mind naturally wanders in that direction:
First, there's the sort-of directly related link: we all had to work very hard to get the change in management to happen. Now that we have succeeded, though, we shouldn't think the work is over. What was the meaning of the Mishkan? It was the place where those in exile came together to get in touch with the divine. It was simultaneously a place of community and holiness, to bring God's will into the world. Now, without wandering into idolatry territory, let's tone that down to a human level:

The campaigning was not done for the sake of the election (just like the Mishkan shouldn't have been just to build a building) but was in order to begin something new, to begin to turn this country onto a path where our everyday behavior towards one another and towards the world would slowly be changed; where we would be able to put together leadership that would help us, as a country, organize to head in a better direction, to solve problems that have plagued us for the last 25 (or more) years.

There is always a danger when a new president comes in that once he (or, someday, im yirtzeh, she) begins, we turn to bitching and moaning because the problems don't just evaporate on the morrow. That's what our midrash warns of. If we are to make the work that we did in the process holy, then we have to realize that it isn't over. In fact, it will never be over. The mishkan may have been built, but the mishkan isn't finished being built just because the building is set up. The mishkan is not, in fact, just a building - the building of the mishkan is the start, not the finish, of the work to make ourselves fit for God. Holiness is not in things, but in us, and in the work that we do, every day, not just in the special projects that seem pretty and important.

Finally, there's also the sweet synchronicity of the work of work: if we say that we value work, that work is holy, then we must also value the people who do the work. How sweet it is that this presidency - I hope- will mark a return to valuing the actual people who work, and not necessarily just valuing people who have money.

I believe this president will honor that value, and so I say in honor of this midrash, and the idea that building the mishkan is not, in fact, busywork, as long as we move forward with the understanding that the work of creating the foundation is not the finished product, that there is an aggadah from the Talmud worth blending into the mix we have here:

“A favourite saying of the Rabbis of Yavneh was: I am God's creature and my fellow is God's creature. My work is in the town and his work is in the country. I rise early for my work and he rises early for his work. Just as he does not presume to do my work, so I do not presume to do his work. Will you say, I do much and he does little? We have learnt: One may do much or one may do little; it is all one, provided he directs his heart to heaven. (Brachot 17a)

And finally, to close with Moshe's blessing upon Israel when they finished their work on the mishkan, and let it be upon us in the opening of what I pray will be a new era of building a mishkan of holy work, of valuing what is valuable.

אמר להם יהי רצון שֶּׁתִּשְּׁרֶה שכינה במעשה ידיכם, ויהי נועם ה' אלהינו עלינו וּמַעֲשֵׂה יָדֵינוּ כּוֹנְנָה עָלֵינוּ וּמַעֲשֵׂה יָדֵינוּ כּוֹנְנֵהוּ
(תהלים צ, יז).

May the Shechinah rest in the work of your hands. “May the pleasantness of the Lord our God be upon us and establish the work of our hands upon us; Prosper the work of our hands.” (tehillim/psalms 90:17)

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Golden Calves

"There is no generation that does not receive a particle [of retribution] for the making of the golden calf." And there is no generation that does not make a golden calf. In every generation some sage will earn his keep by selling perfume adjacent to a whore house. Dare the sage feign surprise when his son strays? Sefer Ha-Bloggadah sits on the same "street" with awesomesex ( Are there no readers here who have not also clicked on blogs that feature golden calves?

Our text proclaims that God is not only long suffering toward the righteous, but toward the wicked as well. Why would the righteous tax God's patience at all? The Holy One can surely distinguish one who is momentarily overtaken by the evil inclination from one who is drowning in it. And why does God's patience extend to the wicked? Is it that there is a spark of potential holiness in even the most dedicated sinner?

The polarity of these texts confounds me. Where is the wickedness? What is wicked about confusion? We yearned communally for something beautiful and mistook a barren vessel for a holy container. It happens every day to the high and the low, to scholars and tramps, and no day will pass when it does not happen somewhere on this earth.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Sefer Ha-Bloggadah: week 11

This week we finish up with the giving of the Torah, and then slam on the gas pedal. After spending over 2 months on Genesis and the first half of Exodus, we're going to zoom through the other 3 1/2 books of the Torah in 2 1/2 weeks. (The narrative parts, anyway. We'll hit some of the non-narrative parts in the non-chronological books of Sefer Ha-Aggadah.) Note that we're not necessarily hitting these stories in the same order they appear in the Torah. The reason for this is an interesting subject for speculation.

  • Monday - 1:5:40-47 (The Giving of the Torah)
  • Tuesday - 1:5:48-55 (The Giving of the Torah)
  • Wednesday - 1:5:56-61 (Nadab and Abihu; The Sin of the Golden Calf)
  • Thursday - 1:5:62-68 (The Sin of the Golden Calf)
  • Friday - 1:5:69-81 (The Tabernacle and Its Vessels) [Note that the Hebrew edition, apparently accidentally, has two sections numbered 8.]
  • Saturday/Sunday - 1:5:82-83 (Israel's Journey and Encampment in the Wilderness)

1:5:35 - Different Manifestations of God

The Torah does not say much about the nature of God. Instead, it seems to suggest that we cannot really know God's nature. Our midrash here follows suit.

"I am the Lord thy God" Because the Holy One appeared to them at the Red Sea as a mighty man waging war, at Sinai as a pedagogue teaching Torah, in the days of Solomon as a young man, and in the days of Daniel as an aged man full of mercy, the Holy One said: Because you see Me in many guises, do not imagine that there are many gods --- for I am He who was with you at the Red Sea, I am He who was with you at Sinai, I am the same everywhere. "I am the Lord thy God."

For a long time, philosophers tried to understand things. Aristotle, for example, wrote books on physics, metaphysics, rhetoric, politics, ethics, and (of all things) botany. Medieval philosophers relied on rich and complex logical arguments to explain --- and even to "prove" --- the nature of things, including God. Enlightenment thinkers shifted towards a more empirical basis for such analysis, and this latter approach worked extraordinarily well in some areas, like science.

But all this took a sharp turn in the late 18th Century, when Kant argued that we never perceive something in and of itself (the "ding an sich"), but instead all our knowledge of things is really based on our subjective knowledge of the idea of the thing. That is, we do not experience a tree directly; we experience our perceptions or ideas of trees. So Kant wrote books on some of these mental processes: reason, judgment, etc.

Kant's insight led to all sorts of shifts in thinking, most of which I do not understand (and most of which my co-blogger Diane does understand). But one theme that emerged from this is the importance of subjective perceptions and perspectives. This is not to suggestive that everything is subjective and relative, but certainly some things can be differently, and perhaps better, understood from a subjective and relative point-of-view.

Our midrash here is perhaps 1500 years ahead of its time. It suggests that the Jewish people (and us, by extension) did not experience God objectively, They did not accurately perceive and understand all His properties. Instead, they experienced God subjectively and contextually - this way at Sinai, that way at the Red Sea, etc.

The same is true now. In our world, we do not regularly experience supernatural miracles. But we experience goodness, awe, and beauty all the time. And each of us experience these things differently. That is how we experience God now. And this midrash emphasizes that these are all in someway connected and unified.

The skeptic will argue that this is not God; this is simply goodness, awe, and beauty. Perhaps. Sometimes I feel that way, and sometimes I don't. But I think it ultimately makes no difference on a practical level. Our midrash and Kant both remind us that it is futile to try to determine the precise nature of God. Instead, we are better off focusing on the manifestations of God. Even if someone is a conventional atheist, that person can think of God as a collective source of all manifestations of good things, and on that basis still be religious and participate in Jewish life. (Sometimes I feel more that way; other times I don't.)

In an odd way, one prayer in the Amidah makes this same point. "Baruch atah Adonai, hatov shimcha ulecha naeh l'hodot" means "Praised are you, Adonai, whose name is good and to whom it is befitting to give thanks." This blessing mentions God's goodness, but then does not does not seek to explain or elaborate on this. The blessing is not for medieval scholastics. Instead, the blessing describes God by noting our reaction (or at least what should be our reaction) to God: God is the being to whom we should give thanks. And it makes no difference what the exact nature of God is, or even whether or not God exists. We all should be thankful for goodness in this world.

Judaism can enrich our lives. It gives us a framework for experiencing and thinking about pretty much everything: family, friends, ethics, beauty, education, raising children, community, ethics, sickness, death, disappointment, nature, happiness, etc. The list is endless. But many people miss these important parts of Judaism because they get hung up on more abstract questions: does God really exist? Is the creation story literally true? Etc.

This midrash reminds us in a small way that perhaps these are the wrong questions to ask.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Receiving the Torah

It's a bit troubling to compare today's midrashim with one another. We start off well, with midrash 25 (in the English) suggesting that God has mercy on Israel for being weak still from their time in Egypt. This is hopeful. yet the very next midrash offered is as I as taught to say Kasheh li - difficult for me.
In Temple era Judaism, there was clearly a pagan tendency to see the priests in much the same way that pagans did; they needed to be whole, without physical blemish, just as the animal offered on the altar were. MIdrash 26 parallels that particular point of view, and even extends it to the entire nation. "Hence the Holy One said: It is not right that I give My Torah to cripples"
WHile itis meant to be a signal of God's mercy that God healed those in Israel who were not whole in order to give the nation Torah, I find that unsatisfying. Is the Torah not for those who are not physically whole?
If the midrash had said instead that giving the Torah healed Israel, that would be one thing - we could understand that as metaphorical for a spiritual or ethical healing, but as with the status of priests, it is clear that what we are speaking of here is physical wholeness. Is God offended by the broken? And yet, it is the broken heart that makes us whole. Our midrash (elsewhere) tells us that as well.

And finally, in the last midrash for today, we begin to look at why God chose Sinai rather than other mountains. In midrash 30 (English) we find the mountains fighting over which of them will be the holy mountain on which the Torah will be given. In this version, Sinai is chosen because it has never had idolatry practiced upon it, but in tractate Sotah of the Talmud, another reason is given: because Sinai is the lowest(humblest) of the mountains.
This strikes me as the reverse of what we are offered here in which outward appearance represents sin ("crookbacked" is a sign of idolatry) I presume that that is why priests are also required to be whole - that outward blemish is presumed to be a sign of inward blemish. In Sotah lowness is not a blemish, but a sign of humility. Of course this doesn't quite rescue our situation, because lowness isn't quite the same thing as a physical disability.
I leave it to the readers to see how this can be rescued. Any suggestions?

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Clouds of Glory

The pillar of cloud advanced and we followed it. This went on for an entire generation and then it ceased. It was a very special generation; one that could look afresh every day and see the cloud that provided direction and swept and sprinkled the road before them. The pillar is still out there, poised to lead us. It encompasses the people, one at each of the four sides; one above us; one below; and one prepared to lead. Hard to believe that we could be encompassed within the pillar and yet unable to see what surrounds us, but there we are, our heads buried in a newspaper, staring at an iPhone, dozing in front of the television, while the cloud patiently waits.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Mud Between the Toes

Just as a lily placed among thorns is difficult for its owner to pluck, so was the deliverance of Israel difficult for the Holy One...

When I think of the emotional response to the Jews crossing the Red Sea and the Egyptians drowning, I think of a popular midrash. The angels are rejoicing, singing, and praising G-d following the Israelites' successful crossing through the water. G-d quiets the angels and reminds them that the Egyptians - also created in G-d's image - are drowning, and this is nothing to rejoice over (Talmud Tractate Megillah 10b).

Aggados 1:5:1-2 offer imagery that compliments the above midrash, and illustrates the difficulty of the situation for G-d who had to remove "a nation from the midst of a nation." But I want to see something about the people's response.

In Exodus 15:1-18 we're shown the song the Israelites sang after surviving the crossing of the Red Sea. We have an action or two: singing and rejoicing, mimicking that of the angels. But if the angels were admonished for their joyous reaction, did the people also have a change of heart? Or perhaps feel something that wasn't revealed in Exodus?

The Israelites had just escaped, they were tired. It was a rough crossing both physically and emotionally (having to put that much faith in a G-d you're not necessarily accustom to, or intimate with, yet). They were free, sure, and the crossing was a success, but you're in a foreign desert without any of the structure and customs you were familiar with. And you're about to spend forty years wandering. So though they sang at the sea, and should have been happy, I'm sure many of the Israelites were thinking of the wonder around them... and wanted to take a moment to focus on the mud between their toes before they were "replanted" in their new lives as a free nation.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Enough already! (Dayenu in Reverse)

Among today's nine aggadot about the Exodus, two of them directly address the emotions and thoughts of the Egyptians, which is a fascinating editorial choice on the part of Bialik and Ravnitzky. While tomorrow's reading includes a famous midrash about the angels having pity for the Egyptians, these aggadot confront the suffering of the Egyptians from a human perspective. These stories toy with the idea of expressing real sympathy (or empathy) for the plagues and trials the Egyptians experience, but ultimately use humor to diffuse or undermine that impulse-- they play it safe while opening up possibilities in the mind of the reader.

#78 functions as a reverse "Dayenu," with the Pharoh's servants enumerating the various tribulations they experience and exclaiming, "K'dai hu lanu!" "It would have been enough for us!" This reminder of the flexibility of the expression "dai"/ "enough" makes the reader consider the fact that there are two sides to the story-- one person's blessing may be another person's curse, quite literally. For the Israelites and the Egyptians, it is a zero-sum game; as the situation has unfolded, the Israelites cannot be freed unless the Egyptians suffer. The parable in the second part of the aggadah ironically puts the Egyptians in the role of the comically incompetent slave who makes all of the wrong choices, thus transforming some of the sympathy the reader may be feeling into derision.

The funnier story is clearly #75 with its parable about a fat man riding an ass, both of whom think the other is a pain in the... well... donkey. Despite the ridiculous image, this aggadah points to a crucial truth-- that oppression is damaging not only to the oppressed, but also to the oppressor. Unlike #78, in which the plagues are blamed for Egypt's suffering, #75 implies that it is the actual fact of slavery, the condition in which one people is subject to another, that causes pain for the slaveholders. The silly parable itself reinforces the idea that the rider is diminished and demeaned by his abuse of the donkey. As Frederick Douglass put it, "No man can put a chain about the ankle of his fellow man without at last finding the other end fastened about his own neck."

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Sefer Ha-Bloggadah: week 10

Now that Sukkot and Shemini Atzeret are over, we'll cover both Pesach and Shavuot in one week! The giving of Torah is a large topic, spilling over into next week. But this will be an epic week, covering 7 weeks of the narrative chronology or of the festival cycle, and 3 weeks of the annual Torah reading cycle (Bo, Beshalach, Yitro). Our source text is Exodus 12-20 (focusing on the narrative rather than the legal parts, of course).

  • Monday - 1:4:73-81 (The Exodus from Egypt)
  • Tuesday - 1:4:82-93 (The Splitting of the Red Sea and the Plunder at the Sea)
  • Wednesday - 1:5:1-12 (From Egypt into the Wilderness; The Manna)
  • Thursday - 1:5:13-24 (The Well; Clouds of Glory; Amalek's War)
  • Friday - 1:5:25-31 (The Giving of Torah)
  • Saturday/Sunday - 1:5:32-39 (The Giving of Torah)

1:4:71 -- Joseph's Coffin and Jewish Continuity

We are told in Exodus 13:19 that Moses "took Joseph's bones with him because [Joseph] had had the children of Israel swear, saying, 'God will take account of you, and you'll bring up my bones from here with you.' "

The midrash goes on to explain how it is that Moses would have known where to look for Joseph's remains -- we learn that he was buried in a metal coffin submerged into the Nile; how it is that he was able to exhume them from the depths; and, perhaps most strikingly, the significance of the fact that Joseph's bones were carried through the wilderness alongside the "Ark of the Presence."

The midrash speaks to Jewish continuity on a multitude of levels.

First, there is simple narrative continuity. The time jump between Genesis and Exodus -- "And Joseph and all of his brothers and all of that generation died. And the children of Israel were fruitful and teemed and multiplied . . . . And a new king rose over Egypt -- who did not know Joseph." (Ex. 1:6-8) -- is the biggest in the entire Torah (at least in explicit narrative terms, if not from an historical perspective). So, on its simplest level, the retrieval of Joseph's bones and the midrash help to close the gap, as it were, between Joseph's time and Moses's time. (The use of a quotation of Joseph's actual words reinforces this effect, and indeed all of the continuity themes in the Torah passage and the midrash.)

Second, there is the continuity of the relationship and covenant between God and the Jewish people. Moses is making good on a promise between Joseph and the children of Israel that dealt not only with their return of his remains to what would become the land of Israel, but also with God's safekeeping of the people. The midrash is a reaffirmation of God's role in both matters:
Moses . . . called out, saying: Joseph, Joseph, the time in which the Holy One swore to redeem Israel has come, as has the time for the oath you had Israel swear. Give honor to the Lord, God of Israel. . . . Immediately, Joseph's coffin began bubbling upward, rising out of the depths . . . .
Third, there is obviously the continuity of the Jewish people. The bones of Joseph are a very tangible symbol of the links that make up the chain of Jewish continuity. And the midrash beautifully connects the continuity between God and the Jewish people, on the one hand, and the continuity among the generations, on the other, in describing how Joseph's coffin and the Ark moved "side by side" "[d]uring all the years that Israel were in the wilderness."

Finally, on a personal note, I suspect I am not alone in experiencing the powerful emotions that accompany visiting the graves of ancestors. Naturally, this goes without saying with respect to the grave sites of parents and other loved ones whom we knew personally. But it is also a moving experience as we try to connect -- as Moses did with Joseph, whose coffin "[rose] out of the depths [of the Nile] as though no heavier than a reed" -- with our Jewish forebearers from generations long past.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

The First Plague

"What does a king of flesh and blood do when a city rebels against him?"

A few nights ago I saw video of American soldiers in Afghanistan shooting large projectiles into a wilderness from which they were drawing fire. These were young men who spoke of fighting so that they could come home. They were so undeniably young that their fierceness was as sweet as it was horrible. They were emissaries from a king of flesh and blood, and the plague was in their hands. They killed to be not killed. I wonder who our slaves are and who our slave masters are. I wonder if the first plague is the one we receive or the one we deliver.