Monday, September 1, 2008

The four elements and creepy-crawlies

Chodesh tov (a happy new month) to everyone! It is the second days of Rosh Chodesh for the month of Elul, and we have a happy confluence of the Sefer Ha-Bloggadah schedule with the date today. The petichta (opening verse) of aggadah #39 comes from Psalm 104, Barchi Nafshi, (Bless God, my soul) which is also the psalm recited on Rosh Chodesh. Psalm 104 is a beautiful psalm that has many thematic connections to our aggadot for today and especially to aggadah #39. Both these aggadot and the psalm express sheer wonder and joy at creation and specifically at creation’s diversity. Aggadah #39 and psalm 104 each mention the four elements according to ancient conceptions-- earth (aretz / yabasha), water (mayim / yam), air (ruach / avir), and light or fire (or)—and use the four elements to emphasize the variety and range of creation. The psalmist and aggadist aggrandize creation in order to exalt its author. The close connections between this aggadah and the source text remind us of two things to take into account during our readings this year—1. that the author of the aggadah probably had the source text memorized and when making reference to that text meant to conjure up for the reader a whole set of associations that would relate to the context of the verse referenced, not just to the short piece cited and 2. that the structure and themes of the aggadah often mirror the structure and themes of the source text. So read these aggadot and psalm 104, then go outside and enjoy nature.

You’re back? Bloggers don’t go outside, you say? Well, here’s a question that I hope will spark some debate. As our editors have arranged things, aggadah #42 seems to be used as a proof text for #41. #41 asserts that no part of creation is useless; in #42 Elijah relates a story in which he gives his theory as to why creepy-crawlies were created. At the outset of this story, I was hopeful that Elijah’s answer would claim that all life has inherent value, even lizards and bugs and such—that animals do not have to have some utility for people in order to be valuable. (I happen to think that bugs are pretty cool.) I was disappointed to find that Elijah’s answer seemed to assert that God only created creeping things because God anticipated that human beings would one day be totally unredeemable and idolatrous and that the creepies would remind God that even if we failed totally in the moral dimension, we at least would be as worthy as the reptiles and bugs. It later occurred to me that this aggadah might also be making the claim that it is moral capacity (or decision-making ability—the inclination to worship and to chose who or what to worship) that differentiates human beings from the rest of the animal kingdom. Does Elijah’s argument really only justify the existence of bugs based on God needing to remind God’s self not to annihilate human beings? Is there a way to read it as validating the inherent worth of all life?

And a more technical query: The person who asks Elijah the question in aggadah #42 is a “chaver” in Hebrew, a colleague or associate. Why did Bialik chose to translate this as a “Parsee priest”? Is this historically accurate based on the context of this aggadah? Is it a polemic against Pharisees? And why is this “chaver” working on the draft board?

5 comments:

Lorelai said...

Perhaps the Pharisee reference is within the context of the belief in the Resurrection of the Dead, the doctrine which Pharisees held and Saducees rejected. Since we're on the other end of "history" we know the doctrine survived the disagreement and has come down to us as an integral part of our faith (Rambam's 13 Principles, etc.) A Pharisee in this story would pre-assume not just resurrection but also re-incarnation - creepy crawly things can remind us that we may sink to the lowest levels of spiritual impurities and return as...less than human?...without clinging to Torah and mitzvot. Just a thought!

BZ said...

And a more technical query: The person who asks Elijah the question in aggadah #42 is a “chaver” in Hebrew, a colleague or associate. Why did Bialik chose to translate this as a “Parsee priest”? Is this historically accurate based on the context of this aggadah? Is it a polemic against Pharisees? And why is this “chaver” working on the draft board?

My Hebrew edition vocalizes this as "chabar", and the footnote in the Hebrew edition explains this as כומר פרסי, or "Persian priest". So that would make more sense than Pharisee (since this one seems to be the bad guy). Pharisees in Hebrew are perushim. And "Pharisee priest" seems like an oxymoron. :) According to Wikipedia, Parsee refers to a Zoroastrian community. (Whether or not that's historically accurate for this aggadah is out of my league, but here's some info on Tanna Devei Eliyahu, the source of this aggadah.)

(BTW, the Mishnah uses "chaver" to mean "fellow traveler" or "one of us", i.e. the apparently limited subset of the Jewish population who observed certain rabbinic practices, in distinction to "am ha'aretz", i.e. everyone else. So in some circumstances "chaver" could indeed be translated as "Pharisee", but I don't think that's what's happening here.)

Richard Friedman said...

1. On "Parsi," I think Ben is correct -- a Pharisee would be "Prushi" with a "shin," not "Parsi" with a samech. Also, a "hover hever" in the Humash is some sort of idolatrous/magical practice. See Deut. 18:11.

2. Eliahu's answer to the habar seemed to me much longer than one would expect -- numerous midrashim show non-Jews asking rabbis philosophical/theological questions, and the answers are typically short and straightforward. I am not familiar with Tanna d'vei Eliahu, and I think it's always hazardous to judge humor in another literature or culture, but I wonder whether Eliahu's response may be intended to poke fun at the habar. Eliahu says that God created humans solely to worship Him, but humans have gone astray, worshipped other things, and thereby merited destruction, and that the only reason that they're not destroyed is that God looks at the bugs and thinks that these straying humans are like bugs and He might as well let them live. The folk tales of subjugated peoples sometimes show the members of the subjugated group making the dominant culture's representatives look foolish (think Jewish stories from Eastern Europe, or Black American folk tales). Is this such a tale -- is the Eliahu in the story essentially hinting that this Persian idolater himself is allowed to exist only because he's tantamount to a bug?

L. Lee said...

The thing I was happy to discover in today's learning was #43: chicken is like fish. Yet another argument for parve poultry.

General Anna said...

Thanks for the clarification on chaber vs. chaver and Parsee vs. Pharisee! (I should really start reading the footnotes, eh?)
Richard, I love your reading-- and think that it rings absolutely true for me in this case. You wanna be self-important, says Elijah? Well, I'll satisfy your self-importance... by telling you you're only as worthy as a bug. (And the fact that the interlocutor here is an idolator and not a monotheist is certainly key, because the sin of idolatry is the one sin Elijah singles out.)