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?