Monday, September 29, 2008

1:3: 79: Slay or Be Slain

Section 79

"Then Jacob was greatly afraid and was distressed" (Gen. 32:8). R. Judah bar R. Ilai asked: Are not fear and distress identical? The meaning, however, is that "he was afraid" lest he should be slain "and was distressed" lest he should slay. For he thought: If Esau proves stronger than I, he might slay me, and if I prove stronger than he, I might slay him.

While I am also bothered by the negative aspects of some of the Midrashim about Esau, this one is beautiful. It is a possible basis for the well known quote from Golda Meir to the Arabs: "We can forgive you for killing our sons. But we will never forgive you for making us kill yours."

We should always remember that force may be needed but that doesn't make it good. We may have to kill, but we should still do teshuvah for it.

Shanah Tovah u'Metukah.

Teshuvah Pitfalls

Today’s reading features several examples of my least favorite aspect of aggadah. The rabbis have a tendency to vilify characters who, in the text of the Tanach itself, are nuanced and possibly sympathetic, like Esau or Ishmael. Due to later historical connections and allusions (e.g. Esau = Edom = Rome), the rabbis feel they have to demonize these characters in order to claim that the bad behavior of their putative descendants is due to their ancestor’s evil nature. This tendency was especially frustrating to me in reading the aggadot for today in light of the fact that I usually read the story of Jacob and Esau’s reunion as an inspiring story about forgiveness. Instead, many of the aggadot seem focused on demonstrating that Jacob and Esau’s reconciliation was flawed or insincere, with an eye especially to showing that Esau is intimidated or bullied into accepting the truce.

In aggadah #81, Esau is granted his own parallel version of Jacob’s dream. During the same night that Jacob has his dream, Esau’s forces are “wrestling” with bands of angels who inflict lasting damage and also, in a sense, rename Esau. While Jacob is granted a new name that indicates his destiny and role as a patriarch of the Jewish people, Esau’s new name diminishes his importance and demonstrates that he is only a significant person in relation to his brother. Jacob’s dream ennobles him and gives him the strength to finally confront his sin and become a new person, while Esau’s dream relegates him to second place, to an existence as the fall guy. In a sense, the author of the aggadah is dramatizing what the commentaries have done to Esau’s character. Could we conceive of an alternative dream aggadah here that addresses the fact that Esau, who could justifiably have remained bitter and angry at Jacob, instead runs to greet his estranged brother with kisses and happy tears? What message or new name could the angels have brought to Esau to assist him in wrestling with his own pain and doubts and preparing for the reconciliation?

A final note: Aggadah #77 is a fascinating warning about teshuvah and especially about the process that many of us are engaged in right now, that of making apologies to people we have wronged. The text compares revisiting those moments of conflict to a sleeping robber chieftain (I like the image of my yetzer hara-- evil inclination-- as being a bandit hanging out in my brain) who begins a new fight upon being awoken and suddenly reminded of a past confrontation. I have certainly had moments in my own life when an attempt to make amends has turned into a fraught rehashing of the original fight. Let’s take this midrash as a caution: we should monitor our own intentions and approach when exposing old injuries to the light. If we bring up the old disagreement by reminding our loved ones of the pain of the original incident instead of the new, better selves we hope to be, we risk sabotaging our own efforts at moving on.

This Rosh Hashanah, may we all be blessed with the strength to reconcile with our own Esaus (or Jacobs) and to experience the moment in which teshuvah helps us to see the face of God in the faces of our fellow human beings. Shanah tovah!

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Sefer Ha-Bloggadah: week 6

Another week, another generation. This week (covering Genesis 32 to 41) will be lighter than usual due to Rosh Hashanah. May 5769 be a good and sweet year for everyone!

  • Monday/Tuesday - 1:3:75-82 (Jacob, Esau, and the Angels)
  • Wednesday/Thursday - 1:3:83-87 (Jacob, Esau, and the Angels; The Portions of Jacob and Esau; Rebekah's Death and Rachel's Burial)
  • Friday - 1:3:88-93 (The House of Jacob and the House of Esau; Joseph and His Brothers; The Going Down of Judah)
  • Saturday/Sunday - 1:3:94-102 (Joseph in Egypt; Joseph before Pharaoh)

1:3:70-73: Our ancestors practiced plural and incestuous marriage

As we learn in the Torah and this section of Sefer Ha-Aggadah, Jacob practiced not only plural marriage (since he married two women), but what we would regard as incestuous marriage, since he claimed, in wooing her (falsely) to be Rachel's (and Leah's) uncle ("I am your father's brother), when in fact he was simply their first cousin. (And in fact, first cousin marriage continued to be practiced in Eastern European Jewish families into the last century, and there may be such a marriage in a not-so-distant branch of your very own family tree.)
Mostly, in studying these sections of the Torah, we sort of skip over these marriage practices. We pay close attention to the personal traits of the individuals involved, and our aggadot include Leah's very apropos comeback to Jacob when he says, in effect, "How dare you trick me by answering to someone else's name while I was having sex with you?!?" -- to which she replied, "Who do you think taught me to do THAT, 'Esau'?" -- recalling Jacob passing himself off as Esau in obtaining their father's blessing. (If you ever wondered what the expression, "Hoist by his own petard" means, THIS is what it means.) Certainly a great deal of ink has been spilled about how to understand this idea of tricking one's way into the Divine plan -- Jacob's trickery which somehow brought about God's intended outcome, and Leah's, which did the same. This text raises very pointed questions about whether the ends justify the means, and what a person is allowed to do if he or she is sure the outcome aimed at is the right one.
But standing behind this particular incident, with Rachel and Leah, is a set of marriage and family practices which are undertaken today only by rather reviled sects of people. (That's setting aside that what Rachel and Leah conspire to do is in fact the rape of a man by trickery -- imagine our reaction to a man who blindfolds his girlfriend and then allows another man to have sex with her. At least no one can accuse us of whitewashing the Torah!) What are we to make of that?
For the most robust defenders of plural marriage (who typically are defending "Biblical-style" plural marriage, meaning asymmetric androcentric polygamy), the presence of the practice in the Torah is a sufficient warrant for it (and later prophecies, like Joseph Smith's, "restore" rather than invent the practice). Others of us, taking either a post-Enlightenment view (we've made progress since Toraitic times) or simply a less literal view (we are not meant to live, literally, as the Bible describes), note that slavery, too, was a practice acknowledged in the Torah, and not morally criticized there, yet WE do not practice or endorse it -- in other words, the mere presence of a social arrangement in the Torah is no argument for its moral acceptability, at least not to us.
There is a great deal to be said about monogamy and monotheism -- as social practices, and as spiritual practices, which may or may not support one another. But if the patriarchs are any example, there is clearly no necessary connection between them. Whether this is a device that may be used to interrogate any too-ready assumption that proper spirituality will dictate monolithically the proper arrangement of one's intimate life -- or simply allow us to turn the Torah back on itself, using its own principles to criticize the behavior and "lifestyles" of its leading protagonists, is an open question.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Isaac's Blessing

As Iyov said in an earlier post today, "Sometimes things happen that seem to us wildly unfair." I write today as a father of three, including one whom anyone might recognize as an Esau. I cannot imagine having only a single blessing to confer. Nor can I imagine withholding a blessing even from the one I am certain will reject it.

Iyov suggests that "this midrash witnesses Jacob’s advanced nature in being afraid at the awesome blessing he was receiving." On the other hand, I am blind myself to everything about this midrash except how much Esau needs to be blessed.

I did not offer my seed without stockpiling blessings to uphold it. While there is no commandment for parents to honor their children, what child could sustain the obligation of honoring a parent if the prospect of being blessed in return has been withdrawn?

We have some aggadot here (e.g. 3:62) that suggest that we may feel our offspring are better than they are, but that God sees them more clearly. Perhaps. But as I said, I can tell my Esau from my Isaac and, even so, would bless them both. The first Esau was deprived of the blessing and our tradition seeks to make sense of the act of deprivation as if it is forbidden from contradicting it. No! Reject my blessing but never say it was not extended! The offer does not expire. Not as long as either one of us lives.

My Esau, who never mentioned the Name of the Holy One-- should his alienation be affirmed as a frozen state or should he be coaxed to come closer? Has he so quickly been reduced to the status of that disobedient son who has no future in this world or the next that he be denied the possibility of ever being blessed simply because his youthful impetuosity left him unprepared to receive it at its first offering?

Was Esau delayed in applying for his birthright by Satan or by his own fear of the weight of his father's love? When has a son who has not yet learned humility passed the point of no return? When can a father's despair that his son is lost become irrevocable?

What we have studied today neither asks those questions nor suggests that they are worthy of consideration. Am I alone in finding this past strange?


The story of Jacob taking Isaac’s blessing (rather than Esau taking Isaac’s blessing) poses a problem for the modern reader – Jacob comes off looking none too attractive – he is more than a little a shark.  The midrash in 1:3:65 directly deals with the problem.  When Jacob says “Because the Lord they God sent me good speed” (Breishis 27:20), Isaac is shocked – he knows that Esau is not one to invoke Hashem.  The midrash explains that Isaac is in on the story – he figures out that it is Jacob who is taking his blessing.  And when Isaac touches Jacob, fearful Jacob loses control of his bladder.  But, Hashem sends two angels to support Jacob.

Sometimes things happen that seem to us wildly unfair.  We often bemoan those times that events turn against us.  But it takes a more sophisticated soul be also be troubled when events – without apparent external reason, favor us.  This midrash witnesses Jacob’s advanced nature in being afraid at the awesome blessing he was receiving.  But just as we cannot always explain fate when it turns against us, we cannot always explain it when it turns toward us.  But fate it must have been, because rather than let Jacob fail, Hashem sent two angels to save him.

For me, this midrash adds a deep layer of meaning to the story.  Without the guidance of the Oral Torah, Isaac’s blessing seems to be a cruelly amoral story.  But with this midrash, we get an insight into both Jacob and Isaac’s character.

Here is my blessing to you:  May you be inscribed and sealed for a good year.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

1:3:6:51-60 (Yitschak, Rivka, and their children)

Denial isn't as pretty as martyrdom.

Perhaps that's why the aggadah I grew up with to explain Yitschak's blindness had angels crying burning tears into his eyes. He had lost his sight when he went up to be sacrificed on the Mountain That God Showed his father. Upon seeing Avraham raise a knife to slaughter his bound son, the story went, the angels of heaven crowded above Yitschak's head and sobbed fiery teardrops. Ever since that day, Yitschak was unable to see.

Aggadah number 60 in today's selection includes a version of that classic tale, but as an afterthought. The bulk of the section explains our middle patriarch's blindness differently. It portrays Yitschak blinded not by the trauma of the akeda/binding, but by the sins of Esav and Esav's wives. Esav's wives worshipped idols? Then like a man closing the windows of his house to keep his neighbor's smoke out, Yitschak's eyes weakened of their own accord to keep him protected from the sin. The neighbors had begun talking about what a wicked man Esav was? Then God blinded Yitschak so he would not be able to leave his home to hear it.

Blinded by denial... sort of an obvious metaphor.

I'm not sure why God would be portrayed assisting it, though. Maybe Yitschak was so fragile he couldn't handle encountering sin -- another trauma from the akeda? There is that traditional view that Yitschak had the status of an object consecrated to God, and therefore could not leave the land of Canaan. Maybe he needed to be protected from other lands, too.

But what's the point of such fragility? It would render useless a prophet or a teacher, and certainly a chieftan. So maybe Yitschak wasn't supposed to be a prophet or a teacher like his father, or the head of a clan-becoming-a-nation like his son. But what then was his role?

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Binding Commitments

Belated, belated - oy, apologies! And so timely, right before Rosh Ha-Shanah, these midrashim on the akedah.

A brief word, then, about the binding of Isaac, from the vantage point of Midrash # 46 (Tanchuma, Va-Yera 23).

"What did your father do to you?" asks Sarah.

"My father took me and led me up hills and down valleys and but for God's compassion I would not be here to tell you."

Why is that the Satan, speaking in the guise of Isaac? After all, the midrash might have had it be Isaac himself, upon his return from Mt. Moriah. After all, the Satan here says only what is true, what Isaac himself might have said.

But then Isaac himself would be the cause of his own mother's death - too cruel a burden, perhaps, for even the God of the akedah to place on a child so willing to please parents, to please even a parent with the fire of wild piety in his eyes. Too unmindful a step, perhaps, for us to imagine the real, dutiful, and mostly silent Isaac taking.

Maybe the Satan generally speaks only the truth; but it's all in how you time the truth, and where you choose to speak it.

Maybe Isaac himself never would have told his mother - just as he never said 'no' to his father. Maybe he would have borne that silence, just as he bore the wood for his own pyre on his back.

Maybe Sarah didn't really need to be told by Isaac himself. Maybe the 'Satan,' speaking in her son's voice and guise, was the voice of her own consciousness, telling her what she already knew - telling her that zeal for God and mission and exclusive blessing had driven simple human goodness from her family.

She had taken part in that herself - "Banish that slave-woman and her son, lest he inherit with my Isaac!"

Abraham could not find courage in parental love. Sarah could not find security in kindness. Maybe the deadly truth in the moment of the Satan's words to Sarah in the voice of her silent son was the realization that only one person in the family had retained compassion and had not forsaken generosity, and the realization of who that was, and what the cost to him must have been.

Monday, September 22, 2008

1:3:45: Parents and Children, Challenge and Grief in ‘Akedat Yitzchak

22 September 2008/22 Elul 5768

While it may be timely, ‘Akedat Yitzchak is one of the hardest incidents in Tanakh to wrap one’s head around. The blind faith that Avraham presents, the unquestioning devotion to God in the face of what seems like a preposterous and cruel request—this paradigm is always one that causes me to wonder what sorts of model behavior the Torah is teaching. What’s more, so much of the rabbinic tradition lauds Abraham for his zealousness, almost bloodthirsty in his eagerness to shecht his son, it often creates a barrier for modern understanding.

The midrashim in Sefer Ha-Aggadah (1:3:44-48), and in particular the long compiled midrash (45) from today’s reading, do their best to problematize the many understandings of Avraham’s devotion to God. One fascinating thing the rabbinic tradition does is give agency to some of the silent players in the story: Yitzchak, Sarah, even Yishmael and Eliezer get to speak their views on the ‘akedah and how it relates to fearing and loving God. I will here focus on the theme of parents and children to taste a bit of the problematics of pain and sacrifice at the heart of this story, themes I’ve found sometimes to be ignored when the only salient relationship is between Abraham and God.

One of the strangest sections in the long midrash can be found in the middle:

“And they came to the place” (Gen. 22:9)—both carrying stones [for the altar], both carrying the wood. For all that, Abraham acted like one making wedding preparations for his son, and Isaac like one making a wedding bower [huppah] for himself. (1:3:45)

While we understand how the text gets to the idea of a huppah, a temporary structure made of wood and stones, the analogy with a wedding seems bizarre. What can be similar between a wedding and a funeral pyre? What fascinates me is the slippage of life cycle events here: Avraham was so concerned for Yitzchak’s birth, and he essentially here plots Yitzchak’s death. It seems only fitting that the major midlife Jewish event also come into play, that of the wedding. Escorting one’s child to his or her wedding is one of the seminal parental lifecycle events (so I am told): as Avraham and Yitzchak come to terms with Yitzchak’s impending passing, they integrate other lifecycle events into the occurrence.

The midrash continues:

Then Isaac said, “Father, hurry, do the will of your Maker, burn me into a fine ash, then take the ash to my mother and leave it with her, and whenever she looks at it she will say, “This is my son, whom his father has slaughtered”...Father, what will you do in your old age [without me]?” Abraham replied, “My son, we know that we can survive you for but a short time. He who comforted us in the past will comfort us until the day we die.” (1:3:45)

This passage has two fascinating elements. First off, what is the role that Yitzchak envisions for his ashes in Sarah’s life? Are they to be a comfort to her after her son’s passing? A rebuke to Avraham for his reckless action? Or merely a memento, a symbol of the dreams that the two elderly parents had?

While the former two interpretations see expression in other midrashim, the latter interpretation is bolstered by Yitzchak’s next comment, notable for its poignancy. Yitzchak knows his importance in Avraham and Sarah’s lives, but this is one of the only times I can recall that the midrash puts this longing in the son’s mouth, rather than in the parent’s. Avraham’s response is realistic in its simplicity, giving the only words of comfort that a parent could possibly take after a child’s death: the One Who Comforts will comfort them. I especially like the note of mortality that Yitzchak’s impending doom instills in Avraham, himself: the parents are old and won’t live much longer, an assertion bolstered by the midrashim of Sarah’s passing when she hears of the ‘akedah (1:3:46).

Even in writing this, I find myself drawn into the human tragedy of a father sacrificing his son, a child struggling to comfort his parent. I often find that when I read the ‘akedah on Rosh Hashanah morning, I try to detach from the human story, to just see it as a challenge of faith for Avraham rather than acknowledging the personal pain at the core. Thanks be to the midrashim for forcing us to confront the many elements of the story, the very human life of the characters—and thanks be to the angel for giving us a happy ending, just this once.


This post is dedicated to the memory of three members of our community who were tragically lost before their times during the past month: Rob Davenport, Michael Hammer, and Eliora Ancselovits. While nothing can truly comfort children who have lost parents and parents who have lost children, I do hope that the words of our tradition can provide a teeny bit of catharsis, nuances of grief in these multifaceted stories. May the community support all our mourners in their times of loss, and may the memories of Rob, Michael, and Eliora be for a blessing.

-- Sara Meirowitz

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Sefer Ha-Bloggadah: week 5

One generation passes and another generation comes. The fortuitous timing of the Akeidah (Genesis 22) is good preparation for Rosh Hashanah discussions in our communities.

  • Monday - 1:3:44-45 (The Binding of Isaac)
  • Tuesday - 1:3:46-50 (The Binding of Isaac; After the Death of Abraham)
  • Wednesday - 1:3:51-60 (Isaac, Rebekah, and Their Progeny)
  • Thursday - 1:3:61-66 (Isaac's Blessing)
  • Friday - 1:3:67-69 (Our Father Jacob When He Left Beersheba)
  • Saturday/Sunday - 1:3:70-74 (Our Father Jacob When He Left Beersheba)

1:3:36 - As Numerous as the Stars: Quantity, Quality, and the Quality of Quantity

This midrash seems to be a simple elaboration on a simple Torah story. But it actually is telling quite a different story than the Torah is, and harmonizing the midrash with the Torah take us on a literal tour of the heavens and tells us something interesting about individuals and communities.

In Gen. 15:1-6, God blesses Abraham and tells him that his reward will be great. Abraham asks what kinds of reward God can give him since Abraham is still childless. In response, God takes Abraham outside and instructs him to "look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them." God then informs Abraham "so shall your offspring be." That is, as numerous as the uncountable stars.

Our midrash here (1:3:36) picks up on this last line and tells a long parable. In short, a traveler, weary and hungry after traveling for a long time, found a really great tree. He ate its fruit, rested under its shade, and admired its beauty. The traveler wanted to bless the tree but realized the tree already had every good quality he could imagine. So the traveler blessed the tree and wished that "all the seedlings arising from you shall be like you."

God was in the same position with regard to Abraham, our midrash continues. God wanted to bless Abraham, but Abraham was already so righteous that God really had nothing to give Abraham. And so God blessed Abraham by decreeing "that all children who spring from you be like you."

At its simplest level, this midrash is quite sweet. We all love our children. People blessed with wonderful character qualities could still be blessed more if their children had the same wonderful qualities. Our children's blessing is our blessing.

As nice as this midrash is, it simply was not the lesson of the original Torah story. In the Torah, God was making a quantitative blessing: don't worry about not having any children right now, Abraham, you are going to have lots of descendants. As many as the stars, in fact. But God fails to tell Abraham what these descendants will be like. In contrast, the midrash has God making a qualitative blessing: your descendants are going to have your wonderful character traits. But God fails to tell Abraham how many of them there will be.

These stories are not actually contradictory; after all, Abraham could have many descendants, all of whom are wonderful, and thereby satisfy both stories. But nothing in the midrash implies that it is expanding on the Torah with a new blessing; it seems only to be explaining the Torah's original blessing. But it simply is not. What are we to make of this fundamental discrepancy?

My lawyerly reaction is to note that the midrash's analogy does not hold and write this off as sloppy reasoning. This approach might work with halacha, but we are dealing with midrash. And the proper response to a logical error is to go forward, not backwards. The question now become what do we learn from the midrash's conflation of quantity and quality?

And the answer, or at least my answer, lies in the Torah's suggestion to Abraham that he look at the stars to understand this blessing. Let's do that.

Every star, when considered individually, is pretty spectacular. A star is a giant fusion reaction ball, emitting so much light and heat that it can sometimes sustain life on the planets spinning around it.

The problem is that from our perspective, it is hard to look at and consider most stars individually. Every star (except our sun) is so far away that is only appears to us as a point of light, even in the largest telescopes. Unlike the planets in our solar system, we cannot magnify a star so that we see it as a disk. That makes it hard for us to look at a star and think about its individual qualities. But when we consider some stars collectively, we star to see some amazing things.

Here is Albireo, an easily visible double-star in the constellation Cygnus. These two stars are so close to each other that to the naked eye, they look like a single star. But in a small telescope, the space between the two stars is sufficiently magnified and the second star appears clearly separated from the first. The brighter star is yellow-orange, and the dimmer star is blue. The first time I saw these stars in a telescope, I was stunned by the vivid contrast between their colors. (I nicknamed this the UCLA star, after UCLA's school colors.) Regardless of their actual color, most stars appear white when viewed by themselves. But these two stars stand in such sharp contrast only because they are so close together and so vivid. This pair, as a pair, takes on an aspect of beauty that would be absent if each star were viewed individually.

Stars not only form pairs, but they form "open clusters", which are essentially a bunch of stars hanging out together. Take a look the Pleiades in Taurus (or M45, as astronomy buffs call it), a well-known open cluster. The Japanese refer to this cluster as "Subaru," and the Subaru car logo is a rendering of these stars. Their collective beauty is considerably more spectacular than their beauty considered individually. This cluster appears as a smudge at first, but then one can make out a few faint individual stars. But in a pair of binoculars or a small telescope, one sees more and more faint stars, all very close together and all brighter than the other stars in the area.

The Pleiades are a relatively small cluster. Take a look at M13, the great globular cluster in the constellation Hercules. This star cluster is composed of several hundred thousand stars, the brightest of which has an apparent magnitude of about 12. (The larger the number the dimmer the star. The dimmest star we can see with the naked eye is about 6.) It is absolutely impossible to see any particular star in M13 with the naked eye, binoculars, or even most small or medium telescopes. Nonetheless, the star cluster itself is spectacular. The sheer number of stars blend together with a brighter core gradually fading towards the edges. M13 a wonderful sight in a small telescope. When I first saw this star cluster, I thought it looked a pile of sugar God spilled in the sky.

One final example. The three previous star groupings consisted of stars in our galaxy. But the Whirlpool Galaxy, M51, in Canes Venatici, is a separate galaxy entirely. We cannot make out individual stars at all; it is simply too far away. But the zillions of stars in this galaxy make it easy to see in a small telescope (but not with the naked eye, and only slightly in binoculars). And this galaxy is perfectly positioned for seeing its spiral structure. We see it face on, and even a small telescope shows its twirling spiral arms. It is one of my favorite deep space objects. Also, it is interacting with the smaller galaxy near it (NGC 5195). Again, this huge quantity of stars, acting collectively, provide a type of beauty that individual stars alone cannot.

So with these vivid examples in mind, we return to the Torah and the midrash. The Torah tells us that God blessed Abraham with lots of descendants. The midrash tells us that God blessed Abraham with descendants with wonderful qualities. And I harmonize these by noting that some spectacular qualities only appear where there is a sufficient underlying quantity.

A well-functioning family takes on qualities beyond the sum of its parts. So do friends, study partners, minyans, havurot, schools, synagogues, federations, Jewish denominations, the State of Israel, and the Jewish people as a whole.

My wish is that we may all merit Abraham's blessings from the Torah as expanded in the midrash. May we all be wonderful people like Abraham. But may our marriages, individual friendships, and every other two-person relationship be as wonderful as Albireo. May our families, set of friends, co-bloggers, and all other small groups be as wonderful as the Pleiades. May the Jewish communities in cities be as wonderful as M13, and may the Jewish people as a whole be as spectacular as the Whirlpool Galaxy.

Friday, September 19, 2008


"Abraham drew near and said: 'The Judge of all the earth must not exercise justice too strictly'" (Gen. 18:23 and 25). According to R. Levi, the verse means that Abraham said: If You seek to have a world, strict justice cannot be exercised; and if you seek strict justice, there will be no world. Do You expect to take hold of the well's rope at both ends? You desire a world and You also desire justice? You can have only one of the two. If You do not relent a little, the world will not endure.

The gist here is that Avraham is telling God that God can't have his cake and eat it too. Either God can have perfect justice, and no world, or God can have imperfect justice and a world. The view is not only strikingly pessimistic, but it seems to contradict two basic beliefs.

The first is a belief in an omnipotent God. If we view God as omnipotent, God could enact a perfect justice if he so desired. I believe that he chooses not to because he values free will. The agadah, however, would seem to say that God is in fact limited in power. That is, God cannot enact a perfect justice without destroying the world, which would seem to place a cap on God's capabilities.

The second is a one version of the belief in an Olam Haba. If we are to believe in wordly restoration of a Gan Eden-like state, whether it be at the hand of a Mashiach, or at our own hands in an Eidan Mesichi, a Messianic Age, are we to not believe that such a world will be full of perfect justice?

The sin of Sodom

It has always been curious to me that the sin of Sodom is nearly universally understood as having to do with male-male sex, while in Jewish tradition, the sin of Sodom is almost completely unrelated to sex. In rabbinic tradition, as we see in today's section, the sin of Sodom is quite clearly stinginess towards the helpless, most especially the poor and the stranger.

The rather long passage (number 30 in both the Hebrew and English) enumerates the scenarios that the rabbis have in mind as the most heinous of sins. It begins with the description of the extraordinary wealth of S'dom: when a gardener would shake out some greens and rinse them in water, gold flakes would fall out; every kind of good fruit tree was full and green and heavy with fruit. Yet just a few lines later we read that when a stranger was invited to the house of a resident, that person -the resident- should be punished; when a poor person came to S'dom, every resident would give him a coin with their name inscribed on it, but no one would sell him food; when he died of hunger, each would come and take their coin back. If someone aided the poor person, the residents would kill her (in all three cases mentioned in the midrash here, it is young girls who take mercy on the hungry).

Not to get all political here, but something just strikes me very closely here about the current situation with immigration and labor in this country. We have so much here, and yet we punish those who come here to get some of what we have. For we, who are Jews, it is most shameful because we ourselves benefited from many of the things we are denying to recent immigrants: the right to organize in the workplace for better conditions.

While my first thought here is of the recent meat scandals, that's hardly the extent of it. Long before that came to our knowledge, there have been many Jews who have struggled against sharing what we have with newcomers. An example: a few years ago (2000), when Montgomery County, Maryland was trying to pass a living wage bill it was the Jewish non-profits who opposed it, saying that they couldn't afford to pay their workers a living wage. It took the action of an individual -Abe Pollin- to force the issue through and (with some compromises exempting certain groups) help the rest of the community do the right thing.

This election, there are so many different issues that it's hardly fair to focus on just one. But again, it is interesting to me how the attitude towards the workers of this country is one of contempt. We are perfectly content to allow those at the top to continue to expand the difference between themselves and everyone else. The pay inequality in this country is in itself a demonstration of the Sodomite tendency: I have, and it's mine, I "earned" [although that's also debatable] it, and I'm going to keep it.

At this time of year, heading into the Yamim Noraim (days of Awe - Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur) we as Jews should be thinking very carefully about where all our privilege really comes from. The Torah warns very explicitly in Deuteronomy that when we grow well off, we are in danger of forgetting exactly where our bounty came from

12. Lest when you have eaten and are full, and have built goodly houses, and lived there;
13. And when your herds and your flocks multiply, and your silver and your gold is multiplied, and all that you have is multiplied;
14. Then your heart be lifted up, and you forget the Lord your God, which brought you out of the land of Egypt, from the house of slavery;
15. Who led you through that great and terrible wilderness, where were venomous serpents, and scorpions, and drought, where there was no water; who brought you water out of the rock of flint;
16. Who fed you in the wilderness with manna, which your fathers knew not, that he might humble you, and that he might test you, to do you good in the end;
17. And you say in your heart, My power and the might of my hand has gotten me this wealth.
(Deut. 8:12-17)

When we are satiated and things have come to us easily, we tend to think that we got it by our own power, instead of by God's grace. When that happens, we grasp it, and we don't want to share. It's odd how wealth often doesn't make us open-handed, but instead makes us want to grab onto our wealth even more tightly. This is oddly borne out by statistics, which show that the less money you have the more likely you are to give to others.

This time of year, we should reconsider where all that we have comes from. Americans like to think that what we have is ours earned by our maverick, independent selves; that we are all islands, able to get what we want by determination and hard work.

But while that's sometimes true, a lot of it is fortune, good or ill; it is the communities we live in, and how they support their own poor, and whether they can work together to raise themselves up that determines a great deal of our fortune. It is not our power and the might of our hands.

The wealth of the earth belongs to God. Leviticus 25:23 reminds us "the land is mine; you are but resident aliens under my authority." God is the only true owner, and all belongs to God, what is in the land, and what comes from it; everything is God's and our possession of land, or wealth, is at most temporary; in reality, ownership is no more than a conceit of ours.

The sin of S'dom, then, is not only about the abuse of strangers, but specifically that refusing one's wealth to others is actually a form of idolatry. It is denying God's power and greatness, a refusal to recognize one's true place in the order of the world. That is why the Yamim Noraim, the high holidays, begin with Rosh Hashanah, which most of us treat as a happy and joyous holiday -which it is- but it is also, most of us forget, the day on which nations are judged. It was once a holiday on which kings were crowned; for Jews it is the day in which we begin the cycle of reminding ourselves who the only King is; and our true place in the order of the world.

And that King is praised for not keeping wealth to Godself, but for "he opens his hand, and feeds all the living," as we read three times daily in the Ashrei prayer. We are obligated by Judaism to do as God does. To share what we have be granted with others is the least we can do.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Stuck Between Observance and Idolatry

Abram came out of Egypt and the Holy One said, "Go out and tread a path for your children." And he did, and in the course of events he changed his name to Abraham.

I used to think that my father brought the transformation full circle by changing his name from Abraham, but I have a precious onion skin carbon on my desk that contradicts my memory. Whereas I thought my father, who I knew as Alfred Litt, was in fact born Abraham Litvinov, the petition filed with the Special Term Part 2 of the City Court of the City of New York, held in and for the county of the Bronx, at the courthouse thereof, Grand Concourse, in the Borough of the Bronx, on the first day of November 1946, states his name as Nuchim Leetroinow.

It was a time when a Jewish name was an impediment and Nuchim was cutting a path for his children. In the years I knew him, his tefillin remained in the drawer as he labored on the Sabbath for Mr. Jacoby, another Jew who was cutting a path for his children, one of whom inherited his business. The path they trod for their children was well marked and easy to follow. It taught me how to be a responsible man, it included a circumcision and a call to the Torah, but there were no candles on the eve of the Sabbath and no rest on the day itself. There are many gradations between observing all the commandments and idolatry.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Abraham's Kiruv

One of the things I enjoy about our religion is the lack of proselytizing (in most branches/denominations). I'm content in my ability to discuss the pros and cons of world religions and be able to say this, especially in contrast to the role of conversion in some other religions' doctrines. I can talk about Ruth and Naomi, of how we hold this story of conversion up and show how it was Ruth's choice; Naomi did not ask her to convert, or reach out to her to do so (in fact, it's quite the opposite). So I find it hard to remember that once upon a time, Judaism was a new religion, actively seeking new "members." Some of the today's readings dealt with Abraham's recruitment efforts, and they made me feel... uncomfortable.
Our father Abraham would bring people into his home, give them food and drink, befriend them, and thus attract them, and then convert them and bring them under the wings of the Presence. (1:3:15)
As I read this, my first thoughts were of Jesus. He preached that sharing meals with neighbours was a great way to convert people. (Or, at least that's how the Apostles have reported it.) While I wouldn't be surprised if there was a shared tradition between Abraham and Jesus, there's still something that seems sneaky, underhanded about this. But I continued reading.
Abraham used to receive wayfarers. After they had eaten and drunk, he would suggest, "Say grace." When they asked, "What shall we say?" he would reply, "[Say], 'Blessed be the everlasting God of the world, of whose bounty we have partaken.'" If the wayfarer, having eaten and drunk, accepted the suggestion and said grace, he would be allowed to depart. But if he refused, Abraham would say, "Pay what you owe me."
Alert! Alert!
When the wayfarer asked, "How much do I owe you?" Abraham would reply [with the cost of the food and drink]. Who do you suppose is giving you the wine in the wilderness? meat in the wilderness? bread in the wilderness?" The wayfarer, now aware that he must either pay or thank God by saying grace, would say [grace]. (1:3:18)
And now I'm feeling more uncomfortable. I understand Abraham's want to share his faith, his appreciation for God. But giving an ultimatum of "see it my way" or "give me payment" when he had kindly invited these unsuspecting, possibly naively unsuspecting, travelers? Not okay. Do we want people to thank God for all that has been provided? Of course. Do we want it to be forced? Hopefully not. This approach feels like that of Chabad: the need is for Jews to perform the mitzvos (commandments), regardless of the kavanah (intention).

If I were to explain Judaism, God, to non-Jews, I wouldn't approach it this way. I'd make it a conversation, make it sound exciting by explaining what aspects excite me, what aspects I enjoy wrestling with. I wouldn't encourage adapting practices that are vacuous, meaningless, or without accompanying faith or belief.

I don't want to end on a negative note though. So I'll also mention that I was excited by the possibility that this section includes sources for birkas hamazon - the grace after meals.

Maybe this post should have been called "Why feygele isn't working in outreach." Oh, wait...

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

College Sophomore

The long Midrash on Avraham (Aggadah 8) is obviously intended very positively. It shows Avraham’s brilliance, courage, and faith in G!d. What more could we ask for in the founder of our people. But if we were to change the content so it was not so positively weighted, would we come to the same positive spin?

First he treats two very old people very badly,
”Woe to a man who is seventy, yet prostrates himself before this thing which was made only today.” and “May the breath of such a woman be blasted! To think that one so old prostrates herself before a god who is only one day old.”

Sure he was "right" but there is such a thing as respect for older people that is found in the tradition. When he sets the scene for his father but destroying his idols, he does the same thing. At that point, Avraham was introducing or reintroducing the concept, of monotheism into the world. Was the best and most moral way to do it, acting like a college sophomore?

It is so easy to treat other people as fools. We (definitely including me) do it all the time, yet is it the best way “to spread the gospel” (inappropriate metaphor?). There are other Midrashim about how many people Avraham and Sarah converted. Maybe Sarah’s influence improved his understanding and respect for others.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Radical Awe vs. Righteous Indignation

The aggadot in this section answer the question "Why Abraham? What was so special about him?" As a reader of the Biblical text, I cannot help but be struck by the suddeness with which Avram bursts upon the scene and, after only six verses of introduction, becomes the protagonist of so many chapters. All of these aggadot relate to this question, but the opposition between the solutions provided by aggadot #5 and #7 seems particularly stark.

I was struck by the extent to which Aggadah #5 describes the spiritual searching of the 3-year old Abraham (I will refer to him as Abraham and not Avram because the aggadah calls him Abraham) as something natural and totally rational. His conclusion that a higher power exists is based only on his observation that in nature, no power reigns supreme. This aggadah seems to postulate a kind of religious "ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny;" that human society itself, in its embrace of monotheism, went through a drawn-out version of the thought process that took Avram only 24 hours. Avram here is symbolic of (or a harbinger of) the change in religious focus that happened throughout human history. This version of why Avram was exceptional comes at the end of an aggadah in which Terah demonstrates his cleverness against Nimrod, so throughout this section, rationality and faith (Terah's faith in his ability to save his own son, for example) make a happy couple. By the way, what's up with the similarities between this one and the Gospel of Matthew? (See ch. 1-2 for similar stars, messengers from the east, prophecies to the king, attempted slaughter of the innocents) Is it just the conventions of Near Eastern mythology in evidence, or something more?

While in aggadah #5, Abraham’s realization about God is triggered by his radical amazement at the wonders of creation, in #7, his recognition is of a more depressing ilk. Aggadah #7 presents the world as a house ablaze (presumably with sin) and the best God can do is assure us that She’s not an absentee landlord? When I first studied this aggadah several years ago, it struck me as a challenging and scary acknowledgement of God’s (self-imposed) limitations on intervening to control the corruption in the world. However, upon re-reading it in the context of these other aggadot that deal with our central question—what in Abraham’s perception of the world allowed him to see God?—I decided that it was more of a statement about how Abraham saw his surroundings. While everyone else in his society was relaxing in comfortable oblivion, Abraham saw the world’s true (and terrifying) state. It is Abraham’s righteous indignation—“Who’s in charge here, and how did he let it all get so out of hand?”—that leads God to seek him out and give him insight.
Aggadot #5 and #7 present us with two different models for religious vision and leadership: that motivated by radical awe, and that motivated by righteous indignation. Let’s track throughout the upcoming chapters how these models play out in our texts.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Sefer Ha-Bloggadah: week 4

It's clear who the star of this week is going to be (though we'll also meet plenty of supporting characters). If you're looking for a refresher, the Abraham stories inspiring this week's reading can be found in Genesis chapters 12-21.

  • Monday - 1:3:1-7 (Our Father Abraham)
  • Tuesday - 1:3:8-10 (Our Father Abraham)
  • Wednesday - 1:3:11-19 (Our Father Abraham)
  • Thursday - 1:3:20-27 (Our Father Abraham)
  • Friday - 1:3:28-35 (Abraham's Prayer and Sodom's Sins)
  • Saturday/Sunday - 1:3:36-43 (Abraham's Progeny)


When we scheduled the aggadot about the Flood for this weekend, we really didn't mean any harm!!! Sorry about that.

We send our best wishes to everyone who is recovering from Hurricane Ike.

1:2:134--Moderation in All Things, Including Moderation

I'm way too much of a wine lover -- and one who must admit to having had a few too many on a few (too many?) occasions -- to resist this midrash featuring Noah and Satan, with the latter asking if he can help the former plant his vineyard. Satan slaughters over a vine, in succession, a lamb, a lion, a monkey, and finally a pig. The midrash tells us that this was "Satan's way of saying" that after one cup of wine, a man is humble and meek as a lamb; after two cups, a mighty braggart who thinks he's as strong as a lion; after three or four cups, like a monkey, "hopping and giggling, and uttering obscenities in public, without realizing what he is doing;" and, ultimately, blind drunk, he is like a pig, "wallowing in mire and coming to rest among refuse." In conclusion, we are told that all of the above later befell Noah.

Satan appears to be giving some implied advice on moderation. But since it's Satan who's doing the "talking" here, perhaps we ought to take his accuracy, or at least his motives, with a grain a salt. After all, the midrash begins with Satan asking what a vineyard is, and Noah explaining that its fruit is used to make wine, "which gladdens a man's heart." And the midrash does not seem to suggest that Satan imbued wine with the power to effect people in this way: his "charade" is presented as a way of describing the inherent qualities of the wine.

So, does wine really gladden the heart? The Torah and prophets are replete with references supporting this notion. A few examples:

"And you shall spend that money for anything that your soul will desire: for herd and for flock and for wine and for beer and for anything that your soul will ask of you. And you shall eat there in front of YHWH, your God, and you shall rejoice, you and your household." Deuteronomy 14:26

"[God] causes the grass to grow for the cattle . . . and wine that makes glad the heart of man." Psalms 104:14-15

“Should I leave my wine, which cheers God and man, and go to be promoted over the trees?" Judges 9:13

Moreover, an abundance of wine is a blessing from God ("And it shall come to pass in that day, that the mountains shall drop down sweet wine . . . ." Joel 4:18), and a lack of wine marks hardship or even God's judgment ("[B]ecause you trample upon the poor . . . you have planted pleasant vineyards, but you shall not drink wine from them." Amos 5:11).

And, of course, on Pesach we are commanded to drink four cups of wine, most often explained as a commemoration of the so-called "four expressions of redemption" from Egypt: "I am YHWH, and I shall bring you out from under Egypt's burdens, and I shall rescue you from their toil, and I shall redeem you with an outstretched arm and with tremendous judgments, and I shall take you to me as a people, and I shall become your God . . . ." (Exodus 6:6-7) We are expected to become at least a little bit tipsy as a result, and certainly to rejoice with a glad heart. Moreover, notwithstanding the four cups, we are not expected to become unruly monkeys or come to rest in refuse . . . .

In my personal experience, I would say that wine in the "right" amount -- and this varies from person to person -- really does gladden the heart in most cases. It goes without saying that there are exceptions, whether because of the imbiber's tolerance for wine, his or her mental and emotional state when drinking, or both. (And then there's also really bad wine.)

Turning to Satan's "charade," do successive cups of wine really result in the inevitable deterioration described in the midrash? None of these perils are unfamiliar, but I would say these are far less universal than wine's positive effects. Moreover, in my personal experience, the first three stages of the "progression" described might more accurately refer to alternative states of individual drinkers who've had too much: some become quiet and meek, some become aggressive, others become silly to the point of embarrassment. In the end, we all reach our limit and must "come to rest" -- perhaps in the mire and the refuse, but hopefully in our warm bed (or in a taxi) having wished our dinner companions a (somewhat slurred) good night.

The source of the aphorism, "All things in moderation," may be unclear, but its influence in contemporary religious (and especially Christian) circles is quite pronounced. But whereas Christianity seems to place all of the emphasis on the "moderation," Judaism also places some significant amount of importance on the "all things" -- experiencing and enjoying each and every one of the pleasures available to us is a positive good. (Moreover, although Jewish religious tradition has some traces of asceticism, it is uncontroversial to say that Judaism generally and strenuously rejects asceticism -- human appetites and worldly pleasures are viewed as neither unholy nor evil.)

Now, I am not arguing against moderation when it comes to wine or anything else. But as my title indicates, I am fond of the revised version of the aphorism: "Moderation in all things, including moderation." Even moderation is not to observed immoderately. The drinking of wine, even to the point of drunkenness, does not inevitably lead to unattractive drunken behavior; and even if it does, it's ok to get drunk every once in a while. After all, we are told in the end that "all of the above later befell Noah" -- a "virtuous man" who was "unblemished in his generations" and "walked with God." (Genesis 6:9)

We are not only to be mindful of Satan's warning, but also of the possibility of missing out on the wine that gladdens our heart. Perhaps the risk of drinking too much every now and again is better than the risk of not tasting the wine at all.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

This is the Generation of the Flood

Here are some scattered thoughts on the day after the night I took the late train home the day before I have to do it again.

I usually start the day by reading the newspaper. The news is often as it is in today's aggadot-- men's faces turning ape-like as demons work their will upon them. I turn the page and avert my eyes from photographs of corpses flushed out of their graves. There are floods coming, whether in the generation of Enosh or to the coasts of Texas. There is lewd idolatry as men put lipstick on pigs. This is the generation of the flood. Every generation is the generation of the flood.

Although it is said that McCain is the best among his generation, even he, when he noticed a certain woman, took her. He taught her how to name the deeds that would energize his base, but she was not spared from corruption. Even he took two wives, one for his home and one to advance his office. This is the generation of the flood. Every generation is the generation of the flood.

Today, 9/11, is an anniversary of a flood that was sent by a descendant of the demon Shamdon. When the dust had settled, the demons inside us were unleashed but the cord that tied us to our oldest notions of where the true demons resided shaped our response and the House of Shamdon continued to flourish. This is the generation of the flood. Every generation is the generation of the flood.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

1:2:19:101-106 (Kayin and Hevel)

So I'll admit I feel a bit of sympathy for Kayin. Who here hasn't wanted to smack their bratty kid sibling around a little bit? Maybe you were tired of being followed around, or asked annoying, incessant questions. Maybe you were fighting for parental attention, or over a parental inheritance. Maybe you just knew it would be so much easier to break them, bruise them, bloody them -- but you didn't. Most of us get into fights with family. But most of us also know the consequences of physical violence, and are therefore unwilling to use it.

It struck me how innocent (if petulant and petty...sorta like a kid can be) Kayin comes across in some of this section of agadot about him and his unfortunate brother Hevel.

"Kayin said [to God]: Ruler of the World! I've never seen or known of death in my whole life! How was I to know that if I hit [Hevel] with a rock, he would die?"

"How did [Kayin] kill [Hevel]? He grabbed a rock and would not stop injuring and wounding him with it. He broke his arms and his legs, not knowing the exit through which life leaves the body, until he reached [Hevel's] neck and he died."

I remember being struck by Steg of 's analysis and dramatization of the incident, found here. He points out that if you keep an close eye on the grammar in this section of the Torah, the evidence points to Kayin having been born inside the Garden of Eden. Unlike Hevel, who had been born on the outside from parents who had ingested the knowledge of good, evil, and death ("for on the day you eat of it you will surely die"), it may be that Kayin could not "even understand what death was, until he created it with his own hands".

And Kayin wasn't the only one for whom death was new and bewildering. I remember how lost and confused I felt when I received the phone call that my father (ע"ה) had died, and I live in a universe where thousands of people pass on every second. But I needed know what to do, and had no idea. Thankfully I had an unofficial rabbi and friends to guide me through the subsequent steps and responsibilities. But who did the First Man and First Woman have to teach them?

"Adam and [Chavah] arrived and sat next to [Hevel's] body. They cried and mourned but did not know what to do for Hevel. A raven whose comrade had died said, 'I will teach this Adam what to do.' He took his comrade, dug in the dirt in front of [Adam & Chavah], and buried him. Adam said, 'We will act like this raven.' He immediately took Hevel's body and buried it in the ground."

Tuesday, September 9, 2008


Earlier we read:
"Section 58: When the Holy One created the first man, He took him and led him around all the trees of the Garden of Eden, and said to him: Behold My works, how beautiful, how splendid they are. All that I have created, I created for your sake. Take care that you do not become corrupt and thus destroy My world. For once you become corrupt, there is no one after you to repair it.(Eccles. R. 7:13,-1)"
Today we read:
"Section 97: R. Berekhiah said in the name of R. Samuel bar Nahman: Though all living things [such as white figs] came into being in the fullness of their growth, they shriveled up as soon as Adam sinned and will not return to their perfection until a scion of Perez [the Messiah] comes. [To summarize]: After Adam sinned, the Holy One deprived Adam of six things: splendor of visage, lofty stature, life without death, perfection of the earth's fruit, the Garden of Eden, and brilliance of the luminaries in heaven. In the time-to-come, the Holy One will restore them."

This reads like some of the debates over global warming. Some of us (I suspect a large majority on this blog.) think that it is our responsibility to stop the destruction of the world and there is no one who will fix it. Others have faith and believe that G!d will do it for us. I find it comforting and useful to know that someone in my tradition provided support for my position so long ago. While realizing that the same men (intentional usage) could also provide ammunition to those on the other side.

The question of competing Midrashim is a compelling aspect of studying this book. When we study Halachah today, we are given answers. For example, when Kehati (a well regarded modern commentary on the Mishneh.) comments on a Mishneh, he always includes a statement about what is the established Halachah. Sudying Aggadah takes away that feeling that there is an answer to everything. Perhaps that is why Sefer Ha-Aggadah is a perfect reading for NHC.

Monday, September 8, 2008

1:2:90-93: Many Fruits, One Tree

8 September 2008

Greetings from Jerusalem, where this blogger has now successfully decamped for the foreseeable future! One thing I love about this city of mine/ours is its constant contradictions: the sacred and the profane, the mundane and the revelatory sit side by side without even glancing one at the next. And as I wear my freelance editor's hat for this day’s chunk of midrashim, I’m struck at how the compilers of Midrash Rabbah (as rephrased in 2:91) edit together contradictory takes on the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil to portray multiple perspectives—all of which bring necessarily fascinating insights to the passage.

2:91: The Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil: a simplified summary of a midrash compiled in Breishit Rabbah 15:7, this passage tackles the question of what sort of fruit grew on this tree. I love midrashim of this sort, because they take a very practical, literal question and use it to bring out much deeper truths about the themes of the story. To break down the various answers a bit.

  • Grain (hitah): bread, which is made from grain, is associated with wisdom. It thus makes sense that grain/bread would be the fruit eaten by Adam and Eve, the food that made them smarter. The underlying value behind this choice is that eating from the Tree was essentially a positive thing, one that enriched the standing of humanity in the world. This vision of the Tree and its gift is not one we see in many other rabbinic commentaries, to say the least, although it’s certainly more prevalent in our tradition than, say, in Milton’s.
  • Grapes (‘anavim): this association comes by way of a verse, Deut. 32:32, that links grapes with bitterness. One can see this analogy as directly contradicting the earlier take: not only should we not see the Tree as a source of positive knowledge, but indeed, it was the source for the bitterness of the world.
  • Etrog: the etrog is known in our tradition as one of the most beautiful and useful fruits, a plant with sweet smell, sweet taste, and evidently even edible wood. This midrash closely reads the verse that describes the Tree as being good to eat, not merely its fruit, and thus associates it with the etrog. In addition to being appealingly literal, this interpretation returns to the earlier positive spin on the act of eating from the Tree: the most beautiful of all fruits is an etrog, a fruit used for ritual purposes even today.
  • Fig (te’enah): here we have a classic rabbinic parable, replete with princes, illicit sex, and Jews sinning in the presence of God. The midrash takes as its textual anchor the fig leaves that Adam and Eve used for clothing, spinning a yarn associating the figs with sexual disgrace and later acceptance of the sinner. Clearly the values here associated with eating the fruit are pejorative: yet there is also some compassion assigned to the character of the fig, the one tree that will accept the spurned humans after their fall. While the humans may have sinned by eating from the Tree—and it’s a big sin—the accepting nature of the fig tree is praised, especially in contrast to that of the punishing parental God.
  • And finally, the words of R. Joshua ben Levi: we’ll never know what kind of tree it was, lest we judge the tree harshly forever. While this take surely allies with the Miltonian harsh judgments of the “grapes” and “fig” midrashim, it also carries a delightful note of anthropomorphizing the tree itself, protecting its feelings. It’s not the tree’s fault that it was chosen to play this role, the midrash seems to say. And even as the tree is allowed to live anonymous, unjudged, unburdened by history, so too may humans reinvent themselves after their fall from grace.

What I love about this midrash is the way that it moves seamlessly from questions of plot and language—how can we use the words of the text to learn what kind of fruit the Tree actually gave?—to issues of morality, forgiveness, and future decisions. The answers may contradict each other, and that’s just fine: each interpretation can teach its own bit of wisdom, applicable in its own circumstance. As we dip deeper into the Elul season of soul-searching, cheshbon ha-nefesh, may we be able to learn big pieces of wisdom from our small deeds, perhaps managing all the while to become comfortable—just a bit!—with contradictions.

--Sara Meirowitz

Sunday, September 7, 2008

1:2:87 -- The Marginalization of Eve

R. Simeon ben Yohai, one of R. Akiba's most prominent disciples and according to tradition the author of the Zohar, continues the unattractive sexist slant that my "Sunday group" blog-mate Diane has already mentioned in connection with this series of aggadot. R. Simeon compares Eve to a jealous housewife; Adam, to her authoritarian and (rightfully?) suspicious husband; and the Serpent, to the type of old woman "who drop[s] in to borrow a little vinegar" and stir up a little trouble. (I hasten to add that I am troubled not so much by the antiquated attitudes of hazal -- antiquated attitudes from ancient sages certainly should not come as any surprise -- as I am by the apologists for some of these positions, not to mention those who do not seem to realize there is anything apparently objectionable to justify or defend.)

A summary of the midrash: A husband puts some figs and nuts into a cask, along with a scorpion, and sets the cask in a corner of his home, telling his wife that everything in the house is in her hands, except the cask -- "which you may not touch at all because there is a scorpion in it." An old, busybody neighbor comes calling and asks the wife, "How does your husband treat you?" The wife responds that she is treated wonderfully, having been given authority over all her husband owns, save only the cask. The old woman's retort: "Very likely all his precious jewels are inside it . . . [and] he intends to marry another woman and give them to her." The wife proceeds to open the cask and receives a sting what will apparently prove fatal. Upon returning home and learning of the day's events, her husband -- either unmoved or unsatisfied by the fact that she will soon die -- grows angry and "no longer [thinks] of her as his wife."

There are several strands to the sexist interpretation of Eve (particularly insofar as Eve represents womankind) in the ancient (Jewish and Christian) literature. First, Eve (and not Adam) deals directly with the serpent, and she is therefore seen as being closely connected with the demonic (which the serpent represents) and as having a demonic aspect to her nature. (Diane has blogged on the alleged co-creation of Eve and Satan.) Second, as the first transgressor against God's instructions and the one who gave the fruit to Adam, Eve is a symbol of moral weakness and the yetzer hara (evil inclination), coupled with a female tendency to corrupt man. (On this view, Adam is seen as a relatively blameless victim, although he takes of the fruit for no other reason than Eve gives it to him.) Third, upon eating the fruit, Adam and Eve immediately become aware of their nakedness, and Eve's punishment is centered around sexual desire and procreation, both suggesting a connection between carnal desires on the one hand, and the aforementioned moral weakness and the tendency to corrupt man on the other -- Eve is not simply a corrupting influence, she is a temptress.

The midrash picks up on these sexist themes to varying degrees. There is no suggestion of anything out of the ordinary in the husband's test -- "don't touch the cask with the scorpion in it" without any explanation of what the scorpion is protecting -- or that the husband is blameworthy in any way; but the wife is a terrible transgressor for being curious and disobeying her husband. This reinforces the view of Eve as the temptress and Adam as an innocent victim. Furthermore, the wife is tempted by the not very well-founded speculation of a busybody, whereas Eve was tempted at least in part by much weightier matters: the tree of knowledge of good and bad was not only "good for eating" and "an attraction to the eyes," but also would "bring about understanding" and make Eve in the words of the serpent "like God." (Genesis 3:6-7) The wife of the midrash seems silly compared to Eve. Finally, it is the husband (and the scorpion) who dispense "justice" in the midrash. Again, Adam (the husband) is elevated over Eve (the wife) as the source of moral authority, rather than the (perhaps passive) co-conspirator of the Torah.

This is one of many examples where the ancient rabbinic gloss on Torah seems somewhat at odds with the text itself, in service of another agenda. Another example that comes to mind is the remolding of Esav as an evil symbol of Rome; but that's for another midrash . . . .

1:2:75-89: To what lengths we will go to confirm what we already think?

This set of aggadot contain what seem to me some of the most misogynistic texts in the tradition. Notwithstanding the apologetics of the prior poster (and I appreciate the impulse), some of what's in here is not easy to get comfortable with.
Yet at the same time it's not impossible to read the text against itself.
The text I have in mind is the one that takes this opportunity to use the first appearance of the letter "samech" in the Torah to insult womankind.
The passage reads, in one translation (and anyone more sophisticated about formatting than I am is welcome to re-format for ease of reading):
R. Hanina, son of R. Adda, said, From the beginning of the Book until here, no samech is written, but as soon as she [Eve] was created, Satan was created with her.
The leading English translation notes laconically, in effect, oh by the way, "Satan" is not actually spelled with a samech (usually).
So here would be a timely analogy, about equally well-reasoned:
Osama Bin-Laden is obviously connected to Barack Osama. Oh by the way, his name is actually Barack OBAMA.
In other words, what we have is not only a baseless, pointless slander against womankind (in our original aggadah), and of a rather extreme type (the appearance of femininity coincides with the appearance of evil in the world) -- but it is actually based on a MISTAKE, and what is obviously a sort of deliberate, pointed mistake. (Surely, we are not expected to think the rabbis didn't know how Satan was most typically spelled.)
So we might begin by asking, where is the counter-text (we find them often), which would read something like this,
R. X, son of R. Y, replied, Satan is not spelled with a samech, davka, you're a moron.
But that text is missing. We just flow right on to the next thing.
So if we want to read against the text, without inventing new midrash, here is one way we might do it: The idea that femininity is evil is based on a mistake. Isn't that actually exactly what the text tells us? The idea that the introduction of femininity into the world brought with it or somehow coincided with the arrival of Satan is fundamentally based on a mistake -- here, the silly grammatical/spelling mistake of thinking Satan starts with a samech, but a mistake, nonetheless. Put another way, thinking the introduction of femininity (or, if one wished to read more broadly and in a slightly different direction, the introduction of gender difference) is the source of evil in the world is exactly as stupid and misguided as thinking Satan begins with a samech.

1:2:80 – A real shadchen

Just a brief thought, while we await our “official” commentary for the weekend:

The story of Chava (Eve) is a complex one, and one that is often cited (and even more often mis-cited) by those who do not regard women as men’s equal. 

So it is good that the midrash reminds us that Chava’s shadchen (matchmaker) was Hashem (Breishis 2:22): 

ו‍יבן השם אלקים את ה‍צלע אשר לקח מן ה‍אדם ל‍אשה ו‍יבא‍ה אל ה‍אדם

The Lord God brought her to the man.

May the One Above grant us insight to see His actions whenever people are brought together, for He is the true shadchen.  As we learn in Tractate Sota 2a, before we are born, a heavenly voice emerges and calls out “this woman to this man.”

Sefer Ha-Bloggadah: week 3

Expelled from Eden, this week we'll move into the postlapsarian world, and look at the universal stories about the ancestors of all humanity, before the Torah zooms in to focus on the patriarchs and matriarchs of the Jewish people.

  • Monday - 1:2:90-93 (The Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge; The Primeval Serpent)
  • Tuesday - 1:2:94-100 (Adam after the Sin)
  • Wednesday - 1:2:101-106 (Cain and Abel)
  • Thursday - 1:2:107-117 (The Corruption of Succeeding Generations; Noah; The Generation of the Flood)
  • Friday - 1:2:118-128 (Noah and the Flood)
  • Saturday/Sunday - 1:2:129-142 (Noah and the Flood; Nimrod and the Generation of the Dispersion of Mankind)

Friday, September 5, 2008

Bialik news watch

(Modified from a post at Iyov.)

Another mention of Bialik – this time in the context of dumbed-down “translation” of the Bible into Modern Hebrew.  It has attracted criticism from teachers in Israel, one of whom indicts the Israeli educational system, and puts in context by mentioning Bialik (from Haaretz): 

But beyond that, the furor over the Bible Lite text highlights the fact that Israeli schoolchildren cannot cope with biblical Hebrew. “This is a colossal failure of our education system that defies description,” says Professor Amit. “How come children used to be able to read the Bible? How come they used to be able to learn sections by heart? It was hard for them then too, but they dealt with it because they were told it was important. Religious schools wouldn't dream of simplifying the Bible,” she says, adding that if you cannot handle the Bible’s language, you will not be able to understand Bialik and Tchernechovsky's poetry.

But in the end, Israel’s Education Ministry has decided to ban dumbed-down Bibles in Israel.  From Haaretz:  “The idea of translating the Bible into simple contemporary language is ‘scandalous,’ Drora Halevy, the ministry's National Supervisor for Bible Studies, told Haaretz. The booklets present the text in ‘skimpy slang’ that cheapens the Bible,” she added.

Here is the entire Haaretz story  (HT:  Michael Pitkowsky):

Education Ministry to ban 'Bible Lite' study booklet

By Tamar Rotem, Haaretz Correspondent

The Education Ministry is to ban Bible aid booklets that help elementary and junior high school students by “translating” the text into simple Hebrew. Private publishers defend the booklets by arguing that biblical Hebrew is a foreign tongue to young Israelis.

Teaching experts lambast the booklets, warning that children will skip reading the Bible and opt for the simplified version. This will not only deteriorate Bible studies but also impact the Hebrew language, which is based on the Bible, they say.

The idea of translating the Bible into simple contemporary language is “scandalous,” Drora Halevy, the ministry's National Supervisor for Bible Studies, told Haaretz. The booklets present the text in “skimpy slang” that cheapens the Bible, she added.

“It’s a purely marketing initiative intended for the below-average; it's a disaster,” says Professor Yaira Amit, a Bible instruction expert.

Booklet publishers Rafi Moses and Reches Publications say the Bible is a foreign language to Israeli children, who need to read it in simple language to understand it.

Halevy and other Bible and Hebrew language experts fear that children will simply not bother to read the Bible, but use the simple language version instead.

“The Bible is the Hebrew language’s dictionary. It's the foundation of everything, says linguist Zvia Valdan. “If you read it without the original expressions and rhythms, it will lose its impact and power.”

It is no secret that parents and children are confused when it comes to studying the Bible. Parents have difficulty explaining biblical texts to their children and might be tempted to buy the simply-worded, NIS 20 booklets. They are easy to read, with the original text on one side of the page and the simplified version opposite it.

But beyond that, the furor over the Bible Lite text highlights the fact that Israeli schoolchildren cannot cope with biblical Hebrew. “This is a colossal failure of our education system that defies description,” says Professor Amit. “How come children used to be able to read the Bible? How come they used to be able to learn sections by heart? It was hard for them then too, but they dealt with it because they were told it was important. Religious schools wouldn't dream of simplifying the Bible,” she says, adding that if you cannot handle the Bible’s language, you will not be able to understand Bialik and Tchernechovsky's poetry.

Amit, who admits to feeling like the last guardian of the seal, is outraged that shallow instant culture has now dared to “simplify” the Bible. “We give precedence to shallowness and shortcuts in many areas of modern life. It’s OK in e-mails in which the message is the main thing. But where is the boundary? You cannot do away with cultural values.”

She believes that students should study the Bible for more hours and be required to quote from memory.

Reading the Bible Lite version shows that while it may not be slang, it is problematic. There is something discordant in the simplified version of the familiar, seminal Genesis text. “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth” is translated to “in the beginning God created the world.”

“Why change the expression ‘the heaven and the earth?’ ” asks Amit.

The expression “chaos” has been replaced by “the earth was empty and deserted.”

Surprisingly, the man behind the Bible Lite version is a former Bible teacher and headmaster. “When they first suggested [making the booklets] I was astonished. Why should we rewrite the Bible in a simple tongue?’ says Avraham Ahuvia, 87, of kibbutz Netzer Sereni. “But on second thought I was convinced that we teachers already translate the Bible orally in class for students who don't understand its sublime language.”

He accepts that children may read only the simplified version, “but if there were no simple version, would they like the Bible better?”

Halevy is convinced that using the simple-language Bible will lead to the loss of Biblical expressions and idioms that are used in contemporary Hebrew. She asserts that the booklet's meager language drives children away from the Bible, rather than bring them closer.

Moses says “this is an important project that fulfills a real need. The booklet’s language is first-rate. Our children deserve to understand the Bible, love it and savor its language without suffering.”

1:2:73: Creation finished?

"And on the seventh day God finished" (Gen. 2:2). Isn't this statement curious? Geniva explained it by the parable of a king who made a bridal chamber, which he painted and decorated. Now, what did the bridal chamber still lack? The bride to enter it. So, too, what did the world still lack? The Sabbath.
A footnote (in the English version, but I'm not sure if it's in the Hebrew edition) clarifies for us what the confusion is over, saying, "Did not God finish His work of creation in six days? Why then does Scripture say He finished on the seventh day?"

There is indeed something odd about the idea that the world is complete on it's seventh day. Chapter one of Genesis details the six days of creation, while chapter two begins with the first Shabat. The first Shabat goes off without a hitch, but after that, everything goes south.

The snake misbehaves, humans eat of forbidden fruit, we're kicked out of Gan Eden, and, pretty soon, you've got the invention of fratricide all in a pretty short span of text.

So things are fine on the first Shabat, but afterward, the world descends back into a chaotic, unfinished state. And so it goes for us every week.

We try to reach stopping points on each of our own personal projects of creation every Friday afternoon so that we can enjoy a day of wholeness and finished-ness. And then, somwhere around that third star's arrival on Saturday night, everything goes south again and the work of mending, building, constructing, and creating begins again.

And on that note, Shabat Shalom, blogosphites!


Thursday, September 4, 2008

1:2:65 Increase the Peace

I once heard a liberal rabbi claim that there was only one joke in the Talmud – and it is one we say every day when we finish davening shacharis:

Rabbi Elazar said in the name of Rabbi Chanina:  Torah scholars increase peace in the world, for it is said:  And all your children shall be learners of the [Torah  of the] Lord, and great will be the peace of banayich (your children).  (Yeshayahu 54:13)  Do no read banayich but bonayich (your builders).  [Brachos 64a, Yevamos 122b, Nazir 66b, Kerisus 28b, Taanis 32b)

“Torah scholars increase peace?” goes the Reform joke.   “Have you you ever seen Torah scholars in action –- in our time, or in the Talmuld?  They are always getting into bitter, nasty machlokes.”

Well, this joke plays a bit flat in a frum crowd, who will explain at length why Talmid Chacham increase peace.  And as the observant and non-observant raise their voices, we see yet another irony of “not bringing peace.”

In fact, I believe that Talmud scholars bring peace in a the conventional way.  But our aggada today gives a spiritual way in which Torah scholars bring peace:  Hashem is creating the world, and the upper and lower earth are keeping count. 

Day 1:  Upper (heaven) and Lower (earth) worlds created (Bereishis 1:1, score 1-1). 

Day 2:  Firmament (from upper world) created (Bereishis 1:6, score 1-2)

Day 3:  Grass (from lower world) created (Bereishis 1:11, score 2-2)

Day 4:  Lights (from upper world) created (Bereishis 1:14, score 2-3)

Day 5:  Swarming waters (from lower world) created (Bereishis 1:20, score 3-3)

Now you see the problem.  The score is tied even, and it is now time to make man.  Is he to be created from the lower world or the upper world?  A compromise is created:  man is mad from the dust of the ground (lower worlds) (Bereishis 2:7) and receives the breath of life (upper worlds).  And we know, we each have a divine spark in us.

This is the materials of Torah Scholars – builders of the world – who keep the peace between heaven and earth.

(It is great fun to immediately read aggada 1:2:66 for some closely related thoughts.) 

Note:  I see that NeilLitt has overlapped me in taking the same aggada and coming up with a very different take on it.  Today, dear Bloggadah readers, you get a particularly stark example of the different writing styles of our merry and diverse little group.  As the season of penance approaches with 21 Elul right around the corner, may we all be on a high spiritual plane as we begin to recite selichos.

Stuck in the Middle

So here we are, as Oscar Wilde said, ". . . all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars." If we had been formed only from that which is above, the upper worlds would outnumber the lower worlds. And, of course, the reverse would lead to an equally unsatisfactory imbalance. So we are made from dust but given the breath and breadth of life; we are in the likeness of God but with the urge to rut. We are stuck in the middle.

And yet the middle we are stuck in is a paradox where all that God has created is forever: "nothing can be added to it, nor anything taken from it"-- a theological expression of the first law of thermodynamics that appears to be confounded by a world where Jacob turns day to night and Joshua turns night into day; where Moses turns sea to dry land and Elisha turns dry land into sea, and so on and so forth. But the acts of man are not forever, so the instabilities that man introduces do not endure; whatever we add does not last, whatever we take away is soon enough taken from us.

The best of the deeds of man add to the words of God "so that mortals may fear Him." But would we not do even better to fear ourselves? It is, after all, written that God created balance and then man added to one side or the other and what became of balance? The peace we were promised when our creation took from both the world above and the world below is nowhere to be found. If that peace is shattered by our need to add to the fear of God by our own drive to turn day to night and night to day, we should fear ourselves more than we fear the Source of life. Why fear God? Why not love the day and night for what they are and love the Creator who made them as they are?

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

We Are Humans

Nothing like starting off the day with an existential crisis! Good thing I'm a stone's throw from the Philosophy department; I might need to shake my head out over there.
"For if a man strikes many coins from one die, they all resemble one another; in fact, they are all exactly alike. But though the King of kings of kings, the Holy One, blessed be He, fashioned every man from the die of the first man, not a single one of them is exactly like his fellow. Hence, each and every person should say, "The world was created for my sake." [54]
Does the idea that each person was made in a unique way, yet somehow also each cast from G!d's original (singular?) mold, concur with the notion that humans were made in G!d's image? How does using the same mold - unlike striking coins from one die - result in unique beings, each of us different?

As unique individuals, we are charged with great burden: if we destroy our world, no one will help us clean it up [54]; if we kill another, it is as if we killed all of humanity (and if we save another it is like we saved all of humanity) [58]. We are the acme of creation [57]! We have big shoes to fill.

Looking at the second half of today's section, the aggados remind us that perhaps humans were not originally created as we now stand. We were originally created as an intersex being [60]. Like animals, we had tails, but G!d later removed them [61]. Our original ancestors, Adam and Eve, were created in their grown forms (as youth or young adults) [62], but subsequent generations had to be born. Going back to the first section that my chevrusah, chillul Who?, and I read last week, I think these developments that G!d made for us easily coincide with the notion of evolution as opposed to clear creationism.

We were each created as individuals, in the image of G!d, unique and with the ability to change and grow. Looking to yesterday's readings, no wonder G!d chastised the angels for thinking humans would be the same, with set characteristics.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Shall we create humanity?

Such Elul-Torah, these midrashim of humankind’s creation – a creature glorious enough to confuse the angels, dubious enough to spark heavenly doubt and dissent. “Now that we have been created,” say the sages in the Babylonian Talmud’s Eiruvin 13b, “let us carefully consider our actions.” In a sense, these creation aggadot are the basis of our Jewish tradition of deliberate, mindful, careful action - which, in the light of these stories, becomes a question of justifying our existence, of vindicating our having been brought into being. In that sense, “Truth will grow from the earth” – one way or the other. The divine gamble has been made, and time will tell whether a glorious or devastated world will result. Have those two alternate possibilities ever been more vividly apparent than they are in our own age?

It often strikes me that, in ancient times, suggesting that human actions might matter on a cosmic scale must have been the height of spiritual chutzpah. The natural world was so clearly mighty and impervious and we were so buffeted by its every fluctuation. Our stories of droughts brought on by sin, or rains by righteous acts were a desperate bid for a feeling of control – “If it can be my fault, perhaps I can make it better.”

Now that it has become clear that our actions as a species do in fact tip the balance of this world, suddenly our tradition of careful, mindful, principle-driven action is extremely relevant. Suddenly a tradition that teaches that our individual and collective actions matter on a grand scale is just what this world needs. Our tales of angelic disputes over the adding of humankind into the world have suddenly become stories that the world well can use. We, as Jews, are heirs to a tradition that should prepare us ideally to meet the cosmic question of our times, of a planet teetering on the brink of cataclysmic shifts brought on by unbridled human action.

I hold in my hand at this moment – I kid you not – one of the latest Jewish innovations in our ongoing effort to justify our having been brought into existence. It is a “Shabbos Toothbrush.” I don’t use it, I have kept it in the bright, endorsement-filled packaging for show-and-tell. We can now avoid the acts of ‘spreading’ toothpaste, of ‘squeezing’ liquids from bristles, of ‘cutting’ gums. This, apparently, is what is so desperately needed to vindicate the trust that the divine has put in us as a species that a factory has been built, in China, to produce these “Kosher Innovations” brushes, designed, somewhat to my shame, in my home and native land of Canada.

To my shame? Don’t get me wrong. More power to our impulse to take care, to weigh our every action carefully as though the world depended on it, to obey our best understanding of our obligations in this world to the letter – even to brush our teeth with sacred duty and consequence in mind, in such a way as to justify our existence. But the world is burning, and I wish we were teaching our children that such a crisis is precisely what we have been training for as a people for millennia. I wish we were offering the world “Kosher Innovations” fit to the urgent tasks at hand (alongside kosher toothbrushes if you like). “Shall we make humankind?” “What shall be its actions?” If our tradition of Torah, aggadah and halakha, cannot teach us to do better, cannot fill our hands with better tools for the moment, then, in our matriarch Rebekah's words, "Lamah zeh anochi?" - "Why should I exist at all?"

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?