Sunday, November 30, 2008

Sefer Ha-Bloggadah: week 15

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

Thursday, November 27, 2008

1:6:52 – A thought for Thanksgiving

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

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

1:6:13-22—Leadership Woes

24 November 2008 (a day late)

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

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

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

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

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

--Sara Meirowitz

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Sefer Ha-Bloggadah: week 14

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

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

Tuesday, November 18, 2008


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

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

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

Monday, November 17, 2008

Modah ani lefanecha...

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

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Sefer Ha-Bloggadah: week 13

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Several points are worth noting here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, November 14, 2008


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Does K represent Sadducee viewpoint?

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

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Sefer Ha-Bloggadah: week 12

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

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

Giving the Torah - Angels (slightly late)

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

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

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

Section 49

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

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

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

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

Friday, November 7, 2008

The Value of of Work

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Golden Calves

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

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

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

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Sefer Ha-Bloggadah: week 11

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

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

1:5:35 - Different Manifestations of God

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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