Friday, October 31, 2008

Receiving the Torah

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

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

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Clouds of Glory

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

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Mud Between the Toes

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, October 27, 2008

Enough already! (Dayenu in Reverse)

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

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

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

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Sefer Ha-Bloggadah: week 10

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, October 23, 2008

The First Plague

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

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

Monday, October 20, 2008

Kindness can be hard to accept.

I find the Midrash about Pharoah's heart fascinating. One of the first brilliant insights people who are introduced to the Torah come up with, is: G!d hardens Pharaoh's heart. How can he then punish Pharaoh and his people. This is almost always stated as a new and brilliant original discovery. But as with most of the problems in the Torah, the Rabbis were there thousands of years ago and raised all of the same questions. We may not agree with the answers but we have to understand that the Jews have always read Torah with a critical if believing mind.

G!d in his great power is able to harden, even a "non-existent" heart. Some hearts (read mind not emotion) are so dense that they can never be softened. Pharaoh was so used to having everyone agree with him that even when G!d warns him and fufills the warnings Pharaoh hears G!d as encouraging Pharaoh's stubborness. So G!d's warings are given as Chesed (lovingkindness) but are read by Pharaoh as Gevurah (strict justice). Pharaoh still believes he will define and enforce justice no matter what G!d says. So just bywarning (thru Moses), G!d hardens Pharaoh's heart.

Gut yontiv,
I just made it. I may rewrite on Thursday.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Sefer Ha-Bloggadah: week 9

The Exodus approaches! For another week, we spend the fall holidays preparing for seder.

  • Monday/Tuesday - 1:8:48-54 (The Signs and the Plagues)
  • Wednesday/Thursday - 1:8:55-61 (The Signs and the Plagues)
  • Friday - 1:8:62-67 (The Signs and the Plagues)
  • Saturday/Sunday - 1:8:68-72 (Events Preceding the Exodus; The Spoils of Egypt; Joseph's Coffin)

The Brutality of ...

In one of those interesting temporal juxtapositions we will be noticing throughout this project, here in the middle of the fall holiday cycle we have some aggadot that expand upon material we are familiar with from the spring holiday cycle and specifically, the Passover Haggadah. A good deal of space in the Haggadah is devoted to explaining the various ways in which the few Biblical verses on the enslavement conceal an entire system of oppression, personal and political, sexual, material, cultural, and so on. This section of our book does something similar, and picks out a few dimensions of the enslavement to dwell and expand upon. Since one of my personal methodologies in this project is to be sensitive to connections (however coincidental) between what is going on in my own life (spiritual, personal, professional, etc.) and the particular pieces of aggadah "assigned" to me at a given time, and since my general interest is in the moral-philosophical dimensions of this material, I will try to reflect both of those concerns here.
I'm a divorced parent; this weekend was my high school senior daughter's Homecoming game, she is head cheerleader, and her father came down from Northern California for the event, bringing his wife and 2 1/2-year-old son along. My son also flew in from NYC for the weekend. So what does any of this have to do with the images and ideas in these aggadot about the enslavement in Egypt?
For me, whether the Israelites were actually enslaved in Egypt, under anything like the conditions described in the Bible, is a matter of small historical interest but no spiritual interest at all. By which I mean that I would regard the account as importantly "true" even if it was demonstrated conclusively to me that the events described never took place "in history." So I'm truly indifferent on that latter question. (Not to say it isn't interesting. It's just not "important.") What is important, and true, in the story is what it can illuminate for us about what it means to be enslaved, oppressed, and unfree. Without in any way minimizing the value of the text in analyzing large-scale political oppression, many of us are fortunate enough not to deal with those issues personally and daily -- and so, other things "oppress" us. That is, other features of our biography that have an unchosen character seem to constrain our actions, and choices, and even our character, sometimes putting us in situations in which there appears to be no "right" or "good" way to act.
The first passage, # 42, expands on"the foremen...were flogged," and ennobles the foremen by putting into their mouths the words, "We prefer to submit to the lash, rather than have the people in our charge fall into the hands of the taskmasters." It would be nice to imagine that people who divorce will nevertheless trust one another completely where putting the best interests of their children first, is concerned. But what if that is not so? What does it mean, in this particular way, to "submit to the lash," rather than let harm come to those in one's charge? Paradoxically, it may be the children themselves who see one parent in an unfairly harsh light. For a strongly-motivated person, it may not be so difficult to be a "martyr" in this way for some period of time. The difficult question (which of course does not arise in the Biblical context) is, for how long? For how long should one permit oneself to be "lashed" by the harsh judgments of the very people one has sought to protect, in part by deliberately keeping them in ignorance? When is it self-serving to tell more of the truth, and when is it self-serving not to? The aggadic passage puts the foremen in a flattering light, without any doubt -- but it is does so in part based on a permanent hierarchy between the foremen and those in their charge, with their worthiness to rule legitimized by their moral superiority. If any among the people would preferred to have been flogged themselves (even if for such an unfair offense as coming up short on bricks in impossible circumstances), they were deprived of that form of moral maturity by the foremen's nobility.
As parents, we often wish to do (for noble reasons) precisely what the foremen do here -- stand in between our children and the consequences of their actions or those of another, and take the punishment ourselves (though we don't "deserve" it). This may be a noble impulse, but it is worth reflecting on the point at which it ceases to be a service to the ones so protected, and instead, is a form of domination over them.
Aggadot # 44 presents an equally challenging and multivalent image. The people come to Moses complaining, comparing themselves to "a lamb that a wolf has come to snatch. Though the shepherd runs after the lamb to save it from the mouth of the wolf, the lamb, pulled this way by the shepherd and that way by the wolf, is torn apart. So, too, Israel said, 'Moses, between you and Pharaoh, we are being pulled to death.'" (Exod. 5:21) So, what, exactly, is the nature of their complaint? Certainly, they aren't suggesting that Moses should just stop "pulling" for them, are they? And let them "go to the wolves"? The later sections go on to clarify that the problem is the Pharaoh's reaction to Moses' attempts to intervene and help the Israelites (namely, that things get even worse). This has a first, and obvious, application to the situation of divorced parents. Perhaps everyone will see him- or herself in the role of shepherd/Moses, and the other parent as wolf/Pharaoh. But at least one surprising implication of this passage is that it doesn't actually matter who's the "good guy" and who isn't -- the lamb is pulled apart regardless, as much by wolf and shepherd as by two wolves. It does no good, says this passage, to attempt to defend one's questionable conduct by painting oneself as the shepherd, concerned only to pull the children away from the wolf. The children are pulled apart just the same. What follows from this? In the aggadah, Moses gets fed up with this cycle (God urges him to intervene with Pharaoh, he does so, things get worse, the people complain), complains to God, and is punished for doing so. God also seems to act towards Moses (in # 45) like the worst sort of parent -- "Why can't you be more like Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob? They didn't complain..." Moses, of course, also has that literal deus ex machina to call upon -- he doesn't have to figure out, with or without the help of the lambs, how to extract them from the wolf's mouth.
The aggadic world, and the Biblical world upon which it comments, were profoundly hierarchical places, in which the first concern was not with the legitimacy of hierarchy itself (which went unquestioned), but rather, with the particular hierarchy in place, and the fitness of those at the top, to rule. The Torah and the Talmud are extraordinarily sensitive on this point, and punctilious almost to a fault about the moral credentials of rulers (see the endless explanations of why Moses was not permitted to enter the Promised Land). But to my eye, what is lacking is perhaps sufficient acknowledgement of the moral agency of those being led, and how that agency is properly nurtured, so that eventually, one can take the flogging, and jump out of the wolf's mouth, oneself.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Moses before Pharoah

In the English number 41, which sticks together an assortment of midrashim from different sources, I find myself mulling over the appropriateness of the middle part of this piece for the season. Although we are enjoying chol haMoed Sukkot, we are not far in time from Rosh Hashanah. We remain within the season of our judgment, and its association with the recognition of God as our only and ultimate Ruler.

I find it striking that the midrash centers around the crowning of Pharaoh not simply as king, but as the English has it "cosmocrater," -the king of all kings- thus usurping God's role. Pharaoh even goes so far as to google God and can't get a hit, prompting him to say "You see, I looked for your God [among a list of pagan deities] and did not find it"

The rabbis then focus on how foolish Pharaoh is in asking about God' achievements, saying things like, "Is He young or old...How many provinces has He conquered?" as if God was nothing more than another petty king... and apparently Pharaoh hasn't the imagination to think of God as anything more than another human - which is apparently why he thinks so hughly of himself. If there isn't anything in the universe greater than oneself, then why not assume the role of the greatest of all beings. Who is there to hold your arrogance in check, and help you feel a bit more humble about your place in the great scheme of things?

This whole sequence reminds me of nothing so much as the current state of affairs in the extreme end of Christian religion in the USA these days. For example the whole brou-ha-ha of (some) evangelicals busy trying to get creationism taught in public schools; how is it that they are unable to conceive of a God that has a greater imagination for process than they do?
How utterly like the Pharaoh that we see here in trying to make God into a man - and a kind of stupid one at that.

1:4:41 - A vivid God

I love vivid descirptions of God. It's odd because I'm not a huge God-thinker. I tend to believe that if God exists, God is so far removed from my life and the active daily life of the world that giving tons of thought to the subject of God is almost a waste of time.

That being said, I still love this passage:

"Are the living to be sought smong the dead? The divinites in your records are dead. But our God is a living God, the King of universe."

Pharoah asked, "Is he young or old? How old? How many cities has he conquered? How long is it since he ascended to the throne?" They replied, "Our God--His strenght and might fill the universe. He was before the world was created, and he will be after the world's end. He formed you and gave you the breath of life." Pharoah: "What are his noble deeds?" Moses and Aaron: "He stretched forth the heavens and laid the foundations of the earth; [...] He forms mountains and hills; He covers heaven with clouds; brings down rain and dew; makes grasses grow, fruits to be succulent; answers those about to give birth [etc.]

The passage actually points to my own difficulty with God. As much as I hate to admit agreeing with Pharoah of all people, he seems to be having a difficulty similar to mine. Pharoah wants to know what God has done that is in the realm of things Pharoah cares about: conquering, thrones, "noble deeds."

Shabat Shalom and Chag Sameach, blogosphites.


Thursday, October 16, 2008

1:4:63 The voice of Hashem

When we speak of Moshe Rabeinu, the greatest prophet of all time – we think not only of his cleaving to Hashem, but also of his many struggles – his speech impairment, his striking of the rock, his destruction of the first tablets.  This midrash takes our understanding of Moses even further – even though Moses is our greatest teacher and our greatest prophet, he too started at the beginning.  The midrash quotes Joshua (ha-Kohen) ben Nehemiah about Moses’s novice period in prophecy, stating that Hashem spoke to Moses in Amram’s voice, so as not frighten Moses.

The Divine (and even mere Judaism as a whole) is intimidating – this Midrash advises us to begin slowly, as Moses did.  Only Providence can know how deeply our connection will go.

Davka’s CD-ROM Sefer ha-Aggadah on sale

bolboxlarge Howard White posted a note on the Google Groups mailing list mentioning that Davka’s Sefer ha-Aggadah (in English translation, with hard disk installation possible) is currently available at the price of $30 through October 24 as part of Davka’s Succos sale.

Here is the link.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Mahu Vayar?

The question that prompts aggadah 20 is, in my opinion, rather mistranslated in our English version. In response to the verse, “He [Moses] went out to his brothers and saw their suffering” (Exodus 2:11), the rabbis ask “Mahu ‘vayar’?” --What does it mean, ‘he saw’? What a great rabbinical question—asking us what seeing really means in this context. The commentators recognize that something greater than mere sensing is happening here; Moses develops an awareness of the Israelites’ suffering, and that development is encapsulated in the word “saw.” The translation, “How did he feel as ‘he looked on’?” doesn’t really capture the issue the rabbis have with this laconic description of Moses’ big realization.

So what does it mean that Moses sees their suffering? Through three separate teachings, the rabbis build the case that seeing means identifying with the sufferer and literally taking up the other’s heaviest burden. Seeing also means understanding the specific kind(s) of pain people are in and trying to alleviate their suffering through practical solutions. These stories present Moses’ empathy and capacity to bear the burden of the other as his strongest and truest characteristics. This is Moses as both the ultimate practitioner of Mussar (Jewish ethical practice) and a great community organizer.

Truly seeing another human being, especially one who is suffering, is often a challenge. Empathizing with suffering can be frightening and threatening to our sense of security or identity. It is much easier to feel pity for sufferers because that pity distances us from their reality and the sense that their suffering is bound up in our own well-being and touches our own lives. Moses’ deep capacity to empathize with the Israelite slaves and to take on their cause as his own—or perhaps his inability not to do so—qualifies him to lead b’nei Yisrael out of slavery.

I love the sense of human-divine partnership in the idea that Moses actually ordained Shabbat as a day of rest for the Israelites while they were still enslaved. It made me wonder, however, about how the Israelites would have reacted to the institution of Shabbat being transferred from the context of slavery to the context of freedom. I can imagine them thinking, “What does it mean that we still need to have Shabbat when we are free human beings who choose how to spend our time?” How is it different to celebrate Shabbat as a slave or as a free person? Perhaps the man who goes out to gather sticks on Shabbat in the wilderness (Bamidbar 15:32) just misunderstands shabbat’s purpose in light of his newfound freedom.

One note: If you have never read Zora Neal Hurston’s Moses, Man of the Mountain, I highly recommend it as an extended midrash on Moses’ life with an especially fascinating treatment of Jethro and Moses’ time in Midian.

Chag sameach, everybody! May our week residing in our fragile sukkot help us "see" the suffering of those who lack shelter.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

1:4:19 - Baby Moses, Hot Coals, and Eight Types of Power

At a simple level, many midrashim are simply an elaboration of some minor statement in the Torah. These types of midrashim are minimally interesting at best. After all, no one really cares about a made-up story elaborating on some minor textual statement or anomaly. But sometimes these midrashim can be read on multiple levels. They make some broader statement, they reflect a philosophy or world view of the rabbis who created them, or they simply provide a rich a multi-layered jumping off point for us to read meaning into the text. The amazing thing about midrashim in general is that so many of them, even the simple and sometimes silly stories, provide such interesting results.

The midrash here is no exception. It is the well-known midrash about baby Moses putting a hot coal into his mouth and thereby becoming "slow of speech". (See Exod. 4:10.) But the story is interesting because of many things, including its implicit views on the nature of power.

Here's the midrash. Pharaoh's daughter "loved" baby Moses as if he were her own. Because he was "so handsome" everyone liked to see him and could not turn away from him. Pharaoh himself kissed and hugged Moses, and Moses would put Pharaoh's crown on his head. Pharaoh's magicians, worried about this behavior, thought Moses would eventually take Pharaoh's crown, and so suggested that Moses be killed. But Jethro (Moses's future Midianite father-in-law) argued that Moses did not yet have any understanding, and so suggested a test: place a gold piece and a hot coal before Moses. If he reaches for the gold, he has understanding and should be killed, but if he reaches for the coal, he has no understanding and there is no need to kill him. The gold and coal were placed in front of Moses, and he started to grab for the gold. However, the angel Gabriel intervened, shoved the gold to the side, and Moses not only grabbed the hot coal, but then put the coal into his mouth. As a result, he became "slow of speech and slow of tongue."

This seems straightforward. But it raises several questions, none of which I want to discuss here. Wouldn't a baby instinctively grab a shiny gold piece, not a dull lump of coal, and if so, was test was stacked against baby Moses from the beginning? Was Jethro acting as a "good guy" knowing that Moses would pass the test or a "bad guy" trying to set Moses up. How did Moses get the hot coal into his mouth; wouldn't he have immediately dropped it if it was that hot?

Instead of these (and other) important questions, I would like to discuss the ideas about power running through the story.

Power is the ability to get something done, or to impose one's will on the world and other people. It is not a bad thing. To the contrary: it can be exercised wisely and responsibly, and thereby improve the world, or of course unwisely and irresponsibly, and thereby make things worse. Ideas about power run through the story.

1. Love: Pharaoh's daughter loved Moses, and she cares for him. Being loved, and in many ways loving others, is a form of power.

2. Physical Attractiveness: Moses was so handsome that others liked him. Importantly, this was not because of his actions or behavior or personality, but simply because he was a good looking baby. People sometimes use their physical beauty to influence others.

3. Political power. Pharaoh's crown represents his role as the political leader of Egypt.

4. Logos. Pharaoh's magicians are concerned about Moses, and so they try to persuade Pharaoh to kill him. In response, Jethro proposes a test. These suggestions are adopted because they are reasonable. Aristotle included logos, or an argument from reason, as one of the three modes of argument in his Rhetoric.

5. Wealth. The gold represents wealth, and important source of power.

6. Natural forces. A hot coal has tremendous physical power. It can heat stoves, cook food, generate electricity, start huge fires, and (as Moses finds out) injure people.

7. Supernatural intervention. Gabriel intervenes and causes Moses to do something other than what he had intended.

8. Pathos. The hot coal injures Moses's mouth and he is less able to speak. One can speak reasonably without speaking clearly, but speaking less clearly diminishes the emotional aspect of speech, or its pathos.

So in this short story, we see eight types of power mentioned. Focusing on how these modes of power interact in the story (rather than the characters themselves) produces some interesting conclusions.

- People jealously guard their power. Pharaoh (and his magicians) feel their political power threatened, and so they are willing to kill a baby to protect it.

- Love does not conquer all. Pharaoh's daughter loves Moses, yet she drops out of the story very early. Her love for Moses cannot prevent him from being subjected to this test.

- Power can be dangerous. Moses hurts himself because he does not know how to handle the hot coal. This is understandable; he is only a baby. But nonetheless, power is dangerous, and a person's attempt to control physical power may end up harming the person. Even with the protection of an angel.

- An individual must often make choices between having or developing different types of power. Moses was attempting to take the gold, or material wealth, but Gabriel pushed his hand towards the coal, or physical power. And this physical power diminished Moses's rhetorical skill.

Note how this last factor plays out in Moses's life. He is a physical man, not a gifted orator. He uses his physical powers to kill the Egyptian. He physically protects Jethro's daughters at the well; he does not reason with the threatening shepherds. He repeatedly asks Pharaoh to let the Hebrews go, all to no avail. Pharaoh is not persuaded by Moses's (or Aaron's) words, but only by the physical acts of the ten plagues. The Hebrews are saved at the Red Sea by the physical acts of it parting for them and drowning the pursuing Egyptians. And Moses resorts to a very physical civil war after the Golden Calf incident, not to speech. Moses physically strikes the rock to get water, even the second time when God tells him to speak to the rock. Moses does not respond to the spies' pessimism about invading Israel; he "falls on his face" and Joshua and Caleb speak to the Children of Israel. He does not answer Korach's argument, but instead suggests a physical test between Aaron on the one hand and Korach and his followers on the other.

Moses's speech works in only three situations: when he is speaking to God (e.g., after the Golden Calf incident, after the spies incident), when he is transmitting God's laws to the people, and then finally --- at the very end of his life --- when he gives his speeches in Deuteronomy. The rest of the time he uses physical power, not rhetorical skill.

* * *

Hag sameach everyone. Have a happy sukkot.

Sefer Ha-Bloggadah: week 8

Just in time for Pesach Sukkot, we're seeing the buildup to the Exodus. See Exodus chapters 2-6 for the originals. Save these midrashim up for your seder! Due to the holiday this week, we're on a shorter schedule again.

  • Monday/Tuesday - 1:4:20-25 (Moses Goes Forth to His Brethren; Moses in Midian)
  • Wednesday/Thursday - 1:4:26-37 (The Groaning of the Children of Israel and the Mission of Moses)
  • Friday - 1:4:38-41 (Moses Returns to Egypt; Moses before Pharaoh)
  • Saturday/Sunday - 1:4:42-47 (The Brutality of the Enslavement)

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

1:3:112 Teshuva

Today/tomorrow’s midrash is on the theme of forgiveness and teshuva.  I present it from the English translation without commentary. 

Have an easy fast.

“And when Joseph’s brethren saw that their father was dead, they said, ‘It may be that Joseph bears a grudge against us’ “ (Gen. 50:15).  What did they see that made them afraid?  As they were returning from burying their father, they saw that Joseph turned off the road and went to look at the pit into which his brothers had cast him.  Upon seeing this, they said, “He sill bears a grudge in his heart.  Now that our father is dead, he will make his hatred of us felt.”  But in fact Joseph’s motive was a pious one – he wanted to utter a blessing for the miracle wrought for him in that place.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

1:3:107: Painful Midrash

The basic story in the Tanach is wonderful. It is powerful and very touching. It is a parsha I look forward to each year. The Midrash is for me a total turn off. It is primarily macho daydreaming of the worst sort. At this point Egypt has not harmed the Jews, if anything it is the reverse, yet all the pregnant Egyptian women miscarry because of Judah.

Also the attacks on the brothers by Joseph get rid of the feeling of forgiveness that Joseph shows in the Tanach. Especially:
"Judah: "The fire that burned Shechem is rekindled within me." Joseph: "It is rather the fire you unjustly intended for Tamar your daughter-in-law, and I will quench it.""
This turns Judah's previous high moment of admiting his error into a negative attack. Reads like a political attack not a discussion among brothers reaching for joint forgiveness. Maybe someone else can show me the redeeming social value for this Midrash but I just can't see it.

1:3:103-106: Violence Among Brothers

6 October 2008

Monday’s readings drop us in the middle of the Joseph story, telling snippets of the story of Joseph and his brothers’ interactions as adults in Egypt. In reading these aggadot, I was struck by the continuing theme of physical violence. This is not a new theme in our story: Joseph’s abduction and sale into slavery is marked with all sorts of violent acts, the blood on his striped coat being the most emblematic. What I noticed in this day’s readings are the ways in which even amidst the gentility of royal Egypt, the abusive habits learned in the ancestral home persist. Three examples:

Shimon in Prison: midrash 104 gives an extended account of Shimon’s time in prison while his brothers are in Cana’an retrieving Benjamin. After binding Shimon publicly and throwing him into prison, Joseph sends strongmen to shackle him. Shimon shouts at the strongmen with superhuman force, hurling them backwards and shattering their teeth. Menashe then takes up the challenge of subduing Shimon and dispatches him with one punch. While it’s fascinating to speculate why the rabbis chose to interpolate this account of violence into the text, what intrigued me was Shimon’s comment to his brothers:

“You may think,” Simeon said to his brothers, “that this was an Egyptian kind of blow. It wasn’t! It had the kind of knockout punch we are familiar with in Father’s house.” When Joseph’s brothers learned this, a great fear came over them.

One might expect that violence would be rampant in Egyptian prisons, that a punch by the regent’s son would be no more distinctive than the general sort of prison abuse. But to Shimon and his brothers, this punch was specifically reminiscent of their family style of fighting. Moreover, the fact that Menashe—who’d not grown up in Jacob’s house—knew this style strongly implies that he learned it from his father. I shudder to think what might be so distinctive about the “family punch” that Shimon would recognize it—and that Joseph would pass it along to his son. Even if we imagine the style to be more of a family martial art than a pattern of abusive behavior, the implications are deeply, deeply troubling. Joseph grew up in a family of violence, and he passed this knowledge along to his children.

The Accusation against Benjamin: in midrash 106, the brothers again invoke their violent tendencies, this time against Benjamin. Rather than defending their younger brother against the accusation of theft, they accuse him of following in his pickpocket mother’s footsteps, embarrassing them as Rachel embarrassed Jacob in front of Laban when she stole the terapim. Along with their taunts, they hit Benjamin on the shoulders, an action later used metaphorically in the Deuteronomic blessing for the tribe of Benjamin.

The rabbinic project here is to discredit the brothers, emphasizing their tendencies towards disloyalty and betrayal. While the most intriguing part of the midrash (to me) is the connection between Benjamin’s theft and Rachel’s, for the purposes of this post I’ll hone in here on the act of physical violence that the brothers commit. This note of violence seems to run counter to the text’s portrayal of the brothers as docile, with Judah’s oral pleas their main form of objection. We imagine the brothers assaulting Benjamin for being the thief they knew him to be, even as they plead for his life to save their father’s.

Jacob’s Fatigue: tangentially related to this theme of violence, the poignancy of midrash 105 perfectly encapsulates the cumulative effects of abuse in Jacob’s house. Why does Jacob invoke God by the name “El Shaddai”? Because year after year, he is so overwhelmed by the bad luck, sorrow, pain in his midst. The midrash lists tragedy after tragedy that befalls Jacob, until he has no choice but to cry out: “May He who said to Heaven and Earth, ‘Enough (dai)!’ say also to my affliction, ‘Enough (dai)!’” We don’t know what role Jacob played in creating this cycle of violence, but it seems clear from this midrash that the cycle of rape, abduction, loss weighed on him so heavily, even to the extent of influencing what name he used for God.

This post is a bit of a downer, I realize. But smack in the middle as we are of this story of the most dysfunctional of all families, it’s fascinating to see the ways in which the rabbis both emphasized and mourned the cycle of violence. May our finishing the book of Genesis bring a bit of dai to this cycle, and may we move forward into the new year with this same awareness of violence to which we ourselves can say, dai!

--Sara Meirowitz

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Sefer Ha-Bloggadah: week 7

This week we reach a major milestone and complete the aggadot on the book of Genesis! Just in time for Yom Kippur, we'll riff on one of the great stories of forgiveness and reconciliation. As the gates close, we move on to Exodus.

  • Monday - 1:3:103-106 (Joseph's Brothers in Egypt)
  • Tuesday - 1:3:107 (Joseph Makes Himself Known to His Brothers)
  • Wednesday/Thursday - 1:3:108-113 (Jacob's Going Down to Egypt; The Death and Burial of Jacob)
  • Friday - 1:4:1-12 (The Servitude in Egypt)
  • Saturday/Sunday - 1:4:13-19 (The Birth and Growing Up of Moses)

Friday, October 3, 2008

1:3:89 - I plead guilty

Crossposted to The Reform Shuckle.

I've heard the midrash before that Yosef "made eyes at girls, he walked with a swagger, and he styled his hair." I've never given it much thought, though. On the surface, it seems to simply point out why it is that his brother's disliked him so much. He was one of those smarmy, popular guys, always around a group of girls. And the description of him certainly reminds me of many of the guys I see around campus in my daily life. 

It seems, upon reflecting a bit, that I may be guilty of the same sins that Yosef's brothers are guilty of in this story. I'm certaintly not saying that I've ever sold anyone into slavery, but I've certainly negatively judged guys that make eyes, swagger, and style their hair. I do it every day in class, at lunch, and walking from place to place on campus.

In this midrash, the sin of Yosef's brothers is an inability to see past the swagger and the hair gel. Yosef has the potential, a potential he later realizes, to become a powerful, influential force of good within a major mediterranean power. His brothers can't see that yet.

In light of their inability to see the good in their brother for all of his swaggering around and use of hair products, I'd like to make a new year's resolution. I'm gonna try hard to see past the surface of some of the people I see around school every day.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

1:3:86 Two worlds

The duality of the higher worlds and Olam Asiya, the world of action is hinted at throughout the Torah, and this midrash is a prime example. 

In this midrash, while still in the womb, Jacob addresses Esau:  “Esau, my brother, our father has two of us, even as there are two worlds before us – this world and the world-to-come.  In this world there is eating, drinking, and the give-and-take of business.  But with regard to all such activities, the world-to-come is quite different.  If it be your wish, you take this world, and I will take the world-to-come.”

Later, in the face of Jacob’s success when he returned from Laban’s house with wives, children, servants, livestock, and silver and gold, Esau challenges Jacob – why does Jacob make use of Olam Asiya?

Jacob replies that what he has in this world is merely a gift of Hashem for his needs in this world.  Esau then begins to recognize the enormous portion that is Jacob’s – considering how much more Jacob will receive in the world-to-come.

In many Chasidic and classical Jewish accounts, we are accounted to have two souls in us:  Jacob and Esau – animal and divine – eternally struggling.  Especially in these days of teshuva – when ha-satan is confused by the sound of the shofar, and we are drawn close to the King, this midrash reminds us that the power of Ein Sof pervades so strongly that the mere reflection of our share in the world-to-come is visible, to those who can see, in the Olam Asiya.  Indeed, there is an echo between the two worlds:  as we say in Hataras Nedarim before the Rosh Hashana liturgy, explicitly drawing out the parallels of the beis din in this world and in the Divine level, ultimately quoting Devarim 23:6:

“Just as you are released by the court here below, so shall you be released by the Heavenly Court, and it shall make no impression at all.  And all the curses shall turn to blessings, as it is written:  ‘And the Lord your God turned the curse into a blessing for you, for the Lord your God loves you.’ ”

1:3:75: Change of the Angelic Honor-Guard

A quiet day on the Bloggadah, so here is an incidental post about Midrash 75, in which the place name Machanayim (two camps) signifies the bands of angels who accompanied Jacob while he was in Israel giving way to diasporic angels who accompanied him outside the Land.

As I recall hearing him tell it, Professor David Weiss Halivini used this midrash in his hesped (eulogy) for Professor Saul Lieberman. The great talmudist Professor Lieberman, who had been the young Weiss-Halivni's mentor in America, had passed away on an airplane flight from the United States to Israel. Professor Halivni quoted our midrash about Jacob and said that evidently the angels of the diaspora and the angels of Eretz Israel had all contended for the honor of escorting Professor Lieberman from this world, and so, as both could justify their case, Professor Lieberman passed away in mid-air, between and above the two domains, where both guards of angels could escort him.