Wednesday, December 31, 2008

The Feast of Ahasuerus

Do we know what Ahasuerus' feast was really about? Reading Esther, the few short verses that talk of this meal set the tone for the grandeur of palatial living. We knew he ruled 127 provinces from India to Ethiopia; was wise and rich; had ornate decorations in his palace, including fine textiles and expensive gems; and offered the feast to dignitaries and commonfolk alike.

Today's reading suggests four themes for the feast: redemption, wealth, hospitality, and satisfaction. (14-17.) Of these four, it is only satisfaction and, specifically, G-d's unique ability "to satisfy the wish of every human being" that is not mirrored in the Tanakh.

But, wait, where is G-d in Esther? Before the megilla is read on Purim, the reader says three blessings, the second of which thanks G-d for performing miracles. Where was the miracle that G-d performed? How did G-d play a role in the story of Esther and Mordecai? Does today's reading (17) suggest that G-d's role was in guiding Ahasuerus, and not or Jewish protagonists? "Tomorrow two men, Mordecai and Haman, will come to you. Do you think you can possibly satisfy both as you might if there were only one? You will have no choice but to exalt one and hand the other." Was Ahasuerus a good guy or a bad guy? "No one except the Holy One can satisfy the wish of every human being. Of Him it is said, 'Thou satisfiest the wish of every living thing' (Ps. 145:16)."

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Greatness of Esther

The sages said: When a hind is thirsty, she digs a hole, fixes her horns in it, and in her distress cries softly to the Holy One. The Holy One causes the deep to come up, and the deep causes water to spring up for her. So, too, Esther: when wicked Haman decreed cruel decrees against Israel, she, in her distress, began to cry softly in prayer to the Holy One, and the Holy One answered her.

This sure plays to the female stereotype. Esther was successful because she cried, not because she took the initiative and courage to go to Ahasuerus and risk her life. Also Esther led the community, she told everyone to fast as a way of pushing G!d and later put forth rulings with Mordechai..

R. Judah bar Simon taught: You find that when a house in which a snake nests is fumigated with a hind's horn or a woman's hair, the snake immediately flees. So, too, Deborah and Esther were as effective as a hind's horn, for Deborah did not budge until she destroyed Sisera and his hosts; and Esther did not budge until she had Haman and his ten sons hanged.

Of course it seems logical to compare Esther and Deborah since they are both women. But they were so different. Esther does use her femininity while Deborah went out to war. Again, the leaning is to praise within the context of the female stereotype even when the Tanach goes beyond that stereotype. I remember studying Shoftim (Judges) with an Orthodox Rabbi. I was amazed at how negative the midrash on Deborah was. She unlike Esther seemed to break the stereotype completely and had to be brought down to a lower level.


Monday, December 29, 2008

them bones, them bones

Aggadah #3 in today's reading reveals the rabbis engaged in a debate about the nature of the narrative of the Tanach. The question at hand is how we should read the mass resurrection that occurs in the famous story of Ezekiel and the Valley of the Dry Bones: is it to be taken literally as a historical account, or figuratively as a parable meant to teach the reader that God will eventually restore the Israelites from their exile? While there are other examples in Torah of individual, recently-deceased people being restored to life (like the son of the Shunnamite woman in the story of Elisha) and of miraculous rescues, if the Valley of the Dry Bones is to be read as a historical event, it is surely one of the most fantastical events in Tanach, a dramatic reversal of the natural order. The account also occurs-- in both the book of Ezekiel and here in Sefer haAggadah-- in the context of other prophecies that are clearly framed as dreams, visions, or parables. Thus it is not surprising that this story engenders a certain amount of angst among the rabbis who have a stake in the Tanach as a literal/historical account.
In our aggadah, three opinions are presented, and each represents a different approach to the text. R. Eliezer and R. Joshua both imply that the people were brought back to life simply as a kind of rhetorical strategy for God-- a way for God to dramatically illustrate a point-- because they are revived, sing, and then die again. The quote R. Eliezer selects to put into the mouths of the resurrected emphasizes God’s role as judge and redeemer, while the quote R. Joshua selects emphasizes God’s power. According to this interpretation, all of the events in the Tanach are to be read as an exposition of God’s nature, will, and relationship to the world.
On the other hand, R. Eliezer son of R. Yose claims that the resurrected people lived out full lives, went back to Israel, married, and had children, and R. Judah ben Betera asserts that he is the descendant of one of these people and brings an artifact to prove it. This is the most literalist reading, a statement that everything in Tanach is a historical account that relates to us and to our physical being in the world.
The final option presented is that of R. Judah, who says that the story is a “true event that served as a parable.” R. Judah refuses to let the historicity go, but tells us that the story’s status as a parable is just as important a function. Here R. Judah acknowledges the power of a story as story, the strength of narrative.
The option not explored in this aggadah is perhaps the one that makes the most sense to us—that the story is (only) a parable, and is meant to be read as a prophetic vision in which God reveals to Ezekiel that despite the fact that the people of Israel are currently lifeless and abandoned, they will one day be returned to their full vitality. This story is one that has repeated itself throughout Jewish history. As one of my friends said this weekend, “Every generation thinks that Judaism is about to die out, and lo and behold, there are still Jews.”
If our tendency is to read Tanach as Myth, as powerful story that informs our understandings of the human search for relationship to God, then how do we relate to aggadot that, at most, are willing to acknowledge that a story might also be a parable in addition to being a historical account? Are we inheritors of the same interpretive tradition we are reading?

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Sefer Ha-Bloggadah: week 19

This week we cover the post-exilic period, including the latest biblical books, particularly Esther. Now that Chanukah is ending, happy Purim!

  • Monday - 1:8:1-8 (Daniel and the Dragon in Babylon; The Dead whom Ezekiel Brought Back to Life; Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah)
  • Tuesday - 1:8:9-13 (Ezra; Men of the Great Assembly; In the Days of Mordecai and Esther; Deborah and Esther)
  • Wednesday - 1:8:14-22 (The Feast of Ahasuerus; Bigthan and Teresh; The Promotion of Haman; Haman's Intention)
  • Thursday - 1:8:23 (Haman's Slander and Ahasuerus's Decree)
  • Friday - 1:8:24 (Haman's Slander and Ahasuerus's Decree)
  • Saturday/Sunday - 1:8:25-27 (The Fall of Haman and the Exaltation of Mordecai; The Hanging of Haman)

Friday, December 26, 2008

7:7:13. Zecharia's blood

(Paraphrase: R' Yehoshua b. Korha said that an old Jerusalemite told him that Nevuzaradan, the Babylonian general, killed 940,000 persons, so that their blood streamed and merged with that of Zecharia. [The murder of Zecharia the prophet is not in the Tanach; it's asserted in midrash, e.g., Sanh. 96b (one of the sources for the text here), Eicha R. petihta 5, and it may be based on Ezek. 24:7-8.] Nevuzaradan found Zecharia's blood still bubbling, and asked what it was. The priests, apparently trying to conceal the murder, claimed that it was blood from a sacrifice. Nevuzaradan was dubious, called for another sacrifice, compared its blood with the suspicious blood, and concluded that the latter was human blood. He forced the priests to confess by threatening them with torture (raking their flesh, not waterboarding), and they admitted that it was a prophet who had rebuked the city, and that they had murdered him several years before, but that his blood kept bubbling. Nevuzaradan pledged to avenge the murder; he killed the great Sanhedrin and a small (23-judge) sanhedrin, then young priests, and then young men and women, and finally young schoolchildren, but nothing stopped the bubbling of the blood. Finally, Nevuzaradan rebuked Zecharia -- "I have killed the best of them, do you want me to kill them all?" -- and the bubbling stopped. At which point, Nevuzaradan thought, "If this occurs when they killed only one person, I've killed all of these people, which is all the more serious," and he fled and converted to Judaism.)

The multiple ambivalences of this midrash are intriguing:

The particularly heinous crime of murdering a prophet is denounced not by any Israelite, but by the enemy general.

Vengeance is sought not by identifying and killing the particular individuals who committed the murder, but against the entire people, through its choicest persons -- the sages (the great and small sanhedriot), who are the intellectual elite; the priests, who are the elite caste; the youngest adult generation, who are, perhaps, the freshest individuals who have an individual identity (i.e., assuming children were not perceived as having such an identity); and the children, who are the innocent, and/or the future.

The scale of the vengeance so outweighs the original crime that even Nevuzaradan perceives the disparity. He has killed many, and threatens to kill all the rest. He turns the responsibility onto Zecharia himself -- how much damage will Zecharia demand to be appeased?

Finally, the enemy general and killer of hundreds of thousands winds up converting.

These ambivalences parallel ambivalences in other stories of the destruction. The people commit much evil and deserve destruction, but God holds off. God decides on destruction but the Patriarchs, Moshe, and Rahel intervene. The enemy enter the Temple and try to destroy it, but God's angels destroy it preemptively. The enemy brags about the destruction, but God says that the city was already condemned, so the enemy destroys a city that was, in a sense, already destroyed. God cries.

[I would like to dedicate this dvar torah to the memory of mori v'rabi, my teacher and guru, R' Arnold Jacob Wolf, who died this past Tuesday. Yehi zichro baruch.]

Richard Friedman

the exile

A tough read today. Not only are today's midrahim all about being sent out into Bavel, but it's pretty harsh on "the Ishmaelites" too. IN two of the midrashim, Israel hopes for mercy from her brother, only to be betrayed and essentially killed by them, by eating bread or salty food, and then being refused water to drink.

Given the general rabbinic focus on how exile came about, I can't help but wonder if there's any connection between these midrash and the rabbinic view of the cause of midrash. That is to say, there are a host of rabbinic commentaries in which Torah is compared to water

(in fact there's an extended analogy in the midrash Song of Songs:
The Torah has been compared to wine, water, oil, and honey and milk. Just as we find water all over the earth's surface, so do we find the Torah; water will never cease from this globe, neither will God's laws cease. Water comes from the heavens, and the Torah came from heaven. There is a noise when water descends, and the Torah descended amidst thunders. Water quickens the thirsty soul; so does the Torah quicken him who is thirsty for knowledge. Water cleanses impurities, and God's laws do the same. Water coming down by drops can form a river; so if a man acquires Torah bit by bit he may eventually become a great scholar. Water, unless one is thirsty, cannot be drunk with any degree of pleasure; in the same way, unless one has a craving for the Torah, its study, if enforced, will become a burden. Water runs from high places and seeks the lower portions of the earth; so the Torah will not remain with the haughty man, but rather seeks out the lowly. Water is not kept in golden or silver vessels, but is best kept in earthenware; so the Torah will not be retained except by him who is meek of spirit. A man of distinction will not think it beneath his dignity to ask for water from the meanest individual, neither is any one too great to despise instruction from the most insignificant person. One may drown in water if one cannot swim; so, unless one possesses a thorough knowledge of the Torah and all its meanings, one may be drowned in it. But it may be said that water gets stale if kept for a time in a vessel, and that the same should apply to the Torah. Remember therefore that it is also likened to wine, which improves with age. Again, water leaves no trace on him who tastes it, and the same, it might be said, must be the case with the Torah. But here again we must remember the comparison of the Torah to wine. just as wine has a visible effect on one who drinks it, so the studious man is at once known when one looks at him. Water does not rejoice the heart, and it might be concluded that the same is true of the Torah; hence it is likened to wine, since each rejoices the heart. Yet wine is sometimes injurious; not so the Torah, which is compared with oil. As oil is capable of anointing any part of the human body, so is the Torah an anointment to its possessor. But oil again has a bitter taste before it is purified; is this, then, equally true of the Torah? No; for the Torah is compared to milk and honey, each of which has an agreeable taste, while when blended they have healing properties as well as sweetness.--Mid. Songs 1.

and in the Talmud Baba Kama 82a Torah is compared directly to water culminating in quoting from Isaiah 55:1
"HO, all who are thirsty, come for water,
and you who have no money,
come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
without money and without cost.

2 Why spend money on what is not bread,
and your labor on what does not satisfy?
and stating bluntly, water means nothing but Torah.

Could what the rabbis really be getting at not so much be the focus on our external enemies and betrayals, but a more internal reckoning - if you had drunk the waters of Torah when you were in Israel, perhaps now you would have water to drink, if you had eaten what truly satisfies, your enemies would not have been able to overcome you.

It is a standard trope of biblical and rabbinic literature to have exile or domination be internally caused, even when delivered by outside forces.

Why the Ishmaelites in this case? Perhaps it is because it is all the more galling to be betrayed by one's brother, and not a stranger. Although there are also echoes of turnabout, since Ishmael was, too, turned out into the wilderness by our father Abraham, and his mother thought he would die without water. Yet, he survived, and so, although in great distress, did Israel.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

1:7:12: The Mourning of the Fathers

Happy Chanukah.  May the lights of the holiday illuminate the darkness of our era. 


As we go through the Tisha B’av sequence, I am reminded of the Rabbinic commandment not to study Torah on the Ninth of Av, except for the gloomy sections of Torah (and today’s Sefer Aggadah sequence certainly qualifies as gloomy!)  In the same way we have the minhag not to study Torah on Nittelnacht – the evening which is celebrated by our Gentile friends which begins with sundown on December 24th.  This extremely sad section of Sefer Aggadah discusses the agony of the Fathers in heaven at the destruction of the Temple.  The Torah and the letters of the alphabet come forward to testify against Israel, but Avraham silences them by reminding them of how holy Israel holds the Torah and the letters that comprise it.

While Israel must take responsibility for her role in the destruction of the Temple, in the end, the ultimate agent in the destruction of the Temples took place at the hands of the foreigners.  We are reminded at this time of year just how seductive the way of foreigners can be – the seductive materialism of Nittelnacht, with its pretty decorations and happy wrappings and merry little jingles.  This is the time at which Israel feels most at exile.  This year, with the tragic events of Mumbai where Islamic terrorists singled the local Chabad house for murder of Jews studying Talmud, the growing danger pozed by Hamas extremists in Gaza as they restart their program of random terror, and the shock of Bernard Madoff’s fraud (of which Jewish charities bore the brunt of the loss), and fueled by background of the increasingly grim situation in Afganistan and Pakistan and the fear of our increasingly deteriorating economy. 

At this time, we can feel the pain of loss – of which perhaps a primal exemplar was the loss of the Temple – especially acutely. 

And yet, it is also Chanukah, the festival at which we consider Hashem’s miracle:  that after the Maccabeans defeated the far mightier Greek-Syrian forces of Antiochus, that a day’s worth of oil was allowed to burn for eight days.  For me, the real miracle of Chanukah is that Jews even cared – because, after all the laws of purity are suspended during wartime.  They did not need to use kosher oil in the Menorah, and yet they did.  And this extra effort, this effort to perfect the mitzvah, was rewarded by light from Above. 

In the same way, at the dark juncture, let us rededicate ourselves to performing more mitzvah, and thus to repay the faith that Avraham, Yitzchak, Yakov, and Moshe Rabbeinu showed when they wailed before the Holy One and defended Israel.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008


The various biblical and rabbinic narratives of the destruction of Jerusalem seem to agree about a few things:
  • It was Israel's fault.
  • It was a tragedy -- both Israel's suffering and Israel's actions that led to that suffering.
But there are two different schools of thought as to how this tragedy came about:
1) God made it happen, and the humans who carried it out were simply God's agents.
2) God stepped out of the way so that humans could make it happen.

The biblical accounts in II Kings 24-25 and Jeremiah 52 fall into the first category: the Babylonians are acting "al pi Adonai" / "at God's command" [II Kings 24:3]. Ezekiel 8-11 presents a very different type of narrative (referenced in aggadah 1:7:10). Rather than talking about how many people were killed and how many were taken captive and the other historical details, Ezekiel addresses the event on a spiritual level, leading up to the departure of God's presence and of the heavenly beings.

The aggadot line up similarly into two camps.

In category 1:
In 1:7:5, Nevuzaradan seems to be taking direct orders from God: the time has come for the Temple to be destroyed, and it's his job to destroy it. He isn't really doing anything himself -- he is killing a people that is already killed, burning a Temple that is already burned (language which repeats in 1:7:8). In 1:7:6, God intervenes to prevent Egyptian troops from coming to Israel's defense.

In category 2:
In 1:6:175 and 1:7:2, Nebuchadnezzar is described as a rasha, an evil person -- an odd description of someone who is simply carrying out God's plan, but a description that makes sense if he is pursuing his own ends and God is turning Jerusalem over to him in an act of "extraordinary rendition". In 1:7:11, God says that God's presence is protecting the Temple, and so God turns away and allows the enemies to come in and destroy it.

These two strands represent two approaches to the problem of evil. Is God responsible for everything that befalls the world, good and bad? Or is God good, and evil is made possible only by God's absence?

Of course, I'm not going to resolve those questions here, but only point out that both of these approaches (and more) turn up in the ways that we have tried to place our historical tragedies into a coherent narrative.

Meanwhile, to turn our thoughts back to the happy festival of Chanukah, I'll link to another midrash that I blogged about a couple years ago, whose message includes the message of the Ezekiel narrative about the departure of God's presence, but also its inverse, in which we rededicate the Temple by bringing God's presence back to earth.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Sefer Ha-Bloggadah: week 18

Happy Chanukah! This week we'll look at the destruction of the First Temple and its aftermath, in sad juxtaposition to the joyous festival of rededication.

  • Monday - 1:7:1-7 (The Destruction of the Temple; The Ninth of Av)
  • Tuesday - 1:7:8-9 (Upon the Ruins of Jerusalem)
  • Wednesday - 1:7:10-11 (The Departure of the Presence; The Holy One Weeping)
  • Thursday - 1:7:12 (Mourning by the Fathers)
  • Friday - 1:7:13-16 (The Blood of Zechariah; The Sufferings of the Exiles)
  • Saturday/Sunday - 1:7:17-21 (By the Rivers of Babylon; Yearnings; Comforting)

Friday, December 19, 2008

1:6:171 - Rav Ashi and Menashe

"Menashe appeared to Rav Ashi in his dream. Rav Ashi said to him, 'Why did you commit idolatry?' He said, 'If you had been in that generation, you would have grabbed onto my coattails and run after me.'" (my translation)

This is an astonishing assertion, made more astonishing by its abruptness and the paucity of explanation. Menashe was perhaps the most reviled Jewish king in the Tanach. Rav Ashi was one of the greatest Amoraim; he was the long-time head of the Sura academy and was one of the two principal editors of the Gemara. Yet he is told flatly and firmly that, had he been in different circumstances, he would have succumbed to Menashe's charisma and joined in, enthusiastically, the Bible's number one bad practice, idolatry.

This midrash resonated when I read a story today about collaboration (or alleged collaboration) by celebrated authors with totalitarian governments -- Gunter Grass, Ignazio Silone, and, alleged most recently, Milan Kundera. (See It's not an argument for non-judgmentalism, but it is a lesson in humility and in the need for vigilance against possible seductive influences on one's own conduct.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

1:6:152: Study

The verse "The yoke shall be destroyed because of the oil" (Isa. 10:27) means, said R. Isaac Nappaha, that Sennacherib's yoke was destroyed because of Hezekiah's providing oil that burned in synagogues and in houses of study. What did Hezekiah do? He thrust a sword into the ground at the entrance to a house of study and said: He who will not occupy himself with Torah will be transfixed with this sword. After that, search was made from Dan to Beersheba, and no ignoramus was found; from Gabbath to Antipatris, and no boy or girl, no man or woman was found not thoroughly versed even in the laws of cleanness and uncleanness.

The task of daily study at times becomes tedious.  We so quickly sign up for Daf Yomi, a daily Mishnah, a daily Chafetz Chaim, a daily Rambam, a daily Tanya, a daily Tehillim, and, of course, our daily Chumash, our daily prayers, and other personal study.  But then our lives catch up with us:  we need to tend to so many other things, and the precious jewels that impressed us so much when we began the cycle start to look ordinary – much like the man who is surrounded by diamonds will eventually forget to treasure them.

But the essence of Jewish life, at least since the destruction of the Temple, has been study, daily study.  Our study has replaced our sacrifice offerings, it has become the center of our religion.  So, as we begin a season when the lights will displace the darkness, when those who follow the secular calendar make vows, please consider renewing your vow for daily study.  And may this blog thrive as we all generate energy for our renewed study.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Call me Everett Fox

I'm going to translate "לן הדין -- בטל הדין" as "You snooze, you lose."

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

1:6:142: What One Does in the Belly of the Big Fish

15 December 2008

Today’s reading (well, Monday’s, actually) is one long stitched-together midrash on the book of Jonah. Before getting to the substance of the story, the editor in me just wants to note what Bialik and Ravnitzky do in publishing a long midrash in its entirety, rather than presenting it in smaller segments as they do in other chapters. To be more accurate, I suspect that the editorial work they did here was actually sewing together various midrashic accounts, if the source footnote is any clue (although I have not checked the originals). As a reader, the experience of reading one midrash like this, where the whole story is retold as a piece, is a very different one than the disjointed pithy fragments of other chapters. The book of Jonah is a story told in one breath, from one voice (the omniscient narrator sympathetic to Jonah), and as such, it’s fascinating to see a gloss on the story that changes the tone by interspersing of viewpoints of other characters, as well as explaining Jonah’s motives and telling the requisite truly fantastic tales.

Our midrash opens with a couple paragraphs that gloss the first few sentences of the biblical account. I’d not realized that Jonah is mentioned in II Kings by name, nor that the commentators identify him with the “false prophet” in the story of Ahab. What’s more intriguing is the motive that the midrash attributes to Jonah: his fear or reluctance to be labeled a false prophet, should the citizens of Nineveh repent and thus not be destroyed. This very human motive sounded like a bit of a jab at the very job of a prophet, a kind of “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” acknowledgement of the ungratefulness of those who hear prophecy. We traditionally interpret Jonah’s reluctance to prophesy as a cold-hearted belief in justice. I smiled at the rabbinic attribution of this mundane character trait—the reluctance to be seen as bad at one’s job—to the high and mighty prophet of the Yom Kippur liturgy.

This tendency to humanize continues in the midrashic retelling of the sailors’ attempt to discover the cause of the storm. As told in the biblical text, while the sailors all pray to their gods, Jonah sleeps, and when they rouse him and ask his help, he gives himself up. What follows in the fourth paragraph of the midrash is a slowly-described immersion: as Jonah is lowered into the sea to knee-level, the storm slows, and when he is pulled out, the storm rages anew. This reluctance to drown the lazy prophet speaks well of the sailors, as they do their best to keep from shedding innocent blood without cause. Here, as in the text of Jonah itself, the very humanness of the non-Jews is made obvious and is praised, as is their willingness to acknowledge that “the God of the Hebrews is great.”

Up until this point, the story in the midrash is an explication, an expansion of the biblical story, adding new viewpoints and details but not changing the plot. What follows in the second half of the long midrash is a totally fantastical interaction between Jonah, the big fish, and the Leviathan itself. I’ll just comment on two images from this incredible story and leave y’all to read the rest yourself. First, the image of Jonah sitting in the belly of the fish while they swim around the ocean, looking at “everything that is in the sea and in the depths below,” depicts the rabbinic cosmology with vivid colors. The foundations of the world and the foundations of our faith live under the oceans, whether they be physical water-related sites, such as the paths in the Red Sea, or the deep core places of our belief system, such as the afterlife and the foundation stone of the world. Were I to think geographically about rabbinic cosmology, I would not necessarily think that all these places are found in locations to which fish can swim--some of them seem to more likely be in the air or on land--but this is not any ordinary fish, clearly.

And finally, the denouement of the midrash when Jonah earns God’s favor is a classic rabbinic transformation of the plot of a relatively straighforward story. In the biblical account, Jonah is spit out when he agrees to follow his calling and beseech Nineveh to repent. The midrash takes his “that which I have vowed, I will perform” to refer to Jonah’s new vow to slay the Leviathan, a story which the midrash seems to have constructed out of whole cloth. Perhaps by giving Jonah a bigger mission, the midrash is minimizing the pettiness of his earlier-discussed reluctance: Ninevah is a small task, but there are bigger jobs afoot for Jonah. Additionally, this twist in his motivation connects the whole story to bigger issues of redemption and messianism. Maybe by helping Nineveh to repent, Jonah is moving the whole world closer to the Messianic Age. A fitting tale for Yom Kippur, where each person’s repentence can help shape the fate of the world, recreated each day.

1:6:143-150: The Jewish Soul

The ten tribes will not return [to the Land of Israel], for it is said: "The Lord . . . will cast them into another land, like this day" (Deut. 29:27). Just as this day goes and does not return, so the ten tribes who have gone will not return. Such is the opinion of R. Akiva. But R. Eliezer said: Scripture's saying "like this day" implies that just as the day grows dark and then grows light again, so, too, after darkness has fallen upon the ten tribes, light shall shine for them hereafter.

The two Rabbis are writing hundreds of years after the exile of the 9 tribes so their positions reflect different attitudes not an attempt to discuss reality. Rabbi Akiva was realistic. He knew that the members of the tribes had completely assimilated as Jews and could not be found. Just as the Rabbis got rid of the rules against converting certain tribes like the Moabite men by saying we could not determine who was a Moabite since the older nations were completely intermixed and no longer had separate identities.

Rabbi Eliezer, on the other hand, may have believed that there was something built into the souls of Jews that was permanent. This would allow G!d to bring them back no matter how assimilated they were.

I admit that Rabbi Akiva's position seems much more realistic, certainly today when it is thousands of years later. But when I meet converts who discover after converting that in fact they had Jewish ancestors, it sure raises some questions about the idea of a Jewish soul.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Sefer Ha-Bloggadah: week 17

This week brings us to the end of the chapter and the end of the First Commonwealth. But before everything is destroyed, there are some spectacular stories. And we'll get to find out who Merodach-baladan was.

  • Monday - 1:6:142 (Jonah)
  • Tuesday - 1:6:143-150 (The Banishment of the Ten Tribes; The Cutheans [Samaritans])
  • Wednesday - 1:6:151-157 (Hezekiah and the Fall of Sennacherib)
  • Thursday - 1:6:158-165 (Hezekiah and the Fall of Sennacherib)
  • Friday - 1:6:166-173 (Hezekiah and Isaiah; The Reward for the Three Steps Merodach-baladan Took; Manasseh)
  • Saturday/Sunday - 1:6:174-178 (King Zedekiah, Nebuchadnezzar, Jehoiakim and Jeconiah)

1:6:135 - Mitigating Circumstances?

Like many midrashim, our midrash today is a simple story that has layers of complexity once you start probing. It reminds us of the importances of understanding all aspects of bad behavior, even mitigating circumstances. Or maybe the exact opposite, as my wife pointed out in a humorous way.

Here's the background. King Ahab was the king of Israel. (He ruled after David and Solomon, but before the Assyrian exile.) Simply put, he was a pretty bad guy. He worshiped idols and married the quintessentially wicked Queen Jezebel. He had a few run-ins with the prophet Elijah.

The Bible states simply, "But there was none like unto Ahab, who did sell himself to work wickedness in the sight of the Lord, whom Jezebel his wife stirred up." (1 Kings 21:25.) Here's where our midrash picks up:
For six months, R. Levi expounded this verse, to Ahab's discredit. Then Ahab appeared to him [in a dream] during the night and asked, "In what way have I sinned or transgressed against you? For you expand upon the verse's beginning, but ignore its conclusion --- 'Jezebel his wife stirred him up.'" Thereafter, for the next six months, R. Levi expounded on the entire verse . . . ." (1:6:135)
The question that follows is why is the last part of the verse --- the part about Jezebel stirring Ahab up --- important, either to Ahab or R. Levi or us?

From Ahab's perspective, I think the verse serves as mitigation. Of course, Ahab cannot justify his actions by blaming Jezebel for his misdeeds, and he does not try. Instead, his argument to R. Levi is a more modest one. He notes that although he did evil, he at least had a weak explanation, albeit not a justification, for this. He did not set out to do evil; he was just egged on by his evil wife. Ahab wants the complete story told. And this is certainly fair.

But what about R. Levi? He was a rabbi and a teacher, and he expounded on the story for a full year. He wanted to understand why people do evil and then teach this to help others avoid doing the same.

To do so, it is obviously important to understand the contributing factors that led to the improper actions. And a very real danger in discussing evil is to depict the wrongdoer as an otherworldly monster, completely removed from the lives and experiences of the rest of us. But doing so diminishes not only the accuracy of the story, but also its effectiveness as a teaching device or a moral story. We have nothing to learn from an evildoer who is is completely unlike us. But have much to learn from an evildoer who is like us in some ways. We can note the similarities and then try to avoid going down the same path.

Here, Ahab was influenced in some way by his wife. (I won't speculate on how exactly she "stirred him up".) Everyone can relate to that. Most of us at some point have been influenced by a family member or a friend to do take some action that we otherwise might not have taken. By noting this, R. Levi tells not only a more accurate story, but also a more powerful story.

Shakespeare recognized the power of this insight. Most of his villains are motivated by emotions that we all share, or at least that we understand. Lady Macbeth was motivated by greed (and Macbeth himself by being "stirred up" by Lady Macbeth), Richard III by lust for power, Edmund in King Lear by anger at his mistreatment as the illegitimate son. These characters have depth and complexity, and we identify --- at least to some degree --- with the villain. The sole exception to this rule (I think) is Iago in Othello, who does evil for no apparent reason. And as a result, his character comes across flat. We sympathize and empathize with Edmund during his opening soliloquy; we never do so with Iago.

What about us? Why should we care about Ahab's requested qualification?

My initial (and perhaps oblivious) answer is what I noted above. We can identify a little with Ahab, and that makes his story more interesting and poignant.

I mentioned this story on Friday night to my family, fully expecting to have the above discussion with my kids. My wife, however, took the story in a different direction.

She noted that Ahab's evil was not mitigated by Jezebel. To the contrary: Ahab listened to her time and time again. He was more culpable for continuing in this relationship, not less culpable. (In fact, the next midrash (1:6:136) makes a similar point.) This is an exacerbating factor, not a mitigating one.

That may be true, I noted cleverly, but it does not seem to be what the midrash is saying. After all, Ahab appeared to R. Levi and requested this clarification. He would not have done so if it were an exacerbating factor.

Not so, my wife replied, even more cleverly. The midrash is not saying that this was a mitigating factor. It is only saying that Ahab thought this was a mitigating factor. Ahab was oblivious in life. Why would anyone think that death would have improved him?


My wife is exactly right. The first time that Ahab listened to Jezebel and did something wrong, he might have had an excuse. But when this happened time after time, and year after year, Ahab became even more culpable. He repeatedly and knowingly places himself in a situation where he would be influenced to act wrongfully. And that was a separate (and in many ways worse) problem.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Monday, December 8, 2008

Indiana Jones would love this one

Aggadah # 115 takes Psalm 24, familiar to many of us from the liturgy, and transforms its parallel questions and answers into a conversation between King Solomon and the gates of the Temple. The gates challenge Solomon when he tries to bring the Ark of the Covenant in, and Solomon asserts that they should open for the "King of Glory," which apparently is not convincing for the gates; they respond only when Solomon claims the right to bring in the Ark based on his father's good deeds.
The textual problem is only apparent when we compare this version of the story to the Biblical story of the dedication of Solomon's Temple in both I Kings and II Chronicles. While these versions differ slightly (as is usual between Kings and Chronicles), they agree that "The priests brought the Ark of the Lord's Covenant to its place in the inner sanctuary of the Temple, in the Holy of Holies..." (II Chronicles 5:7 and a similar verse in I Kings 8:6). Neither version mentions anything about Solomon himself bringing the Ark into the Temple or about any difficulty encountered bringing it inside. In both Biblical versions of the story, the priests are able to put the Ark into its proper place inside the Temple without incident, and the cloud of the Divine Presence comes to rest in the Temple shortly afterwards. The quote from Chronicles that, in our aggadah, supposedly guarantees Solomon entrance does not actually appear until after Solomon has officially dedicated the Temple and completed his blessings and exhortations, long after the Ark is safely inside.
So why invent a scenario that directly conflicts the Biblical account? Why create a scene in which Solomon himself has so much trouble bringing the Ark inside the Temple? What textual problem is this aggadah answering?
I think this aggadah stems from anxieties or conflicts surrounding the Ark and the establishment of the Temple. The Biblical text itself evidences some discomfort about the Ark. Both Kings and Chronicles tell us, "Ein baaron rak shnei luchot haavanim asher hiniach sham Moshe..." "There was nothing in the Ark except for the two tablets of stone that Moses placed there..." (I Kings 8:9 and the parallel verse in II Chronicles 5:10) The strange negative phrasing implies that someone, at some point, alleged that there was something else in the Ark. This is the same piece of furniture that zaps people when they try to keep it from falling (II Samuel 6:6-8), strikes down whole Philistine cities with plagues (I Samuel ch. 5&6), and precedes the Cloud of the Presence pretty much everywhere. So there's clearly a danger of idolatry with this object and a fear that the barely-contained power of the Ark will suddenly be unleashed, despite the fact that if the Temple is going to be the legitimate "heir" to the Mishkan, the dwelling-place of God's presence, the Ark must come to rest there. Hence the gates' ambivalence about letting it in (and that of the rabbis of the Babylonian Talmud who authored this midrash).
This aggadah also tries to justify the idea that despite being the fruit of King David's sinful alliance with Batsheva, Solomon is worthy of being the one to build and consecrate the Temple. There is even a hint in the first question, "Who is the King of Glory?" that the gates think Solomon is referring to himself-- and perhaps he is, until the gates' question makes him reconsider. Solomon not only has to unequivocally demonstrate his humility before God, but also has to show that he recognizes that his merit derives from his father before he can establish the Temple. In one fell swoop, this aggadah justifies the claim of the entire Davidic line while simultaneously expressing deep-seated questions about whether or not the Temple itself presents the danger of idolatry. Go rabbis, and sorry, Indiana.

Challah on Shabbos

Iron was created to shorten man's days, while the altar was created to lengthen his days. What shortens life should not be listed as a tool to build what lengthens life.
I love this Midrash. It provides the basis for our personal Minhag of always tearing rather than slicing Challah on Erev Shabbos. The Shabbos table should also be thought of as that which lengthens life.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Sefer Ha-Bloggadah: week 16

This week: MostlyKing Solomon, then some highlights (or lowlights?) from the period of the divided monarchy. An as-yet undetermined number of two-headed aliens.

  • Monday - 1:6:111-117 (Solomon as Builder) - see I Kings 6-7
  • Tuesday - 1:6:118 (Solomon's Throne) - see I Kings 10
  • Wednesday - 1:6:119-121 (Solomon and the Queen of Sheba) - see I Kings 10
  • Thursday - 1:6:122-124 (Solomon -- King and Commoner)
  • Friday - 1:6:125-130 (Jeroboam) - see I Kings 11-13
  • Saturday/Sunday - 1:6:131-141 (Omri and Ahab; Elijah and the Worshipers of Baal) - see I Kings 16-18

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

1:6:71-80: An Imperfect King

1 December 2008 (again a bit late)

Monday’s selection of midrashim cover the selection, reign, and death of King Saul. One might ask BZ’s continual question: why are these incidents the ones that Bialik and Ravnitzky choose to focus on? We have less than two pages of midrashim on events that take up, oh, about half of the book of Samuel I. And indeed, this lack of focus on Saul seems to parallel the general rabbinic emphasis: David and Solomon are the kings on which we focus, while Saul is a bit of a detour into the House of Joseph before we settle down into the House of Judah and the Davidic line.

One thread that runs through a couple of these midrashim on Saul is his suitability (or lack therof) for the kingship. As the first midrash writes, “Why did Saul merit kingship? Because of his humility” (1:6:71). It then goes on to explore the compassion Saul felt for his servant, a compassion for all creatures that is also referenced in midrash 75. There, Saul’s unwillingness to kill Agag and the Amalekites—which Samuel clearly sees as selfishness and arrogance—is transmuted into compassion for every living thing. While the midrash then goes on to criticize Saul for defying Samuel and God’s will, its critique does not override the earlier compliment. Saul may be brazen, but the midrash acknowledges that what is being asked of him is possibly immoral.

The surface work of these midrashim is to reclaim Saul’s character as one who is noble and worthy of reigning, to justify God’s choice of him. We can read their compliments, however, as a deeper critical comment on Saul’s character. Saul fell because of his inability to make critical distinctions, to separate the noble from the base, to know when to sacrifice an underling and when to save them. We see this in his willingness to sacrifice Jonathan for transgressing his father’s commandment (I Samuel 14:44), a sacrifice that was only overruled because of popular uproar. While such compassion and steadfastness may be praiseworthy in an average citizen, it is the job of the ruler to make difficult decisions, to prize the royals over the commoners, and to follow God’s law even when it may seem capricious.

I connect this inability to make critical distinctions to the “evil spirit” that often comes upon Saul, a spirit that seems very similar to what we might describe as mental illness or depression. One of the hallmarks of depression is this inability to see things in shades of gray, to wrest oneself from the grips of absolutes. And despite Saul’s attempt to soothe his pain with David’s music, his jealousy at David’s simple wholeness is what finally brings him down. The final two midrashim on Saul’s death (1.6.78-80) are poignant tales of how the people mourned for this imperfect king, who “waived the honor due him” (79) and thus lost the throne.

--Sara Meirowitz

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

1:6:81-84: Answering the Why

The Section "David and the Works of the Lord" contains two lovely midrashim. The first tries to answer the question of theodicy. It finds a rationale for something considered "evil," madness and justifies it because it allowed David to escape from King Achish. While it teaches a wonderful lesson in humility, it doesn't really justify madness. Must the many suffer to save King David once?

The second story about the wasp and the spider attempts to show that all pieces fit into creation and are needed. Again, the midrash justifies the two creatures for David's personal gain. Today we are able to understand the ecology of these two insects. To me ecology and the wondrous ways in which the world fits together make me appreciate G!d all the more. Not philospically or scientifically but through emotion and feeling. I think the Rabbis who wrote this material may have had a greater sense of awe than we do so this midrash could build on that. Would that we with our knowledge of the universe would use that knowledge to praise G!d not to destroy Her universe.