Tuesday, June 30, 2009

3:2:24 Planting and the M'shiah

"Rabban Yohanan b. Zakai used to say, 'If there was a planting [seedling] in your hand and they told you, "Here's the M'shiah [Messiah]," plant the seedling and afterwards go and greet him.'" I recognized this famous saying, but then I did a double-take. This chapter is "The Land of Israel," and this section is "The Land and its Settlement." What is this saying doing here? I've always understood this statement as a caution about over-eagerness for the M'shiah, perhaps a warning to be suspicious of a purported but possibly-false M'shiah, and a prioritization of small accomplishments in this world over focusing on the next world. None of this has anything to do specifically with the Land of Israel.

My guess is that B&R understood "planting" in light of text 3:2:22, about planting being the first activity the people is to undertake upon entering the Land. But then Rabban Yohanan b. Zakai's statement means something a bit different from what I thought it meant: now it's a statement about how important it is to plant in the Land of Israel -- it's so important that one even delays greeting the M'shiah in order to finish planting. Instead of an attempt to hold in check possible over-enthusiasm for the M'shiah, the statement accepts that enthusiasm and elevates planting in (and, it follows, settlement in) the Land even higher.

I wondered whether commentators on the original text might have explained the text in ways that would support B&R's apparent reading or my reading. Unfortunately, B&R cite the statement only to Avot d'Rabbi Natan version B. Schechter's text does not have any explanatory comment on this statement, and the version that appears in a standard set of Talmud is version A. (Likewise, Goldin's book on Avot d'Rabbi Natan uses version A.)

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Sefer Ha-Bloggadah: week 43

More on the land of Israel. Remember, while reading all the denigration of the Diaspora, that Sefer Ha-Aggadah was published in Odessa.

  • Monday - 3:2:20-32 (The Land and Its Settlement)
  • Tuesday - 3:2:33-46 (Love for the Land; The Holiness of the Land)
  • Wednesday - 3:2:47-64 (Torah of the Land; The Dimensions of the Land)
  • Thursday - 3:2:65-69 (A Land Flowing with Milk and Honey)
  • Friday - 3:2:70-80 (A Land Flowing with Milk and Honey)
  • Saturday/Sunday - 3:2:81-91 (A Land Flowing with Milk and Honey)

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Sefer Ha-Bloggadah: week 42

How can the content of "Those Who Became Proselytes Because of Lions" possibly live up to the title? This week we look beyond the Jews to the other nations, and then start the section on the land of Israel.
  • Monday - 3:1:143-149 (Those Who Became Proselytes Because of Lions)
  • Tuesday - 3:1:150-162 (The Nations of the World)
  • Wednesday - 3:1:163-173 (The Nations of the World)
  • Thursday - 3:1:174-183 (The Nations of the World)
  • Friday - 3:2:1-7 (The Land and Israel)
  • Saturday/Sunday - 3:2:8-19 (The Land and Its Settlement)

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Jewish Continuity

The material in "Israel Endure Forever" is a somewhat different take on Jewish Continuity. I think the Rabbis probably "knew" what actions were needed, keeping halachah and doing Jewish study. But they needed reassurance that if the Jewish people didn't meet those demands, Judaism would continue. They showed great imagination in finding Biblical sources of support for Jewish Continuity.

We, on the other hand, fight over what we should do and have much less faith that it will work.


Sunday, June 14, 2009

Sefer Ha-Bloggadah: week 42

Born or made?

  • Monday - 3:1:101-104 (Constellations Have No Power over Israel)
  • Tuesday - 3:1:105-114 (Israel Endure Forever)
  • Wednesday - 3:1:115-120 (The Purity of Families in Israel)
  • Thursday - 3:1:121-126 (Proselytes in Israel)
  • Friday - 3:1:127-137 (Proselytes in Israel)
  • Saturday/Sunday - 3:1:138-142 (Proselytes in Israel)

Friday, June 12, 2009

3:86 -- Four species

This familiar midrash analogizes each of the four species in the lulav to a segment of the Jewish people -- the etrog, having taste and aroma, is like those Jews with both Torah learning and actual performance of mitzvot; the willow, having neither taste nor aroma, is like those Jews with neither Torah nor mitzvot, etc.

I'm puzzled by the assignment of the elements in the midrash. It says that the palm has taste but not aroma (the date doesn't have much aroma), and is like those Jews with Torah but no deeds, and the myrtle has aroma but no taste and is like those Jews with deeds but no Torah. I would have thought that aroma would be parallel to Torah (the spirit that pervades the physical but isn't physical), and taste would be parallel to deeds (the more apparently physical sense paralleling the physical deeds). Yet both in Leviticus Rabba and in Yalkut Shim'oni (the sources cited by Sefer HaAggada), it's the other way -- taste paralleling Torah, and aroma paralleling deeds. Why?

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Sefer Ha-Bloggadah: week 41

Who is this nation of Israel really?

  • Monday - 3:1:35-43 (The Character of Israel)
  • Tuesday - 3:1:44-51 (The Character of Israel)
  • Wednesday - 3:1:52-66 (Israel's Afflictions; The Characteristics of Israel)
  • Thursday - 3:1:67-84 (Transgressors in Israel)
  • Friday - 3:1:85-94 (Israel--One Cluster)
  • Saturday/Sunday - 3:1:95-100 (The Enemies and Friends of Israel)

Friday, June 5, 2009

2:705; 3:19 - Question on Bialik; The Concern for the Persecuted

A note about this week's reading, and a note from my efforts to catch up.

The text at 3:19 is an impressively long and adamant assertion that God is on the side of the persecuted. Yes, it's part of our culture, secular as well as religious, but it's encouraging to see this statement with so many examples adduced, including examples where the same character, Shaul, is on both sides, as the victim of the Philistines and as the persecutor of David. That combination conveys the important lesson that the divine sympathy that one has through being persecuted can be forfeited if one then turns into the persecutor.

It's interesting to see 3:23 at the same time as 3:19. 3:23 contrasts the Jewish and non-Jewish calendrical systems, the former a lunar calendar (actually a combination lunar-solar, but let's go with the midrash) and the latter a solar one. The midrash draws the parallel to Esav and Ya'akov -- Esav as the prototypical Gentile is seen as large in stature and having a calendar focusing on the large celestial body (the sun), while the supposedly-slight Ya'akov follows the smaller celestial body (the moon). Then the midrash sticks in the homiletic knife -- the sun rules only by day, but the moon rules by night and by day; in the same way, the Gentiles will have life in this world (the visible one, corresponding to the day), but the Jews will have life in this world and in the next world (the hidden one, corresponding to the night). The "first one now will later be last" theme of this midrash reinforces the message of 3:19.

And a note about 2:705, or actually about a footnote on 2:705. This recounts a poem that Rava commissioned when he was about to cross the turbulent Tigris River. The last two lines of the poem say, "Ta'inu me'aharecha k'isha miba'alah/ Al taznihehu k'ot mei marah." The first of these is something like "We have strayed from you like a wife from her husband." The second begins, "Do not reject him [Rava] like ...." The question is what is meant by "ot mei marah." B&R have a footnote connecting this to the waters of Marah (Ex. 15:22-25), and saying something connecting the divine rejection to the disappearance of bitterness from the waters in that story. However, the reference of "ot mei marah" would seem clearly to be to the Sotah ritual in this week's parasha, where the ink from the written curses dissolves into the "waters of bitterness" (mei hamarim). That's why this line of the poem follows the line about the straying wife, and it explains the word "ot" (letter). Rashi makes this clear, explaining "k'ot mei marah" as "with which the Sotah wife was examined." Why did B&R explain this with reference to the Exodus passage?

Thursday, June 4, 2009


Section 790 When the disciples left the school of R. Ammi, they used to say to him: During your life, may you see your worldly needs provided, But may your ultimate reward be in the world-to-come, And may hope for it endure through the generations that spring from you. May your heart meditate understanding, Your mouth speak wisdom, And your tongue be moved to song. May your gaze scan what lies ahead, Your eyes shine with light of Torah, Your face be radiant as the brightness of the firmament. May your lips utter knowledge, Your reins rejoice in uprightness, And your steps hurry to hear the words of the Ancient of Days.
I love the reference to song, even those who study all the time should sing.

I don't understand "Your reins rejoice in uprightness,". Is the Hebrew or the original clearer or don't I just get it? What does reins refer to?

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

2:1:765-771 - The merits of the sages

Around midnight on the Hadar Shavuot Retreat, EAR led a session in which we studied and discussed that day's section of Sefer Ha-Aggadah. It was attended by some people who have been participating in Sefer Ha-Bloggadah, including General Anna and feygele, as well as others who were new to the whole thing.

This is an assortment of various thoughts expressed in the discussion:

  • Are the middle three (especially "he made his mother happy") damning with faint praise?
  • On the other hand, "he made his mother happy" is the only one that has anything to do with relationships with other people.
  • The first and last are clearly the highlighted ones, and they're both about water. Retaining everything is great, but not as great as flowing forth with creativity.
  • Or maybe retaining everything isn't so great, if it means you always hold a grudge and never move on.
  • R. Eliezer ben Hyrcanus was also the protagonist of the oven of Akhnai story, and the description of him here fits the events of that story. In the story, R. Eliezer had the correct answer (confirmed by a bat kol) - he had the most faithful version of the truth, like a cemented cistern that never loses a drop. But he had a truth that resides underground, not a truth above ground on the surface that comes from exposure to real life. And the story involved all the sages on one side and R. Eliezer on the other.
  • Which of these is the best model for a teacher to emulate? It depends on the student.
  • What's the difference between walnuts and stones? Walnuts are edible, though also bitter.
  • R. Yochanan ben Nuri gets the short end of the stick (he's also the least famous of the five).
  • 765 was R. Yochanan ben Zakkai praising his students; this one is R. Yehudah haNasi praising his teachers and predecessors. Praise for students seems to be less common (both in rabbinic literature and in our culture).
  • Perhaps a better teacher isn't someone who (like R. Elazar ben Azaryah) just gives students (only) whatever they ask for, but someone who (like R. Tarfon) gives them other things to put it in context.
  • Clearly R. Akiva and Ben Azzai are old friends, and I thought this was a cool model for interpersonal relationships, that Ben Azzai had a deep respect for R. Akiva such that he considered him to be greater than all the sages of Israel, yet a close enough familiarity that he could refer to him jokingly as "this bald guy".
If you were there and remember more (or if you have your own thoughts to add), please post it here!

Hadran alach!

Congratulations to everyone who finished Part Two! (And of course Bialik, the poet, made sure it ended with poetry.) Onward to Part Three!