Follow by Email

Saturday, November 6, 2010

The Long and Winding Road to P'shat-Part Three

Language is at once one of the greatest forms of human expression and one of its most limited. We humans experience and think stuff all the time and often we are quite anxious to let others know of our experience and thoughts. We search for the right words to express those thoughts. Sometimes we are successful in conveying those thoughts, other times less so. We like to read good authors be they masters of prose or poetry in large part because they are able to convey their thoughts in words so well.

But words are by nature limiting and limited. Those who write or speak publicly choose their words carefully in order to, at the very least, convey their basic intentions. Often, writers will attempt to convey a multiplicity of meaning using words sparingly.

This is especially true of poetry.

In Dylan Thomas' villanelle:  Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night (one of my favorite poems) we read the first stanza:

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rage at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

When we read the first line, do we think that Thomas is giving us advice about going out after dark? Would we think that's the plain meaning of this text?

Hopefully not.

The term 'that good night' here, as we understand from the rest of the poem, is referring to death. So why didn't Thomas just say: Put up a fight when it's your time to die?

Because it's a poem and the way he put it is more poetic—DUH!

Well, to be more precise, his particular use of language here evokes much more than even the 'plain meaning' would tell us. Night has its own associations and imagery. It is a common word laden with meaning being used here in an uncommon way.

In other words, it is a metaphor.

The reader will quickly understand that the 'plain meaning,' the author's intended meaning, is not at all the same as the literal meaning. Yet the literal understanding of the phrase 'that good night' is always lurking in the background of consciousness of the reader—it sets a mood and allows for the reader to make his/her own associations.

This use of language allows the writer to transcend certain limitations of particular words. By placing words in a certain context, the words are 'value added.'

Looking back at our explication of the word B'reishit (continued here) we understand that the word in question, b'reishit, has a certain literal meaning, namely 'in the beginning (of).' But what was the author's intent in using that particular word? Was it simply to give an indication of a time in history?

Maybe not.

Maybe the Torah's intent in choosing that particular word was to evoke myriad relationships and connections with that word as is used elsewhere.

If poets do this, why would we think that the Torah doesn't do it?

Friday, November 5, 2010

The Long and Winding Road to P'shat -- Part Two

Any thoughtful student of the Torah is confronted with myriad problems. Even if we can get through some sort of cursory reading of, say, the first chapter of B'reishit, we are then confronted with blatant contradictions to that narrative in the second chapter! One moment you think that male and female were created simultaneously into a world with a whole ecosystem and the next (chapter) you see that a male is created before any female or any trees, for that matter.

This is one screwy story, you might say.

Further perusal of the Torah will yield numerous anomalies including contradictions in the particulars of various commandments, many obscure passages and quite a bit of repetition.

In short, a rather messy book.

If you take the critical approach you'll say that these discrepancies reflect a multiplicity of authors whose stories and versions are stitched together over time. This basic approach leads to the Documentary Hypothesis—and a very fancy hypothesis it is!

Also, to my mind, somewhat dull.

But more than that, it doesn't do a very good job of explaining how we end up with this variegated text. It's all well and good to say that various texts got edited together but then why would anyone put together a text that is so full of problems sometimes even within the same paragraph?

This hypothesis seems to assume that if God had written a book it wouldn't be so messy.

This begs the question: If God wrote a book, what would it look like?

Let's step back a moment. Let's say that God created the Universe. I am not going to try to prove that – but accept if you will that premise for the moment.

Now let's look at the Universe. Is everything neat and tidy? Not quite. In fact, just as an example, physicists are still looking for a Theory for Everything because, in fact, lots of observable and theoretical phenomena don't really line up so well. Quantum physics doesn't abide by Newton's rules, for example (I say this as a physics layperson but relying on books like Dancing Wu-Li Masters, recommended by my late Uncle Bob who was a fully fledged and well recognized nuclear physicist).

When humans make stuff we like to think we can make everything 'perfect.' But does that really reflect the way God works? Of course, we can't know that for sure (She still ain't tellin'!) but my senses tell me that this universe is full of contradiction and inconsistency.

Back to the Flatlander's point of view. Recall that the toughest part of understanding the cube might be that the two lines which are farthest apart in the two dimensional representation are actually the same line in the three dimensional cube.

Maybe it is precisely those parts of the Torah which seemingly contradict or don't fit in with each other very well that point to deeper meanings on other planes?

This is essentially the rabbinic approach.

When one puts his or her mind to it, and struggles with the text, one can actually, albeit usually briefly, hold the contradictory passages simultaneously and see something beyond.

Next up: P'shat and D'rash

Thursday, November 4, 2010

The Long and Winding Road to P'shat

I heard a story once about Picasso who once found himself accosted by a fellow guest at a cocktail party. The man in question confronted the cubist painter, fairly foaming at the mouth, saying to him, “You're no artist at all! Your paintings don't look like real people or real anything!” He removed a small photo from his wallet and brandished it in front of Picasso's face. “See this? This is a picture of my wife. That's what she really looks like. Why you can't paint like that?”

Picasso took the photo in his hand, examined it carefully and, handing it back to its owner declared, “Your wife must be very small, flat and gray.”

The point, of course, is that the photograph is not necessarily a better representation of a subject than a cubist projection. Both contain information which reflects a reality but neither one 'is' the reality as such. A cubist portrait, for example, chooses to recognize painting as an essentially two dimensional medium. Therefore, in order to present a three dimensional figure, it will lay out the various sides or aspects of that figure so that they are seen all at once on a flat surface.

Imagine for a moment that you meet a two dimensional being such as a Flatlander and you want to explain to him (or her!) what a cube is. You can give them all the information about the makeup of a cube by drawing out six squares in the shape of a cross which would represent the six sides of a cube. The only, but perhaps crucial, element they would be missing is the third dimension. In fact, the toughest concept to explain would be that the two lines which are furthest away from each other are, in fact, the same line!

In the last couple of postings I dealt with a midrash which says that God used the Torah to create the universe. Consider that the Torah mentioned in this context would not have been a Torah scroll written on parchment like the ones we have in the synagogue ark. How could it have been? Prior to the Creation there was no form, no matter.

So what was this Torah which God used?

Okay, I don't know. Nobody knows except God and She ain't tellin'. Or, more to the point, God couldn't possibly tell us just as a three dimensional person can't really tell a two dimensional person precisely what a cube is.

However, just as the three dimensional person can give (nearly) all the information of what makes a cube to the two dimensional person, so, too, God can give us (nearly) all the information which is the pristine, primal Torah.

And maybe, just maybe, if we work very hard at it, we too can glimpse the fully dimensional Torah. More about that in the next posting!

Friday, October 22, 2010

In the End, It's All in the Beginning

I know you have all been dying to understand how Chazal figured out that the word 'reishit' means 'Torah.' Probably you have suffered through sleepless nights, tossing and turning, especially since I promised to explain this nearly two weeks ago.

Well, dear reader, wait no more. I will explain it all to you—well, as best as I can, anyway.

This gets a bit technical—my apologies up front.

Ironically, to understand the beginning of the Torah and the meaning of b'reishit, one must look deep into a much later part of Tanach, namely Mishlei Proverbs.

To the rabbinic mind, there is no real beginning or end to the Torah. It is not a continuum; rather it is that all aspects of the Torah exist (and know each other) simultaneously. While the rabbis recognize that there is an historical chronology to how the books of Tanach were received and that has significance, there is also a notion of Torah that is not rooted in time and matter.

What is found in the written Torah is a kind of transcription of this Divine Torah and while it may inherently contain all aspects of Torah Wisdom, we find this Wisdom explicated in and expounded upon in many other places beginning with other books of Tanach.

Just as we can look at any one thing in the universe as a point of departure for examining all of Creation, so too, we can look at any one part in this expansive notion of Torah to understand the rest of the Torah. Where in particular we begin is not necessarily important.

As it happens, the beginning point of this explanation of b'reishit begins in Mishlei. If you read through the book, particularly the first several chapters, you will see a very clear relationship established between wisdom/understanding and the Torah.

For example, the third chapter of Mishlei begins:

משלי פרק ג (א)בְּנִי תּוֹרָתִי אַל תִּשְׁכָּח וּמִצְוֹתַי יִצֹּר לִבֶּךָ:
Mishlei Chapter 3 (1) My son, do not forget my Torah, and your heart should guard my commandments.

A little later in the chapter it says:

משלי פרק ג (יט) יְקֹוָק בְּחָכְמָה יָסַד אָרֶץ כּוֹנֵן שָׁמַיִם בִּתְבוּנָה:
Mishlei Chapter 3 (19) God founded the earth with wisdom, he establishes the heavens with intelligence.

A bit later we read:
משלי פרק ח (כב) יְקֹוָק קָנָנִי רֵאשִׁית דַּרְכּוֹ קֶדֶם מִפְעָלָיו מֵאָז:
Mishlei Chapter 8 (22) God made me as the beginning of His way, the first of His works of old.

Reading the straightforward message of Mishlei would yield an understanding that the universe was created with Divine wisdom/intelligence and that this is also known as Torah.

With this last verse from Chapter 8 we can add in that another name for this primal source of Creation is reishit. We get that by parsing the sentence a little differently, to wit:

God has made me, The beginning (reishit), His Way, as the first of His works of old.

In other words, ראשית reishit, is another name for 'me' which is wisdom. Wisdom in this context is another way of saying 'Torah.'

When the rabbis were confronted with the multitude of options in understanding the word b'reishit, what they knew already about the nature of the Creation from Mishlei (i.e. that the creation was done with the Torah) gibed with one of the meanings of the word b'reishit.

So, a kind of possible flow chart of this explanation of b'reishit would look something like this:
  1. Read first word of Torah: b'reishit
  2. Deconstruct that word into various possible meanings
  3. Recall concept of how the universe was created from verses in Mishlei
  4. See how that concept coincides with one of the explanations of the word b'reishit
Dear reader, if you have come this far in the posting, please let me know what you think. Did this get too technical? Or would you like to hear more about the mechanics of midrashic thought?

Shabbat shalom!

Thursday, October 7, 2010

A New Beginning for B'reishit

Dedicated in memory of Jeannie Rittner ז”ל – see below for important and appropriate comments!

Those of us who are familiar with the English language, namely everyone who happens to be reading this blog, are certainly familiar with the opening line of the Torah: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” Seems straightforward enough.

On the other hand, everyone who is familiar with the Hebrew text cannot assume understanding so blithely.

The first word of the Torah in Hebrew is בראשית b'reishit. The ב is a prefix (we'll come back to it later). The rest of the word, ראשית reishit comes from the word ראש rosh which literally means head and by implication means beginning or start as in ראש השנה rosh hashannah, the head or start of the year.

The word ראשית reshit appears nearly fifty times in Tanach. In nearly every case the context shows that the word ראשית attaches itself to the word following as if it said 'the beginning of.' That being the case, the word that follows reshit should be a noun so that it would read 'the beginning of something'. 

An example comes in Parshat Noach (ahem—this means I am now exempt from further comments on this week's parsha proper) when the Torah says about Nimrod:

בראשית פרק י (י) וַתְּהִי רֵאשִׁית מַמְלַכְתּוֹ בָּבֶל וְאֶרֶךְ וְאַכַּד וְכַלְנֵה בְּאֶרֶץ שִׁנְעָר:

B'reishit 10 (10) And the beginning of his kingdom was Bavel and Erech and Accad and Chalneh in the land of Shinar.


The problem we have here is that the word B'reishit is followed by a verb!

That is, if we read the first three words literally it would come out “In the beginning of created God.” Yuck. That is a terribly awkward start for what has come to be the most popular book in history. Surely the author could write better than that!

Or surely we could understand it better.

Another problem is that this first verse implies that God created the heavens and the earth from the get go, rendering the later verses which discuss the creation of the heavens and the earth rather perplexing.

The commentaries worked overtime to bring various plausible and grammatically acceptable explanations to answer all of the above. I will not even attempt to bring them all in here. Rather, I will focus on one of the seemingly more playful midrashim which comes to answer this contextual conundrum and at the same time reveals a deeper truth.

It is time to examine the prefix ב bet of בראשית b'reishit. The bet usually means 'in' but it can also mean 'with' and even 'for' in the sense of 'for the sake of.'

An example of this latter meaning is found later in Parshat Vayetze:

בראשית פרק כט (יח) וַיֶּאֱהַב יַעֲקֹב אֶת רָחֵל וַיֹּאמֶר אֶעֱבָדְךָ שֶׁבַע שָׁנִים בְּרָחֵל בִּתְּךָ הַקְּטַנָּה:

B'reishit Chapter 29 (18) And Yaakov loved Rachel. And he said, “I will work for you seven years for Rachel your younger daughter.”

An example of ב meaning 'with' is found in Parshat Vayishlach where we find Yaakov praying to God to save him from his brother Esav. He says:

בראשית פרק לב (יא) קָטֹנְתִּי מִכֹּל הַחֲסָדִים וּמִכָּל הָאֱמֶת אֲשֶׁר עָשִׂיתָ אֶת עַבְדֶּךָ כִּי בְמַקְלִי עָבַרְתִּי אֶת הַיַּרְדֵּן הַזֶּה וְעַתָּה הָיִיתִי לִשְׁנֵי מַחֲנוֹת:

B'reishit Chapter 32 (11) I am humbled from all the kindnesses and from all the truth that You did with your servant (i.e. Yaakov himself) for with my staff I crossed over this Jordan and now I have become two camps.

Let's take this second meaning and apply it to our word: B'reishit. It would now mean 'with the reishit.'

So what would 'reishit' mean in this context?

The Midrash Rabbah here looks at the word reishit in various contexts and comes up with different possible meanings. One of them is that reishit means the Torah itself.

Thus, the first word now means 'with the Torah.' And the first verse can now be understood to say:

God created the heavens and the earth with the Torah!

I will explain how the midrash came to this understanding tomorrow. But let's savor the moment. We now have a profoundly different way of looking at the origins of the universe. We started by thinking the word b'reishit was merely telling us when something happened (in the beginning). Now we understand that the Torah is telling us that the tool for creation is, in fact the Torah itself.

This raises other conceptual issues such as what exactly is this Torah which was used to create the heavens and the earth? Was it a literal sefer Torah (Torah scroll)? Or was it some essence of Torah which could have pre-existed creation? I hope to talk about this in later postings.

I had the privilege of getting to know Jeannie Rittner a bit during my extended stays in Dayton. As her daughter told me, she was a 'force to be reckoned with!' Everyone who knew Jeannie knew her to be vivacious, smiling, outgoing, deeply caring and engaging. She suffered through quite a bit of physical pain in recent years yet I never heard her complain; she was far more likely to make light of her situation or to explain how she was doing so much better than before.

However, it was only in my last months in Dayton that I came to understand Jeannie's close relationship with Torah. She was always trying to study and her studies were based on an education which included an intimate understanding of classical Hebrew texts. She was thirsty for learning and would engage me in my classes and, whenever she had the opportunity, outside of class, as well.

She showed me what it meant to begin everything with Torah and infuse that in one's very being. She was a great inspiration to me and to many and she will be sorely missed for many years to come. יהי זכרה ברוך May her memory be a blessing.


Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Zoharia Yam and the Final Redemption!

My title sounds like the makings of a pretty heavy children's book.


Little Zoharia Yam, my granddaughter, had a celebration, a Simchat Bat they call it, in her honor yesterday, 27 years to the day since her father's brit mila. I think she will remember the occasion just about as well as Ezra remembers his brit.

I'll relate a few things I mentioned while sitting in the Sukkah and holding her on my lap (until she voiced her opinion of my thoughts and was removed to other quarters for a pick me up from her mother, Dorin).

The noun zohar זהר appears only twice in Tanach. The word at its root means to 'shed light' or 'give off light' (thus we get the word l'hazhir להזהיר– literally to cause light to be shed meaning to warn). It is related to the word tzohar  צהר which is the name for the sky light which God told Noah to build into the top of the ark. You might think that this variant implies something which accepts light given its placement in the top of the ark. However, there are implications from midrash that it was there to give off light from within.

Zohar is also related to the Aramaic cognate sohar סוהר and sihara סיהרא which refers to moonlight and moon respectively.

So these variants cover three aspects: Zohar-radiation of light, Sohar-reflection of light and Tzohar-giving and/or receiving of light. 

Tonight and tomorrow we celebrate the day after Sukkot known from a passage in the Torah as Shmini Atzeret. The word Atzeret literally means 'a stopping.' It is a holiday which is separate from but comes immediately after Sukkot. Later tradition has it that we celebrate the end and beginning of the Torah reading cycle on this holiday. Thus it is also known as Simchat Torah. 

But what is the nature of this holiday? 

Let's look for a moment back at Pessach. The main mitzvah on that holiday is to eat matzah (and back in the Temple times to eat that with the paschal sacrifice). The holiday goes for one week but we count seven weeks from the second day to get to the next holiday, Shavuot. Shavuot is known in the parlance of the mishnah as Atzeret. 

So on Pessach we turn inward in some essential way. It matters little where we eat but what we eat is essential.  

Pessach represents our g'ula, redemption, as a nation. We need(ed) time to move from our initial redemption until we could handle the receiving of the Torah at Shavuot. But then Shavuot became a kind of Atzeret--a stopping, that is an end or a way station in this process of g'ulah. 

On Sukkot, by contrast, it matters little what we eat but it is all important where we eat. We sit in the Sukkah and are surrounded by the mitzvah. We are pushing outwards now. 

The Torah in Parshat Pinchas tells us of the karban mussaf, the additional offering, which was brought on Sukkot and Shmini Atzeret. Part of the offering was oxen. The first day 13 were brought and then each day one less so that by the seventh day there were altogether 70 oxen brought. But then on Shmini Atzeret it drops down to one. 

Chazal tell us that the oxen offering which diminishes each day corresponds to the 70 nations which in the future will also diminish. Some people mistakenly think this means that the other nations besides Israel will die out. Not so.

The idea is that ultimately that which separates nations will die out. We will come together as a single 'nation' recognizing the single Creator. That singleness is symbolized by the single ox brought on Shmini Atzeret. Here we don't need to go through the 7 week cycle we had between Pessach and Shavuot--we go directly into the final redemption when we no longer need the sukkah or the matzah -- we just come to a unity of humanity with the Divine. 

May we merit to see the final redemption, the Zohar, a time which Chazal called 'a day which is entirely made of light.'  

Friday, September 17, 2010

Yom Kippur, Tumah, Taharah, Downfall and Purification

ויקרא פרק טז (ל) כִּי בַיּוֹם הַזֶּה יְכַפֵּר עֲלֵיכֶם לְטַהֵר אֶתְכֶם מִכֹּל חַטֹּאתֵיכֶם לִפְנֵי יְקֹוָק תִּטְהָרוּ:

Leviticus Chapter 16 (30): For on this day He will atone for you to purify you from all your sins; purify yourselves before God.


It is erev Yom Hakippurim and I am thinking about tahara-purification. As the above verse implies, we are striving to reach this state of purification particularly on this day. 

The laws of purity/impurity are vast and complex. Mostly they are not studied today even in yeshivot. In practical halacha the last vestiges of these laws are found in hilchot Niddah and the laws of washing one's hands before eating bread. 

But I will point out something you may already know: The Torah gives us many laws dealing with purities and various types of animals are considered impure. However, only human beings can become ritually impure and impart ritual impurity while alive--all other animals which give off impurity do so only when they are dead. 

So there is a correlation between taharah/purity and life; conversely there is a relationship between tumah/impurity and death. 

The m'tzora, for example, imparts tumah in much the same way that a dead human body does--even under a roofing without touching. So the m'tzora is kind of like 'dead man walking.' 

The m'tzora got his/her tumah, according to Chazal, for speaking ill of others (lashon hara). 

Thus, while one may think the laws of purities is removed from human relations they are in fact intimately entwined. 

Tumah can come upon one without knowledge or, more often, through carelessness. However, the Torah gives various methods of taharah/purification so that one may regain their prior state. 

Tomorrow evening the people of Israel will experience a collective taharah/purification. It will not last--that is part of the human condition. We sin, we are careless and worse. 

But there is always a way back to our previous state. Yet it is not precisely the previous state we reach but a higher level, like the next level on a spiral, which we only can reach because we fell before. 

Wishing all a g'mar chatima tova :)

Friday, August 6, 2010

See--What's in a Name?

This past Shabbat minchah saw the naming of my first grandchild, a girl, who had been born almost precisely a week earlier around Shabbat minchah. My son Ezra and his wife Dorin decided to call her Zoharia Yam which could be translated as "Splendor of God--Sea." The Zohar part of Zoharia more literally refers to beams of light and, yes, is the name of that well known work of Kabbalah.

I dedicate this blog to Zoharia :)

This week's parsha is called R'eh in Hebrew which translates as 'look' or 'see.' In the sense it is used in the verse it means 'understand' or 'comprehend,' so closely linked is our sense of sight to our ability to comprehend.

However, I want to focus more closely on a later passage, to wit:
דברים פרק יב (ב) אַבֵּד תְּאַבְּדוּן אֶת כָּל הַמְּקֹמוֹת אֲשֶׁר עָבְדוּ שָׁם הַגּוֹיִם אֲשֶׁר אַתֶּם יֹרְשִׁים אֹתָם אֶת אֱלֹהֵיהֶם עַל הֶהָרִים הָרָמִים וְעַל הַגְּבָעוֹת וְתַחַת כָּל עֵץ רַעֲנָן:
(ג) וְנִתַּצְתֶּם אֶת מִזְבְּחֹתָם וְשִׁבַּרְתֶּם אֶת מַצֵּבֹתָם וַאֲשֵׁרֵיהֶם תִּשְׂרְפוּן בָּאֵשׁ וּפְסִילֵי אֱלֹהֵיהֶם תְּגַדֵּעוּן וְאִבַּדְתֶּם אֶת שְׁמָם מִן הַמָּקוֹם הַהוּא:
(ד) לֹא תַעֲשׂוּן כֵּן לַיקֹוָק אֱלֹהֵיכֶם:

Deuteronomy 12 2 Ye shall surely destroy all the places, wherein the nations that ye are to dispossess served their gods, upon the high mountains, and upon the hills, and under every leafy tree. 3 And ye shall break down their altars, and dash in pieces their pillars, and burn their Asherim with fire; and ye shall hew down the graven images of their gods; and ye shall destroy their name out of that place. 4 Ye shall not do so unto the LORD your God. 
 
Chazal learn out from verse four that it is forbidden to erase the written name of God. This is derived from the immediate context where in the end of verse 3 it says that ye shall destroy their name out of that place and right after it tells us not to do the same unto the Lord your God. 
 
Why should erasing God's name matter so much? 
 
 Consider this: What's in a name? Actually, if you've been paying attention from the beginning of the Torah, quite a lot! Adam's name is given for a reason, because he is derived from the earth (adamah). Adam is enjoined by God to give names to all the animals. This act is understood to mean that Adam took time to understand the nature of each animal and then to give it its appropriate name. 

Of course, we also have the renaming of Avram and Sarai to Avraham and Sarah, Yaakov to Yisrael, Hoshea to Yehoshua. Perhaps most significantly, God Him/Herself alludes to the nature of the Divine names at the beginning of parshat Va'era. From that passage we understand that the different names reflect different aspects of the Divine. 

My mother had asked me a few times during the week after her latest great-granddaughter's birth when they would name her. "She needs a name!" my mother declared. I laughed and said maybe it is we who need the name more than she does.

But, upon reflection, my mother was right. By naming their daughter, my son and daughter in law were revealing something about her true nature. 

So it is with any of the names of God. They each reflect something about the true nature of the Divine. While the Divine in its entirety is beyond comprehension, we are given to grasp various aspects in part through the different names. 

Since God is incorporeal, one of our main relationships to God is via language which is a reflection of our souls and our connection to the Divine. So we are told not to destroy God's name in this world, not even a graphic representation of that name, for that is, in the end, one of our very few direct connections with the Divine. 

Shabbat shalom!
 


Monday, July 19, 2010

Tisha B'av--A Kinot Thought

When I was living in Boston in the late 70s to the early 80s, I had the privilege of studying with and consulting Rav Mordechai Savitsky, z'l. At the time, Rav Savitsky was recognized as one of the great Talmud scholars and halachic authorities of his time. He studied in the Chofetz Chayim's yeshiva in Radun when he was young and while still in his teens published the first of his books,  Bicurei Mordechai which explicated difficult passages in the Yerushalmi. Also, while still in his teens, he carried on a lengthy correspondence with Rav Yosef Rosen (aka the Rogotchover) no mean feat for even scholars much older and more experienced than he was at the time. He would also come to publish that exchange in a book,Ner Avraham.Later in life he would strike up a close friendship with another great scholar of the Yerushalmi, Rav Shaul Lieberman. During his long career he suceeded in publishing ten books of Talmudic learning.

I used to attend minyan most weekday mornings at the shul in his basement. On Tisha B'Av morning we went through the entire book of Kinot, the lamentations traditionally recited on this day of mourning. 

One Tisha B'Av, I stayed after, as was my custom, to help straighten up and to ask Rav Savitsky a question or two. That year saw the publication of a rather grand edition of the Kinot by one of the US publishers. In addition to having a new translation with notes, it was printed on fine paper with a good hardback binding and a lovely dust cover. 
Rav Savitsky, after all the others had left, pointed to this volume and remarked that he could not understand how anyone would make such a nice edition of the Kinot

He continued, "Back in Europe, we had the custom every year of taking our Kinot and, after using them, putting them into genizah for burial (Books that are no longer to be used publicly are supposed to be put into genizah so that they are not used again). We all had faith that we would not need these lamentations for the next year, that by then the Mashiach would surely have come and the final G'ula (Redemption) with him. As such, our Kinot were printed simply, without adornment, as a kind of pamphlet.

"Bear in mind that most people were very poor and giving up the book of Kinot was a real sacrifice. But such was their faith that each time they used a Kinot, it would be the last time. 

"I simply cannot understand," he concluded, "why anyone would want to produce such a beautiful version of the Kinot that would last for years and years."

May we all merit to see the G'ula speedily in our time.



Friday, July 2, 2010

Pinchas, Eliyahu and Kinah For the KBH

The end of last week's parsha saw the rather dramatic story of Pinchas who seems to take the law into his own hands by publicly executing Cazbi and Zimri. You can check out that part of the story by looking in Bamidbar (Numbers) Chapter 25.

Now you might have heard somewhere along the way that Pinchas is identified with Eliyahu. Whether or not we should take that literally is not of interest to me right now. What is of interest is why one would think that they are one and the same person.

What is great for me is that I have been devoting the last few months to understanding Eliyahu better and I hope to bring some of what I learned to bear on the discussion. And it will be a bit lengthy so bear with me.

For the moment, though, I will point out what I believe to be the most salient point of commonality between them: Kinah קנאה. This word is usually translated as jealousy but we will discuss other possible meanings.

God declares in the second verse of this weeks parsha that Pinchas has assuaged His anger by "actively being jealous for me"  (בקנאו את קנאתי בתוכם).

With Eliyahu we see the word kinah used, as well. We will fill out more of the picture in a later post, but for the moment I will just say that Eliyahu has a kind of confrontation with God on Har Chorev (aka Sinai) after a dramatic showdown with the prophets of Baal in which he, Eliyahu, emerged victorious.

He declares to God:


מלכים א פרק יט(י) וַיֹּאמֶר קַנֹּא קִנֵּאתִי לַיקֹוָק אֱלֹהֵי צְבָאוֹת כִּי עָזְבוּ בְרִיתְךָ בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶת מִזְבְּחֹתֶיךָ הָרָסוּ וְאֶת נְבִיאֶיךָ הָרְגוּ בֶחָרֶב וָאִוָּתֵר אֲנִי לְבַדִּי וַיְבַקְשׁוּ אֶת נַפְשִׁי לְקַחְתָּהּ:

Kings I Chapter 19 (10) And he (Eliyahu) said, "I have surely been jealous for God, the Lord of Hosts, for the Children of Israel left your covenant, they destroyed your altars and they killed your prophets and I alone remained and they wanted to take my soul."

So we have the jealous thing in both places. 

What does Kinah really mean? 

I will just leave you with this thought: Both Pinchas and Eliyahu take matters into their own hands. Pinchas' story is very plain and this is easy to see. Pinchas approaches Moshe and Moshe seems to hesitate about what to do but Pinchas goes ahead and acts. 

Where do we see Eliyahu taking such an initiative? From the moment that Eliyahu appears in the  narrative of Tanach he takes charge. Check out Chapter 17 in Kings I and we'll talk more about it on Sunday.

I promise.

B'li neder ;)

Shabbat shalom!

Bilam's Mouth and What It Had to Say

Last week's parsha, Balak, introduced us to the amazing character Bilam. Amazing because he is seen as a prophet, the only recognized prophet who was not of the Children of Israel. Bilam was hired by Balak, the king of Moav, to curse those Children of Israel but instead Bilam ends up blessing them, dammit!

Some quick points about all that (mainly for those who read that parsha):

Bilam emphasizes to Balak that he can say only what God puts into his mouth. From that we would assume that the wording Bilam uses for the various blessings he gives are all from God. However, that is not necessarily the case. In general, we understand that each prophet is given a vision by God and then he or she translates that vision into their own words. The only exception to that being Moshe Rabbeinu for at least most of the Torah (one can argue about D'varim—and maybe we will once we get there!).

Maimonides spells out this notion in the Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Y'sodei Hatorah Chapter 7:

רמב"ם הלכות יסודי התורה פרק ז הלכה ג הדברים שמודיעים לנביא במראה הנבואה דרך משל מודיעין לו ומיד יחקק בלבו פתרון המשל במראה הנבואה וידע מה הוא...


Maimonides Laws of the Foundations of the Torah, Chapter 7 Halacha 3
Those things which are made known to the prophet by way of prophetic vision are shown to him as an allegory (mashal) and immediately the understanding (of that allegory) is ingrained onto his heart through the prophetic vision and he knows what it is.

Now you may insist that Bilam's case was different, that he himself says explicitly that he can only say what God tells him to say—maybe so. But I will point out that another prophet, Michayahu ben Yimlah, makes essentially the same declaration and yet one could understand from his words that he was also given a vision and then chose to describe it in his own way.

The context there is when King Ahab of the northern kingdom of Israel and King Yehoshafat of the southern kingdom of Yehuda make a pact to fight together to take Ramot Gilad. Yehoshafat is unimpressed with the prophets recruited by Ahab to advise them about their chances in the pending battle. He wants to hear from a real prophet of God and asks if there's one available. Ahab reluctantly admits that there is one, Michayahu, but he doesn't like him as he always predicts bad stuff. Yehoshafat insists so a messenger is sent to find him.

When the messenger finds Michayahu, he tells him that all other prophets said that Ahab and Yehoshafat will do well in battle and that he should follow suit.  Michayahu replies:

מלכים א פרק כב (יד) וַיֹּאמֶר מִיכָיְהוּ חַי יְקֹוָק כִּי אֶת אֲשֶׁר יֹאמַר יְקֹוָק אֵלַי אֹתוֹ אֲדַבֵּר:

Kings I Chapter 22 (14) And Michayahu said, “As God lives, that which God says to me is what I will speak.”

He goes on to describe a vision of God asking his angels who would go and seduce Ahab so that he can be killed on the battlefield. One angel replies that he can do the job by becoming a false spirit in the mouths of the prophets who will convince Ahab that he will win.

Take a few minutes and read the whole story there—it makes for great entertainment in my book!

In any event, though, one would come away with the idea that Michayahu's vision is described in his own words despite his statement that he would speak that which God told him. So, too, we could understand that Bilam's words were actually his own. I think you can see other hints to that in the text, as well. Just something to consider.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Korach's Gripe Part Two

Okay--I think I can do better next week and get something by Thursday. Thanks for the suggestion, Hyla! In the meantime, this finishes off the basic thought I had from last week's parsha:

Now we can understand the midrash brought earlier. In the midrashic version of Korach's claim, the people are represented by the tallit which is made entirely of t'chelet. According to the Torah, a four cornered garment must have one thread of t'chelet in each corner in order to fulfill the mitzvah of tzitzit. Korach wants to say that implies that the t'chelet is special—just a little bit of t'chelet will exempt the entire garment; therefore, a whole lot of t'chelet would certainly exempt the garment! Just like the people are currently led by just two people, Moshe and Aharon, who are holy, but the entire nation is holy so they, the nation, are exempted from this leadership!

Moshe, though, replies by saying that this is not a matter for reasoning and logic. God decreed that a garment must have tzitzit no matter what it is made from, no matter how 'holy' it might be. So, too, God decreed that Moshe and Aharon must lead the nation no matter how much collective holiness is represented by the mass of people.

The challenge of Korach from a Torah scroll is similar but adds a little something to the mix. Whereas the argument with t'chelet and the tallit is questionable because t'chelet is not really inherently holy, a Torah scroll represents the single most holy item in Judaism. It is true that for practical halachic purposes a mezuzah is less holy than a Torah scroll. So the argument is now a bit stronger when he challenges Moshe by saying that if a room is full of Torah scrolls, which are so holy, they must exempt the room from needing a mezuzah!

Here again, though, Moshe tells him that the mitzvah of mezuzah is decreed by God and applies regardless of how much holiness is contained within the room. Moshe is always arguing in these aggadot, just as he does in the Torah verses, that his position as leader is not his idea. He makes no claim to be holier or better than anyone else and, in fact, implies that he concedes the nation as a whole to be more holy.

But being more holy per se is not the point. The point is to fulfill God's will. Korach has simply lost faith that God decreed all of these things. He has come instead to rely on his own reasoning as a basis for challenging Moshe.

But Korach is wrong. It is not about reasoning, it is not even about aggregate holiness. It is about listening to and accepting what God has decreed. 



Shabbat Shalom!

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Yes, I Know I'm Late--Korach's Gripe Part One

I am sitting in these remaining minutes before shabbat, enjoying an espresso made with freshly ground coffee beans which I ground freshly in my new coffee grinder attachment to my new blender and feeling rather happy with life and with myself. Funny how the small things can make us feel that way.

By contrast, Korach, the star of this week's parsha of the same name, seemed to have had a hard time being happy with his particular lot in life.

The linguistic issue which kicks off the parsha is simply what is meant by the opening word ויקח vayikach. Literally the word means 'and he took.' However this word always appears as a transitive verb which means, for those of you who forget your language terms!, that it takes something – one does not simply take the way someone might simply breathe without breathing some thing.

So of course, the commentators are all over this. The Targum Onkelos does not give a literal translation here, as he usually does, and translates vayikach as v'itpalag meaning that he separated himself.

Rashi, on the second verse, brings a little story from the Midrash Tanchuma about a challenge that Korach posed to Moshe. I will quote the midrash directly here:
מדרש תנחומא (בובר) פרשת קרח סימן ד

ויקח קרח. מה כתיב למעלה מן הענין, דבר אל בני ישראל [ואמרת אליהם] ועשו להם ציצית (במדבר טו לח), א"ל קרח למשה רבינו, משה טלית שכולה תכלת, מהו שתהא פטורה מן הציצית, א"ל משה חייבת בציצית, א"ל קרח טלית שכולה תכלת אינה פוטרת עצמה, וארבעה חוטין פוטרין אותה, בית שמלא ספרים, מהו שיהא פטור מן המזוזה, א"ל חייב במזוזה, א"ל כל התורה כולה רע"ה פרשיות יש בה, ואינן פוטרות את הבית, ושתי פרשיות שבמזוזה פוטרות את הבית, א"ל דברים אלו לא נצטוית עליהם, אלא מלבך את בודאם, הדה הוא דכתיב ויקח קרח.

And Korach took: What is written before this matter?: Speak to the children of Israel and say to them, Make for them tzitzit (Bamidbar 15:38). Korach said to Moshe, “Moshe, a talit which is entirely t'chelet (blue wool) would the law say it is exempt from tzitzit?” Moshe replied, “It is obliged nonetheless to have tzitzit.” Korach said to him, “A talit which is entirely t'chelet doesn't exempt itself (i.e. fulfill the mitzvah of tzitzit) and yet for threads exempt it? Tell me, a house which is full of Torah scrolls, would the law say it is exempt from having a mezuzah?” Moshe replied to him, “The house would still need a mezuzah.” Korach said to him, “The entire Torah is comprised of 275 sections and they are not enough to exempt the house, and the two sections of the mezuzah exempt the house?” He went on, “These things were not commanded to you—rather you made them up!” That is what the Torah means when it says, “And Korach took.”

Some of you may read this story and say isn't that quaint but of course, the Torah doesn't say this at all. Why make up a story like this?

That, my friends, is the challenge of reading midrash and aggadah. Chazal had deep insights into these texts and often chose to convey them through aggadah/myth. Let's try to understand how Chazal  came up with this story and what the underlying message is.

First, let's see the basic story as told in the text of the Torah. Korach and those who side with him challenge Moshe and Aharon's leadership positions. Their basic claim is:
במדבר פרק טז (ג) וַיִּקָּהֲלוּ עַל מֹשֶׁה וְעַל אַהֲרֹן וַיֹּאמְרוּ אֲלֵהֶם רַב לָכֶם כִּי כָל הָעֵדָה כֻּלָּם קְדֹשִׁים וּבְתוֹכָם יְקֹוָק וּמַדּוּעַ תִּתְנַשְּׂאוּ עַל קְהַל יְקֹוָק:

Bamidbar Chapter 16 (3) And they gathered together on Moshe and Aharon and they said to them, “It is much for you! For all of the community--they are all holy and God is amongst them and why should you make raise yourselves over the congregation of God?
The basic claim that Korach and his followers make is ostensibly based on things they were told that God said. For example, just before the giving of the Torah at Sinai, God tells Moshe to tell the people:
שמות פרק יט (ו) וְאַתֶּם תִּהְיוּ לִי מַמְלֶכֶת כֹּהֲנִים וְגוֹי קָדוֹשׁ אֵלֶּה הַדְּבָרִים אֲשֶׁר תְּדַבֵּר אֶל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל:

Shmot Chapter 19 (6) And you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. These are the things you shall speak to the children of Israel.

So that would seem to back up the claim that the entire community is holy.

And, more recently:
שמות פרק כט (מה) וְשָׁכַנְתִּי בְּתוֹךְ בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְהָיִיתִי לָהֶם לֵאלֹהִים:(מו) וְיָדְעוּ כִּי אֲנִי יְקֹוָק אֱלֹהֵיהֶם אֲשֶׁר הוֹצֵאתִי אֹתָם מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם לְשָׁכְנִי בְתוֹכָם אֲנִי יְקֹוָק אֱלֹהֵיהֶם:

Shmot Chapter 29 (45) And I will dwell among the children of Israel and I will be for them as The Lord. (46)And they will know that I am God their Lord that I have taken them out of the land of Egypt in order to dwell among them—I am God their Lord.

So that would seem to back up the claim that God is among all of the people.

Their basic premise, then, would seem to be sound. If it is true that they are all holy and God is among all of them, what gives Moshe and Aharon special privileges to be above everyone else? 

Friday, June 4, 2010

Don't Believe Everything You Hear--Some Points From the Parsha

The main players in this week's parsha are popularly referred to in Hebrew as the מרגלים (m'raglim), generally translated as spies. Interestingly, that word does not appear at all in this story. It does figure in the story told in the second chapter of Yehoshua, but we'll come back to that in a bit.

The command here is:

במדבר פרק יג (ב) שְׁלַח לְךָ אֲנָשִׁים וְיָתֻרוּ אֶת אֶרֶץ כְּנַעַן אֲשֶׁר אֲנִי נֹתֵן לִבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל אִישׁ אֶחָד אִישׁ אֶחָד לְמַטֵּה אֲבֹתָיו תִּשְׁלָחוּ כֹּל נָשִׂיא בָהֶם:

Bamidbar Chapter 13 (2) Send men for you, that they will explore the land of Canaan that I am giving to the Children of Israel; One man, one man for (each) tribe of his fathers shall you send, every prince thereof.

The key word here is ויתרו (v'yaturu) which derives from the root לתור. The meaning of this word is not absolutely clear but it seems to involve the idea of wandering and exploration. Significantly, the same root word appears at the end of this week's parsha:

במדבר פרק טו (לט) וְהָיָה לָכֶם לְצִיצִת וּרְאִיתֶם אֹתוֹ וּזְכַרְתֶּם אֶת כָּל מִצְוֹת יְקֹוָק וַעֲשִׂיתֶם אֹתָם וְלֹא תָתֻרוּ אַחֲרֵי לְבַבְכֶם וְאַחֲרֵי עֵינֵיכֶם אֲשֶׁר אַתֶּם זֹנִים אַחֲרֵיהֶם:

Bamidbar Chapter 15: (39) and they will be for you as fringes and you will see them and you will remember all of the commandments of God and you will do them and you will not wander after your hearts and after your eyes which you stray after.

Again, the meaning here is not absolute, but it implies in this context a kind of loose wandering.

We can contrast that with the story told in the second chapter of Yehoshua where Yehoshua sends two men (again the same word in Hebrew אנשים, as we see in the beginning of our story) but they are sent as מרגלים—spies.

יהושע פרק ב פסוק א וַיִּשְׁלַח יְהוֹשֻׁעַ בִּן נוּן מִן הַשִּׁטִּים שְׁנַיִם אֲנָשִׁים מְרַגְּלִים חֶרֶשׁ לֵאמֹר לְכוּ רְאוּ אֶת הָאָרֶץ וְאֶת יְרִיחוֹ וַיֵּלְכוּ וַיָּבֹאוּ בֵּית אִשָּׁה זוֹנָה וּשְׁמָהּ רָחָב וַיִּשְׁכְּבוּ שָׁמָּה:

Yehoshua Chapter 2 (1) And Yehoshua the son of Nun sent from Shittim two men, spies, secretly saying: Go and see the land and Yericho. And they went and came to the house of a woman, a prostitute and her name was Rachav and they slept there.

The contrast between the two stories and their outcomes is enormous. In short, though, Moshe's contingent was comprised of 'men' which we have seen elsewhere is a description of men of standing and importance, in this case they were the princes/leaders of each of the tribes. However, the command that they 'explore' or 'wander' seems to have been taken by them as a kind of blank check—that is they were supposed to be looking for certain general indicators, as are specified by Moshe later, but otherwise were sort of on their own to 'look around.'

Apparently Moshe thought it prudent and politically correct to send the prince from each tribe in a public sort of way. He must have thought that by using such transparent means to gather information it would be clear that he, Moshe, wasn't hiding anything from the people. He also assumed, naively, that they would come back with positive, or at least neutral, reportage.

Alas, Moshe's faith in that regard was misplaced. While they did bring back correct information, the way it was reported along with their own commentary on what they saw turned out to be extremely negative. The people, whom we know to be wary of Moshe and of God from other stories, are quick to seize upon the negative report. It is almost as if they knew in advance that things would be bad for them in the Promised Land and needed very little encouragement to believe such stuff.
Chazal learn a great deal about Lashon Hara from this parsha. Lashon Hara (literally 'evil tongue', refers to gossip of sorts or speaking ill of someone or something) is by definition 'true' (there is another term for speaking ill in false terms). However, by its nature it is a limited truth as Lashon Hara inevitably leaves out information which does not suit the teller's version of events. If you read our parsha carefully and understand what Calev is saying to the people, you will see this is true here, as well.

Yehoshua was much more careful in his use of 'men.' He sent spies, apparently professionals and not political appointees. He sent them secretly, which implies that even the Children of Israel didn't know about their mission. They were sent to gather specific intelligence and not to give some general report. And they reported directly to Yehoshua and not to the people at large.

The difference between לתור (to wander/explore) and לרגל (to spy) are very sharp and evident.

Likewise, the tendency to see what we want to see, to believe what we want to believe and to ignore truth are dramatically displayed in this parsha.

Hamevin yavin.


Friday, May 28, 2010

Sheddng Light on the Levites

Last week's parsha ends with the נשיאים, n'siim (the princes or leaders) of each of the twelve tribes bringing a daily sacrifice as their contribution to the dedication of the tabernacle.

Just to review--there are actually thirteen tribes when we include the tribe of Levi. We ended up with an 'extra' tribe when Yaakov effectively makes Yosef into two tribes by giving each of his sons (Efraim and Menashe) a portion in his inheritance.

In any event, all of the n'siim bring their dedication sacrifice except for Aharon who was the nasi of the tribe of Levi. Rashi brings a midrash here at the beginning of the parsha which indicates that Aharon was crestfallen to not be included in the lineup of his fellow n'siim but God comforts him by telling him that he has the mitzva of lighting the menorah which is even greater than what the other n'siim did. The Ramban expounds on that midrash and tells us that it is an allusion to a time in the future when the Hashmonaim, who were priests (descendants of Aharon from the tribe of Levi, of course) will rededicate the Temple through the miracle of lighting the menorah for eight days, as we remember on Hanukah.

However, it occurs to me that something else may also be at play here. Just after the first verses in the parsha deal with the lighting of the menorah, Moshe is commanded to prepare the Levites for their service in the tabernacle.

The process for the preparation was to entirely shave the bodies of the Levites, to prepare a sacrifice to bring with them and then it says:

במדבר פרק ח (ט) וְהִקְרַבְתָּ אֶת הַלְוִיִּם לִפְנֵי אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד וְהִקְהַלְתָּ אֶת כָּל עֲדַת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל:
(י) וְהִקְרַבְתָּ אֶת הַלְוִיִּם לִפְנֵי יְקֹוָק וְסָמְכוּ בְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶת יְדֵיהֶם עַל הַלְוִיִּם:
(יא) וְהֵנִיף אַהֲרֹן אֶת הַלְוִיִּם תְּנוּפָה לִפְנֵי יְקֹוָק מֵאֵת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְהָיוּ לַעֲבֹד אֶת עֲבֹדַת יְקֹוָק:

Bamidbar Chapter 8 (9) And you shall bring forth the Levites before the Tent of Meeting (a.ka. the Tabernacle or the Mishkan) and you shall gather together all of the congregation of the children of Israel. (10) And you shall bring close the Levites before God and the children of Israel will lean their hands upon the Levites (11) and Aharon will wave the Levites (in a) waving before God from the children of Israel and they will be to do the service of God.

What is happening here is really nothing less than the Levites being offered up as a kind of live sacrifice to God; i.e. the process they are going through (having other lean their hands upon them, being waved not to mention the fact that the verse says literally they are 'being offered').

So in fact it would seem the main reason that the Levites do not offer a sacrifice of dedication to the Tabernacle is that they themselves are the sacrifice-their service in the Temple is an ongoing sacrifice/dedication to the Tabernacle and to God. 

The interlude about the menorah, then could be understood more simply than the Ramban's expansion on the midrash. It just means that the lighting of the menorah is a unique and integral part of the service which is the Levites' offering. 

Why the emphasis on the menorah? Perhaps more than any other aspect of the service, the lighting of the menorah illustrates the notion of the light of the Torah being brought into this world but I will have to leave that for another posting. 

Shabbat shalom!

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Learning, Inspiration, Genius in a Post Shavuot World

I was most privileged to make the acquaintance of one Nava when I brought in a Pitum Haktoret piece I did for framing into her shop a few days ago. She made a great impression on me in many ways but especially when she said that while she has been involved in framing for decades, even now she feels that her 'talent' in framing is not from her at all but rather just a sense she has from somewhere or something outside of her.

I pointed out that this sense has been noticed in many cultures including ancient ones and, in fact, including our own Jewish one. Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love (which admittedly I haven't read), has a great TED talk about this same idea.

This notion is alluded to in a midrash apropos of Shavuot which, of course, has just passed. The midrash states:

שמות רבה (וילנא) פרשת כי תשא פרשה מא

אמר ר' אבהו כל מ' יום שעשה משה למעלה היה למד תורה ושוכח, א"ל רבון העולם יש לי מ' יום ואיני יודע דבר, מה עשה הקב"ה משהשלים מ' יום נתן לו הקב"ה את התורה מתנה שנאמר ויתן אל משה

Shmot Rabbah (ed. Vilna) Parshat Ki Tissa 41

Rabbi Avahu said: Throughout the entire forty days which Moshe spent above, he would learn Torah and then forget [what he learned]! He said to God, "Sovereign of the Universe! I have forty days and I don't know a thing! What did the Holy One Blessed Be He do? As soon as [Moshe] completed the forty days, the Holy One Blessed Be He gave him the Torah [as a] gift. As it says, (Shmot 31:18) and He gave to Moshe.

The full verse there says: And He gave to Moshe, when he finished speaking with him on Mt. Sinai, two tablets of testament, tablets of stone written with the finger of God.

While the plain understanding of the verse is simply that God handed over the tablets that He wrote, the midrash picks up on the word ויתן vayiten (and He gave). The verse could have stated that Moshe took the tablets or that Moshe brought the tablets or some such. The fact that it says that God gave the tablets implies that it was only by God giving them could Moshe 'receive' or comprehend them. 

The 'giving' here implies that God simply implanted the knowledge of the Torah in Moshe's brain a la The Matrix, meaning that Moshe, in the end, received the entire Torah not through intellectual struggle and mastery but through Divine Grace in some way.

One obvious question is: If God had to give the Torah in this manner to Moshe, why didn't He just do it on the first day? Why shlep the whole process out for forty days? 

There is a hint, I believe, in the words of the midrash: As soon as [Moshe] completed the forty days. This implies that Moshe had to do his part by showing up for forty days. For many reasons, Moshe was the one whom God wished to bring the Torah from the heavens and down to mankind. The Torah was/is the culmination of Divine Wisdom, something which is arguably beyond mortal comprehension. In short, no person could really bring it from the heavens to the earth by his or her abilities alone. Divine help was clearly needed.

But in order to deserve that help, in order to be able to receive that which the Divine is offering, Moshe had to be there, to make the effort, to show up. 

So it is with all learning. We need to understand that while creativity and learning are things which are granted to us by the Divine, we need to make the effort to receive that gift. 

May we all learn to show up!

Friday, May 7, 2010

Not Exactly the Parsha, but....

I just posted a new video: My new, improved version of the History of Halacha. Check it out and let me know what you think  Special thanks to my son, Shmaya, for the videography and effects and all that good stuff.

Shabbat shalom!

Friday, April 16, 2010

Seeds of Doubt--What Does This Tazria Word Mean Anyway???

Hi Y'all,

Okay, it has been way too long since my last posting, but that's what eating a lot of matza will do to you. No more excuses now, though--at least not until I think up something original.

As usual, I start to fret about what I should write about and, as usual, I can barely get past the first words of the parsha and I need to say something. These are the opening verses:

ויקרא יב:א וַיְדַבֵּר יְהוָה אֶל-מֹשֶׁה לֵּאמֹר.  ב דַּבֵּר אֶל-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל לֵאמֹר אִשָּׁה כִּי תַזְרִיעַ וְיָלְדָה זָכָר וְטָמְאָה שִׁבְעַת יָמִים, כִּימֵי נִדַּת דְּו‍ֹתָהּ תִּטְמָא.  ג וּבַיּוֹם הַשְּׁמִינִי יִמּוֹל בְּשַׂר עָרְלָתוֹ. 

Vayikra 12:1 And God spoke to Moshe saying:2 Speak to the children of Israel saying, "A woman when she will cause to sow and give birth to a male, she will be ritually impure for seven days; as the days of the infirmity of her menstrual cycle she will be ritually impure. 3 And on the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin will be circumcised.

A bit of context: The Torah here is talking here about issues regarding ritual purity and impurity, tumah and taharah (טומאה וטהרה). This parsha in fact mainly deals with special issues of tumah and taharah which are associated specifically with the woman who gives birth. 

However, I am not interested in that bit -- at least not yet. I just want to understand two basic things:

1) What does the word tazria תזריע mean? (I translated it literally as cause to sow --awkward but we'll deal with it soon)
2) Why does the Torah need to mention the phrase ki tazria כי תזריע at all? 

To clarify this second question first: If we read the second verse without the phrase ki tazria at all, it would seem to give us the same basic information, namely that if a woman gives birth to a male child she will become ritually impure and that he will need a bris in eight days. 

What does this ki tazria tell us, add for us, that it was so important  for the Torah to mention it? 

To try to answer the first question, let's look at what I believe is the only other instance of the word form tazria תזריע in Tanach. 

Tazria derives from the same root as zera זרע , meaning seed--the verb form zara means to sow. Tazria is a hif'il form which, for all you Hebrew grammar buffs, and even those of you who aren't, is a causative form. What that means is that given the basic root means to sow, the hif'il form of the word would mean 'to cause to sow.' Or at least it could mean that. It implies at minimum that this woman is causing something to happen to seed which in this context would likely be sperm. 

So now that I realize that I did not pay attention to may time management and it is nearly shabbat, I will leave you to figure out where else we see this causative form in the Tanach. BIG HINT: If you start at the beginning of the Torah you won't have to look very far. 

Shabbat shalom!!!!!!!

Friday, March 26, 2010

Yikes! It's Almost Shabbat And I Haven't Posted Since Last Week!

Okay, I won't go into my litany of lame excuses (like trying to make a living and get ready for Pessach) for why I haven't posted since the beginning of last week. All I know is that I have a bunch of things I want to talk about beginning with last week's parsha.

However, because of the lateness of the hour and because I will be removing from my oven the last challot  I will bake before Pessach any minute now, I will just prattle a bit, if you'll bear with me.

Sefer Vayikra, aka Leviticus, is also known by the Sages as Torat Cohanim or the Priestly Teaching. The most obvious reason for the appellation is that much of the book deals directly with laws that applied directly, and sometimes solely, with the cohanim, the priests. The opening chapters, for example, describe the various sacrifices that were brought in the Tabernacle. The commissioning of Aharon and his sons to the priesthood will be an important story which will also include much detail of that process. Laws about ritual purity will be dealt with as well as the service in the Tabernacle for Yom Kippur and other holidays.

I will just remind you all, in case you weren't paying attention, that all of the Children of Israel were/are supposed to be cohanim, priests:

שמות יט ה וְעַתָּה, אִם-שָׁמוֹעַ תִּשְׁמְעוּ בְּקֹלִי, וּשְׁמַרְתֶּם, אֶת-בְּרִיתִי--וִהְיִיתֶם לִי סְגֻלָּה מִכָּל-הָעַמִּים, כִּי-לִי כָּל-הָאָרֶץ.  ו וְאַתֶּם תִּהְיוּ-לִי מַמְלֶכֶת כֹּהֲנִים, וְגוֹי קָדוֹשׁ:  אֵלֶּה, הַדְּבָרִים, אֲשֶׁר תְּדַבֵּר, אֶל-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל. 

Exodus 19 5 And now if you will surely listen to My voice and you will keep my covenant then you will be special for me from all the nations, for all the earth is mine 6 and you will be for me a kingdom of priests and  holy nation. These are the things you should speak to the children of Israel.

So what did that mean? We know from later on in Vayikra that only duly ordained priests or their progeny are even allowed into certain areas of the Tabernacle, much less allowed to actually perform much of the service there. Surely the children of Israel weren't all meant to really be priests!? 

Or maybe it is the other way: All of the children of Israel were/are really supposed to be priests. The question is, what exactly is a priest? If we define the term narrowly, it refers to Aharon and his sons and their offspring and those among them who were not otherwise disqualified to do service in the Tabernacle and later in the Temple. 

However, we spoke earlier  about how the building of the Tabernacle, okay, the mishcan (sorry, I find some of these English translations really annoying) was itself parallel to the creation of the universe. 

When God appoints the children of Israel to be a kingdom of priests He is saying that they should go out in the world to be His representatives. That is what makes them 'special.' Not that they have special privileges as much as they have special responsibilities. 

Aharon and his sons are appointed for work in the mishcan, in the microcosm of this universe. The service they do there was in some way supposed to reflect a universal reality and universal aspirations, those realities and aspirations that we, as the children of Israel are supposed to bring into the wider world. 

Have a shabbat shalom! My challah is finished!