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Friday, April 29, 2011

Very Serious Nonsense! or More About Drash

"Come, come,” said the King impatiently. “Sir Alaric, what do you make of all this nonsense?”
"Very serious nonsense, Your Majesty,” answered Sir Alaric.

            The Five Hundred Hats of Bartholemew Cubbins by Dr. Seuss

A friend of mine who attended many of my classes in Talmud and Tanach was fond of dismissing any number of drashot of Chazal by tossing off a favorite Yiddish description of his, namely: naarishkeit! Roughly translated, it means 'nonsense.' It seemed to him that many of the midrashim which seemed to deviate from the simple meaning of the text were not worthy of scrutiny or understanding since they were simply nonsense.

But why should nonsense not be worthy of attention?

Nonsense by definition is something doesn't seem to make sense. Sometimes, we may miss important understandings by glossing over that which seems to not compute.

To bring an example from another master of nonsense, Lewis Carroll wrote the following riddle:

Dreaming of apples on a wall,
And dreaming often dear,
I dreamed, that if I counted all,
How many would appear?

So what's the answer? He told you the answer in no uncertain terms but you likely weren't paying attention. Ten apples would, of course, appear as he was dreaming of-ten!

Ha ha, you say, very funny. And perhaps Alice's creator meant nothing more than to trick you. But you might also say he was trying to get you to read everything he wrote with great care.

Essentially, this is how Chazal looked at Tanach and the Torah in particular. They would strive to understand the 'simple' meaning of the words but then would dig deeper and find more levels. In a number of instances, they also broke up words in order to discover hidden meanings. After all, if mere mortal writers had such meanings in their work, why not find them in the Torah, as well?

A salient example is:
בראשית פרק ב (ד) אֵלֶּה תוֹלְדוֹת הַשָּׁמַיִם וְהָאָרֶץ בְּהִבָּרְאָם בְּיוֹם עֲשׂוֹת יְקֹוָק אֱלֹהִים אֶרֶץ וְשָׁמָיִם:

Genesis Chapter 2 (4) These are the generations of the heavens and the earth in their creation on the day the Lord God made the earth and the heavens.

Now if you look closely at the letter ה in the word בהבראם you will see it is smaller than the other letters. This is how it appears in a Torah scroll. Chazal understood that was a tipoff that the letter should be read independently of the rest of the word.

The word בהבראם means “in their creation” but if we split off the ה (with the letter ב preceding it) then we get a new reading: ב-ה בראם He created them (the heavens and the earth) with (the letter) hei!

From here it is learned that this world we occupy was created with the letter hei. This notion fits into a much wider concept of the nature of creation and comports well with other sources. Check out my blog here for some of the wider concept.

Sometimes, that which is hidden at first sight because it seems so outlandish brings the greatest meaning.

Friday, April 15, 2011

There But For Fortune...

This week's parsha describes in great detail the special service done in the Tabernacle (and later in the Temple) by the High Priest for Yom Kippur. The service is long (it took all day!) but I want to focus in particular on the part which was brought especially to achieve atonement for the nation as a whole.

First, though, I will point out that the High Priest had to bring sacrifices for him and his family, which included all of the other priests. Specifically, he had to bring a bullock as a חטאת chataat, a sin offering, and a ram as an olah, on offering which was completely burnt on the altar. The idea was that in order to be fit to represent the children of Israel, the High Priest himself had to be in a state of purity and atonement.

The children of Israel, for their part, had to offer two goats as a sin offering and a ram for an olah.

So right away we want to know why their sin offering was of a different animal, goat as opposed to bullock. But further: Why two?

Once the bullock of the High Priest was offered and atonement achieved, then the two goats were brought to the High Priest. He would lay on them גורלות goralot, lots. One would indicate לה' lashem, for the Lord, and the other לעזאזל laazazel.

The word azazel is only used in this context. There are various ideas about its meaning. One is that it is a fusion of two words עז and אזל. Together they mean 'a goat goes.'

The verses tell us that the one upon which the lot lashem fell would be brought as a sin offering and the other would be sent to azazel in the wilderness.

Chazal understand from the specifics of the verses that ideally the goats would be purchased at the same time and would look as similar as possible.

So what's the deal with the lots?

We find elsewhere in the Tanach that lots were used to determine Divine will. What seems like a chance operation was actually, literally a Divining method. Other examples are lots that were cast to determine how the land of Canaan would be divided between the tribes. In the book of Joshua lots were used to determine who had violated the ban on taking spoils from the conquering of Jericho.

But still, why two, why goats and why choose them by lots? 

One approach taken to understand why goats is offered by the Ramban and expanded on by the Abravanel. In Hebrew they are called שעירי עזים s'irei izim, he-goats. The word sair, though, can also be translated as 'hairy.' It is used to describe Esav. It is also similar to the word tzair, which means 'a youth' or someone who is relatively pure and untouched. Yaakov is referred to as 'ish tam' a 'whole' or 'complete' person. 

At the beginning, Yaakov and Esav had the same potential, but they each chose different paths. They were both the sons of Yitzchak and Rivkah but they each determined their fortunes. They also, of course, both remained the sons of Yitzchak and Rivkah for their entire existence.

The s'irei izim of Yom Kippur end up in some way representing both of those paths which our ancestors chose.  

Also, to begin with, both goats are taken as a chaat, a sin offering. They are only differentiated after the casting of the lots.

These goats were used to achieve atonement for the children of Israel at large. The one ends up being brought like a regular sin offering while the other is cast off of a cliff into a stony ravine.

It seems to me that essentially, the two goats are viewed as one but they represent different aspects of the nation. The one that is sacrificed to Hashem in the regular way which sacrifices were brought, represents that which is open to all. The entire congregation witnesses that sacrifice. And it is in line with all that is open and known.

The goat for azazel, by contrast, is cast off by a single man who himself may not witness its death. This goat seems to represent something of the dark side of the nation, those things which are hidden and which are not spoken of, perhaps. 
Maybe only by acknowledging our whole selves, our open ideal side as well as our hidden, dark side, can we achieve true atonement and ultimate purity.

Shabbat shalom!

Friday, April 8, 2011

Dead Man Walking

Yes, yes, I know it's been a while and here it's almost Shabbos and, well, okay, I am going to dash something off. Actually, I wrote out a lot of stuff but it's getting complicated and I want to make a simple observation, as it were.

Most of last week's and much of this week's parsha deals with the concept of צרעת tzaraat. This is often translated as leprosy and since it probably refers to something else, I will just use the term tzaraat for now.

Many of you know that Chazal linked the affliction of tzaraat with speaking ill of others, even if what is said is true (לשון הרע lashon hara).

What I want to point out is that this affliction carried with it signs that the person afflicted, the מצורע m'tzora,  was like a dead man (or woman).

I'll mention two points in this regard: One is that he or she was sent out from the entire encampment of the children of Israel in the wilderness (v. Leviticus 13:46 from last week's parsha and Numbers 5:2).

The significance of that was that the person was no longer part of the community for the duration of the affliction and experienced a kind of social and spiritual death.

What is more, Chazal also learn that if the m'tzora walks into a house, all of the vessels in that house become ritually impure even if he or she does not come into contact with them. Remind you of something? This is also the result of a dead body being in a house or under an enclosure (Numbers 19:14).

Why was the m'tzora punished in this manner?

Consider that the center of the encampment was the Tabernacle and the central focus of the Tabernacle was the Ark which held the Tablets and beside it was the Torah.

The height of man's existence is experienced through learning and speaking about the Torah, our connection to the Divine.

The very opposite of that is using our capacity as speaking, thinking beings to speak ill of others. Thus, the m'tzora is removed as far as possible from the Torah and from human companionship until the affliction passes.

Just sayin'....

shabbat shalom!