Follow by Email

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

And Aharon Was Silent

Today marks another tragedy for Israel, for Jews everywhere and for humanity.

My personal request to those of you who feel that Israel's settlement over the Green Line or Israel's treatment of Palestinians should be brought up in the context of these murders: Don't make that link today. Not today and not during the shiva.

If you feel that the government has not done enough to prevent terror, that 'the job isn't finished' and you want to link the lack of further violence by Israel to perpetrators and potential perpetrators: Again, don't make that link today. Not today and not during the shiva.

Whether you are Jewish or non-Jewish, Israeli or otherwise and you feel your particular political point of view contains the solution to all our ills here, recognize that this is a time of mourning, not a time of pointing fingers. Your discussion will resume, willy nilly. But show your humanity and do not preach now. Do not blame now.

Whether you are religious or not, learn from Aharon the High Priest and brother of Moshe who, upon witnessing his sons struck down before him reacted by remaining silent.

The wise will understand.

Friday, October 3, 2014

We Have Met the Enemy, And He Is Us! - Four Sons Walked Into Paradise part 9

Impollutable Pogo by Walt Kelly, 1970

It is now the eve of Yom Kippur and I have evil on my mind.

I return now to our Evil Son. I say 'our' because despite the fact that the midrash comes to exclude the Evil Son from the community, he is paradoxically included by the mere fact that he is recognized and discussed. No matter how many times we read the haggadah, the Evil Son is always present if only to be dismissed.

Why do Chazal go out of their way to bring the Evil Son to the seder table?

I raised several questions regarding the Evil Son in an earlier post. We can make more sense of possible answers by first addressing this fundamental question of the inclusion of this son at the table if only to tell him to pack it up and leave.

We noted earlier that the Evil Son comes to contrast mainly with the Wise Son. Whereas the Wise Son wants to know in depth about the rituals being performed, both the how and the why, the Evil Son dismisses what is going on as being personally irrelevant.

The Evil Son is, in some essential way, the dark side of the Wise Son. In Jungian terms we can say that he represents the 'shadow' of the Wise Son-- perhaps of all the other Sons.

In other words: We are all the Evil Son, just as we are all the Wise Son, The Tam and the One Who Doesn't Know How to Ask.

The more we try to push the Evil Son away, to claim that he has ousted himself, that he doesn't belong, the more he stays.

The Evil Son is the part of us that we find so distasteful, so far away from our idealized selves that the only way we can relate to this dark shadow is to find it in and project it onto others.

The liberals and the conservatives who decry each other, the Jews who hate the Arabs, the xenophobes who despise the aliens, all of these recognize in the 'other' that which is within themselves which they cannot access, cannot touch.

The world that allowed Jews, the Eternal Other, to be slaughtered in the Shoah and those who would delight at the destruction of the State of Israel project upon us that which they despise in themselves.

All of us have a shadow. All of us cannot easily touch it much less be aware of it. But when we begin to comprehend what we so hate about the other, we have a clue to what is darkest inside of us.

Erich Neumann, a Jewish student of Jung, elucidated this notion of the shadow in his book DepthPsychology and a New Ethic. I will bring up more of the substance of the book in later posts.

Neumann himself quotes the Talmud:

תלמוד בבלי מסכת ברכות דף נד עמוד א ואהבת את ה' אלהיך בכל לבבך וגו'. בכל לבבך - בשני יצריך, ביצר טוב וביצר הרע

Babylonian Talmud Tractate B'rachot 54a: “And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart...” with all your heart: With both of your inclinations, with the good inclination and with the evil inclination.

Chazal recognized that we are comprised of both good and evil. Part of our personal struggle is not to repress the evil, but to bring it into the picture; to use it along with the good and in this way truly love ourselves, mankind and thereby God.

We will delve into this more next time.

So we find the Evil Son at the seder table every year because he is always part of us. We can try to distance ourselves from him, say that we are different, exclude him from the redemption while blaming him for the exclusion. But he is an inextricable part of our being.

May we merit on this day of Atonement to be truly at-one with ourselves, our fellow humans, all of creation and with the Lord.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

A Rosh Hashannah Wish

משנה מסכת עוקצין פרק ג משנה יב אמר רבי שמעון בן חלפתא לא מצא הקדוש ב"ה כלי מחזיק ברכה לישראל אלא השלום שנאמר (תהלים כ"ט) ה' עוז לעמו יתן ה' יברך את עמו בשלום:

Mishnah Tractate Uktzin Chapter 3, Mishnah 12 Rabbi Shimon ben Halifta said: The Holy One, Blessed Be He, did not find a vessel to hold blessing save peace. As it says (Psalms 29:12) The Lord will grant strength to his people, the Lord will bless his people with peace.

On this Rosh Hashannah eve, after our very hard summer here in Israel, we come to wish each other blessings for the New Year. The mishnah above, the last mishnah in the Talmud, comes to remind us that in order for our blessings to hold they must come in the vessel of peace.

The verse from Psalms is read thusly: The Lord will grant his people blessing with peace – peace will be the vessel to hold the blessings. And with the blessings held steadily by peace, the Lord will thereby grant strength to his people.

May we merit the peace that will hold and keep our blessings throughout the coming year and for always. 

Shana tova 

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

What's It To You? - Four Sons Walked Into Paradise part 8

For those of you who just can't get enough of the subtleties of biblical Hebrew, here is another stab at answering the question we raised earlier.
Here's the problem in brief:
  1. The M'chilta determines that the one who asks 'What is this service to you' is the Evil Son.
  2. They know he is evil because by saying 'to you' he excludes himself from obligation and the wider community.
  3. The M'chilta understands that the one who asks the question “What are these testimonies, etc., that the Lord our God commanded you” is the Wise Son.
  4. So, why is the Wise Son not also considered Evil? After all, he also seems to exclude himself by saying that 'you' are commanded, implying that he is not.
In contrast to the approach of Rabbi David Tzvi Hoffmann that I brought in the previous two posts, I bring you now the approach of Rabbi Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenburg, author of a commentary on the Torah called הכתב והקבלה (Hact'av v'Hakabbalah, literally 'the writing and the tradition'). Rabbi Mecklenburg along with certain rabbis of his time (mid 19th century), notably Rabbi MeïrLeibush ben Yehiel Michel Weiser (known popularly by his acronym MaLBiM), sought to show the harmony between straightforward (p'shat) reading of Tanach and the midrashim of the Talmudic Sages.

In his commentary to Deuteronomy 6:20, the Wise Son's question, he raises our question. His answer is to point out the distinction between the use of the word לכם (to you), which the Evil Son uses, and the word אתכם (you) which the Wise Son uses.

A brief grammar lesson: In Hebrew, the word אל is the stand alone word meaning 'to.' However, the word used for 'to' is usually the prefix ל which can be put in front of a pronoun ending. An example is, of course, the word לכם which is effectively short for אל אתם (to you). 

The word את usually doesn't have meaning by itself; rather, it comes to indicate an object of a verb. It sometimes means 'with' and that meaning will come into play here. 

R. Mecklenburg notes that when the word לכם (to you), or any of its variants, is used with the verb צוה (command) it means 'to you alone to the exclusion of others.' The prime example he brings is:

במדבר פרק ט (ח) וַיֹּ֥אמֶר אֲלֵהֶ֖ם מֹשֶׁ֑ה עִמְד֣וּ וְאֶשְׁמְעָ֔ה מַה־יְצַוֶּ֥ה יְקֹוָ֖ק לָכֶֽם:

Numbers Chapter 9 (8) And Moses said to them, “Wait and I will hear that which the Lord will command to you.”

The context here is that some people had been ritually impure at the time of the celebration of the Passover. The law had already been given that one who is ritually impure cannot partake of the Passover offering. Likewise, one who doesn't eat of the Passover offering is liable for the supreme Divine punishment of car'et. It's not clear what exactly car'et is. It literally means 'cut off.' What we know is that it is really bad and you don't want to get this punishment in particular.

So these people who were impure were a little worried about what would happen to them for not having had the Passover meal. They asked Moses what to do. His initial reply was the verse quoted above. 

He was saying 'I will ask God what you are commanded to do – not me or anyone else, because the rest of us already had our Passover meal.'

In the Wise Son's question, he uses the word אתכם. Whereas לכם is exclusive, אתכם is not exclusive. In fact, despite the third person pronoun ending (you, plural), it could be understood to read 'with you.' 

Thus, the verse would be saying 'What are the testimonies and the statutes and the judgments that the Lord our God commanded (me) with you.'

Even without interpreting אתכם to mean 'with you,' it is still not exclusive in the same way as לכם.

This reading, to my mind, is very reasonable, fits in well with other verses in the Torah and would serve as a strong indication to Chazal that, indeed, there is a big difference in the way the Wise Son asks and the way the Evil Son asks.

Even though Rabbi Mecklenburg indicates that the word לכם is exclusive in conjunction with the word צוה (command), we find that the Sages generally interpret לכם and its variants (לי, לך וכדומה) as exclusive, not only in the context of commands.

Moreover, the form is understood to mean not just 'to you' but 'for you.' In our case, we could translate the Evil Son's question to read “What is this service for you?” meaning “What benefit do you derive from this service?” This sounds even more like a taunt as it implies that the Evil Son himself discerns no particular benefit.

An example of the ל form implying 'for your benefit' is God's first command to Abraham:

בראשית פרק יב (א) וַיֹּ֤אמֶר יְקֹוָק֙ אֶל־אַבְרָ֔ם לֶךְ־לְךָ֪ מֵאַרְצְךָ֥ וּמִמּֽוֹלַדְתְּךָ֖ וּמִבֵּ֣ית אָבִ֑יךָ אֶל־ הָאָ֖רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֥ר אַרְאֶֽךָּ:

Genesis Chapter 12(1) And the Lord said to Abram, “Go for you from your land and from your birthplace and from the house of your father to the land that I will show you.”

Rashi here, based on Chazal, explains: for you- for your benefit and for your good.

But back to the Evil Son.

Okay, so he excludes himself from the community. Why is that so bad that the M'chilta sees it at as 'denying the fundamental principle?'

What exactly is 'the fundamental principle' anyway?

Why is the Evil Son undeserving of the redemption?

If what the question implies is really so bad, why doesn't the Torah itself take this son to task?

Thursday, August 28, 2014

It's Not You...It's Us -- with a little more depth (a grammatical interlude)

My friend, Steve Froikin, had a sharp critique of my previous post. I am bringing his comments immediately below and then my reply.

Again, if you're not into finer points of biblical grammar, you may want to skip this, although I hope you don't!

Steve said:

I don’t buy it for two reasons (sorry for rendering the Hebrew in English characters, but I can’t get it to work as mixed Hebrew and English text).

Basically you are saying that ETCHEM is the object of the verb YISHAL[CHA]. I put “CHA” in brackets to emphasize that YISHAL already has an object: CHA—“he will ask [you].” It would be very peculiar to have a second object, ETCHEM, that performs the same function. It is doubly peculiar to have that second object separated so far from the verb. And it is triply peculiar that the intervening text contains a verb, TZIVAH, that now lacks an object because you have attached it to the more distant YISHAL. ETCHEM makes total sense as the object of TZIVAH and is triply strained to read it as the object of YISHAL.

Your comparison of the Deut. 6 text with the Deut. 5 text doesn’t seem valid to me. In the Deut. 5 text you have a wayward object (ETCHEM). In the Deut. 5 text you have a wayward verb (or gerund, or whatever you want to call it: LEIMOR). Unfortunately, you stopped quoting Deut. 5 at a critical point. What you omitted, was a kind of object to the verb LEIMOR (namely, quotation of the ten commandments). In other words, Deut. 5 inserted the parenthetical “for you were frightened in the face of the fire and you didn't go up on the mount” prior to LEIMOR because to do otherwise would have separated LEIMOR from its object (the quote). I actually see Deut. 5 supporting the proposition that verbs and their objects need to be close together.

By this reasoning, the wise son is still excluding himself from the community. 

And here is my reply:

You make some strong points and you added one more to me privately – namely that the object אתכם (to you – plural) does not agree with the earlier object of 'you' (singular) in the word ישאלך. This latter point was one I thought to bring up myself but was frankly too tired by the time I finished the post.

In any event, I will try to defend this position although I acknowledge it is not the obvious reading of the verse.

The fact that אתכם seems to be repetitive according to this reading is not unprecedented. Thus we see this verse:

בראשית פרק ל (כ) וַתֹּ֣אמֶר לֵאָ֗ה זְבָדַ֨נִי אֱלֹהִ֥ים׀ אֹתִי֘ זֵ֣בֶד טוֹב֒ הַפַּ֙עַם֙ יִזְבְּלֵ֣נִי אִישִׁ֔י כִּֽי־יָלַ֥דְתִּי ל֖וֹ שִׁשָּׁ֣ה בָנִ֑ים וַתִּקְרָ֥א אֶת־שְׁמ֖וֹ זְבֻלֽוּן:

Genesis Chapter 30 (20) And Leah said, God has given me a choice gift to me. This time my husband will exalt me for I have borne him six sons. And she called his name Z'vulun.

Standard translations will not bring the extra 'to me' since it is understood in context as not adding meaning. Although it may be peculiar, as you point out, it is not unknown in biblical Hebrew. See, also, Jeremiah 27:8 for another example.

The fact that אתכם is plural while ישאלך is singular seems more troubling. However, plural and singular do not always agree in biblical Hebrew.

Look at the beginning of our chapter (Deuteronomy 6), verses 1 and 2 (For the sake of brevity, I am not bringing a translation here):

דברים פרק ו (א) וְזֹ֣את הַמִּצְוָ֗ה הַֽחֻקִּים֙ וְהַמִּשְׁפָּטִ֔ים אֲשֶׁ֥ר צִוָּ֪ה יְקֹוָ֥ק אֱלֹהֵיכֶ֖ם לְלַמֵּ֣ד אֶתְכֶ֑ם לַעֲשׂ֣וֹת בָּאָ֔רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֥ר אַתֶּ֪ם עֹבְרִ֥ים שָׁ֖מָּה לְרִשְׁתָּֽהּ:(ב) לְמַ֨עַן תִּירָ֜א אֶת־יְקֹוָ֣ק אֱלֹהֶ֗יךָ לִ֠שְׁמֹר אֶת־כָּל־חֻקֹּתָ֣יו וּמִצְוֹתָיו֘ אֲשֶׁ֣ר אָנֹכִ֣י מְצַוֶּךָ֒ אַתָּה֙ וּבִנְךָ֣ וּבֶן־בִּנְךָ֔ כֹּ֖ל יְמֵ֣י חַיֶּ֑יךָ וּלְמַ֖עַן יַאֲרִכֻ֥ן יָמֶֽיךָ:

These two verses constitute a single sentence. Note that when Moshe is addressing the people here he first addresses them in the plural but later in the sentence addresses them in the singular. (Note, also, in the second half of verse two it says “...that I commanded you, you and your son and the son of your son...”, the second 'you' being repetitive.)

If you continue in the chapter, you will see the same pattern such as in v.4 and v.5 which is familiar to us as the beginning of the Sh'ma. Verses 10-12 are in the singular and then 13 is in the plural. You will see this switch over the next several verses, as well.

But perhaps the best example is the verse immediately following the question of the son:

דברים פרק ו (כא) וְאָמַרְתָּ֣ לְבִנְךָ֔ עֲבָדִ֪ים הָיִ֥ינוּ לְפַרְעֹ֖ה בְּמִצְרָ֑יִם וַיֹּצִיאֵ֧נוּ יְקֹוָ֪ק מִמִּצְרַ֖יִם בְּיָ֥ד חֲזָקָֽה:

Deuteronomy Chapter 6 (21) And you (singular) will say to your (singular) son, We were slaves in Egypt to Pharaoh and the Lord took us out of Egypt with a strong arm.

You might say that in this latter verse the response 'you' give is in the plural because you (singular) are telling the story of the nation as a whole. Yet, the verse could have just as easily said 'to your (plural) sons.' I understand that the 'we' could be understood collectively and not specifically about the person telling the answer. All I need to do, though, is to point out that it can be understood the way I have explained.

I think it is fair to say that the Torah, particularly in this context, was not trying to make singular and plural match. You can interpret each case where they don't match as having particular significance, but you can also say on the p'shat level that, at least in this context, they are interchangeable. This singular/plural issue appears many places throughout Tanach.

As far as the word צוה not having an object according to R. Hoffmann's reading: Actually, according to his reading, the object precedes the verb. The verse says:

דברים פרק ו (כ) כִּֽי־יִשְׁאָלְךָ֥ בִנְךָ֪ מָחָ֖ר לֵאמֹ֑ר מָ֣ה הָעֵדֹ֗ת וְהַֽחֻקִּים֙ וְהַמִּשְׁפָּטִ֔ים אֲשֶׁ֥ר צִוָּ֪ה יְקֹוָ֥ק אֱלֹהֵ֖ינוּ אֶתְכֶֽם:

Deuteronomy 6:20 When your son asks tomorrow saying: What are the testimonies and the statutes and the judgments that the Lord our God commanded you?

The 'testimonies, statutes and judgments' are the object of the verb 'commanded.' According to the more popular reading you are defending, the 'to you' at the end is an indirect object. Biblical grammar does not demand an indirect object. (I'm sure you'll correct me if I'm wrong about the direct and indirect object here—but I think I got it right). The Torah has many examples of things being commanded without an indirect object stated. For example:

שמות פרק טז (טז) זֶ֤ה הַדָּבָר֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר צִוָּ֣ה יְקֹוָ֔ק לִקְט֣וּ מִמֶּ֔נּוּ אִ֖ישׁ לְפִ֣י אָכְל֑וֹ עֹ֣מֶר לַגֻּלְגֹּ֗לֶת מִסְפַּר֙ נַפְשֹׁ֣תֵיכֶ֔ם אִ֪ישׁ לַאֲשֶׁ֥ר בְּאָהֳל֖וֹ תִּקָּֽחוּ:

Exodus Chapter 16(16) This is the thing that the Lord commanded: Gather from it each person according to what he eats, an omer to a person for as many of you as there are; each of you shall fetch for those in his tent.

The verse doesn't say 'This is the thing that the Lord commanded to you.' Thus, one can argue in our verse that the אתכם ('to you') at the end does not necessarily refer back to the verb צוה ('command').

As far as differentiating between the example of אתכם being separated by a long clause from the verb at the beginning of the sentence and לאמר being separated by a long clause at the beginning – I think this it is valid to point this out. I admit that I haven't yet found the word אתכם or a variant separated by such a clause elsewhere in Tanach (although I am still looking). However, I think, with all the other points I made, that it is not wrong to see אתכם as belonging to ישאלך.

I believe this is a reasonable defense of the interpretation of R. Hoffmann. I understand it feels strained, but I think it is valid. If I find more precise proof texts, I will share them.

Also, I will point out again that even according to the more simple reading of the verse, this son does not entirely exclude himself from the community. He still recognizes that the Lord is 'our God.' One can say that he doesn't realize that he, too, is commanded. Or, he might think that due to his age he is not yet commanded.

Thus, we have this interpretation: “And it will be when your son asks you (אתכם) tomorrow saying: What are the testimonies and the statutes and the judgments that the Lord our God commanded?”

After all this, though, I will bring in the next post a different point that does not upset the syntax of the verse.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

It's Not You...It's Us! - Four Sons Walked into Paradise part 7

As promised, I will show you two approaches of how the M'chilta came to understand that the Evil Son's question is taken to exclude himself from the community while the Wise Son's does not. This gets a bit technical so if you're not into grammatical and syntactical issues in Tanach, you may want to just gloss this over.

If you are into this stuff, though, read it and tell me what you think.

Let's first understand exactly what the problem is. The Torah itself tells the Children of Israel in various places that at some point in the future their children will ask them questions: Questions about the Exodus, about the ritual of the Passover, about observing the Torah altogether.

The M'chilta understood that each of the questions is not only distinct, but that each child asking a question is distinct from the others.

The M'chilta interprets the question of “What is this service to you?” (Exodus 12:26) as being asked by an Evil Son. How do they know he is evil? Precisely because he says 'to you' and not 'to us,' thereby excluding himself from the wider community.

However, we know that just prior in the midrash, the question of the Wise Son is “What are the testimonies and the statutes and the judgments that the Lord our God commanded you?” (Deuteronomy 6:20). So the Wise Son seems to exclude himself, as well. Why doesn't the M'chilta consider this son to be Evil and, in fact, considers him to be wise?

I am aware of the fact that the Septuagint, as we have it, has the verse of the Wise Son saying 'commanded us' at the end instead of 'commanded you.' This is interesting but of limited value. It is possible that the Septuagint was translating from an earlier version of the text which one may claim was the text in front of the M'chilta. It is also possible that the translator of the Septuagint changed the word in order to avoid the very problem we are dealing with or some other issue. Differences between the Septuagint and the Masoretic text (the text that Jews use for the Tanach) abound and are often not even as subtle as this.

Moreover, the Masoretic text was actively being redacted at the time of R. Yishmael and his school of learning (1st - 2nd century C.E.). The M'chilta we are studying is a product of the school of learning of R. Yishmael. While we don't know precisely the text they had in front of them, it is not unlikely that for Deuteronomy it is the same text we have now.

If it is true that the M'chilta had the text of Deuteronomy saying 'commanded you,' then our question is why did the M'chilta purposely change the text to read 'commanded us'? At first glance, it just feels like the midrash manipulates the text of the Torah to fit its scheme of distinguishing between the Wise and Evil sons.

However, it is possible that the M'chilta simply understood the implication of the verse saying 'commanded you' differently. As such, they changed it to read 'commanded us' in order to point to the proper intent of the text.

On what basis would the M'chilta change the reading in the Torah?

Here is the first of two possibilities, each based on careful readings of the verse. The verse in question is, again:

דברים פרק ו (כ) כִּֽי־יִשְׁאָלְךָ֥ בִנְךָ֪ מָחָ֖ר לֵאמֹ֑ר מָ֣ה הָעֵדֹ֗ת וְהַֽחֻקִּים֙ וְהַמִּשְׁפָּטִ֔ים אֲשֶׁ֥ר צִוָּ֪ה יְקֹוָ֥ק אֱלֹהֵ֖ינוּ אֶתְכֶֽם:

Deuteronomy 6:20 When your son asks tomorrow saying: What are the testimonies and the statutes and the judgments that the Lord our God commanded you?

The Haggadah Shleimah of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Kasher brings an explanation from Rabbi David Tzvi Hoffmann from the latter's book Beit Vaad L'chachamim. Rabbi Hoffmann points out that the entire verse (like nearly all of the book of Deuteronomy) is being spoken by Moshe to the Children of Israel. He says that the word אתכם (you) is not to be read as part of the question of the son; rather, it is Moshe finishing the beginning of the verse which is addressed to the Children of Israel.

In other words, don't read the verse in the order it is translated above. Rather, read it as saying: “When your son asks you (אתכם) tomorrow saying: What are the testimonies and the statutes and the judgments that the Lord our God commanded?”

Moshe assumed that the question would not be posed to him. After all, he knew he would not live much longer and would not see a future Passover celebration. He was saying that the question will be posed to you (speaking to the Children of Israel), when your children start asking questions.

You might say that's a nifty trick but it breaks up the sentence in a frightfully awkward fashion. Consider, though, that other verses in the Torah have similar syntax. You don't have to go further than the previous chapter:

דברים פרק ה (ה) אָ֠נֹכִי עֹמֵ֨ד בֵּין־יְקֹוָ֤ק וּבֵֽינֵיכֶם֙ בָּעֵ֣ת הַהִ֔וא לְהַגִּ֥יד לָכֶ֖ם אֶת־דְּבַ֣ר יְקֹוָ֑ק כִּ֤י יְרֵאתֶם֙ מִפְּנֵ֣י הָאֵ֔שׁ וְלֹֽא־עֲלִיתֶ֥ם בָּהָ֖ר לֵאמֹֽר:

Deuteronomy Chapter 5 (5) I (was) standing between the Lord and you at that time to tell you the word of the Lord, for you were frightened in the face of the fire and you didn't go up on the mount, saying:

Even though the word 'saying' is all the way at the end of sentence, it is really coming to finish the beginning part of the sentence. I added the comma between the word 'mount' and 'saying' in my translation in order to make sense of the syntax.

The verse effectively says “I (was) standing between the Lord and you at that time to tell you the word of the Lord saying:” The way the verse is written the part that says “for you were frightened in the face of the fire and you didn't go up on the mount” interrupts these two parts of the beginning of the sentence. It is coming to explain why Moshe stood between the people and the Lord. But the end of the verse brings us back to his original statement and finishes it off.

In our case, according to this comment of Rabbi Hoffmann, the M'chilta understood the syntax of the verse in question to be similarly broken up. The word אתכם, even though it appears at the end of the sentence, is actually part of the beginning of the sentence.

According to this approach, the M'chilta understood that the son mentioned in the verse was not excluding himself. He includes himself by speaking of 'the Lord our God.' The word אתכם (you) is changed to אותנו (us) as if to say that when Moshe delivered this sentence he said the question that your children will ask will be to 'you,' meaning our forefathers. But we are reading it now and so the question is directed to us.

That's the first approach. I will bring the other approach in my next post.

Shavua tov

Friday, August 8, 2014

And Now For Something Evil! - Four Sons Walk Into Paradise part 6

This post is dedicated to my newest granddaughter, רות (Rut-- pronounced like 'root'), daughter of Dorin and Ezra Bassel and sister to Zoharia Yam and Shir. May she be a blessing for all of us.

Although I hadn't planned the timing of this part of the series which deals with the Evil Son, I find it particularly apt given that right now in Israel we are confronted by Evil in the form of Hamas fighters. Jews in various parts of the world are further confronted by Evil in the form of mass demonstrations not only against Israel's actions in Gaza but against the existence of the State of Israel and the existence of Jews anywhere they may be. We are also dealing with certain Evils within our own society including hatred of Arabs and anyone seen as the 'enemy.' As I progress in this analysis, I will touch upon the meaning of Evil and some important questions surrounding it. Perhaps these insights will help us to deal with Evil in its various forms and help form a better world. 

NOTE: If you are joining this blog for the first time, you should read from the beginning of the series. As you finish each post, just click on "Newer Post" way down on the left side of the page.  

We now go from wisdom to evil. As I pointed out earlier, the various sons do not seem to have opposites; that is, we don't have a Wise Son and a Stupid Son (although in some versions a Stupid Son comes in place of the Tam—but let's leave that for now). Nonetheless, the Evil Son seems to directly contrast with the Wise Son.

What does the Evil Son ask that is so evil? Let's look at him in the Torah context:

שמות פרק יב (כו) וְהָיָ֕ה כִּֽי־יֹאמְר֥וּ אֲלֵיכֶ֖ם בְּנֵיכֶ֑ם מָ֪ה הָעֲבֹדָ֥ה הַזֹּ֖את לָכֶֽם:
(כז) וַאֲמַרְתֶּ֡ם זֶֽבַח־פֶּ֨סַח ה֜וּא לַֽיקֹוָ֗ק אֲשֶׁ֣ר פָּ֠סַח עַל־בָּתֵּ֤י בְנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵל֙ בְּמִצְרַ֔יִם בְּנָגְפּ֥וֹ אֶת־מִצְרַ֖יִם וְאֶת־בָּתֵּ֣ינוּ הִצִּ֑יל וַיִּקֹּ֥ד הָעָ֖ם וַיִּֽשְׁתַּחֲוֽוּ:

Exodus Chapter 12 (26) And it will be that when your sons say to you, “What is this service to you?” (27) And you will say, “It is the Passover sacrifice for the Lord who passed over (or: took mercy) on the houses of the Children of Israel in Egypt in his smiting of Egypt and he saved our houses.” And the people lowered their foreheads and bowed.

These two verses come in the wider context of the mitzvot regarding the first Passover as well as Passover as it is to be celebrated in the generations following. As I mentioned, God already gives Moshe a central reason for the plagues: To tell future generations about them (v. Exodus 10:2).

Thus, when we come to these verses, our simple understanding is that the Torah is telling us what to expect from any of our children when they see the extraordinary preparations for Passover and the celebration itself. The answer we are to give (v. 27) fits in perfectly with this idea. We say that we do the service of Passover in reference to how God saved us in Egypt while He carried out the plagues against the Egyptians.

So how does the M'chilta come to see this as the question of the Evil Son and not just of any given child?

First, let's point out some significant differences between the wording of this verse and the verse of the Wise Son.

Here, again, is the Wise Son's question:

דברים פרק ו (כ) כִּֽי־יִשְׁאָלְךָ֥ בִנְךָ֪ מָחָ֖ר לֵאמֹ֑ר מָ֣ה הָעֵדֹ֗ת וְהַֽחֻקִּים֙ וְהַמִּשְׁפָּטִ֔ים אֲשֶׁ֥ר צִוָּ֪ה יְקֹוָ֥ק אֱלֹהֵ֖ינוּ אֶתְכֶֽם:

Deuteronomy 6:20 When your son asks tomorrow saying: What are the testimonies and the statutes and the judgments that the Lord our God commanded you?

Note that the Wise Son asks a question; the language of the verse specifies that he will ask. Asking implies genuine curiosity, interest and a willingness to learn.

In our verse here in Exodus 12, the question is not asked-- it is said. In other words, it's not really a question on the part of this son – it is a declaration, a kind of rhetorical question. The implication is that the one saying it is not really looking for an answer. He is looking to make a statement.

Another difference is that only one person asks the Wise Son's question (the verse says 'your son' in the singular) whereas the Evil Son's question/statement is made by many ('your sons' in the plural). I will deal in a later post with this aspect of plurality.

We also see that the question/statement here is broad and simple, if not simplistic: What is this service to you? By contrast, the Wise Son included in his question the notion that the service is subdivided into various categories of mitzvah (testimonies, statutes, judgments).

The M'chilta emphasizes yet another point. The midrash focuses on the word לכם (lachem – to you) and understands that by using this term, this son has excluded himself from the community. Here is the M'chilta:

רשע מה הוא אומר מה העבודה הזאת לכם לכם ולא לו ולפי שהוציא את עצמו מן הכלל וכפר בעיקר אף אתה הקהה את שיניו ואמור לו בעבור זה עשה ה' לי בצאתי ממצרים (שמות יג ח) לי ולא לך אלו היית שם לא היית נגאל.

The Evil, what does he say? “What is this service to you?” To you and not to him. And since he removed himself from the community and denied the essence, so you break his power (literally 'blunt his teeth') and say to him 'because of this the Lord did for me in my going out of Egypt (Exodus 13:8).' For me and not for you; had you been there you would not have been redeemed.

Because this son has used language which excludes himself, we also exclude him. The question/declaration tells us that he does not want any part of what he is witnessing in the form of the Passover practice.

What is evil about the Evil Son? Mainly that he excludes himself from the tribe. By doing so, he has 'denied the essence' (כפר בעיקר). The essence, then, must be about the unity of the tribe and one who removes himself from the tribe is, perforce, evil.

Thus, the M'chilta's answer is strikingly different than the Torah's answer. Whereas the Torah's answer points to a general summary of how God protected and saved us in the going out from Egypt, the M'chilta's answer is a strong rebuke to this son.

The Torah's answer tells us how to respond by helping the son to see this service in the scope of his heritage. The M'chilta's answer responds by effectively excluding the Evil Son from the same heritage.

Why is belonging to the community 'the essence,' the main thing? Why is a person who excludes himself from the community not worthy of redemption? We'll look at these questions in a later post.

My next post, though, will explain why we interpret the Evil Son's use of the term 'you' as exclusionary while we don't when it is used by the Wise Son. 

Feel free to show your support by sharing this link, contributing using the PayPal button on the right or become an ongoing Patron on my Patreon page

Shabbat shalom from Jerusalem  

Friday, July 11, 2014

The New Switcheroo? -- Four Sons Walked into Paradise part 5

I am posting this on a day when Israel is being bombarded by rocket fire. Millions of people, Jews, Arabs, Druze and others, are living in striking distance. Today we heard a siren here in Jerusalem and soon heard several loud booms. Thank God for our army and for Iron Dome which intercepted the missiles that could have struck people and buildings.

In my small way, I present you with this learning in an effort to bring more light and more peace into our troubled world.


To see the previous posts look here, here, here and then here and even here. Whew! I have to figure out a better way of doing that.


NEWS FLASH: I offer these writings free of charge and intend to always do so. This current series will continue, be'H, for many dozens of postings. Ultimately, I hope to turn it into a book.

If you would like to show your support, donations are always welcome. The PayPal button on the right is at your disposal.

If you simply love what I do and want to show enduring enthusiasm, please visit my new Patreon page. Patreon allows you to make an ongoing donation to my efforts, kind of like a subscription, if you will. My suggested amount is $18/month. What? $18/month I hear you say? Don't worry, you can donate as little as a $1/month via the site. Just click on the Become A Patron button and on the following page you can choose how much to donate.

The $18/month donors and higher can have a post dedicated in honor or in memory of a loved one.

You can also cancel your support at any time.

Larger, tax deductible donations are also possible. Please contact me privately at for details.

If you would love to donate but can't do that now, the best way you can support this blog is by sharing the links with friends and interested parties.

And, as always, your comments are a great source of support.

Thank you


And now, back to our story, already in progress....

The New Switcheroo?

Maybe, just maybe, the M'chilta has the Wise Son asking the same question as the Torah, just in a different way to make it fit more easily at the seder table. 
How so?

Chazal understood that learning halacha in detail is perhaps the single most important avenue open to us to connect to the Divine.

Here is a telling quote from the Talmud:

תלמוד בבלי מסכת ברכות דף ח עמוד א אמר רבי חייא בר אמי משמיה דעולא: מיום שחרב בית המקדש אין לו להקדוש ברוך הוא בעולמו אלא ארבע אמות של הלכה בלבד.

Babylonian Talmud B'rachot 8a: R. Chiyya bar Ami said in the name of Ula: From the day the Temple was destroyed, the Holy One Blessed Be He has only four cubits of halacha in His world.

The statement is a bit cryptic so let me tell you what I think it means.

While the Temple in Jerusalem still stood, the sh'china, the Divine Presence, was concentrated there. I can't tell you precisely what that means because, unfortunately, I wasn't there (or at least I can't remember...). But I understand that, in some important way, the experience and sense of the Divine was most strongly felt in the Temple. This is what God indicated when giving the command to build the original Tabernacle, the forerunner to the Temple, when he said:

שמות פרק כה (ח) וְעָ֥שׂוּ לִ֖י מִקְדָּ֑שׁ וְשָׁכַנְתִּ֖י בְּתוֹכָֽם:

Exodus 25 (8): And make for me a Temple and I will dwell among them.

The Temple served as a point in the world where the sh'china could be most easily and obviously accessed. Once it was destroyed, that connection point was suddenly gone.

Through the wisdom and foresight of Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai in particular, the head of the Sanhedrin at the time of the destruction of the second Temple, certain deliberate changes in Jewish practice were established. The Temple could no longer be the singular avenue for accessing the Divine in some direct way. Prayer, learning and doing good deeds were pushed to the fore.

Learning the Torah which God gave us serves as the basis for everything else. All practice derives from the mitzvot of the Torah. Practical observance is expressed in halacha.

Halacha per se refers to Jewish law. As I discussed earlier, halacha and aggadah are inseparable. The study of halacha is, perforce, the study of all the Torah.

Another technical point: The 'four cubits' mentioned above is shorthand for a halachic notion defining a private domain. An area that is four cubits by four cubits defines halachic 'personal space.' This notion has several applications in halacha, for Shabbat, for Sukkah and others. I won't get into those details now. For the purpose of our discussion, understand that the term is used here metaphorically.

It is a way of saying that the sh'china now dwells not in the geographical space of the Temple; God's 'personal space' is now anywhere that halacha is learned.

Another example of this thinking is found in Chazal:

תלמוד בבלי מסכת יומא דף כח עמוד ב אמר רב: קיים אברהם אבינו כל התורה כולה, שנאמר עקב אשר שמע אברהם בקלי וגו'...[רבא] ואיתימא רב אשי: קיים אברהם אבינו אפילו עירובי תבשילין, שנאמר תורתי - אחת תורה שבכתב ואחת תורה שבעל פה.

Babylonian Talmud Yoma 28b: Rav said: Our father Abraham fulfilled the entire Torah as it says: that Abraham listened to My voice and kept My charge: My commandments, My statutes and my teachings (literally: My Torahs) (Genesis 26:5). Rava, or if you will say, Rav Ashi (said): Abraham fulfilled even (the rabbinic mitzvah of) eruvei tavshilin, as it says: My Torahs-- both the written Torah and the oral Torah.

The Talmud here sees in this verse from Genesis a hint to the notion that Abraham kept the entire Torah, including rabbinic enactments. Very impressive considering that God doesn't give the Torah to the Israelites until many generations later when they stand at Sinai!

How did Abraham know all of the Torah in order to fulfill it?

מדרש ילמדנו (מאן) ילקוט תלמוד תורה - בראשית אות פט (לבר' י"ח, י"ט). כי ידעתיו למען אשר יצוה, מהיכן למד אברהם את התורה, רשב"י אומר נעשו כליותיו כשני כדין של מים והיו נובעים תורה, שנ' אף לילות יסרוני כליותי (תה' ט"ז, ז'). ר' לוי אמר מעצמו למד את התורה, שנ' מדרכיו ישבע סוג לב וגו' (מש' י"ד, י"ד). הה"ד כי ידעתיו למען אשר יצוה.

Midrash Y'lamdenu – Genesis 89 (on Genesis 18:19) – “For I know of him in order that he will command...”From where did Abraham learn the Torah? R. Shimon bar Yochai says: His kidneys became as two pitchers of water and they flowed with Torah, as it says...... R. Levi says: He learned Torah by himself, as it says....(I deliberately left out the prooftexts in this translation in order not to digress)

According to R. Shimon bar Yochai, God gave Abraham the Torah directly. This approach tells us that God saw in Abraham one who was worthy to receive His teachings and so he implanted them within Abraham.

According to R. Levi, Abraham figured out the Torah himself. This fits into other midrashic narratives that Abraham determined by himself that there must be one God and no other. To comprehend God on that level at a time when no one else did was the equivalent, in the eyes of Chazal, of determining the entire Torah on one's own. Just as logic and spirit dictate that there is One God, logic and spirit would dictate His Torah, His Way, His Halacha.

This last point may seem a stretch and particularly the notion that Abraham must have determined even rabbinic laws by himself!

I believe that Chazal were not interested in proving that Abraham literally knew and kept the entire Torah as we know it. Rather, for Chazal, learning and fulfilling Torah, especially in the wake of the destruction of the Temple and cessation of the rites of the Temple, was, and is, the best way to connect with the Divine.

Abraham, according to Chazal, sought out God. Learning halacha in all its permutations serves here as a metaphor for seeking to intimately know the Divine. Halacha was the currency of Chazal in their relationship to the Divine.

Our Wise Son is showing himself to be like Abraham. He is seeking to know and comprehend the Divine as manifested in His Torah. That is the Wise Son's question in the Torah.

It is also the Wise Son's question in the M'chilta.

When he asks at the seder about all of the mitzvot that are being carried out in his presence, he is trying to understand not just the mechanical way to fulfill these halachot; he wants to understand their nature and their connection to the Divine.

When we answer him with the halachot of Passover, we are giving him, in a post Temple era, the key to how he may relate to the Divine via His Torah. On this night in particular, we will focus on the laws of Passover. But the laws of Passover serve as the key to the relationship between God and Israel. That is what we learned from the answer given in the Torah.

The Tosefta brings us an illustration:

תוספתא מסכת פסחים (ליברמן) פרק י הלכה יא חייב אדם לעסוק בהלכות הפסח כל הלילה אפלו בינו לבין בנו אפלו בינו לבין עצמו אפלו בינו לבין תלמידו הלכה יב מעשה ברבן גמליאל וזקנים שהיו מסובין בבית ביתוס בן זונין בלוד והיו עסוקין בהלכות הפסח כל הלילה עד קרות הגבר

Tosefta Tractate P'sachim 10 (11) A person must engage himself in the halachot of the Passover the entire night (of the seder), even between himself and his son and even by himself and even between himself and his students. (12) It happened, in fact, that Rabban Gamliel and the Sages were dining at the house of Baitus ben Zunin in Lod and they engaged themselves in learning the halachot of the Passover the entire night until cock's crow.

The story here is parallel to the story brought in the Haggadah telling us of how the sages stayed up all night speaking about the exodus from Egypt. As we understand from the Torah's reply to the Wise Son, the exodus is the basis for why we learn and observe the entire Torah.

Rabban Gamliel and his fellow scholars fulfilled the same goal by discussing the halachot of Passover.

Learning the halachot of Passover is considered a fulfillment of speaking about the going out of Egypt. Halacha is the best connection for us to the Divine.

Thus, the M'chilta's answer to the Wise Son is not so very different than the Torah's, after all. We are not simply listing the halachot of Passover to him; by teaching him these halachot, we are giving him the best way to understand the totality of the mitzvot which have their core with the exodus from Egypt.

So what is the wisdom we associate with the Wise Son? It is not simply intellectual prowess.

Wisdom is understanding one's connection to the community, to its rites and customs and how those rites and customs (halachot) connect us to the Divine, a connection which is based for us on the notion that God took us out of Egypt. Halacha defines this connection, gives it structure and boundaries and ultimately gives each of us our center.

These qualities of wisdom will help us to understand the story of the Four Who Walked into Paradise later.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

The Switcheroo - Four Sons Walk into Paradise part 4

This post is dedicated in honor of my third grandchild, a girl who just yesterday received her name, Oriah Lowinger, to my daughter Nitza and her husband Yishai. Her name means Divine Light and may she indeed bring more Divine Light into our world.

I also dedicate this post to the memory of Gilad, Naftali and Eyal. May their memory be a blessing to us all.

At this juncture of personal happiness, community mourning and general uncertainty, I do what Jews have always done: When the going gets tough, the Jews pray and learn. It is uncannily appropriate in nearly all situations. We also do other things to protect ourselves, but they are not immediately pertinent to this blog.

If you're joining me for the first time or just happened into the middle of this series, see the earlier posts here, here, here and even here. Reading my playful introduction to dealing with midrashic text may help you get into the swing of things.

The Old Switcheroo

So what happens to our Wise Son when we sit him down at the seder table? We change the answer from the answer given in the Torah!

But why? After all, we showed in the previous post that the answer from the Torah contains the very essence of the haggadah, of talking about the going out of Egypt, in perhaps its widest sense. Why not stick with the original even at the seder?

Let's look more closely at the exchange as given in the M'chilta and in the Haggadah:

חכם מה הוא אומר מה העדות והחוקים והמשפטים אשר צוה ה' אלהינו אותנו אף אתה פתח לו בהלכות הפסח אין מפטירין אחר הפסח אפיקומן.

The Wise, what does he say? ”What are the testimonies and the statutes and the judgments that the Lord our God commanded us?” So you should open to him with the laws of the Passover: We don't finish off after the Passover (sacrifice) with dessert.

In the previous post, we saw how Chazal sees the the answer to the Wise Son as the lead in to bring him to the seder table; that is, Chazal place him and all the sons at the scene of Passover night, regardless of how their questions show up in the Torah.

Once he is at the seder table, his question is transformed. It would seem he is no longer asking about the entire Torah but rather about what he sees in front of him at the table and what he observed in preparation for this grand meal.

He saw the house being cleaned of chametz (leavened products) and even searching the house with a candle the night before for any stray pieces of bread or cake that might have been missed. He saw the slaughtering of a lamb or a goat earlier in the day and then roasting it in addition to other sacrifices that are brought at holiday times at the Temple. Now he sees that the normal order of the holiday meal has been changed. Kiddush, the special blessing over the wine for the holiday, has been recited and the wine drunk, but they are still not eating the meal! He sees no bread at the table, only matzah, along with bitter herbs and roasted meat only. He sees everyone reclining at the meal like the elite do.

In short, he sees a lot of funny stuff. He's probably also hungry.

Now when he asks 'What are the testimonies and the statutes and the judgments, etc.' his question is appropriate to the strange rituals unfolding before him. He perceives that the various rituals being performed are actually different types of mitzvot. 
In other words, he is asking specifically to know what these mitzvot are. Whereas the Torah answer is a discussion of the nature of the mitzvot he inquires of, here the M'chilta seems to understand the question to be what precisely are the mitzvot being done right now on Passover. We answer him by listing all of the halachot (laws) about the holiday up to the last halacha of the night, namely that we don't eat anything else after we have finished partaking of the paschal sacrifice. 
I will write about the alternative explanations of this particular halacha in a different post so as not to digress right now.

So the M'chilta changed the answer to fit at the seder table. It would seem the question is substantially different than that of the Torah. Whereas the Torah had the Wise Son asking about the nature of all the mitzvot, the M'chilta has him asking for a list of specific halachot
But can the M'chilta get away with that--changing the original intent of the Torah itself? 

Maybe, just maybe, the M'chilta didn't really change the question in the way you thought. We'll pick up on that very soon!