Thursday, February 09, 2006

Beshalah (Torah)

The Splitting of the Sea

This week’s portion continues many of the motifs discussed in Va’era and Bo: the presence of clear, visible miracles; the ambivalent and problematic figure of Pharaoh.

This Shabbat is also known as Shabbat Shirah, “the Sabbath of The Song,” referring to the “Song” par excellence, in Jewish and biblical thought: the Song of the Sea, recited by the entire people at the great moment of their redemption. (Due to exigencies of both time and space, I will return to this subject, b”n, in my pages for the Seventh Day of Passover).

A brief comment on the function of the miraculous, which was reflected in the splitting of the sea, and to which the Song was a response. The belief in miracles, the notion that the world contains trans-natural moments, is an essential component of religious faith. Even Maimonides, the arch-rationalist, affirms the belief in the resurrection of the dead in his Essay on Resurrection. To greatly simplify his argument there: in order to believe in the Creation, one need be able, in principle, to accept the possibility of even the most outrageous miracles, because Creation itself is ultimately non-natural: an irruption of the Divine will into the static and inert world of Nature. Other rishonim, such as the author of Sefer ha-Hinukh and Ramban, hammer time and again on the theme of beri’at haolam, of the Creation, as the ultimate source of faith. (Of course, this doesn’t mean that a religious person should have unlimited credulousness. The Jewish world today is filled with pious charlatans laying claim to miraculous power. I should hope that there’s no need to point out that belief in God and belief in, say, Rav Kaduri or Eleazar Abu-Hatzeira, are not synonymous. )


The manna which fell in the desert is seen, on the one hand, as emblematic of the Edenic existence enjoyed by the Israelites in the desert. There was a kind of return to the womb or, better, a protected, womb-like existence, like a small infant. Hasidic and Kabbalistic texts talk of the “manna eaters” as a generation with a certain child-like, unqualified confidence in God. Certainly, the longing for a “Golden Age” is a perennial one in almost all human cultures. From this perspective, perhaps the chapter of the manna may be read as affirming this type of childlike faith, or longing to the Return to Eden, as a valid moment or pole within the spectrum of religious emotions.

On the other hand, there is also another, far more problematic aspect. The manna is described, from the very outset, as a test of the people: “that I might test them, while they walk in my Torah or not” (16:4). Does this test refer to the Sabbath restrictions on gathering the manna, which follow immediately thereafter; to a more general attitude of trust, of belief that God will provide their needs, without the constant murmuring, bitching and disbelief which seem to generally characterize their relation to God; or to the specific regulations governing the manna, such as that it is to be fully consumed in the same day, as a sign of trust that more will come on the morrow, and not leaving it to become wormy (as did some people, who thereby aroused Moses’ ire)? In any event, the motif of the people’s distrust runs from the very beginning of Moses’ mission (5:20-23), through this chapter, as well as in episode after episode in the Book of Numbers. (More on that later)

The Secret of the Sabbath Eve

About two and a half years ago, shortly after my remarriage, I moved with my new wife Randy to the German Colony of Jerusalem, where I began to daven (worship) regularly on Friday nights and weekday mornings at Congregation Ezrat Yisrael, better known as the “Hildesheimer Street shul.” This synagogue, housed in an unpretentious building on a quiet side street, houses a congregation founded over fifty years ago, in the early days of the State of Israel, mostly by Polish and Romanian immigrants. The shul belongs to that rather large group of congregations that might be described as “generically Hasidic”: davening Nusah Sefarad, with various Hasidic customs, but not affiliated with a particular Hasidic rebbe, And “modern” in outook. Today, it is a warm, interesting community, with more than its share of learned people, professors of Judaic studies, etc.

In any event, as I began to daven there regularly on weekday mornings, I noticed a strange custom, one I’d never observed anywhere else: they consistently refrained from reciting Tahanun (the penitential prayers) on Friday mornings. What was the source of this unusual and somewhat unorthodox custom? Nobody—not the elders of the congregation, nor the rabbi, Rav Moshe Klirs, who had grown up in the community, nor even Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, a noted “world-class” author and Jew of truly encyclopedic knowledge, could provide me with a definitive answer.

I posed this problem to an internet discussion group in which I participate, asking two questions: Had anyone encountered a similar custom elsewhere in the world? And, what might be the sources and roots of this custom? In due course, my query was posted, and I received the following answers (which I summarize here, omitting many details):

The minhag is practiced in at least two other shuls in the world, both in London: the Sassover shteibel, and the Vizhnitzer “Beit Yissachar Dov”—but my interlocutor advised me that this minhag seems to stem, not from Vizhnitz, but from Zhidachov (a Hassidic dynasty founded by a disciple of Zvi Elimelekh of Dynow, the B’nai Yissachar). Another responded added that the practice is also known in Satmar.

As for the reason for this the custom: Ravi Shahar, quoting Minhag Yisrael Torah, cited the Likkutei Maharich (source of Zhidatchover practice) compares Erev Shabbat to Erev Yomtov, when we never say Tahanun. The Satmar Rov, following his teacher the Yeitev Lev, did not say Tahanun on Friday, because of an analogy drawn between Shabbat and Rosh ha-Shanah (!). Most interestingly, the Mahzor Roma, a much earlier, indeed ancient source, writes that it is customary not to say Tahanun on Friday because people need to finish prayers quickly in order to have adequate time to prepare for Shabbat.

Another correspondent, Isaiah Cox of London, discussed the custom in light of the well-known practice of many Hasidim to omit Tahanun on every virtually every possible occasions,: on the Yahrzeit (anniversary of death) of a rebbe; when reciting Minhah after sundown, as many do regularly; and on various and sundry other minor festive days. He saw this as related to a halakhic dispute between the Tur and Shulhan Arukh as to whether Tahanun is obligatory or in some sense optional; the Tur, at O. H. 131, cites Natronai Gaon as saying that Tahanun is “reshut.” He relates this to the nature of the prayer: in the classical Ashkenazic line, it is a “a nice, but not ‘dangerous’ prayer—i.e., tame”—consisting of one of the psalms and Shomer yisrael. In the Sephardic and Hasidic tradition, however, Tahanun also includes Vidui—Confession of Sins; and the Thirteen Qualities of Divine mercy. This makes it a much heavier, spiritual “risky” and demanding prayer. Reb Zvi Elimelech of Dynow, along with other Hasidic Rebbes, doubted whether Vidui could be said properly every morning, adding that an unthinking, automatic recitation of Vidui is in itself a transgression! Taking this criticism to heart, they took various opportunities to omit Tahanun on one pretext or another—the Eve of the Shabbat being a natural opportunity to do so.

Another, related answer, starts from the opposite direction: that certain Rebbes, being incapable of halfhearted confessions, took the obligation of Vidui very seriously indeed, and as a result were heartbroken. As it is inappropriate to enter Shabbat in a melancholy frame of mind, it was decided to eliminate Tahanun on Friday mornings.

Thus far my internet friends. I would add that I know of another fundamental difference in the conception of Tahanun, or Nefilat Apayim, as expressed in the straightforward halakhic approach, reflected in the Ashkenazic tradition, and the Kabbalistic conception, as reflected in the practice of the Sephardim and some Hasidim. The halakhic view sees Tahanun fundamentally as unstructured, personal petitional prayers recited in a (modified) falling posture, expressive perhaps of a state of dependency and neediness (see Rambam, Tefilah; and note the illuminating story about R. Eleazar’s use of Tahanun in Baba Metzia 59b). The Kabbalistic view, however, sees Tahanun as “mesirat nefesh”—readiness to sacrifice ones soul, ones very life, to God: a kind of symbolic acting out of dying for Kiddush ha-Shem (Sanctification of the Divine Name). This difference is reflected in the choice of psalm that forms the core of Tahanun. Ashkenazim use Psalm 6, a request that God not rebuke or chasten one, but show His mercy, declaring to God ones troubles, moaning and crying oneself to sleep. The Sephardic tradition uses Psalm 25, which begins with the verse, “To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul.” I suspect that it is this, more than the recitation of Vidui, that forms the source of the sense of “danger” associated with Tahanun—which, incidentally, is expressed in the strict rule against reciting Tahanun at night, conceived of as a time of “judgment”

My own, admittedly intuitive, sense of the roots of this custom is that the core of the minhag comes from two interrelated ideas: one, that Shabbat is the greatest, holiest day in Jewish experience, and as such is indeed fully comparable to Yom Tov—notwithstanding its greater frequency and hence inevitable sense of familiarity and “ordinariness.” Hassidic thought, in particular, celebrates Shabbat as a very sublime day, the focus of the Jew’s spiritual life. Thus, almost every page of the Sefat Emet (the major text of late 19th century Gur Hasidism) celebrates the Shabbat as a day of unity, of spiritual revelation—and also, as somehow focusing, concentrating and concretizing the spiritual insights gained during the spiritual work of prayer and Torah undertaken during the six days of the week. Second, that the Eve of Shabbat is, in its essence, an integral part of Shabbat, and hence carries numerous halakhot and so on that mark it is as devoted to preparation for Shabbat.

There are various Rabbinic edicts applying to Fridays whose aim is to avoid possible desecration of the Shabbat: not to travel or embark on a lengthy journey on Erev Shabbat; not to commence certain kinds of labor on Erev Shabbat (at least from mid-day); not to engage in elaborate feasting on Erev Shabbat (certainly not from mid-day; but even during the morning hours only when absolutely required, such as at a circumcision or when Purim falls on Friday). Various other arrangements related to the timing of Shabbat include the ancient practice of Thursday as market day; washing clothing on Thursday; distribution of weekly stipends to the indigent on Friday, so as to provide for their Shabbat needs; etc. The obligation of kavod Shabbat, as described by Maimonides (Hilkhot Shabbat 30.2-6) all relate to various preparatory acts performed on the Eve of Shabbat: washing ones face, hands and feet; wearing fresh, festive clothes; laying a cloth on the table; lighting candles (which is a full-fledged mitzvah in its own right); and “going out to greet the Shabbat.” The Talmud (Shabbat 119a) relates that various Sages used to personally engage themselves in various concrete preparations for Shabbat, notwithstanding the seemingly “undignified” character of these manual labors: chopping wood, marketing, making wicks for the candles, salting the fish or meat; etc. While some of these activities are more geared to the afternoon hours, some of them certainly may belong to the entire day; in all events, it seems quite clear that the halakhic quality (halut) of “Erev Shabbat” definitely applies to the day as a whole.

What has all this to do with our portion, Parshat Beshalah? The concept of Erev Shabbat is inherent in the account of the manna: the manna came down each of the six days of the week, with a double quantity on Friday; but on the Sabbath it did not come, so that people would not go into the field to gather it. Indeed, Rashi, in his comment on the first presentation of the Shabbat, in Genesis 2:3, alludes to this rhythm of Erev Shabbat and Shabbat: “’And God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it.’ He blessed it by bringing down a double portion of manna on Friday. He sanctified it by not bringing the manna.” Blessing is equated with the Shabbat as a day of material abundance and pleasure; sanctity, with Shabbat as a day set apart, one of proscriptions and limitations. Thus, Friday as a day of preparation for Shabbat has spiritual significance in its own right. Of course, there was a different character to this polarity in the desert: then, we are told, the people lived in an Edenic world of manifest miracles; today, Erev Shabbat is a day in which we must harness our own energy and labor to make the combination of holiness and earthly blessing that is the Jewish Shabbat happen. As the Sages put it, “He who does not trouble himself on the Eve of Shabbat, will not eat on Shabbat.” But in both cases the bipolar rhythm of Eve of Sabbath and Sabbath is much the same. It is this insight, I believe, that underlies this puzzling, quintessentially Hasidic custom that I found at the Hildesheimer Street shul.

Tu Bishvat

Tu Bi’shvat, which almost always falls on or close to this Shabbat, is among the best loved, most pleasant and cheery Jewish holidays. In fact, it is halakhically a very minor date indeed, with no prescribed ceremonies. Its origins are in the Mishnah, where it serves as an agricultural date for the “New Year of Trees.” The phrase is used there in a technical, halakhic sense—as a cut-off date for planting, in terms of determining the age of tree for purposes of “orlah,” etc.

Later, in 16th century Safed, the focus moved to the fruits of the trees. A mystical haggadah for Tu Bish’vat was written in the circle of the Ari , Pri Etz Hadar, providing a setting for the ritualized eating of thirty different species of fruits (ten each of those with shells, those with pits, and those with neither, representing different degrees of holiness and “kelippah” waste matter) and four cups of wine (moving from white, to red intermixed with white, to pure red wine) accompanied by passages from the Zohar and blessings. With the emergence of Zionism, the day acquired yet another meaning: renewal of connection to the Land, symbolized by mass planting of trees. Today, the old Seder Kabbalistic Seder for Tu Bishvat is enjoying a new lease on life, fed by equal measures of neo-Kabbalah, New Age, and motifs of ecological return to nature.

A thought on the connection of Tu Bishvat to Parshat ha-Man, the chapter concerning the manna. -- There is something Edenic about fruit, like the manna itself: they seem like the most perfect, concentrated form of sustenance. (viz. Diamond & Diamond’s Fit for Life diet). Indeed, while there is no definite identification of either the fruit of the tree of knowledge or of manna, we can imagine the two as closely related, and both related to fruit.

For the Chipman family, Tu Bishvat has an additional, personal meaning: It is the Yahrzeit of our paternal grandfather, ha-Rav ha-Matmid Simha Eliyahu Ciepkiewicz. To me, he represents, of our two Rabbinic grandfathers, one pole or aspect of the rabbinate: unlike those who were noted preachers of Torah, who were involved in public communal life, his whole being was concentrated on love and devotion to Torah, on meticulous personal piety, on being a repository of Torah knowledge. He spent all his days “behind the shtender”—from his early years in Novograd and Lomzha, through his days in the great Torah centers of Kovna, Vilna, Grodno, and Volozhin, and later, in America, as rabbi of a small shul in the Bronx with a handful of congregants. His was a life of Hatmadah, constant learning, Torah learning as the essence of Jewish life. According to the story (told in the capsule biography in Toldot Anshei Shem) he died from a stroke suffered while in the middle of learning, on Tu Bishvat 1948.

Viewing him from the distance of over half a century, and as a figure I only know from legend, I can see something tragic to his figure, and of that generation. The great loneliness of the old-time talmidei hakhamim, who came to an America that did not appreciate them and their values, and were perhaps strangers even to their own families, who were busy becoming Americans. He ended up unwillingly in the “traifene medinah,” living out his life no doubt dreaming of the society of the Lithuanian gedolim—Rav Raphael of Volzhin and others—whom he knew in his youth. In addition to his cultural displacement, there are all indications that he was an extremely shy and retiring individual, which no doubt exacerbated his isolation. Today, for better or worse, a certain part of America welcomes such types, and many an American boy may dress the part and even affect the accent. But in those days, it was a lonely, sad existence.

Is God “a Man of War”? or, Death of a Cold Warrior (2004)

(The substance of the following essay was written nearly half a year ago, originally prompted by two events: a death and a book. I present it now, as a gloss on the above verse in this week’s Torah portion.)

Just a few days before the death of Jewish philosopher Emil Fackenheim (see HY IV: Issru Hag), another Central European Jewish refugee who made a new life for himself in America and left a significant mark on its public life also died: Edward Teller, father of the hydrogen bomb. Teller, who was 95 at his death, is considered by many to be one of the figures most responsible for the armaments race and much of the concept underlying the Cold War.

Perhaps more than any other man, he exemplified the belief that overwhelming military power—power that could in fact never be used without destroying civilization, the infamous “balance of terror”—was necessary to protect the “Free World” and the West. A brilliant theoretical physicist, he was responsible for developing many of the scientific concepts underlying the American thermo-nuclear weapons program (H-bomb) and for pushing its development as a political agenda, at a time when many of those who had worked with him on the “A-Bomb” in the Manhattan Project turned in revulsion, following Hiroshima, from such weapons of mass destructions. He was the one who “let the genie out of the bottle” and was instrumental in the direction taken by the Cold War; he used his influence in high-ranking political circles to fan the flames of the US-Soviet Union arms race. He also gained no little notoriety for his role, in the spirit of the McCarthy witchhunts of those days, in denouncing Dr. Robert Oppenheimer as a “Red,” thereby effectively ruining the career of his erstwhile boss. His persona was satirized in the figure of Dr. Strangelove, the paranoiac, diabolical scientist of the Stanley Kubrick-Peter Sellers film of that title.

What is the relevance of Teller’s death to a forum such as this, devoted to interpretations of and insights into the Torah? Already at Parshat Shoftim I had hoped to write something on the subject of war and peace—a subject which, as the Intifada enters its fourth year with no end in sight, has come to increasingly dominate our lives. Teller’s death, and the thoughts they engender about the course of his life, are a reminder of the grim reality under which my generation grew up. Traditionally, the position of “Judaism” on matters of war and peace is neither one of simple pacifism nor of unthinking militarism. On the one hand, there is a great longing and striving for peace, for universal harmony; but this is coupled with the hard-nosed acknowledgment that in order to survive in the jungle, so to speak, one sometimes needs to behave like an animal. The Torah portion for Shoftim, as mentioned, discusses the subject of the making of war and, by implication, the values of peace, at some length (see Deut 20:1-20; 21:10-14). War seems to be accepted as a natural part of life—unfortunate, perhaps, but necessary, that must be pursued under certain times and circumstances. On the other hand, every school child knows the prophetic vision of “they shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks, nation shall not lift up sword against nation, nor learn war anymore” (Isa 2:2-4; parallel in Micah 4:1-5), that serves as a kind of motto for the United Nations.

The problem that disturbs me is that in our day (thanks in no small measure to such men as Teller) the meaning of war has changed in essential ways. It is no exaggeration to say that the present age is one of great danger for the future of human civilization itself. The stakes involved in warfare, with modern weapons technology, have changed drastically—not only because of atomic weapons, but also due to chemical and biological weaponry capable of decimating whole populations. For a few short years, after the disbanding of the Soviet Union and the emergence of a civilian-oriented leadership in the United States, these fears were assuaged somewhat. But around the turn of the millennium—with the terrorist attack on the US of 11 September 2001, with the emergence, both of a fanatic, militant Islamism and of a jingoistic, war-minded administration in the US, and with the Intifada El-Aksa in Israel—these fears and anxieties have only been renewed, and with greater force. One cannot avoid the feeling that we have entered into a new and frightening era in world history. Can mankind survive the 21st century? Nay, shall it even survive the next decade or two?

All this returns us to the essence of the dilemma. On the one hand, there is a need for world-wide change in thinking—and soon. Even a superficial look at our situation seems to lead to the inevitable conclusion—simple, but incredibly difficult to implement—that the time has come to teach pacifism; for mankind, once and for all, to drop its collective weapons. It is imperative for every man, woman and child on this planet to do whatever possible to stave off the prospect of apocalypse that threatens us all; to increase the forces of peace, and to avoid violence as a solution to problems.

But, on the other hand, there seems something naïve in the pacifist position, in the face of powerful countervailing forces. The problem boils down to what it always has been, since the dawn of history: that at times war seems unavoidable. When one side attacks, threatens the other with destruction and annihilation—even of individuals; for example, sets off living bombs in city streets and coffee houses—passivity seems absurd, if not immoral. For example: is Israel to cease to exist as a nation, as a home for the Jewish people, simply because the other side doesn’t want it to be so? Is there not an innate right to self defense?

Moreover, warfare, aggression, seems built into mankind’s instincts—and in this lies the gravest danger. Human being’s emotional equipment, his reflexes, impulses, instincts, have not adjusted to the technological dangers posed by modern warfare, and seem incapable of the far-reaching change. Hence, urgent though it may be, it is highly doubtful whether pacifism can ever be a real solution.

And yet, there is a level on which every war is ultimately unnecessary, because at the end one must sit down and negotiates with the enemy, and in the end, one generally arrives at results that are close to, if not identical, to what would have been reached at the beginning, without the rivers of blood shed in the interim. But of course, war occurs because one or both sides are unwilling to do just that. Military journalist Chris Hedges recently wrote a book, War is a Force That Gives us Meaning. In this passionate book, he speaks of the psychological state of mind that underlies warfare: the demonization of the enemy; the heightened sense of life, of excitement, that it brings, with the sheer flow of adrenalin; the sense of living for some great cause—all of which, shortly after the deed, is inevitable seen as so much foolishness and meaningless. But also: the sheer terror and primal fear of the battlefield; the lies, the propaganda, the glorifying of war within civilian culture; the silence of the press and the intellectuals, the general conformism and uniformity of thought that it brings; the labeling of those who dare to protest the war “traitors” (see: the language being used today against the protesting pilots, or the opposition politicians participating in the Geneva initiative); and the closing of ranks around government policies, however foolish and destructive they may be.

I have no simple answers to the dilemma—not for Israel, and certainly not for humankind. Whenever I consider the complexities of the situation here, between Israel and the Palestinians, I am reminded of the old Jewish story about the rabbi who tries to adjudicate a marital squabble. First the woman pours out her tale of woe, and the rabbi, overwhelmed with pity, exclaims “You’re right.” Then the husband comes along and explains his side of the dispute, and he says, “You’re right.” Finally, the rabbi’s wife, who has been listening from the kitchen, comes out and says, “Wait a minute, how can they both be right when they’re saying totally opposite things?” To which he answers, “You’re right too!” I am convinced that we would all be happier if we lived in a world in which neither Arafat, nor Bush, nor Sharon, nor any of their ilk, held power. Does it matter who is “right”?

I have no answer, but neither can I be silent. I feel the pain, the suffering, the constant subliminal fear, and the slow attrition in the Divine image within man—on both our side and their’s—caused by the prolonged state of war that we are in. Read the above words as a cry of pain and anguish.


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