Saturday, February 04, 2006

Bo (Midrash)

“The Voice of my Beloved! Behold, He Comes”

Moshe Aryeh Mirkin, in his critical commentary to Midrash Rabbah, waxes lyrical in his introduction to the chapter of midrash on this week’s portion focused on the verse “This month shall be for you…” [Exodus 12:2]. He sees this chapter, consisting of over thirty separate midrashim, many lengthy and filled with elaborate poetic imagery, as comparable to “a great lighthouse, whose beams light up a dark and gloomy night… Its significance in Judaism is no less than that of the verse, ‘And God said, let there be light, and there was light.’….” And indeed, the Exodus, which may be seen as beginning in earnest with this chapter, occupies a central role in Jewish thought and imagination: the motif of redemption is one that is greater than life. The Jewish people has known, not only the exile in Egypt, but many exiles, many eras of homelessness and wandering and even great suffering and persecution. Hence, the Exodus became an archetype, a central symbol: all exiles are Egypt, all redemptions are the Exodus.

There is almost an irony in the lyrical elaboration specifically of this chapter, and of its opening verse, “this month shall be to you…” [Exod 12:2]. The oft-quoted opening Rashi of the entire Torah, at the very beginning of the Creation story (Genesis 1:1), asks the question (in very rough paraphrase): “Why does the Torah tell us this? Shouldn’t it have started with Exodus 12, where for the first time there is a group of practical mitzvot and halakhot?” As if to say: the only real purpose of the Torah is to serve as a legal codex; all of the narratives, and even [especially?] the parts concerning theology, etiology, cosmogony, etc., are so much froth. (of course, Rashi immediately gives an answer, whose ramifications we cannot discuss here.) In any event, “Hahodesh” is in fact the opening chapter of both versions of Mekhilta, the classical tannaitic, halakhic midrash. It is thus interesting that precisely this chapter also enjoys such extensive and rich aggadic development as well.

Central to the depiction of the Exodus is the metaphor of Israel and God as bride and groom, the imagery of Song of Songs. Appropriately, the very first midrash in this chapter, and several others thereafter, presents a tapestry of verses and free associations (or what seem so upon a casual reading), first to Song of Songs, and then to our chapter. Exodus Rabbah 15.1:

“And the Lord said to Moses… This month shall be for you the beginning [or ‘the head’] of all months” [Exod 12:1-2]. It is written there: “The voice of my beloved! Behold, he comes” [Song 2:8] (See the full text of the midrash in the “other chapters” [i.e., Pesikta de-Rav Kahana, 5; Pesikta Rabbati, 15; Canticles Rabbah 2.11] through the word “with you.”) As is said, “My beloved answered and said to me” [ibid., v. 10}. What are you doing here in this place of unclean people, “whose flesh is the flesh of donkeys, and whose flow is the flow of horses” [Ezek 23:20]. “Arise, my beloved, my beautiful one, and come away” [ibid.].

We are accustomed to seeing the enslavement in Egypt characterized in political and ethical terms: as an act of oppression, cruelty, physical deprivation, and forced, demoralizing, back-breaking labor. Here the midrash adds another motif: Egypt as a place of impurity, of idolatry, inhabited by animal-like people. Using a verse from Ezekiel, who in several places characterizes the religious syncretism of Israel as sexual faithlessness, as wanton, lustful abandonment to the hands of other lovers, recalls how Israel (portrayed as two sisters, Ohalah and Oholibah, i.e., Samaria and Jerusalem) also gave themselves over to the embraces of the Egyptians—that is, to the worship of Egypt’s pagan gods. Thus, God addresses Israel as a beloved woman, enmired in a disgusting, animalistic place, with the call to leave and join her true lover; a kind of romantic extraction of the beloved from a place of filth and corruption. (This also calls to mind, in a certain sense, the later neo-Gnostic motif in Kabbalah and Hasidism in which the soul is seen as entrapped in the world of corporeality, while longing for its divine Lover/source in the supernal worlds.)

He said to him: Master of the Universe: you said that we were to be subjugated for hundred years, and they have not yet been completed? He said to them, they have already been completed, as is said: “for behold, the winter is past” [ibid., v. 11]. Immediately the righteous revealed their heads that had been covered, as is said: “The buds are seen in the earth” [ibid., v. 12]. These are the tribe of Levi , who were all righteous. Another thing: the buds are the priests—“The sons of Aaron, Eleazar, his son; Phinehas, his son” [1 Chr 6:35]. Another thing: “the buds”—these are the kings: David and Solomon, Rehoboam, Abijah, Assa. Another thing: these are the Levites: “Asaph the chief, and second to him Zechariah” [1 Chr 16:5].

This is an interesting passage on several counts. i) The word translated as “winter,” stav, is familiar as “autumn” in contemporary Hebrew usage. But this usage is late, perhaps even modern. In biblical parlance the term refers to the entire winter; a period of hibernation, of stasis, of lack of visible growth in nature; as is well known to anyone who lives in Israel, the four seasons of Western Europe and the US are not really applicable here. ii) The image of the righteous poking up their heads, as if until then they too had been in a state of hibernation, like seeds growing underground: winter as a tangible metaphor for the subjugation in Egypt. iii) The flow of verses: we have here an intricately woven tapestry of verses, in which each phrase quoted from the main Scriptural text interpreted (in this case, Cant 2:8-13) is followed by a midrashic interpretation, reinforced by an appropriate proof text from other books of the Bible. This method is characteristic of many midrashim; a classic, familiar example is the Passover Haggadah, whose central section is a midrash on Deut 26:5-8, the Declaration of First Fruits, with comments and proof-texts on each phrase from the passage interpreted. iv) Finally, why all the various opinions as to the identity of the “righteous buds” mentioned here? Are they Levites? Priests? Kings? Moreover, some of the figures mentioned, such as Rehoboam, are not particularly noted for their moral fiber or generosity of character, making their selection all the more puzzling.

Once the Holy One blessed be He saw that it was such, he said “the time of song [or: ‘the songbird’] has come” [ibid.]. The time has come for the Levites to recite songs and hymns. Another thing: “the time of the song[bird] has come.” Once the Holy One blessed be He heard that Israel were reciting the Song, He said, “the voice of the turtle dove is heard in our land” [ibid.]. He heard the voice of Israel by virtue of Abraham, who offered a turtle dove and a pigeon. The midrash transforms the rustic image of the twitting of songbirds in springtime to the great occasions of sacred song in the life of Israel: the Song of the Levites in the Temple, or the great Song at the Sea. This last phrase is an allusion to the Covenant Between the Pieces (Gen 15:9), thereby connecting various occasions through which Israel earned merit.

What is written thereafter? “The fig tree has bright forth its young fruit” [2:13]. These are the righteous and the upright. “And the vines are in blossom, giving their fragrance” [ibid.] These are the in-between ones who have done repentance. From then on: “Arise, my beloved, my beautiful one, and come away.”

The various fruits represent the various types of people within the nation: not only the perfected ones, but even the ordinary, mediocre folk who try to mend their ways, are to be celebrated. Note here not only the power of teshuvah—a common theme in Hazal—but the imagery of repentance, not as a heavy, guilt-ridden process, but as a “blossoming” of the soul, analogous to the bucolic image of delicately ripening figs and grapes on the vine. At this point, the midrash turns from Song of Songs to the Torah portion at hand:

When Israel went out of Egypt, the Holy One blessed be He said to them: You have no other month as great as this; therefore it is called “the first.” As is said, “the first of the months” [Exod 12:1].

Another thing: “it is first to you.” As the Holy One blessed be He, so to speak, is the first, as is said “I am first and I am last” [Isa 44:6]. And Zion, who are called first, as is said: “The throne of glory, uplifted from the beginning, the seat of our temple” [Jer 17:12]. And Esau, who is called first, as is said, “And the first one came out, ruddy” [Gen 25:25}. And Messiah, who is called first, as is said, “the first to Zion, behold they are here” [Isa 41:27]. Let the Holy One blessed be He come, who is called first, and build the Temple, that is called first, and take retribution against Esau, who is called first, and let there come Messiah, who is called first, in the first month. As is said: ‘this month is to you the head of the months, the first…”

At first glance, this midrash seems a mere hodgepodge of phrases about whom the phrase “first” is used? But on a deeper level, perhaps, the intention is to demonstrate the unity of Israel’s redemptive history: the underlying pattern of the ultimate redemption is that all those things have a special quality of “primacy” or “firstness,” and as such are destined to interact in a positive way (with the exception of Esau, who is seen as deserving of “retribution”).

“I have no festive times but these”

The following midrash addresses the central halakhic theme of this Biblical passage: the institution of Kiddush ha-Hodesh, the commandment that the Court determine the calendar—the date of Rosh Hodesh, and by extension of the various festive days, as well as the period intercalation of an extra month (to reconcile the solar and lunar years). Exodus Rabbah 15.2:

Another thing: “this month shall be for you” [Exod 12:2]. The ministering angels said before the Holy One blessed be He: Master of the Universe, for when have You fixed the festive times? As is written: “at the decree of the angels is the word” [Dan 4:14]. He said to them: I and you must consent to that which Israel decide complete and intercalate [i.e., add an extra month to] the year. As is said: “I will call to the Almighty God, to the God who fulfills His purpose for me [or: ‘agrees with me’]” [Ps 57:3]. And it also says: “These are the festive times the Lord that shall be proclaimed [as holy convocations]” [Lev 23:37]—[that] you [shall proclaim: i.e., a play on otam, “them,” and atem, “you”]. Whether in their time or not in their time, I have no festive times but these.

When asked by the angels when the various sacred days will be, God replies that He Himself is bound to follow the decision of the Great Court of the Jewish people: “I have no festive times but these.” Moreover, the Court has the halakhic power, the authority, to overturn or “outvote” physical, cosmic reality itself; even if they make an error in declaring the date of the New Moon or, say, take a deliberate decision to postpone its observance by one day to avoid a holiday falling on an awkward day of the week, their decision still stands. This idea carries far-reaching, radical repercussions as to the nature of the holy and of the partnership between man and God. God declares, so to speak, that: Even though I have given the Torah, in which one finds, e.g., the sanctity of Yom Kippur or the severity of the laws of Hametz on Passover, it is not I, God, who establish the actual sanctity of the days—e.g., that September 16, 2002 will be Yom Kippur—but you, Israel, do so.

The Holy One blessed be He said to Israel: In the past it was in My hand, as is said, “He made the moon for the festive times” [Ps 104:19]. But from now on, it is given into your hand, to your authority. If you say yes, it is yes. If you say no, it is no. In any event, “this month is yours.” Moreover: if you wish to intercalate the year, I agree with you. Therefore it is written, “This month is for you.”

Second, the commandment of Kiddush ha-Hodesh is a historically momentous event. Originally, the stars and luminaries were placed in the firmament to determine time, at the behest of God. Indeed, a close reading of the account of the fourth day in the Creation chapter [Gen 1:14-19] reveals a fascinating fact: whereas all the other things, such as the grass and vegetation, the birds, the fish, even man, were created simply to be, the stars and sun and moon were created to perform a specific function, repeated twice: to provide light, and to serve “as signs, for times, for days and for years.” From this point in the Torah (which means, I think, from the time that the commandment hahodesh hazeh lakhem was given) they were given over to the authority of Israel.

A Tale of Two Ladies

A third midrash from this parsha sticks in my memory because it formed the central theme of a Yahrzeit shiur delivered by Rav Soloveitchik ztz”l in 1976, audio-tapes of which were circulated at the yeshiva where I was studying at the time. Exodus Rabbah 19.2:

Another thing. “This is the edict of the Passover” [Exod 12:43}. This is what Scripture says: “May my heart be whole in Your laws, that I not be ashamed” [Ps 119:80]. David said: Master of the Universe, when I engage in Your laws, let not the Evil Urge have permission to look at me, as is said, “Teach me O Lord your ways, I will walk in your truth, unite my heart to fear your name” [Ps 86:11]. That the Evil Urge may not mislead me, and I not be ashamed before the righteous. Moreover, because he misleads me, I withhold myself from words of Torah, and I come to utter Your teaching before those who are smaller than me, but they answer me: It is not so, and I am ashamed. But make my heart one, so that I may engage in Torah with wholeness. Of this it is written: “May my heart be whole in Your laws, that I not be ashamed.”

This section of the midrash in fact has nothing to do with the Exodus, nor with the mitzvot mentioned in the title verse. The unifying theme here is rather the midrash on the verse from Psalm 119 (in fact “transplanted” here from Midrash Shohar Tov, the midrash on Psalms); its appearance here, in the collection Exodus Rabbah, is only because of its second half. In any event, the central idea expressed is the sense of awe relating to the process of teaching Torah itself; the wish/prayer not to be misled or distracted by the Evil Urge, but to engage in Torah with “wholeness”; and the fear of making a mistake, sounding stupid, ignorant before students who are in fact lesser than oneself. There is thus a mixture of social sanction—of not wanting to sound like a fool—and of real reverence regarding the act of teaching Torah, and prayer for Divine help and intercession so that it will come out all right. Note the prayer of Rabbi Nehunyah ben Hakanah, recited upon entering and leaving the Study House (Berakhot 28b, printed on the flyleaf of some editions of the Talmud), which reflects a like spirit: “that I not stumble in my teaching, and that others not stumble on my account…”

Another thing. “May my heart be whole in your laws.” This refers to the edict of the Passover and the edict of the red heifer. Why? Because the two are similar to one another: in the one it says, “the edict of Passover” [Exod 12:43], and in the other it says “the edict of the Torah“ [Num 19:2]. And one does not know which of the edicts is greater than the other. It may be compared to two fine ladies, who are walking together and seem to be equal. Which one is greater than the other? That one whose companion accompanies her to her home, and goes after her. Thus, concerning Passover it says “edict,” and concerning the heifer it says “edict.” Which one is greater? The heifer, for those who eat the Passover need it, as is said, “And you shall take to the impure person the ashes of the burning of the sin offering” [Num 19:17]. This is [the sense of]: “no foreign born shall eat of it” [Exod 12:43].

The Hebrew word translated here as “edict” is hukkat. While the term is often used in the plural to refer to the laws of the Torah generally, these two are the only laws in the Torah referred to specifically by the term hukkat. The midrash assumes that there must be some special relation between the two, and finds it in the fact that those who eat the Passover must first be in a state of ritual purity, which can only be attained by using the ashes of the red heifer. What is puzzling is the insistence by the midrash of the need to establish a clear order of priority between the two, which it does by means of the unexpected, somewhat odd image of the two aristocratic ladies (matronot; a word suggestive of Roman culture) walking one other home.

The Rav’s public lecture on this midrash focused upon the well-known idea that the word hukkah connotes a law whose reason is unknown, inexplicable, unfathomable, even paradoxical—those things which “the Satan and the nations of the world” like to mock (see my discussion on this in HY I: Hukkat). The Rav expanded this definition in a fascinating way, noting that the realm transcending the faculties of human reason includes not only the mitzvot, but also the trials and tribulations of Jewish existence—the millennia of exile and persecution, the long, serpentine path towards eventual redemption (symbolized in the divergent destinies of Jacob and Esau expressed in Josh 24:2-4). Indeed, many of us living today, experiencing the profound impasse in which the State of Israel finds itself, are beginning to also doubt the traditional Zionist answers: that statehood and “normalization” of the Jews’ political situation will bring the much-awaited fruits of a tranquil national existence.

In any event the Rav reads these two laws as symbols of the inexplicable within Jewish life: the Passover, symbolizing as it does the birth of Jewish nationhood, reflects the paradoxes of Jewish group existence, while the red heifer which, as is well-known, is the paradigmatic hukkah, expresses the inexplicable and trans-rational nature of the mitzvot observed by each and every individual. “And which is the greater of the two?” The precedence given to the former of the two ladies, the “heifer,” symbolizes for the Rav the precedence of individual discipline above national identity.

Is another reading possible? What remains of this winter Friday, and perhaps also my reader’s patience with this long megillah, are too short to answer that question at the moment.


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