Thursday, March 09, 2006

Tetzaveh (Midrash)

“A beautiful olive”

This week’s parasha, which opens with the commandment to light olive-oil lamps daily in the golden candelabrum, spawns a series of midrashim concerning the Menorah, the olive tree and its fruit, and the oil derived from it. Not surprisingly, since the Midrash is a work of neither botany nor horticulture, the emphasis is on the nature of the people of Israel, their relationship to God, the meaning of Jewish existence, etc. Exodus Rabbah 36.1:

“Now you command [the children of Israel, that they bring you pure beaten olive oil for the light…] [Exod 27:20]. Of this it written: “A verdant olive tree, fair, with goodly fruit, has the Lord called you” [Jer 11:16] And is Israel only compared to the olive alone? Are they not compared to all sorts of pleasant and praiseworthy trees? To the vine and the fig, as is said: “You bring a vine out of Egypt” [Ps 80:9]. To the fig tree, as is said: “Like the first fig to ripen on a fig tree” [Hosea 9:10]. To the date palm, as is said: “Your stature is compared to a palm tree” [Cant 7:8]. To the cedar, as is said, “[the righteous…] shall flourish like a cedar in Lebanon” [Ps 92:13]. To a nut, as is said: “I went down to the nut garden” [Cant 6:11]. And it is called all kinds of shoots, as is said, “Your shoots [or: limbs] are a pomegranate orchard” [Cant 4:13].

The midrash, noting the extensive use of many metaphors throughout the Bible, ponders Jeremiah’s choice here specifically of the olive, presenting along the way a selection of verses relating to various fruits or trees, with special emphasis on the seven fruits of Eretz Yisrael (making this a suitable text for Tu Bishevat). Note the two levels of metaphor involved in the verses from Song of Songs, which literally refer to the beloved, but are interpreted here as self-evidently referring to Israel.

[1] And yet, Jeremiah came and said [specifically] “A verdant olive tree, fair, with goodly fruit, has the Lord called you.” Rather, just as the olive, while it is still on the tree, one picks it, and after one takes it down from the olive tree it is beaten, and after beating it one takes it up to the olive press and places it against the millstone and grinds it, and then one surrounds it by nets and places stones on top of it, and then it gives its oil. So too Israel: the pagans come and beat them from place to place and imprison them, and force them to wear yokes, and they are tied with ropes—and then they turn in repentance, and the Holy One blessed be He answers them.

From whence do we know this? As is said; “and the children of Israel groaned [under their bondage]” [Exodus 2:23]. And also “When you are in distress, and there shall befall you [all these things]” [Deut 4:30]. “For the Lord your God is a merciful God” [ibid. 31]. That is: “a verdant olive tree, fair, with goodly fruit”

This is an interesting image: just as the olive needs to be beaten and squeezed and pressed until it yields its oil, so Israel seems to require harsh suffering and persecution in order to activate its innate religious impulse and connection to God. The logical implication almost seems to be that Jews aren’t naturally particularly good or pious, but need external pressure to behave in a proper and God-fearing way!

[2] Another thing: Why did Jeremiah see fit to compare our forefathers to an olive? Because all other liquids become mixed with one another, and the olive oil does not mix in but stands [separate]. So Israel does not mingle with the idolaters, as is said: “do not marry them” [Deut 7:3]

The second explanation relates to the separatist nature of the Jewish people: “a people who dwell alone.” Historically, the people of Israel eschewed assimilation among the other nations, maintaining their distinct culture, belief and way of life, as well as assuring their ethnic insularity by insisting upon endogamy. The midrash takes this as so obvious that it confuses the descriptive and prescriptive levels, citing the commandment in Deuteronomy as if it described an actual fact. Needless to say, almost everywhere in the Western Diaspora this is no longer the case, presenting the specter of the disappearance, or at least severe diminution, of many communities another generation or two down the road—barring, of course, some unforeseen dramatic change.

[3] Another thing: All other liquids, a person mixes them together, and does not know which one will rise to the top, and which one will remain on bottom. But [olive] oil, even if you mix it with all the liquids in the world, it rises above them. Thus our fathers, when they performed the will of the Omnipresent, would rise up above the idolaters, as is said, “and the Lord shall place you above” [Deut 28:1]. This is, “a verdant olive tree…”

The next explanation sees the image of the olive oil as emblematic for the Jews always “rising to the top.” The original biblical context refers to military victory and survival; in modern times, this image calls to mind the image of Jews as a highly motivated, “upwardly mobile” group, enjoying extraordinary economic, professional and cultural success, e.g., in the American Diaspora, the disproportionate number of Jewish Nobel laureates and “world-historical” cultural figures, etc.

[4] Another thing. “A verdant olive tree…” It is written there: “Beautiful in elevation [or: “fair-crested”: yefei-nof], the joy of all the earth” [Ps 48:3]. What is meant by yefei nof? In Greek a bride is called “nymphe.”

“The joy of all the earth.” There was not a single person in all of Israel who regretted it when the Temple was standing. Why? Because a person entered there full of sins, and would bring an offering and be forgiven—there was no greater joy than that he would emerge righteous. That is: “Beautiful in elevation…”

It is written of Tyre: “Tyre, you have said, ‘I am perfect in beauty’” [Ezek 27:3]. You have said it, but others do not say so. But regarding Jerusalem, all people sing her praises, as is said, ”Is this the city of whom they said, that she is the perfection of beauty?” [Lam 2:15]. And it written, “Mount Zion, in the far north, the city of the great King” [Ps 48:3]. The place where they offer sacrifices, as is said: ”and they shall slaughter it upon the side of the altar to the north” [Lev 1:11]. Therefore it says, “a verdant olive tree…” Just as the oil illuminates, so does the Temple illuminate the entire world. As is said, “and nations shall come to your light” [Isa 60:3]. Therefore our forefathers were called “a verdant olive tree,” for they illuminated all [with their faith]. Hence the Holy One blessed be He said to Moses, “they shall bring you pure beaten olive oil…”

The last segment of our midrash turns from the praises of Israel to those of the Holy City—whether for its physical, “bride-like” beauty; the atoning power of the sacrifices offered there; the universal praise it enjoys (by invidious comparison to Tyre); or its role as a source of (spiritual) light. This last closes the circle, returning us both to the olive oil, and to the Menorah in which it is burned.

“Does He need Light?”

The second midrash in this chapter is concerned, not with Israel or the olive tree, but with the lights lit in the Menorah per se. It begins with what seems to be a kind of internal quotation from another, perhaps better-known midrash on this subject, dealing with a certain paradox inherent in this mitzvah. The midrash substantially parallels Numbers Rabbah 15.5 (Beha’alotkha) and, to a lesser extent, 15.2. Both of these midrashim bring biblical quotes concerning the motif of God as light: “The light resides with Him” [Dan 2:22], and “even darkness is not dark to you; night is as bright to You as the day…” [Ps 139:12]. Exodus Rabbah 36.2:

Not that I need them [their light]. Rather, let them provide Me with light, just as I gave them light, so as to make them great before the nations, so that they may say: Israel gives light to He who gives light to all.

This may be compared to a sighted man and a blind man who were walking together. The sighted man said to the blind one: Come and rely on me [to show you the way]. And so the blind man walked. Once they came to the house, the sighted one said to the blind one, Come and light the candle for me, and it will provide light for me, so that you will not feel indebted to me that I accompanied you; therefore I asked you to light for me.

The sighted one is the Holy One blessed be He, as is said, “For the eyes of the Lord, they run to and from throughout all the earth” [2 Chr 16:9 ~ Zech 4:10]. And the blind one is Israel, as is said, “We grope about for the wall like blind people, we grope like one without eyes; we stumble about at noon as in deep darkness” [Isa 59:10]—[we sinned] with the calf at six hours [shesh, a pun on goshesh, “grope”]. And the Holy One blessed be He provided them light and guided them, as is said, “and the Lord walked before them by day” [Exod 13:21]. When they came to make the Sanctuary, He called to Moses and said to him: “Let them bring you pure beaten olive oil.” Israel responded [to this]: “for You light my lamp” [Ps 18:29]—and you say that we shall make light before You? He said to them: In order to lift you up, that you shall give Me light just as I gave you light. Therefore it says, “a verdant olive tree…”

The central problem here is the nature of the religious act. Ultimately, anything man does “for” God is redundant, gratuitous, if seen as a “need” of God—for God “needs” nothing. Hence the parable of the blind man, who is asked to do a small favor for the sighted man to “balance the scales.” Yet this analogy is itself problematic: clearly the blind man know that he’s being asked to do something merely so that he can feel good, and that the situation is really an artificial one.

Elsewhere in Jewish thought we encounter the idea that God gave the mitzvot to man for one of two reasons: either to educate and train him, to make him a better person; or in order to accumulate “merit” in God’s eyes. On some level, God wishes men to be challenged with the dilemmas presented by free will, by the presence within themselves of the Yetzer ha-Ra, the evil inclination, and with the challenge posed by the imperatives of the mitzvot themselves. Going back a step, the question is asked: Why did God need to create a world anyway? Why could He not have existed eternally, ensconced within His own perfection? Somewhere along the line the answer to this question is that “thus it occurred in the Divine mind”: i.e., that such was God’s will. On some level God simply desired that there be a world, perhaps in order to have someone to love, to give to, to be in relation with. (The Kabbalistic idea of tzimtzum explains that God even “contacted” Himself, withdrew from the world, to leave room for man and the other creatures—and that He did so simply because He wanted it thus.) one of A. J. Heschel’s books is entitled God in Search of Man, expressing the same idea: that somehow, God needs men to love him, and hence there ensues the need for the world, and for the whole story of Torah and mitzvot, of free choice and evil and forgiveness. Not only is there a Divine flow of love into the world, but also a need for reciprocity. Even the Divine, so to speak, is not complete unto Himself.


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