Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Bo (Rashi)

“Like This shall you See and Sanctify”

Rashi begins his Commentary to the Torah at Gen 1:1 with the remark that the Torah really should have begun with “This month shall be the first of your months,” which is the first actual mitzvah. Now that Bo and the passage in question have in fact rolled around, it’s seems fitting to begin by focusing on that verse:

12:2. “This month shall be for you the head of the months; it is the first of the months of the year for you.” Rashi: He showed him the moon as it was renewed, and said to him: “When the moon is renewed, you shall have the New Moon.” And Scripture does not depart from its literal meaning; regarding the month of Nissan He said to him: “This shall be the starting point [lit., “head”] for the order of counting the months, such that the month of Iyyar is called the second [month], Sivan the third, [and so on]

This seemingly simple verse in fact yields four separate ideas or units in Rashi’s discussion. The first two deal with the meaning of the verse as a whole, from which Rashi in fact derives two distinct concepts: that of the lunar-based calendar, with the New Moon as a special day with a distinct character, if only as the point on which the month starts and from which its days are counted; and, thereafter, the order of the months within the lunar year.

One of the important things that I find Rashi does in his commentary is to force the reader to look at the text more closely, helping him to see things that he would be unlikely to notice on a casual reading. In this case, his comments emphasize that this verse is in fact saying two quite separate things: that the time when the new moon first becomes visible is the beginning of the month, and that Nissan is the first among the months per se. By referring davka to the second of these two meanings as the “literal meaning” (peshuto shel mikra), he makes one ask: how does one derive the idea of the new moon as the start of the month from this verse? Moreover, the halakhic tradition infers from this verse the commandment of kiddush ha-hodesh, of formally proclaiming or “sanctifying” the new month (even learning the necessity for witnesses and for a Court from the fact that it is addressed to Moses and Aaron together).

How does one infer all these things from less than a dozen words? (The following is my own speculation.) Firstly, it seems to me that, without some double meaning, this verse really would be redundant, the second half simply repeating or rephrasing what is already said in the first half, in different words; hence, following the accepted exegetical axiom that the Torah does not repeat itself unnecessarily, the two phrases must imply different things. Secondly, there is a certain ambiguity in the word חודש (hodesh) itself: it can mean “month,” as a unit of time, or it can refer to “New Moon,” as a single day. Indeed, the latter is sometimes referred to in the Bible as ראש חודש, as in Num 28:11, and in later usage by the Sages, in the Siddur, etc.; but in other places, as in the story of David absenting himself from Saul’s Rosh Hodesh table, or the Shunemite woman going to Elisha even though it was “neither Sabbath nor New Moon,” or in the prophetic declaration that “your new moons and festivals are hateful to Me”: or “every month and every Sabbath all flesh shall come to bow down before Me” (I Sam 20:18, 25, etc.; 2 Kgs 4:23; Isa 1:14; 66:23), the word חודש is used without any further elaboration. And indeed, the root meaning of this word, “new,” is suggestive of the new moon, of the point of renewal, more so than it is of an entire period of time.

As for the second point—namely, that the month of Nissan, specifically, is the first of the months of the year—this is theologically significant. It is announcing a new scheme of time: heretofore (assuming the universe was created in Tishrei—itself a point subject to some dispute; see Rosh Hashana 10b-11a, and see our discussion in HY VII: Nissan) the year had presumably begun in the fall, on the date we know as Rosh Hashanah; now, with the Redemption from Egypt, that date is to be perpetually marked as the starting point for everything. We have here a reordering of priorities: from natural, cosmic time centered around God the Creator, we have instead historical, redemptive time, centered about God’s intervention in human history, with the Exodus as the archetypal event (but compare Jer 16:14-15, where the future redemption from captivity in “the lands of the north” will replace that). These concepts are close to those propounded by Rabbi Soloveitchik in his essay Uvikashtem mesham, in which he draws a typology of two basic kinds of religious experience: the “natural” experience, i.e., the universal human experience of God as present in nature or in natural law; and the “revelational” experience, the unique, intimate, Jewish covenantal experience.

Today, many people seem to be attracted to a third model: a kind of personalist religion, with an emphasis on the individual and his subjective experience. This, among other things, is part of the attraction of Hasidic texts for some New Age Jews: it always asks, “How is this applicable to every person and in every place and time?” (the perennial question of the rabbi of Polonnoye), and has a strong focus on the individual consciousness (see, e.g. Sefat Emet on Vaera, 5634, s.v. vehotzeti, where he states that the ultimate purpose of the Exodus was that each person “know that I am the Lord”).

“This.” Moses had difficulty comprehending what was meant by the “birth” [molad] of the moon: what size must it be so as to be fit to be sanctified? So God pointed with His finger at the moon in the sky and said, “Like this shall you see and sanctify.”

And how could He show it to him? For He did not speak with him except during the daytime, as is said, “And it was, on the day that God spoke…” (Exod 7:28), “on the day that I commanded the children of Israel” (Lev 7:38), “from the day that God commanded and thereafter” (Num 15:23). Rather, close to sundown this passage was told to him, and He showed it to him after it was dark.

The word “this,” which is the focus of these two sections, suggests pointing something out in a concrete way, as with one’s finger. The basic idea is that “One picture is worth a thousand words”—which God, as the Master Pedagogue, surely understood. (Tradition mentions several other cases where God showed Moses what He meant: e.g., the shape of the menorah; the shekel coin.)

But then Rashi raises a strange problem: that God only spoke with Moses during the daylight hours (How does he know this? Is it only because of the verses that he cites?) He then finds a truly elegant solution to this difficult: since the new moon is only visible at night (because it is so slender, and so close to the position of the sun at that time, and is thus only visible during a very brief period after sundown, before it also sets), God must have spoken during the daytime, and pointed out the moon to him a few minutes later, during the twilight period. What interests me is: Why was it important for Rashi to emphasize that Moses only spoke with God during day? For this, I suggest turning to a concept articulated by Rambam, based upon abundant statements of Hazal, and on the Torah’s own statement in Num 12:6-8, that Moses’ prophecy was qualitatively different from that of all other prophets (I wrote about this in HY I: Shavuot; see Yad, Yesodei ha-Torah 8; Hakdamah le-Perek Helek, §7; and Guide II.35). One of the central points is that all other prophets saw their visions in a dream or dream-like state, at night. As if to enhance the intensity and clarity of Moses’ prophecy, Rashi emphasizes here that Moses spoke with God during the daytime, specifically (even on Mount Sinai, during the forty days and nights he received the law from God by day and reviewed it at night)—to such an extent that, on the one occasion when God needed to show him something that was part of the nocturnal sky, the speech itself took place by day!

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Vaera (Rashi)

For further teachings on this parsha, see the archives for February 2006 on this blog. For teachings on the new month of Shevat, see below.

More on Names

Last week we noted Rashi’s non-theological interpretation of the name “Ehyeh asher Ehyeh,” in which he sees this Divine Name as relating to the immediate situation confronting Moshe in addressing the Israelite people in slavery. This week’s parsha opens with two verses relating to the Divine name, the latter of which draws a comparison between the name by which He was “made known” to the patriarchs, and that which He is using now, in His announcement pf the imminent redemption. But first, the opening verse, on which Rashi makes a succinct comment relating to the meanings or implications of the different names of God:

Exod 6:2: “And God (Elohim) spoke to Moses and said, I am the Lord (HWYH). Rashi: “And God/Elohim spoke to Moses.” He spoke with him in judgment, because he had spoken harshly, saying “why have You done evil to this people” (above, 5:22).

In this opening comment, Rashi follows the standard Rabbinic distinction, according to which the generic name Elohim alludes to Middat Hadin—i.e., objective, unmitigated judgment, with a certain tone of severity; while the name HWYH (I use throughout this circumlocution, in which the letters of the name are scrambled even in transliteration, out of reverence for the holiness of the Ineffable Name), God’s so-to-speak “personal” name, refers to Middat Harahamim—His compassion, love, forgiveness, and bending of strict justice to favor, especially, His covenantal people (These two attributes reappear in Kabbalistic thought as hesed & gevurah, at the top of the seven more active Sefirot). Rashi here notes that, as Moshe had spoken to God in angry, mistrustful tones in their last conversation (after himself “getting it” both from Pharaoh and from the representatives of the people), God responds in kind. But we continue:

“And He said to him: ‘I am the Lord/HWYH.’ Faithful to give a good reward to those who walk before Me. And I have not sent you for naught, but rather to fulfill the words that I spoke to the patriarchs. And we find such language expounded thusly in several places: ‘I am HWYH’—[meaning,] ‘faithful to take recompense’ when used in reference to punishment, as in “And you shall profane the name of your God, I am the Lord” (Lev 19:12). And when it is used in connection with fulfilling the mitzvot, as in “And you shall observe and do them, I am the Lord” (Lev 19:37)—it means ‘He who is faithful to give reward.’

The second half of the verse, even though spoken by Elohim, presents another name: HWYH. Here, Rashi gives what is, to the best of my knowledge, a new and different interpretation of the meaning of this name. It is no longer Middat Harahamim over against Middat Hadin, but encompasses both: “I am HWYH” means as: I am faithful, reliable, may be trusted to carry out My word—whether that means, in practice, compassion and love, the tender, protective, “motherly” emotions; or the severity meted out in recompense to wrongdoers.

This same line of interpretation is continued in the next verse:

6:3. “I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob as El Shaddai, but in/by My Name HWYH I was not made known to them.” Rashi: “I appeared.” To the fathers. “As El Shaddai.” I made promises to them, and in all of them I said to them: “I am El Shaddai.”

I do not understand the opening part of this comment: “to the fathers.” Why does Rashi feel it necessary to tell us that Abraham, Isaac and Jacob are ”the fathers”? Surely ever five-year-old knows that! But, if we believe that Rashi did not write things simply to use up ink, we must assume that this comment is of significance and try to decipher its meaning. As of this writing, I find myself clueless.

In the second part of this comment he develops his theory of Divine Names further: If HWYH means “He who is reliable, who fulfills His word,” El Shaddai or simply Shaddai means the opposite: “He who makes promises but, for the present, does not fulfill them.” The patriarchs, by and large, had to suffice with promises, and simply live in the faith that these would sooner or later be fulfilled; they lived in a stage of pre-fulfillment, when the drama of the shaping of the Jewish nation had not yet reached the stage of fruition. The descent to Egypt, the enslavement, the Redemption, and the years of wandering in the desert, still had to take place before their descendants could arrive at “the rest and the inheritance.” Indeed, a well-known midrash on this verse notes how, notwithstanding the promise of the entire Land, Abraham had to pay good money to bury his wife, Yitzhak’s wells were constantly being stolen, and Jacob couldn’t even pitch his tent without paying money—and yet through it all they maintained their trust in God (see Exod. Rab. 6.4).

The name El Shadday only appears in half-a-dozen verses in Bereshit all told: Gen 17:1; 28:3; 35:11; 43:14; 48:3; 49:25. In almost all of these, the name is invoked in the context of blessings—that is, conveying hopes and expectations for the future—whether these were uttered by people or by God Himself—i.e., referring to He who is capable of fulfilling, but will do so in the future. Apart from that, it reappears in the Torah only in the present verse and in the Balaam story, twice (Num 24:4, 16: “who perceives the vision of Shaddai”); and, in the other books of the Bible, numerous times in the Book of Job (which is a densely poetic world unto itself). We continue:

“But by/in my name HWYH I was not made known to them.” It is not written ‘I did not make known” but ‘I was not made known.’ I was not known to them in My attribute of truthfulness for which I am called HWYH—‘faithful to make His words come true’—for I promised and had not [yet] fulfilled.

Here Rashi anticipates an obvious criticism of this verse, that in modern times has been the source of no end of trouble and polemics. How can God say “I did not make my name HWYH known to the patriarchs,” when that very name appears scores, if not hundreds of times, in the Book of Genesis? It’s obviously untrue! Rashi explains that the verb form used here is not the causative (hif‘il), ‘did not make known,’ but the passive (nif‘al), ‘was not made known’—that is, I did not perform those actions which would have been a manifestation of the actual meaning of this name; the name HWYH, when it was used there, was merely a means of identifying Myself, so to speak, a sobriquet, but not the Name used in its essential meaning.

This verse was one of the key texts used by the school of Higher Biblical Criticism, which began in the 19th century. Its founder, Julius Wellhausen, propounded what was known as the Documentary Hypothesis, according to which the Torah was composed of a number of different strands, written at different times and by different authors, and later woven together by an editor, or redactor. According to this school, our verse indeed involved an announcement or revelation of a new name of God, which was not used by the author of the particular document to which it belongs (“J”) until that time; therefore, all those passages in Genesis which do use HWYH must have ipso facto been written by a different hand. Those who grew up in the 1960s may remember studying the “Soncino Humash,” edited by the late Chief Rabbi of Britain, J. H. Hertz, which features a lengthy excursus in which he polemicized with this view: “Does Exodus vi.3 support the Higher Critical Theory?” In any event, Rashi, almost a millennium earlier, seems to answer their objection, at least as regards this verse, with his comment.

In brief: Rashi, both here and on Exod 3:14-15, which we discussed last week, interprets the Divine Names in terms of God’s faithfulness, His promises and fulfillment. It occurred to me, in conclusion, that this line of thought may be related to the other, more conventional understandings of the Names, as follows (all this is purely my own speculation): Elohim, or Shaddai, refers to power, in the sense of potential. God as Elohim represents tremendous force, which is no less impressive for it being static, held in readiness, not doing anything at a given moment (in Rashi: promise). As against that, HWYH represents Being, that which is dynamic, vital, in action, realized potential (in Rashi: the fulfillment of promises).

Tribes, Good and Bad

Following the festive promise of redemption at the beginning of the parsha, the Torah interposes a fragmentary genealogy of the offspring of Jacob, including onpy the fusrt three sons, through Levi. This interrupts the flow of narrative, so much so that the Torah later picks up thread by repeating the gist of 6:10-12 in vv. 29-30. Why does it do this?

6:14. “These are the heads of the clans [lit., father’s houses].” Rashi: Since he needed to give the pedigree of the tribe of Levi down to Moses and Aaron, for the sake of Moses and Aaron, it began by giving all the pedigrees through their offspring, from Reuven on. And in Pesikta Rabbati, since our Father Jacob upbraided these three tribes at the time of his death, Scripture returns and here gives their pedigree alone, to show that they were important.

Rashi—again, rather typically of his method of work—gives two answers. The firsts is a peshat, common-sense explanation of the literary method of the Torah: it needs to provide the background as to whom Moses and Aaron are and where they come from (remember the anonymous way in which his parents were identified in the birth story, 2:1 ff.), and to do so it has to go back to the family of Jacob, following the order if their birth through Levi.

The second answer is more midrashic: as these tribes were subjected to criticism in Jacob’s Blessing (Gen 49:3-7), the Torah here leans over backwards, so to speak, to suggest that they weren’t so bad after all, here mentioning them alone, thereby giving them special emphasis.

SHEMOT: Postscript

Some further thoughts about the birth of Moses, discussed last week: unlike other birth accounts in the Bible (Yitzhak, Jacob & Esau, Samuel, Samson), which involved the mother’s previous barrenness, here Yokheved. This explains Rashi’s comment on 2:1, which I overlooked earlier, and which is actually rather interesting. There is a real difficulty in that verse, given what we know: why are we told that “a man from the house of Levi went and took a daughter of Levi” when they already have two children, Aaron and Miriam? Thus, this verse must have a particular significance: namely, that he had withdrawn from marital life with her or even divorced her, because of Pharaoh’s decree, feeling that there was no point in living with a woman and making her pregnant, simply so that any future child could be killed. Here, he took her back—according to the Midrash, at the counsel of Miriam, who persuaded him that there might yet be hope.

Unlike Otto Rank’s theory, in which it’s all about the child fantasizing about better” parents, here the child was very much attached to his birth parents, and rejected the royal foster parents. Indeed, the whole story should be read as a celebration of the oppressed, the downtrodden, and their getting their comeuppance against the high and mighty: first through the child surviving; second, through his birth mother being able to nurse him at least through infancy; and third, through his use of the privileges gained in the royal household to free his people and get back at the wicked Pharaoh.

But he didn’t entirely reject his foster parents. There is a whole group of midrashim which celebrate Batya daughter of Pharaoh as a model of compassion and ordinary human feeling. According to b. Megilah 13a, she is even identified with Kaleb ben Yefuneh’s “Jewish wife” mentioned in 1 Chronicles 4:18 (this is of special interest to me because she is in turn the mother of Avi-Gedor, which in the truncated form of “Avigdor” was my father’s name).

Apropos of Nothing

This past week I had an interesting and significant email exchange. Apropos a comment I made on a list-serve group about the uglier side of certain recent rabbinic rulings and policies (to be discussed another time), I received the following note:

I will confess to you, that I am increasing convinced that kedusha [holiness] and orthodoxy are at odds, and I have a choice to make: Gd or Orthodoxy.

My response was as follows:

It was sad to read your note, but I can identify with your sentiments. Nevertheless, I think you need to draw a clear distinction between Orthodoxy as a sociological and institutional nexus, and Orthodoxy as the basic idea that to be a good Jew means to observe Torah and mitzvot, as these have traditionally been understood.

Nehama Leibowitz, with whom I had the privilege of studying in my younger years, used to say that one of the basic mistakes people make is to blame religion for the faults of religious people. The Torah seeks to perfect human beings; the fact that even the most pious, as a group, are far from perfect, doesn’t mean that the Torah is “wrong,” or even that it “doesn’t work,” but simply that human beings are, by nature, far from perfect.

And then, among all hypocritical and cruel and stupid religious people, including rabbis, you meet an authentic Tzaddik, whom the Torah has shaped into something really special… and that can make all the difference.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Shevat (Months)

Month of Shevat

The month of Shevat is paradoxical: it is still winter, to all external appearances, but there is a sense of growth, of gestation, of transition soon-to-happen, that deep within the earth the new growth that signals the coming of spring is almost ready to appear. The plague of hail described in last week’s Torah reading, that quite possibly occurred at the beginning of Shevat, captures that sense: “the flax and the barley were ruined, but the wheat and the spelt were not damaged, for they were as yet ‘dark’ [i.e., beneath the earth’s surface]” (Exod 9:31). On the trees that I see right next to my house, the last year’s yellowed leaves are still sitting on the lower branches, waiting to fall off, while on the upper branches one can already see the hard knobs that will soon bud, and then blossom. And today my wife reported that, on the way home from shul, she saw the first kalaniyot (red poppy flowers) and almond trees in bloom.

This sense of transition in nature is symbolized by the minor holiday of this month—Tu bi-Shevat, the “New Year of Trees,” marked by a new and an old custom: the new custom, introduced by the Zionist movement, which saw the reforestation of the Land of Israel as a kind of secular mitzvah, is the planting of saplings on this day (although, between the building developers, the strip malls, and the new toll highways “clothing her with a dress of cement,” and the separation wall from the Palestinians, one wonders whether the tree population of Eretz-Yisrael is in fact growing or declining: the rape of the Land’s ecosystem is a veritable eleventh plague). The old custom is that of eating all kinds of fruits on the night of Tu bi-Shevat, on which more below.

Interestingly, the Torah portions for this month seem to symbolize the blooming or blossoming of the Jewish people. One week after another, we read of three cardinal, formative moments, in our ancient history: the first Passover and the Exodus from Egypt (Bo); the splitting of the Sea, signaling the final liberation from the yoke of the Egyptians (Beshalah); and the great moment of revelation at Sinai (Yitro). A major group of midrashim on Bo are marked by this feeling of freshness and renewal. Elaborating on the words, “this month shall be for you the first of months,” they begin with the motif from the Song of Songs, “For behold the winter has passed, the rain is over and gone away, the blossoms are seen on the earth, and the voice of the turtle dove is heard in our land” (Song of Songs 2:11-12). The ever-repeated miracle of new life is paralleled liturgically by the birth of a people, ever-renewed in its own consciousness.

The zodiacal symbol for this month is Aquarius, deli, the water carrier. (In the 1960s, hippies used to speak of the putative beginning of a new astronomical “Age of Aquarius” as a significant landmark, signaling a new era of liberation for mankind; why this symbolism was considered fortuitous, I have no idea.) In any event, in Judaism water is symbolic of Torah, a metaphor for its “living waters” that fructify and nourish the soul, just as water is needed to sustain bodily life. “Ho, let every one who is thirsty come to water” (Isa 55:1; and compare Ps 42:2; 63:2, and many other places).

Students of Lurianic teachings note that the tikkun for this month relates to eating—surely one of the most problematic of human activities. This is one of the meanings, in the Kabbalistic tradition, of the Tu Bishvat Seder, at which one eats many different kinds of fruit, savoring the sight and smell and taste of each kind, reciting its blessing with special kavvanot, reading Zohar and other passages that relate to the worlds of meaning and associations embodied in each one (the olive with its goodly oil that must be squeezed out of it painfully, like the Jewish people who have so often been “squeezed” and oppressed during its difficult history, but always end up floating to the top; the pomegranate, filled with seeds as numerous as the mitzvot; the apple tree, to whom the lover in Song of Songs is compared; the stately date palm, whose fronds are used to praise God during Sukkot; etc., etc.)—in brief, a night of deep meditation on the various kinds of fruits and by extension other good things with which God has filled this world. It is a night for tikkun—a night when we ate and taste thoughtfully, with attention, with awareness, an attempt to “correct” all those times during the year when we eat hastily, perhaps grabbing fast food on the run, when we fail to appreciate the abundance and richness of our lives, when we don’t take the time share words of Torah or wisdom with our companions, when we fail to eat with the dignity and sense of value required for eating to be a truly human act.

For me personally, Shevat carries an important personal association: it marks the Yahrzeits of both my rabbinic grandfathers: my father’s father, Rabbi Simhah Eliyahu b. Meir Cypkewicz, who died on 15 Shevat 58 years ago; and Rabbi Avraham Naftali b. Yisrael Yitzhak Gallant, my mother’s father, who died 70 years ago on 29 Shevat. These two men represent almost diametrically opposed images of the rabbi: the former, a Matmid, an introverted, lonely, ascetic Talmudic scholar, perpetually learning, whom, family legend has it, died sitting at the shtender—in certain circles, the highest imaginable praise! The other, a powerful, charismatic preacher and communal leader, author of nine volumes of derush widely used by other rabbis of his day as sermonic material, an activist deeply involved in the issues of the day, especially the movement to create a Jewish homeland, who dedicated several of his books to his children, whom he hoped would one day merit “to go up to Zion with joyous song.” Taken together, they symbolize for me the two poles between which Jewish religious life must fluctuate: the profound inner life of Torah and avodah, of prayer and leaning; and the outward-reaching life of sharing, of teaching, of building community, and of tikkun olam, of broad social concern.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Shemot (Rashi)

The Birth of Moses

For further tecahings on this portion, see the archives to this blog for January 2006.

With this week’s portion, we leave behind the world of the Fathers and turn to Israel in Egypt, the events leading up to the Redemption from Egypt—and the figure of the great teacher and deliverer, Moses, beginning with his formative years and early life. A substantial piece of narrative—ten verses (Exod 2:1-10)—is devoted to his birth and surrounding events. It occurred to me this year, for the first time, that this section deserves a closer examination (Perhaps because, in my personal life, I am very much betwixt and between events of death and birth; nothing mythic or Phoenix-like, but a new grandchild due any day). Why does the Torah elaborate upon this subject as it does?

The story begins with the marriage of his parents who, strangely, are not identified by name: they are simply “a man from the house of Levi” and “a daughter of Levi.” It is only much later, in the partial genealogy of the tribes following the festive proclamation of the forthcoming Exodus, in Exod 6:20, that we learn their names—this is, in fact, almost the only time Amram and Yocheved are named in the Bible (the others are in genealogical tables in Numbers and in Chronicles).

The story is preceded by Pharaoh’s decree that all male children (presumably the Israelites alone) are to be drowned in the Nile (Exod 1:22); this, after the good midwives had used subterfuge to thwart his decree that every male child be killed (vv. 15-21). Following his birth, we are told that his parents saw that he was “good.” This is followed by the main point of the story: that, after seeing that they could no longer hide him, his parents set him down in the river in a little basket, his sister (again, unnamed here) keeps an eye on him, he is seen by Pharaoh’s daughter, who takes pity on him and decides to adopt him, at which point Miriam steps out of the shadows, so to speak, to offer her mother’s services as a nursemaid. He thus spends his infancy in his parental home, with his mother as his hired wet-nurse, and thereafter raised in the royal house.

The phrase, “they saw he was good,” quite naturally puzzled the midrash and commentators. What kind of “goodness” is referred to here? It could not be moral good, as a new-born is hardly confronted with any moral decisions, being hardly able to even move, speak, or do anything else but suck at the breast. Was he good in that he did not cry, thereby making it easier to conceal his existence? Was he beautiful, of goodly appearance? Among the suggestions made by the midrash at Exod. Rab. 1.20 are that his name was Tov or Tuviah; that he was born circumcised, and thus physically perfect in a sense that most males are not; that he was somehow born already fit for prophecy (as in the call to Jeremiah, “before I formed you in the womb I knew you”); or that chosen by Rashi to single out in his comment:

“And the woman conceived, and gave birth to a son; and she saw him, that he was good, and hid him for three months.” Rashi: “That he was good.” When he was born the entire house was filled with light (b. Sotah 12a)

This story invites comparison to other birth stories. The motif of the birth of the child who is destined to play an important role in later life, the circumstances of whose birth are themselves unusual, is a common one in the Bible. Notable examples are: the birth of Isaac, after the visitation of Abraham by the angels and the miraculously renewed fruitfulness of his elderly mother; that of Jacob, again following a period of barrenness and prayer, focused on the children’s struggle in the womb, foreshadowing both the future competition between the brothers and that between the respective nations who will stem from them; that of Perez and Zerah, the sons of Judah and Tamar; of the prophet Samuel, whose mother prayed for a child during her annual visit to the temple at Shiloh, vowing that his life would be dedicated to God; and of Samson, whose birth was, again, heralded by an angelic visit and instructions to the mother that both she and the child must observe Nazirite practices.

The motif likewise appears in other cultures and other religions, as well as in later Judaism. Otto Rank, a psychologist of Freud’s Vienna circle, who later broke with him over his lack of adherence to Oedipal orthodoxy, wrote an entire monograph entitled The Myth of the Birth of the Hero, in which he analyzes a series of such stories and propounds a psychoanalytic interpretation centered on the role of the child in the family and his need to break with his parents. The best-known birth story to those of us who grew up in Western culture is that of the nativity of Jesus, who was also born under conditions of flight and difficulty (in one version they are fleeing from the tax collectors: a timely subject, although now the tables are turned, the tax men being the ones pursued by the police), and involving an angelic annunciation, motifs of light, etc. Rank discusses, among others, the births of the Buddha, Sargon, Oedipus, Gilgamesh, Cyrus the Great, Romulus, Hercules, etc. Latter-day Jewish figures whose births are embellished by legend include R. Yitzhak Luria (the Ari), the Baal Shem Tov, the Gaon of Vilna, the Or ha-Hayyim and most recently the late Lubavitcher Rebbe; and, to turn again to the non-Jewish world, the Dalai Lama, who is still very much among us. All these involved various signs, miracles, overcoming obstacles, arduous journeys by messengers, etc.

Being neither a scholar of comparative religion, an expert in semiotics and symbolism, nor a psychiatrist, I will only talk about the Moses story, with the other Jewish stories in the background. I see the basic significance of this and other such stories in terms of the old debate about nature vs. nurture. On the one hand, Judaism teaches free-will, personal choice, the idea that each and every individual is able to make of his life what he wishes, given enough diligence, hard work and will-power. There is a strong democratic streak: the Torah is open to poor and rich; “take heed of the children of the poor, for from them shall come forth Torah.” Stories of schleppers, people from poor backgrounds—both socio-economically and even culturally and intellectually—who appear out of nowhere to become gedolim and make great contributions to Yahadut, are rife: Rabbi Akiva, Onkelos, Shemaya and Avtalyon, even Resh Lakish, are a few examples. Some of the great teachers of our day, as well, came from assimilated and ignorant backgrounds. The central message is thus one of personal responsibility. On the other hand, there is also an idea that birth, the basic givens of a person, genetics, if you will, are important in determining what a person becomes. There is a feeling that great people will have extraordinary childhoods and births, somehow heralding their great future. (Closely related to the birth legends are the legends of prodigies: such-and-such a person knew the entire Talmud by age thirteen, or ten, or even earlier. Such stories are told even today, about people living among us, such as Prof. David Weiss-HaLivni or Rav Aharon Lichtenstein. It is told of the latter that, when barely past bar mitzvah age, he used to sit in the Bet Midrash at Hayyim Berlin, and bokhurim five or six years older then him, who were already young adults, would come to him to explain difficult Talmudic passages. I heard this from these students, now men in their 70s or 80s, who remember him fondly as “the kid.”) But—and I think this is the crucial point—this is not an aristocracy of birth, of “breeding,” so much as it is based on the insight that the great person, the extraordinary individual, will somehow shows signs of his future capability from birth.

Ehyeh asher Ehyeh: “I will be as I will be”

But perhaps the single most important passage in this week’s parsha is that describing the encounter between Moses and God at the burning bush, whose high point comes when Moses asks God what he shall tell the Israelites about the God who spoke to him, and God answers, ehyeh asher ehyeh, usually translated as “I shall be as I shall be.”

The conventional wisdom holds that this sentence is one in which the meaning of the four-letter Ineffable Name of the Divine is derived from the verb “to be,” and simply means “Being” or “He whose Being is unconditional”—conjuring up, perhaps, the reflections of some weighty and abstruse German philosopher. However, Art Green, in his book Seek My Face, Speak My Name, makes an interesting observation:

… Y-H-W-H, the One of all being. This name of God is the starting point of all Jewish theology. It is to be read as an impossible construction of the verb “to be.” HaYaH—that which was—HoWeH—that which is—and YiHYeH—that which will be—are here forced together in a grammatically impossible conflation. Y-H-W-H is a verb that has been artificially arrested in motion and made to function as a noun.

In other words: the Ineffable Name is not really a name at all, but a construction that forces one to realize that one cannot really define God at all. Green continues:

This elusiveness is underscored by the fact that all the letters that make up this name served in ancient Hebrew interchangeably as consonants and as vowels…. There is nothing hard or defined in their sound. The name of that which is most eternal and unchanging in the universe is also that which is wiped away as readily as a passing breath. (p. 18)

This idea is really close to an important insight of Buber: that God can never be related to as an abstraction, a concept, an object of thought, but only as He to whom one stands in relation. God cannot be an “It” but is always “the Eternal Thou”—i.e., in relationship—and therefore cannot be referred to by any name.

Although Rashi on our verse does not express these ideas directly (which are of course couched in a type language that belongs to our time, not his), it is not anachronistic to imagine them as implicit in the background of what he says here:

3:14. “And God said to Moses, ‘I shall be as I shall be.’ And He said: Thus shall you say to the children of Israel. ‘I shall be’ has sent me to you.” Rashi: “I shall be as I shall be.” I shall be with them in this trouble, just as I shall be with them during their subjugation in future exiles (Berakhot 9b). He [Moses] said to Him: Master of the Universe. Why shall I mention to them another trouble? Surely their present trouble suffices for them! (Exod. Rab. 3.6). He said to him: You have spoken well. “Thus shall you say….”

Here, the Divine name does not refer to large, abstract philosophical or theological issues about the nature of God and of Being. Rather, the statement “I shall be as I shall be” is a simple statement of presence, of solidarity, of support, a promise that He will be with the people and see them through in this difficult time.

But even that is not simple enough or down-to-earth enough for Moses. God begins with a sweeping promise: not only will I be with them in their present situation, but in future times of difficulty as well. Here, Moses cuts Him short; we can imagine him saying something like: “Are You crazy? The people have enough to have to deal with in the present situation. There’s no point even hinting that things might not be peaceful and rosy thereafter!” God readily agrees to this (some commentators are troubled at the hint that the Omniscient might not have known this already, and suggest that His statement “I will be with them in future troubles” was meant for Moses’ ears alone), and modifies it to “I will be” has sent you.

Some time ago I had an experience that brought this point home to me. A friend of mine wished to discuss a difficult and painful halakhic issue related to premarital sex. I discussed the issue with him, and then emailed a study I wrote some years ago (HY V: Vayeshev, Mishpatim, Vayakhel), in which I discussed the ramifications of various positions against the backdrop of contemporary culture. My friend answered: “You wrote there about the consequences of different approaches in terms of the entire generation and the whole Jewish people, but I don’t have the head for any of that; I’m really interested in myself and my own problem.” In short, the ordinary person, and even highly educated and sophisticated people, are interested by and large in their own lives and their own concrete needs. So, too, Rashi here reads the potentially abstract idea of ehyeh asher ehyeh in very concrete, real, down to earth terms.

A surprisingly unphilosophical and untheological definition of God, so to speak, also appears in Rashi’s treatment of the Shema (Deut 6:4). There, the counterpoint between “HWYH is our God” and “HWYH is One” is explained, not in terms of abstractions about the nature or meaning of Unity, but in concrete, historical terms: “God, whom you, Israel, know now, will be the God of all at some future time.” (We will return to this, with God’s help, in Parshat Vaethanan; meanwhile, see my discussion of this point from previous years in my blog archives).

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Vayehi (Rashi)

We mark with sadness the passing in recent weeks of two members of our family circle: my aunt, Martha Sardell, who died in New York on 1 Tevet (December 22); and my former mother-in-law, Hilde Engelman, on 11 Tevet (January 1). We share in the grief of the immediate families and offer our condolences to all the mourners, and to all those who loved them.

For more teachings on this parsha see the archives below, at January 2006.

“And Jacob lived… And the days of Israel came to die”

It is an interesting paradox that those two parshiyot which feature variations of the word hayyim (“life/to live”), Hayyei Sarah and Vayehi, deal specifically with death: the end of life. This week’s parsha, in particular, is a kind of hiatus within the forward motion of the Torah narrative towards enslavement and redemption, to record the final days of Father Jacob: his illness, the blessings he gave, first to the grandchildren born in Egypt and then to his sons, and an elaborate description of his embalming, the mourning, and burial procession to Canaan. It seems to me that this linguistic oddity really comes to teach a lesson: that Jewish tradition sees the emphasis on life, and perceives death, not as a mystery to be dreaded or as a mysterious passage into the unknown, but primarily as the natural culmination of life. In any event, the task of those who remain in this world is to respect the departed friend or relative, to speak of their life, and to reaffirm their own faith in God (the underlying idea of the Mourner’s Kaddish).

“He Switched his Hands”

In Chapter 48 Yosef brings his two Egyptian-born sons before their grandfather Yaakov to be blessed. This scene (which has been painted by Rembrandt) includes a curious gesture: Yosef arranges the young men before their grandfather according to age, so that the older, Manasheh, is opposite Yaakov’s right hand, but the old man deliberately crosses his hands over one another so as to give the “higher” blessing to Ephraim, the younger. When Joseph tries to correct him, he explains that he is fully aware of what he is doing, and explains that he is doing so for a good reason: namely, that Efraim, the younger—whether he or his descendants—will in some sense be “greater” and more important than Manasheh.

Rashi, quite understandably, attempts to elaborate upon this strange saying, which really begs to be read in prophetic, oracular fashion. Why else, otherwise, would he arbitrarily favor one adolescent grandson over the other?

48:19. “I know, my son, I know. He, too, shall be a people, and he will also be great. But his younger brother shall be greater than he, and his seed shall be as abundant as nations.”

Rashi: “He too shall be a people, and he will also be great.” That Gideon will come from him, by whom the Holy One blessed be He will perform a miracle. ”But his younger brother shall be greater than he.” That Joshua shall come from him, who shall inherit the Land and teach Torah to Israel. “And his seed shall be as abundant as [lit., fill the] nations.” The entire world will be filled when his reputation and his name goes out, when he shall make the sun stand still at Gideon and the moon in the valley of Ayalon.

The two brothers are to be the progenitors, respectively, of Gideon and of Joshua, two important leaders during the period between Moses and the monarchy. Gideon, one of the judges who saved Israel during a period of harsh subjugation to the Midianites (see Judges 6-8) was perhaps the best-known leader from the tribe of Manasseh (interesting, one could read the allusion to his Manassite origin—“my clan is the humblest in all Manasseh, and I am the youngest in my fathers house” (6:15)— as part of his self-effacing response when he receives the call from an angel). But Joshua, Moses’ successor, who led the conquest and inheritance of the Land of Israel, was from Ephraim—surely a more important role. Albeit, rather interestingly, Rashi seems to consider the miracles performed by each as the main criterion for greatness.

But the more interesting question, to my mind, is why Rashi completely omits any mention of Jeroboam son of Nabat. Surely, if one is speaking of the long-range historical significance of the Joseph tribes, their most important role was as the dominant tribes in the northern kingdom that split away from the Judahite-Davidic leadership after the death of Solomon—and in this connection, Jeroboam was the archetypal, instrumental figure. Judah and Joseph, whom we saw as rivals for leadership in last week’s portion, ruled over parallel kingdoms for some two hundred years, albeit the midrashic tradition prefers to see Yosef, not as rival to Yehudah and David, but as complementing it.

The answer is that the Rabbinic tradition issues a starkly negative verdict on Jeroboam: he is an evil king (see, e.g., Mishnah Sanhedrin 10.2). True, the prophet Ahiyah initially gave him a mandate to rule over ten of the tribes, tearing his garment as a symbolic sign of the rent in the Israelite people as a result of the tyrannical approach of Solomon’s heir Rehoboam, and is told that if he walks in God’s ways he will be blessed, his kingdom will be firmly established, etc. (1 Kings 11:29-39). But immediately thereafter we see him using religion for political ends. Fearful that the people would return to Jerusalem on the pilgrim festivals to make sacrifices, he set up his own shrines (with graven calves!) at Bethel and Dan, the two geographical extremities of his kingdom, knowing that their religious sentiments would draw them to wherever there was a holy place (12:25-33). But see more on this below.

Following this an anonymous prophet comes from Judah, predicting a bad end both to Jeroboam’s house and to the altar. (This prophet himself meets a bizarre end, in one of the stranger stories in the Tanakh—but we cannot go into that.) In any event, it is clear from all this why Rashi was hardly enthused by the figure of Yeroboam, treating him with a thunderous silence.

"Reuven, you are my Firstborn”

We now turn to the blessings of the twelve tribes. These have a wealth of midrashim, and Rashi comments extensively on nearly every verse. By way of introduction, I will quote the opening verse, which establishes the tone of the whole section:

49:1. “Gather together and let me tell you what will befall you at the end of days.” Rashi: He sought to reveal the End, but the Shekhinah departed from him, and he began to speak of other things.

That is, these blessings are prophetic in nature; indeed, Yaakov intended to reveal the secrets of the End of Days. The moment before death is often seen as a time of heightened awareness and religious consciousness, in which the dying man already has one foot, so to speak, in the other world—particularly in the case of so a great figure such as the Patriarch Yaakov. Even though he is prevented from revealing the ultimate secrets of the End, his words (and the corresponding blessings of Moses at the very end of the Torah) are seen as alluding to the entire course of future history. (Although I would make the caveat that the phrase aharit hayamim, literally, “the End of days,” is not necessarily eschatology. In Balaam’s prophecy, in Num 24:14 ff., it seems to refer to future events within the normal parameters of history.)

As an example of Rashi’s treatment of these blessings, we shall treat here the first verse, that concerning Yaakov’s firstborn son, Reuven:

49.3 “Reuven, you are my first born, my might and the first fruit of my vigor [or: potency]; exceeding in rank and exceeding in honor.” Rashi: “the first of my vigor/potency.” He was [conceived] from [Jacob’s] his first drop, who never [until then] had a seminal discharge in his life. “My potency”—my strength, as in “I have gained strength for myself” (Hosea 12:9); “because of his great might” (Isa 40:26); “[vigor] to him who has no might” (ibid., v. 29).

There are a variety of issues here. Reuven was not only Yaakov’s first-born (and thus also first-conceived) child, but the midrash states, in rather hyperbolic fashion, that the latter never so much as had an involuntary seminal discharge until his wedding night (which, ironically, was spent with a woman he thought was someone else). This phrase thus stresses sexual purity and control as an important component of virtue and holiness, with semen as an obvious focus of power, vigor, potency, etc.

Rashi continues by bringing a series of prooftexts to explain the word און, a rather unusual word. It is typical of Rashi, whenever there is an unusual word, to explain it, often by inference from other biblical verses where it is used. The texts brought here support the understanding of the word as meaning “strength” or “vigor” in general—although the use in the verse strongly suggests that it refers to “sexual potency,” which is also its use in modern Hebrew. An interesting speculation: is there any relationship between the root און used her, and the name אונן, Onan, which is identical to it except for the doubling of the final letter—Judah’s second son who “spilled his seed on the ground”—i.e., misdirected his potency.

In any event, the more important point made here is that Reuven’s status as firstborn entitled him to special privileges in two distinct areas—but he lost these due to his character faults, as expressed in several incidents, which cause him in the next verse to be described as “unstable as water” (i.e., his impulsive offer to kill his two sons in exchange for freeing Binyamin; his sexual appropriation of his fathers concubine; his premature interest in the aphrodisiac roots of the mandrake and their significance to the sex-life of the adults around him).

“Exceeding in rank (se’et).” You ought to have had an advantage over your brothers for the priesthood—alluded to in the language of “lifting up hands [נשיאת כפיים].” “And exceeding in honor.” Alluding to the kingship, as is said, “He will give power [עז] to his king” ( 1 Sam 2:10). But what caused you to lose all these? “Unstable as water…”

This last section is most interesting: Reuven is shown as having the potential to be both king and high priest (again, based upon analogy to other biblical verses in which the same key words are used): in other words, the two “crowns” are potentially compatible. But as a result of Reuven’s weakness—or perhaps, as we shall see, the instability of human nature itself—he was not only denied both these privileges, but they were thenceforth split, the one going to Judah, the other to Levi. Ever during the desert years, under the greatest leaders Israel had ever known, these functions were divided, between Moses as lawgiver / teacher / judge / political leader, and Aaron as priest in the sense of the ceremonial role of performing the actual Divine service. The earlier-mentioned incident of Jeroboam is another case in which the mixture of politics and religion was seen in a negative light, while the age of the Hasmoneans, in which the priestly family became de facto monarchs within a generation or two, to the clear displeasure of the Sages, is yet another.

The question is: why are these two functions seen as incompatible? Or, to sharpen the question, why—as suggested by the role originally allotted the first-born Reuven, according to this Rashi—is the union of secular and sacred rule, as the medievals called it, or of political and religious authority, theoretically desirable, and why is it rejected and seen as dangerous in practice?

The answer lies in the idea of the unity of truth. The ethical-religious-societal truths to be promulgated by both rule and priest are ultimately one, the role of both being to establish the kingdom of God on earth. The function of government, in theory, is to care for the people, their needs and welfare, to protect them against external enemies, etc. The king’s rule is meant to be benevolent and disinterested—perhaps something like the humble image of leaders close to the people which some people claim (no doubt with nostalgic distortion) existed during the early years of the State of Israel—Ben-Gurion in his open-necked shirt, Ben-Zvi in his humble tzrif, Begin riding to office by buses, etc. It is in this light that Rambam paints the task of the king in Hilkhot Melakhim 2.6:

Just as Scripture gave great honor to the king, and required all to honor him, so did it command that within himself his heart should be lowly and empty, as is said, “And my heart was empty within me” [Ps 109:22]. And he should not behave with excessive haughtiness towards Israel, as is said, “that he not lift up his heart above his brethren” [Deut 17:20], but he should be compassionate and merciful to great and small. And he should go out and come in concerned with their needs and their welfare, and take pity on the honor of the lowest of the low.

And when he speaks to the entire public he should speak gently, as is said, “Hear now, my brethren and people” [1 Chr 28:2]. And it says “if today you will be a servant to this people” [1 Kgs 12:7]. And he should always behave with great humility.

There was none greater than Moses our Teacher, and he said, “But we, what are we? Your complaint is not against us…” [Exod 16:8]. And he should bear their trouble and burden and complaints and anger, like a nursemaid who carries an infant. Scripture called him a shepherd: “to shepherd Jacob his people” [Ps 78:7]. And the way of a shepherd is explained in tradition, “As a shepherd leads his flock, gathering the lambs with his arms into his bosom…” (Isa 40:11).

All this is the ideal vision of what monarchy should be. But in practice, “power corrupts” and “absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Sooner or later, human nature being what it is, leaders will begin to use their position to fulfill their own desires for wealth, power, control. It was this that ultimately put the paid to the egalitarian socialist ideal of Marxism when applied in practice in the Soviet Union.

Religion speaks—or claims to—in the name of God, as the Source of absolute, incontrovertible Truth. But there too, there is a temptation on the part of religious leaders—priests, rabbis, prophets, gurus, masters—to use their religious authority to further their own earthly, personal needs, ambitions, and desires. Even taken by itself, religion has a potent psychological power which can easily be abused. One may see this today: with so many people seeking spiritual meaning to their lives, beyond creature comforts and wealth, it is often more a matter of luck than anything else whether they find an authentic teacher of the soul or fall prey to cynical charlatans, who may jump at the opportunity for wealth, adoration, sexual favors, etc.—and the things are well-known.

Unless one wishes to advocate anarchism and atheism, one cannot avoid these dangers completely. Society needs leaders, and believing man needs religious teachers and leaders. But it would seem that the Torah wished to avoid the worst of the above dangers by separating the two realms from one another, in the hope that priest, prophets and sage would serve as a check against the runaway lust for power of the governing authorities—and, hopefully, vice versa.

The situation in Israel, in which the Rabbinate is administered under the rubric of a governmental agency, and the Chief Rabbi is elected by an electoral board operating within the political game of horse-trading, is unhealthy, if not downright poisonous, to any real religious leadership. But we shall return to this discussion shortly in its own right.

The Tallis Puzzle

Re the question I posed at the end of last issue: Thomas Tallis (1505-1585) was an English church musician who, among other works, composed a Fantasy for Keyboard. Perhaps better known than that is Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis (1910), or the Tallis Fantasia, for short.

This answer was given by Rahel Jaskow, as befitting one of the few trained musicians on our list (she is a talented soprano singer), as by Mark Kirschbaum and David Eisen. For myself, I owe my knowledge of this tidbit to my oldest brother, Chip, who possesses an encyclopedic knowledge of the classical music repertoire and its performances (although rather little about either taleisim or tallitot).

But some of the “wrong” answers (or at least those unintended on my part) were perhaps more interesting. One reader, who asked to remain anonymous, quoted Wikopedia about a game called “Talisman: The Magical Quest Game”:

“The game was renamed “Talisman” and it was shown at Games Day 1983. The first edition of Talisman was nearly identical to the Second Edition: the differences between the two are purely cosmetic. The first edition’s black and white deck cards were replaced with coloured versions in the 2nd edition. Also the folding board of the first edition was replaced with a 4-piece board which fitted together like a jigsaw puzzle.”

Take this with a sense of humour, Even if this is not connected to your own associative thinking process, I was intrigued by the colour changes in the TALISMAN game from black-and-white to colour. Furthermore the game itself has interesting themes and element.

Another reader suggested I was going back to my childhood roots, through associations elicited by my “old threadbare tallit, which for you was a tallis.” Yet another, a psychotherapist by profession, suggested that:

The reason you spelled it tallis rather than tallit was because in your fantasy subconscious muse you returned to your pre-Zionistic Ashkenazic roots in middle Europe where Buber did his work, and felt the need for consistency. Only in Europe was our struggle with Christianity mostly felt. In your fantasy you hit upon the deep need for future tikkun olam… the need for the daughter religions of Abraham our Patriarch to somehow come to a mutual validation. We need to admit to the fact that much of Rabbinic Judaism was a product of the need for a self-definition to be a negative image of Pauline theology. In doing so we lost much of the powerful mythological pathos that accompanied their world view. We need this tikkun so we can honestly re-appropriate this lost theological telos (instead of hiding it in Hasidic and other mystical theologies that parallel closely Pauline theology).

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Vayigash (Rashi)

For further teachings on this parsha, see the archives for January 2006.

The Great Confrontation

Last week’s parshah (which might well be called the original “cliff-hanger”) left off at the very height of dramatic tension, with the brothers finding themselves in an impossible dilemma: Benjamin, the beloved youngest son, whom their father had agreed to send down to Egypt only after they gave their pledge to take special care of him, is singled out by what seems clear evidence of a crime he has committed—stealing the “Egyptian viceroy’s” special divining goblet. Many see in this the crux of the test that the disguised Joseph has set up for them: will they stand up for their brother, or abandon him to his fate? Will they believe the worst, as their eyes seem to show—that Benjamin is an ingrate and a thief—or not?

At this point Judah steps forward and speaks to “the man,” in a speech in which his qualities of nobility, responsibility, and familial solidarity and caring come to the fore—qualities which, according to one traditional rabbinic reading, gave him the victory in the covert struggle with Joseph for leadership of the other tribes, and ultimately assures that the royal family of Israel will come from him (see what I quoted in the name of Rav Soloveitchik in HY I: Vayigash = Vayigash [Torah]).

Superficially, this speech seems couched in terms of reverence, homage, and self-effacement before the dignified official—who, as second to Pharaoh alone, has the power to decide their fate at his whim. But behind the polite tone, Rashi detects barely-veiled criticism and anger. And indeed, that seems befitting to a confrontation that is filled with duality: on the one level, that of the humble Canaanite shepherds opposite the powerful Egyptian vizier; on another level, what we really know it to be, an encounter between one long-lost brother and the rest, with a heavy burden of unresolved internal family conflicts between them. I shall begin davka with Rashi’s comment on the second verse:

44:19. “My master has asked his servants, saying: Do you have a father or a brother?” Rashi: From the beginning you came to us with a fabrication. What need had you to ask all this of us? Did we seek [to marry] your daughter or do you want our sister?

Yehudah expresses the long-pent-up anger and frustration felt at the protracted run-around to which he and his brothers have been subjected by this strange man. He declares his innocence: we answered all of your questions in good faith; indeed, it is implied, it is only thus that you know of the existence of a younger brother in the first place. But such questions are really out of place: we have not come here to get involved in your family in an intimate way, which would justify such meticulous inspection; we wanted nothing more than to buy some grain, a straightforward, routine business matter in this time and place.

We shall now return to Rashi on the opening verse:

18. “…Be not wrath with your servants, for you are like Pharaoh.” Rashi: “for you are like Pharaoh.” You are as important in our eyes as the king—thus its plain, literal meaning. And its midrash: in the end you shall be stricken with leprosy on his account [i.e., that of Benjamin] just as Pharaoh was stricken on account of my grandmother Sarah for one night that he detained her [see Gen 12:10-20]. Another thing: Just as Pharaoh makes an edict and does not fulfill it, promises and fails to act, so do you. Is this the “placing of the eye” that you had in mind when you said, “that I may place my eye upon him” [below, v. 21, referring to an earlier conversation between Joseph and the brothers]. Another thing: If you insult me, I shall kill you and your master.

We find here a classical structure in Rashi: the simple meaning (peshat), followed by a midrashic interpretation or, as in this case, a number of such. The first midrash invokes the principle of Divine retribution, invoking the precedent of what happened to an earlier pharaoh who tried to take Sarah for himself—notwithstanding that this happened in all innocence, as a result of Abraham’s deliberate deception. That is, there is a God in Heaven, before Whom even kings are accountable. The second midrash makes an ethical judgment, as if to say: we are not impressed by fancy robes and titles, but judge a person by his character and his actions. Just as Pharaoh is untrustworthy, so are you turning out to be. (Is this a reference to any particular pharaoh Judah might have known, or a projection into the later future: the Pharaoh of the oppression, or perhaps even of later pharaohs, such as those mentioned in Isaiah and Jeremiah’s prophecies) Finally, we have a direct threat: if need be, we will not hesitate to harm you, just as we will do to Pharaoh.

The overall message of all three units is: behind the pomp and ceremony lies a human being like any other, subject to human feelings and physical vulnerability just like any other person. I see here a certain type of age-old Jewish folk wisdom: a skepticism about worldly power which, while it may look impressive, has no cover to it. Certainly, we can well imagine Rashi speaking thus of his own and his community’s situation in medieval Europe: a kind of revenge of the powerless, to say, at least within the safety of the group, what they really think of the high and mighty and powerful.

Erich Auerbach, in Mimesis, observes that biblical language is usually very spare and lacking in the sort of rich descriptive detail or portrayal of inner emotion as is found in Western literature (he gives the example of a passage from Homer’s Odyssey). Surely, one of the functions of midrash is to compensate or fill in that sparseness. Hence, it is not illegitimate or improper (as some readers seem to have hinted) to seek multiple layers in the text; another, totally different story lying beneath the surface of the first story (a “twice-told tale,” as Joshua Levinson has called it). And nowhere is this more the case than in this scene, where the characters are not whom they seem, and the ambiguity between the two levels fairly cries out for explication.

Did Joseph Do Teshuvah?

There is a certain line of interpretation often invoked in the tradition, in Hasidic texts and elsewhere, that bothers me: namely, one in which Judah and Joseph are painted as two diametrically opposed archetypes. Whereas Judah is portrayed as a ba’al teshuvah who performed two serious sins that expressed a powerful “evil urge”— throwing Joseph into the pit, and sleeping with a woman whom he thought was a prostitute (is this in fact condemned by the text? It’s not altogether clear; the incident can be read in an almost matter-of-fact way)—Joseph is spoken of as the archetypal tzaddik: a person who was altogether righteous, not only in the mystical/Kabbalistic sense of serving as a channel for the flow of Divine abundance and blessing, but in the simple sense, for withstanding sexual temptation in the person of Potiphar’s wife.

What bothers me about this is that, while he may not have committed sins of passion—either of violence or of sexual lust—Yosef’s character still leaves much to be desired. To many contemporary readers, he seems an arrogant, narcissistic prig: in his youth—preoccupied with his own self, vain, primping, telling his brothers of his dreams or visions of grandeur; later on, on the simple level, his treatment of his brothers seems to border on the sadistic—an elaborate cat and mouse game, concealing his identity for long months or even years during and after their renewed encounter in Egypt, allowing his father to continue to believe that he was dead. Surely many of us have felt at times that, leaving the near-bloodshed aside, his brothers’ reaction to him in Dothan was most understandable, if not fully justified.

But R. Nahum of Chernobol, author of the seminal Hasidic book Meor Einayim, has something quite interesting to say about the incident of Potiphar’s wife. He speaks there of the significance of clothing, both as physical raiment and as a spiritual symbol: of the “garments” of the soul, which can be either mitzvot or the opposite. One should note here that garments play an important role throughout the Joseph story: his striped tunic (often mistranslated as “coat of many colors”) is the initial symbol and focus for his brothers’ anger, which they strip off him before doing anything to his person; later, when called to go before Pharaoh, we are told that he is shaved/tonsured and “changes his clothes”; once appointed viceroy, he is given a fine linen robe and golden neckpiece as a sign of office. In the would-be seduction incident, a piece of cloth ripped off Joseph’s garment serves as a leitmotif, reiterated four or five times in the narrative description and the various retellings: “he left his garment with me/her and fled and went outside.”

The Chernoboler interprets this abandoned garment as a symbol for the narcissistic garments of his soul, that had been expressed in his playing with his hair, his vanity, his self-occupation, etc. Suddenly, Joseph realized that this was something that could easily lead him into deeper sins: she saw him as a ”pretty boy,” as one who was somehow unduly aware of his appearance, and thus as an exaggeratedly sexual figure. If we are to believe the Chernoboler, perhaps this was the point where he (began to?) cast off this life-long psychological garment, and began to do teshuvah in a real way. And indeed, from this moment on we begin to see him as a more positive person, aware of others, giving of his time and thoughts to help others—first the two fellow prisoners, later Pharaoh and the whole country, and finally, in the last scene, after their father’s death, demonstrating magnanimity, forgiveness, and real generosity to his brothers, who were still uneasy with him.

I will leave aside the issue of Yosef’s economic reform as described at the end of the parsha, which saved the ordinary Egyptian folk from starvation, but at the cost of concentrating all wealth and power in the hands of a highly centralized governmental machine. The scene described there is highly reminiscent of today’s multi-national corporations in a globalized economy, and the constant mergers and swallowing up of small, localized businesses into ever bigger and more concentrated foci—surely at least as heartless and alienating as the centralized economies of socialism-gone-wrong. But that is a vast topic, for another time.

Fantasy on a Tallis

While on the subject of clothing and garments of different sorts: I have lately been shopping for a new tallit, my old one having become threadbare and beyond repair. Basically, I find three main types of tallit available in the shops: 1) the traditional woolen tallit with black stripes of various thicknesses; 2) the pure white woolen tallit, favored by many Sephardim, especially for Shabbat; 3) the multi-colored, “Zalman” tallit—that is, a tallit with a series of stripes of all colors of the rainbow plus brown, a design originated by Reb Zalman Schachter-Shelomi (on whom see a future essay), one of the founders, not only of the Jewish Renewal movement, but an instrumental figure in the attempt to create a new, contemporary Jewish aesthetic, beautifying the mitzvot in new and different ways.

In addition, one can see in synagogues these days people wearing tallitot with a variety of new patterns, colors, and designs. I have seen a tallit with entire pictures, such as a rustic scene showing a log cabin atop a wooded mountain, a veritable hippy paradise; one with a series of colorful neckties in various directions; an Israeli flag; a Mexican poncho qua tallit; etc. Moreover, the movement in some religious-feminist circles for women to wear tallitot has engendered a whole group of new and different hues, shades, styles, materials, etc. for this traditional prayer garment.

Leaving aside the last items: what is symbolized by these different colorations for the tallit? I would like to suggest my own, purely subjective interpretation for these three types (hence the title of this mini-essay, “a Tallis fantasy”), as representing three approaches to Jewish spirituality.

1) The tallit with white and black stripes suggests a world of polarities, if not dualities: good and evil, sacred and secular, permitted and forbidden, pure and impure/contaminated, mind and body, Shabbat and weekday, Jews and other peoples, male and female, milk and meat—in brief, a Judaism dominated by the principle of havdalah, of drawing sharp distinctions.

2) The pure white tallit suggests, by contrast, a world of total unity, in which all is ultimately one. This is particularly suitable for Shabbat, as the day when all divisions are resolved and harmonized in a transcendent, radical unity—or at least as pointing towards the messianic “day that is wholly Shabbat.”

3) The multi-colored tallit is the most interesting, as one that suggests diversity within unity: the colors of the rainbow that are all refracted from the same pure white light; the seven stripes corresponding to the seven Days of Creation, or the seven lower Sefirot, or “building stones,” of this universe. (Zalman once explained to me the symbolism of the stripes on this tallit: purple for the primeval waters of the first day; blue for the firmament, created on the second day; green for the vegetation created on the third day; yellow for the sun, moon and stars of the fourth; orange for the herbivorous, egg-laying fowl and fish, denizens of the sky and sea, created on the fifth day; red for the warm-blooded mammals and humans created on the sixth day—and the seventh, brown-colored stripe for the Sabbath day, for the rest and stasis of the earth, from which we emerge and to which we return.)

The multi-colored tallit thus symbolizes an attempt to represent a higher unity, relating to what is perhaps the fundamental religious problem—the disparity between the diversity and multiplicity of being in this world, and the unity of the Divine, which we can only intuit, are somehow reconciled.

This issue was one which Martin Buber saw as central to the religious life. In a 1914 essay entitled “The Altar” (in Pointing the Way, New York & Evanston 1963, pp. 16-19), he discusses an altar-piece by the early 16th century Matthias Grünewald located in a church in the Alsatian town of Isenheim. (Buber, a Jew, had a universal approach that embraced a variety of religious traditions; his interpretation of “the resurrected one“ is of course more that of Buberian religious humanism than of Christology.)

The outer panels of this work shows two women standing near the cross: Mary the mother of Jesus, and Mary Magdalene. The one, clothed entirely in white, has her eyes closed; the other, eyes open, is dressed in a veritable riot of color. Buber sees these as symbolic of their attitudes: the one in white, closing her eyes to the reality of world, seeks an other-worldly purity, a kind of mystical ecstasy, while the other displays an openness to beauty, to sensuality, to the world as is.

She is vowed to manifold colourfulness as Mary is to the simple absence of colour; but her variegated appearance is not bound by sense, and Mary’s whiteness is sundered from life. These are the two souls… High above… bands of angels [are]… above color, united in the radiant light; but as they undulate downward into the intermediate realm of being, each angel gleams forth in colour… That is the miracle of the becoming of colour, the emanation of the many out of the one: that is the first mystery…

This passage, taken in itself, could indicate Buber’s well-known conversion from a path of vertical spirituality that sought knowledge of the Eternal One through meditation, through the pursuit of inner psychological states of ecstasy, in favor of engagement and involvement in the real world, in responsibility to one’s fellow man and to human society, in the multiple things of reality. Indeed, he continues:

We cannot penetrate behind the multiplicity to find the living unity. If we remove the colours, we do not behold the light but only darkness… He who puts on the white mantle is cut off from life, and he experiences the truth only so long as he shuts his eyes. Our world, the world of colours, is the world.

But that is not enough. The world of multiplicity is not all there is:

Are we then. like Magdalene, abandoned to the manifold? If we do not strive to turn away from the actual and to deny the fullness of our experience, must we be dispersed in things… ?

He finds a symbol of the resolution of this dilemma in the manner in which the resurrection scene is represented here (since the iconography he is expounding is a Christian one—but it could just as well be a vision of the ultimate perfection, perhaps of the renewal of prophecy or of the perfected Adam Kadmon in Jewish tradition).

He includes all hues of being in his unity of spirit, each one pure and intensified… That is the miracle of the coming to be of glory, the becoming of one out of many: this is the other mystery. This mystery is ours, it is allotted to us. This all-coloured glory that opens and ascends in all direction, the glory of things, is the spirit of the earth.

This is not [only] the Jew Jeshua, trodding the soil of Galilee and teaching in his day…. [nor] is it [only] the incarnate Logos, descending from timeless pre-existence into time…. This is the man, the man of all times and of all places, the man of the here and now, who perfects himself into the I of the word.

He loves the world, he rejects none of its colours. But he can receive none of them before it is pure and intensified…. We cannot penetrate behind the manifold to find living unity. But we can create living unity out of the manifold.

Interestingly, as mentioned, in the first panel of the triptych these two poles are represented by two women, who represent inter alia two diametrically opposed approaches to sexuality: Mary, the pure, virgin mother who eschews sexuality is enwrapped in white; whereas Magdalene, the highly sexual woman—whether as whore or, in a subterranean, heretical trend in Christianity, as Jesus’ wife/lover/disciple—belongs to the manifold world of rich color.

Sexuality is perhaps that area in which our culture is most deeply troubled, confused and conflicted today. And yet, interestingly, it is precisely in this area that the basic attitudes relating to this issue of the manifold and the one are expressed in the most basic ways. But I shall elaborate this issue in a future essay on “The One and the Two: Man, Woman, and God.”

Quiz: Anyone who can explain why the word Tallis is spelled in Ashkenazi pronunciation in the title of the above section will receive honorable mention in the next number of HY.