Friday, July 27, 2007

Vaethanan (Rashi)

For more material on this week's portion, see the archives of this blog for August 2006.

Shocking Anthropomorphism?

This weeks’ parashah contains a number of verses and passages of great theological significance: not only the Shema and the repetition of the Ten Commandments, but various statements bearing on HWYH (“the Lord”) being the only God, and the obligation to reflect upon this. Two such verses appear in the passage also read on Tisha b’Av (Deut 4:25-40; verse 35 is also familiar as the keynote verse of Simhat Torah). Rashi’s interpretation of this verse is almost shockingly literal:

Deut 4:35. “You have been shown to know that the Lord, He is God, there is none other than Him.”

Rashi: “You have been shown.” As in its translation, ithazita. When the Holy One blessed be He gave them the Torah, He opened the seven heavens before them. And just as He ripped open the upper ones, so did He rip open the lower ones, and they saw that He was the only one. Therefore it is said, “You have been shown to know…”

My first reaction upon reading this was to be reminded, in reverse, of Yuri Gagarin. Gagarin, the Soviet astronaut who, in 1961, was the first human being to visit in outer space, allegedly said, “There is no God up here”—as if to say, if God exists He must be a physical being dwelling in the heavens; but, as he saw no such Being up there, He must not exist. This reflects, of course, a very corporeal, even gross concept of God.

And yet Rashi seems to be presenting here much the same argument, albeit in reverse: if one opens the firmament one can see God, but no pagan deities: ergo, they do not exist. On the linguistic level, this comment seems to be based on a literal reading of the verb הראת לדעת, “you have been caused to see, so as to know” rather than a more metaphorical, idiomatic reading, such as, “made to understand” (a usage familiar in English from such phrases as, “See what I mean?”; and see Maimonides’ Guide, I.4).

Most of us have been raised with the axiom that the Jewish concept of God is of an incorporeal, wholly spiritual being, who has no image—an idea articulated at great length in all of Maimonides’ writings, and given pithy expression in the Thirteen Principles and in the liturgical poem Yigdal. Interesting, perhaps the clearest expression of God’s incorporeality appears shortly before our verse, in 4:15 ff.

But there are in fact numerous sources in which God is described in concrete, tangible ways. Thus, Moses is described in Num 12:8 as “looking upon God’s image”; in the cleft of the rock, where he is only granted a view of God’s “back” but not of His face, the implication is that God does in fact have a face, but “no man shall see Me and live” (Exod 33:20-23; I shall not discuss here the contradiction between these passages). Isaiah, in his vision, sees God seated in majesty in the Temple, the trains of His robe filling the Sanctuary (Isa 6:1); Ezekiel, in his vision of the Divine chariot, sees above the ophanim a majestic human figure seated upon a throne (Ezek 1:26-27).

Arthur Green, in an extremely interesting article published several decades ago (“The Children in Egypt and the Theophany at the Sea,” Judaism 24:4 [no. 96; Fall 1976], 446-456) discusses a midrash in which the Israelite children thrown into the Nile at Pharaoh’s order were kept alive miraculously by a mysterious, handsome young man who fed them and cared for them; years later, at the splitting of the Sea, they recognized this same figure in the God who redeemed them, and declared “This is my God and I will extol Him” (Exod Rab. 23.8). Green elaborates there upon the more concrete, non-philosophical conception of God, as one enjoying equal validity in the traditional sources. All of which is to suggest that the Maimonidean theology we take so much for granted is not the only option.

And yet, I must admit that I am personally bothered by many of the more coarsely corporeal and even quasi-magical religious manifestations practices often seen today. For example: people attributing protective powers to certain sacred objects, such as a book of Tehillim, or Sefer Raziel ha-Malakh, or an amulet written by a holy man worn on the body; or the concept of the Western Wall as a gigantic Divine mailbox in which one delivers prayerful notes to God—a custom that has been reinforced by modern technology through the installation of a fax near the Wall.

The First Verse of Shema: Eschatology Rather than Theology

This parashah contains what is often considered the credo of Judaism: the Shema, which, together with its following verses and two other paragraphs, constitutes the center of the Morning and Evening prayers.

But Rashi interprets this cardinal verse in an unexpected way. We are accustomed to seeing the Shema as a declaration of God’s kingship or rulership, and of His unity. Again, Maimonides, the great formulator of Jewish creed, devotes much space to elucidating precisely what is meant by such unity, including the exclusion of internal divisions within God, or of any emotions, actions, or even attributes in the usual sense of the word. Alternatively, the Kabbalistic view describes the unity of God in terms of the unity of God’s transcendence and His immanence, notwithstanding His multifarious activities in the universe by means of the Sefirot, understood as tools or vehicles that He emanates from within Himself. But Rashi takes a different tack:

Deut 6:4. “Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.” Rashi: “The Lord,” who is now our God but not the god of the nations, will in the future be “the Lord is one.” As is said, “Then I will turn the nations about [to speak] with a clear language, that they may all call upon the name of the Lord” (Zephaniah 3:9). And it says, “On that day the Lord will be One and His name One” (Zechariah 14:9).

Rashi here completely bypasses the theological issue. The two central phrases of this verse (following the opening invocation to Israel to listen and give heed), are not a declaration of HWYH’s being the only deity—eloheinu being the generic term for godhood; that is, not a name of God, but a statement of who He is in relation to us—followed by a declaration of His unity. Rather, the two halves of the sentence represent two contrasting historical ages: the present era is one in which HWYH, the Master of all Being and the Life of the Universe, is only known to Israel; all the other nations worship falsehood, idols, fetishes. “HWYH is one.” Better: “HWYH shall be one”—that is, at some undefined eschatological future, the nations will join us in recognizing the one true God.

Why did Rashi interpret the verse thus? Perhaps he felt that the theological sense was, (a) self-evident, and (b) already stated eloquently in the two verses mentioned in Chapter 4. Thus, he wished to address the issue of the place of Israel, and of Israel’s vision of the one God, in the actual world that he knew—a medieval world of brutal inter-religious conflict, in which Jewry suffered a vastly inferior power position; a world of Crusades that, in the name of an ostensibly sacred ideal, pillaged and rampaged entire Jewish communities in the Rhineland (although I’m not certain that Rashi, who died in 1104, wrote these words after 1096).

This line of interpretation also helps to explain something else. It is the general custom for the entire congregation to recite the first verse of Shema aloud. The concept seems to be of collective acceptance of the Yoke of Heaven by Keneset Yisreal—now, in anticipation of what will be “then.” Thus, it is not meant as a private, quiet, inner meditation, as some think. Indeed, this mode is even established in the halakhah (Shulhan Arukh, Orah Hayyim 61.26, and see Rema ad loc)

“All You Need is Love”

Immediately following the first verse of Shema we have the imperative to love God with all we have—heart, soul and “strength.” Rashi comments on each phrase at some length, mostly reiterating what is said in the ancient tannaitic midrash, Sifre:

6:5. “And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might.”

Rashi: Perform His words out of love. For one cannot compare one acts out of love with one who acts out of fear. One who serves his master out of fear, if he troubles him [too much] will leave him and go away.

Love and fear are the two pillars, the two central axes of Jewish religious life; both are of great importance. Yet, interestingly, Rashi here emphasizes the superiority of love; indeed, while the commandment “you shall fear the Lord your God” does appear elsewhere in this book (see, e.g., Deut 6:2, 13; 10:12, 20), it was not chosen as part of the three passages recited as Keriat Shema.

I would define yirah as closely related to obedience, the sense of obligation to do mitzvot: what some philosophers call “heteronomy,” the sense that one is obligated to perform the commandments by dint of a force external to oneself. It seems to me that, in old-style Orthodoxy, the emphasis was (and in many places still is) on simple obedience: one is to perform the practical mitzvot dutifully, without asking too many questions. Hence, the feeling among many that a person who becomes more “serious” about his Judaism may best express it by ever-increasing strictness in practical observance (humrot). But this is also what turned off many people. One hears stories of the old-time heder teachers who would rap students on the knuckles if they didn’t study properly or seemed to be violating one of the mitzvot. I remember vividly a friend of my parents who described how, the first time she went out to work on a Saturday, out of sheer economic necessity, she was convinced that she would be struck by lightning the moment she touched the typewriter. When this failed to occur, her whole religiosity fell apart like a deck of cards.

It seems to me that the central theme, the common denominator of what I have referred to as the “New Spirituality”—whether the school of Shlomo Carlebach, the new egalitarian-style Orthodoxy of Shira Hadasha, Jewish Renewal, or various New Age groups—is the emphasis on what might be called “love” as against “fear.” The emphasis is on personal feeling, inwardness, cultivation of the individual’s religious consciousness, experimentation with new modes of public worship and meditation, and personal choice. All this is a healthy reaction to the severe and censorious face of the “old-style” Orthodoxy.

But love without fear has its own drawbacks and problems of which one also needs to be wary. To mention but a few: (a) the emphasis on love alone tends to deemphasize or even eliminate the role of the moral conscience. The negative commandments or proscriptions of the Torah are connected specifically with “fear.” People find it easy to recognize wrong-doing in others, but usually believe that they themselves always act with the highest motivations. (b) One can easily confuse the love of God with the self-pleasure one takes from davening, from participation religious ceremony. The pleasure is more sublime than that one takes from a good meal or even from a good book or concert—but the orientation may still ultimately be one of pleasure. (c) If based upon personal choice, a person may throw it over more easily. Rashi’s argument that one who serves out of fear may walk out on his master, while one who loves his master will wish to remain loyal to him, because he himself wants to be with him, is correct insofar as it goes—but it ignores the well-known fickleness of love (as witnessed by our generation of nearly ubiquitous divorce). Moreover, even if one continues to serve God, one goes about with a feeling of autonomy, that one can choose in an ongoing way whether or not to observe in general, and each detail in particular. “Maybe I won’t fast on Tisha b’Av because I’m not sure I really miss that I miss there not being a Temple and animal sacrifices,” or, “Maybe I won’t regard chicken and other fowl as fleishakh because it doesn’t make sense and is logically inconsistent.” And so on.

The Many Dimensions of Love

I will begin with a discussion, left over from last week, about the verse in Vaethanan about the love of God, which defines the extent to which one should love God, in various modalities or dimensions. The homily brought here by Rashi appears, not only in Sifre, but also in Mishnah Berakhot 9.5. (Note: those portions of Rashi’s commentary that do not appear in the mishnah are set off in square brackets; the one phrase in the Mishnah not quoted by Rashi is set in italics.) I quote it phrase by phrase:

6:5. “And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might.” Rashi: v. 5. “With all your heart.” With both your impulses. [Another thing: that your heart should not be divided before the Omnipresent.]

Rabbinic teaching constantly refers to the two “impulses,” “urges” or “drives” within man: Yetzer ha-Tov and Yetzer ha-Ra, the Good Urge and the Evil Urge. But the Evil Urge is not really evil as such; rather, it refers to the basic biological urges and drives within the human being, which may be directed towards the good or remain in their given state, undirected and potentially even chaotic. Or, to use Freudian language, Yetzer ha-Ra corresponds roughly to the Id, while Yetzer ha-Tov might be compared to the Super-Ego, that element within man which is tamed and civilized, which represents the internalized norms of society (or, for our purposes, the Torah) as its own. Hence, the teaching to serve God with both one’s impulses means that one ought to channel one’s inchoate, raw impulses—whose paradigm the Sages saw in sexuality—in the service of socially and religiously constructive goals: e.g., marriage and building a Jewish family, etc.

Rashi’s second peshat seems in a way to be logically prior: that is, before one can even begin to speak of channeling the instinctual side in one’s personality towards the love of God, one first needs to have a unified, non-conflicted approach to the basic question: is one in fact committed to serving God wholeheartedly, to devoting oneself to Him. One can love God casually, as a kind of leisure-time hobby, but there is a major part of oneself that is not really interested in the whole business but is centered on oneself, then there is a serious danger that the love of God is largely lip-service. We continue:

“With all your soul.” Even if He takes your soul.

This is the classic source for the most extreme and demanding imperative in Judaism: Kiddush Hashem, the willingness and readiness to die a martyr’s death to sanctify God’s Name, if need be. This was a major subject of concern in the Middle Ages, e.g., during the Crusades in the Rhineland, and is too vast a subject to treat here. In principle, the basic logic is that authentic, passionate love for God means placing Him before all else, including one’s own life. This demand runs contrary to the great value placed on the individual and his self-fulfillment in contemporary Western culture; I sometimes wonder how many people today would truly be willing to die for Kiddush Hashem if called upon to do so.

“And with all your might [lit., “muchness”; i.e., abundance].” With all your wealth. [There is a person whose wealth is dearer to him than his own life; therefore it says, “with all your wealth.”] Another thing: “with all your me’od.” In every attribute that He measures out to you, [be it a good measure or a measure of catastrophe], be very grateful to Him. [And thus regarding David it says, “I shall lift up the cup of salvation, and call upon the name of the Lord” (Ps 116:13); and “Trouble and sorrow come upon me, yet I call upon the name of the Lord” (ibid., 3)].

Before discussing the ideas implicit here, a few words about the linguistic and other mechanics of this homily. First, the word me’odekha is itself difficult. This verse is one of only two places in the entire Bible (the other, 2 Kings 23:25, is a close parallel, where we are told that there was no one like King Josiah “who returned to God with all his heart and all his soul and all his might”) where מאד is used as a noun. In the overwhelming majority of cases (see Mandelkern’s Concordance, were מאד andמאד מאד appear some 300 times) it is used as an adverb and, on a few occasions, as an adjective: “very,” “much,” “greatly.” Hence, the abstract noun extrapolated from it means something like “muchness” or “plentitude”—be it physical strength, as in the conventional translation, or material abundance.

In the Sifre, Rabbi Akiva questions why our verse in fact includes the phrase, “with all your muchness.” After all, it would seem to be an obvious kal vahomer, an inference from minor to major: If one is to love God with all one’s soul, with one’s very lifeblood, shouldn’t it be obvious that one should love Him with one’s wealth and property? The first answer given is: No. There are people who love their wealth more than their very life; they are called upon to love God with their wealth. This may mean to follow a philanthropic path, an answer perhaps structurally similar to that of serving God with one’s Evil Urge: giving generously to synagogues and study houses, supporting the indigent and needy, and various other good causes in one’s immediate and broader community. Alternatively, this phrase may be saying that there are certain people who make money their ultimate value. Clearly, this is not a good way to be, nay, it is almost tantamount to idolatry; hence, to love God with all one’s plentitude means: do not make property the be-all and end-all of your life.

The second peshat rejects “with all your wealth” as a solution to R. Akiva’s question, perhaps because it is somehow too trivial; it is not a cardinal, central idea like the first two, which may be read “with all your personality” and “with your very life.” The idea here is that one must accept whatever God dishes out to one; take both the good and the bad in life as coming from God. Incidentally, this homily seems a bit forced linguistically—i.e., the reading of מאד as מידה, “attribute” or “manner” seems more like clever word-play than a philologically correct interpretation of the word. Rashi here reinforces the tannaitic material with a pithy little homily on two verses in Psalm 116, where David praises God, both when he encounters “trouble and sorrow” and when he partakes of the “cup of salvation.”

This last section is the reason for the inclusion of this entire unit in the mishnah: namely, that the mishnah articulates here the law that “One is to bless God for the bad as one does for the good.” The central idea is that a person must accept all that happens to him in life as coming from God: this is the notion of tzidduk ha-din, justifying or accepting God’s judgment. Again, this idea seems to run contrary to the mood of much of contemporary secular life. There are people who expect everything to go well in life, and find it difficult, emotionally and psychologically, to accept hard times. There is even an approach that putting up a good fight against death is somehow a manifestation of one’s human dignity. Thus, Dylan Thomas’s poem, “Do not go gentle into that good night,” and its refrain, “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” Or there is the image of death as tantamount to defeat, as in the film The Seventh Seal by Ingmar Bergman (who died this past week) in which the figure of Death, a pale, gaunt figure wrapped in a black robe, plays chess with the protagonist, who is allowed to remain alive until he loses the game.

On this point it is interesting to compare Judaism with Buddhism. The first of the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths is that life inevitably involves suffering, that it is fundamentally unsatisfying because of its transient nature. Its corollary, the second Truth, is that this suffering can be reduced by learning to adopt an attitude of a certain inner detachment that follows from that knowledge—what’s sometimes called in the West a kind of “philosophical acceptance.” It seems to me that in some ways this approach is similar to that expressed here: we must accept, and even thank God, for all that happens, because he is the Author of Life itself. (This theme is particularly stressed in Hasidism, which Rivka Schatz as described as a Jewish form of the religious mood known as quietism—namely, that one does what one needs to do as a Jew and as a human being living in the world, while knowing that ultimately all is in God’s hands.) The major difference, of course, is that Buddhism is a-theistic: at least in its classic form, it is really more a philosophy of life than a religion, indifferent to the issue of the existence a personal or otherwise God, whereas in Judaism the whole process of acceptance of death and other bad things takes place in relation to a personal God, who knows all and decides all.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Devarim - Tisha b'Av (Rashi)

For further teachings on this parashah, and on Tisha b’Av, see the archives to this blog for July 2006.

Where Did Moses Speak to the People?

This week’s parashah, with which the final book of the Torah, Devarim, begins, opens with an unusually puzzling verse, which Rashi interprets in a thorough-going midrashic manner, seeming unrelated to the literal meaning of verse:

Deut 1:1. “These are the words that Moses spoke to all Israel beyond the Jordan, in the wilderness, in the plain, opposite [the sea of?] reed, between Paran and Tofel and Lavan and Hatzerot and Di-Zahav.”

The difficulties in this verse are glaring: if the purpose of the verse is to identify the place where Moses spoke, why does it list no less than nine separate place names or regions? Moreover, these locales, even excluding those which are difficult to identify because they are not known from other biblical passage, are scattered all over the map, and could not possibly by explained as multiple references to one specific place, or even (as some conjecture) a series of adjacent points where the large mass of Israelites encamped. Thus, Rashi explains it in a homiletical way:

Rashi: “These are the words.” Because they are words of admonition, he enumerated here all the places where they angered the Omnipresent; therefore he said the things obliquely, mentioning them in an allusive manner, out of respect for the dignity of Israel….

As noted, this verse, because of its inherent difficulties, practically invites midrashic interpretation; as this opening verse makes no sense as providing a geographical landmark for Moses’ speech; it must have had some other meaning. (It would be interesting to see what modern critical-historical approaches make of this verse. Unfortunately, I was unable to visit the library this week to consult such works as the Anchor Bible, JPS Torah Commentary, Westminster, etc., to see how they read it.) Given that this verse is the opening one of the book, it seems natural that it serves an introductory function. In fact, the book of Deuteronomy serves a special function in the quintology that is the Torah: it hardly serves as narrative, bringing the “story” forward, nor is its purpose to introduce laws for the first time, even though there is some of that. Rather, it is a kind of “summing up”: Moses’ farewell address to the people, the great teacher’s rhetorical legacy to the people he had led for forty years—alternately admonition, hortatory, review of past events and of key laws, instruction, and key points preparing them for this new stage in their existence as a people dwelling in their own land.

As such, an important place is occupied by admonition: reminding them of their sins and rebellions and moments of little faith during the course of the desert period, and the moral lessons to be derived therefore. This theme is developed and elaborated later on in the book, both in this week’s parashah (1:24-45) and, particularly, in Parshat Ekev (9:7-10:11). Here, according to the ancient midrashic tradition upon which Rashi bases himself (for full details of his sources, which include Sifre and other classic midrashim, see Chavell’s notes in Torat Hayyim), it is introduced in a laconic, almost delphic way, “out of respect for the dignity of Israel”—that is, in order not to embarrass or shame them at the very beginning of his speech.

Following a side comment which we shall skip here, Rashi goes on to elaborate upon each of the place names one by one, beginning with “the wilderness” (the assumption beginning that the very first place mentioned, “across the Jordan” is in fact the place where Moses spoke):

"In the wilderness.” They were not in the wilderness, but at the steppes of Moab. What then is meant by “in the wilderness”? Rather, [that he rebuked them] because of how they angered Him in the wilderness, saying, “would that we were to die in the wilderness” (Exod 16:3).

“In the Plain.” Because of [what happened in] the Plain. That they sinned in the matter of Ba’al Peor [see Num 25:1-9], in Shittim in the Plains of Moab.

“Opposite [the sea of] reed.” Because they rebelled at the Sea of Reeds, when they came to the Sea of Reeds, saying, ”Are there not enough graves in Egypt that you have taken us to die in the wilderness?” (Exod 14:1) Also while they were traversing the Sea, as is said “and the rebelled about the sea in the Sea of Reeds” (Ps 106:7) as explained in Arakhin (16a).

The Talmudic aggadah referenced here, based upon the somewhat awkward language of the psalm, states that, even in the middle of the miracle of the Splitting of the Sea, they feared that the Egyptians would continue pursuing them.

“Between Paran and Tofel and Lavan.” Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai [or: Rabbi Yohanan] said: We have searched the entire Scripture, and have not found any place called Tofel or Lavan. Rather, he rebuked them for the words with which they denounced [taflu, pun on Tofel] the manna, which is white (lavan), saying “and we are sick of this spoiled bread” (Num 21:5). And for what they did in the wilderness of Paran in the matter of the Spies.

“And Hatzerot.” In the dispute of Korah. Something else: He told them, you should have learned from what I did to Miriam at Hatzerot because of speaking evil [Num 12:1-16], yet you spoke against the Omnipresent.

I don’t understand the supposed connection between Hatzerot and Korah. According to the text, their arrival in Hatzerot is described at Num 11:35 and their departure at 12:16—long before the Korah chapter that starts at Num 16.

“And Di-Zahav.” He rebuked them for the Calf that they made because they had much gold, as is said, “And I lavished upon them silver, and gold, which they used for Baal” (Hosea 2:10).

This line of interpretation is, as mentioned, based on an ancient tradition, found already in the tannaitic midrash, Sifre. It seems worth noting that very similar things are already found in Targum Onkelos to this verse:

“These are the words that Moses spoke with all Israel across the Jordan; he rebuked them for that which they sinned in the wilderness, and that they angered Him in the plain opposite the Sea of Reeds, in Paran they complained about the manna, and at Hatzerot they angered Him concerning [eating] flesh, and that they made a golden calf.”

Onkelos expresses the same general idea more briefly, albeit with certain small differences between the two in the specific allusions associated with certain phrases. Thus, Onkelos confutes the Plain and the Sea of Reeds together, and interprets Hatzerot as alluding to the craving to eat flesh in 11:4-35 (also problematic, as the people only go to Hatzerot after Kivrot ha-Ta’avah).

In conclusion, it is worth noting that, in light of the idea, explained by Rambam in Hilkhot Ta’aniyot 5.1, that commemorative fast days are intended to remind the people of their ancestor’s misdeeds, “which are like their own deeds,” and thereby stir them to teshuvah, it is no accident that this chapter is always read on the Shabbat immediately preceding Tisha b’Av. Indeed, one of the central themes of the Deuteronomic historical review is the incident of the meraglim, the Spies—second in importance only to the Golden Calf as a pivotal event in biblical history. Tisha b’Av itself, tradition tells us, is based on the date of the sin of the spies: “and the people wept on that night” (Num 14:1). In fact, at one time the chapter from Shelah lekha was used as the Torah reading for the fast day of Tisha b’Av; only later was it exchanged for the reading “when you shall bear children” (Deut 4:25ff.) in Vaethanan (see Megillah 31b), with its more upbeat theme of teshuvah—but more on that in the next section.

TISHA B’AV: The White Fast and the Black Fast

Rav Soloveitchik, in his public lectures on Tisha b’Av, often spoke of the tension between two aspects of the day: its status as a public fast day similar to any other, and thus as a day of prayer, repentance, confession of sin, and self–examination; and its unique aspect as a day of mourning and sadness. As he often noted, these two aspects are not merely different, but are in some sense contradictory, even opposed to one another, in ways having far-reaching theological and psychological implications.

Indeed, this difference in mood is reflected in the terms popularly used to describe the two major fasts of the Jewish calendar: the White Fast and the Black Fast (sobriquets that I think originated among English Jewry). Paradoxical as it may seem to some, Yom Kippur is thought of as a day of joy: a day of selihah u-mehilah, of the gift of Divine forgiveness, of teshuvah, of renewal, of a sense of catharsis, through the feeling of being purified from sin. We are even told that, at the end of his arduous service in the Holy Temple, the High Priest made a festive day for all his friends and family.

Tisha b’Av, by contrast, is dominated by sadness, by a feeling of loss and grief, of alienation and distance from God—and indeed, as the Rav was wont to point out, Tisha b’Av is lacking in the sense of an active prayer dialogue with God, as it were, that we have on Yom Kippur or other fast days, when we recite Selihot and read the Thirteen Attributes of Divine Mercy, Avinu Malkenu, and so on.

Public fast days, such as those called in times of trouble and imminent disaster for the community—classically, in times of drought and fear of famine—are not times of joy, certainly, but neither are they marked by grief or sadness either. The mood is one of worry, concern, anxiety over the crisis visiting the community or people, but one which finds outlet by turning to God in prayer and teshuvah. Not of depression and loss, of diminished vitality and of feeling on the periphery of life, but of awareness of the need to correct one’s individual and collective shortcomings through teshuvah, coupled with cautious optimism, hope and trust in the Almighty.

A certain difficulty in defining the “essence” of Tisha b’Av—is it essentially a fast day, or a day of mourning?—is an interesting halakhic overlap. Several central laws of the day—basically, all of the “afflictions” observed in that day, with the exception of eating and drinking itself: namely, washing, rubbing one’s body with oil or lotions, wearing shoes, and sexual relations—are part of the “package” of both Yom Kippur and the major fast days described in Masekhet Ta’anit, on the one hand, and of private mourning for the dead, on the other. The question is: which of the two is essential?

To answer this question, I would like to briefly analyze Rambam’s presentation of this subject in Hilkhot Ta’aniyot, Chapter 5. I will not go into a close textual analysis, as I have discussed many of these texts in the past, and the material may be found in my old postings (HY V: Devarim) or on my blog archives (July 2006, under the headings, Tisha b’Av [Rambam] and Seventeenth of Tammuz [Rambam]). I will post the full text of Rambam on this subject in an Appendix, later today or before Tisha b’av.

Even before the first mention of those halakhot unique to Tisha b’Av, in §6, Rambam cites the well-known Rabbinic aphorism: “Once Av enters, one diminishes one’s joy” (making it a diametrically opposed to Adar, the month of Purim), listing various customs of moderate mourning from the onset of the month or during the week of Tisha b’Av.

In §7 he mentions the basic rule governing Tisha b’Av as a fast day—that it is observed for 24 hours, starting from dusk, like Yom Kippur. But note: he does not yet mention the laws of the other “affliction,” which one would expect to find here if it were part of the fast day “package.”

He then turns to the laws of seudah mafseket, to which he devotes two and a half sections, §§7b-9. This final meal before the fast is a unique halakhic institution, patterned after the mourner’s meal—albeit not after the “Meal of Solace” brought by neighbors and friends after the funeral, but rather after the manner in which “one whose dead lies before him” is to eat—i.e., the onan—a picture of abject desolation. He presents the basic rules: that one does not eat meat, drink wine, or have more than one cooked item; goes on to describe the exception to this rule when it falls on Shabbat; and concludes with the special strictures observed by Sages and “the pious ones of old,” ending on the personal note that he himself never ate so much as a dish of lentils on Erev Tisha b’Av, unless it was Shabbat.

Only after that, in §10, does he mention the ‘innuyim, the five “afflictions”—a clear indication, to my mind, that these are expressions of mourning, and not part of its definition as a fast day. (This is also implied by the statement in b. Ta’anit 30b that “All of the commandments incumbent upon the mourner apply to Tisha b’Av.”) I would suggest that the mention here and in §7 of Yom Kippur is intended merely to say that it is patterned after Yom Kippur, or like Yom Kippur—but only as a model, as a familiar point of reference to help people to understand the law. In terms of its essential nature, Tisha b’Av is totally different—sui generis.

These are followed in turn, in §§10b-11, by other laws of Tisha b’Av, again derived from the principle of mourning: not to engage in ordinary labor; not to study Torah, except for those things keeping with the sad and melancholy nature of the day; and what he describes as stringencies of talmidei hakhamim: not to greet others, and not to wear tefillin on one’s head.

I find it interesting that Rambam makes no mention, either here or elsewhere, of what are for us the central liturgical elements of the day: the reading of Eikhah (the Book of Lamentations) and Kinot (liturgical poems on the themes of the day), even though the former, at least, is mentioned by Masekhet Sofrim & Eikhah Rabbati. The only feature he does mention is the paragraph Nahem inserted in the Afternoon Prayer (Hilkhot Tefillah 1.14, which in his version begins with the word Rahem).

The chapter continues (§§12-15) with other, non-time-related laws commemorating the destruction of Jerusalem: leaving a bare spot unpainted on the wall of one’s home; omitting one dish at festive meals; a certain limitation in music, on clothing and ornaments worn by brides and bridegrooms, on jewelry worn by women, etc. This is based on a certain balance, elucidated by R. Yehoshua in Tosefta Sotah 15.11-12. When approached by certain zealots who sought to introduce numerous rules of mourning after the Destruction of the Temple, he said: “to mourn too much is impossible; not to mourn at all is also impossible.” Hence, a whole series of symbolic measures were introduced, reminders of what one has lost, as a kind of compromise. Similarly, in the laws of personal mourning for the dead, Rambam tries to set out a golden mean between the extremes of apathy or “cruelty,” and exaggerated grief (Hilkhot Evel 13.11-12).

The chapter is rounded off with the laws of one who sees the cities of Judaea or Jerusalem in their state of ruin (§§16-18), and ends (§19) with the prophetic promise that all these fast will be nullified in the messianic future and become days of joy.

It is interesting that the text in Zechariah 7:4, which is the earliest text alluding to the observance of Tisha b’Av, also alludes to weeping and mourning. A group of people sent a query to the prophet, shortly after the rebuilding of the Second Temple: “Should I weep in the fifth month, abstain, as I have done now for some years?” Note: not “should I fast,” but “should I weep,” with the single word hinazer, “abstain,” presumably alluding to fasting, added almost as an afterthought.


During the course of this past Shabbat I felt that something essential was missing in my essay about Tisha b’Av as a day of mourning, with its detailed analysis of Rambam’s halakhic presentation: namely, a kind of conceptual summing up of what is meant by mourning. Then, I had a sudden flash of insight: ordinary mourning for the dead is all about family. The intense, unique grief of mourning the death of a close person is that, with the death of a parent, a spouse, a sibling, or a child, one’s own personal world is torn asunder; an individual who made up one’s private “micro-society” is gone, never to return.

By saying that Tisha b’Av is a day of mourning, whose experience most closely approximates personal mourning, we are saying that we stand in the same relation to Jerusalem, the Temple, the Jewish People as such in all its historical catastrophes, as we do to our own family. There is an expanded conception of one’s social and emotional world.

It is perhaps relatively easy to understand the idea of the Jews people as “family,” but in what sense can we say this about Jerusalem or the Temple? I think the answer relates to the idea that the Temple, in it heyday, symbolized or actually embodying the Shekhinah, the Divine Presence in the world. The Destruction of the Temple is also the withdrawal, the absence of God from a certain kind of immanent, tangible presence in the world. God is somehow—and here I have to add about a hundred times kivyakhol, “so to speak”—also an absent “member of the family.” (Might one also connect this to the concept in Niddah 31a that God is the third partner, alongside the father and mother, in forming the fetus?)

All this runs counter to the modern concept of the autonomous, atomistic individual. This past week one of the local newspapers had a feature story about Ayn Rand, the novelist/philosopher of “Objectivism,” who preached a kind of enlightened selfishness or egotism. (Incidentally, she turns out to have been a super-assimilated Jew: born Anna Rosenbaum, the one religious holiday she observed was Christmas, which she saw as an “American holiday” celebrating the importance of the individual. Really!). Her focus on the self was in contradistinction to intrusive government, that imposes itself upon the individual with various demands, regulations, and obligations. Such an approach ignores a third option, that of Judaism: the existence of an organic community, with deep historical roots, from which the individual draws feelings of sustenance and belonging. (This is a key problem of modernity: what the German sociologist Tönnies called Gemeinschaft vs. Gesellschaft—the emergence of alienated, impersonal associations of human beings as opposed to organic communities.)

Rambam on Tisha b’Av

1. There are certain days on which all Israel fast because of the troubles that took place therein, so as to arouse the hearts and open the paths of repentance, and so as to serve as a reminder of our evil deeds and the deeds of our ancestors, which were like our own deeds now, until it caused them and us those selfsame troubles, so that by the remembrance of these things we might return to the good, as is said, “and they shall confess their iniquity and the iniquity of their fathers” [Lev 26:40].

[I omit §§2-5, which enumerate the specific fast days.]

6. Once the month of Av begins, joy is diminished. During the week in which Tisha b’Av falls it is forbidden to cut one’s hair, to launder clothing, or to wear a pressed/laundered garment, even of linen, until after the fast has passed. And it is forbidden even to launder clothing to be left [for use] after the fast. And it is already Jewish custom not to eat meat during this week, nor to go to the bathhouse until after the fast. And there are places where it is customary to halt the slaughter of meat from Rosh Hodesh until the fast.

7.The night and day of Tisha b’Av are alike in every respect, and one may only eat [i.e., on the 8th] while is still daytime. And twilight thereof is forbidden like that of Yom Kippur. And a person may not eat meat nor drink wine during the meal at which he ceases [eating, i.e., before the fast]. But he may drink wine from the winepress that is three days old or less; and he may eat meat that has been salted for three days or more. And he may not eat two cooked dishes.

8. Of what are we speaking? If he eats on Tisha b’Av Eve after midday. But if he ate before noon, even if it was the last meal with which he ceases, he may eat whatever he wishes. And on the Eve of Tisha b’Av that falls on Shabbat he may eat and drink whatever he wishes, and place food on his table as at a feast of King Solomon. Likewise when Tisha b’Av itself falls on the Shabbat he does not spare anything.

9. Such is the measure of all the people, who are unable to stand too much. But the pious men of old, would behave thusly: on the Eve of Tisha b’Av they would bring to the person, [who was eating] by himself, dry bread and salt, and he would soak it in water, sitting between the oven and the stove [i.e., in a corner of the kitchen], and drink with it a beaker of water, in anxiety and desolation and weeping, like one whose dead lies before him. Thus is it fitting for Sages to do, or close to it. As for myself, I never in my life ate a cooked dish on the eve of Tisha b’Av, even one of lentils, unless it was Shabbat.

10. Pregnant women and nursing mothers fast the entire day of Tisha b’Av. And it is forbidden to wash oneself, with either warm or cold water, nor even to place one’s finger in water. And it is forbidden to rub oneself with ointments for pleasure, or to wear shoes, or to engage In sexual relations—just like Yom Kippur. And in those places where it is customary to do labor they do so. And in those places where it is customary not to do labor, one does not. And in all the places learned people do not engage in labor. And our Sages said that one who engages in labor on this day never sees a sign of blessing.

11. Sages do not greet one another on Tisha b’Av, but sit sorrowfully and sighing, like mourners. And if an ignorant person greets them, they answer him softly and with a weighty demeanor. And it is forbidden on Tisha b’Av to read in the Torah or the Prophets or the Writings, nor in Mishnah, halakhah, gemara and aggadot. And he only reads Job and dirges [i.e. , Lamentations] and the negative parts of Jeremiah. And school children are idle from their studies. And some of the Sages were accustomed not to don tefillin of the head on this day.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Menahem Av (Months)

For an abundance of material relating to Tisha b’Av, including teachings of the Rav, and alternative contemporary texts of the prayer Nahem, relating to the important question: does this juncture in Jewish history warrant changing the wording of liturgy? See the arvhives to this blog for July 2006.

“Roar, Lion, Roar”

The month of Tammuz, as mentioned last month, is symbolized by Cancer, the crab: a nasty, at times dangerous, but largely inconspicuous creature, which may be concealed in the muddy sands of the seashore,, and which—as reader Rahmiel Hayyim notes—moves (and snaps?) indirectly, moving sideways while looking forwards. The month of Av, by contrast, is the month of Leo, the lion: symbol of unabashed power, the proverbial “King of the Beasts.” It can represent the unleashing of the destructive powers latent in the world, but it also represents power, kingship and authority in the positive sense (in this sense it is analogous to the eagle, which, like it, is one of the four beasts that constitute the Divine chariot in Ezekiel’s Merkavah vision). Not only are the Gentiles who wreak havoc “lions,” but so is the tribe of Judah, source of the Davidic house, the royalty of Jewry. Many is the synagogue whose parokhet, the veil covering the Holy Ark, bears the image of two facing lions.

It is thus appropriate that this should be the month containing Tisha b’Av. The bitterest fast day and day of weeping on the Jewish calendar, Tisha b’Av is a kind of crux, around which the entire drama of Jewish history—of both Galut and Geulah, Exile and Redemption—is arrayed. The entire season bears a certain mournful tone—from the fast of Seventeenth of Tammuz three weeks earlier, through the gradually intensified mourning of the Nine Days and then of the week of Tisha b’Av, with the reading of three consecutive haftarot of admonition. The day itself marks not only the destruction of both Temples in Jerusalem, but of many other disasters in Jewish history, beginning with the biblical incident of the spies, down through the Expulsion from Spain, the outbreak of the First World War—and, by extension, many other events which did not happen specifically on this date, such as the massacres of the Crusades, the Chmielnicki pogroms in Ukraine, and the Holocaust, many of which are marked by special kinot.

But then, almost before the Fast itself is out, there are hints and hopes of redemption, with the seven haftarot of consolation beginning from the following Shabbat (Shabbat Nahamu, “Shabbat of Comforting“) all the way through the eve of Rosh Hashana. An ancient tradition has it that the Messiah himself will be born on Tisha b’Av. And, as soon as Tisha b’Av is over, the month even changes it name, from Av to Menahem Av—God as the comforting father.

The Torah readings for the month of Av are oddly appropriate to this theme. We always read the first four Torah lessons from the Book of Deuteronomy—Devarim, Vaethanan, Ekev, Re’eh (Deut 1-16:17), which consist almost wholly of moral exhortations; this is Moses’ valedictory to the people, in which he waxes eloquent persuading them to remain faithful to the covenant. The language is that of rhetoric, of a few basic core truths repeated and elaborated over and over again with different emphases; there is none of the spareness and economy of language that mark the narratives of Genesis or many of the laws of Exodus or Leviticus, or for that matter the later chapters of Deuteronomy. He reviews the history of the people, during their wanderings in the desert and before, trying to impress upon them the moral lessons to be learned from these events. (The legal chapters of Moses’ farewell soliloquy are left for the later chapters of the book, read during Elul).

Rav Soloveitchik taught that Tisha b’Av expresses two rather different, if not conflicting, motifs. On the one hand, like all other fast days, it revolves around the theme of repentance and teshuvah. “Because of our sins we were exiled from our land.” Based on the core idea that God conducts his world in a righteous, just manner, the root cause of all disasters is seen in our own (collective) ethical and spiritual shortcomings. Hence it is a time for teshuvah and soul searching, for which fasting and special public prayers serve as a kind of external expression.

The Torah readings for this season express this basic idea perfectly and eloquently: God is passionately involved in history; there is concrete reward and punishment in this world; the great Jewish drama of Galut and Geulah, Exile and Redemption, is the central field for divine activity. Indeed, the calendar is fixed so that the last Shabbat preceding Tisha b’Av is always the opening, title parasha of Devarim (even in a year, such as this one, when the Diaspora’s second festival day falls on a Shabbat, causing the readings to get out of synch between Israel and Diaspora for a certain period). Nor is it an accident, or merely a matter of convenience (“the Torah scroll is rolled to that place anyway”), that on Tisha b’Av morning we read the powerful words of exhortation from the section beginning, “When you shall give birth to children and children’s children and grow old/stale in the land…” (Deut 4:25-40).

But, as the Rav says, there is another, contrapunctal theme to Tisha b’Av: that of mourning. Of being so overwhelmed by events, so filled with pain and shock, so puzzled by the tragedies and anomalies of Jewish history, that one cannot utter words or prayer, or engage in the inward gaze of teshuvah, but instead one sits in stunned silence, or is even permitted to challenge and question God’s decree. On Shabbat Hazon we twice read the word Eikhah—in the Torah (Deut 1:12), and in the reading from the Prophets (Isa 1:21)—in passages bearing negative connotations, foreshadowing the Scroll of Lamentations and the Kinot, read later that week, that opens with, echoes, and reechoes with that same word: “Eikhah? Why?” How could He allow such a thing to happen?! This is the perennial question of Job, and of the Jobs in all generations: the sense that the course of human events, and perhaps especially of Jewish history, do not fit into the neat categories of standard texts of theology, such as the historiography of Deuteronomy. At such times, the principles of justice and retribution presented there somehow ring hollow.

I would like to conclude this section of the paper with a midrash for this occasion which, again appropriately, takes as its starting point a Torah verse read during the month of Av, one familiar to every worshipping Jew. Yoma 69b:

Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi asked: Why are they called “the Men of the Great Assembly”? Because they restored the crown as of old. Moses came and said: “The God who is great, mighty and awesome” [Deut 10:17]. Jeremiah came and said: “Strangers are destroying [or: dancing in] in His sanctuary!? Where is His awesomeness?!” Therefore he did not say “the awesome” [this alludes to Jer 32:18, where Jeremiah prays: “the God who is great and mighty, the Lord of Hosts is His name…”] Daniel came, and said: “Strangers are enslaving His sons. Where is His might?” So he did not say “the mighty.” [see Dan 9:4: “I beseech thee, O Lord, the God who is great and awesome”] These [i.e., the Men of the Great Assembly] came, and said: “To the contrary! This is His might, that He quashes His impulse and is long suffering with the wicked; and this is His awesomeness, for were it not for the fear of the Holy One blessed be He, how could one nation survive among the idolators!” And the Rabbis [i.e., Jeremiah and Daniel] how could they do so, and uproot the edict of Moses our teacher? Rabbi Eliezer said: “Since they knew that God is truthful, therefore they could not misrepresent Him.”

Jeremiah and Daniel are painted here as, so to speak, the first radical theologians. The author of our midrash sees the phrase used by Moses to describe God’s qualities as in normative; hence its use in the opening blessing of the Amidah (on the opposite prohibition, against adding to God’s praises, see Berakhot 33b; Y. Berakhot 9.1 [12d]; Rav Soloveitchik’s essay on Pesukei de-Zimra in Shiurim le-zekher Avi Mari, vol. 2, p. 23 ff.; and my own study of the subject in HY II: Ki Teitsei). Hence, when Jeremiah and Daniel, respectively, omitted one or another word from this phase in their own prayers, this is seen as a deliberate omission, reflecting a profound theological questioning: Where is His might? Where is His awesomeness?

To put it in simpler terms, they are seen as expressing the unbearable contradiction between the Deuteronomic praises of God, and the reality of history in which God seems either absent or impotent. Uncircumcised pagans brazenly enter the holiest and most primeval site in the world, engage in who-knows-what lewd acts, take its precious vessels as booty, and burn the rest to the ground! How can such a thing happen?! And then God’s precious people, the pure and delicate sons and daughters of Israel, are slaughtered, raped, tortured, taken into slavery and placed on the auction block as slaves, for servile labor or breeding! (see, e.g., the poignant kinah entitled Ve-et navi hatati hishmimah). How can the Almighty allow such things to happen!

The God described here is a passionate god (to use Heschel’s phrase), deeply engaged with humanity, and in an intensely personal, intimate relation with the Jewish people. Not the cosmic God, the All of mystical vision, or the abstract Ground of Being of the pantheist, but an empathetic God, who is by turns angry, loving, compassionate, or feels hurt and betrayed. (In a peculiar way, Martin Buber, in his “secular,” earthly-life-centered religion, embraced precisely such a God in his dialogic thinking, as against the transcendent striving for individual ecstasy during an earlier period in his life; hence his deep interest in the Bible, and especially the prophets: God, the “Eternal Thou,” entering into relationship with man.)

In any event, this midrash may be read on two levels. On the one hand, as a human internal dialogue. What kind of a God can we believe in after all the terrible things we have seen? This question has reemerged with greater intensity in modern times after the Shoah: if some of the ancient Sages were able to explain the Destruction of 70 CE as punishment for sinat hinam, groundless hatred, what sin can European Jewry—a large segment of which, at least, were bastions of traditional Jewish piety, Torah and good works—have possibly done to deserve such a horrible fate? Elie Weisel may be seen as a paradigm for this type of questioning: many of his books, from Night on, exemplify such thinking. Interestingly, in a recent interview in Ha-Aretz, Weisel states that he does not disbelief in God after Auschwitz, but challenges Him, quarrels with Him, asks Eikhah-like questions—but continues to live as a Jew, to pray, to learn, to do mitzvot.

The answer given by our passage is that of a God who somehow limits Himself, who deliberately restrains himself from unlashing His fury at the world. Perhaps He has given up on changing humanity in any far-reaching way; He seems to have come to the sad realization that even He (certainly within the limits of free will, one of the “ground rules” of the world He Himself has created) cannot change human nature. Thus, he permits the enemies to do whatever they wish—but somehow assures the existence of the Jewish people in exile. He is still a powerful, awesome God, but One whose power has been transmuted into something very different: power held in check, inner power over His own impulses. Or, in the perhaps ironic words of another midrash on the Destruction: “Who is like unto You among the silent” (mi kamokha ba-ilmim; Gittin 56b).

But on yet another level, this same midrash may be read as a kind of internal conversation God holds with Himself, albeit with much the same end result: self-limitation and restraint; taking a more modest, limited role in history; retreating, so to speak, to the four ells, the narrow parameters of the Beit Midrash, which one might translate as—the world of as-yet-unrealized intellectual ideals, within an unredeemed world. One might even say: that He shares in the Jews astonishment, their feeling of hopelessness in face of history. He empathizes with the Jewish people by accepting a kind of parallel role, of powerlessness and self-imposed silence. He no longer enforces world-wide justice; it is enough that he allows the Jews to survive in Galut.

“How Does the City Sit Desolate!”: Thoughts on Eikhah

While posting old material on my blog, I noticed that, notwithstanding the voluminous material about Tisha b’Av, its law, its liturgy, and in its theology, I’ve never written anything here about Eikhah per se, though I’ve written about the other four megillot. Hence, I thought I’d take the opportunity to make up the lack by sharing at least a few reflections on this book (Interestingly, Eikhah is also the one megillah I’ve never read from a handwritten scroll; indeed, which I have never in my life even seen)

Eikhah, the Book of Lamentations, or “the Lamentations of Jeremiah,” differs from the other four megillot in that it does not convey a sense of flow or sequence. Esther and Ruth tell very definite stories. Kohelet is a rambling soliloquy with no strong sense of order, but it revolves around a central question: what is life all about anyway? Song of Songs may or may not have a coherent story line, but by the end of the book the lover and the beloved and the love between them takes shape before our eyes. Eikhah, by contrast, consists of five separate chapters, five dirges, each one of which stands in its own right.

Chapters 1, 2 and 5 are alphabetically arranged dirges, with one verse per letter (although for some reason the letters peh and ayin are reversed in Chapters 2 and 4, as well as in 3), with long, stately verses, traditionally read in a slow, plaintive tune. But these verses really consist of two, or even four, shorter phrases. One can almost imagine the author saying two or three words, and breaking down in sobbing. (I don’t really understand these things, but I’ve read that Eikhah in fact has a totally different system of metre than all other biblical poetry).

What are the themes of these chapters? The city lying desolate. Its former glory. The suffering undergone by its population, due to the ravages of hunger and thirst. Compassionate mothers being driven by hunger to desperate measures. The contrast between the former splendor, both physical and spiritual, of its inhabitants—well-adorned women, bedecked in jewelry and fine clothes; streets filled with priests and holy men, prophets and nazirites; handsome youths and shy virgins with a promising future before them; beautiful homes and buildings; and its crowning glory, the Holy Temple—all laid to waste.

People often ask: why observe Tisha b’Av nowadays? What relevance can the destruction of the Temple possibly have to our lives today? Tisha b’Av is seen by many as something archaic. How can one mourn and weep and speak of a desolate Jerusalem while sitting in the midst of a modern Jerusalem, filled with life, with homes and schools and government institutions and academies and yeshivot and synagogues and museums of every possible kind? Does one really long so for the sight and sounds and smells of sheep and rams and bulls being slaughtered?

I have two answers. First, that a close reading of Eikhah reveals that the mourning is primarily for a national disaster: one that befell, in equal measure, the Temple, the city, and the people. Even if Jerusalem stands restored, we are a people with a long history and a long memory, and the remembering of past tragedies—both in the Land and in Exile—is an exercise of great spiritual, cultural and national value.

I will return to the second reason for Tisha b’Av, but first, Chapter 3. This is a three-fold alphabetic dirge, but with much shorter verses. Some people recite it in synagogue with its own special melody. It is the story of one person: according to many views, Jeremiah, the prophet who was persecuted for talking up to the king and prophesying the approaching destruction. “I am the man who has seen suffering at the rod of His anger.”

But what I find interesting about this chapter is that it portrays its authors theological reflections and swings of mood. All the time he wrestles with the problem of meaning, of what has happened to him, and to the people. Where is God? At one point, He is shown covering himself with a cloud, not allowing prayer to pass through. But then, on the other hand, he expresses confidence and trust: “God’s mercies are never ending, his loving kindness are not finished; they are renewed each morning, great is Your faithfulness!” There is no single answer; it is more like a stream of consciousness of a deeply religious man, who is troubled by what befalls him, and seeks an answer.

Chapter 5 is the only non-alphabetical chapter, and again consists of short, pithy verses. It is a kind of summary of the disasters and suffering that have befallen the people: our houses take by strangers, we must pay dearly even for water to drink, our women raped and humiliated, are old men uprooted from their place of honor at the gates, all joy is gone from our hearts. Once again, the emphasis is on the people; there is not even mention here of the Temple. But in this chapter, there is a clear sense of guilt, of Divine recompense, that the disaster is a punishment for sin. Hence, the concluding verse is a call to teshuvah, to repent: “Return us to You, O God, and we shall return; renew our days as of old!”

In conclusion, nevertheless, why the Temple? This past Shabbat I was at a Sephardi synagogue in a small town, of basically simple people. They were not great scholars, many of them were not even necessarily particularly observant. But two things struck me: first, the sense of reverence for the Torah scroll, as an immediate, tangible embodiment of the Holy. The most heartfelt prayers—for the State of Israel, for the soldiers fighting this war, and for the three kidnapped soldiers (I will not dignify Hizballah or Hamas’s actions by calling them POWs in the normal sense of that term) were recited before the open ark. Second, the Priestly Blessing was treated with awe: nearly everyone there covered their face with a tallit during its recitation. Again, this ritual is a remnant of the ancient Temple service. The Temple was special in that there was a sense of the Divine Presence, of God somehow dwelling among the people, of a direct contact with the Holy. One can celebrate living in a rebuilt Jerusalem, one can be happy with the restoration of Jewish sovereignty in historical, political, cultural, and national terms. But all these are ultimately events on a secular human plane. We do not, perhaps cannot, comprehend in precisely what sense this was so, but when the Temple stood there was a transcendent dimension to life in the Holy City that is somehow absent today. And for this, too, we weep.

Matot-Masei (Rashi)

For further teachings on this parasha, see the archives to this blog for July 2006.

“These are the Travels”

The opening Rashi of Parshat Masei is quite well known:

Numbers 33:1. “These are the stages [stations; i.e., in the travels] of the children of Israel, when they left Egypt in their hosts…” Rashi: Why are these stations written? To make known the kindness of the Omnipresent, for even though He decreed against them that they be tossed about and move around in the desert, you cannot say that they were tossed and moved about from place to place all forty years and did not have rest, for there are only forty-two stations here in all. Subtract from them fourteen during the first year, prior to the edict… and another eight stations after Aaron’s death… We find that throughout the thirty-eight years they only journeyed twenty stations. This is based upon Rabbi Moses [the Preacher]’s Yesod.

And Rabbi Tanhuma taught another homily concerning this: it may be compared to a king who took his sick son to a distant place to be healed. On the way back, the father began to enumerate all the stations on the way, saying: There we slept, there we felt chilled, there your head hurt, etc.

Several salient points about this passage: First, that Rashi is keenly aware of what might be called the “redaction” of the Torah—that , the manner in which it is edited or arranged—and attempts to understand why the Torah brings certain subjects, and why it does so where it does. In this case, at least some of the information given here appears elsewhere, albeit scattered in several different places and in incomplete form. Why was it important that it be brought here at all?

Second: most often, when drawing upon someone else, states his other sources: in this case, Rabbi Moshe ha-Darshan, head of the yeshiva in Narbonne and one of Rashi’s important teachers, and Midrash Tanhuma.

Third: there is a strong emphasis on what might be called “relational” rather than theological messages. God is depicted here as a caring, concerned father, reminiscing with his son over the hardships they have undergone together, rather than as a cosmic figure concerned with constant reminders of His power, His miracles, etc. (as implied by Ramban here). Neither is Rashi interested in the mystical allusions imbedded in the names of the various stations and their number, as is the case in certain Kabbalistic or Hasidic exegeses.

Finally, without any connection to the above, I would like to mention a most marvelous sermon I heard on Parshat Masei delivered by Art Green some years ago at the Leader Minyan. To this group, which consisted of many old-time “‘60s people,” he spoke, in half-jocular tone, of Masei as the chapter of “trips”—of life as a series of “trips,” and of the more serious Hasidic message that life is an ongoing journey, with many different stations or, if you prefer, “trips,” in which a person seeks meaning; all these taken together, both good and bad, make up who we are. Some, such as Haradah (paralyzing fear), Marah (Bitterness), and Tahat (Bottom), are negative; others, like Mitkah (Sweetness) and Har Shefer (Goodness), have more positive resonance. Or there may be group experiences, like Makhelot or Kehelata, or that of going to the “court” of a Hasidic or other charismatic teacher—Hatzerot. But at the end of the journey, there is a certain value to remembering all the trips, to knowing that they all, however misguided and stupid they may seem in retrospect, went into one’s life, and together constitute a source for a certain kind of wisdom.

PINHAS: Was the Tamid Offered in the Desert?

Last Shabbat, I was privileged to visit the table of my friend Mendel Shapiro. At a certain point, the discussion turned to a certain point in the week’s parasha—for whose rather technical nature he apologized, half facetiously. But in truth, properly understood, this subject, like all Torah, has interesting and far-reaching consequences.

The question was: were the fixed daily sacrifices—the two sheep, one in the morning and one in the evening, mentioned here—offered on the altar during the forty years of wandering in the desert? After all, following the specifications for the various artifacts to be made for the Sanctuary, it explicitly states, just after the construction of the altar, that “this is the thing you shall do on the altar every day” (Exod 29:38-46), and goes on to describe the Tamid, the fixed daily offering. (Note: all this is in terms of the Torah’s own self understanding. The “empirical historical truth” can in any event probably never be recovered—but, as is always our way, we place aside or bracket whatever historical and textual critics may say.)

But if that is so, why is the commandment repeated here, in Numbers 28-29, with the addition of the occasional offerings (musafin), at a point which is clearly preparatory to entering into the land, as if it is one of these commandments whose performance will only begin after entering the land. (In this, it would seem to be like much else in the latter half of Bamidbar, e.g., the cities of refuge, the separation of hallah and the giving of other offerings to the priests, and of course the detailed regulations of division of the land, its inheritance, the boundaries of the Land, etc.).

Indeed, one can argue the case either way. But it seems strange to assume that the daily sacrifices were commanded in Exodus 29, only to be performed at a much later time. The phrase, “this is what you shall do upon the altar,” seems to suggest a certain minimum service to be performed in the desert: the Mishkan was surely constructed to be a functioning locus of Divine service. The passage in Exodus 29:38-46 seems clear enough: God describes the Tent of Meeting as the place where “I shall make myself known to Israelites… and I shall dwell among them… and they shall know that I am the Lord who took them out of the Land of Egypt.” And indeed, in almost the same breath it describes the two sheep to be offered on the altar daily. Then, too, in Exodus 40, it describes the erection of the Mishkan, the placing therein of the various requisite items, and the appropriate use of each one, and, in verse 29, describes the last item but one: the altar, upon which were to be offered olah uminhah. Yet a further argument in support of this view may perhaps be found in the use of the word tishmero in Num 28:2: “you shall guard to do in its right time”—as if it were a practice already familiar to the Israelites.

On the other hand, there is a verse from the prophet Jeremiah that “I did not speak to you of my burnt-offerings and whole-offerings on the day I took you up out of Egypt” (Jer 7:22)—but this verse is generally understood as one launching criticism against the over-emphasis on ritual, specifically sacrifices, and calling for justice, ethical behavior, kindness to the unfortunate, etc., and may be read as a certain poetic exaggeration rather than as literal truth.

Rashi’s position is quite clear. In Num 28:4 he states that the Tamid was only offered during the seven-day period of initiation (milu’im) of Aaron and sons, and of the Sanctuary itself:

Numbers 28:4. “The one lamb you shall offer in the morning…” Rashi: Even though it already states in Parashat Tetzaveh, “this is what you shall offer upon the altar” (Exod 29:38), that was an admonition regarding the days of initiation, while here He commanded regarding future generations.

But what does the rather strange verse, “a fixed burnt-offering, made at Mount Sinai” (Num 28:6), mean?

Ibid., 6. “A fixed burnt-offering, made at Mount Sinai.” Rashi: Because they were offered during the days of initiation. Another thing: “made at Mount Sinai.” An analogy is drawn between the fixed offering and Mount Sinai, i.e., that which was offered prior to the Giving of the Torah, of which it is written, “and he placed [the blood] in bowls” (Exod 24: 6)—this teaches that it requires [to be placed in] a vessel.

This second Rashi seems somewhat strained, even far-fetched: a conscious attempt, having taken a certain approach to this issue, to reconcile certain details to fit the earlier verses. That is, one that was only offered for a few days in the desert, on a special occasion.

Ramban disagrees, saying that the Tamid was offered regularly from then on. This passage is thus seen by him as being brought to teach various adjunct laws, which we shall not enumerate here, plus the musafin, etc.

What is the underlying conception of the meaning of the regular sacrifices here? In the desert context, the Sanctuary is depicted as the immediate continuation of the Sinai experience of epiphany, of the Presence. God appeared at Sinai in the fiery Cloud of Glory (Exod 24:15-17), and it was in this setting that the initial offerings described here were made; after the Sanctuary is erected, God’s Presence dwells over the Tent, described in words almost identical to those used earlier (Exod 40:34-38).

On the one hand, in a certain kind of midrashic perception, the Mishkan may be seen as a manifestation of the halcyon, romantic, honeymoon-like ambience between God and Israel: “I remember the tender devotion of your youth, the love of your nuptials, when you went after me in the desert, in an unsown land” (Jeremiah 2:2—a verse read in last week’s haftarah, albeit for a very different reason!). One could argue that the offering of korbanot is seen as an act of love, of responding to God’s love and palpable presence through a gift of that which was dearest, most valuable.

On the other hand, it is also a kind of “institutionalizing” of the experience of Presence, placing it within limits, boundaries, “below ten tefahim”—and to a large extent formalizing it, making it into a kind of routine which over time may even become largely empty of the sense of immediacy, of tangible holiness, that was once attached to it. It may even become subject to the ills of a priestly class, who misuse their association with the charismatic Divine power for their own crass interests. (We have written on this tension between fixity and spontaneity, between the innerness of spirit and the outward forms of halakhah, on numerous occasions in the past). The Mishkan may thus best be seen as a kind of “half-way house” between these two contrasting influences or “vectors.”

Once we turn to the situation once they entered the Land itself, the element of fixity, of “institutionalized religion,” becomes more dominant. The holy center was now located in a fixed home, a Temple built of stone, and not a portable tent of wood and cloth which could be taken down, packed away, and carted on to the next top. This was perhaps the insight expressed by Rashi in his claim that temidin were only offered on a permanent basis in the Land. On the other hand, the establishing of a fixed habitation, a community, settlement, calls for fixed sacrificial cult as well. But this habitation was always seen as “coming to the rest and the inheritance,” as an act of fulfillment, and not as something lifeless or more mere outward firm. The desert was a time of a more spontaneous, immediate sense of Presence, of interacting with God—but it could not last forever, any more than a honeymoon, in which a couple only interact with one another, without a fixed home or a position within the social nexus of a community, can long be the exclusive context of a marriage.

Zelophehads’ Daughters

An old friend from my Young Judaea Year Course asked me if I had any particular teachings to share about the daughter of Zelophehad. Two comments:

This case is one of a handful of places in the Torah in which Moses is depicted adjudicating a concrete, practical situation, whether one in which an offender commits a serious transgression, or one in which people come to him to resolve some problem. (This is perhaps ironic, as Moses is already shown being observed by his father-in-law, in Exodus 18:13-14, as sitting “from morning till evening” to deal with the people’s questions and problems.)

The cases are: the nokev hashem, the man who blasphemed the Divine name in the course of a quarrel (Lev 24:10-23); Pesah Sheni: the case of individuals who had been ritually impure on the first Pesah and were unable to participate in the sacrifice (Num 9:1-14); the mekoshesh etzim, the man who gathered sticks on Shabbat (Num 15:32-36); the case known by Pinhas’s name, in which a man flagrantly engaged in sexual behavior, publicly, with a Midianite woman (Num 25:1-15: Moses is described by the Talmud as forgot the halakhah, while Pinhas spontaneously understand what needs to be done); and finally, our case of the daughters of Zelophehad, which involves two separate phases, described in two separate places.

In this case, a group of five sisters came, whose father had died, want to know whether their inherited homestead-portion in his share in the Land will simply go to waste because they are women and not men. They were told that, in such a case, they would be entitled to the inheritance (Num 27:1-11). The second round of this same story recurs after they are granted their share in the inheritance. Their (male) fellow Manassites ask: wait a minute, what if they marry outside of the tribe and remove the clan’s homestead from the tribal property? This time Moses ruled that, in order to prevent such a situation, they must marry within their own tribe (Num 36:1-13)

One of the interesting things here is that in almost all of the cases mentioned, Moses is reluctant to rule on his own, but awaits a direct Divine revelation or word to know how to rule. It is only in this final case that we see him acting, for the first time, as a “Sage” rather than a “prophet”—that is, with a sense of his own authority and mandate to decide on the basis of his own autonomous human wisdom—God–inspired, to be sure, but essentially a human decision, rooted in a sense of his responsibility as leader of the community.

A second, possibly more significant question, is: why, of all the cases, and of a handful of practical cases adjudicated in Torah, is this one reopened a second time? I think that this expresses something significant about the sensitive nature of issues involving women and marriage law. On the one hand, a woman is an autonomous individual, a member of her family, clan and tribe, just like a man, and as such deserving of a rightful share in the property and heritage of her family. On the other hand, it is the nature of the woman to marry, to establish new family, and for that family unit to have a new identity and place in society.

An attempt is made here to draw a balance between these two values. Unlike the situation in an ordinary lawsuit—say, between two claimants to certain property, two business partners, an employee and employer, an artisan and his customer, etc.—a dispute within a marriage, or even one involving a hypothetical future marriage, as here, cannot be treated as merely a formal adversarial relationship. A man and a woman living together in shared quarters, not to mention living together intimately, perhaps building a family, cannot be treated only in terms of formal justice, allowing tensions between them to be stretched to the breaking point. Somehow, the interests of both sides must be served, while maintaining a milieu of peace and harmony.

In my view, there is food for thought here for contemporary feminist movement.

POSTSCRIPT: “One law for great and small”

Last week the State’s Prosecution agreed to a plea bargain with Israel’s recently-resigned President, Moshe Katzav, in which Katav admits to sexual harassment and inappropriate behavior, is given a suspended sentence (i.e., no jail time!), and all charges of rape, attempted rape, and unlawful relations are dismissed. The justification put forth for this arrangement by Meni Mazoz, Legal Counsel to the Government, is two-fold: that complainant A’s story had certain inconsistencies, and might not stand up in a court trial; and that, by not indicting him for a serious crime, this somehow protects the “honor” of the Presidency.

To my mind, what the prosecutor has done is no less than to erase two verses from the Torah: “you shall not know honor persons in judgment; hear great and small alike; fear not persons, for the judgment belongs to God” (Deut 1:17); and “You shall respect the face of neither small or great; judge your fellowman with righteousness” (Lev 19:15). If once again the high and mighty are spared prosecution to the full extent of the law, while the grievance of complainant A, who is young, and female, and was an ordinary office worker, is essentially thrown into the trash (and her credibility discredited in the bargain), what does it do to the principle—which is of course a central one of secular law and democratic theory, as well as of Torah law—of equality before the law? And what message does this send to bosses with “wandering hands” when a man to whom Mazoz himself referred, prior to this deal, as a “serial sexual monster” gets away with a slap on the wrist?

As for “protecting the honor of the Presidency”: Katzav has besmirched the Presidency through his actions. But the Presidency is not identical with its occupant; it may be best seen as a kind of symbolic embodiment of “Statehood,” embodied in a specific person chosen for that purpose. But if a given individual dishonors his high office, as Katzav has evidently done, a clear and radical distinction needs to be drawn between him and the State that he, so to speak, heretofore symbolized. Whatever the court may decide to do with is case, as a citizen accused of a felony, neither adds nor detracts from this.

Pinhas (Rashi)

For more teachings on this parsha, see the archives for July 2006 at my blog,
In the coming days, I intend at long last to send out my essay on “Simon Rawidowicz’s Babylon and Jerusalem: Then and Now,” to coincide with the fiftieth Yahrzeit of its subject, Simon Rawidowicz, who died on 22 Tamuz 5717 (the Yahrzeit thus falls this coming Sunday). This essay, which has been many years in its germination, deals with a relatively little-known figure in modern Jewish thought, whose thought deserves being far more widely known, and its implications for today’s Jewish world.

Rawidowicz’s Babylon and Jerusalem: A Homiletic Prelude

The following comment by Rashi on this week’s parasha may serve as a suitable introduction to our topic:

Numbers 28:2. “Command the children of Israel and say to them…” Rashi: What is written above? [“And Moses spoke to God saying:] ‘May the Lord appoint…’” (27:16). The Holy One blessed be He said to Him: Until you command Me concerning My children, command My children concerning Me. This might be compared to the daughter of a king [in this context: a queen] who was dying, and instructed her husband concerning her children… As is written in Sifre (ibid., §142).

[Text of the Sifre: Before you instruct me concerning your sons, instruct your sons concerning me, that they not rebel against Me and not behave towards Me in a contemptuous manner. Thus said the Holy One blessed be He to Moses: Before you command Me concerning My children, command My children concerning Me, that they not rebel against me and not exchange My Glory for that of a strange god.]

This passage, in which God commands the people regarding the entire system of daily and occasional offerings (temidin u-musafin) to be brought regularly in the Temple on behalf of the people, follows on the heels of one of the few passages in which Moses addresses God in the imperative, essentially telling the Almighty what to do (although Rashi ad loc softens the tone somewhat). Moses, knowing that he would soon die, asked God to appoint a successor to lead the people. This section, dealing with the arrangements for statutory Divine worship, is seen as a kind of response: “Before you tell Me what to do about My children, perhaps you should command My children about Me.”

Moses is depicted here as standing in a uniquely intimate relation with both God and the people of Israel: as if he were the wife of the One, and mother of the other. Indeed, in one of the many difficult junctures in this book, he complains that God is treating him as if he had conceived and given birth to the people, expecting him to carry them and dandle them “like a nursemaid who carries an infant” (Num 11:12). In relation to God, he serves not only as messenger, but as God’s, so to speak, friend and partner in the project of forging the Israelites into a free, holy nation (on this point, see, e.g., what I wrote on the ambiguity of Moses’ position in HY III: Ki Tisa = Ki Tisa [Midrash]).

The use of the image of the mother here is very interesting. The implicit assumption is that the mother is far closer to the children than is their father; she feels an immediate, tangible connection with them, a longing for them and an attachment felt in her very womb (even when they are strapping men, perhaps towering over her), who may act as a kind of intercessor for them with a sometimes harsh and demanding father. This idea is not only a natural one—we speak of a maternal instinct, derived from the physical fact of having borne these children in one’s womb; but there is also a special halakhic connection. The father’s monetary obligations to his children are due them, so to speak, as part of the conditions of the Ketubah which are prescribed by the Sages as part of any Jewish marriage—that is to say, the financial support given to any children born of the union (up to a certain point) is conceived as part of the man’s husbandly obligations to his wife (see m. Ketubot 4.10-11).

In preparation for his own death, Moses is shown taking care to assure that matters will be in order after his death—first and foremost, that the people will have proper leadership. God takes him to task for this, reminding him of the other side of the coin: as if to say, remember that in your role of “mother” you must not only care and worry about the people, but also have a certain power of persuasion over your children, a natural emotional influence that the “father” doesn’t have. In other words: they will listen to you, because they love you, and not only fear you. (We shall leave aside all latter-day stereotypes about Jewish mothers and their power to impose guilt.) Therefore, don’t forget Me, and that I also need some reassurance that my sons will remain loyal and devoted to me even after her death—so say a good word to them, and convey this regimen of orderly Divine worship as an assurance that all will be well….

What is interesting here is what is taken for granted: the total intertwining of Israel as a natural human community and as a religious congregation based upon a certain cult of religious worship. As we shall see presently, issues of Jewish peoplehood, and the relationship, if not precisely between religion and peoplehood, between culture and history and peoplehood-in-Diaspora as against modern political-geographic conceptions of nationhood, lay at the heart of Rawidowicz’s thought.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Tammuz (Months)

Tammuz. The time when the sun is at its zenith. Long days of intense, often harsh heat. Tammuz is the turning-point of the seasons; Tekufat Tammuz is the Hebrew counterpoint to the summer solstice. The beginning of the proverbial “long hot summer.” In one Talmudic tradition Tammuz is described as a time of special danger, when a person who walks alone in mid-day of Tammuz is exposed to the deleterious effects of ketev-merari (an enigmatic phrase from Deut 32:24), a vague, harmful demonic force…. The light and warmth of the sun, one of the ultimate sources of all natural blessing and even of life itself, can be a curse when there is too much of it, too intense (shades of global warming?).

In Jewish history, too, Tammuz is a time of harshness. Midway through the month is the 17th of Tammuz, the second of the four fast days for the destruction of Jerusalem, the traditional date of the breaching of the walls of Jerusalem (before the Destruction of the Second Temple; 2 Kings 25:3-4 gives the date for breaching of the walls in the First Temple period as the 9th of Tammuz). As such, it is the beginning of the Three Weeks, bein ma-metzarim, “between the breaches”—the period leading up to Tisha b’Av. It is a time of mourning, of denying ourselves certain physical pleasures and comforts, and of sober reflection—not so much over individual faults, but of collective responsibility and sin.

An important Rabbinic tradition notes that, whereas the First Temple was destroyed because of “bloodshed, licentiousness, and idolatry”—the three cardinal sins in Judaism—the Second Temple was destroyed “because of causeless hatred”—what we might today call factionalism: a situation in which religious and national-political ideologies become the center of individual identity, running amok, and simple human empathy was lost in the shuffle.

But one ought not to make light of the sins of First Temple paganism either. Sexual licentiousness and ritual bloodshed seem to go hand in hand with certain kinds of paganism. Interestingly, Tammuz was the name of one of the pagan deities worshipped during that age—the only such whose name is associated with that of a Hebrew month. Tammuz—originally the Sumerian shephered god Dumuzid, or the Akkadian Dumuzzi—was consort of the female Inanna/Ishtar, whose death and rebirth were associated with the intense like heat and drought of mid-summer followed by rebirth, through rituals of mourning. “The women weeping for the Tammuz” described by the prophet Ezekiel (8:6-14) was among the shocking sights he observed when he was taken to the inner sanctum of the Temple in Jerusalem.

A third feature signaling the character of this month is the sequence of Torah portions read. During Tammuz, we read and almost always complete the second half of Sefer Bamidbar, the Book of Numbers. As we have observed on other occasions, this is in some ways the most difficult book on which to get a handle. It seems a potpourri of laws, stories, rebellions, and disasters.

In the first half of the book (roughly speaking: the parshiyot read in Sivan) , there is a sense of timelessness, of suspended animation, of being “nowhere” in the desert. There is no interaction with other peoples; no real material needs (the Israelites eat the miraculous manna that falls every morning; they drink water from the “Well of Miriam”; their garments and shoes don’t wear out). To be flippant, one might compare it to a reality show, in which people are thrown upon their own resources simply to get on with one another, and the strengths and weaknesses of human nature (mostly the latter) are revealed in all their nakedness. Or perhaps it can be compared to Sartre’s play No Exit; in which three people are shut in a room for eternity and the conflicts among them play themselves out. “Hell is other people” becomes the motto.

The second half of the book is somehow more down to earth: there is interaction with other nations, as well as a sense of expectancy, of readiness, of preparing to enter the land. A number of sections go down to the smallest technical details of how to settle the Land, of its boundaries, of dividing the land among the tribes, of “extra-territorial” Levitical cities and cities of refuge—and even of how to handle an unusual case of inheritance in a family where there are only daughters. There is also a change of leadership: Joshua instead of Moses; Pinhas instead of Aharon.

In Hukat and Balak the focus is on interaction (mostly violent) with other nations: the battles with Sihon and Og; fragments of ancient war poetry; and the strange story of the sorcerer/prophet Bilaam, in which the people of Israel are observed entirely from without. There are more rebellions and examples of poor behavior on the part of the people: the plague sent among the people for their lack of faith, and the brazen serpent sent to cure it; and the sexual straying with the Midianite women at Baal Peor.

If one were to seek one central theme, it would be: the confrontation with a harsh, difficult reality (like that symbolized in Jewish history by the three weeks?). The basic question asked by the Torah, if one may put it thus, is: how does one bring the lofty, unitive vision of Sinai down into the nitty-gritty harshness, even cruelty, of the desert? Ironically, as these words are being written we find ourselves in the midst of a mini-war with the Palestinians, one more chapter in a seemingly endless, “no exit” situation of ultimately pointless, un-winnable tribal warfare not so different from that portrayed in these chapters of Torah.

As for the astrological symbolism: Tammuz is the month of Cancer: the crab, a sea crustaceans, living within a hard, protective shell (a symbol of turning inward?); a dangerous creature that can snap and bite and even hurt badly. A crabby person is constantly grumpy and complaining. I don’t know whether the two are connected (although whenever believers in astrology say “So-and-so is a Cancer” it always seems to have a particularly sinister ring), but the homonymous cancer is a dreaded disease in which unseen disease cells multiply silently, destroying healthy organs over a period of months and years. All of which are an apt enough collection of metaphors for what can go wrong in life, on both the personal and national level.


Just as, in the biblical chronology, the giving of the Torah is followed in short order by the Golden Calf, so too in the liturgical year Shavuot is followed by series of catastrophes, of rebellions, in which the people are shown at their weakest and most petty-minded. A friend of mine once commented, only half facetiously, that immediately after the two inverted nuns in this week’s parsha, the Torah, so to speak, “has a nervous breakdown” (or, alternatively, the nuns are like the iceberg struck by the Titanic).

In other years, I’ve addressed the catalogue of human weaknesses elaborated in these parshiyot. This time I shall focus on issues of leadership, and especially on the personality of Moses as leader.

Beha’alotkha: The first major crisis is that in which the people complain about the steady, bland diet of manna, “lusting” for meat. Moses is angry—it’s not clear whether with God, with the people, or with both—and does not respond directly to the people, but rather addresses God with his complaints. Why, he says, have you placed the burden of all this people upon me? You’ve made me no more than a glorified nursemaid (“as the nursemaid carries a suckling…”)!

A Digression on the Lust for Flesh: On one level, this whole story may be taken as a fable about flesh eating and vegetarianism: the bland, calming, but nourishing (perhaps grain like?) manna vs. the raw desire for animal flesh!—a tension not uncommon in many communities today. Moreover, it’s not far-fetched to draw a connection between the two kinds of carnal lust: that for eating flesh (carnis in Latin) and that for sex: a) note the use of the word ta’avah here, used for all forms of desire, wish, or appetite, associated elsewhere with sexual lust, for the desire to eat flesh; b) in a well-known comment, Rashi interprets the verse “the people were weeping by their families” (Num 11:10), as “regarding matters of family”—i.e., sexual impropriety; c) in Far Eastern culture, the two lusts are linked as that which is eschewed in monasticism. Thus, in Buddhism and Hinduism monks refrain both from sexual relations and from eating meat, as part of a path to a more subtle spiritual consciousness. Neither of these is seen as “evil,” as sex is in historical Christianity, but as obstacles to a certain detachment from the grossly physical.

An interesting sidelight on all this. The leader of the most successful anti-clerical party to have existed in Israel in many years, Shinui (which, for a variety of reasons, suffered a dramatic plummet in the most recent elections), was Yosef (Tommy) Lapid. Besides his career in politics and journalism, Lapid was the author, with Ruth Sirkis, of a cookbook of Hungarian food, Paprika. The opening page of that book, roughly translated, states that “any self-respecting Hungarian lives to eat.” This doubtless gave fuel to his secularism—Rabbinic control over the kinds of meat sold in Israel interfered with his freedom, if not passion, to buy and enjoy the full gamut of meats! But the irony in all this is that I can hardly imagine the likes of Lapid, or any other meat enthusiast, going crazy about quail, the subject of the meat craze in our parashah. I once bought a pair of quails for our Friday night supper one year on Shabbat Beha’alotkha: scrawny things, each bird was barely the size of a quarter-chicken!

To return to our parsha: God’s response is very interesting: He deals with Moses’ frustration and impotence by assigning him a group of “assistants,” seventy elders (an already existing group?), delegating or “infusing” them with some of the “spirit” which is upon Moses. There is a certain parallel here to the story in Yitro (Exod 18): there, Moses’ father-in-law Yitro sees that Moses is working too hard, and suggests a system of delegating certain more routine aspects of his authority to a series of lower officials. But there, it is a purely administrative or juridical authority: the sort of division of tasks which can be made in any human society, based upon rational, exoteric abilities. Here, the Torah speaks about infusing some of Moses’ spirit, his charisma, upon these people, the clear implication being that this would somehow help him to deal with the people at large—it’s not clear exactly how. It’s also not clear whether these were prophets who conveyed an ethical message of some sort, or ecstatics, like the band of prophets playing musical instruments whom Saul encountered while looking for the lost donkeys (1 Sam 10:5-6, 10-11), with whom he entered into mystical ecstasy? In any event, all this is intended merely as a temporary measure: “and they prophesied and did not continue” (11:25; but compare Onkelos there, and also Deut 5:19, where there are two diametrically opposed views of the meaning of the word pasak: whether the great voice “did not stop” or “did not continue”). We are left with a certain sense of failure, of a weakness of leadership on Moses’ part—he simply cannot cope.

But on another level, this retreat on Moses’ part may be seen as in some sense praiseworthy. He does not desire power or position for himself. Thus, when two men, Eldad and Medad, continue to “prophesy in the camp,” Joshua is upset, seeing them as rivals or even usurpers of Moses’ unique prophetic gift. But Moses accepted this with equanimity. “Would that all of God’s people were prophets!”

We again see Moses’ humility in the next scene, the episode in which his siblings, Aaron and Miriam, speak against him because of his “Kushite” wife—it is not clear whether they disprove of his marital choice, or whether they are troubled by his treatment her—perhaps eschewing her sexually. In any event, this chapter includes a little speech by God, no more than two lines long, which is central source in the Torah on the subject of Moses’ virtues—particularly his modesty and self-effacement—as well as his unique prophetic gifts.

Shelah lekha: Here, Moses again initially seems rather passive, falling on his face in shock and bewilderment when he hears the blasphemous, defeatist tenor of the report brought back by the spies. But it is left to Joshua and Kaleb to argue with them, to attempt to win over the trust of the people.

But at a certain point, when the issue becomes God’s threat to punish the people, Moses emerges as the great mediator, the “defense attorney” for the people of Israel, arguing on their behalf before God. This sequence is strongly reminiscent of the incident of the Golden Calf, even down to the same arguments: what will the nations say if You abandon them in the wilderness? He even throws back in God’s face, so to speak, the thirteen Attributes of Mercy that had been revealed in the crevice of the rock. The scene ends with God declaring His forgiveness—albeit with a big BUT (ve-ulam…, 14:21). He immediately makes a a certain qualification; all those who went astray, who doubted Me, who were part of the “old generation” born in Egypt, will have to wander about and eventually die in the wilderness, until a new generation, who never knew what it meant to be subjugated to others, will come of age and take over the mantle of leadership.

This paradigm of the Desert Generation is a central idea in Israeli social mythology, a kind of model for the transition from the Exilic Jew who founded the Zionist enterprise, and the New Jew, born in the Land. Several recent books on the Six Day War, such as Tom Segev’s 1967, describe how the “Israelis”—the brash young group of “Tzabar” Army officers: Rabin, Sharon, Yigal Alon, Moshe Dayan, Ezer Weizman, Uzi Narkiss, et al—saw themselves as diametrically opposed to the “Jews”—the older, mostly European-born generation of government leaders—Ben-Gurion, Eshkol, Burg, Maimon, Pinhas Sapir, Shazar, etc.—who were more hesitant and cautious about daring, far-reaching operations.

Korah, the third parashah in this group, involves a frontal challenge to Moses’ and Aharon’s leadership, spearheaded by a charismatic charlatan, the type of smooth-tongued, glib demagogue who utters convincing half-truths, who is again a familiar figure in our modern world. Here, Moses comes into his own, standing up to the challenger, with a two-pronged attack: on the one hand, speaking firmly, with logic and reason, rebuffing the other’s arguments; on the other, with the “subtext” of asserting his own inner personal power to the people, reinforced by dramatic, Divine miracles.

Who, then, was Moses? What manner of man was he? In these parshiyot, we see him gradually growing, developing into the role of leader of the people. There was a certain inner conflict, if not contradiction, within Moses’ character. On the one hand, he had the modesty and even bashfulness suitable to a man of God, a man who spent hours and days in communion with the Ineffable—so such so, that one feels that he is somehow more comfortable with the Almighty than with the rough-and-tumble company of his fellow human beings. And, on the other hand, he had the potential for forcefulness and assertiveness needed by a leader.

Moses’ early life is marked by both these aspects: on the one hand, a passion for justice—visible already in Egypt, in the encounter with the taskmaster and with the two Hebrews fighting, as well with the shepherds in Midian who pushed aside the young girls at the well waiting to water their flock. But there, it is spontaneous, almost instinctive, flaring up as almost uncontrolled anger (a trait that remerges later now and again as well).

On the other hand, there is a tremendous sense of modesty, of self-effacement. Thus, in the scene at the burning bush, he gives God a long list of reasons as to why he cannot go to Pharaoh, and in the end, after all the other reasons, turns to what may be the real focus—his own feeling of self, of inadequacy as a leader of men. “I am not a man of words.”

The other conflict or polarity in Moses character (or is it really the same?) is the following: is he more “up above” or in the world (see my discussion of this, including quotes from Aviva Zornberg’s excellent insights on this, in HY III: Ki Tisa). Moses is a real mystic, a natural prophet, who feels more at home in the Divine realm than in the human; for whom being in the spiritual realm seems perfectly natural. And whom, by contrast, must painfully learn, through trial and error, how to become a leader of men.