Friday, January 15, 2010

Vaera (Aggadah)

I cannot pass in silence over the earthquake which took tens of thousands of innocent lives in Haiti and left an entire country in shambles, with many if not most homeless. An event like this is so horrific that one does not know what to say; even if the casualties were exacerbated by an indifferent and corrupt government, the catastrophe itself was the proverbial “act of God.” Such events remind us of the pettiness of most of our everyday concerns, even those most sublime and spiritual, as well as of the sheer contingency of our lives.

For more teachings on the parashah, see the archives to this blog at January 2006, 2007 and 2009

Slaves Commanded to Free Slaves

The Jerusalem Talmud makes an interesting comment on a verse we might otherwise pass over without notice. j. Rosh Hashana 3.5:

“And he commanded the children of Israel.” Rabbi Shmuel bar R. Yitzhak said: Concerning what did he command them? About the sending away [i.e., freeing] of slaves. As Rav Hila said: Israel were only punished for [neglecting] the release of slaves. Concerning this it is written, “At the end of seven years, each one of you shall release his Hebrew brother” (Jer 34:14).

This is an extraordinary saying: while the Israelites were still themselves slaves in the land of Egypt, God already commanded them concerning the mitzvah to release slaves at the end of seven years (a law which is, in fact, the very first law in Parshat Mishpatim, Exod 21:1-6, appearing immediately after the revelation at Sinai).

How are we to understand this? First, as to the exegetical mechanics of the question and answer: in context, our verse states that God commanded Israel and Pharaoh king of Egypt concerning the sending of the Israelites out of Egypt. But how and why could He have commanded the Israelites concerning such a thing? They were the objects of the “sending,” not its subjects! Indeed, the simplest reading of the verse is that God commanded both Israel and Pharaoh about their imminent liberation: Pharaoh was commanded to free them, while the Israelites were informed that the event was about to take place. But in Jeremiah 34, the prophet chastises the people for not liberating their slaves at the end of seven years, alluding to the covenant that God made with their forefathers when they came out of Egypt” which obligated them to do so. Our aggadah “connects the dots” and sees the origin of that covenant in this verse.

Moreover, this mitzvah joins a list of mitzvot that were commanded even before the Sinaitic Revelation. There is, of course, the tradition that the Patriarchs observed certain mitzvot “even before they were given”; thus, those non-halakhic things they are described as doing, such as Abraham serving butter (or perhaps curds? sour milk? yogurt?) to the angels together with meat, or Jacob marrying two sisters, require explanation. The verse in Exod 15:25, stating that at Marah, “He placed before them law and judgment, and there he tried them” is seen as the source for various mitzvot—Shabbat, denim (i.e., basic institutions of law), etc. In our verse, as well, there is a certain foreshadowing of what the Torah will say later. (But the covert implication is that those mitzvot given before the giving of Torah are of particular importance.)

What are the ethical implications of this aggadah? That slavery as an objectionable human institution; the idea that one man “owns” another, has the right to do what he wishes with him, to treat him as an object to be used, to be sold or traded, contradicts the basic idea of the human being created in the image of God. Or, as is said in Leviticus 25:55, “for they are My servants [and not servants of servants] whom I took up out of Egypt.” Slavery is at most a temporary status, permitted for only a limited period of time, to “work off” a debt, and not a permanent social arrangement into which generations of children and entire classes of people may be born. Hence, it was already commanded while the people themselves were still in slavery; if you like, an anticipation of the later rationale given for many social mitzvot, “for you were slaves in the land of Egypt.” The Israelites own bitter experience must serve, first and foremost, as the basis for empathy with others who may be subjugated.

The Great Frog

The Talmud, at Sanhedrin 67b, relates what sounds like a Texas tall-tale:

“And the frog came up, and covered all the land of Egypt” (Exod 5:2). Rabbi Eleazar said: There was one frog, which multiplied and filled the entire land of Egypt. As was taught by the tannaim: R. Akiva said: There was one frog, and it filled the entire land of Egypt. R. Eleazar b. Azariah said: Akiva, what have you to do with aggadah?! Leave your words, and go engage in laws of leprosy and “tents” [i.e., tumah transmitted over an area covered by one roof]. There was one frog, and he whistled to them [the other frogs] and they came.

What is going on here? To begin with, there is a real difficulty here in terms of language: while the singular form is often used in Hebrew as a collective noun—e.g., bakar, tzon, kinam, etc.—in this passage the plural form, צפרדעים, is used several times in the adjacent verses, so the use of the singular here begs for explanation. The first explanation is that this phrase refers to one primeval frog who filled all of Egypt by means of procreation—improbable, perhaps, but possible; the miraculous plague of frogs took the form of extremely rapid proliferation (like the “six in one womb” used to account for the multiplication of Israel from 70 to 600,000 in the course of four or five generations). But R. Akiva’s position, omitting the word השריצה, (“multiplied”), conjures up the image of a super-large frog filling the entire land; something mythological, larger than life—more suggestive of a totemic animal than of any real frog. A great archetypal frog, whose slimey body was dozens of leagues long, that may have resided in the primeval swamp of Bereshit, whose croaks may have competed with the thunder and lightning of the Great Flood and of the Sinai epiphany….

But I amletting my imagination run away with me—exactly as Rabbi Akiva was accused. R. Eleazar b. Azariah’s closing comment to R. Akiva is apt: essentially, he is saying: “ou have no business engaging in aggadah, because you let your extravagant imagination run away to wild places; you’d do better to confine yourself to the dry discipline of concrete, objective halakhic matters, of which you are an undisputed master, such as Nega’im and Ohalot (two of the more lengthy and difficult tractates in Seder Toharah; similar remarks are addressed to R. Akiva in b. Sanhedrin 38b and b. Hagiggah 14a).

This exchange reflects a deeper division of mentalities within Rabbinic thought: between those, like R. Akiva, who allowed midrash to run to flights of fancy and portray a world in which almost anything is possible, and the more down-to-earth school of R. Ishmael, which saw the task of aggadah as more closely limited to exegesis of that which may reasonably be seen as inherent within the text. The late A. J. Heschel’s monumental study, Torah min ha-Shamayim be-Aspaklaryah shel ha-dorot, is still considered the classic work on this issue.

Shabbat and Rosh Hodesh: Atah Yatzarta

This Shabbat is Rosh Hodesh; hence, the Musaf prayer recited is a special one, combining motifs from Shabbat and Rosh Hodesh in a special middle-blessing, beginning with the words Atah yatzarta. What I find interesting is that, unlike all those other occasions when Festival days coincide with Shabbat, on which the Musaf recited is the regular Yom-Tov Musaf with appropriate additions inserted for Shabbat, here there is a completely different nusah for the middle blessing. Neither Shabbat nor Rosh Hodesh are predominant; we have instead a kind of hybrid of the two.

A thought as to why this is so: the common feature of Shabbat and Rosh Hodesh is that both are rooted in the concept of Creation. Shabbat is a “memorial of the Creation,” whereas Rosh Hodesh is based upon and marks the lunar cycle—a natural phenomenon that is part of the movement of the heavenly firmament. Hence, the opening phrase is ”You formed Your world from the very beginning; you concluded your labor on the seventh day”—and only thereafter does it turn to a kind of reworking of themes from the Musaf prayer for festival days.

Postscript: About the Bostoner Rebbe

I would like to relate one more personal story about the Bostoner Rebbe, which I was initially hesitant to include in my memorial essay. In 2002 I was in Boston for Tisha b'Av, and went to the Rebbe’s shul for the reading of Eikhah. Afterwards I approached the Rebbe just to say hello; he greeted me warmly (albeit avoiding the actual phrases of greeting which are forbidden on Tisha b’Av), and apologized for his hearing no longer being so good. Something strange happened to me at that encounter: I felt within myself a powerful wave of love for the Rebbe, which I did not know was within me—I cannot describe what happened any other way—and this, notwithstanding that philosophically (or hashkafically, as they say), in terms of my own life-style, and in terms of the society in which I move, I am in a very different place than he was. Yet there was an immediate, totally unexpected sense of connection with him, beyond words.

On a certain level, I find something inadequate in the overly intellectual approach to Judaism found in some of the intellectual-academic religious circles I frequent in Jerusalem; the overall feeling gained is that, for example, the divrei torah given in synagogue need to pass muster, first of all, intellectually. It is as if their Judaism is all in the head; they are afraid to talk from the heart. (Indeed, Carlebach’s great attraction was that he spoke from and to the heart, but there was a purity and wholeness and integrity in the Rebbe that was missing in Shlomo; Shlomo was in many ways a tortured, restless soul). But the answer, for me, is not found in the New Age either, with its at-tie ersatz emotionalism. In any event, in the Rebbe one found a man who was not a great scholar or intellectual, but had something more important: a generous, loving heart. He may not have known how to articulate his ideas about the spiritual life in erudite terms, but he knew what it was all about. He was a Rebbe for his Hasidim’s neshamot; he embodied the classical Hasidic idea, found in R. Nahman and R. Elimelekh and others, of the Tzaddik as a conduit of life, of love, of existential vitality, from above to below.


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