Sunday, February 28, 2010

Tetzaveh - Purim (Aggadah)

For more teachings on the parashah and/or on Purim, see the archives to thsi blog at March 2006, 2007, 2008 and 2009.

What is Drinking Good For?

Purim is known as a time of good cheer, even frivolity, the one day in the year when getting drink is not only part of the milieu of pious Jews, but de rigeur; some even regard it as a sacred obligation. But, on reflection, this is surely one of the more bizarre religious imperatives (if it is indeed such) of Judaism, an approach to life otherwise known for its sobriety and high seriousness. The source for this practice is in the Talmud, Megillah 7b:

Ravva said: A person is required to become fragrantly/sweetly inebriated on Purim until he does not know between “Cursed is Haman” and “Blessed is Mordecai.”

The above translation is my own, rather idiosyncratic reading, albeit based on the definition found in Jastrow’s Talmudic Dictionary, which sees the verb בסומי as derived from בסם, meaning “fragrant spices,” which as a verb means “to sweeten, season” or, by extension, “to make happy, delight, be cheerful” or “to feel the wine.” The word thus carries an aura of fragrance, of sweetness—a pleasant, convivial, sociable “high.” Yet the measure of the desired degree of intoxication—“until he does not know between ‘Cursed is Haman’ and ‘Blessed is Mordecai’”—suggests something considerably beyond that, a point of oblivion and confusion possibly not far from blacking out; a degree of drunkenness tending more towards the belligerent and obnoxious, not to mention the filthiness of more extreme drunkenness. The Sages were clearly concerned with the lack of human dignity that too often accompanies drunkenness. As one pithy Rabbinic saying has it: before a person drinks, he is innocent like a lamb; after he’s drunk some, he is brave and arrogant as a lion; after he drinks more, he becomes like a monkey, chattering away nonsensically; finally, he becomes like a pig, wallowing in his own filth (Tanhuma, Noah, §13). What then did the Rabbis have in mind in laying down the above saying?

But let us first turn to the surprising sequel to this saying:

Rabbah and Rabbi Zeira celebrated the Purim feast together. They got drunk. Rabbah rose up and slaughtered Rabbi Zera. The next day he prayed for mercy on his behalf, and he was resurrected to life. The next year he said to him: Come and let’s have our Purim feast together. He replied to him: not every hour do miracles occur.

This incident seems to refute the earlier saying: clearly, if even a respected, God-fearing scholar like Rabbah could, when in his cups, forget all self-restraint so badly as to kill his close friend, than clearly intoxication is very dangerous, and the permission to drink, even on one day of the year, is not unconditional.

To begin with, then, I would ask: is Ravva’s statement to be regarded as halakhic or aggadic? Though framed as a legal requirement, the Talmud does not always draw a sharp line between these two areas. At times the Talmud makes extravagant statements about desired behavior which lie in the grey area between halakhah and aggadah—even if these are ultimately brought down in the halakhic codes. It could be—and here I am speculating—that the statement that one must get drunk on Purim was originally made in an almost offhand manner. For one reason or another, later generations took it very seriously, weighing it soberly as a possible halakhic norm, whether, in the end, it was accepted literally, rejected, or treated with ingenious in-between solutions. Most famous of the latter is that of Maimonides, who says that one ought to drink enough wine so as to become drowsy and falls asleep; then, while sleeping, one cannot distinguish between “Cursed is Haman” and “Blessed is Mordechai” (Hilkhot Megillah 2.15)—a solution that has a certain elegance in that it fulfills the letter of Ravva’s statement, while eliminating the option of becoming rip-roaring, obscenely drunk. But go tell that to an 18-year-old yeshiva boy who’s been looking forward all winter to Purim and drinking like a real man!

A second approach to this saying, that likewise removes its sting, claims that it refers to a Purim song with alternating refrains of “Cursed is Haman” and “Blessed is Mordecai” (something like our Shoshanat Ya’akov) which, if sung rapidly enough, even while mildly high from drink, is bound to end up as a tongue twister and for one to mix up the choruses. And indeed, the Jerusalem Talmud specifically mentions that after the reading of the Megillah one is supposed to say “Cursed is Haman, Blessed is Mordecai; Cursed is Zeresh, Blessed is Esther; Cursed are all the wicked, Blessed are all the righteous.”

So is all this simply part of the bon vivant, convivial mood of Purim as a Yom Tov. With friends gathering together, exchanging courses of food, and celebrating the festive day by eating and drinking? Indeed, the Megillah itself, in the final chapter wherein it describes the establishment of Purim by Mordecai and Esther, refers to the two days as ינמי משתה ושמחה (“days of joy and wine-feasting”; Est 9:22).

I nevertheless tend to think that Ravva intended what he said to be taken literally—albeit perhaps more in an aggadic rather than a halakhic mode; if you will, as a Platonic ideal rather than as a guideline to be taken literally. Perhaps he imagined a strange kind of visionary experience sometimes felt when very drunk, a wild, all-embracing ecstasy, in some ways akin to prophecy, in which one laughs uproariously at what others take seriously. A vision, if you will, more akin to that of Walt Whitman or Allen Ginsberg or Timothy Leary than that of the great prophets of the Tanakh.

Purim has become a day of frivolity, of carnival-like gaiety, even hilarity. A day when “Purim Rebbes”—i.e., buffoons—substitute for the real rabbis. A day when sober, bourgeois citizens dress up in masks and customs, disguising themselves as other than they are (perhaps even as the other sex). A day whose slogan is ונהפוך הוא—“it is turned upside down.” A day of irreverence—not towards God, but towards social conventions and hierarchies, which are ordinarily observed far more scrupulously than religious rules, and which deserve to be mocked or tweaked a bit.

Where does all this come from, on the deeper level? Purim is notably a day of concealment, of God’s apparent absence from the scene. One well-known rabbinic adage even derives Esther’s name from the verse “I shall surely hide my face on that day” ("ואנכי הסתר אסתיר את פני: Deut 32:18). The Megillah itself, rather famously, does not mention God’s name even once. All the events that happen therein seem to occur by chance, by fortuitous coincidence: Esther fortuitously becomes the king’s favored consort, so that she may plea for her people at the apt moment; the king’s sleep is disturbed, and his lackeys happen to read him the page in the royal chronicle recording the debt of gratitude owed to Mordechai, and at just that moment Haman walks in with his diametrically opposed plan to wreak vengeance in Mordecai and on all his people; and so on.

Interestingly, the Talmud at Ketubot 8b speak of drinking much wine in the house of mourning, citing the verse, “give wine to those who are bitter of soul” (Prov 31:6). Beneath the surface of joy and frivolity, the joy of Purim has a bitter-sweet quality to it. It is the paradigmatic holiday of Jewish Exilic existence: the celebration of the triumph over anti-Semitism—or should one say, the fortuitous deliverance from it. If one thinks about it seriously, the story could easily have ended differently—as it’s counterparts did in many medieval and modern Jewish communities. Almost by chance, a crazy anti-Semite like Haman came to a position of power, and was motivated, partly by ego reasons, to wish to destroy all the Jews—and, again by chance, his plan was thwarted. (I ignore here the theological element of Providence, which of course justifies making this into a sacred holiday; the Megillah itself tells the story as a series of serendipitous coincidences; God name, as mentioned earlier, does not appear even once.) Thus, the drinking to forgetfulness on this holiday may be seen as a means of forgetting the pain of Galut, the fear, the insecurity, the dependence upon the good favors of others, the dreadful thought of “what if…?”

Another, rather different line of thought: some Hasidic texts, in talking about Purim, more or less ignore the story of the Megillah, of what happened in Shushan long ago, and focus upon the transcendence of ego, of mind; of drinking as a means of apprehending God in a manner that is “beyond reason or logic.”

There is a certain structural problem in Judaism: as a religion of law, of teaching, of Torah, it greatly encourages the development of intellectual values; in many schools, Talmud Torah, intensive study and probing of the sacred texts is the highest form of Divine worship. But intellect can also be an obstacle to knowledge of God; the man of powerful intellect, of encyclopedic knowledge, can begin to believe that he can understand anything, can know everything, through the power of his mind. Moreover, intellect is highly rewarded in the Jewish culture; the scholar, the man who knows a lot, is our central culture hero. The intellect can serve the ego, leading to pride and arrogance, to contempt for those with ordinary minds. Purim, then, is the day to celebrate the holy fool; to go beyond cleverness, to put one’s own mind, be it great or small, on the shelf, so to speak—and one does this by getting drunk, like the most ignorant of Bowery bums. Purim teaches us that every human value, even intellect, is relative; we deliberately bypass it one day a year.

I shall conclude with a cute saying I heard from one of my wife’s friends: Judaism has a holiday for every neurosis: Pesah for obsessive compulsives; Shavuot for insomniacs (i.e., sitting up all night studying); Lag ba-Omer for pyromaniacs (lighting huge bonfires); Rosh Hashana for the guilt ridden; Tisha b’Av fur the melancholic; and Purim for the alcoholic.

Some Purim Torah

1. A halakhic question for the Purim Rebbe: We know from many sources that the 248 positive mitzvot correspond to the 248 organs of the human body, a number which includes the 32 teeth. By this reasoning, oughtn’t one who doesn’t have all of his teeth—through extractions, root canal therapies, implants, etc.,—to be exempt from the corresponding mitzvah?

2. The Torah tells us, in its descriptions of the Sanctuary which ewe raed during these weeks, that the table for the shewbread was located on its northern side, while the menorah was in the south. The Sages, commenting on this, and noting that light symbolizes wisdom whereas bread symbolizes wealth, said “He who whishes to be wise shall turn southward; he who wishes to be wealthy should turn north” (הרוצה להחכים ידרים; הרוצה להעשיר יצפין). A modern Israeli translation of this might be: If you want to make money, go to America; if you seek “wisdom,” go to India.

3. In the spirit of Yom Kippur being “a day like Purim,” I must engage in confession. Though I have been presenting myself to the world all these years as a serious religious Jew, my holy Rebbitzin and I have secretly engaged in the worship of a household god (or perhaps godling). Like the Hindus who offer their gods ghee (clarified butter), every morning we make an offering to our household god of the first share of the finest dairy products—cottage cheese and yogurt. Moreover, this godling possesses several truly wondrous, if not divine qualities: he sees all, even in total darkness; he hears all and knows everything going on n the house; he moves in total silence. His entire aspect is of creature from another world, with golden- green eyes, like the רקרק חרוץ of Psalm 68:14 and antennae that absorb messages from his surroundings. Most important, he is totally convinced of his natural right to total obeisance on our part—and we, his humble servants, must comply with his every wish and whim, so long as he lives.

And let us say: Meow!

Addendum: Drinking Makes Us Like Animals

In the above teaching for Purim I cited in passing the “Rabbinic saying” that one who drinks becomes like a lion, a monkey and a pig. My friend, Prof. Chaim Milikowsky, graciously sent me the full text and source of this midrash, which is worth reading in full. Tanhuma, Noah §13:

Our Rabbis of blessed memory said: When Noah set out to plant a vineyard, Satan came and stood before him. He said to him: What are you planting? He said to him: a vineyard. He asked him: What is its nature? [He answered:] Its fruits are sweet, whether they are fresh or dried, and one makes from them wine, that rejoices the hearts, as is written, “and wine rejoices the hearts of men” (Psalm 104:15). Satan said to him” Let the two of us share in [making] this vineyard. He answered him: To life! [i.e., he agreed] What did the Satan do? He brought a lamb and slaughtered it beneath the vine, and then he brought a lion and slaughtered it, and then he brought a pig and slaughtered it, and then he brought a monkey and slaughtered it; and their bloods dripped upon that vineyard and irrigated it.

He thereby hinted, that before a person drinks of wine he is innocent as this lamb which knows nothing, and like the she-lamb, which before it is sheared is silent. Once he has drunk properly, he feels as strong as a lion and says: “There is no one like me in the world.” After he has drunk too much, he becomes like a pig, he soils himself with his own urine and with something else. Once he is thoroughly drunk, he becomes like a monkey, who stands and dances and plays and utters vulgarities in front of everyone, and does not know what he is doing. And all this happened to the righteous Noah.

Purim as a Transitional Moment

Over Shabbat I read a particularly fine and illuminating teaching from the Sefat Emet, which speaks of Purim as representing a kind of transitional moment or passage between the First Temple and the Second Temple, and that which the two “houses” represent spiritually—namely, Written Torah and Oral Torah, which for him also correspond to purely Divine input and human creativity and participatory endeavor. I present it now in English translation alone, and without commentary (save for as few explanatory glosses within the text), so that people can enjoy it in real time, on Purim day itself—particularly those outside of the Holy City, who are celebrating it today. Sefat Emet, Purim, 5638, s.v. mah shetiknu:

The reason why they instituted [on Purim] drink-feasting and rejoicing and sending portions of food and gifts to one another and so on: The matter of this Megillah is the root and key of the building of the Second Temple. For the First Temple was the matter of the Written Torah. Therefore our Sages say that it was destroyed by idolatry and sexual licentiousness and bloodshed [i.e., sins that are explicitly written in the Torah]. But the matter of the Second Temple is the Oral Torah; therefore, they said that it was destroyed by groundless hatred [i.e., violation of the interconnectedness among people with in the human community]. And this scroll is concerned with the joining together the Written Torah and the Oral Torah. Therefore it is called a book [sefer] and it called a letter or epistle [igeret].

Now, the matter of Oral Torah is indeed the totality of the good qualities that are planted within the hearts and souls of the children of Israel, that are drawn down from the root of the Israelites connection above [i.e., to God]. Thus, by the love of the children of Israel [for one another] and their unity, naught is lacking, for in the collectivity wholeness is to be found in all matters, as is said, ”Out of them shall come the cornerstones, out of them the tent peg “ [Zech 10:4]. And these days are [particularly] fit for this unity, as is written, “they gathered [to defend their lives]” [Est 9:2, 16], and by their joining together, as is written, “Gather all the Jews” [Est 4:16], they overcame Amalek, for he has no strength against the totality of the community, as is written, “[and he tailed after] the weak ones among you” [Deut 25:18]—those who left the collectivity, as is written “in Refidim” [Exod 17:8], which alludes to the destruction of the connection [a play on the words Refidim and rafeh, ”weak”].

Thus they said in the Talmud, “They received it again in the days of Ahasuerus” [b. Shabbat 88a]; and in Midrash Tanhuma, Parashat Noah they explained what is written, that this was a “great announcement publicizing of the Torah,” asking: And had they not already preceded “we shall do” to “we shall hear”? And they explain that this refers to Oral Torah, which it is more difficult to fulfill. We therefore find, that in the days Ahasuerus they willingly accepted the Oral Torah [and with love, rather than fear-YC], as is written there.

A Purim Afterword-Chaos and Order; Chance and Providence

Before the jolly month of Adar leaves us for the more elevated, structured and disciplined joy of Nissan, I would like to add a few more words about Purim. But before turning to some new insights about what I see as the core of this holiday, a brief thought someone said at my home in the name of Shlomo Carlebach. As is well known, Yom Kippur and Purim are often paired together as paradoxical, inverted mirror images of one another; Yom Kippur is famously known as “a day like Purim” (yom ke-Purim). On Yom Kippur we transcend the body or, as Shlomo put it, “we send the body on vacation.” Insofar as such a thing is humanly possible, on this day we refrain from all bodily pleasures and strive to live as pure spirit. On Purim, we “send the mind on holiday”: by drinking to the point of non-cognition of even the most basic differences—e.g., behind Mordecai and Haman, the embodiments of good and evil —we try to enter a world without cognitive rational thought, but…. something else.

Every year, I find it difficult to abandon thoughts about Purim, even for weeks after the holiday—no doubt because of the paradoxical nature of the holiday. On the one hand, the frivolity, the costumes, the silly jokes (and occasional good ones) that go by the name of “Purim Torah,” the drunkenness—or at least the freely flowing wine, whiskey, and other inebriating beverages; on the other hand, the high seriousness underlying it.

The key to Purim is found in its name: purim, “lots,” referring to the lots cast by Haman to determine the day on which he would carry out his diabolical scheme. In other words: chance, randomness, blind luck, chaos; the idea that the world is governed by dumb chance, by random events, by forces bereft of morality or any care about human beings. On the face of it, the Megillah is filled with seemingly random events; its happy end, as mentioned in my earlier teaching this year, is the outcome of a series of serendipitous coincidences.

Yet, interestingly, many Jewish thinkers—I saw this idea most recently in R. Gedaliah Schor—see the quintessential idea of Purim specifically in the overcoming of the idea of chance—his chapter on this holiday is entitled “Purim—Overcoming the Order of Chance” (Or Gedalyahu: Mo’adim, p. 86 ff.); while Amalek, the arch-enemy of Israel whose descendant Haman was, symbolizes the reign of chance, of random, of the absence of meaning in the world. The phrase used to describe Amalek’s attack on Israel on their way out of Egypt—אשר קרך בדרך—is variously translated as “who made you cold” (מל' קור), “who polluted you” (מל' קרי), or “who encountered you by chance” (מל' מקרה). On the basis of this latter reading, he is seen as the embodiment of chance—and Purim, the festival of his defeat, celebrates the idea of Divine providence and order in the world.

But it’s more complicated than that. Much of the Bible—particularly what is sometimes referred to as the books belonging to the “Deuteronomic” ethos and historiography—sees God as ruling history in a simple, straightforward way: if you do good, God will reward you; if you do evil, God will punish you, bringing enemies, famine, foreign conquest, etc. This is the central theme of Vahaya im shamo’a, recited every day in Shema, of the great Rebukes of Lev 26 and Deut 28, of the Song of Moses in Deut 32, and of the capsule histories found in Judges 2 and elsewhere in the historical books: you did evil in His sight, and you were defeated and had to pay tribute to Ammon, Moab, Philistines, or whomever. Similarly, on the personal level: the rightous are rewarded, and the evildoers punished, sooner or later, And indeed, this is also an essential motif in our spiritual norms. For example, in Hilkhot Ta’aniyot Rambam explains that the rationale for fasting, praying and examining one’s deeds with an eye towards repentance on communal fast days, convened when bad things happen, is to reaffirm belief in Divine Providence, and that things don’t just happen by chance. For him, the religious mindset and the belief that the world is governed by chance are two diametrically opposed world-views.

But this does not always seem to match the reality of actual life. This is the cry of the Psalmist—“Why do the wicked prosper?”—and is the central problem of the Book of Job, in which God’s justice is so clearly absent. It is also a matter of everyday experience.

I thought about this last week, when I visited the shivah for a woman in my community who was a model of kindness and goodness, who radiated caring love and concern to all those who met her; she was the type of person whom one never heard speak an unkind word about others. And yet, she was stricken down in her early 60’s by a particularly virulent form of cancer, after a protracted period of pain and suffering for herself and her family, still very much in the midst of life. All we can do is mourn her and eulogize her as one of the finest persons in the neighborhood, and offer our condolences to her family—but there is no answer to the inevitable question: Why? (And, of course, such real-life examples may be multiplied a thousand-fold)

Purim, if it indeed celebrates the victory of Providence over chance (as we believe it does), does so in a dialectical way. On the simple level, the Book of Esther is the story of the fortuitous deliverance of the Jews in Shushan and the Persian empire as the result of a series of chance events. But, on a deeper level—thus the reading of many thinkers, certainly of the predominance of Midrash, of Hasidic and Musar writers—is that behind these events Divine providence operated in hidden ways. Thus, its celebration is paradoxical: we drink to excess and wear disguises and celebrate an earth-bound carnival, in which there is, as it were, nothing beyond mundane human life and its pleasures of eating, drinking, and generally carousing and tomfoolery—but hidden within this, in the very abandonment of reason and control, is hidden a deep religious consciousness.

Perhaps the message is this: on a certain level, there is a frank admission that the world is ruled by chance—and yet, there is nevertheless Divine providence and guidance. Perhaps the cognitive goal, “until you do not know the difference between Haman and Mordecai” ought to be read as meaning: you know that both chance and providence are true, even though they are mutually exclusive—and this paradoxical unity of opposites is only possible when you rose to a state “beyond knowing”—beyond reason.

This Torah of paradox related to Purim was elevated to a fine art among certain Hasidic thinkers, particularly the late 19th century group of Ger, Izhbitz, and R. Zaddok of Lublin. But it is already present in the aggadah of Hazal, most notably in their treatment of the word hamelekh—“the king”—in the Megillah. According to a saying in Midrash Rabbah, this word simultaneously signifies King Ahasuerus, in all his foolishness and hedonism, and God. Esther Rabbah 1.9:

R Yohanan said: Wherever it says in this scroll “King Ahasuerus”—Scripture is speaking of King Ahasuerus. Wherever it says “the king” stam [i.e., without any adjective or elaboration]—it signifies both holy and mundane [that is, both the earthly king and the King of Kings, the blessed Holy One].

The centrality of the duality of meaning of this word in the Book of Esther is also manifested in a concrete way in a curious custom observed by many scribes. In writing the Megillah, they space the words in such a way that the word המלך, “the king,” appears at the beginning of almost all the columns of the text—an oblique hint to the idea that this is a story about “that king”—even though God’s name does not appear as such anywhere in this book! In like fashion, I once owned an old Megillah, brought over from Poland by my grandfather ztz”l, in which the initial or final letters of certain series of four words are written in larger letters, to emphasize that these words spell out God’s name—again, alluding to His hidden presence in the story.

On the other hand, it occurred to me that the words hamelekh and Haman both have the same numerical value or gematria—a fact suggestive, perhaps, that the (earthly) king is both an unwitting instrument of the Divine, and a doppelganger of the wicked Haman. (Perhaps next year I’ll devote my Purim study to the persona of Ahasuerus, surely the most enigmatic character in the Megillah. Is he wicked? morally neutral? stupid? Can he be read as an archetype of Everyman? All of the above?)

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Terumah (Aggadah)

For more teachings on this parashah, see the archives to my blog, at February 2006, 2008 and 2009.

“Great Is Labor”

I have much to say a bit later on certain recent events, so I will present here only one short thought related to the parasha—a brief passage from Avot de-Rabbi Nathan, Ch. 11:

They taught: R. Tarfon said: Great is labor, for even the Holy one blessed be He did not imbue his Indwelling Presence upon Israel until they engaged in labor; as is said, “And they shall make Me a holy place, and I shall dwell among them” (Exod 25:8).

Avot de-Rabbi Nathan is a singular work. It might best be described as a midrash on Pirkei Avot, but then it is the only Rabbinic work which is structured as a midrashic commentary on another Rabbinic work—namely, the popular treatise known as Avot, which contains miscellaneous dicta of the various generations of Sages. (On the other hand, it is customarily grouped with the so-called “minor tractates,” being printed together with such non-canonical works as Masekehtot Sofrim, Semahot, & Kallah in the Avodah Zarah / Horayot / Eduyot volume of the Vilna Shas). On each mishnah, Abot de-Rabbi Nathan presents a series of other Rabbinic sayings on the same general theme. Thus, the above saying is part of its elaboration of the saying of Shemaya in Avot 1.10: אהוב את המלאכה ושנא את הרבמות: “Love labor and hate [being in position of] authority [over others]”—in other words, extolling what is today called the “old fashioned” virtue of a person doing an honest day’s work. In a world in which the greatest financial rewards, prestige, and admiration seem to go to “management,” CEO’s, entertainment and sport celebrities, and investors of various kinfs, this sentiment sounds almost quaint, if not archaic.

The basic idea here is a very simple, but interesting one: the commandment to build a Sanctuary to serve as Gods’ “dwelling place” on earth—first in the wilderness, and later in the form of the Temple in Jerusalem—implies engaging in labor: building, preparing wood and stone, weaving various types of cloth for the coverings and partitions, making utensils of gold, silver and brass, cutting and setting precious stones: in short, both the skilled work of artisans, as well as the gross physical labor of simple workmen in carrying and setting things up, etc. As this labor is a precondition for God’s Presence being able to dwell on earth, physical labor as such—concrete, down-to-earth, human effort—is a value in itself.

In addition to the devaluation of labor in our contemporary culture, with the exception of certain prestigious professions, we live in an era n which, for large parts of the Jewish religious world, study of Torah is not only the supreme value, but the only religious value of any importance. Often, a dichotomy is drawn between the “spiritual” and “material” aspects of life, the latter being viewed as no more than a necessary evil, to be avoided if possible and reduced to the absolute minimum. (There is, indeed, a position among Hazal that supports this view; see the dispute between R, Shimon and R. Ishmael in Berakhot 35b as to whether Torah should be combined with worldly occupations or note; we have discussed this in the past: see HY VII: Iyyar [=Months]; VIII: Pinhas [=Rashi]). This saying of R. Tarfon, along with others of similar import, articulates another view: that davka the Temple—the most “spiritual,” sublime area of religious life, the creation of holiness in space, in place—requires labor to exist, and thus labor as such is a sacred value.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Mishpatim (Aggadah)

For more teachings on the parashah, see the archives to this blog at February 2006, 2008 and 2009.

“Laws Precede All Mitzvot”

Two passages from Mekhilta expounding the opening verse of this week’s parasha, focus on the significance of the legal structure in general:

“And these are the laws…” (Exod 21:1). It is written, “that your nakedness should not be exposed thereupon”… [and immediately thereafter] “And these are the laws that you should place before them” (Exod 20:23-21:1). We learn that the Sanhedrin is placed by the side of the altar. And even though there is no proof of this matter, there is a hint of the matter, as is said, ”And Joab fled, and he took hold of the horns of the altar” (1 Kings 2:28).

The placing of the Sanhedrin next to the altar is meant, first of all, in the literal sense: during Second Temple times, the seat of the Sanhedrin was located in the Lishkat ha-Gazit, the “Chamber of Hewn Stone”—one of the rooms surrounding the Temple courtyard and the altar itself. (The Sanhedrin was, of course, the High Court of the entire Jewish people, consisting of 71 sages: both the final court of appeals and the ultimate source of both exegetical and legislative authority, which at times issued gezerot and, edicts and regulations; in addition, there was a system of lower-level courts, of 23 or 3 judges.)

The reference to the verse about Joab is puzzling: when Solomon’s men set out to kill him, fulfilling David’s deathbed orders, he took hold of the altar in the “tent of the Lord,” evidently believing that the holy place somehow granted him immunity from being executed. But, as becomes clear from the continuation of the story, this was not the case (based on a concept rooted in a verse in our own portion: “If a man plots to kill his fellow with guile, you shall take him from my altar to be killed”—Exod 21:14) In Judaism, holy places do not carry any aura of sanctity that cancels the equitable rule of justice; on the contrary, as we shall see below, the two complement one another. (In Christianity there is a certain concept known as “Sanctuary”: that a criminal may seek protection in a church. During the ‘60s, some of us anti-war radicals tried to implement this idea by harboring draft-resisters and anti-war AWOL’s in churches and elsewhere. But even in Christianity this idea was honored in the breach, as witnessed by the murder of Archbishop Thomas Becket at the altar of his own Canterbury Cathedral by King Henry II’s soldiers in 1170.)

But more important, of course, is the religious meaning of this proximity. What is the connection between the function of the courts, which adjudicate disputes between human beings, and the altar, the focus of religious worship? Ginsburg’s Yalkut Yehudah, interpreting both this passage and the next, says that: just as the function of the altar is to make peace between man and God, serving as the place where man makes peace with God—meaning: expiation, atonement for sin, restoration of the harmony that existed between man and God prior to man’s transgression—so too does the court play a vital social, and ultimately sacred function, by bringing about peace between man and his fellow:

“And these are the laws.…” Rabbi Shimon said: Why did they see fit that the laws should precede every other mitzvah in the Torah? When there is an [outstanding] judgment between man and his fellow, there is rivalry between them. Once the judgment has been adjudicated, peace is made between them. And thus does Yitro say: “If you do this thing… then all this people shall go to its place in peace” (Exod 18:23).

Dinim “precedes every other mitzvah in the Torah.” The term is used here in the sense in which it is used att he beginning of Rambam’s Hilkhot Sanhedrin: “to appoint judges [and, in Eretz Yisrael, courts] in every city and in every district”—that is, to set up a legal system. Dinim precedes every other mitzvah in at least two senses. First, that in this portion, immediately after the Revelation at Sinai, there begins the more specific, particular presentation of the laws of Torah. These are concerned, not with cult and ceremony, nor yet with do’s and don’ts pertaining to diet, sex life, and other aspects of individual behavior, but with laws relating to inter-personal behavior and their adjudication by a system of courts and judges—damages, bailiffs, wages and labor relations, etc.

Secondly, dinim occupy a unique position among the Seven Noachide laws pertaining to all human beings as such. Whereas the other six commandments are all negative proscriptions, and pertain to acts performed by the individual—idolatrous worship, bloodshed, licentious sexual acts, theft, blaspheming the Divine name, and cruelty to other living things, viz. ripping a limb off al of a living creature to eat—only denim involves a positive injunction, and a social institution; namely, that every human society must set up a system to judge and enforce its laws.

What, then, is so basic about the function of courts? The adjudication of differences between people is perhaps the most basic function of organized human society, to assure that “each one not eat his fellow alive.” The alternative is a state of nature, a constant struggle of all against all, based upon raw strength, not one based upon cooperation or moral suasion. (This option is perhaps represented symbolically, in the opening chapters of the Torah, by the Generation of the Flood and by the people of Sodom). Hence, an orderly society, with some sort of final authority, is a basic requirement of human civilization.

True, some thinkers (most notably Jean Jacques Rousseau with his idea of the “noble savage”—revived in modern times in a variety of settings, from Russian anarchists of the 1890’s through the ‘60s hippies) have suggested as an alternative the anarchist philosophy, which asserts that, in an atmosphere of love, freedom, mutual respect, absence of coercion, and equitable distribution of (hopefully, abundant) resources, all human conflicts will work themselves out amicably; that coercion and authority are themselves the root of all evil and hostility. This approach has, to date, failed to prove itself; in any event, it is clearly not accepted by the Torah.

Our aggadah sees the function of law to bring about peace between man and his fellow. To be precise, one might say that the courts serve a dual function: on the one hand, to execute justice—to assure that one who has been cheated, robbed, exploited, etc. may receive recompense and restoration of his loss. But second, to make peace between rival parties, the theory being that, once justice has been done by the court, both sides will accept the judgment, leave whatever rancor has accumulated over the course of the dispute at the courthouse door, and leave as friends and neighbors. In my experience, human beings being what they are, thus picture is rather idealized, if not naïve.

But perhaps the failure of law to restore harmony between warring parties is in part a function of the role and conduct of law in modern society. The dominant model as that of the adversary system, based on competition and rivalry; the function of the highly-trained and well-paid lawyers on each side is not the pursuit of justice and truth, but winning. It is unclear what even the most well-intentioned judges can do to change this situation.

Saturday, February 06, 2010

Yitro (Aggadah)

For more teachings on this parashah, see the archives to this blog at February 2006, January 2008 and February 2009.

“Moses Ascended on High”

The account of the epiphany and Giving of the Law at Mount Sinai, which forms the center of this week’s parashah, is the subject of much Rabbinic aggadah. Several consecutive pages are devoted to the subject in the ninth chapter of Tractate Shabbat of the Babylonian Talmud (86a-89b), beginning with a detailed discussion of the chronology of the events, and whether Ma’amad Har Sinai in fact occurred on the 6th of Sivan (as we celebrate it on the Festival of Shavuot) or on the 7th; and goes on to detailed discussion of other aspects of the events. One of my own favorite aggadot from this group deals with Moses’ encounter with the angels when he ascended on high to receive the Torah. Shabbat 88b-89a:

Rabbi Joshua ben Levi said: When Moses ascended on high, the ministering angels said before the Holy One blessed be He: What is one born of woman doing among us? He said to them: He has come to receive the Torah. They said to Him: A precious treasure, which has been hidden away with You for nine hundred seventy-four generations before the world was created, You wish to give to flesh and blood? “What is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him? The Lord, our Master, how wondrous is Your Name in all the earth, your glory is upon the heavens!” (Psalm 8:4, 2).

The Holy One blessed be He said to Moses: Give them an answer. He said to Him: Master of all worlds, I am afraid lest I be burnt up by the breath of their mouths. He said to him: Take hold of the Throne of Glory and give them an answer, as is said, “He takes hold of the face of the throne, He spread upon him His cloud” (Job 26:9). Rabbi Nahum said: This teaches that the Almighty spread the radiance of His Presence and of His cloud over him.

Two striking things about this passage: First: Why did Moses ascend on high? The literal sense of our Biblical text depicts the Revelation as occurring at the top of the mountain: Moses had to ascend to meet God but, equally so, God must “descend” (as stated repeatedly, in Exod 19:11, 18, 20) to meet Moses. Here, as in many other religious and spiritual traditions, the mountain top functions as a kind of a “half-way house,” a natural symbol for the meeting between heaven and earth: the highest possible place that a human being can reach by natural means, to which the Deity in turn descends to meet him. (Note also the use of mountains as sites of worship in other traditions: Mount Olympus, the hill on which the Parthenon is located, the proverbial mountain tops in Tibet where Buddhist monks withdraw from the world, and even Gurdjieff’s imaginary “Mount Analogue” come to mind. Interestingly, in Judaism emphasis is placed on the fact that neither Zion nor Sinai are the highest mountains around, but are lower than their neighbors.)

In any event, our midrash seems to assume that the Torah is located in heaven: to receive it, Moses must not only ascend to the top of a mountain—a place accessible by natural means—but must perform a miraculous ascent to the Heavenly realms, where God resides. (Similar ascents appear in later Apocryphal and Merkavah literature, performed by such figures as Enoch, Rabbi Ishmael, Rabbi Akiva and others.)

The second striking thing is that the angels are portrayed in human fashion, filled with jealousy and anger and other intense emotions, over the fact that a human being is violating their space and receiving a gift which rightfully—so they think—belongs to their realm. The picture of the angels portrayed here is thus very different from that in medieval sources, for example in Rambam Yesodei Ha-Torah Ch. 4, where the angels are described as spiritual beings, bereft of wills or emotions of their own, created to serve and to adore the Creator; indeed, the yare sublime creatures made of pure intellect, without any body at all. Here, they are filled with passion and, from what Moses says, all too ready to strike out and consume him with the breath of their mouths.

Interestingly, God appears here in the role of Moses’ friend and protector (against His own creations!), and the remedy he offers him is an interesting one: “hold fast to My throne.” Much like the altar in the Sanctuary, it is a safe place; the angels would dare not attack anyone who holds on to the Divine throne and over whom God has spread His “cloud”—portrayed as a kind of concrete embodiment of His Shekhinah.

He said before Him: Master of the Universe, the Torah which you have given me, what is written therein? “I am the Lord your God who has taken you out of the land of Egypt” (Exod 20:2). Say to them: Did you go down to Egypt? Were you enslaved to Pharaoh? Why should you have the Torah?! Again, what is written therein: “You shall have no other gods before me” (ibid., 3). Do you find yourself among the nations who worship stars / pagan deities? Again, what is written therein: “Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy” (ibid., 8) Do you engage in labor that you need to rest? Again, what is written therein: “You shall not take [the name of the Lord in vain]” (ibid., 7). Do you do business among yourselves? Again, what is written therein: “Honor your father and mother” (ibid., 12). Do you have father and mother? Again, what is written therein: “You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal” (ibid., v. 13). Is there jealousy among you? Is there lust [lit., “the Evil Urge”] among you?

Moses’ answer (once he has overcome his fear of the angels) is a simple one: the Torah is not an esoteric, “heavenly” teaching, but is tailored to the human condition, with all its weaknesses and lacks; hence, the angels’ jealousy is unwarranted. Human beings are subject to economic necessity: they must labor to provide their needs—hence, they need the day of rest on Shabbat; they engage in business, which leads to disputes about money, litigation, and taking oaths—hence, the rule about not taking God’s name in vain; they are biological beings, flesh and blood born of parents—hence the need for a commandment about honoring them; they know sexual desire, which often surfaces in unexpected and inappropriate ways—hence the law about adultery; the passion involved in sexual jealousy and other disputes can in turn lead to violence which, because we are mortal beings, makes murder a real possibility… and so on.

Interestingly, the two most fundamental mitzvot of all—accepting that “I am the Lord your God” and eschewing idolatry—are grounded here in the specifics of the Jewish people’s experience: their deliverance from the Egyptian enslavement is the basis upon which the Sinaitic covenant rests, and their dispersion among pagan nations makes the ban on idolatry more than theoretical.

What, then, is this midrash really about? The issue at stake is ultimately a simple one: what is the nature of the Torah? Does it belong on heaven or on earth? Is its focus spiritual or corporeal? And, one may reasonably conjecture, the answer to this question is addressed, not only to the angels, who may be seen as a kind of literary foil, but to others within the Rabbinic community of discourse.

The angels refer to the Torah as hemdah genuzah, “a hidden precious-treasure.” There are many places in Hazal where the Torah is portrayed as a spiritual entity: if not an apotheosis of God Himself, then at very least the most perfected embodiment of His Wisdom—which is the highest and most sublime of all His qualities. The very first section of Midrash Rabbah speaks of the Torah as the blueprint from which God created the world: “He looked into the Torah and created the universe.” Even if Kabbalah as we know it was created in Spain and Provence in the 12th and 13th centuries and later (the Zohar is conventionally dated about 1290), the notion of “secrets of Torah” or “hidden wisdom” (סתרי תורה, חכמת הנסתר), of esoteric teachings embedded within the Torah, is very ancient, and formed part and parcel of the Sages’ world-view. (Remembering, too, that ‘Torah” means, not only the actual text of the Five Books that are written within the Torah scroll, but refers to the entirety of the Written and Oral Torah in the broadest sense, including “whatever a venerable sage may innovate in the future.” The Torah text is, so to speak, merely the tip of the iceberg, of something “vaster than the land and deeper than the sea.”}

Moses’ answer was clearcut: whatever else it may encompass, the Torah is addressed to human beings, and contains laws and guidelines for the practical running of human society and the harmonious life of individuals and families. In the age-old debate between body and spirit, Moses (and the authors of this midrash) come down solidly on the side of saying that this is a false dichotomy: that religious teaching is concerned, not only with metaphysics and speculations about the secrets of the cosmos and the nature of the Godhead, but with the concrete, everyday world of flesh and blood men and women, with all their needs, limitations, and passions.

We now turn to the denouement:

Immediately, the Holy One blessed be He concurred with him, as is said, “The Lord our God, how glorious is Your Name” (Ps 8:10) but [the words] “that your glory is given in the heavens” is not written there [i.e., unlike the case in verse 2, which is otherwise identical to it]. Immediately, each one of them [the angels] became his friend and gave him a gift, as is said: “You ascended on high, you were taken captive, you took gifts among men” (Psalm 68:19). By virtue of being called “man,” you took gifts.

Even the Angel of Death gave him something, as is said: “And he took the incense and atoned for the people” and it says, “and he stood between the dead and the living” (Numbers 17:12-13). Had he [the Angel of Death] not told it to him, how would he have known?

The concluding section of this story is charming in its very artlessness. The angels are convinced by Moses’ answer, clarifying the earth-bound nature of Torah; immediately, they all make friends with him and give him gifts (it does not state what). And, strikingly, the most frightening angel of them all, the Angel of Death, shows him the secret “antidote” to death: the incense, which he uses to good effect in the Korah incident.