Friday, January 29, 2010

Beshalah (Aggadah)

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

What the Handmaiden Saw at the Sea

Sometimes one reads a saying that one has known and heard quoted all one’s life, one that is familiar, even hackneyed, and suddenly one sees it with different eyes; it appears full of puzzle and mystery. Such was my experience this week when I started to reflect upon a well-known Rabbinic statement regarding the experience of the Israelites at the Splitting of the Sea, recounted in this week’s parashah. The aggadic statement in question appears in both versions of the Mekhilta, in Masekhta Shirata, Ch. 3 (with minor variations). The first part reads:

“This is my God and I shall extol Him” (Exod 15:2). R. Eliezer said: From whence do we know that a handmaiden at the Sea saw what Isaiah and Ezekiel and the other prophets did not see? For it is said of them, “through the prophets I spoke parables [or: was conceived/imagined]” (Hosea 12:11). And it is written, “the heavens opened and I saw visions of God” (Ezek 1:1).

What is so striking here? There are really two problems. First, it seems to be a generally accepted idea that prophecy, apprehension of God (whatever that may mean!—more below) is limited to special individuals. The classic example is Yehezkel, whose vision of the Divine Chariot, the Merkavah, is paradigmatic of Jewish mystical epiphanies: he saw a vision of the Divine throne, supported by four mysterious, four-faced creatures—and above it, vanishing into the mist and haze of infinity, the figure of a man seated in a throne, which was perceived as that of God Himself! This passage is regarded as the key to esoteric knowledge of the Godhead in Judaism; the Mishnah and Talmud in Hagiggah Chapter 2 impose severe restrictions on teaching it to the non-initiate. Indeed, the questioned is even raised as to whether it ought to be read in the synagogue at all (see m. Megillah 4.10; albeit, it is accepted practice in our day to read it as the haftarah for Shavuot)! Similarly, the prophet Isaiah saw a vision of “the Lord, seated on a high and lofty throne, and His trains filled the Sanctuary” (Isa 6:1; Incidentally, these two visions also introduce the two central verses recited in the Kedusha, the proclamation of God’s holiness and the secret of his transcendence and immanence, that are the centerpiece of the public repetition of the Amidah.)

But these visions, whatever they may have been, and however they are to be interpreted, were limited to special, extraordinary individuals—prophets, mystics, and b’nai aliyah (“men of degree,” as R. Shimon and his son are described in the Talmud). Various criteria and prerequisites have been suggested for this type of knowledge of the Divine: Rambam saw it as being based, among other things, upon certain intellectual qualities. Knowledge of God, if not philosophical alone, most start from the philosophical: from absolute clarity of ones theological concepts, from the rejection eliminating of all “imaginative” fancies, which are seen as tantamount to paganism. Alternatively, it requires certain hard-to-define spiritual qualities, what Judah Halevi called ”the Divine matter” (ענין האלוהי)—evidently, a special kind of intuitive insight and understanding of the Divine, which is an inborn quality of the individual’s soul. The process of such apprehension of the Divine may also involve lengthy periods of meditation and concentration, withdrawal from society, an ascetic way of life, as well as receiving esoteric teachings passed down orally from master to disciple. (Today there is renewed interest in this area; many people are attracted to Kabbalah because of the allure of being taught the secrets of the universe. There are also many non-Jewish esoteric teachings that are widespread in our present cultural moment.)

Yet all this was seen at the Sea of Reeds by an ordinary maidservant—a metaphor for the simplest, most unlearned and spiritually undeveloped person imaginable!

There is of course a second problem as well, and at this point I would that one would do well to “check” one’s philosophical baggage at the door before studying Hazal: what does it mean to ”see” God? Most of us have been raised to accept as axiomatic the ineffable nature of God: that He has no physical body, so there is nothing to see; or else that “no man can see Him and live” (Exod 33:20). Even Moses, in the famous vision in the Cleft of the Rock, only saw His “back” or, as the Midrash puts it, “the knot of His tefillin.” In this tradition, Godliness would seem to be something that may be inferred or intuited by some capacity of the human mind/soul/being, but not something that can be grasped or even defined. This idea is well expressed by a phrase used in Habad teaching: למעלה מטעם ודעת (translated, roughly, as “beyond the capacity of the human mind to understand”).

Before offering my own interpretation, let us return to the continuation of the above aggadic midrash:

They gave a parable: To what may this be compared? To a king of flesh and blood who entered a city; and he was surrounded by his guards, and his mighty men were to his right and left, and his soldiers before him and behind him. Everyone asked: Which one is the king? Because he is flesh and blood like them.

But when the Holy One blessed be He was revealed at the Sea, none of them needed to ask: Which is the king? Rather, as one as they saw him, they recognized him, and they opened their mouths and said: “This my God and I shall extol Him.”

It is not fully clear to me exactly how the elements in the first half of the parable—the guards and mighty men and soldiers—correspond to the visions of Isaiah and Ezekiel; most likely, they correspond to the “holy creatures” and the wheels and the other components of the Merkavah vision, and to the angels seen by Isaiah. Nevertheless, the overall sense is clear enough: the Splitting of the Sea was such an overwhelming event that everyone present instantly “recognized” God. God’s redemptive actions in history are a special kind of revelation, both clearer and more awesome than even the most sublime vision and insight of the greatest prophet. One of my favorite Habad teachings states that, where as God is usually known by human beings by inference, through a long chain of cause-and–effect (which corresponds in Kabbalistic language to the ten sefirot in each of the four cosmic worlds), on three central occasions in the history of Israel—the killing of the firstborn and the first phase of the Exodus; the Splitting of the Sea; and the epiphany at Sinai—God “broke through” his usual, indirect way of making Himself known, and made Himself known through a direct epiphany.

This also explains why the maidservant saw more than the greatest prophets. Paradoxically, precisely because the human intellect cannot really apprehend God as He is through its own tools, no matter what, when God does reveal Himself, His revelation is “democratic,” equally accessible to all: the maidservant knew God, not through the intellect or other faculties (natural or even “supernatural”), but saw God—whether this means that they actually saw some being, some persona—say, the handsome young man of one of the more daring midrashim —or whether they knew that it was God who was acting there, in an incontrovertible manner.

There remain two problems. First: how are we to understand the statement that, at some point during the Sinai Revelation, the people did not want God to speak to them, and asked Moses to mediate (Exod 20:16), because they were overwhelmed, frightened, awe-struck by the intensity of the Divine epiphany. The answer seems to be that, while God may reveal Himself to even ordinary people (basically, on these two occasions of the Sea and Sinai), the experience may be too overwhelming for it to be borne by all but a select few, those who have developed some sort of inner power enabling them to bear such an experience. (Somehow, at the Sea, perhaps because there was no Divine speech, the people were able to “see” God’s Great Hand.)

Secondly: we know that even “ordinary” prophecy is not dependent upon the prophet’s own capacities and abilities alone, whether intellectual or otherwise, but that God must choose to reveal Himself to this individual. Even an arch-rationalist such as Maimonides states that, after all the arduous intellectual, moral, and practical preparation undergone by the prospective prophet, it is ultimately up to God whether He will cause His Shekhinah to rest upon this person or not. One must then say, in reading our aggadah, that the degree of apprehension of God experienced by such figures as Ezekiel, Isaiah or even Moses, was less intense, less sublime, less clear than what was experienced by all Israel in this special historical moment. (For further insights into the nature of the revelation at the Sea, see Sefat Emet, Beshalah, 5645, s.v. semikhut ha-parshah.)


Tu Bishevat & Beshalah. Tu bi-Shevat, the “New Year of the Trees” and a day marked by eating a variety of fruits of the trees—fresh and dried fruits, nuts, etc.—always falls either on Shabbat Beshalah itself (as it did this year) or a few days prior to it. One apposite connection between the two: immediately after the account of the Splitting of the Sea, Parshat Beshalah describes the descent of the manna, the “heavenly bread” variously described as appearing like coriander seeds and tasting like honey wafers (Exod 16:31), as looking like bedellium and tasting like “cream of oil” (Num 11:7-8), or as miraculously possessing whatever taste the one eating it desired (Midrash).

It seems to me that fruit—non-animal food, which grows by itself and does not require much preparation to speak of—is the most perfect food on earth; certainly the most spiritual, and in that sense closest to the manna of old, or even to the food eaten in the Garden of Eden. It is also (outside of the Land of Israel) that diet which presents the fewest problems of kashrut; note that Daniel and his friends ate seeds zir’onim in the court of Nebuchadnezzar, as did Esther, according to midrash.

An halakhic aside: many of us are particularly fond of (some might even say: addicted to) coffee and/or chocolate, both of which are foods that derive from great pods that grow on trees in damp tropical climates. Since the halakhah states that one ought to recite the blessing borei peri ha-etz on any fruit “in the manner in which it is customarily eaten”—i.e., if inedible raw, than in cooked form—it seems logical that one ought to recite this blessing, and not the accepted shehakol, over a cup of coffee or a chocolate bar, remote distant as they may seem from the original fruit. While this approach may sound strange, I have it on good authority that several major poskim indeed think that such is the case.

“And Amalek came.” Another odd thought: we are told in the Talmud that one ought to begin preparing ourselves for each holiday thirty days before its occurrence: “one asks and expounds the laws of the festival thirty days before the festival.” It seems interesting that the story of Amalek, with which Beshalah concludes, is read approximately thirty days before Purim.

Bo (Aggadah)

For more teachings on this parashah, see the archives to my blog, at Febryary 2006, and January 2007, 2008 and 2009.

“The Time of Love Has Come”

With Parshat Bo we begin the story of the Exodus proper: Moses’ final warning to Pharaoh, the preparation of the Paschal sacrifice, the plague of the firstborn, and the hasty departure from Egypt in the dark of night. The entire process is seen as a manifestation of the Divine love for Israel; hence, many midrashim on this parasha, specifically, are based upon the return of springtime and love as portrayed in the Song of Songs or, as in the following passage, in the bitter-sweet 16th chapter of Ezekiel, in which God adopts Israel as a foundling woman–child. The following well-developed midrashic aggadah appears in the tannaitic midrash Mekhilta de-Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai, Parshat Hahodesh (as cited in Ginzburg’s Yalkut Yehudah, Vol. II [Shemot], pp 22-23). Unlike the parallel Mekhilta of the school of Rabbi Yishmael, which is confined almost exclusively to halakhic matters (as are most of these ancient midrashim), this passage quickly moves from the opening question about a technical halakhic issue to the poetic world of aggadah. (Note the comment we made here last week about the difference between the school of Rabbi Akiva and that of Rabbi Ishmael):

“And you shall keep it [the lamb set aside for the Paschal sacrifice] set aside …” [Exod 12:6]. Why did the taking of the paschal lamb precede its slaughtering by four days? [i.e., the Torah commands the people to select and put aside the lambs on the 10th day of the month, even though the actual sacrifice was only performed on the 14th]

[Rabbi Matya ben Heresh said: It is written, “And I passed by you and saw you; and behold, your time was a time of love” [Ezek 16:8]. [i.e., it was clear that you were already a young woman, ripe for love. Metaphorically..] the time had come to carry out the oath made by the Holy One blessed be He to Abraham that He would redeem his children. But they did not have any mitzvot at hand with which to be engaged, that they might be redeemed. As is said: “Your breasts were firm and your hair had sprouted, but you were naked and uncovered” [ibid., v. 7]. “Naked”—of all the mitzvot. So he gave them two mitzvot to engage in—the blood of the Passover and the blood of circumcision—that they might be redeemed. As is said “And I passed by you, and I saw you wallowing in your blood [and I said to you, ‘In your blood, live! In your blood, live!]” Therefore, Scripture preceded the taking of the paschal lamb to its slaughtering by four days, for one only receives reward for an act.

An interesting principle is implied here: notwithstanding the notion of zekhut avot, “merits of the fathers”—i.e., the idea that the Jewish people enjoy a certain innate favor in God’s eyes simply by virtue of being descendants of the Patriarchs, with whom God made a special covenant—they also require merit based upon their own actions.

These mitzvot are symbolized by the double call “In your blood, live!”—Pesah and milah, that is, Passover and circumcision. Both involve blood; both are defined by the rabbis as positive mitzvot for whose non-fulfillment there is the punishment of karet (in this respect they are sui generis); and, most important, both are central covenantal acts: circumcision symbolizes the initiation into the covenant of each individual male shortly after birth, while Passover is an annual shared ritual feast, symbolizing the renewal of the covenant. Interestingly, these two (the Paschal sacrifice, in its post-Temple metamorphosis as the Passover Seder), are among the most widely observed Jewish rituals to this day, even among those Jews otherwise distant from their tradition. Also interesting is the constant parallel between the sensuous love of man an woman, and God’s love for Israel: “your time of loving”=time for God to fulfill his promise; “naked”=bereft of mitzvot; and so forth.

The view of Rabbi Eleazar ha-Kapar, in the second half of this passage, is rather different. True, the Jews did not perform any positive mitzvah-actions while in Egyptian servitude, but they were not bereft of mitzvot; they had to their credit at least four negative commandments which they observed faithfully, and which served to distinguish them from their surroundings:

Rabbi Eleazar ha-Kappar in the name of Rabbi said: And did not Israel observe four mitzvot worth more than the entire world? That they were not suspect of sexual licentiousness, nor of evil speech, that they did not change their names, and that they did not change their language.

From whence do we know that they are not suspected of licentiousness? As is said, “And the son of the Israelite woman [and he was the son of an Egyptian man; according to Midrash, his father was the same Egyptian whom Moses killed in Exod 2:11, who used his power to rape or seduce an Israelite woman in her husband’s absence] went out” [Lev 24:10]. To teach the praise of Israel, that there was none among them [who was the fruit of adulterous relations] save this one, and Scripture publicized it and made it known.

And from whence that they were not suspected of evil speech, and that they loved one another? Scripture says, “And each woman shall borrow of her [Egyptian] neighbor…” [Exod 3:22]. And they [the borrowed objects] were already in their hands twelve months, and there was not one of them who denounced his fellow.

And from whence do we know that they did not change their names? That they were identified by pedigree when they went down [to Egypt}: “Reuben, Shimon, Levi, Judah” [Exod 1:2], so were they identified when they went up, as is said “And they gave birth according to clans and to their father’s houses” [Num 1:18].

And from whence that they did not change their tongue? As is said, ‘For my mouth speaks with you” [Gen 45:12; i.e., Joseph spoke with his brothers without an interpreter]; and it says, “the God of the Hebrews has called to us, saying..” [Exod 5: 3; i.e., that they were known in Egypt as “Hebrews”]; and it says, “and the one who had escaped came, and he told to Abram the Hebrew” [Gen 14:13].

What do these four mitzvot have in common? They are not merely arbitrary taboos or proscriptions, but each one contributes to social bonding. Sexual licentiousness: of the three “cardinal sins”—alongside bloodshed and idolatry—it is perhaps the one that is most common, for which there is the greatest temptation—and whose avoidance is an essential basis of the family unit. Lashon hara, gossip or slander, while in formal terms less serious, is symbolic of social solidarity and brotherly feeling; specifically, not denouncing one’s fellow Israelite to the Egyptian task masters. Maintaining one’s name and one’s spoken language are likewise key signs of identity.

How many of these mitzvot do the rank and file of American Jewry maintain?

One more thought: even though Eleazar ha-Kappar dissents from Matya ben Heresh on the nature of the mitzvot required, he agrees that some sort of mitzvah–merit is required. I wonder whether this might be, among other things, an early expression of the polemic with nascent Christianity over the issue of faith vs. works? That is, Judaism always held that finding favor in God’s eyes requires, not only “faith”—i.e., inner adherence to certain principles of belief—but also “works”: i.e., concrete deeds in the world, if only in the passive sense of observing a certain code of “don’ts.” Food for thought.

Why, then, did the taking of the Paschal sacrifice precede its slaughtering by four days? Because they were immersed in paganism in Egypt, and idolatry is considered equal to all the other mitzvot combined. Therefore he said to them: “draw” [Exod 12:21] your hands away from idolatry, and adhere to the mitzvot.

So too the concluding paragraph, based on a clever double–entendre on the word “draw,” indicates, notwithstanding their adherence to four basic mitzvot, a clearcut break with paganism that was an essential first step to all else!


1. “God” and “Prophet.” It is interesting that in two places in these chapters—in Exod 4:16 and in 7:1— Moses is referred to as elohim, a word generally used to refer to God (in the generic sense) or to judges. In both cases his brother Aaron is described as his navi, the usual word for “prophet,” but here used in the sense of “spokesman” or “he who brings his words” (from the root בוא, “to bring”). Thus, in this context “god“ and “prophet” clearly refer to functions, to status (elohim as “mighty one” or “authoritative one”), and not to innate qualities.

2. More on Frogs. In wake of my discussion of the plague of frogs, long-time reader Stan Tenen, a highly original and creative thinker on the nature of the Hebrew language, sent me the following comments (which I have somewhat abridged):

I’ve been entertaining the thought that all of the so-called “plagues” which plagued the Egyptians were also lessons the Israelites needed in order to leave slavery and reach Sinai. Every one of them is a mass and/or “swarming” event. Flocking, schooling, and swarming—the formation of a Knesset—is necessary for the formation of a community, and also for the emergence of the miracle (the word nes may be seen as derived from knesset).

The word צפרדע, translated as “frog,” is a combination of two words: Zephyr and Da‘ (Zadi-Pe-Resh; Dalet-Ayin). A Zephyr—Zadi-Pe-Resh—implies the communication—whistling, hooting [and of course croaking–JC]—that birds and other creatures use to form coordinated assemblies. (Zephyr, of course, is also a minor Greek godling associated with the whistling (West) wind, and thus also the modern English word for a breeze.) Da‘ —Dalet-Ayin—of course, refers to knowledge or wisdom.

The wisdom of the “hooting birds” is the quality that emerges when birds or other creatures flock, school, or swarm—and the ability to form a coherent assembly is what is required to build a nation, to draw down Torah at Sinai, etc.

Thus, frogs, which in our culture are often thought of as rather comic creatures (reinforced by Kermit and suchlike cartoon characters) or as the epitome of ugliness (in the fairy tale of the prince turned into a frog, the need to kiss a frog is seen as a particularly repugnant act), in fact carry a serious meaning. The wisdom of flocking, of community, of “species-life,” is a lesson our culture often seems to have forgotten in its overly-sophisticated adoration of the isolated individual.

Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi of Great Britain, writing on this in his weekly Covenant and Conversation (Bo), refers to the Egyptian mythological figure of Heket—a frog-headed goddess who serves as a symbol of fertility and who assists women in childbirth. Here Heket is, as it were, turned against the Egyptians, much as the River that was the source of life was turned against them in the first plague, that of blood. This plague was thus a kind of “measure for measure,” punishing Pharaoh for ordering the midwives to kill the Israelite male infants.

3. The Hardening of Pharaoh’s Heart. Again, Rabbi Sacks (C&C, Vaera) has something interesting to say about the nature of teshuvah. God only hardens Pharaoh’s heart after he has himself acted stubbornly four and five times, “immunizing” himself against responding to the overwhelming manifestations of God’s sovereignty and His clear command to free the Israelites; at this point, it is a natural consequence, emblematic of his own descent into evil. Good and evil are not simple, polar opposites; for most of us, good and evil are intermingled; moral choices are emotionally complex, ambiguous, reflecting the dynamic changes we are constantly undergoing in real life. Hence, Sacks adds, the Torah uses narrative—seemingly artless, simple stories—rather than philosophic discourse to depict the complexities and ambiguities of human emotions, moral decisions, and personal growth (or stagnation).

4. Was Pharaoh Orthodox, Moses Conservative? This whimsical thought occurred to me upon reading the penultimate negotiation between Moses and Pharaoh in Exod 10:8-11. Pharaoh seems ready to capitulate and, in response to Moses’ request to go into the wilderness to celebrate a festival to God, asks “Who and whom are going?” When Moses says “with our youths and old people, our sons and daughters, our flocks and herds,” Pharaoh responds (in my free paraphrase): A likely story! If you want to take the whole kit and caboodle, it’s clear that you mean trouble; if you really want to go for sober religious purposes only, let the men go by themselves! Get out of here!

Of course, the whole business of the so-called “festival to the Lord” was a foil, a ruse—and both sides knew it. (Why Moses found it necessary to put up this facade is an interesting question, which I will try to examine another time). But Pharaoh’s comment reflects a deep-seated attitude that was evidently rife in Near Eastern religion, and which is felt implicitly by many Jews to be the authentic attitude of the “old-time religion”: that religion, worship, davening, mitzvot, etc., are basically men’s business, and that women’s role is to stay home and take care of the children, prepare the festive Shabbat and Yomtov meals, etc. (in terms of the old German proverb, one would say: Küche und Kinder, but not Kirche).

But of course, authentic halakhic Judaism sees women as having a vibrant spiritual life, in which prayer and mitzvot play a vital role. The Talmud sees a woman Hannah, as providing the paradigm for the laws of prayer. A woman, particularly a young mother, may not have the necessary time at the beginning of the day for a full-length Shaharit; moreover, at certain times in history women were often unlettered in Hebrew—but prayer, addressing their Creator every day, was as much a part of their life as it was for men—whether this took the form of reciting the Amidah, with all its formal rules and strictures, at some point during the day, or that of of vernacular Tekhines.

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.

Friday, January 08, 2010

Shemot (Aggadah)

A slightly different version of this essay appears in Hebrew in this week’s Shabbat Shalom, the weekly parsha newsletter of the religious zionist peace movement. For more teachings on the parashah, see the archives to this blog at January 2006, 2007, 2008, and 2009.

Moshe Rabbenu: The Making of a Leader

The Torah does not tell us much about the personal lives of its heroes. This is particularly true of Moshe Rabbenu, “the father of the prophets,” a monumental figure, understood by Hazal as standing between heaven and earth. The little that we do know about Moses’ private life appears in the present week’s Torah portion, Parashat Shemot, in which we learn about his birth, his coming to maturity, and his early life before he became “Moses our Teacher,” “the man of God,” the vehicle through which the Torah was given to Israel (“The Torah commanded us by Moses is a heritage of the community of Jacob”; Deut 33:4). However, it seems to me that these chapters, particularly Exodus 2–4, may be read under the heading of “the making of a leader.” Through a careful reading of these passages, one may see how Moses developed and was prepared for leadership, through a series of formative events.

We begin with his birth, with the cruel decree of Pharaoh that “every son born shall be cast into the Nile” (Expd 1:22), and his being saved and adopted by the daughter of Pharaoh (albeit, his true mother, Yocheved, arranged to be near him in infancy in the role of wetnurse). The fact of his growing up in the royal palace afforded him a certain degree of leisure: an opportunity to learn, to think, to look at the world around him, without the oppressive burden of slavery that was the lot of his brethren. Indeed, it is interesting to note that many of the revolutionary leaders in world history, even those who lead movements of the most miserable and downtrodden people, grew up in the middle class, in relatively comfortable circumstances, which gave them greater opportunities for intellectual development and breadth of perspective.

The first act by which Moses broke the conventions of the social framework within which he had been raised was the murder of the Egyptian. Here he expressed his anger and moral passion, his understanding of the injustice involved in his own social milieu. But he did so in an impulsive manner, without much thought or consideration of the long-term results—very much in the manner of young people who first discover the injustice in the world and feel the need to act.

If I may indulge in a personal digression: “I was young, and I have aged.” As some readers may know (and as I’ve alluded from time to time), I had a radical youth. Like just about everybody, as I have matured/aged/become “established,” I have become more cautious, “responsible,” “worldly-wise,” and in retrospect I look with astonishment at some of the rash things I was prepared to do in those days: viz. my willingness to risk all for a matter of principle—particularly, to avoid even symbolic cooperation with the US war effort in Vietnam,. How am I to relate to that younger self? Have age and experience indeed brought wisdom and experience, or am I in some sense also a lesser person for my greater caution and more calculated approach to life? While an older man cannot be the same as his own impetuous, younger self, it seems to me important that he at least remember and understand what ha felt at that time, and seek to somehow incorporate it within his more mature, adult life. At times I see older people who have visibly maintained some of the sparkle and passion of youth, and I admire and perhaps even envy them.

In the next verse Moses intervenes in a dispute between “two Hebrew people who were quarreling,” saying to “the wicked one” (that is, the aggressor), “Why do you hit your fellow?” (2:13). He does not use violence in order to turn the aggressor from his actions; rather, he tries to address his feelings of brotherhood, of belonging to the same community. Here too he acts in an intuitive manner, but without understanding how to persuade the other. The latter derides him in a mocking, scornful manner, causing Moses to realize that “Indeed, the matter [i.e., of the murder of the Egyptian] has become known” (v. 14) and that he must flee Egypt. He goes into exile, to the wilderness of Midian, where once again, his natural sense of justice moves him to action—this time, to save a group of maidens, seven sisters, who have come to draw water from the well, from the shepherds who are harassing them. Their father invites him to his home and, in due course, he marries one of the daughters, Zipporah, and becomes a member of the household.

What was Yitro’s role in Moses’ development? The Torah tells us very little about him; however, I would like to suggest that he served as a kind of father figure in Moses’ life. He did not at all know his natural father, Amram, as his parents were forced to place him in the basket in the bulrushes while he was still an infant, simply to save his life. It also seems reasonable to assume that Pharaoh, the cruel tyrant in whose home he grew up, was not exactly a positive educational model (to rather understate the case). Thus, Yitro may well have served as a significant educator and moral guide. (This is possibly expressed in the great honor shown him by Moses when the latter came to visit him in the wilderness; see Exodus 18). Moses’ lengthy stay in Midian also served as a period of preparation for the central task of his life which he was to fulfill in the future. Again, in the biographies of great leaders we often read of a period of exile—whether in prison, in remote places such as Siberia, or simple periods of “gestation,” spent studying, reading, thinking about the world—before they emerged onto the stage of public life. Thus, rhe Midrash relates that Moses’ work as a shepherd served as a kind of preparation, or testing, for his future function as a leader:

“And Moses was a shepherd” (Exodus 3:1). The blessed Holy One does not give greatness to a man until he tests him in a small thing, and thereafter raises him up to greatness. Thus, two great figures were examined by the blessed Holy One in a small matter and found trustworthy, and were then raised to greatness. David was examined in shepherding the flock... as was Moses.

Our Rabbis said: When Moses our Teacher, of blessed memory, was shepherding the flock of Yiteo in the wilderness, a kid ran away, and he ran after him until he arrived at a bulbous plant (allium). When he came to the plant he saw a pool of water where the kid was standing and drinking. Moses came up to him and said, “I did not know that you were running because you were thirsty. You must be tired.” So he placed him on his shoulder and carried him back. The blessed Holy One said to him: You have shown compassion to shepherd the flock of flesh and blood; by your life, you shall shepherd my flock Israel. This is: “And Moses was a shepherd”—Exodus Rabbah 2.3; 2.2

However, the decisive turning point in Moses’ life was his direct encounter with God at Mount Horeb, at the bush that “burned but was not consumed” (Exod 3:2). I would like to read this entire chapter as a kind of “lesson” which God gave Moses on the meaning of being a leader.

What is symbolized by God calling to him from within the bush? Was this a mere “curiosity,” something contrary to the laws of nature, or something deeper? I find it reminiscent of the fire in the Temple, which burned constantly upon the altar without being extinguished. According to Hasidic teaching, this symbolizes the inner fire with which the heart of the true servant of God is constantly aflame; all the more so that the heart of a leader must burn like that bush with a constant passion and desire to fulfill his historical task of leading the people towards its destiny.

A leader has two basic functions: on the one hand, to represent the people before external factors (such as Pharaoh), to serve as a kind of “foreign minister,” as a spokesman to the one who controls their lives; and, on the other hand, to lead the people, to educate them, to explain to them what they need to do, to encourage them, and comfort them in times of distress and trouble so that they not lose hope.

Thus, Moses’ encounter with God began with a call for him to go to Pharaoh and to “take out My people, the children of Israel, from Egypt” (3:10)—in the most literal sense. Thereafter Moses asks: “When the people ask me, ‘What is the name of this God’ [who commands me to confront Pharaoh, the strong, frightening, omnipotent ruler of Egypt; to placed both myself and the people in a situation of new danger], what shall I tell them?” (3:13). A leader must know how to speak to the people, how to overcome their doubts and hesitations and fears, and how to give them an answer (and it may well be that these same questions and misgivings reside in his own heart). God answers him with a rather laconic statement—possibly an answer, possibly a kind of vague promise: Ehyeh asher Ehyeh—“I will be that which I shall be” (v. 14). But immediately thereafter, He adds: “The Lord God of your fathers, God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob has sent me to you; this is my name for ever, and this is my remembrance for every generation” (v. 15).

In the third stage, Moses asks what signs and proof he may bring the people in order to prove the truth of his words. At this stage he is given a series of signs and miracles to display to the people: the staff which turns into a serpent and back again; Moses’ hand, which he places in his breast and becomes leprous, white as snow, and then returns to be living flesh; and the transformation of the water into blood—that is, an anticipation of the series of ten plagues. The idea here is that a true leader must know how to speak to the people on a level that they understand, even if on what seems the low, corporeal level of concretization, of miracles—and not only through abstract ideas about a transcendent God, understood by only a few.

Finally, in the fourth stage, God forces Moses to confront his own lack of self-confidence. Moses already expressed this at the beginning (“Who am I that I shall go to Pharaoh”; 3:11), but at the end he returns to the same feeling: “for I am a man heavy of mouth and heavy of tongue” (4:10). It is important that a leader believe in his own power to lead others; without that, he is lost from the outset. This is both the power and the danger involved in charisma: a charismatic person can generally convince others to follow him, whether he is an upright, ethical person who speaks words of truth and holiness, or whether he is a charlatan, a liar and an evil man (and we have experienced too many sad examples of the latter)—and the opposite is also the case. An honest and holy person, but lacking in this power, will influence, if at all, only a small, select group of people. This, unfortunately, is human nature.

At this stage, when Moses is on the verge of refusing God’s mission, saying “Send with whom you shall send” (v. 13), God gives him an interesting answer: that he, God, has chosen him to be His messenger, and that even if there is a certain arbitrary element in this choice, He will be with him. (See on this Rambam’s Hilkhot Yesodei ha-Torah 7.5; after Maimonides explains the preparations a person must undergo in preparing himself to be a prophet, he concludes that “it is possible that the Shekhinah may rest upon him, and it is possible that it will not do so”). Any person with certain talents can become a messenger of God; at a certain stage, God will give him the needed power. These things are particularly true if he is motivated by a sense of justice and of inner conviction of the rightness of the goal. The classic example of this is Gideon who, despite being from “the poorest clan in Manasseh and the youngest in my father’s house” (Jdg 6:15) was so deeply pained and upset by the people’s suffering under the yoke of the Midianites, that the angel said to him, “Go with this power of yours” (v. 14)—that is, his anger in itself transformed him into a potential leader.

But, in the final analysis, what strikes me here, in light of our contemporary experience, is what is not found here: there is no talking here of the leader’s desire to himself be an “important person,” to receive personal benefit from his position, to be wealthy or a “celebrity.” Moses did not have a fancy office, nor a personal driver, nor a high salary; he did not enjoy first-class plane tickets or luxury suites in hotels. “Do not make them a spade with which to dig.” A true leader thinks exclusively, his entire life, only of the benefit of the people and its needs, and not of the greatness which he can derive from being a leader. Once there were such leaders in Israel, who lived modest lives and moved among the people—and I refer here, not to the distant past, to biblical antiquity, but to leaders within the memory of people living today. Would that we might again merit to have such leaders.

Friday, January 01, 2010

Vayehi (Aggadah)

For more teachings on the parashah, see the archives to my blog, at January and December 2006, December 2007, and January 2009. For a eulogy of the Bostoner Rebbe, see below.

“Ephraim and Manasseh shall be to me like Reuben and Shimon”

This week’s parasha focuses almost entirely upon the events surrounding the death of the Patriarch Yaakov: the death-bed scenes at which he gathers his sons around him to give each the appropriate blessing; his actual death, embalmment, and the funeral procession to the Land of Canaan; and the denouement, in which the brothers, notwithstanding their apprehensions, arrive at a final (uneasy?) peace with Yosef.

I find the strangest facet of this parasha the fact that there are two separate death-bed scenes. In Chapter 48 Yaakov sends for Yosef, who comes together with his sons Manasseh and Ephraim, who are given special blessings, each being made the equivalent of a tribe in their own right: “Ephraim and Manasseh shall be to me like Reuben and Shimon” (Gen 48:5). Later, in Chapter 49, Yaakov gathers all the sons to him, giving each one a blessing prophesying their future destiny; at the end of the scene, he dies. Three questions present themselves here: Why did Yaakov give a special portion to the children of Yosef? Why, within that, did he reverse the priority based on birth order, switching his hands and mentioning Ephraim before Manasseh (there is a famous Rembrandt sketch of this scene)? And third, what is the meaning of the final verse of this chapter, v. 22 in which he says, “And I have given you one shekhem above your brothers, which I took from the hand of the Amorites with the sword and my bow”? Is shekhem, which usually means “shoulder,” an archaic term for “portion”? Or may it allude to the town of Shechem, which Yaakov’s other sons massacred in the scandalous incident related in Chapter 34? (Some have suggested that, because the Shechem incident released forces of sexual promiscuity; Yosef, who is seen as a symbol of control in those areas, received that town as part of his portion.)

This time, I found it difficult to isolate one or two aggadot that answer all these questions. Hence, I will present a pastiche of comments by Hazal and the medieval commentators, to try to make some sense of it all.

One may imagine Joseph being called to Yaakov’s bedside because he was the one upon whom Yaakov relied to take care of all his needs—both because of his high and influential position in the Egyptian government, and because of his own talents. Indeed, In many families there seems to be one child who is the organizer, the doer, the one upon whom parents rely in their old age when they are no longer able to care for themselves (a need exacerbated in the case of immigrants to a strange land; not unlike the generation of our grandparents who came to America in the early 20th century, or for that matter of those Americans who made aliyah to Israel but never properly learned Hebrew, whose sabra children may teach them how to “manage”). Indeed, Hizkuni comments that one of the reasons Yosef—or rather his offspring—were given an extra portion in the inheritance of the Land was in gratitude for the help he gave him, and the whole family, in settling in Egypt. A second reason, of course, was that Yaakov’s one true love throughout his life was Rahel: he originally intended to marry one woman, for whom he worked for seven years, and somehow ended up with four; after she died, all his love was transferred to Yosef, her first born, who bore an uncanny likeness to her in many ways. By this, he seems to be repeating the same disastrous mistake he made many years earlier in favoring Yosef above his other sons.

To this, one may add two historical-political factors: first, that Levi was destined to become the clan of priests and Temple officiants, without a territory of their own; hence, another tribe needed to be found to maintain the total of twelve. Dividing Joseph into the two tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh solved this problem. Moreover, the special importance given to Yosef foreshadows the great division or “fault-line” in the Israelite nation, which openly emerged after the death of King Solomon when the northern tribes, under the leadership of the Ephraimite rebel-king Jeroboam son of Nabath, seceded from the southern kingdom of Judah. This new kingdom was dominated by the two tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh whom, if I am not mistaken, held the two largest territorial shares: the central hill-country of Ephraim, and the allotment of Manasseh in Trans-Jordan, which included most of the steppes of Bashan and Golan, plus a portion along the sea-coast, near contemporary Hadera.

The midrash is ambivalent about Ephraim. Tanhuma interprets Yaakov’s question in 48:8, “who are these?” (is it conceivable that he did not recognize his own grandchildren, after living in close proximity to them for seventeen years—especially Ephraim, in one version, was the old man’s favored study partner!?), as expressing a prophetic vision of the subversive figures among their descendants, the rebel Jeroboam and the wicked king Ahab. Yet other midrashim describe the tribe of Ephraim impetuously breaking ranks during the Exodus and being decimated by nomadic tribes. Then, too, there are the censorious words of Psalm 78:68: “And he despised the tent of Yosef, and did not choose the tribe of Ephraim.” On the other hand, there is the well-known description in Jeremiah 31:19 (featured prominently in the Rosh Hashana liturgy): “Is not Ephraim my beloved son, a dandled child; whenever I speak of him I remember him again, my innards yearn for him, I shall surely have compassion on him.”

Why is Ephraim placed before Manasseh? Genesis Rabbah 97:5 mentions two major leaders, even saviors of Israel, who emerged from these tribes: Joshua bin Nun from Ephraim, and Gideon from “the smallest clan in Manasseh.” As Joshua was the greater of the two, he was given priority. But Yalkut Yehuda, quoting Rabbenu Bahyei, notes that Ephraim was Yaakov’s study–partner, the Torah scholar of the pair; while Manasseh, possibly following in Yosef’s footsteps, was the “doer” type—a merchant, a provider, a practical man of action (this typology is reminiscent of the Yissachar/ Zevulun partnership). Somehow, through a kind of paradoxical logic, by being placed second he was actually shown to be more prominent.

Yalkut Yehudah raises an interesting question about verse 20: “By you shall Israel bless, saying, ‘May God make you like Ephraim and Manasseh’” (see there, Vol I:391-392, §15). While this verse is familiar to many as the blessing given by parents to their sons on Friday night before Kiddush, that custom is only 400 or 500 years old. How was it expressed in practice before then? An old piyyut used at Brit Milah, mentioned in Pesikta Zutra, refers to Ephraim and Manasseh; these two are seen as models for what we want the infant child to become. Inter alia: the two sons of Yosef born in Egypt are seen as surviving as Jews even in conditions of adversity, of a foreign milieu, without a supportive Jewish environment.

To return to our original question: Why are there two death bed scenes? The previous parasha, Vayigash, begins with the dramatic confrontation between Yehudah and Yosef (whose identity is still hidden), seen by the midrash as a titanic struggle between the two, whose subtext is: Who shall be the future leader of the Jewish people? On the face of it, Judah wins: by his display of extraordinary moral fortitude and, perhaps most important, the ability to change and repair past misdoings, he shows himself the stronger of the two (see what I wrote on this in HY I: Vayigash, quoting Rav Soloveitchik). This is seemingly confirmed by the blessing given him in 49: 10 “the scepter shall not depart from Judah,” by which Judah is named the tribe of kingship; the establishment thereafter of the Davidic monarchy, and the blessings assuring that his line shall sit on the throne forever, reinforce this.

But does it? I would suggest that there is no real, simple answer. Things are left deliberately ambiguous. If I may put it thus, this Torah portion is known for a certain ambiguity; it is the only weekly portion which begins without any visible separation, in the Torah scroll, from that which precedes it; hence it is called setumah, “closed.” The portion opens with a special blessing, in which the prerogative of the birthright seems to be given specifically to Joseph. Moreover, if one compares the blessings given by Yaakov to Yehudah and Yosef, in 49:8-12 and 22-26, respectively, one find that, while both seem far greater than those given their brethren, one is hard put to say which is the “better” blessing (in some ways, Jospeh;s blessing more closely resembles that given by Yitzhak to Yaakov-cum-Esau). Moreover, in Moses’ deathbed blessing to the tribes two-odd centuries later, Yosef, if anything, comes out ahead (compare Deut 33:13-17 with the rather perfunctory blessing there, v. 7). Again, examining the Midrashic traditions about the End of Days, we find that there is Messiah ben David, but there is also Messiah ben Yosef. Which is more important? Hard to say; both are highly instrumental.

This chapter, more than providing clearcut answers, seems to point to a basic fault line in Jewish people. If I may venture into the realm of derush, I would like to suggest that the essential difference between the two—the Judah type and the Yosef type—is that Judah may be seen more as a military leader: a rough and ready type, as behooves a military leader who must lead men into battle; one who knows how to talk to ordinary people, who doesn’t give himself airs, certainly not the “dreamer” as Yosef was in his youth. He also has a certain earthly aspect: he knows both lust and anger. He is compared in this parasha to a “lion cub” who crouches in wait for his prey—a type exemplified by several of the judges, as well as by King David himself, who waged many successful wars and battles. Yosef, by contrast, is a civilian leader: he is an expert organizer, an intuitive economist, a rational thinker, good at planning and managing complex social structures—but far less of a khevreman, and clearly without Judah’s demonstrated talent for “male bonding.” In the end, both types are important, and the two remain in a certain irresolvable tension.

* * * * *

We conclude with wishes of a very happy civil New Year and new decade to all our readers, and a prayer that the Almighty may, in these coming years, bless our leaders with the Light and Truth of His Wisdom.

The Bostoner Rebbe: A Eulogy

“Of Levi say:… to your godly man / man of lovingkindness (ish hasidekha)”

Thirty days ago, on December 5th (Shabbat Vayishlah = 18 Kislev), the Bostoner Rebbe—R. Levi Yitzhak b. Pinhas David ha-Levi and Sarah Sasha Horowitz—returned his soul to its Maker. He was 88 years old.

The Rebbe was the first American-born, English-speaking Hasidic Rebbe; as such, he created and led a community of a unique sort. The five-storey building at 1710 Beacon Street was a hub of activity, serving as synagogue, Beis-Medrash, home of the Rebbe and his family, site of the Rebbe’s tisch on Shabbat and Yom Tov, social hall, dormitory, mikveh and even, in one corner, contained a matzah-oven used once a year. The Rebbe engaged extensively in what is known as kiruv work, actively reaching out to students at the numerous colleges and universities in the Boston area.

Several times a year there were Shabbatonim at which students from all walks of Jewish life were welcome to experience a Boston–style Hasidic Shabbat, complete with Friday night tisch with the Rebbe, Shabbat meals with families in the communities, talks, discussion, etc. On any ordinary Shabbat, there were always a dozen or more students from the area staying with families in the community—whoever wished to come was welcome. Many of these were from Orthodox backgrounds, but just as many were ba’alei teshuvah, who had embraced an observant way of life, or who were just beginning to learn about Jewish religion.

The Rebbe not only opened his own home and family to others, but taught his community the importance of hakhnasat orhim—hospitality to guests—as an important mitzvah. Indeed, as I gradually came to learn, many of his bale-batim, the families who made up his synagogue, had themselves come from non-observant or less-observant background—a fact which, while perhaps more common today in many places, was still unusual in the 1960’s.

The Bostoner’s home was also open to families of patients at the various medical institutions for which Boston is renowned. People from all over the world, including Israel, often come to Boston for the specialized medical treatment that is available from its experts, often accompanied by close family members. The Rebbe and his community provided a “home away from home” for these people, who found themselves both in a strange land and in a worrisome personal situation: a place to stay (in the top floor of 1710, which was set up as a kind of dormitory, or in furnished rooms reserved for this purpose); Shabbat invitations and kosher meals during the week; a friendly face and people who spoke their language; and help in finding the right medical experts and in making the initial contact with them. In recent years this activity has been officially organized as “Rofeh International,” medical referral and support services, a project led by the Rebbe’s son, Reb Naftali.

In the early 1980’s the Rebbe established a presence on the Israeli scene as well: he built a synagogue and Beit Midrash in the Har Nof neighborhood of Jerusalem, and later a Bostoner Yeshiva was established. Many members of the community in Boston made aliyah (some estimate that this numbered as much as one-third of the total community), building a vibrant community around the Rebbe. The Rebbe himself, as long as he was able to travel, spent half a year in Jerusalem and half a year in Boston; his two younger sons, Meir and Naftali, serving as his full-time representatives and rabbis in each place, respectively.

So much for the external facts. Some personal memories: I was part of the Rebbe’s community, in one way or another, over a period of six years. I lived in the Boston area from 1968 to 1974, part of that time as a graduate student at Brandeis, part of the time simply living and working in the area, enjoying the general Boston ambience, in what was in those days a kind of “Mecca” for the late-‘60s youth culture. During a good part of those years, I lived a rather ambivalent, if not schizophrenic, religious life, dividing my Shabbatot between the nascent Jewish youth culture, especially the Havurat Shalom in Cambridge and Somerville, and the main-stream Orthodox community – albeit I was always at least minimally observant of such basics as Shabbat, kashrut, and tefillin.

Looking back at those years, the striking thing about the Rebbe was the warmth and even love he radiated to everybody. Although he had very clear and definite standards, he was accepting of everyone as they were and only rarely judgmental—and even then, this was done with a kind of gentle irony, never in a heavy-handed, moralizing manner. Thus, when I planned to go to Cuba in January 1970 as part of the “Venceremos Brigade,” an international group of Leftists who showed their moral support for Castro’s revolution by cutting sugar cane on its tenth anniversary, the Rebbe obviously disapproved—but he expressed it in a gentle, ironic way. In general, he didn’t quite know what to make of me: he once said something to the effect that: “Just when I thought you were in the place where I wanted or hoped that you would be, you turned out to be someplace entirely different.”

The feeling of being welcome and accepted in the Rebbe’s home was very important to me. Until that time, my experiences of Hasidism were of two types. In high school, I began to learn about Hasidic music through a pair of Modzitz LP’s my mother had received from a colleague at work. Fascinated by this music, and the combination it represented of joy and vitality mingled with deep religious fervor, I sought out “real-life” Hasidim in my own environs, in a small Satmar shteibl near Queens Boulevard, about a mile from my parent’s house. Though the spirit and enthusiasm of their worship spoke to my heart—a welcome change from the coldness and formality of Conservative Judaism in the 1950’s—the atmosphere was foreign to me: the world of Yiddish-speaking Hungarian Jews, mostly Holocaust survivors, was too remote from my own world.

During my college years I discovered Lubavitch, and went to several “Encounters” with Habad and spent some festival days with Habad families. But in Lubavitch there was an intense, messianic fervor and energy, a cult of the Rebbe, that was hard for me to take for long periods. The atmosphere in Boston was very different: more homey, warm, loving, “laid-back,” even “feminine”—a traditional Galician Hasidism. For the Rebbe, it was important to teach Jews about Judaism and to bring them to observance, not in order to bring Messiah, but simply because this was what he believed in, and he wanted to share it with others.

Minhag played an important part in the Rebbe’s way. There were numerous customs, Hasidic-Kabbalistic practices, which many of us had never heard of, or had at most read about in books, which were practiced as a natural part of life by the Rebbe and his warm, accepting family. To mention but a few of these customs: a long break between Friday night prayers and Kiddush, as the meal could not start between 6 and 7 pm; the Rebbe wearing a Tallit at Friday night prayer and through Kiddush, then changing from his black silken kapote to a colorful brocaded tisch bekashe; a whole series of strict Pesah observance; baking matzot for the Seder on Erev Pesah—an activity in which the entire community was invited to participate, based on a largely defunct medieval Ashkenaz custom; sleeping in the sukkah, even in the cold of autumn-time New England; saying goodbye to Sukkah on afternoon of Hoshana Rabbah; etc., etc.

All these seemingly arcane customs were shared with whoever happened to be around. There was a sense, contrary to the stereotype of Hasidim as a strange, rather self-enclosed sect, of this being an accessible, ordinary family, who spoke regular American without an accent (or, to be more precise, with the broad Boston “a,” very much like the Kennedys). Though dressed very differently from most of us, there was a feeling that they were basically normal regular people once one got to know them.

I visited the Rebbe now and again in Israel—at public events, and once or twice to ask for advice with personal problems. While at the time I was unable to accept his advice, in retrospect I see it as wise, and certainly as based upon solid Jewish values. I also saw the Rebbe two or three times during my more recent trips to the US; he was warm as always, and apologetic about his failing sight and hearing.

The last time I saw the Bostoner was last year, at the wedding of the daughter of a woman who had been a bat-bayit of myself and my first wife Esther when she was first becoming religious; now, to me a mere “child” of 40, she was herself becoming a mother-in-law! The atmosphere had changed; it was more main-stream Yerushalmi hasidish; the entire hall was filled with men wearing shtreimels, almost all of whom called themselves Bostoner Hasidim—many of his original followers, plus their children and even half-adult grandchildren. The Rebbe himself showed himself a real “trooper”: although he had to be brought in a wheelchair, he stood up for the huppah, said one of the berakhot in a clear, loud voice, and even danced a bit at the “mitzvah tanz.”

What was it that drew so many people to the Bostoner Rebbe? He was not a great intellectual or Rabbinic scholar: he was not a Jewish philosopher or world–class scholar or thinker like Rabbi Soloveitchik, who lived in the same city. He did not have a world-embracing strategy for bringing the entire Jewish people back to Torah, like the Lubavitcher Rebbe. Nor was he an ecstatic mystic, such as, say, the Bobover Rebbe; nor did he teach any unique Hasidic teaching—again, like Habad, or Breslav, or any one of the numerous “neo-Hasidic” teachers of texts, on various points within and without Orthodoxy, in the world today. What then was the secret of his power?

The answer to this question is two fold:

First, the Rebbe was a font of kindness and love: a true ish hesed. This was expressed in practical ways—in opening his home to all those who needed what he could give, whether a place for Shabbat, a meal, help with medical issues, someone to talk to about personal issues or about finding his/her way into Judaism, etc. But this was love was expressed even more so in some intangible facet of his being. He radiated love and caring to all who came into contact with him: in his manner of speaking to people, in the kindly demeanor of his face, in the twinkle in his eyes. Whether they were his “Hasidim” or not, people felt that he listened to them and cared about them.

Second, the absolute authenticity and sincerity of the Rebbe. In a world of constant change, of new ideas and styles and ways of thinking about even the most basic aspects of life, in which even modern Orthodoxy involves maintaining a complex, dialectical synthesis of Torah and modernity, the Rebbe was a man solidly rooted in his tradition, who projected a sense of absolute certainty, of what Hasidism calls emunah peshutah, “simple faith.” And again: all this marked by great love: love of God, love of Torah, love of the mitzvot and joy in their performance.

I don’t know if the Rebbe had any systematic “philosophy” of Judaism or of ta’amei hamitzvot, of rationales for the mitzvot. He was quite simple rooted in his tradition; he preserved his familial and ancestral ways, and this somehow attracted young people. (By the way, I should add that those attracted to his path included not only students who might be considered a tabula rasa, but also young adults being to raise their families, including men who already had doctorates in sophisticated disciplines, who adopted the strict Orthodoxy of the Rebbe).

The Rebbe was who he was, of course, first of all, because of his own middot—his unique personal qualities and character. But, in addition, he benefited from a fortuitous combination of historical circumstances. I don’t know much about his upbringing: he was born in Boston in 1921; his father, a Yerushalmi dayan, a religious court judge in Jerusalem and scion of the Lelov Hasidic dynasty, found himself in Eastern Europe adjudicating a dispute within the Jewish community when the First World War broke out; upon his return, via Greece, he was seen as an enemy alien and forced to leave on the first available ship. Thus, quite by accident, he ended up in the United States, in Boston, where his second son was born (the older son, Moshe David, known as the “New York Bostoner,” was born before the war; he led a smaller community in Borough Park, and died in 1985). The Rebbe grew up in a world where there were very few Hasidic Jews; indeed, in those days Orthodoxy seemed to be fighting a rearguard struggle for survival. Hence, when his father died while he was still in his 20’s, he confronted, as a community leader, with the necessity to somehow accept and deal with the relatively assimilated culture of American Jews. His own children, who grew up in a world in which Orthodoxy had made its dramatic post-war comeback, with a thriving world of innumerable strictly Orthodox institutions, communities, Hasidic courts, may have paradoxically grown up in a more sequestered manner, less “American” than the Rebbe himself.

May his memory be a source of blessing.