Friday, October 19, 2007

Lekh Lekha (Mitzvot)

For more teaching on this parasha, see the archives to this blog at November 2005.

The Covenant of the Flesh

The first two parshiyot of the Torah may in a sense be viewed as introductory, telling the story of humankind as a whole, and the origins of the basic parameters and paradoxes of the human condition. With Lekh lekha, we turn to the earliest history of what will become the covenant people of God: Abraham, the Patriarch. And with him, the mitzvah associated with his name: the covenant of circumcision (Genesis 17). So much has been written about this mitzvah, it seems impossible to say anything new. (Two years ago, on the occasion of the birth of my first grandchild, I addressed one of the perennial questions asked by today's feminists: why can't little girls have a parallel covenantal ceremony? See HY VII: Shevat (Supplement); "Grandfatherly Reflections.") The three most striking facts about it are: a) that the sign of the covenant involves a permanent mark upon the Jew’s body; b) that this act is performed in early infancy; and c) that it involves specifically the sexual organ.

Why is it thus and not otherwise? There are voices in today’s world that object, saying: how can a parent take it upon himself to impose such a permanent “disfigurement” or “mutilation” upon the body of an innocent baby? And, if it is indeed to be a sign of a religious covenantal commitment, why can’t it wait until later, when it would represent a genuine, freely-taken choice of the person himself? (similar to the perennial argument that one should allow the offspring of religiously mixed marriages: “Let him make his own choice when he is 18”)

The answer is: that is precisely the point. The covenant of circumcision symbolizes the “thrown-ness,” the given nature of Jewish identity. In a very profound sense, Judaism is diametrically opposed to the individual-centered way of thinking that is almost axiomatic in contemporary Western society; it is based on the community, the group. As someone once said: “one is born a Jew, but one becomes a Christian.” (This fact is expressed in certain evangelical Protestant groups by the rejection of infant baptism in favor of doing so later, once the individual has reached maturity and freely choose to be "reborn in Christ.") Jewishness is not a matter of individual choice, but somehow a kind of fate or destiny, participation in a historical continuum, in principle a matter of birth. What more powerful way to symbolize this than by a indelible mark on the body, as early in life as possible? Indeed, while conversion is possible, giyyur itself involves a paradox: a kind of “rebirthing” into the covenantal community through immersion in the womb-like waters of the mikveh.

This idea is also expressed in the liturgy. In addition to the two (or three) blessings over the actual performance of the circumcision—the blessing over the mitzvah-act per se, recited by the mohel; and the blessing for “entering him into the covenant of Father Abraham” recited by the baby’s father; and, except in Diaspora Ashkenazic communities, Sheheheyanu; there is also a celebratory blessing and prayer recited over wine, during which the baby receives his name: Asher kidesh yedid mibeten. The first Jew circumcised in infancy was Isaac, who was “sanctified from the womb.” Each infant Jew somehow exemplifies and continues this idea.

* * * * *

"Bless us with Rain…”

From today on (7th Heshvan) until the eve of Pesah, those of us living in Eretz Yisrael add the prayer for rain in the ninth blessing of the weekday Amidah; in the Diaspora, for various reasons, partly arcane, this prayer is only added from December 4th. Ashkenazim merely add the two words ten tal u-matar to the “summertime” version; Sephardim recite an entire special text. I see no good reason why Ashkenazim cannot or should not say it as well, and I have personally adopted its recitation as part of my personal practice. I would like to share this text with my readers, for those unfamiliar with it. (The indented section is one that I believe suitable only for periods of drought):

ברך עלינו יי אלקינו את השנה הזאת ואת כל מיני תבואתה לטובה, ותן טל ומטר לברכה על פני האדמה, ורווה פני תבל, ושבע את העולם כולו מטובה, ומלא ידינו מברכותיך ומעושר מתנת ידיך. [שמור והצל שנה זו מכל דבר רע ומכל מיני משחית ומכל מיני פורענויות, ותן בה תקוה טובה ואחרית שלום. חוס ורחם עלינו ועל פירותינו ותבואתנו] וברכינו בגשמי ברכה נדבה ורצון, ותהא אחיריתה חיים ושלום ושובע וברכה כשנים הטובות, כי אל טוב ומטיב אתה ומברך השנים. ברוך אתה יי מברך השנים.
Bless, O Lord our God, this year and all varieties of its produce for goodness, and send dew and rain for blessing upon the soil, and satiate the face of the earth, and satisfy the entire world with its goodness, and fill our hands with Your blessings and the rich gifts of Your hands, [Guard and protect this year from every bad thing, and from all kinds of destruction and catastrophe. Give it hope and assure it a good end. Take pity and compassion upon us and upon our fruits and produce,] Bless us with rains of blessing and generosity and favor, and may its end be one of life and peace and fulness, abundance and blessing as in the good years, for You are good and do good and bless the years. Blessed are you, O Lord, who blesses the years.

Noah (Mitzvot)

“He who spills man’s blood, by man shall his blood be spilled”

The first mitzvah, in Bereshit, is to multiply and increase life. Its counterpart in this parasha, albeit not formally counted among the mitzvah, is the injunction not to destroy live. In a sense, this is the very first and most self-evident moral imperative: if God loves life, revels in the sheer fecundity of the species He has created, and blesses both fish and fowl, man and beast, with the blessings of ever increasing life, then surely murder, bloodshed, and violence are abhorrent in His eyes!

After the Flood, once the ark comes to rest and Noah and his entourage go out into the world again after a confinement of nearly a year, we are told two interesting things: first, that Noah offers a sacrifice—not as a mandatory act, but as an act of natural piety, an expression of the innate human impulse to worship God. Secondly, God blesses Noah and his clan, who represent a new beginning; as such, they are again given the blessings of “be fruitful and multiply” (twice! In 9:1 and 9:7) and dominion over other creatures, in language similar to, if not stronger than, that in Genesis 1.

But there is an interesting addition: “He who spills man’s blood, by man his blood shall be spilled, for in God’s image did He make man” (9:6). One might say that these verses appear here as a reminder that the sins of the Generation of the Flood included, not only theft and social injustice, but violence and bloodshed, the total lording of the strong over the weak without any restraints (as is more or less implied in 6: 11 ff.). (In general, Jewish tradition has an abhorrence of bloodshed. It has been suggested that there is a connection among the prohibitions against murder, that against the consumption of animal blood, first stated here in 9:4, and that against having sex “on the blood,” so to speak: i.e., the menstrual rules—each with their elaborations.)

But more than that, we have in these verses at least a rudimentary hint of the Noachide code—the universal code of ethics incumbent upon all human beings as such, which I would define as a code of natural law, in the sense that these rules are self-evident to man’s innate moral conscience, without any external command. The reference to man being made in the Divine image merely reinforces that insight with a theological argument.

But if this is self-evident in theory, it is among the most difficult laws for human society to follow. From the day that Cain killed his brother, wars have been fought, murders committed, ceaseless acts of brutality and cruelty and violence have been perpetrated because we somehow fail to perceive the Divine image in the Other. There are even religions that have made the murder of non-believers or heretics into “holy acts” rather than the obscenities they are—and religious wars, which we thought were a thing of the past, are once again upon us.

I have much more to say on this important subject, but will hold the rest for a supplement on violence and aggression.


Sefer ha-Hinukh is attributed to R. Aharon of Barcelona (1235-ca. 1290); there is some dispute about its actual authorship. One reader suggested that it may have been written by an unknown medieval woman, who used this persona to enable her work to be accepted. An interesting theory, thus far not widely accepted by the world of scholarship.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Bereshit (Mitzvot)

For more teachings on this parasha, see the archives below for October 2005.


This year, rather than having one central theme, we will follow a somewhat different approach. During the first half of the year, I plan to focus on “unfinished business” that I feel calling me before turning to a major new project. For quite some time, I have been working on a number of major essays, that await their makeh ba-patish, the finishing touches. These include: an attempt at creating a Jewish philosophy of sexuality, parts of which I have presented in the past; an essay on human aggression and violence; the long-overdue essay on Simon Rawidowicz and the contemporary implications of his thought; several studies on contemporary personalities: a (much belated) study on Art Green and his thought, originally intended for his 65th birthday; an impressionistic essay about Zalman Schachter; further insights about Shlomo Carlebach, “Rebbe and Minstrel”; my response to the homosexuality brouhaha in the Conservative movement; and a major personal-theological essay. In addition, there is the series on Maimonides’ Thirteen Principles, begun over a year ago, which I wish to continue and to complete; then, if there is any time left, further studies on some of my favorite Psalms which I did not get to during the year that I wrote on Tehillim. I have for too long felt these essays “writing themselves” within me, like beings with a life of their own demanding that I bring them into the world. As Martin Buber once wrote:

This is the eternal origin of art, that a human being confronts a form that wants to become a work through him. Not a figment of his soul but something that appears to the soul and demands the soul’s creative power…. The form that confronts me I cannot experience nor describe; I can only actualize it. And yet I see it, radiant in the splendor of the confrontation, far more clearly than all clarity of the experienced world. (I and Thou, Kaufmann ed., pp 60-61)

During the second half of the year, having hopefully completed these self-appointed tasks, each week will be devoted to one or two passages from Pirkei Avot—a much beloved text, traditionally read over several times during summer Shabbat afternoons, between Pesah and Rosh Hashana.

But in order nevertheless to have some unifying theme, each week I will present a brief, one-page essay about one mitzvah that is in some way related to the parasha, though not necessarily formally derived from it by the classical texts (for example, it is well-known that the entire book of Bereshit contains only three commandments). In this, I follow in the spirit of the He’emek Davar, who says that the purpose of the entire Torah is to teach halakhah, proper Jewish behavior, in the broad sense.

“Be Fruitful and Multiply”

So, to begin: The very first mitzvah—and one which all agree is indeed derived from Genesis 1:28—is to propagate and perpetuate human life. This is an interesting starting point. The Mishnah and Talmud begin with the recitation of Shema in the evening; the Shulhan Arukh (and the Tur before it) begins its presentation of Jewish law with getting up in the morning to serve God, preparations for prayer, etc.; Maimonides starts with first principles, the belief in God; but the Torah itself (and those collections of mitzvot that follow its order, most notably R. Aharon Halevi of Barcelona’s Sefer ha-Hinukh) starts with the proliferation of life itself—i.e., to begat and bear children. In brief, the very first mitzvah focuses upon the continuance of life itself.

But this is a problematic mitzvah in several senses. First, one wonders why it needs to be commanded at all. After all, God has implanted the sexual instinct, with its intense power, and the concomitant mechanism of reproduction, in every human being, as He has in innumerable life forms beginning quite far down on the great chain of being. Throughout most of human history (at least until the invention of contraception, which in historical terms was but yesterday), people had children willy-nilly, as a result of the irresistible urge to copulation. Secondly, the phrase פרו ורבו (“be fruitful and multiply”) is couched in the Bible as a blessing rather than as an imperative, and is repeated as such almost verbatim after the Flood, in Gen 9:1ff.). I have no answers to these questions: all this is food for thought.

Interestingly, also, the halakhah states that men are obligated in this mitzvah, but not women. One widespread explanation is that man initiates courtship, while a woman must, so to speak, wait for a man to want her—or so traditional thinking holds. (There was an interesting polemic over this point some three decades ago between Rav Soloveitchik and Rabbi Rackman—viz., do modern, “emancipated” women still regard things in that way, being willing to settle for just about anyone just in order to be married? ואכמ"ל) A second explanation is that childbirth is a risky business; until about the 1930’s death in childbirth was a not uncommon occurrence, and the Torah cannot command a person to undertake a potentially fatal enterprise.

But I would suggest a different, almost opposite peshat. Women have powerful mothering instincts: they don’t need to be commanded to desire children. For men, if my readers will pardon my putting things in rather crude terms, the goal of sexuality ends with union with woman, with the moment of ejaculation—the biological instant of potential fatherhood. (See the interesting albeit harsh comments on this in R. Yehiel Michal Epstein’s Arukh ha-Shulhan at Orah Hayyim 240.2, where he uses it to construct a teleological interpretation of sex.) Fatherhood in the cultural sense—that is, remaining with the woman, supporting the children as they grow into adulthood and independence, educating them, shaping their values and commitments—is a function of civilization, a learned pattern of behavior, something to which men must be socialized. Or, in halakhic terms, that must be commanded.

I am reminded here of someplace where R. Nahman of Bratslav speaks of the purpose of the Creation as “to fill the world with b’nei adam,” which he immediately translates as “b’nei da’at”—that is, with human beings, whose humanity is most fully reached through da’at— (religious) knowledge and consciousness. This dovetails with the classical Rabbinic notion that “disciples are called children”: that is, teaching others, whether ones biological children or not, conveying one’s life experience and insight to them, is “parenting” in the deepest sense.

I will end by observing the convergence of the biological and cultural sense of reproduction in the very fabric of the Hebrew language. Many linguists suggest that there are “families” of roots, in which two of the three letters are the same. Biological parenting, impregnation and conception, are called הרה (hr”h), from which comes the word הורים, “parents”; ירה (yr”h; literally, “to shoot”; by extension: to point out, to instruct, to teach), from which derive מורה (“teacher”) and תורה (“teaching, instruction, Torah”), denotes parenting in the spiritual sense.

The First Four Parshiyot

The late David Zeller, z”l, in his autobiography, presents an interesting mystical interpretation of the titles of the first four Torah portions, that he learned from Pascal Themanlys, in relation to the spiritual development of the individual: Bereshit—one begins in the mind, with Wisdom, that is called reshit; Noah, rest—one must achieve a certain inner calm and quiet; Lekh lekha—the inner spiritual journey: “go” to your true self; then, Vayera, “and [God] appeared”—after all these, you are ready for some Divine insight. (The Soul of the Story, pp. 159-161)

On Empiricism and Subjectivity

Before Rosh Hashana I briefly alluded to John Updike’s novel, Roger’s Version. In addition to the usual sexual hanky-panky and an interesting insider’s view of upper-middle class WASPs—which is valuable for New York-bred Jews like myself, for whom this important ethnic group is in many ways terra incognita—what I found significant in this novel was the presence of some serious theological ideas (and davka ones that are most appropriate to Shabbat Bereshit).

The plot centers around the encounter between a professor of theology—ironically, an expert in the history of heresies, both ancient and medieval—and an earnest young man, an Evangelical Christian from the Midwest who works in the fields of computers and mathematics, who is convinced that he can provide an objective proof of the existence of God, using a series of physical and biological arguments bolstered by computer-generated mathematical models and probability theory, all of which point to the presence of a “guiding hand” in the universe (these are somewhat reminiscent of Gerald Schroeder’s The Science of God).

In one of the central scenes of the book (pp. 219-236, in the 1986 Fawcett Crest ed.), the young man appears before a grant committee, consisting of the various theology professors—men steeped in Barth and Tillich, Schleiermacher and Kierkegaard, Bultmann and Niebuhr—the young man’s arguments are dismissed as so much “pseudo-science,” leading down the primrose path to “magic and fundamentalism of the least defensible sort. Good-bye, moral imperatives; hello, voodoo.” The essential issue here is: ought religiosity to be grounded in subjectivity, the inner world of the human spirit, of man’s struggles with good and evil and his intuitions of the impact of God’s existence on the moral life; or with objective, empirical “proofs” of the order and design reflected in Creation.

In brief, for these serious modernist believers, the proper realm of God is ultimately subjective—and it is good that it is so. That is, their faith is grounded more in inner existential choice than in any objectively provable truth.

Similar issues have been joined in contemporary Judaism. Many outreach types in the Teshuvah movement (or, them more bluntly, “missionaries for Orthodoxy”), use so-called “objective” proofs to bring assimilated (and usually philosophically unsophisticated) college students or backpackers into the world of Torah. One noted personality in the Teshuvah movement gives an introductory course offering with “8 proofs for the existence of God and 8 proofs of the Divine origin of Torah.” In recent years the “Torah Codes” (hidden messages allegedly planted within the Torah text, only discoverable by computers) have come to occupy an important place in such outreach work. There is ongoing debate among mathematicians as to whether these codes are valid, or so much sleight-of-hand. To me, this point seems rather besides the point. As I’ve commented here in the past, such arguments are not only irrelevant, but somehow demeaning and cheapening the real message of Torah.

But there is nevertheless a difference between the Jewish take on this issue and that of Updike’s fictional but true-to-life professors of theology. True, I would assert that traditional Judaism is closer to the “subjectivist” position than it is to that of “empirical” proofs. I know any number of Jews who are not at all sure whether or not they believe in God, but follow a more-or-less traditional or even halakhic life-style because it makes moral sense or conveys a feeling of meaning and order to their lives (or, as suggested in David Hartman’s recent writings, makes sociological and anthropological sense). In this light, I would read Rambam’s suggestion that contemplation of the greatness of creation are the path to the love and fear of God, e.g., as in Hilkhot Yesodei ha-Torah 2.1-2—which is read by some as implying the religious value of the study of science to deepen religious belief—as essentially an appeal to an experience of wonder, not unlike Heschel’s “radical wonder,”—not as an ironclad proof such as that discussed here.

But in truth, Judaism is based on a third option: a faith based on tradition, what the Rav calls the “Masorah Community,” based on a living faith and way of life passed on from parent to child, from grandparent to grandchild, thereby making it stronger than either the intellectual understanding or moral conscience of any single individual.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Simhat Torah (Rashi)

For more teachings on Simhat Torah, etc., see the archives for this website at October 2006.

“The Lord Came from Sinai…”

And so, once again, we have come full circle to the end of another cycle of reading the Torah. The final portion, Ve-zot haberakha, read on Simhat Torah, contains Moses‘ blessings to each of the twelve tribes, a prophetic outpouring filled with allusion to future events. But unlike Jacob’s blessing to his children in Genesis 49, it begins with a poetic recounting of God’s epiphany at Sinai, that event which made Israel a unique people, giving a transcendent dimension to the chapter as whole. Let us examine Rashi’s comment on the opening verse in this blessing, in which he presents several of the best-known, most powerful midrashic motifs on this event:

Deut 33:2. “And he said: The Lord came from Sinai, and shone upon them from Seir, appeared from Mount Paran, and came with the multitudes of holy beings. At His right hand a fiery law for them.”

Rashi: He began with the praise of the Omnipresent, and thereafter with the needs of Israel. And because he began with it, there is mention of the merit of Israel. And all this in a conciliatory manner; as if to say, these are worthy of blessing coming upon them. “He came from Sinai.” He went out to meet them when they came to stand at the bottom of the mountain, like a bridegroom coming to greet his bride, as is said, “[He took them out] to greet God” [Exod 19:17]—we learn that He came opposite them.

He begins with the picture of Sinai as a marriage between God and His people. What is significant is that God was active in going out to receive them, as if pursuing them or courting them. He was not like a king who sits in state in his throne room, waiting to receive homage but, as befitting a marriage in which each partner eagerly awaits the other, He too sets out to meet them.

<“And he shone to them from Seir.” He began by approaching the children of Esau that they receive the Torah, but they did not want it. “He appeared from Mount Paran.” He went there and offered it to the Ishmaelites that they might receive it, and they did not wish. “And he came…” To Israel. ”With the myriads of holy ones.” With Him were some of the myriads of the holy angels—not all of them, nor even most of them. And this was not in the manner of flesh and blood, who displays all his honor and wealth and glory on his wedding day.

The second midrash is that in which God offers the Torah to the other nations, so that they not be able to come afterwards and claim, “If you would have offered it to us, we would have accepted it.” The full text of this midrash is a damning condemnation of the other nations of the world. Each one asks God, “What is in it?,” and each in turn rejects it because they cannot accept one of the basic clauses: one’s entire culture is based upon thievery, another on sexual licentiousness, a third on bloodshed and violence. Only Israel are willing to accept the Torah sight unseen, so to speak, making themselves into a tabula rosa, prepared to accept God’s word unconditionally.

<“A fiery law.” That was written before Him in black fire on white fire, which He gave to them in tablets written with His right hand. Another thing: “A fiery law.” As in the Targum, that he gave it to them from within the fire.

The third section is the motif of the Torah given in fiery letters, “black fire on white fire.” What does this mean? I read this as a symbol of the numinous quality of the Torah, supernatural, not of this earth, expressing its mysterious quality, its Divine origins; that it is not merely a secular law code.

Rashi’s Hadran to the Torah

Deut 34:12. “And for all the strong hand, and all the awesome fear, that Moses did in the sight of all lsrael."

Rashi: “And for all the strong hand.” That he received the tablets of the Torah with his hands. “And all the awesome fear.” Miracles and mighty deeds that he did in the great and frightening wilderness. “In the eyes of all Israel.” That he chose to smash the tablets before their eyes, as is said, “and I broke them before their eyes” (Deut 9:17), and God agreed with his mind, as is said, “which you broke” (Exod 34:1). Good for you that you broke them! (Shabbat 87b)

I find this passage puzzling. Traditionally, the final section of a book—a tractate of Talmud, or any other Jewish book—known as the hadran, is of special significance, and usually ends on a positive note. Why then does Rashi end his entire Torah Commentary on what seems a negative note, remembering Israel’s moment of shame and faithlessness? The point of this verse—of the last three verses, really—are to praise Moses, the great teacher and prophet. Evidently, of all of Moses’ acts during the course of his leadership of the people, his finest moment was his response to the Golden Calf. Superficially, the act of breaking the tablets might be seen as an expression of anger, of losing self-control, of surrendering to emotions of frustration and despair. But midrashic tradition sees it differently. This was a sign of his powerful leadership—on the one hand, of “tough love,” of shocking the people into understanding the magnitude of their misdeed. In this respect, he was the opposite of his brother Aaron, who is seen as the embodiment of peace and gentleness, and whose weakness lay in his tendency to be too soft and yielding. On the other hand, he was in his own way kind and merciful, the great defender of Israel before God, smashing the tablets, which are seen midrashically as counterpart to the marriage writ, “that they might be judged as an unmarried woman rather than as a married woman.” It was to this that God agreed, saying “Well done!”

Some Thoughts on Kohelet

If Kohelet were had lived in the twentieth century, I think he would have been as existentialist; his book might be compared to Jean Paul Sartre’s Nausea, or even to the writings of those French existentialists who say that the only real question is why a person ought not to commit suicide.

I shall repeat something I said here some years ago: Kohelet starts with the individual and his existential situation. Judaism by and large starts with the covenant, with the law and mitzvot, with the People Israel as a community, as axiomatic, as givens, expecting the individual to find meaning and happiness within them. Here, Kohelet assumes none of that, asking drastic questions from the standpoint of the lone individual. In this, he is very much in keeping with the modern, or even the “post-modern” zeitgeist. Particularly in the first half of book, he questions everything, systematically describing his attempts to find the answer to the question, “What is the good life for a person to pursue?” “I tried this, I tried that” (wisdom, happiness, money, sensual pleasures), much like today’s cynical “Been there, done that.” (The second half of the book, from Ch. 7 on, seems much more disjointed, rather like the Book of Proverbs—a collection of short sayings, loosely organized around themes or key words).

Like the existentialists, he feels loneliness, anguish, boredom, even a deep-rooted disgust with life itself, with what might be called the very “thingness” of things, the very facticity of things. In this, I find him very reminiscent of Sartre’s Nausea. Even to the point of saying, “I hated life.” There is a sense of him being removed from the flow of life, an outsider looking in from without.

Perhaps the turn to religion, in the final verse, may be seen as move of desperation: “in the end, this is the one thing that has any real, lasting value.” But his despair of ordinary life is an integral part of him reaching this conclusion. Here, one is reminded more than anyone else of Kierkegaard, whose religiosity was decidedly outside of the conventional round of church and bourgeois society, something almost thrust upon him from strange emotional places deep within himself.

Kohelet does not reject God or Torah in the usual sense; he is not an apikoris in the familiar sense; indeed, he hardly talks about God or mitzvot at all during the first 98% of the book. If he rejects conventional religiosity, it is as part of his rejection of conventional life in general. In a certain sense, notwithstanding the profound difference in mood and contents between the two books, there is a certain kinship to Job. In Job, the friends speak in trite, conventional, pious platitudes about the reason for Job’s sufferings, while Job, painfully, with great honesty and integrity, moves beyond them, to a new place. Kohelet, too, finds himself outside of the usual way of thinking about life, rejecting all that is important to most people. In addition to Kierkegaard, I find him reminiscent of the wildness and anarchism of certain early Hasidim—say, of Kotzk—or for that matter of Shlomo’s hippie hasidim. He is the perpetual outsider, struggling to make sense of life outside of the usual boxes, questioning the conventions of what would today be called middle-class society: the value of family, material success, having wealth to inherit to one’s children.

A Sukkot Question

A friend of mine asked me why we take the number of items we do in the arba’ah minim, the Four Kinds. The source is Leviticus 23:40, and the answer is roughly this:

There is only one etrog because it’s referred to there in the singular, as peri. Lulav, while called kapot temarim, is written without the vav, and thus can be read as kapat -- again in the singular. Arvei nahal is plural. The general rule is that the minimum of plurality is two. Hence two branches. Why three hadasim, myrtle branches? Rashi says that the three words used to describe it, ‘anaf ‘etz ‘avot (all beginning with ‘ayin, a real challenge to the baal korei's abilities to pronounce guttural letters!) suggest three. Tosafot ad loc (all this in the Talmud, at b. Sukkah 46b, which elaborates the mishnah) adds that “a thick branch” indicates that its leaves are overlapping, as if woven, requiring at least three leaves at each given point on the stem, which is another of the laws about myrtles. But the logical jump to three branches, rather than just triplets of leaves on each branch, is unclear to me.

In addition to all this, they add up to a total of seven items: 3 + 2 + 1 + 1, which is a favorite Kabbalistic number; note also the seven Ushpizin, seven hakafot on Hoshana Rabbah and Simhat Torah, etc. There are also direct equivalences to the Kabbalistic sefirot: the three myrtles are hesed, gevurah & tiferet; the two willows netzah and hod; lulav is yesod (a conduit, or spine, or perhaps a phallus, much like the lulav), while etrog is malkhut (heart, yon).

Simhat Torah (Months)

“We Shall Return to You”

On Simhat Torah we conclude the reading of the Torah and immediately begin it all over again—all this, amidst great celebration, dancing and song. This year, an obvious but seldom asked question suddenly occurred to me: what does it mean for a culture to celebrate its return, in cyclical manner, to reading a particular text?

The thrust of modern culture is to move ever forward, towards newness, innovation, progress and change. When I was a child, the greatest praise that could be said of someone, at least among those adult circles closest to me, was that a person was “progressive”; the greatest calumny, that he was “conservative.” And yet for the Jew, the concluding festival of the whole complex of holy days and festivals that began nearly two months ago is basically an acting out of the phrase hadran alakh: “we shall return to you”—the “you” here referring to the same old familiar sacred text, whether, as in this case, the written Torah or, in other settings, a Talmudic tractate just completed, an order of Mishnah, Rambam’s Yad, Tanya, the Shulhan Arukh, or any other holy text studied regularly.

Of course, for the Jew who lives inside the tradition it is never “the same old Torah,” but something that is ever new, yielding to the devoted student ever new insights, new depths, new levels of understanding within the old and familiar. “Turn it about and turn it about, for everything is within it”; and “There is no Beit Midrash without hiddush (i.e., innovation, new insight).” Simon Rawidowicz, more a secular Jewish culturalist than a pious sage of old, once wrote an important essay entitled “On Interpretation,” in which he draws a distinction between “commentary,” in the sense of simple textual explication or elucidation, and “interpretation,” implying a dynamic interaction between the contemporary reader and the author who lived in a very different past. He saw this process as a central one in the formation of Jewish culture (I have written a major essay on this and other aspects of his thought, which I hope to share with readers of Hitzei Yehonatan very soon). Interestingly, so-called “post-modern” thinking, with its theories of intertextuality, etc., greatly emphasizes the creative and positive role of interpretation and interconnection to past cultural models. In a sense, this will be the theme of our coming year’s studies, which will be devoted to the Torah commentary of Rashi. And, on yet another level, it seems to me that perhaps the single most important theme in the Hasidic author Sefat Emet is the tension and interaction between Divine revelation and the connection to the root of all in God, and hiddushei torah. He relates these to the tension between Written and Oral Torah, weekday and Shabbat, the generation of the desert that live by miracles and the generation that entered the Land.

To return to Simhat Torah, and the quintessential act, if you will, of rolling the Torah scroll back to the very beginning: the conventional wisdom of a certain kind of modern Jewish apologetics states that the cyclical perception of history is essentially pagan, whereas Judaism is historical, seeing history moving forward into a better future, into, towards the Messiah—whether this is understood in terms of a personal Davidic monarch or as a golden age of peace and plenty, in which human beings will attain heights of ethical perfection, brotherhood and unification in the service of the Divine; in which they will care naught for power, glory, honor, wealth or victory over their enemies, but will be occupied wholly in the pursuit of knowledge and wisdom. But this interpretation is at best a half-truth—often, I suspect, confusing the modernist faith in progress with authentic Judaism, the Messiah being reinterpreted in either socialist or liberal democratic terms: Lenin or FDR (or, locally, perhaps Berl or A. D. Gordon) with a kippah, so to speak.

For there is also a deeply cyclical strain in Judaism, life itself being cyclical. Much of halakhah is rooted in the marking out of these cycles: the daily rising and setting of the sun, marked out by the three daily prayers; the weekly rhythm of ebb and flow of weekday and Shabbat, of work and rest; the waxing and waning of the moon, marked by the more minor observance of Rosh Hodesh; and the annual cycle, from the nascence of spring, through the growth and blooming of summer, to the “ingathering” of autumn followed by the chill and dormancy of winter, once again followed by the renewal of life in another spring, all marked by the various festivals. We are born, mature, marry, age and die—and if we are lucky, get to watch the next two or even three generations repeat part of the same process. Simhat Torah, as the final day of the last of the three pilgrimage festivals, expresses this well, with the Torah returning back on itself, something like the Ouroborus, the snake returning to its own tail.

Franz Rosenzweig understood this well. His was actually an anti-historical perception or, as some say, a thoroughly Exilic view of Judaism, in which the Jewish people stay alive and persist through the ages by somehow eschewing “real” history in favor of its archetypes of eternity. (Note his chapter on the festivals in The Star of Redemption, in which he calls Simhat Torah “the way back into the year.”) This, I believe, is the reason why we read Kohelet on Sukkot. Kohelet, or Ecclesiastes, is a book decisively rooted in a non-linear, cyclical view of life. His message is the vanity, presumably from the retrospective vantage of old age, of all things in life. The pursuit of pleasure, wealth, power, even wisdom, are ultimately of no use. In Chapter 3 he reflects upon how “there is a time for all things”—that is, one ought not to be overly excited about any one thing which one may see as the purpose, the ultimate goal of life, for that too passes: love, hatred; intimacy, distance; joy, sadness; peace, war—all are transient. His final answer (at 12:13) is often read either as a pietistic response to the almost-Greek cynicism and philosophical indifference of the bulk of the book, or as an alien interjection. But it can in fact be read in the same vein as the rest, in very simple terms: the only “answer” is to live life well—meaning, to fear God and to do His commandments. Halakhah: the way in which one is to walk, constantly. But this does not in any way imply a messianic hope or expectation of the end of history, but merely what it says: that this is the best way to life, this is kol ha-adam, “all that is asked of man.”

Moreover, is not the observance of the Torah itself predicated on the ability to repeat the same act—to say the same prayers, to do the same mitzvot, every day, every week, every year—that is, to live in a cyclical way? And is not this one of the criticisms lodged against it by modernity: that it’s boring to repeat the same words, to do the same thing. Indeed, various reformist movements have attempted to “improve” upon the old Siddur by making it more “interesting” for the impatient, constantly-moving, “dynamic” modern person with a limited attention span (I leave it to the reader to judge the success of this enterprise). In fact, they are right: there is an almost irreconcilable clash between the traditional approach to life and that of modernity. To become a truly pious Jew, imbedded in Torah, means in a very profound sense to set aside the modern mentality.

During the week of Sukkot we invite the Ushpizin, the seven archetypal shepherds” of the Jewish people, into our Sukkah; on the fourth and fifth nights we invite Moses and Aaron. This week I was at a gathering at which some interesting things were said about this. Someone quoted the late Rabbi Heckelman of Tzfat, that Moses and Aaron were two brothers who got along, even complemented one another, breaking the model of hostility and even enmity between pairs of brothers in the B ible, such as of Cain and Abel, Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, and even Judah and Joseph. But I suggested that Moses and Aaron were nevertheless very different: Moses was the prophet and teacher, the man obsessed with an intense, singular vision, whose life mission it was to convey to others and to implement. Aaron was the first priest: a man who embodied the striving for holiness, for bringing the Divine light down into this world, embodied in an institution—a cult, a temple, a building. Thus, the two in fact represented very different approaches: if you like, they may be seen as the granddaddies of those who advocate a linear vision of history, creating the kingdom of God upon earth, vs. the more cyclical, liturgical, even ceremonial view. Here, too, the secret of repetition is crucial.

Or can we perhaps speak of these as male and female models? Women, I suspect, have a more natural affinity to cyclical ways of thinking: through the inner biological cycles of their bodies, through their involvement in the direct life processes of gestation and birth and suckling, they know life in more circular terms—and are less likely than are men to be tempted by grand illusions of great historical movements and ideologies. And perhaps it is in this that their lies their binah yeteirah, their greater intuitive understanding….