Friday, October 29, 2010

Hayyei Sarah (Individual & Community)

For more teachings on the parashah, see the archives to this blog at November 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008 and 2009.

Ordinary Family Life

In this week’s parashah we find no “anti-utopias”—i.e., communities whose collective power brings out the worst in human beings—as we did in several of the previous week’s readings. Indeed, there are hardly any communities at all, except perhaps as background. (i.e., the b’nei Het, the “Hittite” group, from among whom Abraham deals with a few individuals). Nor are there any heroic tests of faith or moments of high religious intensity, such as the Akedah or the various covenantal moments between Avraham and God. What we do find here are vignettes of family life, important “lifecycle” events, in today’s jargon, in which Abraham acts to do what must be done: to bury has wife Sarah, after a long and presumably happy marriage; and to find a bride for his son Yitzhak. In these two scenes, he deals, directly or indirectly, with outside factors: he buys a burial plot for Sarah (which will ultimately serve for himself and the next two generations as well) from Ephron the Hittite; and he sends his trusted servant Eliezer to his nephews in “the old country” to find a wife for Yitzhak.

And this is precisely the point. We first learn about community—which, on the simplest level, means interaction with other human beings with whom we have some more-than-momentary bond—from our most intimate circle, the family. Family means love, caring, warmth, security, refuge from the anonymity and competition of an instrumental society—but it also means responsibility. The order of things in the opening verses of Genesis 23 is interesting, and seemingly contrary to Rabbinic halakhah: Abraham is first shown reacting directly, emotionally, to what has happened: he weeps and bewails his beloved wife (the word ספד, used today to refer to eulogizing the dead, to speaking publicly, in a coherent way, of his/her life and virtues, is a later usage; in the biblical lexicon, it simply means to wail or lament), but then he “rises from the face of his dead,” and turns to the practical business of arranging her burial, of finding and purchasing an appropriate burial site.

An interesting nuance of this conversation: Avraham introduces himself as “a stranger and sojourner among you” (ger ve-toshav anokhi imaeehm), but the Hittites refer to him as a “prince/noble man of God among us” (nasi elohim atah betokhenu), to whom they offer, as if magnanimously, “the best grave site we have to offer.” This entire negotiation is conducted in polite, stately, almost courtly language; money is only mentioned later, almost in an afterthought, as if beneath the dignity of such a meeting.

The process of arranging Yitzhak’s marriage is described in similar stately terms, beginning with the servant’s journey, his prayer to God for blessing and success, his meeting the maiden at the well, and finally his presenting his proposal to her family. Interestingly, Abraham’s greatest concern, for which he requires the servant to swear an oath, is that the maiden agree to come to the new land where he lives, and not bring Yitzhak back to her people in Haran.

The parashah ends with Abraham’s second marriage—this too is occasionally part of family life—the birth of a whole new family (six children!), what happens to them, and his own death.

The family, then, is the basic building block of society. This is important because, at this juncture in time, Western culture is experiencing a serious crisis in family life, as marked inter alia by the extraordinarily high divorce rate. While this is, to be sure, affected by socio-economic factors, such as the economic and professional independence of many middle-class women, so that they need not remain with cruel or violent husbands, much of it results from the individualistic ethos: i.e., that the individual perceives himself/herself first and foremost as an individual, and marriage as somehow provisional, lasting only so long as it satisfies the person’s own needs.

To return to our parashah, an interesting aside. As Rivkah approaches her new home, she sees Yitzhak, in many respects perhaps one of the loneliest figures in the Bible, walking in the field, meditating, in almost stark solitude (Gen 24:63). But then, in the final verse of that chapter, we are told that he brought Rebekah “into the tent of Sarah his mother; and he took her, and she became his wife; and he was comforted after [the death of] his mother.” Modern readers tend to see this verse in almost excessively Oedipal terms: Yitzhak’s deepest attachment until that point had been to his mother, and his wife seems to be seen primarily as a replacement for his mother! In our own culture, we expect a young man or woman at a certain point to severe the attachment to their parental home, at least as their basic emotional orientation, and to build a new, mature, very different sort of relationship with one’s spouse: as a life-partner, a peer, an equal, someone freely chosen—and, most important, a relationship of mutuality, of adult responsibility, rather than the unqualified love and giving, nurturing and dependence, symbolized by a mother. Here, we read of a very traditional scheme of things: the surviving parent arranges his son’s marriage, and he, for his part, compares his bride to the dead mother (as does, interestingly, the midrash at Gen. Rab. 60.16, quoted by Rashi, which praise Rivkah for continuing various practices of Sarah that symbolized holiness, purity, hesed, and the Divine Presence hovering over their home). Is all this really so bad? So “unhealthy”? Are we to see Yitzhak as emotionally underdeveloped, stunted or immature for these feelings? Important questions, which we may perhaps explore another time.

Sixteen Years Without Reb Shlomo

Reminder: This Motza’ei Shabbat a special memorial concert will he held in honor of Reb Shlomo’s yahrzeit at the Binyenei ha-Umah in Jerusalem at 8:30 pm. It promises to be a very special and impressive evening. Those interested in attending who have not yet ordered tickets may do so via phone 077-216-4436; fax 02-9918502; USA 516-216-4436; or at website or email

Every year I have written about Rav Shlomo Carlebach on the occasion of his Yahrzeit, which fell this past Sunday, 16 Marheshvan; at times, I feel that, the more I write, the more the man remains a mystery. How did he become what he was? How was it that, coming from the yeshiva world and then from the world of Hasidism, with its intense spiritual, intellectual and behavioral demands and deliberate separation from the American mainstream, did he come to see the spiritual quest hidden within the nascent youth culture of the ‘60s? And where did he get his ability to communicate with people who came from such a different world as that in which he grew up and in which he spent his early adult years?

One of the remarkable things about him was his ability to simplify, to distill the essential message of Yiddishkeit to the audiences he spoke to. More often than not, learned and erudite people, whether within the academy or in the yeshiva–Torah world, find it hard to speak of the essence of a thing, because they live so deeply in the complexity and subtlety and nuances of whatever it is they know. Shlomo, who was no less learned than they, somehow knew how to distill the essence from what he had learned of Talmud, of halakhah, of Hasidut, and to convey it to an audience of those who were totally ignorant of traditional Judaism.

It often seems to me that, in a certain sense, Shlomo revived the teaching of the Baal Shem Tov, of the earliest level of Hasidism. By the twentieth century, Hasidism had largely degenerated, preserving fanatically, even passionately, the external forms—the dress, the beard and peyot, the ritual and ceremony of the Hasidic nusah of prayer, the Shabbat tisch, the courts of the Rebbes—but the inner substance and message of the early masters was largely forgotten. Or else, as in Habad, there was an enormously complex neo-Kabbalistic system that served as guideline for meditative prayer. Shlomo somehow cut through all that, and returned to the basic meaning of it all—more often than not taught, not through theoretical Torahs or homilies, but through song and story. (He may have known more Hasidic stories than anyone else in our day; he was likewise at home in the musical traditions of all the various groups and courts—Lubavitch, Vizhnitz, Modzhitz, Belz, Bobov, etc.—which served as the well from which his own endless flow of melodies drew.)

Shlomo was far from perfect; he was very different from the classical Rabbinic model of the talmid hakham or Hasidic tzaddik every detail of whose life was guided by the Shulhan Arukh. But perhaps it was this every imperfection—what one reader called the “wounded healer model”—struggling with himself, with his failings, with new and often confusing sexual mores, that made him real, that made him a model for a certain type of person for whom the seamless piety of strict Orthodoxy seemed an unattainable and even inhuman goal.

What was Shlomo’s message? It was basically very simple: love and kindness, simple menshlichkeit and caring towards all. Much of liberal discourse today asserts that monotheism leads to hatred, violence, and exclusiveness—i.e., if God is one, then there can only be one way to serve Him, and one must fight, to the death if necessary, for that way (thus the Jihadists; and thus the reading of Dawkins et al). But Shlomo drew the opposite conclusion: if God is one, if He created the universe and all that is therein, than He must love all His creatures—and Shlomo tried in his own life to manifest that love as best he could. In doing so, he exemplified the Abrahamic way we discussed in recent weeks.

A few thoughts about our theme of this year: where did Shlomo stand vis-à-vis community and individual? Shlomo grew up within strictly Orthodox society, and specifically within the culture of the Yekkes, the German Jews, who were known for their strict, even rigid, formal approach to life. There were definite expectations about behavior, and a sense of a strong, tightly-knit community, which criticized and censured deviant behavior.

The 1960’s youth culture, the “Hippies” among whom Shlomo ultimately found a spiritual home of sorts, was the diametrical opposite to that world in almost every way. The Hippies drew the logical, extreme conclusion from the American ethos of individualism, of “doing your own thing,” living a loose, undisciplined, spontaneous life-style, without any fixed daily routine, but taking whatever each new day might bring.

The problem confronted, both by Shlomo’s followers and by the communes of ‘60s generally, was how to create working community without the sense of coercion, discipline, or authority (even of the group as a whole) which they had fled. People wanted freedom, abhorred the artificiality and posturing of suburban, middle-class life—but also knew that they wanted and needed community, albeit of a new kind—but people didn’t quite know how to do it. This quest for a new community was, in a way, the subtext of the Whole Earth Catalogue—and Shlomo’s “Hippy Hasidim” were very much part of that world.

Shlomo himself dreamed of a new kind of community, and of a new kind of yeshiva, a place where mean and women could learn Torah without the heavy, oppressive mood of the “black-hat” world. (In a totally different modality, the Havurat Shalom in Boston, founded in 1968, was also an attempt at creating a new type of Jewish prayer and study community.) In those days he used to say: “San Francisco is the city of tomorrow; Jerusalem is the city of the day after tomorrow.”

Well, forty years have passed, and it is now "the day after tomorrow." The House of Love and Prayer was one daring attempt at creating such a community. Beit Simhah in Jerusalem was another; the settlement at Migdal, near the Kineret, was another short-lived attempt; while Shlomo’s moshav, Me’or Modi’in, is perhaps the closest thing to a fulfillment of his vision. And, like anything in real life, it has had its successes and its failures.

VAYERA—Postscript: On Women

This week my wife raised the question of the strange way women are treated in several of the incidents in Vayera and elsewhere.

The thrice-repeated motif in which one of the Patriarchs (Abraham twice—Gen 12:10-20; 20:1-18; Yitzhak once—26:6-11) go to a strange environment and says that his wife is in fact his sister—in order to protect himself from being murdered by those who might desire her beauty and take her at all cost. But he was thereby exposing his wife to rape and adultery. How could he do such a thing? In two of the three cases, Sarah’s virtue preserved by Divine intervention; in the third, Avimelech saw Yitzhak “sporting” with his wife.

In the Lot story (and its parallel in the “concubine in Gibeah”): we have already discussed the Sodom mob and the possible significance of their demand to “know the men.” But what are we to make of Lot’s/the old man from the hills of Ephraim’s offer of his virgin daughter(s) to the mob, to abuse and rape her as much as they wish? In the case of Lot this was prevented only by miraculous intervention; in the parallel story in Judges, the woman is in fact literally thrown to the lions (the Talmud at Pesahim 49b draws the explicit comparison: “Just as a lion tramples and shamelessly eats his prey, so does a boorish person beat [his wife] and compels sex with her without shame”); she is raped so often and so violently that she dies as a result.

One explanation offered for the “she is my sister” tale is that the word ahot had a special technical meaning in the ancient Near East, indicating a kind of adoption by which the woman enjoyed special protection of the man who was her “brother.” Or one might argue that the brother had special responsibility for his sister (as in the Arab world today), more so even than the husband, which commanded a certain respect and fear. But if such is the case, it seems not to have worked here.

As for offering of one’s virgin daughter or some other woman to protect one’s male guest: in the text, it clearly seems to be rationalized by an extreme code of hospitality. The host owes absolute protection to those who “have taken shelter under my roof” (Gen 19:8) or “after this man has come to my house” (Jdg 19:23)—somewhat reminiscent of the Bedouin code, in which hospitality creates almost unbreakable bonds between people. But even so!? There seems to be a callous indifference to the woman’s own right; both here, and in the earlier motif, it is as if access to the woman’s sexuality is a privilege to be dispensed by her husband/father as he chooses!

Phil Chernovsky, in his Torah Tidbits —a publication that I don’t usually read— says something good: that Lot was a weak personality, who thought he could “have his cake and eat it”—i.e., live in close proximity to Sodom, enjoying the luxuriant fertility of the Jordan valley, even though it was already known to be a wicked city, without being affected. He notes how he gradually draws closer: in 13:12 he is shown “pitching his tents until Sodom” (’ad itself being an ambiguous Hebrew term); in 14:12 we are already told that he “dwelled in Sodom” ; while in 19:1 he sits at “the gate of Sodom”—i.e., he has become one of the respected citizens of the city (‘though as sone as he criticizes them this changes: “one comes to live here and he judges us! We’ll do worse to you than to them!”—v. 9). In brief, Lot gradually learned from their distorted way of looking at things, and the idea is indefensible. “Woe to the evildoer, woe to his neighbor!” (Remembering, also, that according to Rabbinic halakhah sexual licentiousness is one of the acts for which we say יהרג ולא יעבר—one must be killed rather than violate it, and one may kill the perpetrator caught in the act.)

Vayera (Individual & Community)

For more teachings on the parashah, see the archives to my blog, at 2005_10_20_archive.html/ as well as November 2006, 2007, 2008 and 2009.

“The People of Sodom were evil and sinned greatly before the Lord”

This week’s parashah describes the destruction of the “cities of the plain,” Sodom and Gemorrah: like the world of the Flood and Nimrod’s kingdom of the tower builders, yet another example of an evil collectivity, an “anti-utopia,” if you will. What was the sin of these cities? One reading sees it as a spirit of meanness. Not only did they fail to practice kindness, hesed, but they were actively opposed to anyone who dared show the smallest kindness or human concern to another person. Thus, the midrash in Genesis Rabbah 49.6 tells of two girls who used to go to the well together to draw water. One day the one saw that the other was extremely wan and weak, and discovered that she had not eaten for many days, and was literally starving to death. She surreptitiously placed some flour in her bucket; when the townspeople discovered this, they tortured her to death.

Another midrashic motif shows them engaging in gratuitous sadism—again, primarily against strangers and visitors. Sanhedrin 109b relates that the people of Sodom had a special bed in which everyone who visited the city had to sleep. If the person was too short, his arms and legs would be stretched with ropes to fit its length; if he was too tall, his legs would be chopped off. This legend is the origin of the Hebrew idiom mitat Sedom, “the bed of Sodom” used to refer to any arbitrary, “no-win” situation. (Of course, it is almost certainly adapted from the Procrustrean bed of ancient Greek legend / myth.)

Similarly, the prophet Ezekiel: “This was the sin of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters were filled with pride, abundance of food, peace and quiet, but did not help the poor and needy. They were haughty and committed abominations before Me; therefore I removed them…” (Ezek 16:49-50). Ramban and other commentators likewise note the meanness and indifference towards others of its people.

But turning to the actual biblical text itself, we find another abomination: the name of Sodom is associated with homosexuality. Indeed, the paradigmatic homosexual act is known as “sodomy” is named for the incident described here, in Genesis 19. Many early and medieval Christian sources base or reinforce the prohibition against “unnatural connections” on the Story of Sodom, noting that they were subject to a divine punishment of destruction by fire and brimstone for their wicked acts. But a closer reading of this chapter suggests another possible interpretation. Interestingly, a parallel to this story, with many identical details (what literary critics would call the same “topos”), appears in Chapter 19 of the Book of Judges, in the incident known as Pilegesh begivah, “the concubine in Gibeah.”

In essence, the story is as follows: Two strangers come to a town (here—the two angels; in Judges—a Levite from the back-country of the Ephraim hills, who has gone to Bethlehem to persuade his common-law wife or “concubine” to return home with him), are offered hospitality by a person who is himself a newcomer to the place (Lot; an old man from the hill-country of Ephraim); they declare their willingness to sleep in the street, but their host prevails upon them to accept his hospitality. Some time later, after nightfall, a mob of people surround the house, demand that the visitor/s be sent out “so that we may know them“—i.e., for sexual relations—and even threaten to break their way into the house. The host tells them, “my brothers, do not be evil,” and offers them instead two young women with whom to quench their lust (Lot’s two virgin daughters; the daughter of the old man in Gibeah and the Levite’s concubine). (Needless to say, this part is strange and even repugnant to our own sensibility: is heterosexual rape morally preferable to homosexual rape? What of the father’s / husbands’ duty to protect the women under his aegis? And what of the women’s own wishes in the matter?) At this point the parallel ends: in the Lot story, there is a deus ex machine—the angels miraculously strike the attackers with temporary blindness from brilliant light, whereas in the story in Judges the concubine is thrown into the street, for the mob to do with her what they will. She is raped all night long, and crept back to the threshold of the house at dawn, where she dies, presumably from the prolonged abuse. Her death becomes a casus belli for a war between Benjamin and the other tribes—a traumatic event in early Israelite history—but that goes beyond our subject.

What are we to make of this story?

It is generally thought today that rape, whether of a woman or of another man, is at least as much about power and aggression as it is about sexual desire or even raw lust. All the more so in gang rape, where even the pretense of intimacy is absent. As such, the proposed homosexual rape in these two stories has virtually nothing in common with the type of homosexuality widely discussed today—i.e., sexual acts which may occur in a casual “pick-up” or within the context of a long-term relationship between two people—in either case much like heterosexual love. The type of behavior described here is known in prisons and in other closed and often coercive frameworks (armies, ships at sea, dormitory schools, etc.) where there are no women. It is an act of power domination, intended to humiliate and subjugate its victim. and only secondarily a form of sexual release; rape is perhaps the most elemental act, short of murder, in which one individual exhibits his power to dominate another; bodily penetration is the ultimate form of “conquering” another (hence, the same slang words are used for sexual relations and for aggressive domination). Indeed, it may often be committed by those who, on the outside, are “straight” in their sexual orientation.

In any event, the point of this story, as I read it, is that the mobs in these two stories were so infuriated by the act of gratuitous hospitality, which they saw as a violation of their own way of viewing the world that they wanted to do everything in their power to neutralize it. The idea of kindness, of hesed, of hospitality to strangers, was a dangerous hiddush to them, something that went deeply against their own culture of suspiciousness and mistrust of strangers. Perhaps one may speak of two opposing cultures: a culture of cruelty and power, which saw all human relations in terms of a kind of Hobbesian perpetual struggle of all against all, in which strength and ability to survive are the ultimate values, and in which kindness is interpreted as a dangerous sign of weakness. Against that, a culture if caring, of kindness, of responsibility for the Other, in which acts of helping others are seen as a positive value. I do not say that Judaism “invented” kindness, but it certainly developed a religio-legal system in which it plays a central role—beginning with Abraham’s behavior, in the opening scene of this week’s parashah. (And, of course, not all Jews are kind, nor are all non-Jews vicious. One of the ironies of the story in Judges is that the couple in question had the option to seek lodging in Jerusalem, but did not do so because at the time it was a Jebusite city and they thought, “We’re better off with our own people.” Were they ever wrong!) In conclusion, these two “cultures” or ways of viewing life are still very much with us, albeit garbed in sophisticated, at times pseudo-scientific justifications for human selfishness.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Lekh Lekha (Individual & Community)

For more teachings on the parashah, see the archives to this blog at 2005_10_20_archive.html/, as well as 2006_10_20_archive.html, October 2007, November 2008 and October 2009.

Was Abraham a “Lonely Man of Faith”?

In this week’s parashah, we turn from the archetypal events of the earliest history of humankind to the figure of Abraham: Avraham Avinu, the Father of the Jewish people, the man who “discovered” and taught the truth of the One God. Abraham the iconoclast, the independent thinker, the original “Minority of One”—the paradigm of the lone individual insisting on his own truth against the entire world. A well-known midrash says that he is called Avraham ha-Ivri, “Abraham the Hebrew,” because ”the entire world was on one side (‘ever), and he was on the other.” Abraham, whom Kierkegaard called the “Knight of Faith”; or, as some would prefer, “The Lonely Man of Faith” (but see on that below).

Two well-known midrashim stress this point: In one, Abraham is depicted observing the world and all that goes on within it, reflecting say and night on what it all means and whether there is a ruler, some central being behind it all this—until God calls out to him and says, “I am the master of the castle.” In the second, Abraham chooses a unique way to dramatize to his father the futility of idols: one day, while “minding the store,” he smashes all the idols but one, in whose hand he places a heavy stick, and tells his father that the idols had a fight and the big one smashed all the others. His father objects that the idols have no power of movement or action—and suddenly realizes that he has been caught in a clever reductio ad absurdum.

In brief, Abraham, is a classic example of the individual who thinks his own thoughts; who refuses to accept conventional answers, but is constantly striving for truth, thinking and contemplating until he finds an answer that makes sense. In a way, he is an archetype of the modern hero, the uncompromising individualist—be it the scientist who persists relentlessly in his quest for a solution to the problems that intrigue him, the creative artist who follows his own muse, the strong, independent--minded philosopher, or the creative genius in any field, who brings something new to the world by drawing deeply upon his own inner resources.

The individual genius plays a major role in the biographies of Jewish religious heroes. The halakhah is ambivalent in its treatment of the great scholar who dissents from a ruling of the Sanhedrin, the highest halakhic authority: is he culpable of disobedience, or is he a hero to be admired? There is a constant tension between authority and autonomy, between adherence to tradition and creative insight. Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai named two of his disciples as greatest of all (Avot 2.11-12): R. Eliezer ben Hyrcanus, a “well-calked cistern” who remembered everything he’d ever heard, was a living repository of the Oral tradition, but offhand contributed little original insight of his own; and R. Eleazar b. Arakh, who was a “a constantly flowing spring,” a source of constant creativity and new insight. Which of these—often known as “Sinai” and “the uprooter of mountains”—is greater? Both are celebrated, but there is no final decision between the two.

But there is another element in Abraham’s life as well: the wish for continuity, to establish a family, a community: children, grandchildren, and distant descendants who would inherit his blessing and continue in his path. Thus, this week’s parashah open with the promise that he shall become a great nation; a bit further on, we are told that his seed shall as numerous as the stars in heaven or the sand by the sea. Two covenantal chapters in Lekh lekha center upon this theme. In Brit bein ba-Betarim, the covenant made “between the pieces” (i.e., of sacrificial animals; Genesis 15), he complains that “there is none to inherit me but my servant, the Damascene Eliezer”—and God responds with bounteous promises—of the Land, of being a great nation, of abundance. In Chapter 17, a covenant is made—Brit Milah, the Covenant of Circumcision—whose sign is the organ of male generation, symbolically pointing to the importance of procreation and continuity. Thus, alongside Abraham the unique individual, the “Lover of God,” we find Abraham who looks into the future in terms of peoplehood and community.

Digression: There seems to be a popular misconception abroad that Rav Soloveitchik, in his major essay The Lonely Man of Faith, celebrates “loneliness.” True, he begins the essay by describing his own loneliness: both the loneliness inherent in the religious life, properly understood, and the double loneliness of the religious man in the modern world, with its utilitarian emphasis on pragmatism and worldly success. But the dialectic thrust of the essay is that “Adam the Second,” existential man, who is aware both of his ontic loneliness and his need for communion, ultimately meets others humans in community, and it is only through the covenantal community—with its communion of mitzvah, of Torah study, of prayer—that he relates to God.

Was Abraham Xenophobic?—or: What Does “Jewish” Mean?

At the beginning of this week the Israeli government (the equivalent of the US cabinet) approved a bill, which must now be sent to the Knesset for voting, requiring non-Jews who wish to be naturalized as citizens, not only to swear allegiance to the state and its laws (a requirement of many democracies), but also loyalty to Israel as a “Jewish and democratic state.”

We shall bracket the question of what is meant by “Jewish” in this context. Of Jewry? Of Judaism? Of “Jewishness”? There are those who fear that this is a way of introducing a theocratic reading of Zionism through the back door, so to speak. If so, this is a sad commentary on the failure of Zionism to inculcate the notion of Jewish peoplehood in a new generation that knew not the creative ideological ferment of its early years.

The law seemed intended to weed out Arabs—for example, young men from the West Bank who wish to marry Israeli Arab women—who may not identify with the Jewish character of the state, or at least to make them feel uneasy. The bill was widely criticized, not only by the doctrinaire “Left,” but by many others, as serving no positive practical function, as well as being insulting to Arab applicants if not racist, and harmful to Israel’s image in the world. Interestingly, among its opponents were such old-line Likud leaders, adherents of the classical Jabotinsky liberal-humanist tradition of the Zionist Right, such as Benny Begin, Dan Meridor, and Moshe Arens. One might add that this law seems part of a recent tendency towards introducing laws or procedures of a hyper-nationalist, discriminatory, or jingoistic nature. More than a few people find the mood on the part of many on the country as reminiscent of the “bad old days” of McCarthyism in America.

I found myself asking the question: Is such xenophobia warranted by Jewish tradition? Or, in terms of this week’s parashah: Was Avraham Avinu xenophobic? What may we infer about his attitude towards “non-Jews” from these chapters?

In Genesis 14, we find Avraham’s decisive involvement in the mini-war of the four kings against the five—a war in which he need not to have gotten involved, but did so purely to save his nephew Lot, and perhaps because he was outraged by the gratuitous aggression of Amraphel et al. Upon his return, he is greeted and blessed in glowing terms by Melchizedek, king of Shalem, whom the Torah paints in positive terms, In Chapter 18, most famously, we find his impassioned plea to God on behalf of the wicked people of Sodom: “If there are 50 — 45 — 40 — 30 —20 — 10 righteous people in the city, will you still destroy them?!” Zaddikim in this context clearly means “decent people,” not “friends of/potential political allies of Abraham/Am Yisrael.”

What about the two similar incidents involving his wife Sarah, in which he tells Gentile kings that she is his sister to avoid being killed (Gen 12:10-20; 20), thereby exposing her to their sexual advances and worse! Without going into these difficult passages, it is clear that his attitude was based, not on their being non-Jews, but on a realistic evaluation of the circumstances. As he tells Abimelech, “For I thought there is no fear of God in this place” (20:10-11). Abraham practiced the principle expressed in pithy firm in the Rabbinic adage, כבדהו וחשדהו — meaning, “Honor him, but suspect him.” That is, human relations with strangers must be based upon human dignity and honor, and even love of one’s fellow—but tempered with a healthy dose of realism, and the possibility that the other, until shown otherwise, may be dangerous.

It is interesting to note Rambam’s portrayal of Abraham’s religious mission, in Hilkhot Avodah Zarah Ch. 1, where he is shown as spreading the message of the one God to whomever he could speak with and persuade. Abraham’s journey to the land of Canaan is seen as a traveling revival movement, if one may speak thus. But what is also interesting is that the Rambam emphasizes here, not the ethnic or particularistic dimension of Jewish identity, but the religious message: that Abraham made his children and grandchildren into teachers, charged with spreading the tidings after him!

To return to our own situation: my own vision of Zionism, that in which I was educated in my youth movement days, is of a movement of a Jewish national renascence that is deeply rooted in humanist and ethical ideals. If one believes in the divine nature of the Torah, on must believe that Judaism represents that which is best and most noble and ethical in the universal human sphere. (Incidentally, this was also Herzl’s ideal, e.g., in Altneuland, albeit without the religious basis.

Friday, October 08, 2010

Noah (Individual & Community)

For more teachings on the parashah, see the archives to this blog, at 2005_10_15_archive.html/, as well as at October 2006, 2007, 2008 and 2009.

Two Negative Models of Community

Parshat Noah contains two examples of communities gone horribly wrong in very different, almost diametrical opposed, ways: the Generation of the Flood and the Generation of the “Schism” (dor ha-plagah).

The Torah does not describe the Generation of the Flood as such, viz. the nature of their evil, in very much detail. At the end of Parshat Bereshit, Gen 6:5, we read: “And God saw that the evil of man upon the earth was very great; all the impulse of the thoughts of his heart were naught but evil all the day.” Later, when God tells Noah of the coming cataclysm, we are told in a few pithy phrases that “the land had become corrupted before God, and the land was filled with violence” (v. 11) and that “all flesh had spoiled their way upon the earth” (v. 12). The Torah then goes on to describe in some detail the construction and populating of the ark, the manner of its operation, etc.

The wickedness of the Generation of the Flood is described by means of two Hebrew words: חמס and השחית. Hamas means “violence” or “wrongdoing,” particularly robbery, the violent taking of that which is not yours. Hishhit or its root shahat means “to be spoiled / corrupt / gone to ruin” (the same verb is used when Onan “spoils his seed earthward” in Gen 38:9). Interestingly, the Bible uses the selfsame verb to describe the Divine response: “I shall destroy (משחיתם) for them the land” (v. 13). Rashi sees this “despoiling of the way” (hashhatat derekh) as encompassing the three cardinal sins of sexual perversion, bloodshed, and idolatry, particularly the first of these: the entire animal kingdom, following the lead of humankind, went astray sexually, members of one species coupling with others, “and all of them with humans, and humans with them all.”

Interestingly, even before portraying God’s disappointment in humankind, Chapter 6 begins with the description of the ”sons of God” who came and took the “daughters of men,” who were goodly i.e., attractive in their eyes—that is, a combination of sexual wrongdoing with violent appropriation of whatever one wanted.

In brief, in the Generation of the Flood we find widespread corruption and violence, and the absence of any real social ethics. Anarchy reigned; there was no real social organization; each individual was out for himself, taking whatever he wanted, be it property or sex, using violence if necessary. It was ultimately an individualistic society, ruled by brute power. To anticipate the leitmotif repeated at the end of the book of Judges, “each man did that which was fit in his own eyes.”

The Generation of the Tower of Babylon, or of “the Schism,” was the exact opposite. It was a highly organized society: . “The whole earth had one language and the same words” (Gen 11:1). It was a strong, seemingly cohesive society, which devoted all its energies to a great project: building a great city with a tower reaching up to heaven in the middle. The reason? “That we may make ourselves a name, lest we be dispersed all over the earth” (v. 4). Why this fear of dispersion? We are not told, but there is a hint here that unity, or uniformity, was of the greatest importance to the people of Babel—and they were punished by precisely that which they most feared. While it is not stated explicitly in the Torah text, there is more than a hint here (elaborated in the Midrash) of hubris, of a wish to transcend human limitations, of a desire to displace God Himself, for human beings to become as God (an echo, perhaps, of the potential in the Edenic Tree of Knowledge: see Gen 3:5, 22).

On the face of it, the unity of all humankind is a noble, positive value, one which has attracted many idealistic advocates even today; indeed, that was the impulse behind both the League of Nations and the United Nations. But there is an inherent danger in it: Who is to decide what ideas and values shall govern united humanity, and what cultures and religions and philosophies will be suppressed in the name of unity? The hubris implied in the collective desire to replace God means that people forget the limitations and paradoxes of the human condition, our capacity for intellectual thought combined with emotional needs and base physical drives, which often lead to faulty and biased, self-serving judgments. Time and again, the Evil Impulse in man, with its desire for power and gain and pleasure, gains the upper hand, invoking the most elevated ideas to justify what it wants.

The twentieth century was marked by struggles with societies and ideologies that might be compared to the Generation of Babel: Nazism, fascism, and Soviet Communism were all totalitarian systems that subjugated the individual to the society in an absolute, ruthless manner, leaving little room for diversity or independent thought. These movements succeeded in large measure in convincing the ordinary person to undergo a revaluation of vales, in which the greatest crimes—systematic “extermination” of the Jews, the murder of the “bourgeois” or “enemies of the revolution”—were performed in the name of seemingly good and positive values. Thus, in the 1930’s Marxism attracted “best and brightest: of many Western youth. Even more so than Nazism, which revived pre-Christian Nordic racial myths but minimally tolerated Christianity, Soviet Communism saw itself as a substitute religion. Hence, atheism was a central tenet of its state ideology—because religion gave people a focus other than the state or its leader as a source of values. Stalin was all but deified as a demigod, “The Sun of the Nations,” and after his death his embalmed body served as a focus of pilgrimage.

During the later twentieth century, collectivism, socialism, or almost any kind of communitarian thinking were rejected as a result of these totalitarian movements, which manifested the tyranny of the group. Even in Israel, the great emphasis upon collective, national values—a sheer necessity in the early years of the State, when a new society was being created, demanding enormous energies—evoked a counter-reaction. At some time in the wake of the Yom Kippur War, Israelis began to rediscover the values of the private and the personal life; even the kibbutzim (with some notable exceptions), hitherto the bastion of collective socialism, began to privatize and to revamp their ways; novelists, playwrights, songwriters and thinkers began to celebrate the individual, his rights and his existential situation, quickly going to the other extreme.

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BERESHIT: Postscript: Who Was Cain?

Last Shabbat I noticed some interesting points in the story of Cain. After killing his brother Abel, God informs him that he will be further punished: the earth will no longer yield its strength to him (even less so than it would for Adam, who was already cursed with having to earn his bread “by the sweat of his brow”); and he will be forced to become a wandering nomad (Gen 4:11-12). Cain objects: “Is my sin truly too grave to bear [i.e., to forgive, per Rashi]?” or “The [punishment for] my sin is too great to bear!” (v. 13; the translation of the word עווני is ambiguous). Interestingly, before even mentioning his alienation from God (“I will be hidden from Your face”), Cain complains that he has been pushed off the face of the earth—i.e., off his land. Note that Cain was a farmer; hence, being deprived of his “God’s little acre” and being forced to wander (unlike his dead brother, who was a shepherd and perhaps hunter, accustomed to constant migration) was the worst possible punishment. (Are there echoes here of the ancient rivalry between hunter-gatherers and farmers?)

But the basic question is: why does Cain talk back to God? Why does he not accept God’s judgment? Does he at all realize the gravity of what he has done—killing another man, and his own brother? Also: In what sense may we see him as paradigmatic for human experience? Both his crime and his reaction seem typical of many criminals and miscreants. As Uriel Simon has noted (in an as-yet unpublished lecture), he acted out of frustration and anger at what he perceived as an insult to his ego, which then led to violence (God warned him of this in 4:6-7). But after the fact, he tries to evade responsibility and punishment for his act, using any and every possible excuse, or by begging for Divine mercy. Does he at all recognize the wrong he has done? Interestingly, although condemned to wander, God gives him a sign to protect him from any mean-spirited strangers he may encounter, and soon enough he settles down, in a town significantly named Nod (in Hebrew” “wandering”), and even takes a wife and has children (vv. 15-17).

All this is offered as food for thought; I have no conclusive answers.

Bereshit (Individual & Community)

A postscript on the character of Cain will appear next week. For more teachings on this parashah, see the archives to this blog at October 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008 and 2009.

Theme for the Year: Introduction

I deliberated a good deal before deciding the theme for this year. On the one hand, there are still many genres of Torah literature which we have not yet addressed at all in these pages: most notably, the entire area of classical medieval Bible exegesis, parshanut ha-miqra—i.e., such figures as Ramban (Nahmanides), Ibn Ezra, Sforno, Hizkuni, Rabbenu Bahye, Abravanel, and many others. At times, it seems to me that the great popularity in recent years of Kabbalah and Hasidism, deep and beautiful as their teachings may be, has obscured the “meat and potatoes” of peshat—that is, the straightforward meaning of the text itself. This genre is particularly intellectually challenging as it often involves a good deal of polemics back and forth. Thus, for example, Ramban often begins his comment on a given verse by citing Rashi’s view in order to refute it; further along, he may cite Ibn Ezra, Rambam, and others, with whom he often disagrees. But for that very reason I decided, at least for this year, not to write about this subject, simply because the preparation involved in such a subject would require more time than I have available at this point. Perhaps next year.

A second possibility to which I gave serious consideration was to return to some subject which I treated in a previous year, and to fill in important lacuna. In particular, there are a number of important Psalms which I did not discuss during the year I devoted to Tehillim. Pirke Avot, which, during the season when it is read, I have sometimes treated as an addition to my main topic, also came to mind. Or perhaps I might return to Rashi: we devoted one year to discussing one Rashi on the parashah each week, but there are of course dozens such in each parashah worthy of in-depth discussion. Or Hasidism, or Midrash… the list is endless.

A number of readers have asked when I will gather what I have written in the past and publish it book form. Indeed, as time has gone by and I have seen a substantial body of work take shape, week by week, the desire to put the best of Hitzei Yehonatan in a more permanent, well-ordered and accessible form, has grown; this would include, in addition to certain of the annual themes, my major essays and studies, sketches of people, my comments on the prayer liturgy, and the annual cycle of festivals. I felt that this year should be The Year when I devote considerable effort to this project.

Now and again I have written of my feeling that the issue of the relationship between the individual and the community is one of the most important issues in contemporary culture. Beyond the great global issues of threats to the earth’s environment and the danger of cataclysmic nuclear warfare, the breakdown of community and of the traditional family and the emergence of rampant individualism is perhaps the major problem facing developed societies. A few years ago, in response to the call of the Hornstein program at Brandeis University for proposals for “an important Jewish book,” the winner to receive a generous appointment for two years to engage in research and writing, I asked myself: if I were given the time and money needed to write one book, what would be my message? The idea was born within me to write a book about the individual and the community, to consist of a critique of contemporary society from this perspective, as well as an attempt to systematically describe Jewish thought on this issue.

Though I did not win the competition, the plan continued to grow within me. Thus, thinking about this coming year’s theme, I decided to devote the coming year’s studies in Hitzei Yehonatan to the question of the individual and community, and to ask: How would one read each week’s parashah from the perspective of the issue of community and individual? In other words, rather than writing, as I have in the past, about a particular genre—Rambam, Midrash, Haftarot, Hasidism, Zohar, etc.—this year will be focused upon this particular issue.

I would also like to mention a precedent for such an issue-oriented parashah sheet. About 25 years ago, when feminism was just beginning to penetrate the Orthodox religious world within Israel, an outstanding Israeli woman scholar, Hannah Safrai z”l (who died tragically young) wrote a weekly parashah sheet on women in the Torah, published under the aegis of Neemanei Torah va-Avodah. Every week, even when women or woman-oriented halakhah did not specifically appear in the week’s reading, she managed to say something interesting and meaningful on the issue. There are doubtless other examples as well.

And so, we begin our journey in the realm of individual and community.

Adam & Eve – The First, Most Basic Community

Bereshit—the book as a whole, and the parashah of that name with which the Torah commences, is the story of beginnings. And as such, it presents us with archetypes of the most basic human experiences. Rav Soloveitchik, in his great essay Lonely Man of Faith, reads the opening chapters of Genesis as sketching a paradigm of two human types, “Majestic Man” and “Covenantal Man,” both of whom are present in the personality of each human being. Interestingly, he writes about the first couple, Adam and Eve, not in terms of human sexuality or the nature of marriage, but as emblematic of the nature of human community per se. Community, it would seem, starts with any number of people, even two.

Thus the couple, and thereafter the nuclear family, are the beginning of community and of society. While the word “love” bears many meanings and dimensions, most people associate it, first and foremost, with romantic or sexual love, with the love of man and woman. It is within the realm of sexual love, and within the family, that we first learn what it means to love others. True, the sexual-erotic element is unique to the male-woman bond, being the source of both its great, at times intoxicating power, as well as a source of many troubles. Nevertheless, we can extrapolate from the erotic, sexual bond to other kinds of love, and to other forms of friendship, fellowship, and community.

The nature of this bond, with all its duality and ambivalence, both for good and for ill, is encapsulated in two key verses in this week’s parashah. The first of these is Genesis 2:24: על כן יעזב איש את אביו ואת אמו, ודבק באשתו והיו לבשר אחד—“Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother, and cleave to his wife, and they shall be one flesh.” It is clear that this verse must be read as a paradigm of the future man-woman bond, if for no other reason than that the phrase “a man shall leave his father and mother” cannot apply to Adam, who had neither father nor mother but, according to the midrashic account, was born fully mature and with his woman “helpmate” created for him shortly after his own creation. The word “therefore” refers back to the previous verse: upon seeing and becoming aware for the first time of the woman who is to be his mate, he responds with a sense of deep recognition: “bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh”—meaning, idiomatically, “This one is mine!”

The second half of the verse may be read in a number of ways. A good number of Christian exegetes read “and they shall be one flesh” in the most graphic, concrete sense: in the act of sexual union man and woman are connected bodily, are literally “one flesh,” at least for those few moments. Rashi, interestingly, says that they will become permanently united (possibly reading the future tense of the verb והיו as “they shall be”), become “one flesh” in the genetic sense, through their offspring.

But the largest group of commentators, led by Ramban, but also including Sforno, Ibn Ezra, Radak, and others, note that both sexual union and genetic continuity are found among the animals as well as among humans. That which is uniquely human about the man-woman bond is continuity, is the existence of a long-term, psychological bond between them; that the male does not merely conjoin with the female and go his merry way (although that of course happens among humans too; perhaps more often today, in our era of sexual “freedom,” than it did in the pre-modern past), but remains with her to form a couple, a family. “She is in his bosom like his own flesh, and he wishes her to be with him always, as it was with Adam, for it is implanted in the nature of his offspring that males cleave to their wives… seeing them as if they are with them as one flesh.”

In brief, this verse connotes mutuality, fellowship, sharing, cooperation, responsibility, caring for and about one another’s wellbeing: the feeling that one forms a unity with the other, that henceforth one does not live for oneself alone, that marriage is not only about “fulfilling my needs,” but that one becomes “us.” But there is also a darker side to the bond of man and woman. After the archetypal sin of eating the forbidden fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, the serpent, the woman, and the man are each meted their punishment by God. The woman is told (3:16): ולאשה אמר: הרבה ארבה עצבונך והרונך, בעצב תלדי בנים; ואל אישך תשוקתך, והוא ימשל בך—“And to the woman He said: I shall greatly increase your pain in pregnancy, with pain shall you bear children; your desire shall be for your man, but he shall rule over you.”

The first half of this verse, about the physical strain and pain and travail of pregnancy and childbirth, is not germane to our present discussion. The second half describes the discordant presence of two conflicting elements in man-woman relations: on the one hand, the woman feels yearning and desire towards her husband, both sexually and emotionally; on the other hand, he is the dominant one. That is, the relationship is no longer one of equality, with the Edenic innocence of children sporting together and sharing everything, but involves power, domination, a battle of wills. Today, with the tremendous strides made by feminism over the past several decades, marriage is perhaps more balanced and the position of women more equal, but the element of jockeying for position, of competition and struggle over power, is still too often a tangible reality for many, if not most couples. But, Ramban goes on to ask, if the man at times treats his wife more like chattel than he does as a beloved friend, why doesn’t the woman run away and find some better life situation, as a maid-servant might do in that situation? Here the element of desire comes into play: the woman desires the man’s affections, both physically and emotionally, and is dependent upon him, because it is not her nature to initiate such closeness and intimacy. She is thus caught in an inner kind of contradiction. (Interestingly, Ramban, nearly eight centuries ago, describes in a few pithy words what is today called the battered wife syndrome)

If one removes from the equation the specifically sexual–erotic element that is unique to marriage (and which is admittedly a highly important element), the picture shown here nevertheless aptly describes many other kinds of human relationship and communities. In the first verse one finds description of a kind of bonding, of varying intensity and degree of commitment, that can describe many kinds of connection—beginning with the family itself, and relations of parents and children; through the extended family or “clan”: study fellowship (hevruta); business partnerships; religious community; and, ultimately, the town or city and the nation as a whole. At its best, the traditional Jewish community, the old-time shteitel, was a community of mutual responsibility, with its numerous hevrot or mutual-aid societies. (Indeed, the regnant philosophy, according to the title of Herzog & Zborowski’s book about the shteitl that was popular some years back, was ”Life is With People”).

The latter verse may also be applied outside of the sexual bond, as well. There are various kinds of relationship in which a person may stay out of need: a child is dependent upon its parent; a business partnership may be essential to earning a livelihood; larger communities may fulfill important human needs for identity, for belonging, for security, or for other needs, both tangible and intangible. There, too, the human impulse to power and dominance over others, whether couched in subtle or unsubtle ways, may rear its ugly head. Many of the hippie communes of the 1960s, founded on the wish to create something purer, more honest and straightforward than middle-class society, typically floundered and fell apart when one or another charismatic leader began to dominate the group and abuse his power and respect.

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There are other aspects of community and individual in this week’s parashah with which we cannot deal with here, but to which we can only refer in passing without discussion: 1) Cain and Abel: the first act of murder—fraternal solidarity gone sour? 2) Lemech and his wives: pure bravado and machismo (especially in light of the midrash that he had one wife for childbearing and one wife for sex; the latter kept her lithe and foxy figure; like the “trophy wives” of certain contemporary tycoons; 3) Aviva Zornberg, in her book on Genesis, The Beginning of Desire, writes about horizontality and verticality: the swarming of the lower species contrasted with the upright posture of human beings, signifying their individuality.

Simhat Torah (Aggadah)

For more teachings on Simhat Torah, see the archives to this blog at October 2006, 2007, 2008 and 2009, below.

“The Torah Moses commanded us…”

One of the verses in the concluding parshah of the Torah read on Simhat Torah, Vezot ha-berakha, may serve as a motto for the idea of Torah itself; it is elaborated in several important rabbinic aggadot. First, b. Makkot 23b-24a:

Rabbi Simlai expounded: 613 commandments were told to Moses—365 negative ones, corresponding to the days of the solar year; 248 positive ones, corresponding to the organs of the human body. Rav Hemnuna said: From what verse do we learn this? “The Torah which Moses commanded us is an inheritance of the congregation of Jacob” (Deut 33:4). “Torah” in gematria is 611. “I [am the Lord your God]” and “you shall have [no other gods]” they heard from the Divine voice.

This passage is best known as the source for the notion of there being a total of 613 mitzvot. As the Talmud does not actually list them, nor even suggest how one would arrive at such a list, this statement became the basis for an ongoing discussion conducted over several centuries, generating a considerable literature: namely, the attempt to reconstruct or infer precisely which mitzvot are included in the sum of 613. The most notable exemplars of this literature are Rambam’s Sefer ha-Mitzvot, preceded by an introduction in which he defines the rules by which one determines what is counted as a Torah mitzvah; Ramban’s glosses on the same, including alternative suggestions in place of those mitzvot which he deletes from Rambam’s list; and, about two centuries later, Aaron of Barcelona’s Sefer ha-Hinukh.

But there is another significant point implicit in this passage: the central role of Moses as the vehicle or conduit for almost the entire Torah. The “Torah” whose gematria is 611 was “commanded us by Moses”; the number 613 is arrived at by adding 2, corresponding to the two solitary mitzvot which were heard directly by the entire people: the most basic principles of the faith—namely, acceptance of God, and rejection of all others (see more on this in HY I: Shavuot). Thus, the experience of direct, immediate revelation was very limited. The people learned the contents of in the Torah mostly through Moses. Interestingly, that same Torah is described here as an “inheritance,” a moreshet: something received by tradition, passed on from father to son, from grandfather to grandchild, from teacher to disciple, through familial and communal tradition—if you will, in much the same way as the people at Sinai, after a brief and overwhelming direct epiphany, accepted the Torah and the authority of Moses as almost one and the same.

David came and based it on eleven [in Psalm 15] … Isaiah came and based it on six… Micah came and based it on three… Again, Isaiah returned and based it on two… Amso came and based it on one, as is said “seek me and live” …. But then Habakkuk came and based it upon one, as is said, “The righteous shall live by his faith.”

The continuation of this passage, which I present her only in chapter headings, is interesting: after stating the large number of commandments contained in the Torah, an attempt is made to find the essence of Torah in a small number of basic principles, of basic, mostly ethical guidelines that the individual can internalize and make a part of himself. If you will, this is the first attempt to define “the essence of Judaism”—a popular pursuit among many modern Jewish thinkers, often in the context of polemics with Christianity; see, e.g., the Reform thinker Leo Baeck’s The Essence of Judaism. The verses and the principle mentioned here are all fine summa bonum, but Habbakuk’s verse—“the righteous lives by his faith [of: faithfulness / trust]”—is accepted as the most succinct and fundamental of all.

A second Rabbinic dictum using this verse deals with the proper age for training children in the performance of various mitzvot. The context is davka that of Sukkot. Sukkah 42a:

Our Rabbis taught: One who knows how to wave, is obligated in the mitzvah of lulav. … Once he knows how to speak, his father teaches him Torah and the reading of Shema. What is meant by “Torah“? Rav Hemnuna said: “The Torah which Moses commanded us in the inheritance of the congregation of Jacob” (Deut 33:3). What is meant by “the Reading of Shema”? The first verse.

This beraita, which we quote here only in part, notes that there are various different stages of development appropriate for introducing the young child to the various mitzvot. In some cases, this relates to physical capability—i.e., the ability to hold the lulav and wave it. Torah, in general, and the twice-daily recitation of Shema, in particular, are dependent, minimally, upon speech, upon language (which is the essential instrument of the mental life, of the intellect). Hence, they begin as soon as the child is capable of speaking. Rav Hemnuna (interestingly, the same figure who invoked this verse in the previously-mentioned passage) sees the first verse of Torah which one should teach a child, not as the first verse of Bereshit—i.e., to begin at the beginning—but as Torah tzivah lanu Moshe. This verse seems to embody the basic idea that the Torah is a unique, precious possession of the Jewish people, “an inheritance.” It is both part of Torah, but it is also a pointer towards the importance and value of Torah as a whole. It is also suggestive of what the Rav often called “the Masorah community”—that we have received the Torah as in inheritance, that we are part of a historical continuum, and that we stand in relation to Torah by virtue of it, and not merely as isolated individuals, who discovered its depth and truth by ourselves.

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And so, we reach the end of another year of Torah study—as part of Klal Yisrael, and in the particular cycle of study we practice at Hitzei Yehonatan. When Jews complete study of a particular unit of study—a given tractate of Talmud or, as here, a certain subject, we end by saying Hadran alakh Masekhet Peloni: “We shall return to you, such-and-such–named tractate.” Each year we have focused on a particular type of text—Aggadah, Zohar, Rambam, Hasidic teachings, Psalms, Rashi, etc.—but we are well aware that, in 50-odd weekly essays a few pages in length, we have barely scratched the surface. It is our devout hope that we may return to study again and again, on ever deeper levels; and, more than that, that what I have written will serve as a stimulus to my readers to study more on their own. So: hadran alakh aggadot Hazal, vehadrak alan. “We shall return to you, aggadot of the Sages, and you shall return to us.” And may we merit many more years of life and Torah study, in health, peace and prosperity.

Hoshana Rabbah (Aggadah)