Marriage and fire…

July 25th, 2010

Ekev: Deuteronomy 7:12-11:25

"At that time, the Lord said to me: “Carve you…" (Deuteronomy 4:7)

We are at one of the pinnacles of Moses’ retelling of the Exodus: the ascent to Sinai and the receipt of the tablets. As often happens in the midrash for Devarim (Deuteronomy), the opening is a question of halakhah: Jewish law. The discussion starts out very clearly, so long as you understand this little bit:

In former times marriage was divided into two stages: The first was Erusin, or roughly, ‘betrothal.’ This was a proper marriage, in so far as the woman would henceforth not be free to marry another unless she were divorced.

Yet cohabitation was forbidden until the second stage: Nesu’in or what we would call ‘marriage,’ i.e. the hometaking of the bride. A considerable interval might elapse between the two. Nowadays these two stages are combined.

Got that? Great! Now listen:

Halachah: When a man betroths a woman, who has to pay for the writing of the document of betrothal? Our Rabbis have learnt thus: Documents of betrothal and marriage are written only with the consent of the two parties, and the bridegroom pays the fee. And this we learn from God from His betrothal of Israel at Sinai, as it is written, And the Lord said unto Moses: Go unto the people and betroth them today and tomorrow (Ex. 19:10).

And who wrote this document? Moses. Whence do we know this? For it is said, And Moses wrote this law (Deut. 31:9). And what reward did God give him? A lustrous countenance, as it is written, That Moses knew not that the skin of his face sent forth beams (Ex. 34:29).

To what time does While He talked with him (ib.) refer? Resh Lakish said: When Moses wrote the law he acquired a lustrous appearance. How did this come about? Resh Lakish said: The scroll that was given to Moses was made of a parchment of white fire, and was written upon with black fire and sealed with fire and was swathed with bands of fire, and whilst he was writing it he dried his pen on his hair, and as a result he acquired a lustrous appearance.

Midrash Rabbah – Deuteronomy III:2

As usual, there are two themes interwoven here: the relationship of G!d and Israel, and the apparently simplistic question of how Moses came to have a lustrous face. Let’s stop briefly at the first issue, and then spend a little more time on the second.

The theme of our relationship with the Eternal One should be familiar to readers by now! And while some of the reason for that is my affection for this metaphor, it is more due to the fact that this is truly a fundamental way of describing that relationship. So what does this midrash lend that is new?

There are two elements of note here: the first is that a betrothal and marriage requires the consent of both parties. This is significant from both cultural and theological perspectives.

Realize that this bit of halachah laid the groundwork for far more equanimity in the marital relationship. Now, while it is easily pointed out that at the time this meant that the parents of the couple were likely the ones having to come into agreement, we must recall that the Law is a "vector" – a direction – to follow, not a point to stop at. That is what makes the Torah a Living Law.

Theologically, applying this law to the marital metaphor underscores the free will and active participation of Israel in the relationship, and also raises the rather interesting question of the status of Moses: as the one who “wrote” the documents, doesn’t that place him outside of the relationship? Perhaps I should leave that as a thorny knot for the reader…

Let’s turn to the question of the lustrous nature of Moses’ appearance. In explaining its origin, the Sages recall the stunning image of the scroll of the Law, written with fire upon fire. Then they give us the wonderfully humorous / sweet image of Moses the absent-minded scribe, wiping the quill in his own hair… Can we keep from smiling at this?

But what does this tell us, other than providing a cute explanation for his "glow?" Let’s break it down a little:

Moses is told what to write, and he must then transcribe those Words into something concrete (albeit Fire upon Fire). This is all with the purpose of sharing those Words with others in a time to come… and in the millennia to follow!

What do these symbols and process translate into? For me, it is that when we selflessly, humbly, take the spiritual inspiration to heart and mind and then put it into action for the benefit of others that we receive the rewards of those actions. Often we are unaware of those rewards: our lives shine to others in ways we cannot see ourselves. And this happens best when we try to be a true, pure vessel for those ideas, those values, those compelling Words.

Then our hair – and faces, our selves – will shine with the touch of heavenly fire that our actions bestow upon us!

Lean on me…

July 20th, 2010

Va’etchanan: Deuteronomy 3:23-7:11

"That hath God so close to them……" (Deuteronomy 4:7)

This Shabbat is Shabbat Nachamu (comfort), the first of seven Sabbaths of comfort following our "national day of mourning" (Tisha B’av, beginning this year on Monday evening). Thus begins our countdown to the High Holidays, so this midrash seems particularly apropos.

The context of the text is Moses enjoining the people to adhere to G!d’s laws and precepts. As part of his "pitch," he tells the people that other nations will recognize what a special relationship with G!d, so shouldn’t we? Listen to what the Sages have to say:

R. Johanan said: When the ministering angels assemble before God and ask, ‘When is the New Year and when is the Day of Atonement?’ God says to them: ‘Why do you ask Me? You and I, let us all go to the Beit Din on earth and inquire of them.’ Whence is this to be inferred? For it is written, For what great nation is there that hath God so nigh unto them. Scripture does not say here, ‘That hath a people so nigh unto Him,’ but, ‘That hath a God so nigh unto them.‘ R. Johanan said: God said to Israel: ‘Before you became My people the festivals were The appointed seasons of the Lord (Lev. 23:2), but henceforward they shall be the seasons Which ye shall proclaim.

Midrash Rabbah – Deuteronomy II:14

The point of this story is the rather amazing proposition that we have a reflexive relationship with G!d – just as we "lean" on the Eternal One, so are we leaned upon by G!d… but how can this be?

Certainly neither we nor the Sages want to imply that we are equal to G!d – but what could we possibly have to offer to the Creator of the Universe?!

My preference in responding to this is to frame it in terms of another equally astounding proposition, one that we have held as a people for millennia: that our relationship is based on a mutual yearning, or perhaps I should say Yearning. Not specifically for this or that, or for one or the other, but a strong, primordial Yearning. That Yearning which is an attachment across a distance, across a divide, for something we desperately treasure but do not, at the moment, possess.

Does this lay the question to rest? I trust not. But how stupendous it is to think that we are connected so fundamentally to the Power which creates all…

And where else do we find such a Yearning? Well, in the love of a couple, of course. And it is no accident that that is precisely the relationship that G!d and Israel are often portrayed as having.

Wrestle with it, ruminate on it, share it with your friends and family… what can you make of such a concept?

On your honor…

July 11th, 2010

Devarim: Deuteronomy 1:1-3:22

"Ye have compassed this mountain long enough…" (Deuteronomy )

In Midrash Rabbah for Devarim – Deuteronomy – each parashah begins with a midrash related to at least one law, one matter of halachah.

The law in question is the commandment to honor one’s parents, and the Sages immediately raise the question I so often hear whenever this commandment is discussed: what if, Heaven forbid, one’s parents are not "worthy" of honor in our eyes?

Part of the answer (found elsewhere in this lengthy midrash) is that, no matter how our parents behave, we must find a way to treat them honorably, as distinct from approving of their behavior. This quickly turns into a discussion of being "zealous" in the pursuit of honoring one’s parents.

This midrash has a couple of stories about how one Dama of Askelon dealt with parents who were apparently quite the challenge: his mother seemed to suffer from what we today know as Alzheimer’s, and slapped him incessantly in public. The challenges his father presented are not made explicit, but you can read the story in the full email.

But the amazing story comes from the son of Gamaliel, and teaches us many lessons. Listen!

Halachah: What is the reward of a Jew who is zealous in his observance of the duty of honoring father and mother? …

as I have done, and yet I find that Esau honored his father even more than I. How?

I usually waited on my father dressed in soiled clothes, but when I went out into the street I discarded these clothes and put on instead handsome clothes. Not so Esau; the clothes in which he was dressed when attending on his father were his best. The proof for this is this.

When he went out hunting in order to bring venison to his father that he might bless him, what did Rebekah who loved Jacob do? She gave him dainties and said to him, ‘Go to your father and receive the blessings before your brother receives them.’

Whereupon Jacob said to her, ‘Mother, do you not know that Esau my brother is A hairy man, and I am a smooth man (Gen. 27:11): Perhaps my father will discover that I am not Esau and I will be put to shame before him.’ Whence this? Because it is said, Peradventure my father will feel me, etc. (ib. 12).

She replied to him: ‘My son, your father’s eyes are dim; I will dress you with the fine clothes which your brother wears when he attends on your father, and when you come to him and he takes hold of your hand he will think that you are Esau and he will bless you.’ And whence this? Because it is said, And Rebekah took the choicest garments of Esau, etc. (ib. 15), that is to say those which he was wont to wear when attending on his father, as it is said, And put them upon Jacob her younger son (ib.).

Hence when Jacob came to him, what did Isaac say? The voice is the voice of Jacob, but the hands are the hands of Esau (ib. 22). Isaac blessed him and he went out. Then Esau arrived and entered into the presence of his father. Isaac asked him, ‘Who are you addressing me in such a loud voice?’ He replied: ‘I am thy son, thy firstborn, Esau’ (ib. 32).

As soon as he heard his voice he knew that he was Esau. He said to him: ‘My son, Thy brother came with guile, and hath taken away thy blessing‘ (ib. 35). Thereupon Esau began to cry and to complain: Come and see what this quiet man of whom it is written, And Jacob was a quiet man, dwelling in tents (Gen. 25:27), has done to me. Not enough that he mocked me for selling him my birthright, Behold, now he hath taken away my blessing.’ (ib. 27:36).

Hence you learn that Esau was most scrupulous in honoring his parents.

Midrash Rabbah – Deuteronomy I:15

The story seems simple: we know that Esau honored his father (at least), because he would change into his best clothes whenever he would expect to be in the presence of his father. The way this is deduced is from the clue that Rebekah took Esau’s finest clothes to dress Jacob in and effect the deception: it must have been a habit of Esau’s, the Sages reason, in order to be effective in the ploy.

The conclusion seems accordingly simple: Esau, who dressed up before entering his father’s presence, showed more respect than did Simeon, who did not. Why does this merit such a large telling?

The first clue is that the "hero" in this story is Esau, who in midrash is one of the most vilified of characters in Torah: the Sages equated Esau with Rome, and the tragic depths of his lament – one of the most poignant amongst our stories

“Do you have but one blessing, my father? Bless me too, Father.” And Esau raised his voice and he wept. (Gen 27:38)

– is lost amongst the Sage’s railings against Rome. So it is remarkable that Esau would be hailed as the exemplar of parental honor.

One way to understand this curiosity is to apply the strategy of reversing the roles in the story. If the "troubled" individual was Jacob – a father with the extreme negativity the Sages allocated to Esau – then suddenly Esau’s "scrupulousness" becomes noteworthy, and makes sense in the context of the larger midrash, which is the value of honoring difficult parents.

Of course, one can take this at a "sweet" level as well: how often do we dress up (literally or metaphorically) for our parents, or other members of our family? Instead of taking them for granted, what would it be like if we treated them like honored guests? I can tell you, categorically, that establishing such a habit will alter our relationships positively, in both directions.

But there is still more in this rich midrash! Let me leave you with a taste of what awaits the observant student:

Notice the phrase above, "Rebekah who loved Jacob." Why is this told to us? It is not present in this story in Torah – the Sages must have had a reason for inserting it.

The answer (and of course, there is not just a single answer!) emerges when we try different variations of this phrase. Try this yourself: how would the story be different if the phrase was:

  • Rebekah who despised Jacob
  • Rebekah who was indifferent to Jacob
  • or simply missing altogether!

What a treat it is to allow ourselves to slip into this rich world!

Swear it!

July 4th, 2010

Mattot / Maasei: Numbers 30:2-end

"And Moses spoke unto the heads of the tribes… When a man voweth a vow unto the Lord…" (Numbers 30:2)

Swear it!

The beginning of this portion raises the issue of vows, and differentiates between a man’s vow and a woman’s vow, which you would think would be sufficient controversy. This midrash, however, takes a look at what is required in order to make a vow at all, and then draws some interesting conclusions that have woven their way into many of our customs of speech. And, finally, it prescribes a practice and proscribes its opposite, the forbidden side of which has (of course!) found its way into deeply spiritual practice. So, let’s go!

The first thing to remember is what a "vow" means in this context. A vow is something one promises to do, using the Tetragrammaton – the four-letter name of G!d. The major (and included) variation of this vow is when one vows that something is true, calling on G!d as witness to the truth of that statement.

Now we’re ready for the midrash – listen!

Hence it is written, And wilt swear: As the Lord liveth in truth, in justice, and in righteousness (Jer. 4:2). The Holy One, blessed be He, said to Israel: ‘Do not imagine that you are permitted to swear by My name even in truth. You are not allowed to swear by My name unless you possess all the following attributes.’

(1) Thou shalt fear the Lord thy God (Deut. 10:20), implying that you must be like those who were called God-fearing men, namely Abraham, Job, and Joseph.

(2) Him shalt thou serve (Deut. 10:20); that is to say, if you concentrate your attention upon the Torah and the performance of precepts, having no other work.

(3) And to Him shalt thou cleave (ib.). But can a man cleave to the Shechinah? Is it not already stated, For the Lord thy God is a devouring fire (ib. 4:24)? Yes, but it serves to inform you that if a man, marrying his daughter to a disciple who studies the Scripture and the Mishnah, engages in commerce and allows him to benefit from his wealth, such is the man of whom it says, And to Him shalt thou cleave.

If you possess all these attributes you are permitted to swear, but if not you are not permitted to swear.

A story is told of King Jannai who owned two thousand towns, and they were all destroyed on account of true oaths. How? A man would say to his friend: ‘On my oath, I shall go and eat such-and-such a food at such-and-such a place. And I shall drink such-and-such a drink at such-and-such a place!’ They would go and fulfill their oath and would be destroyed (for swearing to trifles). If this is the fate of one who swears in truth, how much more so of one who swears to a falsehood.

Midrash Rabbah – Numbers XXII:1

What a tremendous value is placed on our "word" – our oath! The value is so strong that many build fences around this highly unlikely event – promising in the name of the Eternal One – by qualifying everything promised with phrases like "G!d-willing," or the acronym "iyH" (im yirtzeh Hashem, if it is G!d’s will).

The rationale here is two-fold: first, by making such a vow, we are both professing a connection to the Eternal One that would validate our statement, and also putting the Holy One’s reputation at stake as a result of our actions. No wonder the Sages were more than wary of such an action!

Their criteria for even considering making a vow are quite high: we must fear, serve, and "cleave" to G!d with every breath – and who among us can achieve such closeness? Only the three patriarchs, it would seem – just in case anyone was starting to feel a little self-confident.

But then they take it even further, and say that one should never make a vow at all, for if it is trivial, the triviality of what we place between us and the Eternal One will be our demise. So, in the words of Seinfeld:

No vows for you!

Except that…

There is a spiritual practice of making vows – small but non-trivial – as a way of "cleaving" closer to G!d. As M’ Yitzhak Buxbaum teaches,

A vow is a promise to God to do something specific for His sake, and it is a very effective way to lift yourself up spiritually and to insert discipline into your religious life. God has given us the power, by our spoken vow, to obligate ourselves like at Mount Sinai. For when you make a vow, a solemn promise to God that you will do something, you are obligated equally as with the commandments given at Mount Sinai.

Jewish Spiritual Practices, 1990, p. 290

He also provides guidelines and sources for such a practice, of which Rabbi Nachman of Breslov was an avid proponent.

Just imagine: what would it be like to make a small but meaningful promise to do something with God in mind – and put yourself entirely on the line for it? How wonderful it could be to take this matter seriously! For the truly dedicated to this practice, a qualifying clause is often inserted into the vow, such as "I vow to devote my best efforts to… provided that nothing occurs which, had I known about it prior to making this vow, I would not have made this vow."

Yes, it can sound like an "easy out," but then, one doesn’t undertake such a practice lightly, so the qualifications are every bit as serious.

Consider, then, what can be gained from this decidedly controversial practice, and whether it would augment or diminish your own spiritual path. If you decide to try it, please let me know your experiences!

May we all find meaningful ways to cleave to the Eternal One.

Visit the archive for the email version of this page to learn more about cleaving – and why there isn’t a picture this week. Yet.

Confidence, or boasting?

July 4th, 2010

Pinchas - Confidence, or boasting?
Art by Maggidah Shoshannah Brombacher, Ph.D.
Visit her gallery
Contact her at shoshbm@gmail.com – originals from this series are available.

Pinchas: Numbers 25:10-30:1

"And Moses brought their cause…" (Numbers 27:5)

There are standards and strategies for the traditional interpretation of Scripture. For example, if two verses seem to contradict each other, than a way must be found to make both opinions correct. Such a paradigm leads to significant theological development: what is it about G!d’s creation that opposites can both be true?

Another standard is that the heroes of our stories should be seen in a positive light whenever possible. One of my favorite examples of this is the Talmudic epithet, "If that were so, then Moses was a prophet!" What the text really means is the opposite: If that were true, then the world would be so upside down that he wasn’t a prophet. But so great is the unwritten sanction that the Talmud won’t even say that explicitly, in fear that it could be taken out of context.

All of which is background for this week’s midrash, which says some unusual things about Moses, and in so doing teaches a powerful message – or two!

The context is the daughters of Zelophehad, who have brought a question about property rights following the death of their father who had no sons as offspring. Instead of answering them himself, Moses brings the question to G!d. Listen:

Some hold that the law was hidden from Moses. There are cases where righteous men have boasted of some matter connected with a precept and the Holy One, blessed be He, weakened their power. You find that David boasts: Thy statutes have been my songs (Ps. 119:54), as much as to say that they are easy and familiar like songs. Said the Holy One, blessed be He: ‘By your life! You will in the end err in a matter that children read in the Scripture!’ When he brought up the ark he erred and put it on a cart; as it says, And they set the ark of God upon a new cart (II Sam. 6:3). The ark suspended itself in the air and the cows beneath it slipped. Uzzah drew near to support it, And God smote him there for his error. And David was displeased, because the Lord had broken forth upon Uzzah (ib. 7,8). The Holy One, blessed be He, said to him: ‘Did you not say, "Thy statutes have been my songs"?’

It was the same with Moses. Because he had boasted: The cause that is too hard for you ye shall bring unto me, and I will hear it (Deut. 1:17), G!d diminished his mental powers. Moses had said: ‘The cause that is too hard for you ye shall bring unto me.’ When the daughters of Zelophehad, however, came, He concealed the law from him, and Moses brought their cause before the Lord. The daughters of Zelophehad speak right (27:7). This, He meant, is the law! The Holy One, blessed be He, said to him: ‘Did you not say, "The cause that is too hard for you ye shall bring unto me"? The law with which you are unacquainted is decided by the women!’

Midrash Rabbah – Numbers XXI:12

The plain message is clear: the reason that Moses brought the case before G!d was that he was being punished for boasting about his powers of judgment. And, in a twist that must be read in the context its time for its true wry humor, even women have better powers of judgment than he!

So at one level, we must be wary of becoming boastful, even if we’re not particularly concerned about cows flying as a result of our self-promotion. But why is this lesson taught with such power and emphasis, using Moses as the target for punishment and ridicule, he who is normally exempt from such midrashic vehicles?

The lesson goes to the heart of the laws regarding lashon hara, or evil speech: gossip. The "what" of these laws is easy to understand, but can be difficult to practice: don’t speak in a way that might cause another to be harmed or embarassed, even if what you are saying is true. The rationale for this law, however, is both deep and sweet.

When we bring shame to another, it is not merely that we have harmed another of G!d’s creatures. When we tell the story of the foolish person who did "x, y, z" – even if that person is completely anonymous! – we are disparaging the work of the Holy One’s creative efforts. Why? Because by saying a creation is flawed, we disparage the Creator.

And if we are to follow the theological imperative that we must find a way for opposites to be held as both correct, then surely we must find a way to find the beauty in the creative act that is every human being. Now, I can hear the arguers ready to raise the extreme cases of truly evil people, but to that I say, let it rest.

Think about the bulk of humanity, and how we speak of them and treat them. Let us find a way to honor the Creator in our daily lives by finding the beauty in all those creative acts, no matter how confusing or befuddling they might appear to be!

Then, Moses will be known to be as wise as women, who are as wise as he – and you and me.

Who are you?

June 20th, 2010

Balak - Who are you?
Art by Maggidah Shoshannah Brombacher, Ph.D.
Visit her gallery
Contact her at shoshbm@gmail.com – originals from this series are available.

Balak: Numbers 22:2-25:9

"And he took up his parable…" (Numbers 24:3)

Sometimes a midrash addresses a matter of law, or halachah, as does this week’s midrash. It still helps to understand what is happening in the portion, however. In this case, Balaam is standing before the nation of Israel, and about to bless them with the words that form part of our morning liturgy: "Mah tovu ohalecha, Yaakov, mishk’notecha, Yisrael" – How lovely are your tents, O Jacob, your dwellings, O Israel!

The sages weren’t too happy about an "idolater" speaking with G!d and getting to give such a rich blessing, which is at least in part the reason for this midrash. But first, a word about observance. As M’ Shoshannah notes in her sidebar, we all choose levels of observance, and neither she nor I would want to tell people what they should or should not observe. But it helps to understand what is going on by reading the midrash "as if" one were fairly observant in their practice. That disclaimer being offered, let’s proceed.

The next thing to consider is which perspective to take in regards to how we will hear the midrash. This week, M’ Shoshannah and I draw entirely different lessons from the same midrash, which is one of several different midrashim drawn from the same text. What further evidence does one need of the joys of study! Now, open your hearts, and listen:

Halachah: If a man has eaten without previously washing his hands, does he incur a penalty? Our Rabbis have taught: Washing the hands before a meal is optional; after a meal it is obligatory. An incident is related that during the period of religious persecution a certain Israelite shopkeeper used to cook ritually clean meat as well as the flesh of swine and sell them, so that it might not be suspected that he was a Jew. His practice was that if anyone came into his shop to eat and did not wash his hands, he would know that he was an idolater and would place before him the flesh of swine, but if a man washed his hands and recited the blessing he would know that he was an Israelite and would give him clean meat to eat. Once a Jew came in to eat and did not wash his hands, so he thought that he was an idolater and placed swine’s flesh before him. The man ate and did not say the Grace after Meals. When he came to settle the account with him for the bread and the meat the shopkeeper said to him: ‘I have a claim on you for such-and-such a sum on account of the meat you have eaten, for each piece costs ten manehs.’ Said the other: ‘Yesterday I got it for eight and to-day you want to take ten from me, do you?’ The shopkeeper answered him: ‘The piece you have eaten is from the swine.’ When he told him this his hair stood on end, and he fell into a great fright and said to him under his breath: ‘I am a Jew and you have given me swine’s flesh!’ Said the shopkeeper to him: ‘A plague on you! When I saw that you ate without washing your hands and without a blessing I thought you were an idolater!’ Hence the Sages have taught: The neglect of the water before the meal led to his eating the flesh of swine; that of the water after the meal killed the soul.

Midrash Rabbah – Numbers XX:21

If this midrash is about something else beside the importance of keeping kashrut, what could that topic be? This is a critical question to ask of every midrash, of every bit of text, of every story. We absolutely must understand the plain meaning of the text, but we should also be ready to turn it and turn it, and discover new, additional meanings as well. We must also bear in mind that no one meaning is the "correct" or "better" meaning: they live in harmony with each other, sometimes complementing each other, sometimes contradicting, just like our holy language Hebrew does with its letters, words and phrases.

So what else is this story about? It is about knowing and being known, about communication and the clash of expectations and assumptions.

Each of us, try as we may to do otherwise from time to time, lives at the center of the universe. We see the world through our own eyes, we know that what we know is correct. While we carry the intellectual understanding that others may have a different opinion, or that they actually see the world in a different way, this is a difficult perspective for us to maintain for any lengthy period of time: we just don’t seem to be "wired" for it.

I have never seen this condition rendered as eloquently as I did on one teenager’s t-shirt at the state fair: "As a matter of fact, the world does revolve around me!" Cute, but oh so true.

In our midrash, each of the characters knows what the other is: the butcher knows he is serving a non-Jew, and the customer knows the butcher knows he is Jewish. How have they come to their conclusions? Because of the actions they have observed in the other: the butcher sees someone who does not maintain the same level of observance as he, and the customer has (in the past) received kosher meat for the appropriate price without having had to ask for it.

The moment of revelation is world-shattering for each of them: things are not what they seemed; what is true is false; assumptions are shattered and expectations fail. These moments, in the most extreme of which we question not only what we know but who we are, are extremely rare and extremely powerful – and decidedly unsettling. In fact, Gregory Bateson, the cyberneticist who studied how complex systems learn, called this "Level III learning" – which he described as "spiritual experiences."

How could something so uncomfortable, unsettling be spiritual? Because these are moments when we are yanked from the center of the universe and forced to encounter the Other. Such encounters consume our attention, our comfort, and at times, momentarily our "self."

How do we approach and attempt to understand these moments? Certainly with awe and trembling – we are, indeed wired for these responses. But what about our attitude: will we embrace them, ready to let a new "us" emerge from the encounter? Or will we recoil from them, crying "sin!" and "foul!" and wrapping the old and familiar around us as tightly as we can?

Our instincts, our "wiring," will encourage us to the latter. But I believe our souls, that spark of the Divine that resides within us, will lead us to the former – and to new worlds, as yet unknown and unseen.

May we each be blessed with the terrifying moments of encountering the unexpected, and the strength to embrace them.

Lisssten…

June 13th, 2010

Chukkat - Lissten...
Art by Maggidah Shoshannah Brombacher, Ph.D.
Visit her gallery
Contact her at shoshbm@gmail.com – originals from this series are available.

Chukkat: Numbers 19:1-22:1

"And the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people…" (Numbers 21:6)

This week’s midrash is quite short, but it depends on understanding the context and a particular word. So let’s start with the context: Numbers 21:4-9, using Robert Alter’s translation. Listen:

And they journeyed on from Hor the mountain by way of the Red Sea to skirt round the land of Edom, and the people grew impatient on the way. And the people spoke against God and against Moses: "Why did you bring us up from Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no bread and there is no water, and we loathe the wretched bread." And the Lord sent against the people the viper [fiery] serpents, and they bit the people, and many of the people of Israel died. And the people came to Moses and said, "We have offended, for we have spoken against the Lord and against you. Pray to the Lord that He take the serpents away from us." And Moses interceded for the people. And the Lord said to Moses: "Make you a viper and put it on a standard, and so then, whoever is bitten will see it and live." And Moses made a serpent of bronze and put it on a standard, and so then, if the serpent bit a man, he looked on the serpent of bronze and lived.

The word in question is seraph, which means "fiery" (the plural is seraphim). It is used only three significant times in Tanakh: here, in this story’s retelling in Deuteronomy, and later on several occasions by Isaiah, who describes a type of angel with wings as being a seraph – they are the ones who handle fiery coals (such as Isaiah 6).

Now the question of the midrash becomes clear, and its answer will take on new meaning. So let’s read the midrash, and then dig deeper:

What reason did He see for punishing them by means of serpents? Because the serpent, who was the first to speak slander, had been cursed, and they did not learn a lesson from him. The Holy One, blessed be He, therefore, said: ‘Let the serpent, who was the first to introduce slander, come and punish those who speak slander.’ This accords with the text, Whoso breaketh through a fence, a serpent shall bite him (Eccl. 10:8).

Midrash Rabbah – Numbers XIX:22

It’s not hard to see the connection between "fiery" and poisonous snakes: the poison, coursing through the victim’s body, might well indeed feel fiery. But what is this about the serpent introducing slander?

The serpent, in this case, is referring to the serpent in Gan Eden, the Garden of Eden, who gets Eve to repeat the commandment that Adam passed to her about eating the fruit of the trees at the center of the garden. Adam had (by most midrashic accounts) altered the command, for she reports that they were commanded to neither eat nor touch the fruit, which is an extension of the commandment Adam was given – simply not to eat the fruit.

The Sages refer to this technique as "building a fence around the Law:" by prohibiting something that isn’t strictly prohibited in Torah, but which could lead to that prohibited act, one can be a little more reassured that one will not break the law. Think of the laws forbidding eating chicken and dairy: clearly hens don’t give milk! But because we might not know the source of the meat, we shouldn’t eat any meat with dairy. The prohibition against chickens and dairy is a "fence" around the Law.

It is in this way that the serpent broke through the "fence" of Adam’s words and slandered him, purporting him to be a liar. Even if Adam were lying, it would still be slander – lashon hara, or the evil tongue – to report it in the manner the serpent did.

Think about it for a moment: doesn’t a slandered person feel the fiery rush of shame or anger? Whether the accusation is true or false or, as is most likely, some combination of the two, that burning blush is a sensation not soon to be forgotten. And this is where we are given the gate back to our original Torah reading.

The cure for the fiery tongue that is prescribed is to make tangible reminders for all the people about the deadly harm that slander produces. Our sages equated slander with murder, for in being slandered, one’s name is murdered – how hard it is to revive a sullied name!

So if G!d-forbid we should think about passing along a comment about another which – true or false! – brings them harm or shame, and for which there is no compelling danger to be avoided by the telling, we are told to remind ourselves of the fiery poison of lashon hara and desist.

Evil speech, we are told, kills three: the one about who it is told, the one who tells it, and the one who listens. Let us redouble our efforts to speak sweetly of others – or not at all!