Archive for the ‘Storytelling’ Category

On what merit?

Sunday, February 21st, 2010

Tetzaveh - On what merit?
Art by Maggidah Shoshannah Brombacher, Ph.D.
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Contact her at – originals from this series are available.

Parashah Tetzaveh: Exodus 27:20-30:10

"And this is the word/thing…" (Exodus 29:1)

The sages use this midrash to take the dilemma of Aaron’s participation in the creation of the egel hazahav (“golden calf”) to explore the question of worthiness in being chosen by G!d. In so doing they teach a sweet lesson about the power G!d’s promises.

This is a longer midrash (which I have abridged somewhat), with deep teachings. It is "launched" from the fact that the Hebrew "d’var" means both "word" and "thing." Also, I have placed M’ Shoshannah’s reflections on her illustration in the at the end of this post… Enjoy!

It is written, Forever, O Lord, Your word stands fast in heaven (Ps. 119:89). Does then the word of God stand fast only in heaven, but not on earth? R. Hezekiah b. Hiyya said: This is because God made a promise in heaven, which was fulfilled on earth for that righteous man Abraham after two hundred and ten years. How so? When the Holy One, blessed be He, said to Abraham: ‘Get you out of your country… and I will make of you a great nation’ (Gen. 12:1f), the latter replied: ‘Lord of the Universe! What benefit do I derive from all these blessings, since I am about to depart from this world childless?’

Said God to him: ‘Are you sure that you will no longer give birth to a child?’ The reply was: ‘Lord of the Universe! My horoscope tells me that I will be childless.’

‘So you are afraid of your horoscope?’ God retorted. ‘As you live, it will be as impossible to number your offspring as it is to number the stars of heaven.’

R. Judah b. R. Simon said in the name of R. Hanin: It was then that God raised Abraham above the vault of the heavens and said to him: Look now toward heaven, and count the stars, if thou be able to count them; and He said unto him: So shall thy seed be (ib. 15:5); that is: Just as you see all these stars and cannot count them, so numerous will your children be, for none will be able to number them… a proof that ‘Forever, O Lord, Your word stands fast in heaven.’

This also you now find in the case of Aaron: God made a promise to Moses, saying: And bring you near to you Aaron your brother… that he may minister to Me in the priests’ office (Ex. 28:1), an assurance which He kept when He said: and this is the thing that you shall do to them, etc.

Midrash Rabbah – Exodus XXXVIII:6

In the simplest terms, Aaron "merits" the honor of being the first High Priest for a basic reason: G!d promised it, and the Holy One’s promises are always kept. Is this, however, a sufficient answer? If it were, why would we need the story?

Read the story again: it is about Abraham’s doubt, his downright mistrust of the promise of "a great nation," expressed explicitly to the Eternal One. And upon what does he base that doubt? On the predictions of astrologers, who have measured his "planet" (as the original states).

What happens when Abraham expresses such bold skepticism? He is elevated to the heavens, to look upon all of Creation, and see the love that G!d has for him – and us. Then he is told, "Trust Me. Be patient. It will be."

Was Aaron any less worthy than Abraham? Other midrash (as M’ Shoshannah relates) suggest that he was an unwilling participant, but was just trying to keep the peace. Like Abraham, he is in the company of pagan practices, and perhaps even listens to them. But HaKodesh Baruch Hu remembers the promise, remembers the Love for us, and elevates him.

If Abraham, who speaks directly with G!d, can doubt G!d and still be elevated; if Aaron, who has heard G!d and seen the miracles in Egypt can help build an idol and still be elevated… cannot we, in our troubles and doubt, be granted the same?

And notice, finally, that no severe repentance was necessary: "all" that had to be done was to stay in conversation with G!d.

Listen for that still, small voice. It calls to us in Love.

Maggidah Shoshannah writes:

Aaron decides to be the one to lead the people in making the egel hazahav (golden calf), since he is a kohen (priest), but he looks very pained.

How does it feel? They just committed themselves to HaShem (G!d), Moshe (Moses) is still on the mountain, and now those spoiled people want to go back to man made statue ‘gods’ like in Mitzrayim (Egypt)! Feh, feh, feh! He must have cried, he must have been angry, and then he decided to do the best he could in bad circumstances.

Behind him Moshe looks suspiciously around with his luchot (tablets). I did not paint Moshe descending the mountain: instead, he is there in Aaron’s thoughts. Aaron knows what they do is wrong, hence his distorted face and his whole posture which ‘screams’ repulsion.

The egel stands in the middle like a ‘real calf,’ is is an idol without power: I show it blue and not golden.

The people are feasting in the bottom left corner, but like Aharon they do not show bliss and real pleasure, or intense hitlahavut (spiritual ecstasy, like dancing Chassidim). No, they show contorted faces: it’s an orgy, they are in frenzy, but derive no real pleasure of this.

In the arch of the sky I show Avrom Avinu (Abraham our father), who feared because the astrologer (planet) predicted that he would have no children. But now he is surrounded by the stars, as numerous as the b’nai Yisrael – the children of Israel.

It’s always there…

Sunday, February 14th, 2010

Terumah - it's always there...
Art by Maggidah Shoshannah Brombacher, Ph.D.
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Contact her at – originals from this series are available.

Parashah Terumah: Exodus 25:1-27:19

"That they take (to) Me for an offering…" (Exodus 25:2)

This midrash begins with an examination of the thing we have been told over and over – that there are six hundred and thirteen commandments in the Torah. It turns out, there’s a problem with that number, which the Sages then turn to an important lesson about managing to balance spirituality and earning a living.

Now, I could just put in the lesson, but for those who are interested in gematria – Jewish numerology – I thought I would include this rather unique calculation as well! Listen:

It is written, Moses commanded us a law, etc. (Deut. 33:4). R. Simlai taught: Six hundred and thirteen precepts were given to Israel through Moses, this number being the numerical value of the word Torah. Should you object that this is not so, since the word only amounts to six hundred and eleven* and ask where, therefore, will you obtain the other two? In answer, the Sages said: The two commands of ‘I am the Lord’ and ‘Thou shalt have no other gods before Me’ were heard from the mouth of the Lord Himself, and Moses only told them six hundred and eleven, as it says, ‘Moses commanded us a law,’ an inheritance (morashah) of the congregation of Jacob: it is an everlasting heritage unto Israel.

Imagine a prince who has been taken captive across the sea when small; even after the lapse of many years he is not abashed, for he consoles himself by saying: ‘I will yet return to the possession of my ancestors!’ So it is with a scholar who departs from the study of the Torah and engages in other pursuits, yet even after many years have elapsed when he wishes to return to its study he is not abashed, because he says: ‘I am returning to the heritage of my ancestors.’

Midrash Rabbah – Exodus XXXII:7

In the classic metaphor of Jewish stories, we are "captured" (as the prince in the story is) when we become bound up in the material world, and forget the spiritual reality that pervades all life. We can be "rescued" from this bondage at any time by returning to it, although there are times when such a rescue seems far too difficult and distant to achieve.

Nonetheless, there is much in the way of good news here: first of all, our heritage – that of having been given the Torah, in the broadest sense of the word: our spiritual life – is eternal and never diminished. When we return to it, we should not be abashed or ashamed at having left, but simply rejoice in having been rescued!

And secondly, we are told that listening to holy stories is the equivalent of studying the deepest mysteries of G!d: and what could be more pleasant than listening to holy stories!?

The lesson? We are never so far removed from the spiritual world that we cannot get a taste of it, in its full glory. And, since we have also learned that "without bread there is no Torah, and without Torah there is no bread," all we need do is establish a rhythm to those returns, and thereby find all the nourishment – spiritual and physical – that we need.

Finally: if you find yourself running out of stories, let me know! I have a few in my back pocket I would be glad to share with you – or your community!

* There are four letters in the Hebrew word Torah, which are difficult to reproduce in this blog, which does not include a Hebrew font. They correspond to the English sounds T (400), O (6), R (200), and AH (5), or 611 in total.

The best man?

Sunday, January 24th, 2010

Beshallach - The best man?

Art by Maggidah Shoshannah Brombacher, Ph.D.
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Contact her at – originals from this series are available.

"And it came to pass, when Pharaoh had let the people go…" (Parasha Beshallach: Exodus 13:17)

This is one of a pair of midrashim that plays on the opening word of the portion, which is "wayyehi," or "It was." By taking the first syllable as a word (remember, there are no punctuation marks or vowels in the Torah, and even the division between words is somewhat arbitrary), the sages saw the exclamation "way!" – "alas!" If someone is wailing, they wondered, who was it? Moses or Pharaoh? Both, it turns out – and here is Moses’ story…

When Pharaoh let the people go, who wailed "Alas!" (Way!)? It was Moses. This can be compared to a man who was appointed to be the shoshbin (a position like the best man) for the king’s daughter, but who learned that it had been foretold that he would not be allowed to enter the house of the groom with her for the nuptial ceremony. People, seeing him begin to weep, asked him why. He answered, "I weep because, though I have taken much trouble in bringing her out of her father’s house, yet I am not destined to be at her side in the marriage ceremony." Moses complained in this same manner: "I who have wearied myself in bringing Israel out of Egypt and not destined to enter the land with them!" This explains: wayyehi beshallach.

Midrash Rabbah – Exodus XX:8

In appreciating this midrash, I encourage you to pay special attention to Maggidah Shoshannah’s illustration. It depicts both the march of the bridal party and the Israelites from Egypt. There is a veiled woman at the head of the party, behind the shoshbin. Who does this represent? It is clearly the bride in the nuptial procession, but who for the Exodus? Why are some objects clear, and others distinct? Are the people in the procession descending, ascending, or both?

Remember, the gates of inspiration open the widest in the face of ambiguity. Why would both Pharaoh and Moses weep at the Exodus? What is it about these moments of transition that is so powerful, so awesome?

The deeper insights come as we examine the role of the shoshbin in traditional practice. As the very best friend of the groom, he assumed special duties, responsibilities and privileges – as well as limitations. He was there to see that things went according to plan, of course, but there was much more. And the shoshbin is responsible for giving gifts to all the attendees, as well as to absorb some of the costs of the wedding itself.

It was assumed that the groom would reciprocate and be his shoshbin, so close is the bond between the two. In fact, that bond was so strong that a shoshbin was barred from testifying in court about matters involving the groom!

So, in what ways is Moses our shoshbin? Does he have a special relationship – so special that he must pay some of the costs of the Eternal One’s "wedding?" What gifts did he provide to the party?

Delight in the sweetness of the metaphor; savor it as if it were a piece of wedding cake! Who knows what riches you will find!

A dilemma

Sunday, December 20th, 2009

Vayigash - Dilemma

Art by Maggidah Shoshannah Brombacher, Ph.D.
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Contact her at – originals from this series are available.

"All the souls of the house of Jacob that came into Egypt were threescore and ten." (Gen. 46:27)

The problem which triggers this midrash is the number of people who went down into Egypt: while the text says it was seventy, there are only sixty-nine mentioned. What happened to the seventieth person? Perhaps, the midrash considers, a terrible choice had to be made. Listen:

It was taught: If a company of people are threatened by heathens, ‘Surrender one of you and we will kill him, and if not we will kill all of you,’ they should all be killed and not surrender one soul of Israel. But if they specified a particular person, as in the case of a criminal, they should surrender him and should not all be killed. R. Judah said: If the victim is secure within the city and the group is not, then they should endeavor to save him; if everyone is within the city, then they should surrender one person to them and not be all slain. For example:

‘Ulla the Conspirator – a notorious criminal – was wanted by the government. He arose and fled to R. Joshua b. Levi at Lydda, whereupon officers were dispatched after him. R. Joshua argued with him and urged him to surrender, saying, ‘Better that you should be executed rather than that the whole community should be punished on account of you.’ He allowed himself to be persuaded and surrendered to them.

Now Elijah used to speak with the rabbi, but when he acted thus Elijah ceased to visit him. The rabbi fasted thirty days, after which Elijah came to him, and he asked him, ‘Why did you absent yourself?’

‘Am I then the companion of informers?’ Elijah retorted.

‘But is this not a law in Talmud: "If a company of people," etc.?’

‘And is that a teaching for the pious?’ he retorted. ‘This should have been done through others and not through you!’

Midrash Rabbah – Genesis XCIV:9

G!d forbid that we should be faced with such a dilemma! Nonetheless, what can be learned from this example?

Perhaps it is as simple – and challenging – as living according to the spirit of the law, not the letter.

"For the pious" is the phrase typically used to describe a practice which only those particularly concerned with the spirit of the law need follow. Yet, should we not all strive to be observant of the Spirit? And is it really acceptable to let someone else do the "dirty work?"

I leave you with more questions this week than answers. Wrestle with them – and share your thoughts with me!

The Sephardic genre of story

Saturday, December 19th, 2009


Now, I’m not one to paint with a broad brush, but recently I’ve been delving into the stories produced out of the Sephardic culture, and I have to say – they’re different. Remarkably so!

Granted, it’s early days for me, but so far the differences are pronounced, and a little challenging. Not in a negative way, mind you, but in a way that presents a quite a hurdle for me as a Maggid / storyteller accustomed to reaching a culturally “familiar” audience. If you know me at all, this is an exciting development!

For example, the Ben Ish Chai ZT”L – Hakham Yosef Chaim –¬†was a Sephardic rabbi and kabbalist of the 1800’s CE (and into the 1900’s). Like others of prominence, he is known by the principal text he authored: “Ben Ish Chai,” which is functionally the Sephardic “Kitzur Shulchan Aruch,” or abbreviated code of Jewish law. He also authored a number of parables, like this one (my very abbreviated telling):

There once was a wealthy man who was traveling to a distant town when he came across a beggar in the road, crying out for money. He took pity on the beggar, and tossed him a coin, but the beggar was barely relieved. “How else can I help you?” he asked.

“Could you give me a ride to my home in the next town? I am too weak to walk.”

The wealthy man agreed, and seeing how badly off the beggar was, he placed him in the saddle, a more comfortable spot, and gave him the reins, sitting behind them as they rode.

When they reached the center of the next town, he told the beggar to get off, but the beggar refused, claiming in a loud voice that this horse was his last possession, and that this wealthy thief was trying to steal it from him! A crowd gathered, a scene ensued, and eventually the two of them were brought before the court.

After hearing both sides, the judge spoke to the wealthy man, saying, “I believe your story is true. But the evidence is against you – after all, who gives the reins of his horse to another?” And with that, he awarded the horse to the beggar.

How strange! The lesson, to my ears and those in my community, seems to be to be skeptical, even cynical towards the unfortunate, and even better, to shun their pleas! Of course, this is not the intended lesson.

The beggar symbolizes the Yetzer haRa – the evil inclination – that we all struggle with. And, while there are useful ways in which the Yetzer haRa can be put to use – building cities, for example, or procreation – we must be careful not to turn over the reins of our “self” to it, for it will attempt to seize complete control of our lives.

So, nu? What’s with these stories?

We need a different set of eyes and ears – and a different cultural “nose!” – to grasp the meaning of these tales. They seem to involve a greater deal of trickery, and a slightly darker sense of humor. But time will tell, as will I: look for frequent “retellings” here as I explore this new territory!

Angelic Luggage?

Sunday, November 29th, 2009

Welcome to the second week of my new collaboration with Maggidah Shoshannah Brombacher.

Some of you have asked about the possibility of obtaining the original artwork she creates. For this collaboration, the size of most drawings is 24 X 18 inches; the medium is pastel and india ink.

M’ Shoshana would be happy to entertain discussions for the original artwork; copies, however, are difficult and won’t be offered. Just send her an email and I’m sure you will have a rewarding exchange!

As for this week’s midrash: it visits a familiar event from what I hope is a different perspective. Let me know your thoughts, and I will share some of them in our next email!

The Crossing

Art by Maggidah Shoshannah Brombacher, Ph.D.
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"And Jacob was left alone; and there wrestled a man with him until the breaking of the day." (Gen. 32:25)

In this week’s portion, Vayishlach, we find the encounter that leads Jacob to be renamed as Israel – G!d wrestler. Of course, the Hebrew is sufficiently ambiguous that who Jacob encounters is left open for a rich assemblage of midrash. Was it G!d? An angel? Jacob’s Yeitzer Ra? Oh, what a delicious feast!

While the "big question" in this passage is "with whom did Jacob wrestle?" there is also the question of location: it seems as if Jacob is going back and forth from one side of the river to the other. What is going on here? Here’s one midrash that tells an unexpected story, and teaches a lesson that seems timely:

Once R. Hiyya the Elder and R. Simeon b. Rabbi were trading in silks at Tyre. After they had left the town, they said: "Let us go and emulate the example of our ancestors; let us see if we have left anything behind." They went back and found a bale of silk. On being asked whence they had learned to do this they replied: "From the Patriarch Jacob, who likewise went back."

The Rabbis said: He appeared to him in the guise of a brigand: each had flocks and each had camels, and he proposed to him: "Do you take mine across and I will take yours – let us help each other." The angel then transported Jacob’s in the twinkling of an eye, whereas Jacob took some across, returned, and found more, took those across, returned, and found more, and so on.

Midrash Rabbah – Genesis LXXVII:24

Sometimes the simplest of stories contain deep lessons. On its surface, this is a very simple tale, one with a bit of humor: Jacob and an angel agree to help carry their belongings across the river for each other. The angel does it with a wink; poor Jacob has to keep going back and forth, back and forth: it seems like a never-ending task! And what kind of baggage would an angel have, anyway? How much could it weigh? Why would it take so long?

The answer is, as is so often the case, to stand the story on its head, or at least our assumptions about it. Jacob’s baggage – our baggage, our burdens, the cares of this world – are as light and easily dispensed with in the world of the Spirit as can be. What does the angel carry from that world? Blessings and more blessings, in abundant, never-ending supply. As long as we keep returning, there will be more – just like the rabbis’ silks. All that is required is that we act in partnership with G!d, not expecting G!d to do everything for us, nor to deny the assistance that G!d can give. When we are partners, not only are our burdens lightened, but the whole journey is sweeter.

May this week bring you many journeys to, with and for the world of Spirit!

The River of Shabbas

Sunday, November 22nd, 2009

With this week’s post, you are receiving the benefit of my new collaboration with a dear colleague: Maggidah Shoshannah Brombacher, PhD, of Brooklyn, NY. M’ Shoshannah is, as you will readily recognize, an accomplished artist with a high neshamah. She is originally from Denmark, and her work receives international acclaim.

It is our intent to coordinate our work so that most weeks you will see her artistic interpretation of the midrash I am presenting.

Naturally, I would encourage you to contact her or visit her online catalog. I am pleased to say that I have a beautiful piece of hers adorning my study, where I reflect on it constantly as I am studying and writing!

Now, onto the midrash…

The Sambatyon River

Art by Maggidah Shoshannah Brombacher, Ph.D.
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In this week’s portion, Vayeitze, there is a word that gives our Sages pause. Well, more than one word, of course! But the one that gives rise to this particular midrash is from the verse Genesis 30:24:

"And she called his name Joseph, saying: ‘G!d add to me another son.’" (Gen. 30:24)

This is Rachel speaking, and the troubling word is "another:" Joseph is her first born, in what way is he "another?"

The simple answer would be that the offspring of her maid Bilhah and Jacob were "hers," but only in a legal sense. So what do the Sages do? They begin by saying that “another” refers to a different exile from that of other tribes. What, you ask, was there more than one exile for the twelve tribes? Listen:

R. Judah b. R. Simon said: The tribes of Judah and Benjamin were not exiled to the same place as were the other ten tribes. The ten tribes were exiled beyond the River Sambatyon, whereas the tribes of Judah and Benjamin are dispersed in all countries.

Midrash Rabbah – Genesis XXX:24

Here’s where we enter another world. The Sambatyon is a legendary river, the name being a version of something like "shabbatian," or having to do with Shabbat. It is said to run with tremendous force the whole week, carrying along stones and earth, making it impossible to cross, and then resting on Shabbat.

There are many stories about the Sambatyon; one of my favorites is recounted as The Eternal Light in Howard Schwartz’s collection, "Elijah’s Violin." The constant feature of these stories is that one or more of the tribes of Israel is surrounded by this river and therefore unable to return to the Promised Land (as they won’t travel, of course, on Shabbas). In Schwartz’s story, one intrepid troupe makes it into and out of this special land by means of a tunnel beneath the river, which collapses before it can be used by the lost tribe.

So, beyond being a story bordering on fantasy, what does this river hold for us in spiritual terms?

To me, it holds a conundrum, a paradox regarding observance. On the one hand, the tribe awaits the return to the Promised Land, which will be part of the coming of Moshiach, may it be soon and in our day! And yet, what holds them back, and presumably the End of Days? Their observance of Shabbat! But shouldn’t their observance hasten that time, not defer it?

Ah, here for me is the secret: so long as we are performing a mitzvah for a benefit, we have missed the point of the mitzvah. On Shabbat, they are in Shabbat already – the taste of the World to Come that is given to us every week! In that moment, that time, there is no future destination, only the Eternal Now.

The most we can do is to live our lives fully Jewishly, by whatever definition of "Jewishly" holds for us. Then we and those around us will be blessed with everything we can be, in its proper time and season.