Posts Tagged ‘aggadah’

Embracing the stranger…

Sunday, May 16th, 2010

Naso - Embracing the stranger...
Art by Maggidah Shoshannah Brombacher, Ph.D.
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Naso: Numbers 4:21-7:89

"A man or a woman…" (Numbers 5:6)

The leap from the problem of the verse to the midrash seems quite distant, at first. The question is why call out both man and woman in the phrase having to do with committing a wrong against another person. In Hebrew, it would have been sufficient to say ish and have it mean a person, as both genders are implied. In this case, though, the text calls out both ish and isha, raising the specter of why it is necessary to specify a woman. The leap will become clear later; for now, let’s listen:

This bears on the Scriptural text, The Lord loveth the righteous; the Lord preserveth the proselytes (Ps. 146:8 f.)

To what may this be compared? To a king who had a flock which used to go out to the field and come in at even. So it was each day. Once a stag came in with the flock. He associated with the goats and grazed with them. When the flock came in to the fold he came in with them; when they went out to graze he went out with them. The king was told: ‘A certain stag has joined the flock and is grazing with them every day. He goes out with them and comes in with them.’

The king felt an affection for him. When he went out into the field the king gave orders: ‘Let him have good pasture, such as he likes; no man shall beat him; be careful with him!’ When he came in with the flock also the king would tell them, ‘Give him to drink;’ and he loved him very much. The servants said to him: ‘Sovereign! You possess so many he-goats, you possess so many lambs, you possess so many kids, and you never caution us about them; yet you give us instructions every day about this stag!’ Said the king to them: ‘The flock have no choice; whether they want or not, it is their nature to graze in the field all day and to come in at even to sleep in the fold. The stags, however, sleep in the wilderness. It is not in their nature to come into places inhabited by man. Shall we then not account it as a merit to this one which has left behind the whole of the broad, vast wilderness, the abode of all the beasts, and has come to stay in the courtyard?’

In like manner, ought we not to be grateful to the proselyte who has left behind him his family and his father’s house, aye, has left behind his people and all the other peoples of the world, and has chosen to come to us?

Midrash Rabbah – Numbers VIII:2

Let’s begin with the simple meaning of this midrash, for it is very sweet on its own: it teaches us, in the most pragmatic of terms, of the special relationship between the Eternal One and the convert, of the intense love the convert must feel to leave what is familiar and attach him or herself to this new people, this new culture, this new geography of both land and spirit, and how the Eternal One reciprocates that love. It is a quiet lesson also to those who wonder whether a convert is "fully" Jewish, but that is a topic for another time.

Looking a little more deeply, notice that there is an equivalence set up at the beginning, in the proof-text between the righteous and the convert: it implies that that same special relationship is available to everyone, whether a Jew by choice or by birth: through a passionate dedication to righteousness, that same attachment can be found. And let me hasten to note that this is a dedication to righteousness, not judgment.

But the deepest meanings come when we look more closely at the language, and how we have adjusted its meaning over time. The word that is translated as "prosylete" (convert) is ger – which actually means "stranger."

You see, originally we were speaking about what we might call today the ger toshav – the stranger within our gates. Not a convert at all – converts, after all, are fully Jewish, and require no special status. A ger toshav is someone who chooses to attach themselves to the Jewish people without converting, yet loving us still to live among us and by our laws. These were the original objects of this terms, and of all the laws regarding the stranger; it was only later in history that the term was "adjusted" to mean convert. Why was this done? Again, a topic for another time, but simply put, there have been times when the need to isolate ourselves from other societies was far more pressing.

Today, however, we have the opportunity to consider the original intent: how do we welcome someone into our community who does not convert but desires attachment nonetheless? Who has no desire to change from stag to goat, but nonetheless loves the herd?

Oh! And what is the connection with the original question – the naming of both woman and man? Because far too often, it is the woman who has been seen as the outsider, the other – and this midrash reaches out to all.

When we discover the way to open the gates of our hearts to the gerim among us – the "other," however we view them – then we will discover yet another gate to the love of the Eternal One for us all.

Surrounded – and led…

Sunday, May 9th, 2010

Bmidbar - Surrounded - and led...
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B’midbar: Numbers 1:1-4:20

"And the Lord spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai." (Numbers 1:1)

Why would the Holy One, Ha Kadosh Baruch Hu, bring us through the wilderness? Why subject us to more trauma after the centuries of slavery? Why not just bring us quickly and in comfort to the Promised Land? This is what troubled the Sages in this midrash and so many other midrashim surrounding this verse.

Here we have a proposition, which I have abbreviated somewhat: it wasn’t bad at all! We had the superb delicacy of manna, sweet water from Miriam’s well, and the comfort and direction of the Eternal One! What more could we ask for?

After making this proposition, the Sages argue about what seems to be a very trivial point. Of course, as always, much lies beneath the surface. Listen:

This recalls the Scriptural verse: O generation, see ye the word of the Lord: Have I been a wilderness unto Israel? Or a land of thick darkness? etc. (Jer. 2:31). The Holy One, blessed be He, said to Israel, ‘Ye said to Moses: “Wherefore have ye brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness?” (Num. 21:5); but was I at all like a wilderness to Israel, or did I at all act towards them as a wilderness? … Did I not assign to you three special tutors, Moses, Aaron, and Miriam? It was due to the merit of Moses that you ate the manna… Moreover, it was due to the merit of Aaron that I set clouds of glory about you; as it is said, He spread a cloud for a screen (Ps. 105:39). …And again, the well was due to the merit of Miriam, who sang by the waters of the Red Sea…’

How many clouds of glory encircled Israel in the wilderness? R. Hoshaya and R. Josiah differed on this point. R. Josiah said, Five; four towards the four points of the compass, and one that went in front of them. R. Hoshaya said, Seven; four towards the four points of the compass, one above them, one below them, and one that advanced ahead of them three days’ journey and struck down before them the snakes and the scorpions, the fiery serpents and the rocks. If there was a low place, the cloud raised it; a high place it lowered, making all level; as it is said, Every valley shall be lifted up and every mountain and hill shall be made low (Isa. 40:4).

Midrash Rabbah – Numbers I:2

What is the matter with Hoshaya and Josiah? What does it matter whether there were five or seven clouds? Let’s look at what they are suggesting in common first, and then dive more deeply into their differences.

Earlier in the midrash, we are told that G!d set “clouds of glory” all around the people. We know that G!d also led us through the wilderness, but if these clouds of glory are “screens,” how could we be led?

The two sages pose two similar solutions: we had enough to surround us, plus one more: one to lead us. Hoshaya’s number – five – implies that we are surrounded on all sides, and yet led by another cloud, somehow visible through the others.

Josiah spots two problems, and solves each of them: first of all, are we surrounded if there are no clouds above or below us? No, of course, so make it seven.

The second problem – how we see a cloud through clouds – is solved by the action of the cloud: it makes the way sweet and easy for us, removing obstacles of geography as well as dangers of nature. We would know where to go, Josiah suggests, by following the smooth path.

Straightforward enough. So let’s take it deeper.

There is a dilemma: how can we be surrounded by the experience of G!d and still be active in the world? Imagine being in the loving embrace of our mother – why would we ever want to leave? And yet, if we do not, how will we grow and mature?

The answer is we can, and do, do both. We can recall that love that was given to us by our mother, even when she is not physically present, and be sustained by it as we move in the world. When we do, we find that the world is a little bit sweeter, a little bit smoother. We find strength in that love – when we remain open to the experience of it, even as we travel independently in the world.

But how about a little deeper still!

Recall the mention of the numbers six and seven from last week: how we added a single day to the secular six and made seven – Shabbat. It is no coincidence that the Mesopotamians treasured six, I am convinced, at least in part because there are six cardinal directions about us, two for each of our three spatial dimensions. To get to the seventh direction, we must embark along a different dimension. Call it time, if you will, for Shabbat is certainly a different dimension in time. I prefer to call it Spirit, for that is a markedly different dimension in our lives. And yet that dimension of Spirit is deeply interwoven with our spatial, secular world, permeating it always, ready to be perceived and entered, when we open ourselves to it.

May we each find the time to infuse our lives with that added dimension of Spirit, and so find ourselves surrounded – and led – by G!d’s love.

A kind word – or sixty!

Sunday, May 2nd, 2010

Behar / Bechukotai - A kind word - or sixty!
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Behar / Bechukotai: Leviticus 25:1-end

"If thy brother be waxen poor… then shall his kinsman… redeem." (Leviticus 25:25)

The question, at first blush, would seem to be very simple: what does it mean to be poor? From this, we should be able to figure out how to "redeem" another from their poverty. Of course, we get five answers, of which the last is in some ways the most important – the "closing." Listen:

This bears on the text, Happy is he that dealeth wisely with the poor; the Lord will deliver him in the day of evil  (Ps. 41:1). Abba b. Jeremiah in the name of R. Meir said that this refers to one who enthrones the Good Inclination over the Evil Inclination. Isi said that it refers to one who gives a perutah  (a tiny amount of money – 1/10th of the cost of a loaf of bread) to a poor man. R. Johanan said that it refers to one who buries a meth mizwah  (someone who died a pauper, without family to manage the burial). Our Rabbis say that it refers to one who assists a person escaping from tyrants.

R. Huna said it refers to one who visits the sick. For, said R. Huna, if a person visits the sick, a reduction of one-sixtieth part of his illness is thereby effected. They pointed out an objection to R. Huna: If that is so, let sixty people come in and enable him to go down into the street? He answered them: Sixty could accomplish this, but only if they loved him like themselves. But in any case they would afford him relief.

Midrash Rabbah – Leviticus XXXIV:1

The sages amended the full verse to teach their lesson, but it helps to have the full text before us. Robert Alter renders the following translation:

"Should your brother come to ruin and sell his holding, his redeemer who is related to him shall come and redeem what his brother sold."

This is a very clear circumstance: should someone fall so far that they have to pawn what little they have left to survive, then their closest relative should redeem their belongings from the broker and return them to their ruined relative. This is the obligation of family, however we define the boundaries of family: we must reach in and lift up the fallen, at our own expense. Throughout it all, we are given the metaphor of redemption: the "ruin" is a bondage to which the poor unfortunate has been consigned, and we must function as redeemer.

Clearly, the Sages wanted to extend this lesson beyond mere financial ruin and the traditional boundaries of family. How do we know this? First, by the proof text: they extend the lesson to all the poor, and identify each of us as obligated to take action. Second, by the examples: only two have to do with money.

The first four examples of ruin – by gossip or jealousy, financial loss, or injustice – are worthy of consideration, and are left, as they say, as an exercise for the reader. The last – ruined health – gets the lion’s share of the midrash’s attention, and therefore is what I will consider here.

First and foremost, consider the ruin that lost health can bring: it invades every dimension of our lives, intruding on the simplest of tasks. What is the solution? Remarkably, it is not turning to G!d for relief – it is the support of others that is called for!

Notice that it is not financial support that is mandated, but visiting the sick – in Hebrew, the mitzvah of bikur cholim  – is what is required. To which is added this beautiful proposition: that a single visit takes away 1/60th of the illness!

So, the skeptics ask, would sixty people visiting heal the person? Only, says Rav Huna, if they each loved the stricken one as they loved themselves. But in any event there would be a benefit!

So we know that visiting the sick brings a measure of healing, and of course this is a laudable activity. Surely, though, there is a deeper meaning!

Remember the metaphor of redemption, and that the p’shat  (simple meaning) of the verse has to do with buying back a relative’s goods from a pawn broker (or the like). How is visiting the sick like this?

A key to the answer comes from from R. Huna’s final retort, that we must love the stricken one as ourselves. Each parent knows the agony of having a sick child, how we would gladly take on the illness if only it would leave our offspring: please G!d, we pray, take the fever from her and give it to me! Just bring her relief!

When we visit the ill as one who truly cares, we take on some of their pain, some of their ruin – just a sixtieth perhaps, but some. And in so doing we gain a new appreciation of the challenges faced by all who are stricken, and – if we are able – a renewed vigor to helping those less fortunate than we. What is striking about this experience is that we realize we cannot cure them: at best, we relieve a sixtieth of their problems! But, by truly taking on some of their pain, we find a new strength to help others.

Where does this strength come from? Surely not from the one we visit, for they are gaining strength from our visit! No, that is the miracle of bikur cholim:  it opens the gates for G!d’s healing strength to enter both lives: that of the visited, and the visitor.

And therein lies the mystery, and beauty, of G!d’s love.

Sticks and stones…

Sunday, April 25th, 2010

Naso - Sticks and stones...
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Emor: Leviticus 21:1-24:3

"Speak (emor) unto the priests, the sons of Aaron:" (Leviticus 21:1)

By way of an introduction: To update the old adage, "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can really hurt me!"

The world was created, we learn, through speech: "And G!d said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light." It wasn’t the Eternal One thinking about it, or wishing for it, or anything else: it was the act of speech that brought this world and all its diverse splendor into being.

It truly is no coincidence that in Hebrew, d’var has two meanings: "word" and "thing." In short, words are real. And how do we bring words into being? By speaking: amar.

In order to understand this midrash, it helps to know a few things. First of all, the information that is about to be communicated to the priests concerns the way in which the priests are supposed to conduct themselves in regards to death: they are not to remove themselves from a holy state and place themselves in a grieving state unless the deceased are their closest of kin. The word for this state of being removed from holiness is tamay – a fairly negative term in Hebrew.

It also should be remembered that, in the "rules" by which we interpret Torah – the hermeneutic principles – no word is extraneous: two words will never be used when one will do. Therefore, if something does seem extraneous, there must be a reason for it.

With that in mind, let’s see what the midrash wrestles with, and what an important lesson emerges from what might appear to be dry hermeneutics! Listen:

R. Tanhum son of R. Hannilai opened his discourse with the text, "The words of (imroth) the Lord are pure words (amaroth)."  (Ps. 12:7). Does this mean that only ‘The words of the Lord are pure words’ and the words of mortals are not pure words? …

‘Pure words.’ R. Judan in the name of R. Johanan, R. Berekiah in the name of R. Eleazar, and R. Jacob of Kefar Hanin, all of whom cited R. Joshua b. Levi, said: We find that the Holy One, blessed be He, used a circumlocution of eight letters so as not to let an unseemly word come out of His mouth; as it says, Of every clean beast… and of the beasts that are not clean (Gen. 7:2). In another passage He made a circumlocution of two or three words in the Torah so as not to allow an unclean word to issue from His mouth. Thus it is written, ‘And of the beasts that are not clean.’  It does not say, ‘the unclean,’ but ‘That are not clean.’ R. Judan b. Manasseh said: Even when He comes to introduce to them the marks of the unclean beast, He only begins with cleanness. Thus, it is not written, ‘The camel, because he parteth not the hoof,’ but Because he cheweth the cud  (Lev. 11:4). It does not say, ‘The rock-badger, because he parteth not the hoof,’ but Because he cheweth the cud  (ib.), and it is the same with the hare and the same with the swine.

Midrash Rabbah – Leviticus XXVI:1

Let’s begin with the basics, the p’shat:  the main paragraph is telling us that in Genesis 7:2, rather than uttering the negative term "tamay,"  or unclean, G!d says "not clean," which requires eight more letters than unclean. Likewise, rather than highlight a deficit of an animal (the hoof not being parted), the Torah draws attention to an attribute – the fact that they chew a cud. This would seem to violate our principle of parsimony: why use these extraneous letters and words?

At first blush, there is an elegant hypothesis: G!d only speaks in "pure" words – i.e., those which are good, or clean, or sweet. And so, it would seem, G!d "spends" the extra letters in order to frame things positively.

The problem is that the same verse in Torah has G!d telling Moses to say the word "tamay!"  If the hypothesis were correct, then a similar "word dodge" would have been used there!

The first part of the midrash takes the next step in attempting to resolve the dilemma: perhaps G!d only speaks "pure" words directly, and it is only between people that "impure" words are used. Well, that may be so, but with what lesson are we left?

Words create reality. We know this in its crassest sense from the celebrity gossip magazines and big-media politics. Any claim made loudly and/or often enough acquires its own reality, no matter what the truth may be. As do words spoken softly, whispered between friends: "Did you hear…?" These are obvious problems, cases of lashon haRa – evil speech.

There are, however, far more subtle forms of evil speech that trap us completely unawares. Consider these two statements: "She has a strange accent – I can barely understand her!" and "She has a strange accent – it’s so exotic!" Which person do you want to meet first?

We are tuned, biologically, to notice differences. How we appreciate those differences – as opportunities for discovery or dangers from which to retreat – plays a critical role in determining the shape and flavor of the world we live in. The amount of light in our world is directly proportional to the amount of light we allow ourselves to see – and speak about.

Judaism takes us one step further. You see, Judaism conceives the world as having states – pure and impure, kosher and treif, Shabbat and weekday – between which we move back and forth. Judaism also gives us the rituals – the keys for the transitions – so that what is impure one moment can become pure the next.

Most significantly, it teaches us that the most fundamental of those states – that of being either stranger or member – is something we know from both sides, and we must always be working to welcome the stranger, for we "were once strangers in the land of Egypt." We must recognize, and then welcome, the stranger, whether it be someone we don’t know, or someone we think we know, but have cast downward in our gaze because of words we heard – or used ourselves.

May we all be blessed with recognizing the opportunity to fulfill the mitzvah  of welcoming the stranger into our hearts, our minds, and our lives.

Without warning…

Sunday, April 18th, 2010

Achare Mot / Kedoshim - Without warning...
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Achare Mot / Kedoshim: Leviticus 16:1-20:27

"Thus (bezoth) shall Aaron come into the Holy Place:" (Leviticus 16:3)

The text which follows the above gives great detail about how Aaron is to enter the Holy of Holies: when he should come, what he is to wear, what sacrifices he is to make, etc., etc. And what precedes it? A reminder of what happened to Aaron’s sons when they did not do things properly – they died, consumed by Holy fire!

It is worth noting that, included in the accouterments of the High Priest’s robe were a series of bells along the hem. What was the purpose of the bells? Some have argued that they were to let the other priests – who were not allowed inside – know that the High Priest was still alive! If the bells stopped ringing, the argument goes, they would pull him out by a rope that had been attached to his ankle!

Our midrash for this week suggests a very different reason for the bells – and, of course, carries a deeper meaning. Listen:

R. Hanina b. Hakinai and R. Simeon b. Yohai went to study Torah at R. Akiba’s college at Bene Berak, and stayed there thirteen years. R. Simeon b. Yohai used to send home for news, and knew what was happening at his house. R. Hanina did not send and did not know what was happening at his house. His wife sent him word and told him: ‘Your daughter is marriageable, come and get her married.’ He said nothing to his master. Nevertheless R. Akiba saw it by means of the Holy Spirit and said to him: ‘If any one has a marriageable daughter he may go and get her married.’ R. Hanina understood what he meant, so he rose, took leave and went. He sought to enter into his house, but found that it had been turned in a different direction – i.e., he did not recognize it. What did he do? He went and sat down at the place where the women drew water and heard the voice of the little girls saying: ‘Daughter of Hanina, fill your vessel and go.’ What did he do? He followed her until she entered his house. He went in after her suddenly, without announcing himself. No sooner did his wife see him than her soul departed. Said he to Him: ‘Sovereign of the Universe! Is that the reward of this poor woman, after thirteen years of waiting for me?’ Thereupon her soul returned to her body.

Midrash Rabbah – Leviticus XIX:2

I graduated a year early from high school (it’s a long story) and decided to take the "bonus" year doing a variety of things, including moving to San Francisco. It wasn’t all I thought it would be, and I returned home suddenly, without warning, a little mischief in my heart. My mother Z"L (of blessed memory) walked into the living room to see me sitting there, did the perfect double take, and screamed. Funny? I thought so – but it was a real shock for her, and not entirely a pleasant one physically. Thank G!d, it wasn’t her demise…

So at one level, this is a midrash about the need to treat others with care and respect. As M’ Shoshannah points out in her thoughts (want to see them? sign up for my free weekly email!), even our "choreography" in services is resplendent with respect and courtesy. Should we not learn from these lessons and treat those around us with gentleness and caring? Of course! But, what else can we learn?

R. Hanina went to study under the tutelage of R. Akiba, one of the pillars of the Sages. He threw himself into study, abandoning his family for thirteen years. While devotion to study has always been revered – especially by the Sages! – even this was too much. He never saw his daughter grow up, he lost complete touch with his family, what a tragedy! It took his mentor to throw him out and return to his family.

What about us? Are we so consumed with our careers that we lose the balance in our lives? Do we remember to feed our spirits, as well as our bodies? Another good lesson. But let’s go deeper still.

Recall that this midrash is answering the question of why the High Priest wore bells on his hem. If we draw a close parallel to the story, it would seem to say that he needed to warn G!d that he was coming, so as not to chalilah (G!d forbid) "scare" the Eternal One away… How absurd!? How could such a thing even happen – would it mean that G!d cannot see us, not know where we are and be frightened by our sudden approach?

Of course not. But – and here is the deeper lesson – we can "hide" ourselves from G!d, in the way children hide behind a thin cloth, or their fingers, and say "you can’t find me!" Of course we see them. But in their minds, they are invisible, and they act accordingly.

Likewise, we can "pretend" that we are alone, cut ourselves off from a relationship with the Holy One, and live our lives in separation from what matters: the love and protection of Spirit. Just as R. Hanina cut himself off from his family, so can we cut ourselves off from G!d. The good news is – it’s all in our imagination: whenever we want to open the gates of our souls, we will receive and be received back into the shelter of those loving Wings.

A single yud…

Sunday, April 11th, 2010

Tazria / Metzora - A single yud...
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Tazria / Metzorah: Leviticus 12:1-15:33

"And if a woman have an issue of her blood… she is unclean." (Leviticus 15:25)

I want to begin the discussion with a basic principle of how one applies Torah to modern life. We often read sections of the Scripture that, at face value, may be disturbing; for example, the laws relating to the treatment of slaves. Does the fact that we are told how to acquire and manage slaves mean that we believe slavery is a good thing? Of course not; but then, how are we to understand and apply such texts today?

The answer, simply, is that Torah does not present us with an end point, but a direction. The Sages of the Talmud understood and applied this principle, as have the Sages and Rabbis who followed. What we must do is consider what were circumstances before the Law, what are the circumstances prescribed by the Law, and then project that direction forward.

"An eye for an eye" was a tremendous step beyond the blood feuds that took place before it was law: the loss of an eye in a fight could result in the death of the offender. The Sages, however, did not stop there: they said that no eye was to be taken, but its monetary equivalent. They took the value taught by Torah and applied it forward.

With this text, the midrashists wonder: how can the sign of life be impure? They ask this with a poetic application from the Song of Songs: how can hair be both gold and black? From this intriguing question, R. Ze’era takes an astounding leap to a principle that might appear quite esoteric, until we wrestle with it a bit. Listen:

This has a bearing on the text, His head is as the most fine gold, his locks are in curls, and black as a raven (Song of Songs 5:11). R. Ze’era said: ‘His locks (kewuzzah) are in curls (taltalim)’ means: Even those things in the Torah which appear useless, for instance the thin strokes of letters (kozin) are taltale taltalim, i.e. mounds upon mounds, meaning they have it in their power to bring about the destruction of the world and make it into a mound (tel).

For example, if you make the letter daleth into the letter resh you cause the destruction of the whole of the Universe: it is written, For thou shalt bow down to no other god (Ex. 34:14) (N.B.: the effect would be to change acheir – other or strange – into echad – One, our G!d! After this, many examples follow…)

R. Hina said, in the name of R. Aha: The letter yod which the Holy One, blessed be He, took away from the name of Sarai, He divided into two equal portions; one half he gave to Abraham, and the other half to Sarah. R. Joshua b. Karhah said: The yod of Sarai’s name ascended, and prostrated itself before the Holy One, blessed be He, and said to Him: ‘Lord of the Universe! Thou hast pulled me out from the name of that righteous woman!’ The Holy One, blessed be He, answered: ‘Go! Hitherto you were in the name of a female, and at the end of the word; now I shall place you in the name of a male, and at the beginning of the word.’ So, indeed, it is written, And Moses called Hoshea, the son of Nun, Joshua (Num. 13:16).

Midrash Rabbah – Leviticus XIX:2

Let me begin with the little bit of gematria – Hebrew numerology – that is necessary to understand the last paragraph. The letter yod – the smallest letter – has the numeric value of 10. The letter heh has the numeric value of 5; thus, one yod is equal to two heh’s. According to this argument, when G!d changed Sarai’s name to Sarah, this was accomplished by replacing the yod with two heh’s: in her name, changing shin-resh-yod to shin-resh-heh, and also in changing Abram’s name to Abraham (through the addition of the remaining heh). That left the original yod removed from the Torah! R. Hina proposes that the Eternal One further blessed the yod by putting it at the beginning of Hoshea’s name, changing it to Joshua.

What can all this possibly mean that is relevant to us?

At its simplest, pshat (literal) level, a woman’s name has been elevated by allowing it to participate in two men’s names – what could be more sexist? Come, let’s look deeper:

Remove the gender issue for a moment; there are two powerful meanings here. One is that every little stroke – even the smallest letter possible to write! – of G!d’s efforts in this world has a purpose. As in the Song of Songs, the tiniest curls in our beloved’s hair can serve to remind us of the twists and turns that our lives take, all within the sphere of the Holy One’s loving gaze.

But deeper still.

The sacrifices we make in our lives, the changes we undertake which seem to diminish us, can benefit others, whether they be the person closest to us, across the room, as Abraham was from Sarah, or by another removed by hundreds of miles and years, as was Joshua. Should we wait until we know who will benefit from the good we do? No! says the midrash.Do the good, and perhaps we will be blessed to see its outcome – or perhaps we will be doubly blessed to never know, just to trust that good will out.

May we each live our lives in readiness for the surprises of goodness that will come our way, instead of the insistence that we be paid in fair measure for our effort.

Healer of the broken heart…

Sunday, March 21st, 2010

Tzav - Healer of the broken heart...
Art by Maggidah Shoshannah Brombacher, Ph.D.
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Contact her at shoshbm@gmail.com – originals from this series are available.

Parashah Tzav: Leviticus 6:1-8:36

"And the Lord spoke unto Moses, saying: command Aaron and his sons…" (Leviticus 6:1)

This week foreshadows the tragedy of next week: the death of Aaron’s sons who bring "foreign fire" for the sacrifice. The whys and wherefores of that event will be discussed next week, but it helps to know that some of the midrash suggest that their deaths were punishment for an earlier crime, not the foreign fire itself.

Given that interpretation, the two of them must be seen as "flawed." Why then, this week’s midrash wonders, are they told to bring sacrifices? The meaning is very deep; listen:

R. Abba b. Judan said: Whatever the Holy One, blessed be He, declared unfit in the case of an animal, He declared fit in the case of man. In animals he declared unfit the blind, or broken, or maimed, or having a wen, etc. (Lev. 22:22), whereas in man he declared fit ‘A broken and contrite heart.’ R. Alexandri said: If an ordinary person makes use of broken vessels, it is a disgrace for him, but the vessels used by the Holy One, blessed be He, are precisely broken ones, as it is said, The Lord is nigh unto them that are of a broken heart (Ps. 34:19); Who heals the broken in heart, etc. (Ps. 147:3); I dwell in the high and holy place, with him also that is of a contrite and humble spirit (Isa. 57:15); ‘The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, Thou wilt not despise.’ (Ps. 51:19)

Midrash Rabbah – Leviticus VII:2

Astounding! According to this reading, we are drawn to G!d not in spite of our flaws, but because of them! And we are not drawn to the Eternal One in order to be punished for them, but because the Holy One, Ha Kadosh Baruch Hu, yearns to heal us!

Yes, our brokenness must be accompanied by contrition, but what really is "contrition" other than a sincere desire to heal?

Too often we are tempted to "see" only the terrifying aspect of Justice in the Almighty: even the words are powerful and intimidating. We read about curses and blessings, and focus on the curses; we recall the Hollywood spectacles of cosmic destruction, but forget the "still, small voice" that the prophets hear.

How much we lose, when we do not recognize the yearning of the Eternal One to comfort us, to take our broken, shattered vessels of body and spirit and heal us.

Another midrash from this same verse extends this Eternal Love not only to us, but to our descendants, arguing that no matter how much we are flawed, our descendants bring our names merit, and so for them we should be honored! This is the reverse of the normal argument, which is that we should be spared from our misdeeds because of the covenant with our ancestors; now, we should be honored because of what we have not yet done!

But most importantly, we must remember that we are loved not despite our flaws, but because of them. This is not only the central teaching of these midrashim, but in the deepest sense, it is the subtlest truth about our relationship with the Eternal One. How magnificent is our G!d!