Posts Tagged ‘aggadah’


Sunday, March 14th, 2010

Vayikra - Roots...
Art by Maggidah Shoshannah Brombacher, Ph.D.
Visit her gallery
Contact her at – originals from this series are available.

Parashah Vayikral: Leviticus 1:1-5:26

"If any man of you brings an offering to the Lord…" (Leviticus 1:2)

This seems to be a midrash about converts to Judaism, and indeed it has an important message in that matter. I believe we can also take this to a deeper level about spirituality in general. I’ll address both after the midrash; for now, listen:

R. Abbahu opened his discourse with the text, They shall return, dwelling under his shadow (Hosea 14:8). These, he said, are the converts who come and take shelter under the shadow of the Holy One, blessed be He. They shall make corn grow (ib.) means, they become the root just like Israel, even as thou sayest, Corn shall make the young men flourish, and wine the maids (Zech. 9:17). And they shall blossom as the vine (Hosea loc. cit.), even as thou sayest, Thou didst pluck up a vine out of Egypt; Thou didst drive out the nations, and didst plant it (Ps. 80:9).

Another interpretation: They shall make corn grow (Hosea loc. cit.) speaks of Talmud, And they shall blossom as the vine speaks of Aggadah and Halachah (laws). The mention of shall be as the wine of Lebanon suggests: The Holy One, blessed be He, said: ‘The names of converts are as pleasing to Me as the wine of libation which is offered to Me on the altar.’

Midrash Rabbah – Leviticus I:2

Converts to Judaism know a special challenge: having been drawn to this ancient religion, they know the privilege and honor of joining this people. And yet there are many born Jews who have a difficult time accepting the convert, as this midrash alludes. Why else would we need a teaching about how valuable converts are, especially since proselytizing is actively discouraged! This is only one of many instances in midrash, Talmud and halachah (Jewish law) in which the matter of converts is addressed. Indeed, it is forbidden by numerous laws to identify a convert as such, or even speak of their pre-Jewish days!

And yet there is a real value that the convert brings: other experiences, other contexts, other perspectives, all of which are somehow "digested" into klal Yisrael – the Jewish people. It is this "foreign fertilizer" which, in the proper proportion, allows the religion to flourish. For Judaism, like any other religion, cannot survive if it becomes stagnant or too insular. Yet it must, especially in light of its small numbers, be careful about change. What a paradox!

So yes, it is the role of the convert to become one with the people and help it to grow like corn – tall and strong. Simultaneously, the convert must be invisible, indistinguishable from other Jews – become part of the root itself, knowing he or she is as sweet to G!d as wine.

Now, onto the deeper issue. Traditionally, "Jews by Choice" are seen as Jewish neshamot – souls – that happen to have been born (or reborn) into non-Jewish bodies. At a first glance, this view could be seen as even more insular: "Converts were never really not Jewish, so we don’t allow any outsiders in at all." Nothing could be further from the truth.

What this view acknowledges is the deep, visceral pull that our spiritual selves feel towards Ein Sof – That which is without limit or definition. Whatever religious or spiritual practice one has, once you have felt that tug, it is hard to ignore it.

And it is a tug that pulls you in a particular direction, even though the path or process is often unclear. Usually, the path has familiar elements to it, but inevitably our journey will require something new from us: some fundamental change.

This view – that converts are Jewish souls, no matter what their physical lineage – acknowledges the strength of that pull, and how it must uproot one from one’s "comfort zone." How important is this pull?

Consider that the Messiah is taught will be a descendant of Ruth’s – a convert! And that Rabbi Akiva, one of the greatest Talmudic scholars, was also a convert!

The point is that the power of this pull to the Eternal One is formidable, if we give ourselves to it. It will change our lives, and, G!d-willing, make us a force for good in this world – no matter what our path.

Oh, freedom!

Sunday, February 28th, 2010

Ki Tissa - Oh Freedom!
Art by Maggidah Shoshannah Brombacher, Ph.D.
Visit her gallery
Contact her at – originals from this series are available.

Parashah Ki Tissa: Exodus 30:11-34:35

"And the tablets were the work of G!d…" (Exodus 32:16)

This week, the sages play upon a single word to discover – or is it release?! – meaning from the passage at hand. But first of all, the question must be, what is the question they are struggling with?

The question at hand is rarely stated explicitly; sometimes it is obvious, and more often it is far more difficult to discern. I will begin with my best guess as to what the question is, then share their attempts to resolve and illuminate the passage, and finally share my own thoughts about a very different resolution of the same problem.

The problem revolves around the Hebrew word haruth, which means something like "etched" or, as Rashi tells us, "cut into." That the Sages don’t like this word is clear, but what is their problem?

It helps to recall the setting: Moses is about to descend from Mt. Sinai with these first set of tablets, where he will discover the people dancing in front of the Golden Calf, and it is these tablets, "haruth" by the hand of G!d, that he will destroy.

So nu? Shouldn’t the fact of the tablets’ demise be more important than how they were created?

I think the problem has to do with the problem with "graven images," forbidden to us. Can the Holy One be in the business of making graven images? Or would we, given something engraved by G!d, come to worship it as an idol?

This is, I think, the problem. Now let’s see how the Sages solve it. Listen:

R. Joshua b. Levi said: A heavenly voice issues from Mount Horeb every day, saying: ‘Woe unto those creatures who neglect the study of the Torah.’ For whosoever studies not the Law continually is rebuked by God; as it says, and the tablets were the work of God, and the writing was the writing of God, graven (haruth) upon the tablets (Exo. 32:16). What is the meaning of haruth?  This was discussed by R. Judah, R. Jeremiah, and the Sages.

R. Judah said: Read not haruth (graven), but heyruth (free) from captivity. R. Nehemiah opined that it means free from the Angel of Death; whilst the Sages were of the opinion that it means free from suffering.

Midrash Rabbah – Exodus XLI:7

The Sages change "engraved" to "freed from," and then speculate about what it is that Torah frees us from: is it from captivity, like the slavery of Egypt? Or is it freedom from death, as in meriting a place in either Olam Haba, the World to Come, or at the coming of the Messiah, may it be swift and in our day? Or does it simply mean that the Torah frees us from suffering?

How can Torah free us from captivity? There is an epithet – meaning, another name for – Jews who have lost touch with their Judaism: they are referred to as the "captive children of Israel." In other words, they have been "captured" by the world, and must be "freed" from that captivity. In that sense, studying Torah indeed frees us from captivity.

Does Torah free us from death? The danger to answering "yes" to this is that it could be taken to imply that the penalty for not studying Torah is death. The only way that a "yes" to this question makes sense to me is that Torah is one of many ways to achieve a personal connection with G!d, and that any such connection – by any means, whether by Torah or not – revives our spirits.

As for Torah freeing us from suffering, alas, there are far too many today who, G!d-forbid, suffer, whether they are students of Torah or not. But I can tell you that in those moments in which I am able to immerse myself in the study of Torah, for those sweet moments of time, whatever suffering I am enduring lifts. So, in a sense, Torah can free us from suffering.

Now, as I told you, I think there is another meaning to the "freedom" of the creation of the tablets. Think about the process by which a sculptor creates: we are told, especially in the case of truly talented artists, that they take a block of stone, clay, or whatever, and simply “remove” what does not belong to the finished work. They “free” or “liberate” the work from its encasing media. So, in a sense, G!d “freed” the words from their encasing stone. But I think we can take it even deeper.

We have been taught, rightly so, that the words of Torah are living, alive for us this day. Every time we study Torah, we are given the chance to learn something new, something that never was there for us before. It is in this sense that the Torah itself must be free of the rigid constraints we might, in error, attempt to place upon it. Indeed, we must free those living words from a fixed, stone-like interpretation, and breathe life to them with our actions so that we – and they – can be alive to the world around us.

This is, for me, one more way in which G!d created words of Torah by "freedom," not "engraving." May we each be blessed with many opportunities each day to see how those words can live in our lives, and breathe life into others.

It’s always there…

Sunday, February 14th, 2010

Terumah - it's always there...
Art by Maggidah Shoshannah Brombacher, Ph.D.
Visit her gallery
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.

What’s your preference?

Sunday, February 7th, 2010

Yitro - You heard it here first
Art by Maggidah Shoshannah Brombacher, Ph.D.
Visit her gallery
Contact her at – originals from this series are available.

Parashah Mishpatim: Exodus 21:1-24:18

“Now these are the ordinances…” (Exodus 21:1)

Sometimes a value seems very clear: don’t steal, don’t murder, don’t lie. In the face of these simple, clear values, the question arises, why do we need a story? Why all these extra words? Isn’t it enough to just say, "treat everyone fairly?"

When the Sages developed midrash, they were trying to make things understandable that were either confusing or hidden within the text. Sometimes they would use a logical explanation, but often they would turn to story – to aggadah – to illuminate their point even more clearly.

This midrash – like all of the ones we choose for these emails – uses aggadah to highlight a "simple" concept: don’t prejudge people. After you’ve considered it… well, for now just listen:

It is written, Keep ye justice, and do righteousness (Isaiah 56:1). This bears out what Scripture says, These also are the sayings of the wise. To have a preference persons in judgment is not good (Prov. 24:23). The Holy One, blessed be He, said: ‘What caused the judges to know how to judge? The fact that you received the Torah in which is written, These are the ordinances, etc. Know ye therefore that "To have preference for persons in judgment is not good."’

What is the lesson of, ‘It is not good?’ It seems so obvious! But consider this: when the judge sits and judges in truth, G!d, as it were, leaves His topmost heaven and causes His Shechinah (the Divine Presence) to be at the judge’s side; but when He sees that he has a preference for some over others, He removes His Shechinah and goes back to Heaven. The angels then say to Him: ‘Lord of the Universe! What is the matter?’ He replies: ‘I saw a judge who prefers some persons and I have removed Myself from thence.’

What does G!d do? He draws His sword in front of him to remind him that there is a Judge above, as it says, Be ye afraid of the sword; for wrath bringeth the punishments of the sword, that ye may know there is a judgment (Job 19:29).

Midrash Rabbah – Exodus XXX:24

For me, the imagery of this midrash – captured so eloquently above by M’ Shoshannah! – is quite powerful. Using a very sweet carrot, we are told that the Shechinah – G!d’s divine Presence here on earth, understood to be a feminine force – sits beside a judge who judges justly, without prejudice. Yes, the stick is there too – the sword of death – but the promise of the reward is quite compelling on its own!

Taking it beyond a simple reward, it is worth considering what it means to have the Shechinah present. The Shechinah is that "surface" where the Eternal One – who is in a Wholly/Holy different world – actually touches and interacts with our own mundane world. She is not a reward, per se, but is the actual event of G!d’s power intervening in our lives!

Think on it for a moment – this midrash says that G!d is actually intervening in our world every time justice is meted out justly. (The three red letters in the illustration say "Tzedek" – Justice). By a "simple" human action, we are given the ability to invite the Divine into this world – and also given the promise that the Eternal One, in the guise of the Shechinah, will indeed appear!

How wonderful a privilege! And all we must do is be impartial in our judgments.

Now, isn’t that a better presentation than the simple "don’t prejudge others"?

What do you see?

M’ Shoshannah’s art is filled with imagery that reflects her deep understanding and interpretation of each week’s midrash. While she and I discuss these elements each week, we do not impose them upon you, the reader.

This is because, no matter what the intent of the artist, the viewer creates yet more art, more understanding, more meaning as they view the work.

So, share with us, please – what do you see? Leave a comment below, or drop us an email!

You heard it here first!

Sunday, January 31st, 2010

Yitro - You heard it here first

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

"And G!d spoke all these words, saying…" (Parasha Yitro: Exodus 20:1)

Many of us have heard the lesson that all Jews were present at Mount Sinai when the Torah was given – created or not yet created. This, in itself, creates an interesting paradox.

This midrash takes the matter a step further: what of the events that transpired there, particularly what was spoken by the Eternal One? Listen:

R. Isaac said: The prophets received from Sinai the messages they were to prophesy to subsequent generations; for Moses told Israel: But with him that standeth here with us this day before the Lord our G!d, and also with him that is not here with us this day, etc. (Deut. 29:14). It does not say ‘that is not here standing with us this day,’ but just ‘with us this day:’ these are the souls that will one day be created; and because there is not yet any substance in them the word ‘standing’ is not used with them. Although they did not yet exist, still each one received his share of the Torah, including Malachi and Isaiah.

Not only did all the prophets receive their prophecy from Sinai, but also each of the Sages that arose in every generation received his wisdom from Sinai, for so it says, These words the Lord spoke unto all your assembly… with a great voice, and it went on no more. (Deut. 5:19). R. Johanan said: It was one voice that divided itself into seven voices, and these into seventy languages. R. Simeon b. Lakish said: It was the voice from which all the subsequent prophets received their prophecy. The Sages said: It had no echo.

As to the view of R. Johanan, the following verse supports him, for it says, The Lord giveth the word; they that proclaim the tidings are a great host (Ps. 68:12).

Midrash Rabbah – Exodus XXVIII:6

According to this midrash, there are several elements to what was spoken at Sinai:

  1. It was spoken in several tongues, simultaneously;
  2. It was heard in even more tongues, again simultaneously;
  3. It was spoken with the single voice from which all wisdom and prophecy is received; and
  4. It had no echo.

Consider the first two points: G!d’s Voice is heard by each of us in the language (tongue) best suited to us. What a compelling case for the strength of diversity this makes! You and I each get to share in the Divine One’s wisdom (and other blessings), even though what I receive seems completely foreign to you!

The third point amplifies this, and brings it into the present: when we speak with wisdom, we are speaking the words / things we heard before we were conceived! How awesome, to think that the words that leave our mouths can have their direct source at Sinai! And what a responsibility for laShon haTov (good speech) that creates!

Now, the last point: that the Voice had no echo. What could this possibly mean? Here are my thoughts:

Think about echoes – what relationship do they have to their source? They sound similar, but they are diminished in power, and ultimately fade. They also "bounce" off solid objects, and seem to come to us from a very different direction than the source.

So, it seems to me, it is with G!d’s wisdom. It is never diminished, encounters no obstacles, and never comes from the "wrong" direction.

But that is just my interpretation – what do you think? Leave a comment and let me know!

The best man?

Sunday, January 24th, 2010

Beshallach - The best man?

Art by Maggidah Shoshannah Brombacher, Ph.D.
Visit her gallery
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!


Sunday, January 10th, 2010

Va'era - Focus

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

“..and cast it down before Pharaoh, that it become a serpent.” (Parasha Va’era; Exodus 7:9)

G!d is speaking to both Moses and Aaron here, giving Aaron instructions on how to proceed in the upcoming “battle of magic” with the Egyptians. Note, the ‘serpent’ is not a snake – nachas – but a kind of large sea creature – tannin – that seem almost mythological in their great size. The midrash says:

We have learnt: One who is praying must not return the greeting even of a king; and even if a snake has entwined itself round his heel, he must not cease.

Midrash Rabbah – Exodus IX:3

This seems to be a simple injunction, only peripherally related to the text. Even the midrash changes the word from ‘serpent’ to ‘snake,’ perhaps to make the practical version seem more “realistic.”

I believe there are parallel lessons here. The first, at the p’shat – simple, explicit – level is that prayer requires focused intent – kavannah – in order to allow us to achieve the greatest result. If we can pray with such concentration that even a king’s command, or warriors swirling around us, or a snake biting at our heel cannot distract us, how wonderful that would be!

For the next step, go back to the story for a moment: Here stands Aaron, about to confront Pharaoh, knowing that his staff is going to turn into a huge, monstrous sea serpent. And when he does, a gaggle of Pharaoh’s magicians do the same: Loch Ness monsters writhing around everyone! And through it all, Aaron has the composure not to break his concentration, staying with the moment, until his monster swallows all the others. What prodigious kavannah! How can we ever hope to achieve this?

For me, the answer lies in part in ritual. For example, when I davven (pray) in the morning, I have come to think of my preparations – donning gartle (prayer belt), tallit (prayer shawl) and tefillin (phylacteries) – as donning a kind of protective armor. Not to guard myself from the world of spirit, but from the material world and its calls upon me. In this way, it has become easier for me to make the transition into the world of prayer filled with more kavannah.

What rituals do you use – with or without objects – to deepen your kavannah and encounter with Spirit?