Posts Tagged ‘Judaism’

Marriage and fire…

Sunday, 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…

Tuesday, 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?

A fringe of blue…

Sunday, May 30th, 2010

Shelach Lecha - A fringe of blue...
Art by Maggidah Shoshannah Brombacher, Ph.D.
Visit her gallery
Contact her at shoshbm@gmail.com – originals from this series are available.

Behaalot’cha: Numbers 8:1-12:16

"That they make them… fringes" (Numbers 15:38)

The question of the week is far more pragmatic than usual. In this section, we are commanded to make fringes – with a single thread of blue – and attach them to the corners of our garments. In a style more typical of Talmud, the questions arise about the color, the number, and so on. But from all this emerges some poetic interpretations. And then I’ll take us a little further! The midrash begins by wondering about the color blue. Listen:

R. Meir asked: Why is blue distinguished above all other kinds of colors? Because blue resembles the sky, and the sky resembles the Throne of Glory; as is borne out by the text, And they saw the God of Israel; and there was under His feet the like of a paved work of sapphire stone and the like of the very heaven for clearness (Ex. 24:10). And it shall be unto you for a fringe (Lev. 15:39). This implies that the fringe must be such as can be seen. (The root of the Hebrew word for fringe, tzitzit, signifies "to look.") That ye may look upon it (ib.). This serves to exclude from the law a cloak used as a covering at night. Or perhaps this is not so, and it serves to exclude a blind man? Scripture says further that ye may remember (ib. 40), thus ordaining both seeing and remembering: remembering for him who cannot see, and seeing for him who can see. That ye may look upon it, for if you act in accordance with the law it is as though you look upon the Throne of Glory, which is blue in appearance. That ye may look… and remember (ib.). The looking leads to remembering the commandments, and remembering leads to performance; as it says, that ye may remember. And do (ib. 40). Why should they do it? For it is no vain thing for you (Deut. 32:47).

Midrash Rabbah – Numbers XVII:5

Let’s begin with the basics: why should we be commanded to wear a fringe on our garments, and why should it have a single strand of blue (the word for this color is techelet, which is a very specific shade of blue).

At the time of our wanderings, nomadic tribes had a custom of identifying which group they were a part of through their clothing, just like today you can tell which branch of Hassidism someone belongs to by the way he dresses, or your political proclivities in Israel by the type of kippah (yarmulke) you wear. The method that every tribe used was to create a "marker" of fringes, with specific colors used to identify your tribe. So our "identifier" was a set of white fringes with a single blue thread: by wearing this arrangement, we would announce to the world that we were one of b’nai Yisrael, the Children of Israel. This was, in a sense both very literal and very modern, our "colors."

Of course, such a simple explanation is never enough for our Sages, so they went further by asking questions, the first being, Why blue? Such a sweet and simple answer: because we associate G!d with living in the heavens, and we associate the heavens with the sky, and on a clear day the sky is blue, so what could be more natural? A sweet, almost childish simplicity to the answer; but it will return to us, more deeply, you can be sure.

The next series of questions establish that the fringes must be worn in such a way that they can be seen. Why? So we can look at them. Why? So that when we look at them, we will remember. What should we remember? The laws we were given. And why should we remember them? So that we will do them!

What began as a way of identifying ourselves to each other becomes a way of encouraging us to keep the commandments by providing us with a constant reminder of who we are. M’ Shoshannah shares a snippet of a lovely story about the magic of tzitzit to do just that; if you’d like the whole story, email me and I will share it with you.

But it’s not that the tzitzit themselves protect us, and it’s really not that they remind us directly of who we are and what we are obliged to do (although that they do this is true).

The tzitzit also provide a visual reminder of who we are to everyone else. And suddenly we are not just an individual walking down the street, one of the anonymous crowd, but someone who has chosen to make it clear to the world that they are a Jew. In so doing, every action they take becomes representative of all Jews everywhere.

What an amazing and challenging burden – and opportunity! What would it be like to live your life as if every thing you did not only brought honor or shame to you, but to everyone you were close to? Everyone in your neighborhood? And beyond?

It’s not that by wearing these tzitzit we are reminded to look up to G!d, but we are reminded that we are acting as a beacon. And what is it that we wish to shine forth from us?

Let us each step up to the challenge of living a life, not of transparency, but of illumination, whatever our religion may be: illumination of the best we have to offer. Just imagine how bright and beautiful the world will be!


What about that blue?

On September 5, 1977, the deep space probe Voyager 1 was launched on a mission to photograph the solar system, and then to travel out into deep space, carrying a message from planet Earth to whoever (whatever?) might find it. The message had been designed under the leadership of the renowned astronomer, Carl Sagan, of blessed memory.

On February 14, 1990 Voyager left the boundaries of the solar system. Responding to Sagan’s long-standing urges and dreams, NASA issued a command to Voyager 1 to turn back and "look" upon our planet from a distance of roughly 6 billion kilometers (3.7 billion miles). This is the picture it returned to us: what Sagan called "a pale blue dot." You can read his extraordinary commentary here.

I like to imagine that the Holy One, Ha Kodesh Baruch Hu, smiles at the techelet color of our home…

Surrounded – and led…

Sunday, May 9th, 2010

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

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.

Sticks and stones…

Sunday, April 25th, 2010

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

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

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

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.