Posts Tagged ‘maggidut’

On your honor…

Sunday, July 11th, 2010

Devarim: Deuteronomy 1:1-3:22

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Midrash Rabbah – Deuteronomy I:15

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Like mother’s milk…

Sunday, May 23rd, 2010

Behaalotcha - Like mother's milk...
Art by Maggidah Shoshannah Brombacher, Ph.D.
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Behaalot’cha: Numbers 8:1-12:16

"Gather unto Me seventy men…" (Numbers 11:16)

The textual challenge this week is a little simpler, a little more pedantic. Moses is told to collect seventy men, upon whom will be bestowed the power of prophecy. Ultimately, however, seventy-two receive the gift, and two of them – the protagonists of this midrash – receive an even greater gift than the remaining seventy. There are, of course, multiple lessons embedded in the passage. Listen:

When the Holy One, blessed be He, said to Moses: gather unto Me seventy men, Moses thought: What shall I do? If I bring five from each tribe the total will not amount to seventy and there will only be sixty. If I bring six from one tribe and five from another I will introduce jealousy between one tribe and another. What did he do? He took seventy-two ballots and wrote on them ‘elder,’ and another two ballots he left blank. Then he mixed then up in an urn and proclaimed: ‘Come and draw your ballots.’ A man who drew out a ballot inscribed with the word ‘elder’ knew that he had been appointed an elder, and one who drew out a blank knew that he had not been appointed, and the superintendent would say to him: ‘There is still a ballot in the urn inscribed with the word "elder," and had you been worthy of being appointed you would have drawn it.’ This procedure having been adopted, the elders were duly appointed. Eldad and Medad who were there withdrew into the background, saying: ‘We are unworthy of being among the appointed elders.’ In return for their self-effacement they proved to be superior to the elders in five things. The elders prophesied only regarding the following day; as may be inferred from the text, And say thou unto the people: Sanctify yourselves against tomorrow (Num. 11:18), while these prophesied concerning what would happen at the end of forty years; as may be inferred from the text, But there remained two men in the camp… and they prophesied (ib. 26).

Midrash Rabbah – Numbers XV:19

The problem of the extra two is sweetly resolved by a little exercise in mathematics and chance by Moses, and this is used to teach an important lesson about humility, which M’ Shoshannah touches upon in her comments in my weekly email, which you can subscribe to here. This is, indeed, the heart of the lesson, and it is important not to brush it aside.

And yet there is, of course, more. The word which the midrash (and many older editions) translate as "prophesy," as in foretell the future – vayit’nab’u – can also be translated as to "speak in ecstasy." This meaning (adopted by most modern translations) is more correct, in that the notion of a prophet foretelling the future is largely foreign to traditional Judaism. Indeed, the evangelical sense of "speaking in tongues" is much closer to what happened to these seventy-two men.

Their actions were perceived as strange or inappropriate by the other leaders, who tried to restrain them, but they were clearly seen by Moses as not being merely tolerable, but actually desirable. He cries, Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, that the Lord put His spirit upon them! (Num. 11:29).

To understand this, we must look back to why this incident happened: Moses was complaining about how he was going to satisfy the ever-grumbling children of Israel, who were complaining about not getting enough good food to eat. And here is where the sweet mystery appears:

The two men are named Eldad and Medad. My Rebbe, M’ Yitzhak Buxbaum, reminded us that in Hebrew, the suffix dad means "breast." Here the Ha Kodesh Baruch Hu’s spirit – ruach – settles on these two, and they become the nourishers of the people, their ecstasy being the Divine milk that comes in words not understood, but felt.

Is it any coincidence that when we speak of the moment of G!d’s effecting the material world we call that the Shekhina – the feminine side of G!d?

What a nourishing, nurturing experience it is to allow ourselves to be sheltered and fed, in simple joy or profound ecstasy, by the Eternal One!

And, lest you forget, each one of us has only to invite the Divine in, with openness, vulnerability, and humility, to taste that sweet, sweet nectar.

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.

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.

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.

Divine joy…

Sunday, April 4th, 2010

Shemini - Divine joy...
Art by Maggidah Shoshannah Brombacher, Ph.D.
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Shemini: Leviticus 9:1-11:47

"Drink no wine nor strong drink." (Leviticus 10:9)

In this week’s portion, we have the rather disturbing event of the death of Nadab and Abihu, the two sons of Aaron, as they perform a sacrifice using "unfitting fire" which had not been commanded by God. No detail is given about what made the fire "unfitting," or whatever else may have been awry with their actions, but the penalty is swift and severe: "And fire came out from in front of the Lord and consumed them! And they died in front of the Lord." (Lev. 10:2)

What was their transgression? The Sages probed a number of possibilities: perhaps it was the nature of the fire: was it prepared improperly, according to another people’s rituals, thereby making it "unfitting?" Or perhaps the key is in the fact that it had not been "commanded:" an offering that would have been acceptable at a different time, but in this case at the wrong juncture. Others have suggested that it was not according to a prescribed formula (hearkening back to the "unfitting" issue), and thereby forbidden.

These interpretations have one thing in common: sacrifices must be offered in a precisely correct way, at the precisely correct time, in order to be acceptable. They do not allow for the spontaneity of offerings, something we as Jews have managed to embrace over time. So the Sages searched elsewhere for an explanation.

It happens that the next time in Torah that God speaks, it is to forbid the drinking of wine or beer by Aaron and his sons at the Tent of Meeting "so you won’t die" (Lev. 10:8). It is therefore not unreasonable to conclude that Nadab and Abihu’s crime was that they attempted to perform the sacred rituals while drunk. From this reasoning spring many midrashim, most of them railing against the abuses of alcohol. But consider this very different midrash from R. Aha; listen:

R. Aha said: There is a story of a man who kept on selling his household goods and drinking wine with the proceeds. Said his sons: ‘Our father will leave nothing for us.’ So they plied him with drink, and made him drunk, and took him out and placed him in a cemetery. Wine merchants passed the gate of the cemetery, and hearing that a seizure for public service was to take place in the province, they left their loads within the cemetery and went to witness the uproar in the province. The man, waking up from his sleep and seeing a skin bottle above his head, untied it and put it in his mouth. Three days later his sons said: ‘Should we not go to see what father is doing?’ They went and found him with the wine-skin in his mouth. They said: ‘Even here has your Creator not forsaken you. Seeing that He has given you wine, we do not know what we should do to you.’ They made an arrangement amongst themselves that the sons should in turn provide him with drink, one son one day.

Midrash Rabbah – Leviticus XII:1

What are we to learn from this curious midrash? Surely the Sages don’t want us to conclude that rampant, unconstrained drunkenness is a good thing?

The solution, I believe, lies in us looking to wine as the standard metaphor for joy, especially spiritual joy. With this "lens," the lesson shifts somewhat: a joyful encounter with God is more important than possessions, and if we are dedicated to this quest, this invigorated life of the spirit, then even those who place well-intended obstacles in our way can be overcome.

However, we cannot ignore the literal meaning of this midrash: unfettered imbibing in the pleasures of the flesh can lead us to a life where that joy is illusory, surrounded by death and the demise of those who care for us. Which interpretation is correct?

As is the hallmark of our heritage, we must find a way to make them both true: not one or the other, but some creative amalgam of the two. This comes, I believe, from the lesson of balance, and the challenges we face as we try to navigate in the worlds of spirit and substance. We must find the path that leads us to unbounded joy while leaving the wisdom of saying "no" to excesses intact; the path in which the energy of the Spirit moves us through the trials of the material world at just the right pace, neither so quickly that we float above matters of consequence nor so slowly that we sink into the mire.

May we each be blessed with the vision – and the community! – to help us maintain that balance, and the strength to lend a hand to others who occasionally lose theirs.