Posts Tagged ‘maggidut’

You are the potter…

Sunday, March 28th, 2010

Chol HaMoed Pesach - You are the potter...
Art by Maggidah Shoshannah Brombacher, Ph.D.
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Chol HaMoed Pesach: Exodus 33:12-34:26, Numbers 28:19-25

"And the Lord said unto Moses: Hew you two tablets of stone like the first…" (Exodus 34:1)

As always, the first thing to understand is, "what is the question?" In this case, we have a whole series of midrashim concerned about the fact that Moses destroyed the first set of tablets that G!d gave him on Sinai – what a crime that was!

Some of the midrashim attempt to mitigate the seriousness of the crime; others try to eliminate it altogether (by saying the tablets slipped, etc.). This one, however, takes a very different tack, one that almost seems juvenile to begin with! Listen:

It is written, But now, O Lord, Thou art our father; we are the clay, and Thou our potter (Isa. 64:7). The Holy One, blessed be He, said to Israel: ‘Only now am I your father; when ye find yourselves in trouble ye call Me, "Our Father!"’ They replied: ‘Yes, as it says, In the day of my trouble I seek the Lord’ (Ps. 77:3)…

What is the meaning of ‘We are the clay, and Thou our potter?’ Israel said: ‘Lord of the Universe! Thou hast caused it to be written for us: Behold, as the clay in the potter’s hand, so are ye in My hand, O house of Israel (Jer. 18:6); for this reason, do not depart from us though we sin and provoke Thee, for we are but the clay and Thou art our potter.’ See now, if the potter makes a jar and leaves therein a pebble, then when it comes out of the furnace it will leak from the hole left by the pebble and lose any liquid poured into it. Now what caused the jar to leak and thus to lose any liquid placed therein? The potter who left the pebble therein.

This was how Israel pleaded before G!d: ‘Lord of the Universe! Thou hast created in us an Evil Inclination from our youth, for it says, For the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth (Gen. 8:21), and it is that which has caused us now to sin, for Thou hast not removed from us the instigator to sin. Remove it from us, we pray Thee, in order that we may perform Thy will.’ G!d replied: ‘This will I do in the Time to Come,’ as it says, In that day, saith the Lord, will I assemble her that halts, and I will gather her that is driven away, and her that I have afflicted (Micah 4:6).

Midrash Rabbah – Exodus XLVI:4

At first glance, it seems as though the author is saying, "Don’t blame us for having sinned – it’s Your fault for having made us this way!" Or, to quote Jessica Rabbit: "I’m not bad, I’m just drawn that way…"

It also helps to know that the Hebrew yortzenu, "our potter," is a quasi pun with yetzer, short for yetzer hara, or "the Evil Inclination."

So, like last week, we see the issue of the flaw, the distinctiveness that makes us unique, as being part of G!d’s design for each of us. In this case, the flaw is definitely negative: it is the pebble that gives rise to the leak, a defect that must be overcome.

In the midrash, G!d acknowledges the flaw, if somewhat reluctantly, and promises to remove it in the "Time to Come," whether that be the Messianic Era or in Olam Haba, the World to Come. But even this begs the question: why include the pebble, why give us the flaw?

The answer comes, in part, from last week’s midrash – that G!d loves us because of those "flaws" – that distinctiveness in our characters that renders us unique. Additionally, as M’ Shoshannah points out in the sidebar, we get to do the work of clearing those pebbles as best we can, trusting that eventually the Eternal One will complete the job.

So, some might ask, why bother at all, if the end is to be taken care of? Because, I suggest, if the flaw is placed there by the Holy One, it is a remnant to be savored, a token of the creative act itself. By knowing our flaws, and struggling to overcome them, we engage with the Eternal One in a very holy, mystical activity.

May you find your pebbles to be gravel, not boulders!

A deep mystery…

Wednesday, March 10th, 2010

Vayakhel - A deep mystery...
Art by Maggidah Shoshannah Brombacher, Ph.D.
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Parashah Vayakhel: Exodus 35:1-38:20

"And Bezalel made the ark of acacia wood…" (Exodus 37:1)

The Sages use an obscure device to get to a critical problem: what is the Eternal One’s role in human suffering? Let me explain the device first, then we’ll move on to the midrash, and my thoughts on what it can mean for us.

The device is the word shittim, which in Hebrew means both a place ("Shittim") and the word for acacia wood. The place Shittim is one of the many where we Israelites got into trouble, which creates an opportunity for interpretation: why should the Ark of the Covenant be made from wood that reminds us of our rebellion against G!d’s laws?

I have abridged the midrash somewhat, as the Sages give many examples of the thesis they are promoting, namely: G!d heals us by wounding us. An astounding paradox! Listen:

It is written, For I will restore health unto thee, and I will heal thee of thy wounds (Jer. 30:17). The ways of G!d are unlike those of man; for a man inflicts a wound with a knife, and heals with a plaster, but G!d heals with the very thing with which He wounds, as it says, And when they came to Marah, they could not drink of the waters of Marah. Why? For they were bitter (Ex. 15:23). R. Levi said: That generation was bitter in its deeds.

And he cried unto the Lord; and the Lord showed him a tree (ib. 25). What kind of tree was it? Some say that it was an olive-tree, others that it was a willow-tree. Some think that it was an laurel, and still others say that it was the roots of fig and pomegranate trees. But whatever it was, it was bitter; and this he took and cast into the waters, And the waters were made sweet (ib.). A clear illustration of I will heal thee through thy very wounds.

You will similarly find it written of the days of Elisha: But the water is bad, and the land miscarries (II Kings 2:19). And Elisha said [unto the men of the city]: Bring me a new cruse, and put salt therein. And they brought it to him (ib. 20), and then we read: So the waters were healed unto this day, according to the word of Elisha which he spoke (ib. 22).

In like manner, it was in Shittim that Israel sinned, for it says, And Israel abode in Shittim, and the people began to commit harlotry with the daughters of Moab (Num. 25:1); but it was also through shittim (acacia-wood) that they were healed, for it says, And Bezalel made the ark of acacia wood.

Midrash Rabbah – Exodus L:3

Now, the problem of theodicy – the presence of evil in a G!d-created world – is perhaps the greatest challenge that any theology must face, especially if it says that G!d is all-knowing, all-powerful, and loving. As Rabbi Harold Kushner suggests, you can only have two of the three, unless you’re willing to say that there are "higher purposes," unknown to mere humans, which are served by (for example) the deaths of innocent babies.

However, most of these problems exist at the "boundaries" of our experience: those disturbing extremes that create huge challenges for every religion. For me, this notion – that we are healed by the wound that G!d inflicts upon us – is a paradox that can strengthen us in that broad middle of the road, even if it doesn’t satisfactorily answer the problems at the extremes.

Do you know how we build up our muscles, and therefore become stronger? We do it by breaking down muscles, tearing them apart in exercise. Then when they heal, they come back not merely repaired, but with more volume, and more power.

Do you know how we keep our intellects sharp, our brains healthy (and, as it turns out, as a result our bodies)? By taking on challenges that stump us; by exercising our cognitive skills in much the same way as we do our physical bodies.

I believe that the challenges that we encounter are opportunities to engage with G!d and thereby become healed – and strengthened. Am I ready to say that the Holy One, Kadosh Baruch Hu, sends us pain and suffering to improve us? No, I am not.

I am, however, ready to say that the Eternal One is a healing force that is always available to us, and that the quality of the challenge we find most difficult to face is often the one that will lead us to the most growth if we can encounter it in a spiritually positive manner.

But allow me to take this a step further. I do not believe that we can successfully have a full encounter with G!d’s healing power as individuals. I believe that we must heal each other as agents of the Eternal One, in community. All too often we forget that the brit, the covenant we have with G!d is between G!d and people, not G!d and individuals.

So, we are obligated as creatures not only made in the image of the Divine, but as sparks of the Divine in this world, to reach out to each other and help heal the wounds that have been inflicted, by whatever means.

Then, I believe, it will be true that G!d will heal us – the Divine in each of us can and will heal each of us.

Why the second post for this portion? The last one contained thoughts on a midrash, but the illustration was only peripherally related to those thoughts. Now, it happens that the midrash M’ Shoshannah and I each wanted to share is one that happens to be one of my favorites. I am pleased to say that she found it also to be quite compelling! So, now that we have overcome the technical difficulties that prevented us from delivering the "full package" earlier, please treat yourself to a second portion of midrash – in words and colors – with our distinct pleasure.


Sunday, January 10th, 2010

Va'era - Focus

Art by Maggidah Shoshannah Brombacher, Ph.D.
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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?


Sunday, January 3rd, 2010

Shmot - Miracles

Art by Maggidah Shoshannah Brombacher, Ph.D.
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"And the more they degraded [Israel], the more it increased, and the more it expanded…" (Parasha Sh’mot; Exodus 1:12)

According to Rabbi Akiba, Israel was redeemed from Egypt on account of its righteous women. What did they do? Read this sweetly fantastic tale:

When the women went to draw water, God deposited small fishes in their pitchers, with the result that they found them half filled with water and half with fishes. These they brought to their husbands, and then put on two pots, one for hot water and one for fish, and they used to feed them, wash them, anoint them and give them to drink, and cohabited with them between the mounds in the field. And as soon as they became pregnant, they went back to their homes; and when the time of their giving birth was due, they went into the field and gave birth under the apple tree. God then sent an angel from on high to cleanse and beautify the newborns like a midwife. As soon as the Egyptians perceived them, they sought to slay them, but a miracle occurred and they were swallowed into the ground. They then brought oxen and plowed upon their backs. But after the Egyptians departed, they burst forth and came out of the ground as the grass of the field. And as soon as they grew up, they came in herds to their respective homes.

Midrash Rabbah – Exodus I:12

What is the dilemma that drives this midrash? It lies deep beneath the surface, based on the faulty assumption that if something bad happens, it is a punishment for something we did wrong. Following this logic, if we were in Egypt for something we did wrong, how did we merit redemption – release from bondage?

The sages – in this case, Rabbi Akiva – take a deceptively radical position: it was the merit of the women that redeemed us. How so? By standing up to Pharaoh’s genocidal decrees, despite the apparent impossibility of individual women overcoming the force of Egypt.

Once they embarked on their course, filled with holy chutzpah and determination, then the miracles began: fish created to feed the men; angels as midwives, babies popping from beneath the earth in a mystical fecundity.

Did they pray to G!d for these miracles? No, they acted first, and then G!d intervened. This was the promise we made at Sinai: na-aseh v’nishma – we will do, and we will hear (Exodus 24:7).

Keep the sweetly fantastic images of this midrash in your mind as you face the challenges the world places before you. In so doing, remember that G!d will bless us with strength when we rise up to greet those challenges. And some of that strength may manifest itself in the most unlikely ways!

A dilemma

Sunday, December 20th, 2009

Vayigash - Dilemma

Art by Maggidah Shoshannah Brombacher, Ph.D.
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"All the souls of the house of Jacob that came into Egypt were threescore and ten." (Gen. 46:27)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Midrash Rabbah – Genesis XCIV:9

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

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

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

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


Sunday, December 6th, 2009

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

"And his master saw that the Lord was with him." (Gen. 39:3)

So here we have Joseph, slave to Potiphar in Egypt: how will he be treated? What will his life be like? The Sages give us a sweet story – and the opportunity to bring that sweetness into our daily lives.

R. Huna interpreted in R. Aha’s name: Joseph whispered G!d’s name whenever he came in and whenever he went out. If his master bade him, ‘Mix me a drink of hot liquor,’ lo! it was hot; ‘Mix it me lukewarm,’ lo! it was lukewarm.

‘What means this, Joseph!’ exclaimed he; ‘Would you bring straw to Afrayim, or pitchers to Kefar Hananiah, or fleeces to Damascus, or witchcraft to Egypt: witchcraft in a place of witchcraft!’

How long did he suspect him of witchcraft? Said R. Hunia in R. Aha’s name: Until he saw the Shechinah standing over him. Hence it says, and when his master saw that the Lord was with him… Joseph found favor in his sight.

Midrash Rabbah – Genesis LXXXVI:5

To recap: Joseph makes his way through his day, whispering the name of G!d at every little transition. Miraculously, his burdens are eased – even to the extent that when he fetches a beverage for his master it is exactly the right temperature!

Potiphar, living in a land of magicians, thinks that this is some feeble attempt on Joseph’s part to show how good a magician he is. Then, he sees the Shekhina – G!d’s presence whenever G!d interacts with our world – hovering over him, protecting him, and Potiphar knows that Joseph is indeed special.

Is it all about magic, then? Chanting the secret Name so that drinks are heated for us by G!d, saving us a step to the microwave? Of course not! And yet…

We can bring magic into our lives: not stage magic, but the real touch of the Shekhina, that Feminine presence of G!d which brings healing, shelter, and surcease from our troubles. How? What is the magic word, the Ineffable Name? It requires nothing of the sort.

All we have to do is invite G!d into our lives, with simple actions: a murmured prayer, a little mitzvah (commandment), giving of our time or money to the less fortunate. And, like Joseph, don’t settle for issuing a single invitation! Keep working at your openness, for the more room you make, the more you will be filled.

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Angelic Luggage?

Sunday, November 29th, 2009

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

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

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

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

The Crossing

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

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

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

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

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

Midrash Rabbah – Genesis LXXVII:24

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

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

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