Posts Tagged ‘maggidut’

For the sake of one…

Sunday, November 1st, 2009

“I will go down now…” (Gen. 18:21)

This midrash begins as G!d is about to travel down to Sodom and Gomorrah to mete out punishment to those two cities. Midrashim abound on what their crimes were; everything from the bizarre to the macabre is catalogued. For example, if a visitor didn’t fit the inn’s bed exactly, they would be stretched or shortened as needed! And if you struck someone, causing them to bleed, then they had to pay you for the privilege of being bled!

In the case of understanding this week’s midrash, it must be known that giving charity was a crime punishable by death. Listen to what the Sages tell us, and see what they might be teaching:

R. Levi said: [G!d said]: ‘Even if I wished to keep silent, justice for a certain maiden (ribah – Gen. 18:20) does not permit Me to keep silent.’

For it once happened that two damsels went down to draw water from a well. Said one to the other, ‘Why are you so pale?’

‘We have no more food left and are ready to die,’ replied she. What did she do? She filled her pitcher with flour and they exchanged their pitchers, each taking the other’s.

When the Sodomites discovered this, they took and burnt her.

Said the Holy One, blessed be He: ‘Even if I desired to be silent, justice for that maiden does not permit Me to keep silent.’

Hence it does not say, WHETHER THEY HAVE DONE ACCORDING TO THEIR CRY; but ACCORDING TO HER CRY – the cry of that maiden.


Midrash Rabbah – Genesis XLIX:6

The play on words here is accomplished by changing the word describing the outcry of the citizens of Sodom from rabbah, meaning ‘great’ to ribah, meaning a maiden, managed by changing the (unwritten) vowel from ‘a’ to ‘i.’ What is the purpose of this maneuver? In order to understand this, we must ask (as always), what is the question?

The question is a bit convoluted in itself, but the lesson is sweet. Recall that Abraham negotiated that the cities should be spared if there were only 10 righteous men. If the call of the citizens was so great (rabbah), wouldn’t it seem as though there were at least 10 good men? So why didn’t Abraham win the bargain?

If, however, it was the cry of a single woman, then the destruction of the cities is warranted. Fair enough; but where is the sweetness of the lesson?

For me, it is that the recognition of the solitary voice of a single maiden in distress is enough to rouse the Eternal One, and compel the Divine to action! But, I hear you say, how many voices, male and female, cry out at injustice done to them? If this is true, where is G!d’s hand?

It is, my dear ones, at the end of our arms, yours and mine.

May we be blessed with the ears to hear, the hearts to feel, and the hands to lift up the fallen.

And the king will yearn…

Sunday, October 25th, 2009

“And G!d said to Avram: ‘Go, you, from your land…'” (Gen. 12:1)

R. Yitzhak opened with: Listen, princess, and look, incline your ear, and forget your people, and your father’s house. (Ps. 45:11)

R. Yitzhak said: This may be compared to one who was passing from place to place and saw a fortress doleket (“burning” or “illuminated”). He said, ‘Will you say this fortress has no governor?’ The master of the fortress peeped out at him. He said to him, ‘I am the master of the fortress.’ Thus, because our father Avraham would say, ‘Will you say this world has no governor?’ the Holy One, Blessed be He, peeped out at him and said to him, ‘I am the Master of the world.’

And let the king yearn for your beauty – to beautify you in the world – for he is your master, and bow down to him (Ps. 45:12), that is, ‘And G!d said to Avram…’

Midrash Rabbah – Genesis XXXIX:1

This is a very deep midrash, and I owe the best of these insights to my Rebbe, M’ Yitzhak Buxbaum, who inspired us in a class that delved deeply into this text. I must also recommend Simi Peters’ excellent text, Learning to Read Midrash, which was our source during these classes.

As usual, the first question to ask is, “What is the question?” In this case, the question is, “Why Avram? What did he do to merit this amazing blessing and progeny?” This midrash is one of several that attempt to provide an answer; amongst them, this is the most mystical.

The surface meaning is simple, and enticing. It suggests that Avram was able to look at the world around us and recognize that it must have a Creator; having such an insight (presumably at a time when others did not) was the basis for Avram’s being chosen. Oh, but let’s go deeper!

The mashal – the analogy used to teach the lesson in this parable – is that of a fortress doleket, a term normally understood to mean “burning.” So at this level, Avram perceives not only the world and knows it must have a Creator, but also that the world is burning: i.e., in peril. What is that peril? Perhaps that the “fortress” appears to be unattended. “Never fear,” calls out the governor as the traveler’s worry mounts, “I am here.” So the Creator not only was known to Avram intellectually, but responded directly to Avram’s yearning for the repair of the world.

Now, deeper still.

The fortress may not be on fire – in danger – but may, on the contrary, be illuminated: engulfed in the bright light of the Divine! Now, the traveler’s recognition and searching is not out of fear, but out of recognition that the whole of Creation is suffused with the radiance of G!d! And of course, at that recognition, G!d doesn’t just appear to Avram, but “peeps out:” playfully, mischievously, lovingly!

And yet, deeper still.

The “sandwich” of verses from the Song of Songs (known as the petihta) invites us further in. Recall that the Song of Songs is understood to be a love song between G!d and Israel. In these verses, they highlight the yearning of the G!d for us, rather than the other way around. The “daughter” is being encouraged to leave her house, her people, and succumb to the king’s yearnings – just as Avram was asked to leave his home, his land, his people. In this setting, it is not that G!d chooses Avram in some form of contest or test, but because G!d loves him – and us! – so much that the Holy One, Blessed be He, is drawn out from behind the Curtain to peep out at us and say – here I am! Hineini! Come, and let Me love you!

May we all be blessed with knowing the Eternal’s yearning for us…

The Empty Sukkah

Tuesday, October 6th, 2009
Rabbi Pinchas of Koretz (1726-1791) was one of the two most significant disciples of the Baal Shem Tov (Besht). Along with the Maggid of Mezrich, he became one of the leaders of the Hassidic movement after the Besht’s death.
His was a powerful and, some might say, intimidating personality. In fact, he preferred solitary study, and frowned upon those who interrupted him. However, as time went by he became more and more well-known, and began to be besieged with disciples and supplicants. And as the numbers of seekers grew, so did his frustration. “All” he wanted was to be left alone to pray and study!
Finally, he hit upon an idea. He prayed to Heaven with great fervor that he should become unattractive, unpopular, downright repulsive to people. So strong was his prayer that it was granted: the supplicants stopped coming to him, and before long, whenever he walked down the street people would cross to the other side rather than encounter him.
R’ Pinchas was thrilled. He dove deeper and deeper into his prayer, meditation and study, and was almost invisible during the Ten Days of Awe.
Shortly thereafter, it was time to build his sukkah, the hut in which the observant live for the week of Sukkot. Normally, there would be a host of students to help – but not this year! No one even spoke to him about the holiday, let alone offer to him. Finally, he had to hire a non-Jew to help him build it, but it was hard to even find the materials, so reluctant were his neighbors to help.
“A small price,” he thought, “for the serenity of study.” And as sundown approached, he headed to the synagogue, for it is a requirement to invite and entertain guests in the sukkah. But no one in the congregation would speak to him, let alone be his guest for dinner – not even the poor and destitute!
Dejected, he made his way back home after services, taking some small consolation from the fact that he would be visited that night by the spirit of Abraham, our Father, the first of the Ushpizin – the seven mystical visitors who attend each of the seven evenings of Sukkot in the huts of the worthy. Arriving in the sukkah, he began chanting the ritual invitation.
But Abraham did not come.
He repeated the invitation, with greater intensity, but still nothing. Finally, after pouring his soul into a third cry – some say the boughs wept at his yearning – the spirit of Abraham appeared, but stood at a distance, unwilling to enter.
R’ Pinchas urged him to enter, but he stood there silently, unmoving. “Why won’t you enter? What have I done?” R’ Pinchas begged.
“Am I not renowned for my hospitality? Was not my tent open on all sides, to receive guests from all worlds? Where are your guests? How can I enter a place where there is no loving-kindness?”
R’ Pinchas’ eyes were opened: he immediately prayed that his former wishes be revoked, and that he should instead learn the lessons of Avraham Imeinu, Abraham our Father. Soon his reputation was restored, and he was sought out by even more supplicants than before. But now, R’ Pinchas understood that the way to learn Torah was not in isolation, but in loving community, and his wisdom continued to increase.

Rabbi Pinchas of Koretz (1726-1791) was one of the two most significant disciples of the Baal Shem Tov (Besht). Along with the Maggid of Mezrich, he became one of the leaders of the Hassidic movement after the Besht’s death.

His was a powerful and, some might say, intimidating personality. In fact, in his early days he preferred solitary study, and frowned upon those who interrupted him. However, as time went by he became more and more well-known, and began to be besieged with disciples and supplicants. And as the numbers of seekers grew, so did his frustration. “All” he wanted was to be left alone to pray and study!

Finally, he hit upon an idea. He prayed to Heaven with great fervor that he should become unattractive, unpopular, downright repulsive to people. So strong was his prayer that it was granted: the supplicants stopped coming to him, and before long, whenever he walked down the street people would cross to the other side rather than encounter him.

R’ Pinchas was thrilled. He dove deeper and deeper into his prayer, meditation and study, and was almost invisible during the Ten Days of Awe.

Shortly thereafter, it was time to build his sukkah, the hut in which the observant live for the week of Sukkot. Normally, there would be a host of students to help – but not this year! No one even spoke to him about the holiday, let alone offer to him. Finally, he had to hire a non-Jew to help him build it, but it was hard to even find the materials, so reluctant were his neighbors to help.

“A small price,” he thought, “for the serenity of study.” And as sundown approached, he headed to the synagogue, for it is a requirement to invite and entertain guests in the sukkah. But no one in the congregation would speak to him, let alone be his guest for dinner – not even the poor and destitute!

Dejected, he made his way back home after services, taking some small consolation from the fact that he would be visited that night by the spirit of Abraham, our Father, the first of the Ushpizin – the seven mystical visitors who attend each of the seven evenings of Sukkot in the huts of the worthy. Arriving in the sukkah, he began chanting the ritual invitation.

But Abraham did not come.

He repeated the invitation, with greater intensity, but still nothing. Finally, after pouring his soul into a third cry – some say the boughs wept at his yearning – the spirit of Abraham appeared, but stood at a distance, unwilling to enter.

R’ Pinchas urged him to enter, but he stood there silently, unmoving. “Why won’t you enter? What have I done?” R’ Pinchas begged.

“Am I not renowned for my hospitality? Was not my tent open on all sides, to receive guests from all worlds? Where are your guests? How can I enter a place where there is no loving-kindness?”

R’ Pinchas’ eyes were opened: he immediately prayed that his former wishes be revoked, and that he should instead learn the lessons of Avraham Imeinu, Abraham our Father. Soon his reputation was restored, and he was sought out by even more supplicants than before. But now, R’ Pinchas understood that the way to learn Torah was not in isolation, but in loving community, and his wisdom continued to increase.

What makes this a holiday?

Tuesday, October 6th, 2009

What makes this a special day? And what can we learn from the single midrash contained in Midrash Rabbah about it? Glad you asked!

“On the eighth day you shall have a convocation, no task of work shall you do” (Num. 29:35)

First, a little context: in the description of each of the seven preceding days, the number of bulls to be sacrificed is reduced each day from thirteen to seven. On the eighth day, however, the number drops to one. Noting a difference, the sages wondered about what made the eighth day unusual. Earlier in this midrash, in establishes that the “convocation” is a “festive season,” and hence the midrash that follows.

A heathen addressed a question to R. Akiba. He said to him: ‘Why do you celebrate festive seasons? Did not the Holy One, blessed be He, say to you: Your new moons and your appointed seasons My soul hateth’ (Isa. 1:14)? Said R. Akiba to him: ‘If He had stated, “My new moons and My appointed seasons My soul hateth” you might have spoken as you did. But He only said, “Your new moons and your appointed seasons”!’ That was in reference to those festive seasons which Jeroboam ordained (see I Kings 12:32-33). Our festive seasons, however, will never be abolished, neither will the New Moons. Why? Because they belong to the Holy One, blessed be He; as it says, These are the appointed seasons of the Lord (Lev. 23:4, and similarly Lev. 23:2 and Lev. 23:44). Consequently they will never be abolished, and of them it says, They are established for ever and ever, they are done in truth and uprightness (Ps. 111:8).

Midrash Rabbah – Numbers XXI:25

On the surface, we have one of those quibbles between literalists that seems to be of minimal merit: finding contradictions, gaps, and just plain unintelligible passages within the Bible is like shooting fish in the barrel – if we’re only reading at the surface. Even Akiba’s response seems more like Shammai – don’t bother me with such trivia! Here’s the plain solution – than Hillel.

At a deeper level, though, what distinguishes G!d’s festivals from ours, given that they are all found in the Bible? The answer comes, I believe, from Isaiah, but more from Chapter 58 than Chapter 1. What Isaiah speaks to there is how we transform a day that should be holy into something mundane, or more properly, something profane. By not honoring the spirit of the day, by executing the form without the substance, we cast off the chance for an encounter with G!d and instead engage in meaningless bobbing and weaving, “bowing (our) head(s) like a reed.”

When we swallow the letter of the law without the Spirit, it’s like we’re drinking ink, not the honey we have been taught to see the letters as written with. When we take the holiness out of holidays, we end up with just more days.

Thankfully, the holidays will never be lost to us. We must only embrace them for what they are: G!d’s gift of an opportunity to celebrate and remember our partnership, our covenant, our embrace with the Eternal.

May your eighth day – and all that precede and follow it! – be blessed with the sheltering embrace of the Shekhina.

New Year’s Laughter!

Sunday, September 13th, 2009
The year’s weekly cycle of Torah portions gets a bit confuzzled during the Days of Awe. We skip over, slide back, and do all sorts of things to make the readings coincide with the season.  With Rosh Hashanah falling on Shabbat this year, our weekly reading coincides with the holiday’s reading: Genesis 21:1-34 and Numbers 29:1-6.
Let’s have a look at what Divine inspired laughter can induce!
“Laughter has G!d made me;  whoever hears will laugh with me.” (Gen. 21:6)
Here is the context: Sarah has almost impossibly (inconceivably?!) given birth to Yitzhak, whose name means laughter. The text reads in typical Biblical ambiguity that “whoever hears will laugh with / at me.” If you heard that someone of Sarah’s age had just given birth, which would you do? Would you be joyful for them? Or would you laugh at the challenge of raising a newborn? Here’s what the sages suggest:
R. Berekiah, R. Judah b. R. Simon, and R. Hanan in the name of R. Samuel b. R. Isaac said: If Reuben has cause to rejoice, what does it matter to Simeon? Similarly, if Sarah was remembered, what did it matter to others? But when the matriarch Sarah was remembered [gave birth], many other barren women were remembered with her; many deaf gained their hearing; many blind had their eyes opened, many insane became sane. For ‘making’ [HATH MADE] is mentioned here, and also elsewhere, viz. And he made a release to the provinces (Est. II, 18). As the making mentioned there means that a gift was granted to the world, so the making mentioned here means that a gift was granted to the world.  R. Levi said: She increased the light of the luminaries: ‘making’ is mentioned here, viz. GOD HATH MADE FOR ME, while elsewhere it says, And God made the two lights (Gen. I, 16).
Midrash Rabbah – Genesis LIII:8
What does all this mean, in literal terms? What is the p’shat?  Simply, that the event of Yitzhak’s birth – or more precisely, Sarah’s joy around it! – made other barren women fertile, allowed the deaf to hear, the blind to see, and the insane to become sane. Moreover, even the sun, moon, and stars shone more brightly!
Do you believe in such miracles? Can joy really change the fate of others, especially fate that is described as unchangeable? Here is at least one way in which I believe such miracles take place:
Have you, or someone you loved or were close to, ever been pregnant? Remember how, during those days, there seemed to be pregnant women everywhere? Surely your pregnancy didn’t cause the pregnancy of others, but equally certainly it altered your perception of the world in dramatic fashion. Laugh, and the world laughs with you.
Of course, the opposite is true. We may not be able to conceive on demand, or shed the burdens that life places on us with a simple smile. But we can change how we approach them, and I can tell you – from direct personal experience – that that makes all the difference in the world.
Literally.
May you each be blessed with a sweet and prosperous New Year, and inscribed in the Book of Life for good!

The year’s weekly cycle of Torah portions gets a bit confuzzled during the Days of Awe. We skip over, slide back, and do all sorts of things to make the readings coincide with the season.  With Rosh Hashanah falling on Shabbat this year, our weekly reading coincides with the holiday’s reading: Genesis 21:1-34 and Numbers 29:1-6

Let’s have a look at what Divine inspired laughter can induce!

“Laughter has G!d made me;  whoever hears will laugh with me.” (Gen. 21:6)

Here is the context: Sarah has almost impossibly (inconceivably?!) given birth to Yitzhak, whose name means laughter. The text reads in typical Biblical ambiguity that “whoever hears will laugh with / at me.” If you heard that someone of Sarah’s age had just given birth, which would you do? Would you be joyful for them? Or would you laugh at the challenge of raising a newborn? Here’s what the sages suggest:

R. Berekiah, R. Judah b. R. Simon, and R. Hanan in the name of R. Samuel b. R. Isaac said: If Reuben has cause to rejoice, what does it matter to Simeon? Similarly, if Sarah was remembered, what did it matter to others? But when the matriarch Sarah was remembered [gave birth], many other barren women were remembered with her; many deaf gained their hearing; many blind had their eyes opened, many insane became sane. For ‘making’ [HATH MADE] is mentioned here, and also elsewhere, viz. And he made a release to the provinces (Est. II, 18). As the making mentioned there means that a gift was granted to the world, so the making mentioned here means that a gift was granted to the world.  R. Levi said: She increased the light of the luminaries: ‘making’ is mentioned here, viz. GOD HATH MADE FOR ME, while elsewhere it says, And God made the two lights (Gen. I, 16).

Midrash Rabbah – Genesis LIII:8

What does all this mean, in literal terms? What is the p’shat? Simply, that the event of Yitzhak’s birth – or more precisely, Sarah’s joy around it! – made other barren women fertile, allowed the deaf to hear, the blind to see, and the insane to become sane. Moreover, even the sun, moon, and stars shone more brightly!

Do you believe in such miracles? Can joy really change the fate of others, especially fate that is described as unchangeable? Here is at least one way in which I believe such miracles take place:

Have you, or someone you loved or were close to, ever been pregnant? Remember how, during those days, there seemed to be pregnant women everywhere? Surely your pregnancy didn’t cause the pregnancy of others, but equally certainly it altered your perception of the world in dramatic fashion. Laugh, and the world laughs with you.

Of course, the opposite is true. We may not be able to conceive on demand, or shed the burdens that life places on us with a simple smile. But we can change how we approach them, and I can tell you – from direct personal experience – that that makes all the difference in the world.

Literally.

May you each be blessed with a sweet and prosperous New Year, and inscribed in the Book of Life for good!

Here’s Looking at You!

Sunday, August 16th, 2009

The Sages liked to promote a peaceful resolution of conflict, whenever possible. This peace, they knew, had to begin in the home: “shalom bayit.” So even when it was time to teach about the peace between nations, they would turn it to the need for peace between husband and wife.


“When you approach a town to do battle with it, you shall call to it for peace.” (Deut. 20:10)

This week’s portion, Shoftim, is the basis for one of the more compelling images to call for peace. Even so, there are deeper levels available to us from this “rich” tale…

The sages call to us: “Come and see how great is the power of peace!” There was a woman who was a disciple of Rabbi Meir, listening to his lessons on Sabbath evenings. One time she stayed very late, and her husband was angry at how long she had been away. “I swear that I won’t let you back in this house until you go and spit in his face!” What could she do? He was a great sage, and yet she yearned for her husband. For three weeks, she could not return home.

Then Elijah, of blessed memory, appeared to R. Meir and told him what had happened. The next time the woman came to listen, he called out, “Is there any woman here who knows the charm for a sore eye?” The woman, understanding his meaning, rose and spit in his eye; “Do it seven times!” he enjoined her. When she finished, he said, “Go back and be reconciled with your husband: tell him he asked you to spit in my face once, and you did it seven times!”

See how great is the power of peace.

Midrash Rabbah – Deut. V:15

At the simplest level we must ask ourselves: what are we willing to do to promote peace? How far will we go to help another, someone we barely know? Few of us would ever measure up to R. Meir’s performance. And yet, is he without blame?

The complete midrash speaks of the woman being absent until the Shabbat candles had gone out. Remember, the duty of every couple on Shabbat is to make love – and here she is, “studying” with the Rabbi! Even if their relationship was as physically distant as some of the other tellings make it sound, did not Meir have a responsibility not to interfere in her marital relationship? Is he not guilty of some form of seduction?

And to go deeper still: which is more important – the love of study, or loving another? How wonderful that a midrash can speak to us at so many levels through one “simple” story!

Learning and Motivation

Friday, June 26th, 2009

Summarized from “How We Decide,” by Jonah Lehrer, 2009:

In the 1990’s, research was conducted on over 400 fifth grade students in a dozen NYC schools. Each student was given a very simple set of puzzles to solve, and then told (no matter what the outcome) one of two things: “You’re really smart at this,” or “I can see you worked very hard at this.”

Each student was then given the choice of working with a hard puzzle or an easy puzzle. 90% of the ones praised for their efforts took the hard puzzle; most of the ones praised for their success took the easy one.

Then each student was given a very difficult puzzle, and was told that it was a hard puzzle, but that they would learn a lot from working at it. Those who had been praised for their efforts worked long and hard at it, and most declared that it was the best puzzle so far. Most of those praised for their success gave up quickly.

Finally, each student was given the original puzzles to solve. Those who had been praised for their success suffered a 20% reduction in their performance.

This has implications for our secular and spiritual lives.

Do we seek success or struggle? Do we expect G!d to answer our prayers, or wrestle with us? Do we ask our colleagues to play it safe, or stretch themselves – and us?

To rephrase Ahnold: “Come with me, if you want to wrestle!”