Posts Tagged ‘scripture’


Sunday, November 8th, 2009

This week’s midrash has a lot more personal context than I expect most will have. My mother Sally, of blessed memory, was an inveterate teller of bad jokes. When I discovered the punch line as a minor feature in one of the midrashim for this week well, it was just too sweet to pass by.

This one’s for you, Mom.

“And Abraham took another wife, and her name was Keturah…” (Gen. 25:1)

The question addressed by this week’s midrash has to do with his selection of another wife following the death of Sarah. As often happens, one proof text leads to another (with an accompanying teaching and question), which leads to another, until we arrive at:

R. Simeon b. Yohai said: Abraham’s father did not teach him, nor did he have a teacher; whence then did he learn the Torah? The fact is, however, that the Holy One, blessed be He, made his two kidneys serve like two teachers for him, and these welled forth and taught him wisdom; thus it is written, I will bless the Lord, who hath given me counsel; yea, in the night seasons my kidneys instruct me (Psalms 16:7).

Midrash Rabbah – Genesis LXI:1

To understand the personal context, and the meaning I derive from it, we must first hear Midrash Sally:

Once there was a patient in a psychiatric facility who wanted to be released back into the world. His psychiatrist said he would have to pass a simple test: identify the parts of his arm.

“Simple!” the patient exclaimed, “This is my wrist, my shoulder, and my elbow,” pointing to his shoulder, elbow and wrist, respectively.

“Not ready,” declared the psychiatrist.

A year later he tried again: “Shoulder, wrist and elbow!”

“Not yet.”

Another year: “Shoulder, elbow and wrist!”

“Very good! You’re ready to leave.”

Back in his room, packing his things, he beamed when his roommate asked him how he had done it.

“Simple!” he grinned, tapping his temple. “Kidneys!”

The ancients had a different set of metaphors for organs and functions than we do. The most obvious (and most relevant) is that of the heart: we use it as a metaphor for the seat of love and concern; in Biblical times, it was the seat of the mind and thoughtfulness. Likewise, the kidneys were the seat of conscience and wisdom; I know of no modern spiritual metaphor for the kidneys.

But let’s stay with the heart for a moment. It is critical to substitute “mind” (or some similar term) for “heart” when reading Scriptures, at least until we understand the notion the ancients had when crafting the phrase. For example, when G!d hardens Pharaoh’s heart, it’s to make the Pharaoh stubborn, not unfeeling. When we’re told to circumcise the foreskin of our hearts, it’s not to make us more sensitive to the feelings of others, but more open-minded.

Such a substitution may seem jarring at times, and there are many occasions in which we will want to retain our modern metaphor (loving G!d with all our heart, or not hating another in our heart). But using the substitution will free up our thinking, and expand our understanding – give us a bigger heart – so that we can have a richer experience of our holy texts.

But understanding is never enough – we have to develop our kidneys – er, conscience and wisdom! – as well!

Studying Scripture – an Interfaith Dialogue

Thursday, November 20th, 2008

Come to Bet Havarim’s Shabbat services this Friday evening (November 21) for a unique chance to share in an interfaith dialogue regarding the week’s portion, Chaye Sarah (the life of Sarah).

This month’s service will be hosted by the Rev. William Redfield, and members of the congregation of Trinity Episcopal Church in Fayetteville at 7:30 pm. Hanita Blair, Bet Havarim’s Cantorial Soloist will lead the service and will be assisted by members of BH’s Shabbat committee. Joining in the service will be Guest Speaker, Jim Brulé and Rev. Redfield who will discuss that week’s Torah Portion from the perspective of the Jewish and Christian Faiths, respectively. “Both Jim Brulé and Rev. Redfield have spoken at past BH services and having them speak jointly will be something that everyone attending will truly enjoy,” said Mel Shindler, chair of Bet Havarim’s Shabbat Committee. He added, “We know that speaking about the Torah portion from their individual faiths will be something we have never previously experienced and are truly looking forward to the experience.”

Trinity Episcopal Church is located at the corner of East Genesee and Chapel Streets in Fayetteville, across from Hullar’s Restaurant. The November 21st Shabbat service will be conducted in the church’s social hall and the entrance is at 106 Chapel Street. Off-street parking is available directly across from the Chapel Street church entrance and the social hall entrance is handicapped accessible. For further information visit the BH website.