Posts Tagged ‘Torah study’

Bursting…

Sunday, June 6th, 2010

Korach - Bursting...
Art by Maggidah Shoshannah Brombacher, Ph.D.
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Korach: Numbers 16:1-18:32

"And the staff of Aaron…" (Numbers 17:21)

In this troubling and confusing parashah, we have the story of Korach’s rebellion against Moshe. If you subscribe to the documentary hypothesis – that the Torah is comprised of multiple human authors, and then Divinely assembled, some of the confusion can be understood. But whatever you believe, this story of an uprising by leaders of the people who seem, at face value, to have reasonable demands is unsettling. Of course they are defeated, by some combination of being swallowed alive by the "mouth of the earth" and death by plague – or both! And then there is one final encounter, in which a staff is set aside for each tribe, Aaron’s staff being used for the Levites, and lo and behold, Aaron’s staff bursts into flower and the others do not, thereby establishing his legitimacy. But haven’t we heard about this staff before? Or was it in a dream? Listen:

Some say that it was the staff which had been in the hand of Judah, in regard to which it says, And thy staff that is in thy hand (Gen. 38:18). Others say that it was the staff that had been in the hand of Moses. It budded of its own accord; as it says, And, behold, the rod of Aaron… was budded (Num. 17:23). Others again say that Moses took a beam and, cutting it into twelve planks, said to the princes: ‘Take your sticks every one of you from the same beam.’ Why did he do this? He did it in order that they should not say that Aaron’s rod was fresh and that this was the reason why it budded.

The Holy One, blessed be He, decreed that on the staff should be found the Ineffable Name that was on the plate (ziz), as may be inferred from the text, And put forth buds, and bloomed blossoms – ziz (Num. 17:23). It budded on the same night and yielded fruit.

That same staff was held in the hand of every king until the Temple was destroyed, and then it was divinely hidden away. That same staff also is destined to be held in the hand of the Messiah (may it be speedily in our days!); as it says, The staff of thy strength the Lord will send out of Zion: Rule thou in the midst of thine enemies (Ps. 90:2).

Midrash Rabbah – Numbers XVIII:23

The choice of a staff made from an almond tree is, of course, no coincidence. Other parts of this same midrash wonder why it didn’t yield a different fruit, such as pomegranates or nuts, but don’t say why it was from an almond tree!

In the common understanding of the times, the almond tree was the symbol of love: not just plain old love, or even romantic love, but the explosion of impetuous, first love, bursting out! Almond trees have tremendously fragrant and beautiful blossoms, and they erupt into blossom unpredictably – hence the association.

So what does this have to do with Aaron?

Aaron, whatever his other strengths or foibles may be, is primarily cast as the peacemaker. Indeed, in this very incident he stands between the firepots and the people, limiting the plague. So in a simple way, it does make sense that a symbol of love should be chosen for the brother who tends to epitomize the loving relationship between G!d and Israel.

But powerfully romantic?

Remember, the relationship between G!d and Israel is often cast as a marriage. At the time, and really until relatively recently, Jewish marriages were nearly always arranged. Love was something that blossomed later, more slowly, over time. An impetuous love was seen more as an infatuation, not something that would endure. Indeed, in modern times those who continue to subscribe to arranged marriages continue to hold these views.

So now it should be especially intriguing that we choose impetuous, impulsive, dare I say erotic love to symbolize the one who will establish the priesthood and, for many centuries, the vehicle for communication between G!d and the people!?

It is, in fact, this extravagant contradiction leads us to a deeper, sweeter truth: it is in fact G!d that erupts into this world, flooding our senses with a powerful yearning and joy, when we allow such moments to occur. To take advantage of the metaphor, what we must do is till the ground, plant the seed, feed and water it, with extreme patience. Because that moment of fruitful blossoming comes without warning, and lasts but an instant.

And returns, like clockwork, cycle after cycle.

How wonderful the power of metaphor!

A fringe of blue…

Sunday, May 30th, 2010

Shelach Lecha - A fringe of blue...
Art by Maggidah Shoshannah Brombacher, Ph.D.
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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…

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.

Surrounded – and led…

Sunday, May 9th, 2010

Bmidbar - Surrounded - and led...
Art by Maggidah Shoshannah Brombacher, Ph.D.
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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.

A kind word – or sixty!

Sunday, May 2nd, 2010

Behar / Bechukotai - A kind word - or sixty!
Art by Maggidah Shoshannah Brombacher, Ph.D.
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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.

Sticks and stones…

Sunday, April 25th, 2010

Naso - Sticks and stones...
Art by Maggidah Shoshannah Brombacher, Ph.D.
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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.