Posts Tagged ‘bible’

Swear it!

Sunday, July 4th, 2010

Mattot / Maasei: Numbers 30:2-end

"And Moses spoke unto the heads of the tribes… When a man voweth a vow unto the Lord…" (Numbers 30:2)

Swear it!

The beginning of this portion raises the issue of vows, and differentiates between a man’s vow and a woman’s vow, which you would think would be sufficient controversy. This midrash, however, takes a look at what is required in order to make a vow at all, and then draws some interesting conclusions that have woven their way into many of our customs of speech. And, finally, it prescribes a practice and proscribes its opposite, the forbidden side of which has (of course!) found its way into deeply spiritual practice. So, let’s go!

The first thing to remember is what a "vow" means in this context. A vow is something one promises to do, using the Tetragrammaton – the four-letter name of G!d. The major (and included) variation of this vow is when one vows that something is true, calling on G!d as witness to the truth of that statement.

Now we’re ready for the midrash – listen!

Hence it is written, And wilt swear: As the Lord liveth in truth, in justice, and in righteousness (Jer. 4:2). The Holy One, blessed be He, said to Israel: ‘Do not imagine that you are permitted to swear by My name even in truth. You are not allowed to swear by My name unless you possess all the following attributes.’

(1) Thou shalt fear the Lord thy God (Deut. 10:20), implying that you must be like those who were called God-fearing men, namely Abraham, Job, and Joseph.

(2) Him shalt thou serve (Deut. 10:20); that is to say, if you concentrate your attention upon the Torah and the performance of precepts, having no other work.

(3) And to Him shalt thou cleave (ib.). But can a man cleave to the Shechinah? Is it not already stated, For the Lord thy God is a devouring fire (ib. 4:24)? Yes, but it serves to inform you that if a man, marrying his daughter to a disciple who studies the Scripture and the Mishnah, engages in commerce and allows him to benefit from his wealth, such is the man of whom it says, And to Him shalt thou cleave.

If you possess all these attributes you are permitted to swear, but if not you are not permitted to swear.

A story is told of King Jannai who owned two thousand towns, and they were all destroyed on account of true oaths. How? A man would say to his friend: ‘On my oath, I shall go and eat such-and-such a food at such-and-such a place. And I shall drink such-and-such a drink at such-and-such a place!’ They would go and fulfill their oath and would be destroyed (for swearing to trifles). If this is the fate of one who swears in truth, how much more so of one who swears to a falsehood.

Midrash Rabbah – Numbers XXII:1

What a tremendous value is placed on our "word" – our oath! The value is so strong that many build fences around this highly unlikely event – promising in the name of the Eternal One – by qualifying everything promised with phrases like "G!d-willing," or the acronym "iyH" (im yirtzeh Hashem, if it is G!d’s will).

The rationale here is two-fold: first, by making such a vow, we are both professing a connection to the Eternal One that would validate our statement, and also putting the Holy One’s reputation at stake as a result of our actions. No wonder the Sages were more than wary of such an action!

Their criteria for even considering making a vow are quite high: we must fear, serve, and "cleave" to G!d with every breath – and who among us can achieve such closeness? Only the three patriarchs, it would seem – just in case anyone was starting to feel a little self-confident.

But then they take it even further, and say that one should never make a vow at all, for if it is trivial, the triviality of what we place between us and the Eternal One will be our demise. So, in the words of Seinfeld:

No vows for you!

Except that…

There is a spiritual practice of making vows – small but non-trivial – as a way of "cleaving" closer to G!d. As M’ Yitzhak Buxbaum teaches,

A vow is a promise to God to do something specific for His sake, and it is a very effective way to lift yourself up spiritually and to insert discipline into your religious life. God has given us the power, by our spoken vow, to obligate ourselves like at Mount Sinai. For when you make a vow, a solemn promise to God that you will do something, you are obligated equally as with the commandments given at Mount Sinai.

Jewish Spiritual Practices, 1990, p. 290

He also provides guidelines and sources for such a practice, of which Rabbi Nachman of Breslov was an avid proponent.

Just imagine: what would it be like to make a small but meaningful promise to do something with God in mind – and put yourself entirely on the line for it? How wonderful it could be to take this matter seriously! For the truly dedicated to this practice, a qualifying clause is often inserted into the vow, such as "I vow to devote my best efforts to… provided that nothing occurs which, had I known about it prior to making this vow, I would not have made this vow."

Yes, it can sound like an "easy out," but then, one doesn’t undertake such a practice lightly, so the qualifications are every bit as serious.

Consider, then, what can be gained from this decidedly controversial practice, and whether it would augment or diminish your own spiritual path. If you decide to try it, please let me know your experiences!

May we all find meaningful ways to cleave to the Eternal One.

Visit the archive for the email version of this page to learn more about cleaving – and why there isn’t a picture this week. Yet.

Confidence, or boasting?

Sunday, July 4th, 2010

Pinchas - Confidence, or boasting?
Art by Maggidah Shoshannah Brombacher, Ph.D.
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Pinchas: Numbers 25:10-30:1

"And Moses brought their cause…" (Numbers 27:5)

There are standards and strategies for the traditional interpretation of Scripture. For example, if two verses seem to contradict each other, than a way must be found to make both opinions correct. Such a paradigm leads to significant theological development: what is it about G!d’s creation that opposites can both be true?

Another standard is that the heroes of our stories should be seen in a positive light whenever possible. One of my favorite examples of this is the Talmudic epithet, "If that were so, then Moses was a prophet!" What the text really means is the opposite: If that were true, then the world would be so upside down that he wasn’t a prophet. But so great is the unwritten sanction that the Talmud won’t even say that explicitly, in fear that it could be taken out of context.

All of which is background for this week’s midrash, which says some unusual things about Moses, and in so doing teaches a powerful message – or two!

The context is the daughters of Zelophehad, who have brought a question about property rights following the death of their father who had no sons as offspring. Instead of answering them himself, Moses brings the question to G!d. Listen:

Some hold that the law was hidden from Moses. There are cases where righteous men have boasted of some matter connected with a precept and the Holy One, blessed be He, weakened their power. You find that David boasts: Thy statutes have been my songs (Ps. 119:54), as much as to say that they are easy and familiar like songs. Said the Holy One, blessed be He: ‘By your life! You will in the end err in a matter that children read in the Scripture!’ When he brought up the ark he erred and put it on a cart; as it says, And they set the ark of God upon a new cart (II Sam. 6:3). The ark suspended itself in the air and the cows beneath it slipped. Uzzah drew near to support it, And God smote him there for his error. And David was displeased, because the Lord had broken forth upon Uzzah (ib. 7,8). The Holy One, blessed be He, said to him: ‘Did you not say, "Thy statutes have been my songs"?’

It was the same with Moses. Because he had boasted: The cause that is too hard for you ye shall bring unto me, and I will hear it (Deut. 1:17), G!d diminished his mental powers. Moses had said: ‘The cause that is too hard for you ye shall bring unto me.’ When the daughters of Zelophehad, however, came, He concealed the law from him, and Moses brought their cause before the Lord. The daughters of Zelophehad speak right (27:7). This, He meant, is the law! The Holy One, blessed be He, said to him: ‘Did you not say, "The cause that is too hard for you ye shall bring unto me"? The law with which you are unacquainted is decided by the women!’

Midrash Rabbah – Numbers XXI:12

The plain message is clear: the reason that Moses brought the case before G!d was that he was being punished for boasting about his powers of judgment. And, in a twist that must be read in the context its time for its true wry humor, even women have better powers of judgment than he!

So at one level, we must be wary of becoming boastful, even if we’re not particularly concerned about cows flying as a result of our self-promotion. But why is this lesson taught with such power and emphasis, using Moses as the target for punishment and ridicule, he who is normally exempt from such midrashic vehicles?

The lesson goes to the heart of the laws regarding lashon hara, or evil speech: gossip. The "what" of these laws is easy to understand, but can be difficult to practice: don’t speak in a way that might cause another to be harmed or embarassed, even if what you are saying is true. The rationale for this law, however, is both deep and sweet.

When we bring shame to another, it is not merely that we have harmed another of G!d’s creatures. When we tell the story of the foolish person who did "x, y, z" – even if that person is completely anonymous! – we are disparaging the work of the Holy One’s creative efforts. Why? Because by saying a creation is flawed, we disparage the Creator.

And if we are to follow the theological imperative that we must find a way for opposites to be held as both correct, then surely we must find a way to find the beauty in the creative act that is every human being. Now, I can hear the arguers ready to raise the extreme cases of truly evil people, but to that I say, let it rest.

Think about the bulk of humanity, and how we speak of them and treat them. Let us find a way to honor the Creator in our daily lives by finding the beauty in all those creative acts, no matter how confusing or befuddling they might appear to be!

Then, Moses will be known to be as wise as women, who are as wise as he – and you and me.

Who are you?

Sunday, June 20th, 2010

Balak - Who are you?
Art by Maggidah Shoshannah Brombacher, Ph.D.
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Balak: Numbers 22:2-25:9

"And he took up his parable…" (Numbers 24:3)

Sometimes a midrash addresses a matter of law, or halachah, as does this week’s midrash. It still helps to understand what is happening in the portion, however. In this case, Balaam is standing before the nation of Israel, and about to bless them with the words that form part of our morning liturgy: "Mah tovu ohalecha, Yaakov, mishk’notecha, Yisrael" – How lovely are your tents, O Jacob, your dwellings, O Israel!

The sages weren’t too happy about an "idolater" speaking with G!d and getting to give such a rich blessing, which is at least in part the reason for this midrash. But first, a word about observance. As M’ Shoshannah notes in her sidebar, we all choose levels of observance, and neither she nor I would want to tell people what they should or should not observe. But it helps to understand what is going on by reading the midrash "as if" one were fairly observant in their practice. That disclaimer being offered, let’s proceed.

The next thing to consider is which perspective to take in regards to how we will hear the midrash. This week, M’ Shoshannah and I draw entirely different lessons from the same midrash, which is one of several different midrashim drawn from the same text. What further evidence does one need of the joys of study! Now, open your hearts, and listen:

Halachah: If a man has eaten without previously washing his hands, does he incur a penalty? Our Rabbis have taught: Washing the hands before a meal is optional; after a meal it is obligatory. An incident is related that during the period of religious persecution a certain Israelite shopkeeper used to cook ritually clean meat as well as the flesh of swine and sell them, so that it might not be suspected that he was a Jew. His practice was that if anyone came into his shop to eat and did not wash his hands, he would know that he was an idolater and would place before him the flesh of swine, but if a man washed his hands and recited the blessing he would know that he was an Israelite and would give him clean meat to eat. Once a Jew came in to eat and did not wash his hands, so he thought that he was an idolater and placed swine’s flesh before him. The man ate and did not say the Grace after Meals. When he came to settle the account with him for the bread and the meat the shopkeeper said to him: ‘I have a claim on you for such-and-such a sum on account of the meat you have eaten, for each piece costs ten manehs.’ Said the other: ‘Yesterday I got it for eight and to-day you want to take ten from me, do you?’ The shopkeeper answered him: ‘The piece you have eaten is from the swine.’ When he told him this his hair stood on end, and he fell into a great fright and said to him under his breath: ‘I am a Jew and you have given me swine’s flesh!’ Said the shopkeeper to him: ‘A plague on you! When I saw that you ate without washing your hands and without a blessing I thought you were an idolater!’ Hence the Sages have taught: The neglect of the water before the meal led to his eating the flesh of swine; that of the water after the meal killed the soul.

Midrash Rabbah – Numbers XX:21

If this midrash is about something else beside the importance of keeping kashrut, what could that topic be? This is a critical question to ask of every midrash, of every bit of text, of every story. We absolutely must understand the plain meaning of the text, but we should also be ready to turn it and turn it, and discover new, additional meanings as well. We must also bear in mind that no one meaning is the "correct" or "better" meaning: they live in harmony with each other, sometimes complementing each other, sometimes contradicting, just like our holy language Hebrew does with its letters, words and phrases.

So what else is this story about? It is about knowing and being known, about communication and the clash of expectations and assumptions.

Each of us, try as we may to do otherwise from time to time, lives at the center of the universe. We see the world through our own eyes, we know that what we know is correct. While we carry the intellectual understanding that others may have a different opinion, or that they actually see the world in a different way, this is a difficult perspective for us to maintain for any lengthy period of time: we just don’t seem to be "wired" for it.

I have never seen this condition rendered as eloquently as I did on one teenager’s t-shirt at the state fair: "As a matter of fact, the world does revolve around me!" Cute, but oh so true.

In our midrash, each of the characters knows what the other is: the butcher knows he is serving a non-Jew, and the customer knows the butcher knows he is Jewish. How have they come to their conclusions? Because of the actions they have observed in the other: the butcher sees someone who does not maintain the same level of observance as he, and the customer has (in the past) received kosher meat for the appropriate price without having had to ask for it.

The moment of revelation is world-shattering for each of them: things are not what they seemed; what is true is false; assumptions are shattered and expectations fail. These moments, in the most extreme of which we question not only what we know but who we are, are extremely rare and extremely powerful – and decidedly unsettling. In fact, Gregory Bateson, the cyberneticist who studied how complex systems learn, called this "Level III learning" – which he described as "spiritual experiences."

How could something so uncomfortable, unsettling be spiritual? Because these are moments when we are yanked from the center of the universe and forced to encounter the Other. Such encounters consume our attention, our comfort, and at times, momentarily our "self."

How do we approach and attempt to understand these moments? Certainly with awe and trembling – we are, indeed wired for these responses. But what about our attitude: will we embrace them, ready to let a new "us" emerge from the encounter? Or will we recoil from them, crying "sin!" and "foul!" and wrapping the old and familiar around us as tightly as we can?

Our instincts, our "wiring," will encourage us to the latter. But I believe our souls, that spark of the Divine that resides within us, will lead us to the former – and to new worlds, as yet unknown and unseen.

May we each be blessed with the terrifying moments of encountering the unexpected, and the strength to embrace them.

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.

On what merit?

Sunday, February 21st, 2010

Tetzaveh - On what merit?
Art by Maggidah Shoshannah Brombacher, Ph.D.
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Parashah Tetzaveh: Exodus 27:20-30:10

"And this is the word/thing…" (Exodus 29:1)

The sages use this midrash to take the dilemma of Aaron’s participation in the creation of the egel hazahav (“golden calf”) to explore the question of worthiness in being chosen by G!d. In so doing they teach a sweet lesson about the power G!d’s promises.

This is a longer midrash (which I have abridged somewhat), with deep teachings. It is "launched" from the fact that the Hebrew "d’var" means both "word" and "thing." Also, I have placed M’ Shoshannah’s reflections on her illustration in the at the end of this post… Enjoy!

It is written, Forever, O Lord, Your word stands fast in heaven (Ps. 119:89). Does then the word of God stand fast only in heaven, but not on earth? R. Hezekiah b. Hiyya said: This is because God made a promise in heaven, which was fulfilled on earth for that righteous man Abraham after two hundred and ten years. How so? When the Holy One, blessed be He, said to Abraham: ‘Get you out of your country… and I will make of you a great nation’ (Gen. 12:1f), the latter replied: ‘Lord of the Universe! What benefit do I derive from all these blessings, since I am about to depart from this world childless?’

Said God to him: ‘Are you sure that you will no longer give birth to a child?’ The reply was: ‘Lord of the Universe! My horoscope tells me that I will be childless.’

‘So you are afraid of your horoscope?’ God retorted. ‘As you live, it will be as impossible to number your offspring as it is to number the stars of heaven.’

R. Judah b. R. Simon said in the name of R. Hanin: It was then that God raised Abraham above the vault of the heavens and said to him: Look now toward heaven, and count the stars, if thou be able to count them; and He said unto him: So shall thy seed be (ib. 15:5); that is: Just as you see all these stars and cannot count them, so numerous will your children be, for none will be able to number them… a proof that ‘Forever, O Lord, Your word stands fast in heaven.’

This also you now find in the case of Aaron: God made a promise to Moses, saying: And bring you near to you Aaron your brother… that he may minister to Me in the priests’ office (Ex. 28:1), an assurance which He kept when He said: and this is the thing that you shall do to them, etc.

Midrash Rabbah – Exodus XXXVIII:6

In the simplest terms, Aaron "merits" the honor of being the first High Priest for a basic reason: G!d promised it, and the Holy One’s promises are always kept. Is this, however, a sufficient answer? If it were, why would we need the story?

Read the story again: it is about Abraham’s doubt, his downright mistrust of the promise of "a great nation," expressed explicitly to the Eternal One. And upon what does he base that doubt? On the predictions of astrologers, who have measured his "planet" (as the original states).

What happens when Abraham expresses such bold skepticism? He is elevated to the heavens, to look upon all of Creation, and see the love that G!d has for him – and us. Then he is told, "Trust Me. Be patient. It will be."

Was Aaron any less worthy than Abraham? Other midrash (as M’ Shoshannah relates) suggest that he was an unwilling participant, but was just trying to keep the peace. Like Abraham, he is in the company of pagan practices, and perhaps even listens to them. But HaKodesh Baruch Hu remembers the promise, remembers the Love for us, and elevates him.

If Abraham, who speaks directly with G!d, can doubt G!d and still be elevated; if Aaron, who has heard G!d and seen the miracles in Egypt can help build an idol and still be elevated… cannot we, in our troubles and doubt, be granted the same?

And notice, finally, that no severe repentance was necessary: "all" that had to be done was to stay in conversation with G!d.

Listen for that still, small voice. It calls to us in Love.



Maggidah Shoshannah writes:

Aaron decides to be the one to lead the people in making the egel hazahav (golden calf), since he is a kohen (priest), but he looks very pained.

How does it feel? They just committed themselves to HaShem (G!d), Moshe (Moses) is still on the mountain, and now those spoiled people want to go back to man made statue ‘gods’ like in Mitzrayim (Egypt)! Feh, feh, feh! He must have cried, he must have been angry, and then he decided to do the best he could in bad circumstances.

Behind him Moshe looks suspiciously around with his luchot (tablets). I did not paint Moshe descending the mountain: instead, he is there in Aaron’s thoughts. Aaron knows what they do is wrong, hence his distorted face and his whole posture which ‘screams’ repulsion.

The egel stands in the middle like a ‘real calf,’ is is an idol without power: I show it blue and not golden.

The people are feasting in the bottom left corner, but like Aharon they do not show bliss and real pleasure, or intense hitlahavut (spiritual ecstasy, like dancing Chassidim). No, they show contorted faces: it’s an orgy, they are in frenzy, but derive no real pleasure of this.

In the arch of the sky I show Avrom Avinu (Abraham our father), who feared because the astrologer (planet) predicted that he would have no children. But now he is surrounded by the stars, as numerous as the b’nai Yisrael – the children of Israel.

What’s your preference?

Sunday, February 7th, 2010

Yitro - You heard it here first
Art by Maggidah Shoshannah Brombacher, Ph.D.
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Contact her at shoshbm@gmail.com – originals from this series are available.

Parashah Mishpatim: Exodus 21:1-24:18

“Now these are the ordinances…” (Exodus 21:1)

Sometimes a value seems very clear: don’t steal, don’t murder, don’t lie. In the face of these simple, clear values, the question arises, why do we need a story? Why all these extra words? Isn’t it enough to just say, "treat everyone fairly?"

When the Sages developed midrash, they were trying to make things understandable that were either confusing or hidden within the text. Sometimes they would use a logical explanation, but often they would turn to story – to aggadah – to illuminate their point even more clearly.

This midrash – like all of the ones we choose for these emails – uses aggadah to highlight a "simple" concept: don’t prejudge people. After you’ve considered it… well, for now just listen:

It is written, Keep ye justice, and do righteousness (Isaiah 56:1). This bears out what Scripture says, These also are the sayings of the wise. To have a preference persons in judgment is not good (Prov. 24:23). The Holy One, blessed be He, said: ‘What caused the judges to know how to judge? The fact that you received the Torah in which is written, These are the ordinances, etc. Know ye therefore that "To have preference for persons in judgment is not good."’

What is the lesson of, ‘It is not good?’ It seems so obvious! But consider this: when the judge sits and judges in truth, G!d, as it were, leaves His topmost heaven and causes His Shechinah (the Divine Presence) to be at the judge’s side; but when He sees that he has a preference for some over others, He removes His Shechinah and goes back to Heaven. The angels then say to Him: ‘Lord of the Universe! What is the matter?’ He replies: ‘I saw a judge who prefers some persons and I have removed Myself from thence.’

What does G!d do? He draws His sword in front of him to remind him that there is a Judge above, as it says, Be ye afraid of the sword; for wrath bringeth the punishments of the sword, that ye may know there is a judgment (Job 19:29).

Midrash Rabbah – Exodus XXX:24

For me, the imagery of this midrash – captured so eloquently above by M’ Shoshannah! – is quite powerful. Using a very sweet carrot, we are told that the Shechinah – G!d’s divine Presence here on earth, understood to be a feminine force – sits beside a judge who judges justly, without prejudice. Yes, the stick is there too – the sword of death – but the promise of the reward is quite compelling on its own!

Taking it beyond a simple reward, it is worth considering what it means to have the Shechinah present. The Shechinah is that "surface" where the Eternal One – who is in a Wholly/Holy different world – actually touches and interacts with our own mundane world. She is not a reward, per se, but is the actual event of G!d’s power intervening in our lives!

Think on it for a moment – this midrash says that G!d is actually intervening in our world every time justice is meted out justly. (The three red letters in the illustration say "Tzedek" – Justice). By a "simple" human action, we are given the ability to invite the Divine into this world – and also given the promise that the Eternal One, in the guise of the Shechinah, will indeed appear!

How wonderful a privilege! And all we must do is be impartial in our judgments.

Now, isn’t that a better presentation than the simple "don’t prejudge others"?


What do you see?

M’ Shoshannah’s art is filled with imagery that reflects her deep understanding and interpretation of each week’s midrash. While she and I discuss these elements each week, we do not impose them upon you, the reader.

This is because, no matter what the intent of the artist, the viewer creates yet more art, more understanding, more meaning as they view the work.

So, share with us, please – what do you see? Leave a comment below, or drop us an email!

Psalm for 19 Tevet

Tuesday, January 5th, 2010

Let the heavens rejoice and the earth exult,
         let the sea and all its fullness thunder.
Psalm 96:11

How magnificent to imagine all of creation rejoicing! My mind can barely contain the image… perhaps because it is not intended for the mind…


And now, for a more carefully considered plan regarding these daily Psalms.

Upon the sterling advice of a dear friend and treasured sage, I will not be interpreting Psalms on a daily basis. Instead, I will set the pace a little more judiciously: I will provide the schedule (or is it pschedule?) for each week in advance, and tweet/facebook status the verse that moves me. Then, I will pick one of those and reflect on it in the following week. This should help keep the volume of reading down for you all, and allow me a better chance of living up to my commitment.

How wonderful is the wisdom of friends!


Day Secular Lunar Psalms
Tue 5 Jan 10 19 Tevet 90-96
Wed 6 Jan 10 20 Tevet 97-103
Thu 7 Jan 10 21 Tevet 104-105
Fri 8 Jan 10 22 Tevet 106-107
Sat 9 Jan 10 23 Tevet 108-112