Posts Tagged ‘bible’

Which is better? A or B?

Monday, November 16th, 2009

This week’s portion, Toldot, contains the following verse:

"And G!d said to [Rebekah], ‘Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples will be dispersed from your insides. And one people will be mightier than the other people, v’rav va-avod tza-ir.’"(Gen. 25:23)

Most people read the Hebrew to mean "the elder will serve the younger," but in fact the structure of the Hebrew may also be taken to mean "the elder, the younger will serve." R’ Richard Friedman teaches in the name of R’ David Freedman:

Like the Delphic oracles in Greece, this prediction contains two opposite meanings, and thus the person who receives it – Rebekah – can hear whatever she wants (consciously or unconsciously) to hear.

Commentary on the Torah, pg. 88

The heart of the matter arises from the fact that Biblical Hebrew has a structure that contains a high degree of lexical ambiguity: things may have more than one meaning at the same time. This arises not just out of the lack of vowels and punctuation in Torah (although these omissions enhance the ambiguity), but out of the fundamental structure of the language itself. For example, the subject and the object can each precede or follow the verb!

In the case of our verse, most people get stuck trying to figure out which meaning God intended. Which one is correct? Is Esau to serve Jacob, or is Jacob to serve Esau?

The answer comes only when we allow ourselves to move beyond the question of which option is right.

What we must do is take the phrase literally, at its deepest level of meaning: namely, G!d spoke ambiguously to Rebekah. G!d’s message to her was:

"v’rav va-avod tza-ir – One of your sons will serve the other, and I’m not going to tell you which."

This ambiguity runs rampant throughout Biblical Hebrew, and therefore throughout our theology. It forces us to view the world from an entirely different perspective, albeit a difficult one. It forces us to realize that we live in a world in which opposites can be true at the same time.

It turns out that this same ambiguity lives at the heart of our physical universe, with the interesting corollary that it is only when we observe something that the ambiguity dissolves.

Or, theologically speaking, it is only when we exercise our free will that the murkiness lifts.

Just as Rebekah is given a choice by G!d to influence the outcome of her sons’ lives, so are we given choices: not to ultimately decide, but to influence. To work toward the creation of a reality that has the shape and substance that we desire.

Indeed, rather than spending our time trying to figure out exactly what was said, we should be spending our time in action (not inaction), as G!d’s partners in the eternal moment of Creation.

What a tremendous gift!

Will You remember me?

Sunday, October 18th, 2009

“And G!d remembered Noach, and every living thing, and all the cattle that were with him in the ark.” (Gen. 8:1)

The first, and obvious, question is: How is it that G!d should have to remember us? Does this imply that, Heaven forbid, G!d forgets us? While they wrestle with that elsewhere, the sages were not happy with such an implication. Instead, in the prelude to this story, they suggest that when G!d’s attention is turned to us, it is full of tenderness and compassion. But then R. Joshua takes it a step further:

R. Joshua interpreted in R. Levi’s name: The Lord is good to all, and He inspires mankind with His spirit of compassion. In the days of R. Tanhuma, Israel had need of a fast because of drought, so they went to him and requested: ‘Master, proclaim a fast.’ He proclaimed a fast, for one day, then a second day, and then a third, yet no rain fell. Thereupon he ascended the pulpit and preached to them, saying: ‘My children! Be filled with compassion for each other, and then the Holy One, blessed be He, will be filled with compassion for you.’ Now while they were distributing relief to the poor they saw a man give money to his divorced wife, whereupon they went to R. Tanhuma and exclaimed, ‘Why do we sit here while such misdeeds are perpetrated!’ ‘What then have you seen?’ he inquired. ‘We saw So-and-so give his divorced wife money.’ He summoned him and asked him, ‘Why did you give money to your divorced wife?’ ‘I saw her in great distress,’ replied he, ‘and was filled with compassion for her.’ Upon this R. Tanhuma turned his face upward and exclaimed: ‘Sovereign of the Universe! This man, upon whom this woman has no claim for sustenance, yet saw her in distress and was filled with pity for her. Seeing then that of Thee it is written, The Lord is full of compassion and gracious  (Ps. CIII, 8), while we are Thy children, the children of Thy beloved ones, the children of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, how much the more shouldst Thou be filled with compassion for us!’ Immediately the rain descended and the world enjoyed relief.

Midrash Rabbah – Genesis XXXIII:3

So, what is this with the divorced man and his ex-wife? The Rabbi had told everyone to show compassion, and everyone had gone off to feed the poor – wasn’t that sufficient? And why was the man hauled before the rabbi for such a simple act?

I will briefly guess at the answer to the second question before I offer my thoughts on the first. Clearly, this was an action to be frowned upon; perhaps people suspected him of illicit intent, or of demeaning a current wife of his.

More importantly, it was something he was not obligated to do – unlike feeding the poor, which we are all obligated to do. So what distinguishes his act is that he stepped beyond the boundary of necessary and went to extraordinary.

Such, it seems to me, is the nature of G!d’s compassion for us: it extends beyond what is necessary and into the extraordinary. And yet, there are those who are in desperate need of such Divine tenderness, such Divine compassion. Where is G!’d’s attention?

R. Joshua’s compelling lesson is that we must be – in fact, we are! – the vehicle for that Divine tenderness, that mercy, that compassion. It comes into the world when we bring it here, when we make it manifest.

May the tender rain of Divine compassion fall upon the entire world, and may we find the strength between and among us to bring it here.

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.

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.