Posts Tagged ‘maggid’

The best man?

Sunday, January 24th, 2010

Beshallach - The best man?

Art by Maggidah Shoshannah Brombacher, Ph.D.
Visit her gallery
Contact her at – originals from this series are available.

"And it came to pass, when Pharaoh had let the people go…" (Parasha Beshallach: Exodus 13:17)

This is one of a pair of midrashim that plays on the opening word of the portion, which is "wayyehi," or "It was." By taking the first syllable as a word (remember, there are no punctuation marks or vowels in the Torah, and even the division between words is somewhat arbitrary), the sages saw the exclamation "way!" – "alas!" If someone is wailing, they wondered, who was it? Moses or Pharaoh? Both, it turns out – and here is Moses’ story…

When Pharaoh let the people go, who wailed "Alas!" (Way!)? It was Moses. This can be compared to a man who was appointed to be the shoshbin (a position like the best man) for the king’s daughter, but who learned that it had been foretold that he would not be allowed to enter the house of the groom with her for the nuptial ceremony. People, seeing him begin to weep, asked him why. He answered, "I weep because, though I have taken much trouble in bringing her out of her father’s house, yet I am not destined to be at her side in the marriage ceremony." Moses complained in this same manner: "I who have wearied myself in bringing Israel out of Egypt and not destined to enter the land with them!" This explains: wayyehi beshallach.

Midrash Rabbah – Exodus XX:8

In appreciating this midrash, I encourage you to pay special attention to Maggidah Shoshannah’s illustration. It depicts both the march of the bridal party and the Israelites from Egypt. There is a veiled woman at the head of the party, behind the shoshbin. Who does this represent? It is clearly the bride in the nuptial procession, but who for the Exodus? Why are some objects clear, and others distinct? Are the people in the procession descending, ascending, or both?

Remember, the gates of inspiration open the widest in the face of ambiguity. Why would both Pharaoh and Moses weep at the Exodus? What is it about these moments of transition that is so powerful, so awesome?

The deeper insights come as we examine the role of the shoshbin in traditional practice. As the very best friend of the groom, he assumed special duties, responsibilities and privileges – as well as limitations. He was there to see that things went according to plan, of course, but there was much more. And the shoshbin is responsible for giving gifts to all the attendees, as well as to absorb some of the costs of the wedding itself.

It was assumed that the groom would reciprocate and be his shoshbin, so close is the bond between the two. In fact, that bond was so strong that a shoshbin was barred from testifying in court about matters involving the groom!

So, in what ways is Moses our shoshbin? Does he have a special relationship – so special that he must pay some of the costs of the Eternal One’s "wedding?" What gifts did he provide to the party?

Delight in the sweetness of the metaphor; savor it as if it were a piece of wedding cake! Who knows what riches you will find!

Different Times

Sunday, January 17th, 2010

Bo - Different Times

Art by Maggidah Shoshannah Brombacher, Ph.D.
Visit her gallery
Contact her at – originals from this series are available.

"This month shall be unto you…" (Parasha Bo: Exodus 12:2)

As we approach the climax of the recounting of the plagues – the final, horrific tenth plague is about to be unleashed – the text suddenly moves to the commandments for Pesach (Passover), and its position as the first of the months. Why this sudden shift in narrative? There must be something especially relevant about the placement; otherwise, it would follow more logically a bit later, after the first Pesach, as a method to keep the memory of that first Passover solid in our people’s history. So what do the Sages say?

The moon was created on account of the festivals, and Israel increases and diminishes just as the moon does; and this does not harm it, since it is for the sake of the festivals. For all who count time, count it by the sun, according to the date of the world and according to men’s ages, and it is that which makes known man’s term, viz. how many years he has seen the sun. Have you a right to say that He made the moon because of the festivals? Hence David arose and explained ‘Who appointed the moon for seasons.’ They said to David: ‘While we were yet in Egypt, we received the month of the moon.’ This explains: This month shall be unto you.

Midrash Rabbah – Exodus XV:22

It is not only the first "month," but the first festival that is created in this part of Torah. In so doing, we establish two simultaneous calendars, calendars that in fact are never quite in sync (despite the laudable efforts of those who follow). One is solar, and it is reserved for secular life; the other is lunar, and it is reserved for the holy.

These two calendars are much like the rational and irrational number systems: they weave together, but ultimately live in different worlds. We are either in the rational / solar / secular universe, or the irrational / lunar / holy one.

And is not holiness irrational? Which is not to say crazy, but of a different world than the rational, intellectual one? Indeed, just as the Hebrew for "holy" – kadosh – actually means "separate," so that world is outside the secular. How do we enter that different world? With rituals and awareness, and with kavannah – intent.

There are many other, deeper meanings within this midrash. Consider its first sentence: how the fortunes of Israel wax and wane, and how our own attentiveness to the life of Spirit does the same.

Also consider that the lunar cycle is the cycle of women: what does that say about the nature of holiness, festivals, and the relationship between Israel / humanity and G!d?

Share your thoughts with me, and I will pass them along!

May this new month of Shevat be a blessed one for you!

The sea of Torah

Monday, December 28th, 2009

Vayehci - The sea of Torah

Art by Maggidah Shoshannah Brombacher, Ph.D.
Visit her gallery
Contact her at – originals from this series are available.

"And let them increase like fish in the midst of the earth." (Gen. 48.16)

This passage comes from the blessing Jacob gives to Joseph’s sons, Ephraim and Manasseh, on his deathbed. In it, he blesses them with “teeming” descendants – too many to count. And yet the metaphor – to teem like fish in the middle of the earth – seems oxymoronic! Listen to how the Sages turn this into a delightful image:

This was the blessing with which our father blessed us. Just as fish live in water, yet when a drop falls from above they catch it thirstily as though they had never tasted water in their lives; so are Israel brought up in the waters of the Torah, yet when they hear a new exposition in the Torah they receive it thirstily as though they had never heard a Torah teaching in their lives.

Midrash Rabbah – Genesis XCVII:3

How sweet that yearning is, in its fulfillment! That moment of a new flash of insight from the Torah – the sod (secret) sparking suddenly, casting a joyful light on our very being.

What is the formula to make such moments happen? We cannot make them happen, but we can make it more likely that they will. How? Engage in study, preferably with a partner, and with the guidance of a teacher if possible. Open yourself to the possibility of these encounters. Keep sweetness in your spirit. And then…

The River of Shabbas

Sunday, November 22nd, 2009

With this week’s post, you are receiving the benefit of my new collaboration with a dear colleague: Maggidah Shoshannah Brombacher, PhD, of Brooklyn, NY. M’ Shoshannah is, as you will readily recognize, an accomplished artist with a high neshamah. She is originally from Denmark, and her work receives international acclaim.

It is our intent to coordinate our work so that most weeks you will see her artistic interpretation of the midrash I am presenting.

Naturally, I would encourage you to contact her or visit her online catalog. I am pleased to say that I have a beautiful piece of hers adorning my study, where I reflect on it constantly as I am studying and writing!

Now, onto the midrash…

The Sambatyon River

Art by Maggidah Shoshannah Brombacher, Ph.D.
Visit her gallery
Contact her at

In this week’s portion, Vayeitze, there is a word that gives our Sages pause. Well, more than one word, of course! But the one that gives rise to this particular midrash is from the verse Genesis 30:24:

"And she called his name Joseph, saying: ‘G!d add to me another son.’" (Gen. 30:24)

This is Rachel speaking, and the troubling word is "another:" Joseph is her first born, in what way is he "another?"

The simple answer would be that the offspring of her maid Bilhah and Jacob were "hers," but only in a legal sense. So what do the Sages do? They begin by saying that “another” refers to a different exile from that of other tribes. What, you ask, was there more than one exile for the twelve tribes? Listen:

R. Judah b. R. Simon said: The tribes of Judah and Benjamin were not exiled to the same place as were the other ten tribes. The ten tribes were exiled beyond the River Sambatyon, whereas the tribes of Judah and Benjamin are dispersed in all countries.

Midrash Rabbah – Genesis XXX:24

Here’s where we enter another world. The Sambatyon is a legendary river, the name being a version of something like "shabbatian," or having to do with Shabbat. It is said to run with tremendous force the whole week, carrying along stones and earth, making it impossible to cross, and then resting on Shabbat.

There are many stories about the Sambatyon; one of my favorites is recounted as The Eternal Light in Howard Schwartz’s collection, "Elijah’s Violin." The constant feature of these stories is that one or more of the tribes of Israel is surrounded by this river and therefore unable to return to the Promised Land (as they won’t travel, of course, on Shabbas). In Schwartz’s story, one intrepid troupe makes it into and out of this special land by means of a tunnel beneath the river, which collapses before it can be used by the lost tribe.

So, beyond being a story bordering on fantasy, what does this river hold for us in spiritual terms?

To me, it holds a conundrum, a paradox regarding observance. On the one hand, the tribe awaits the return to the Promised Land, which will be part of the coming of Moshiach, may it be soon and in our day! And yet, what holds them back, and presumably the End of Days? Their observance of Shabbat! But shouldn’t their observance hasten that time, not defer it?

Ah, here for me is the secret: so long as we are performing a mitzvah for a benefit, we have missed the point of the mitzvah. On Shabbat, they are in Shabbat already – the taste of the World to Come that is given to us every week! In that moment, that time, there is no future destination, only the Eternal Now.

The most we can do is to live our lives fully Jewishly, by whatever definition of "Jewishly" holds for us. Then we and those around us will be blessed with everything we can be, in its proper time and season.

The Feet of the Shekhina

Monday, November 2nd, 2009

There is a curious phrase, “pushing at the feet of the Shekhina.” One of its primary sources is Tractate Hagigah, in which it says:

This is in accordance with R. Yitzhak, who said: “Every one who commits a transgression secretly, it is as though he jarred the feet of the Shekhina, as it is written, “Thus said the Lord, the heaven is my throne and the earth my footstool.” (Isa. 66:1)

The Shekhina is the Divine Presence on earth, that point at which G!d interacts with the material world. “Shekhina” is, significantly, a feminine term, implying that there is a fundamentally feminine characteristic to G!d’s interaction with us.

The phrase “under the wings of the Shekhina” is a more common phrase, indicating the Divine shelter that is provided to us, but also the Shekhina is seen as being in exile with us.

Amongst the few places where the image of pushing away the feet of Shekhina occurs is in Tractate Berachot (43b), in which it expounds on an enumeration of things unbecoming a Torah scholar. The last reads,

And he should not walk with an erect posture, for the master said: He who walks with an erect posture, even [if only for] four amot, pushes, as it were the feet of the Shekhina, for it is written: “The entire world is full of His glory.” (Isa. 6:3)

For the detail-oriented, four amot is understood to mean four cubits, or about six feet. This becomes the proof-text for the Shulkhan Aruch requiring a man to cover his head and not to travel more than four cubits with his head uncovered.

So, in what ways do we anthropomorphize (or is it gynopomorphize?) the Shehkina? What metaphoric meanings do we attach to Her feet? And how would one push them? And why would pushing them be wrong?

Curiosities to chew on – stay tuned!

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.

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.