Posts Tagged ‘Moses’

Marriage and fire…

Sunday, July 25th, 2010

Ekev: Deuteronomy 7:12-11:25

"At that time, the Lord said to me: “Carve you…" (Deuteronomy 4:7)

We are at one of the pinnacles of Moses’ retelling of the Exodus: the ascent to Sinai and the receipt of the tablets. As often happens in the midrash for Devarim (Deuteronomy), the opening is a question of halakhah: Jewish law. The discussion starts out very clearly, so long as you understand this little bit:

In former times marriage was divided into two stages: The first was Erusin, or roughly, ‘betrothal.’ This was a proper marriage, in so far as the woman would henceforth not be free to marry another unless she were divorced.

Yet cohabitation was forbidden until the second stage: Nesu’in or what we would call ‘marriage,’ i.e. the hometaking of the bride. A considerable interval might elapse between the two. Nowadays these two stages are combined.

Got that? Great! Now listen:

Halachah: When a man betroths a woman, who has to pay for the writing of the document of betrothal? Our Rabbis have learnt thus: Documents of betrothal and marriage are written only with the consent of the two parties, and the bridegroom pays the fee. And this we learn from God from His betrothal of Israel at Sinai, as it is written, And the Lord said unto Moses: Go unto the people and betroth them today and tomorrow (Ex. 19:10).

And who wrote this document? Moses. Whence do we know this? For it is said, And Moses wrote this law (Deut. 31:9). And what reward did God give him? A lustrous countenance, as it is written, That Moses knew not that the skin of his face sent forth beams (Ex. 34:29).

To what time does While He talked with him (ib.) refer? Resh Lakish said: When Moses wrote the law he acquired a lustrous appearance. How did this come about? Resh Lakish said: The scroll that was given to Moses was made of a parchment of white fire, and was written upon with black fire and sealed with fire and was swathed with bands of fire, and whilst he was writing it he dried his pen on his hair, and as a result he acquired a lustrous appearance.

Midrash Rabbah – Deuteronomy III:2

As usual, there are two themes interwoven here: the relationship of G!d and Israel, and the apparently simplistic question of how Moses came to have a lustrous face. Let’s stop briefly at the first issue, and then spend a little more time on the second.

The theme of our relationship with the Eternal One should be familiar to readers by now! And while some of the reason for that is my affection for this metaphor, it is more due to the fact that this is truly a fundamental way of describing that relationship. So what does this midrash lend that is new?

There are two elements of note here: the first is that a betrothal and marriage requires the consent of both parties. This is significant from both cultural and theological perspectives.

Realize that this bit of halachah laid the groundwork for far more equanimity in the marital relationship. Now, while it is easily pointed out that at the time this meant that the parents of the couple were likely the ones having to come into agreement, we must recall that the Law is a "vector" – a direction – to follow, not a point to stop at. That is what makes the Torah a Living Law.

Theologically, applying this law to the marital metaphor underscores the free will and active participation of Israel in the relationship, and also raises the rather interesting question of the status of Moses: as the one who “wrote” the documents, doesn’t that place him outside of the relationship? Perhaps I should leave that as a thorny knot for the reader…

Let’s turn to the question of the lustrous nature of Moses’ appearance. In explaining its origin, the Sages recall the stunning image of the scroll of the Law, written with fire upon fire. Then they give us the wonderfully humorous / sweet image of Moses the absent-minded scribe, wiping the quill in his own hair… Can we keep from smiling at this?

But what does this tell us, other than providing a cute explanation for his "glow?" Let’s break it down a little:

Moses is told what to write, and he must then transcribe those Words into something concrete (albeit Fire upon Fire). This is all with the purpose of sharing those Words with others in a time to come… and in the millennia to follow!

What do these symbols and process translate into? For me, it is that when we selflessly, humbly, take the spiritual inspiration to heart and mind and then put it into action for the benefit of others that we receive the rewards of those actions. Often we are unaware of those rewards: our lives shine to others in ways we cannot see ourselves. And this happens best when we try to be a true, pure vessel for those ideas, those values, those compelling Words.

Then our hair – and faces, our selves – will shine with the touch of heavenly fire that our actions bestow upon us!

Oh, freedom!

Sunday, February 28th, 2010

Ki Tissa - Oh Freedom!
Art by Maggidah Shoshannah Brombacher, Ph.D.
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Parashah Ki Tissa: Exodus 30:11-34:35

"And the tablets were the work of G!d…" (Exodus 32:16)

This week, the sages play upon a single word to discover – or is it release?! – meaning from the passage at hand. But first of all, the question must be, what is the question they are struggling with?

The question at hand is rarely stated explicitly; sometimes it is obvious, and more often it is far more difficult to discern. I will begin with my best guess as to what the question is, then share their attempts to resolve and illuminate the passage, and finally share my own thoughts about a very different resolution of the same problem.

The problem revolves around the Hebrew word haruth, which means something like "etched" or, as Rashi tells us, "cut into." That the Sages don’t like this word is clear, but what is their problem?

It helps to recall the setting: Moses is about to descend from Mt. Sinai with these first set of tablets, where he will discover the people dancing in front of the Golden Calf, and it is these tablets, "haruth" by the hand of G!d, that he will destroy.

So nu? Shouldn’t the fact of the tablets’ demise be more important than how they were created?

I think the problem has to do with the problem with "graven images," forbidden to us. Can the Holy One be in the business of making graven images? Or would we, given something engraved by G!d, come to worship it as an idol?

This is, I think, the problem. Now let’s see how the Sages solve it. Listen:

R. Joshua b. Levi said: A heavenly voice issues from Mount Horeb every day, saying: ‘Woe unto those creatures who neglect the study of the Torah.’ For whosoever studies not the Law continually is rebuked by God; as it says, and the tablets were the work of God, and the writing was the writing of God, graven (haruth) upon the tablets (Exo. 32:16). What is the meaning of haruth?  This was discussed by R. Judah, R. Jeremiah, and the Sages.

R. Judah said: Read not haruth (graven), but heyruth (free) from captivity. R. Nehemiah opined that it means free from the Angel of Death; whilst the Sages were of the opinion that it means free from suffering.

Midrash Rabbah – Exodus XLI:7

The Sages change "engraved" to "freed from," and then speculate about what it is that Torah frees us from: is it from captivity, like the slavery of Egypt? Or is it freedom from death, as in meriting a place in either Olam Haba, the World to Come, or at the coming of the Messiah, may it be swift and in our day? Or does it simply mean that the Torah frees us from suffering?

How can Torah free us from captivity? There is an epithet – meaning, another name for – Jews who have lost touch with their Judaism: they are referred to as the "captive children of Israel." In other words, they have been "captured" by the world, and must be "freed" from that captivity. In that sense, studying Torah indeed frees us from captivity.

Does Torah free us from death? The danger to answering "yes" to this is that it could be taken to imply that the penalty for not studying Torah is death. The only way that a "yes" to this question makes sense to me is that Torah is one of many ways to achieve a personal connection with G!d, and that any such connection – by any means, whether by Torah or not – revives our spirits.

As for Torah freeing us from suffering, alas, there are far too many today who, G!d-forbid, suffer, whether they are students of Torah or not. But I can tell you that in those moments in which I am able to immerse myself in the study of Torah, for those sweet moments of time, whatever suffering I am enduring lifts. So, in a sense, Torah can free us from suffering.

Now, as I told you, I think there is another meaning to the "freedom" of the creation of the tablets. Think about the process by which a sculptor creates: we are told, especially in the case of truly talented artists, that they take a block of stone, clay, or whatever, and simply “remove” what does not belong to the finished work. They “free” or “liberate” the work from its encasing media. So, in a sense, G!d “freed” the words from their encasing stone. But I think we can take it even deeper.

We have been taught, rightly so, that the words of Torah are living, alive for us this day. Every time we study Torah, we are given the chance to learn something new, something that never was there for us before. It is in this sense that the Torah itself must be free of the rigid constraints we might, in error, attempt to place upon it. Indeed, we must free those living words from a fixed, stone-like interpretation, and breathe life to them with our actions so that we – and they – can be alive to the world around us.

This is, for me, one more way in which G!d created words of Torah by "freedom," not "engraving." May we each be blessed with many opportunities each day to see how those words can live in our lives, and breathe life into others.

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.

You heard it here first!

Sunday, January 31st, 2010

Yitro - You heard it here first

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

"And G!d spoke all these words, saying…" (Parasha Yitro: Exodus 20:1)

Many of us have heard the lesson that all Jews were present at Mount Sinai when the Torah was given – created or not yet created. This, in itself, creates an interesting paradox.

This midrash takes the matter a step further: what of the events that transpired there, particularly what was spoken by the Eternal One? Listen:

R. Isaac said: The prophets received from Sinai the messages they were to prophesy to subsequent generations; for Moses told Israel: But with him that standeth here with us this day before the Lord our G!d, and also with him that is not here with us this day, etc. (Deut. 29:14). It does not say ‘that is not here standing with us this day,’ but just ‘with us this day:’ these are the souls that will one day be created; and because there is not yet any substance in them the word ‘standing’ is not used with them. Although they did not yet exist, still each one received his share of the Torah, including Malachi and Isaiah.

Not only did all the prophets receive their prophecy from Sinai, but also each of the Sages that arose in every generation received his wisdom from Sinai, for so it says, These words the Lord spoke unto all your assembly… with a great voice, and it went on no more. (Deut. 5:19). R. Johanan said: It was one voice that divided itself into seven voices, and these into seventy languages. R. Simeon b. Lakish said: It was the voice from which all the subsequent prophets received their prophecy. The Sages said: It had no echo.

As to the view of R. Johanan, the following verse supports him, for it says, The Lord giveth the word; they that proclaim the tidings are a great host (Ps. 68:12).

Midrash Rabbah – Exodus XXVIII:6

According to this midrash, there are several elements to what was spoken at Sinai:

  1. It was spoken in several tongues, simultaneously;
  2. It was heard in even more tongues, again simultaneously;
  3. It was spoken with the single voice from which all wisdom and prophecy is received; and
  4. It had no echo.

Consider the first two points: G!d’s Voice is heard by each of us in the language (tongue) best suited to us. What a compelling case for the strength of diversity this makes! You and I each get to share in the Divine One’s wisdom (and other blessings), even though what I receive seems completely foreign to you!

The third point amplifies this, and brings it into the present: when we speak with wisdom, we are speaking the words / things we heard before we were conceived! How awesome, to think that the words that leave our mouths can have their direct source at Sinai! And what a responsibility for laShon haTov (good speech) that creates!

Now, the last point: that the Voice had no echo. What could this possibly mean? Here are my thoughts:

Think about echoes – what relationship do they have to their source? They sound similar, but they are diminished in power, and ultimately fade. They also "bounce" off solid objects, and seem to come to us from a very different direction than the source.

So, it seems to me, it is with G!d’s wisdom. It is never diminished, encounters no obstacles, and never comes from the "wrong" direction.

But that is just my interpretation – what do you think? Leave a comment and let me know!

Strong Words

Saturday, July 18th, 2009

This week’s portion, Devarim, begins with an odd construction: “Eileh ha-devarim asher diber Moshe…” meaning generally, “These are the words (things) that Moses spoke…” What makes this unusual is that the verb would normally “amar.” The Rabbis inferred from this that, since the root DBR (word) is doubled, it means “strong words.” What kinds of words are “strong?” Words of rebuke, they reasoned, thereby creating a puzzle to be solved (or perhaps solving another, earlier puzzle): Why would Moses begin his discourse by rebuking all Israel?

After all, here we are, about to hear his last words before he is taken from us and we must go it without our faithful leader, and he starts by rebuking us? How does this motivate us? There are many deeper lessons here; let’s start with what the Midrash tells us.

Midrash Rabbah Devarim I:4 notes this problem, and further notes that Balaam had blessed Israel (the earlier puzzle), and then wonders: aren’t things reversed? Shouldn’t Moses bless Israel, and Balaam curse us?

No, the rhetorical answer comes: if it were that way, then who (amongst the other peoples) would believe the blessings, since they come from a friend? And who (amongst the Israelites) would take the rebukes seriously, since they come from an enemy? Instead, people will more likely listen to what seems to come from a source without bias or a hidden agenda.

And so we have illuminated for us the conundrum of belief: we believe what we want to hear, but we are more likely to receive the unexpected as true. It is the unexpected that shakes us out of complacency, the strange that gets our attention; we notice what is different, not what is the same. Once noticed, we work diligently to make the “different” the “same,” to make the strange unremarkable. It is the fundamental process of learning: noticing the unexpected, and making it predictable.

So Moses could have told us what we wanted to hear: “It’s going to be fine, everything will be all right, don’t worry, it’s the land of milk and honey – what could go wrong?” Instead he delivered the message we needed, as only he could: “Shape up! I know you all, and how easily you stray! Don’t get complacent – stay alert!” Strong words, indeed – strong words to impart strength.

May we all be blessed with friends who will tell us what we need to hear, and strangers who bless us. And may we bless the strangers among us, and speak frankly to our friends…