Posts Tagged ‘Storytelling’

Lisssten…

Sunday, June 13th, 2010

Chukkat - Lissten...
Art by Maggidah Shoshannah Brombacher, Ph.D.
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Chukkat: Numbers 19:1-22:1

"And the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people…" (Numbers 21:6)

This week’s midrash is quite short, but it depends on understanding the context and a particular word. So let’s start with the context: Numbers 21:4-9, using Robert Alter’s translation. Listen:

And they journeyed on from Hor the mountain by way of the Red Sea to skirt round the land of Edom, and the people grew impatient on the way. And the people spoke against God and against Moses: "Why did you bring us up from Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no bread and there is no water, and we loathe the wretched bread." And the Lord sent against the people the viper [fiery] serpents, and they bit the people, and many of the people of Israel died. And the people came to Moses and said, "We have offended, for we have spoken against the Lord and against you. Pray to the Lord that He take the serpents away from us." And Moses interceded for the people. And the Lord said to Moses: "Make you a viper and put it on a standard, and so then, whoever is bitten will see it and live." And Moses made a serpent of bronze and put it on a standard, and so then, if the serpent bit a man, he looked on the serpent of bronze and lived.

The word in question is seraph, which means "fiery" (the plural is seraphim). It is used only three significant times in Tanakh: here, in this story’s retelling in Deuteronomy, and later on several occasions by Isaiah, who describes a type of angel with wings as being a seraph – they are the ones who handle fiery coals (such as Isaiah 6).

Now the question of the midrash becomes clear, and its answer will take on new meaning. So let’s read the midrash, and then dig deeper:

What reason did He see for punishing them by means of serpents? Because the serpent, who was the first to speak slander, had been cursed, and they did not learn a lesson from him. The Holy One, blessed be He, therefore, said: ‘Let the serpent, who was the first to introduce slander, come and punish those who speak slander.’ This accords with the text, Whoso breaketh through a fence, a serpent shall bite him (Eccl. 10:8).

Midrash Rabbah – Numbers XIX:22

It’s not hard to see the connection between "fiery" and poisonous snakes: the poison, coursing through the victim’s body, might well indeed feel fiery. But what is this about the serpent introducing slander?

The serpent, in this case, is referring to the serpent in Gan Eden, the Garden of Eden, who gets Eve to repeat the commandment that Adam passed to her about eating the fruit of the trees at the center of the garden. Adam had (by most midrashic accounts) altered the command, for she reports that they were commanded to neither eat nor touch the fruit, which is an extension of the commandment Adam was given – simply not to eat the fruit.

The Sages refer to this technique as "building a fence around the Law:" by prohibiting something that isn’t strictly prohibited in Torah, but which could lead to that prohibited act, one can be a little more reassured that one will not break the law. Think of the laws forbidding eating chicken and dairy: clearly hens don’t give milk! But because we might not know the source of the meat, we shouldn’t eat any meat with dairy. The prohibition against chickens and dairy is a "fence" around the Law.

It is in this way that the serpent broke through the "fence" of Adam’s words and slandered him, purporting him to be a liar. Even if Adam were lying, it would still be slander – lashon hara, or the evil tongue – to report it in the manner the serpent did.

Think about it for a moment: doesn’t a slandered person feel the fiery rush of shame or anger? Whether the accusation is true or false or, as is most likely, some combination of the two, that burning blush is a sensation not soon to be forgotten. And this is where we are given the gate back to our original Torah reading.

The cure for the fiery tongue that is prescribed is to make tangible reminders for all the people about the deadly harm that slander produces. Our sages equated slander with murder, for in being slandered, one’s name is murdered – how hard it is to revive a sullied name!

So if G!d-forbid we should think about passing along a comment about another which – true or false! – brings them harm or shame, and for which there is no compelling danger to be avoided by the telling, we are told to remind ourselves of the fiery poison of lashon hara and desist.

Evil speech, we are told, kills three: the one about who it is told, the one who tells it, and the one who listens. Let us redouble our efforts to speak sweetly of others – or not at all!

Without warning…

Sunday, April 18th, 2010

Achare Mot / Kedoshim - Without warning...
Art by Maggidah Shoshannah Brombacher, Ph.D.
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Achare Mot / Kedoshim: Leviticus 16:1-20:27

"Thus (bezoth) shall Aaron come into the Holy Place:" (Leviticus 16:3)

The text which follows the above gives great detail about how Aaron is to enter the Holy of Holies: when he should come, what he is to wear, what sacrifices he is to make, etc., etc. And what precedes it? A reminder of what happened to Aaron’s sons when they did not do things properly – they died, consumed by Holy fire!

It is worth noting that, included in the accouterments of the High Priest’s robe were a series of bells along the hem. What was the purpose of the bells? Some have argued that they were to let the other priests – who were not allowed inside – know that the High Priest was still alive! If the bells stopped ringing, the argument goes, they would pull him out by a rope that had been attached to his ankle!

Our midrash for this week suggests a very different reason for the bells – and, of course, carries a deeper meaning. Listen:

R. Hanina b. Hakinai and R. Simeon b. Yohai went to study Torah at R. Akiba’s college at Bene Berak, and stayed there thirteen years. R. Simeon b. Yohai used to send home for news, and knew what was happening at his house. R. Hanina did not send and did not know what was happening at his house. His wife sent him word and told him: ‘Your daughter is marriageable, come and get her married.’ He said nothing to his master. Nevertheless R. Akiba saw it by means of the Holy Spirit and said to him: ‘If any one has a marriageable daughter he may go and get her married.’ R. Hanina understood what he meant, so he rose, took leave and went. He sought to enter into his house, but found that it had been turned in a different direction – i.e., he did not recognize it. What did he do? He went and sat down at the place where the women drew water and heard the voice of the little girls saying: ‘Daughter of Hanina, fill your vessel and go.’ What did he do? He followed her until she entered his house. He went in after her suddenly, without announcing himself. No sooner did his wife see him than her soul departed. Said he to Him: ‘Sovereign of the Universe! Is that the reward of this poor woman, after thirteen years of waiting for me?’ Thereupon her soul returned to her body.

Midrash Rabbah – Leviticus XIX:2

I graduated a year early from high school (it’s a long story) and decided to take the "bonus" year doing a variety of things, including moving to San Francisco. It wasn’t all I thought it would be, and I returned home suddenly, without warning, a little mischief in my heart. My mother Z"L (of blessed memory) walked into the living room to see me sitting there, did the perfect double take, and screamed. Funny? I thought so – but it was a real shock for her, and not entirely a pleasant one physically. Thank G!d, it wasn’t her demise…

So at one level, this is a midrash about the need to treat others with care and respect. As M’ Shoshannah points out in her thoughts (want to see them? sign up for my free weekly email!), even our "choreography" in services is resplendent with respect and courtesy. Should we not learn from these lessons and treat those around us with gentleness and caring? Of course! But, what else can we learn?

R. Hanina went to study under the tutelage of R. Akiba, one of the pillars of the Sages. He threw himself into study, abandoning his family for thirteen years. While devotion to study has always been revered – especially by the Sages! – even this was too much. He never saw his daughter grow up, he lost complete touch with his family, what a tragedy! It took his mentor to throw him out and return to his family.

What about us? Are we so consumed with our careers that we lose the balance in our lives? Do we remember to feed our spirits, as well as our bodies? Another good lesson. But let’s go deeper still.

Recall that this midrash is answering the question of why the High Priest wore bells on his hem. If we draw a close parallel to the story, it would seem to say that he needed to warn G!d that he was coming, so as not to chalilah (G!d forbid) "scare" the Eternal One away… How absurd!? How could such a thing even happen – would it mean that G!d cannot see us, not know where we are and be frightened by our sudden approach?

Of course not. But – and here is the deeper lesson – we can "hide" ourselves from G!d, in the way children hide behind a thin cloth, or their fingers, and say "you can’t find me!" Of course we see them. But in their minds, they are invisible, and they act accordingly.

Likewise, we can "pretend" that we are alone, cut ourselves off from a relationship with the Holy One, and live our lives in separation from what matters: the love and protection of Spirit. Just as R. Hanina cut himself off from his family, so can we cut ourselves off from G!d. The good news is – it’s all in our imagination: whenever we want to open the gates of our souls, we will receive and be received back into the shelter of those loving Wings.

Divine joy…

Sunday, April 4th, 2010

Shemini - Divine joy...
Art by Maggidah Shoshannah Brombacher, Ph.D.
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Shemini: Leviticus 9:1-11:47

"Drink no wine nor strong drink." (Leviticus 10:9)

In this week’s portion, we have the rather disturbing event of the death of Nadab and Abihu, the two sons of Aaron, as they perform a sacrifice using "unfitting fire" which had not been commanded by God. No detail is given about what made the fire "unfitting," or whatever else may have been awry with their actions, but the penalty is swift and severe: "And fire came out from in front of the Lord and consumed them! And they died in front of the Lord." (Lev. 10:2)

What was their transgression? The Sages probed a number of possibilities: perhaps it was the nature of the fire: was it prepared improperly, according to another people’s rituals, thereby making it "unfitting?" Or perhaps the key is in the fact that it had not been "commanded:" an offering that would have been acceptable at a different time, but in this case at the wrong juncture. Others have suggested that it was not according to a prescribed formula (hearkening back to the "unfitting" issue), and thereby forbidden.

These interpretations have one thing in common: sacrifices must be offered in a precisely correct way, at the precisely correct time, in order to be acceptable. They do not allow for the spontaneity of offerings, something we as Jews have managed to embrace over time. So the Sages searched elsewhere for an explanation.

It happens that the next time in Torah that God speaks, it is to forbid the drinking of wine or beer by Aaron and his sons at the Tent of Meeting "so you won’t die" (Lev. 10:8). It is therefore not unreasonable to conclude that Nadab and Abihu’s crime was that they attempted to perform the sacred rituals while drunk. From this reasoning spring many midrashim, most of them railing against the abuses of alcohol. But consider this very different midrash from R. Aha; listen:

R. Aha said: There is a story of a man who kept on selling his household goods and drinking wine with the proceeds. Said his sons: ‘Our father will leave nothing for us.’ So they plied him with drink, and made him drunk, and took him out and placed him in a cemetery. Wine merchants passed the gate of the cemetery, and hearing that a seizure for public service was to take place in the province, they left their loads within the cemetery and went to witness the uproar in the province. The man, waking up from his sleep and seeing a skin bottle above his head, untied it and put it in his mouth. Three days later his sons said: ‘Should we not go to see what father is doing?’ They went and found him with the wine-skin in his mouth. They said: ‘Even here has your Creator not forsaken you. Seeing that He has given you wine, we do not know what we should do to you.’ They made an arrangement amongst themselves that the sons should in turn provide him with drink, one son one day.

Midrash Rabbah – Leviticus XII:1

What are we to learn from this curious midrash? Surely the Sages don’t want us to conclude that rampant, unconstrained drunkenness is a good thing?

The solution, I believe, lies in us looking to wine as the standard metaphor for joy, especially spiritual joy. With this "lens," the lesson shifts somewhat: a joyful encounter with God is more important than possessions, and if we are dedicated to this quest, this invigorated life of the spirit, then even those who place well-intended obstacles in our way can be overcome.

However, we cannot ignore the literal meaning of this midrash: unfettered imbibing in the pleasures of the flesh can lead us to a life where that joy is illusory, surrounded by death and the demise of those who care for us. Which interpretation is correct?

As is the hallmark of our heritage, we must find a way to make them both true: not one or the other, but some creative amalgam of the two. This comes, I believe, from the lesson of balance, and the challenges we face as we try to navigate in the worlds of spirit and substance. We must find the path that leads us to unbounded joy while leaving the wisdom of saying "no" to excesses intact; the path in which the energy of the Spirit moves us through the trials of the material world at just the right pace, neither so quickly that we float above matters of consequence nor so slowly that we sink into the mire.

May we each be blessed with the vision – and the community! – to help us maintain that balance, and the strength to lend a hand to others who occasionally lose theirs.

You are the potter…

Sunday, March 28th, 2010

Chol HaMoed Pesach - You are the potter...
Art by Maggidah Shoshannah Brombacher, Ph.D.
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Contact her at shoshbm@gmail.com – originals from this series are available.

Chol HaMoed Pesach: Exodus 33:12-34:26, Numbers 28:19-25

"And the Lord said unto Moses: Hew you two tablets of stone like the first…" (Exodus 34:1)

As always, the first thing to understand is, "what is the question?" In this case, we have a whole series of midrashim concerned about the fact that Moses destroyed the first set of tablets that G!d gave him on Sinai – what a crime that was!

Some of the midrashim attempt to mitigate the seriousness of the crime; others try to eliminate it altogether (by saying the tablets slipped, etc.). This one, however, takes a very different tack, one that almost seems juvenile to begin with! Listen:

It is written, But now, O Lord, Thou art our father; we are the clay, and Thou our potter (Isa. 64:7). The Holy One, blessed be He, said to Israel: ‘Only now am I your father; when ye find yourselves in trouble ye call Me, "Our Father!"’ They replied: ‘Yes, as it says, In the day of my trouble I seek the Lord’ (Ps. 77:3)…

What is the meaning of ‘We are the clay, and Thou our potter?’ Israel said: ‘Lord of the Universe! Thou hast caused it to be written for us: Behold, as the clay in the potter’s hand, so are ye in My hand, O house of Israel (Jer. 18:6); for this reason, do not depart from us though we sin and provoke Thee, for we are but the clay and Thou art our potter.’ See now, if the potter makes a jar and leaves therein a pebble, then when it comes out of the furnace it will leak from the hole left by the pebble and lose any liquid poured into it. Now what caused the jar to leak and thus to lose any liquid placed therein? The potter who left the pebble therein.

This was how Israel pleaded before G!d: ‘Lord of the Universe! Thou hast created in us an Evil Inclination from our youth, for it says, For the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth (Gen. 8:21), and it is that which has caused us now to sin, for Thou hast not removed from us the instigator to sin. Remove it from us, we pray Thee, in order that we may perform Thy will.’ G!d replied: ‘This will I do in the Time to Come,’ as it says, In that day, saith the Lord, will I assemble her that halts, and I will gather her that is driven away, and her that I have afflicted (Micah 4:6).

Midrash Rabbah – Exodus XLVI:4

At first glance, it seems as though the author is saying, "Don’t blame us for having sinned – it’s Your fault for having made us this way!" Or, to quote Jessica Rabbit: "I’m not bad, I’m just drawn that way…"

It also helps to know that the Hebrew yortzenu, "our potter," is a quasi pun with yetzer, short for yetzer hara, or "the Evil Inclination."

So, like last week, we see the issue of the flaw, the distinctiveness that makes us unique, as being part of G!d’s design for each of us. In this case, the flaw is definitely negative: it is the pebble that gives rise to the leak, a defect that must be overcome.

In the midrash, G!d acknowledges the flaw, if somewhat reluctantly, and promises to remove it in the "Time to Come," whether that be the Messianic Era or in Olam Haba, the World to Come. But even this begs the question: why include the pebble, why give us the flaw?

The answer comes, in part, from last week’s midrash – that G!d loves us because of those "flaws" – that distinctiveness in our characters that renders us unique. Additionally, as M’ Shoshannah points out in the sidebar, we get to do the work of clearing those pebbles as best we can, trusting that eventually the Eternal One will complete the job.

So, some might ask, why bother at all, if the end is to be taken care of? Because, I suggest, if the flaw is placed there by the Holy One, it is a remnant to be savored, a token of the creative act itself. By knowing our flaws, and struggling to overcome them, we engage with the Eternal One in a very holy, mystical activity.

May you find your pebbles to be gravel, not boulders!

It’s always there…

Sunday, February 14th, 2010

Terumah - it's always there...
Art by Maggidah Shoshannah Brombacher, Ph.D.
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Parashah Terumah: Exodus 25:1-27:19

"That they take (to) Me for an offering…" (Exodus 25:2)

This midrash begins with an examination of the thing we have been told over and over – that there are six hundred and thirteen commandments in the Torah. It turns out, there’s a problem with that number, which the Sages then turn to an important lesson about managing to balance spirituality and earning a living.

Now, I could just put in the lesson, but for those who are interested in gematria – Jewish numerology – I thought I would include this rather unique calculation as well! Listen:

It is written, Moses commanded us a law, etc. (Deut. 33:4). R. Simlai taught: Six hundred and thirteen precepts were given to Israel through Moses, this number being the numerical value of the word Torah. Should you object that this is not so, since the word only amounts to six hundred and eleven* and ask where, therefore, will you obtain the other two? In answer, the Sages said: The two commands of ‘I am the Lord’ and ‘Thou shalt have no other gods before Me’ were heard from the mouth of the Lord Himself, and Moses only told them six hundred and eleven, as it says, ‘Moses commanded us a law,’ an inheritance (morashah) of the congregation of Jacob: it is an everlasting heritage unto Israel.

Imagine a prince who has been taken captive across the sea when small; even after the lapse of many years he is not abashed, for he consoles himself by saying: ‘I will yet return to the possession of my ancestors!’ So it is with a scholar who departs from the study of the Torah and engages in other pursuits, yet even after many years have elapsed when he wishes to return to its study he is not abashed, because he says: ‘I am returning to the heritage of my ancestors.’

Midrash Rabbah – Exodus XXXII:7

In the classic metaphor of Jewish stories, we are "captured" (as the prince in the story is) when we become bound up in the material world, and forget the spiritual reality that pervades all life. We can be "rescued" from this bondage at any time by returning to it, although there are times when such a rescue seems far too difficult and distant to achieve.

Nonetheless, there is much in the way of good news here: first of all, our heritage – that of having been given the Torah, in the broadest sense of the word: our spiritual life – is eternal and never diminished. When we return to it, we should not be abashed or ashamed at having left, but simply rejoice in having been rescued!

And secondly, we are told that listening to holy stories is the equivalent of studying the deepest mysteries of G!d: and what could be more pleasant than listening to holy stories!?

The lesson? We are never so far removed from the spiritual world that we cannot get a taste of it, in its full glory. And, since we have also learned that "without bread there is no Torah, and without Torah there is no bread," all we need do is establish a rhythm to those returns, and thereby find all the nourishment – spiritual and physical – that we need.

Finally: if you find yourself running out of stories, let me know! I have a few in my back pocket I would be glad to share with you – or your community!


* There are four letters in the Hebrew word Torah, which are difficult to reproduce in this blog, which does not include a Hebrew font. They correspond to the English sounds T (400), O (6), R (200), and AH (5), or 611 in total.

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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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!

The best man?

Sunday, January 24th, 2010

Beshallach - The best man?

Art by Maggidah Shoshannah Brombacher, Ph.D.
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Contact her at shoshbm@gmail.com – 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!