Posts Tagged ‘talmud’

A dilemma

Sunday, December 20th, 2009

Vayigash - Dilemma

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"All the souls of the house of Jacob that came into Egypt were threescore and ten." (Gen. 46:27)

The problem which triggers this midrash is the number of people who went down into Egypt: while the text says it was seventy, there are only sixty-nine mentioned. What happened to the seventieth person? Perhaps, the midrash considers, a terrible choice had to be made. Listen:

It was taught: If a company of people are threatened by heathens, ‘Surrender one of you and we will kill him, and if not we will kill all of you,’ they should all be killed and not surrender one soul of Israel. But if they specified a particular person, as in the case of a criminal, they should surrender him and should not all be killed. R. Judah said: If the victim is secure within the city and the group is not, then they should endeavor to save him; if everyone is within the city, then they should surrender one person to them and not be all slain. For example:

‘Ulla the Conspirator – a notorious criminal – was wanted by the government. He arose and fled to R. Joshua b. Levi at Lydda, whereupon officers were dispatched after him. R. Joshua argued with him and urged him to surrender, saying, ‘Better that you should be executed rather than that the whole community should be punished on account of you.’ He allowed himself to be persuaded and surrendered to them.

Now Elijah used to speak with the rabbi, but when he acted thus Elijah ceased to visit him. The rabbi fasted thirty days, after which Elijah came to him, and he asked him, ‘Why did you absent yourself?’

‘Am I then the companion of informers?’ Elijah retorted.

‘But is this not a law in Talmud: "If a company of people," etc.?’

‘And is that a teaching for the pious?’ he retorted. ‘This should have been done through others and not through you!’

Midrash Rabbah – Genesis XCIV:9

G!d forbid that we should be faced with such a dilemma! Nonetheless, what can be learned from this example?

Perhaps it is as simple – and challenging – as living according to the spirit of the law, not the letter.

"For the pious" is the phrase typically used to describe a practice which only those particularly concerned with the spirit of the law need follow. Yet, should we not all strive to be observant of the Spirit? And is it really acceptable to let someone else do the "dirty work?"

I leave you with more questions this week than answers. Wrestle with them – and share your thoughts with me!

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!

Learning to Swim in the Sea of Torah

Friday, June 20th, 2008

An Introduction to Jewish Texts:
Learning to Swim in the Sea of Torah

If you’re new to Torah study, this is your chance to begin with four two-hour conference calls. We learn about the basic texts in chronological order: Torah, Talmud, Midrash and Aggadah. We also explore Kabbalah and Hasidism. The course involves guided group study, focusing on themes of God, spirituality, ethics, and community. Conference calls are twice monthly, beginning in July. The approach is serious but easy-going and is non-denominational; everyone is welcome. No Hebrew is required for the course, which has been created for Jews who would like to begin or advance their Jewish studies as well as for non-Jews who would like to learn more about Judaism and Jewish study. The course fee is $50; reservations are requested by July 7. For more information or to register, contact me.