Posts Tagged ‘torah’

Without warning…

Sunday, April 18th, 2010

Achare Mot / Kedoshim - Without warning...
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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.

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!

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.

And the king will yearn…

Sunday, October 25th, 2009

“And G!d said to Avram: ‘Go, you, from your land…'” (Gen. 12:1)

R. Yitzhak opened with: Listen, princess, and look, incline your ear, and forget your people, and your father’s house. (Ps. 45:11)

R. Yitzhak said: This may be compared to one who was passing from place to place and saw a fortress doleket (“burning” or “illuminated”). He said, ‘Will you say this fortress has no governor?’ The master of the fortress peeped out at him. He said to him, ‘I am the master of the fortress.’ Thus, because our father Avraham would say, ‘Will you say this world has no governor?’ the Holy One, Blessed be He, peeped out at him and said to him, ‘I am the Master of the world.’

And let the king yearn for your beauty – to beautify you in the world – for he is your master, and bow down to him (Ps. 45:12), that is, ‘And G!d said to Avram…’

Midrash Rabbah – Genesis XXXIX:1

This is a very deep midrash, and I owe the best of these insights to my Rebbe, M’ Yitzhak Buxbaum, who inspired us in a class that delved deeply into this text. I must also recommend Simi Peters’ excellent text, Learning to Read Midrash, which was our source during these classes.

As usual, the first question to ask is, “What is the question?” In this case, the question is, “Why Avram? What did he do to merit this amazing blessing and progeny?” This midrash is one of several that attempt to provide an answer; amongst them, this is the most mystical.

The surface meaning is simple, and enticing. It suggests that Avram was able to look at the world around us and recognize that it must have a Creator; having such an insight (presumably at a time when others did not) was the basis for Avram’s being chosen. Oh, but let’s go deeper!

The mashal – the analogy used to teach the lesson in this parable – is that of a fortress doleket, a term normally understood to mean “burning.” So at this level, Avram perceives not only the world and knows it must have a Creator, but also that the world is burning: i.e., in peril. What is that peril? Perhaps that the “fortress” appears to be unattended. “Never fear,” calls out the governor as the traveler’s worry mounts, “I am here.” So the Creator not only was known to Avram intellectually, but responded directly to Avram’s yearning for the repair of the world.

Now, deeper still.

The fortress may not be on fire – in danger – but may, on the contrary, be illuminated: engulfed in the bright light of the Divine! Now, the traveler’s recognition and searching is not out of fear, but out of recognition that the whole of Creation is suffused with the radiance of G!d! And of course, at that recognition, G!d doesn’t just appear to Avram, but “peeps out:” playfully, mischievously, lovingly!

And yet, deeper still.

The “sandwich” of verses from the Song of Songs (known as the petihta) invites us further in. Recall that the Song of Songs is understood to be a love song between G!d and Israel. In these verses, they highlight the yearning of the G!d for us, rather than the other way around. The “daughter” is being encouraged to leave her house, her people, and succumb to the king’s yearnings – just as Avram was asked to leave his home, his land, his people. In this setting, it is not that G!d chooses Avram in some form of contest or test, but because G!d loves him – and us! – so much that the Holy One, Blessed be He, is drawn out from behind the Curtain to peep out at us and say – here I am! Hineini! Come, and let Me love you!

May we all be blessed with knowing the Eternal’s yearning for us…

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.

Can you hear me now?

Monday, September 21st, 2009

“Give ear, O you heavens, and I will speak; and hear, O earth, the words of my mouth!” (Deut. 32:1)

Here is Moshe, standing on the brink of the Promised Land, about to give voice to his last words. Can you imagine the intensity, the heartbreak, the hope for his “flock” he must have felt? So why, then, does he address these final words to both the heavens and the earth? Wouldn’t the children of Israel have been his “audience?” Or, why not just the heavens, for isn’t that where the Holy One resides? And why the earth, isn’t that what he has been relegated to? Funny you should ask – the Sages did too! In fact, this is just one of nine explanations in this single midrash!


Why unto the heavens and the earth? Because they are the witnesses of Israel, for it is written, I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day (Deut. IV, 26). This can be compared to the son of a king over whom his father appointed two guardians. Whenever his father adorned him with any crown, he did so only through the agency of both of them, so on the day of his marriage he appointed them as witnesses between himself and his father. Similarly, all the miracles which God wrought for Israel, He performed through the agency of heaven and earth; so when Israel were about to enter Palestine, they sang a song through the agency of them both, because they serve as witnesses between Him and them.

Midrash Rabbah – Deuteronomy X:4

Behind this simple explanation, as always, there is something deeper, and very, very sweet. At the surface, it seems as though Moshe is addressing both the heavens and the earth since they are equal partners in the witnessing of all of Israel’s history. Both G!d and humanity, it seems to be saying, are witnesses to our actions – so bear that in mind with the decisions you make!

But read it again, look more deeply. These are not just witnesses to history and behavior, but witnesses for a wedding: an essential ingredient for a marriage to take place. The others?

  • The Ketubah, or contract
  • The Kiddushin, or betrothal
  • The ring
  • The Nisuin, or cohabitation

What we are given, here, is the final act of the wedding of G!d and Israel! The Ketubah was given at Sinai as the Ten Devarim. So was the betrothal: the spoken commitment by both the Holy One and the people. The ring? The land of milk and honey, about to be received. And the cohabitation? It is about to take place, as the people of Israel enter the Promised Land!

So here is Moshe, father of the bride as it were, giving away his offspring to a marriage he know will be rocky – and yet will endure.

And here are we, milennia later, making good on the mutual promise.

Which makes me wonder: what exactly is the gift for the 5,770th anniversary?

May these Days of Awe fill you with promise, inspire you to complete turnings where necessary, and bring blessings to you and yours!