Torah Blog

 

A blog of Torah thoughts, poems and other random odds 'n' sods. For tag cloud click here.
(Sorry, the comments moderation for this blog is very clunky - if you want to ask me a question, better to use the contact form)

 

Thursday
Aug312017

Points of Choice


In three of the five megillahs we find a central moment that contains a weighty choice by a woman, which is the pivot for the entire narrative and its moral messages. Two of these choices are positive ones, and one is not.

 

I -  In the Book of Ruth, it is that moment in which Naomi urges her daughters-in-law to return to Moab. Ruth refuses to do so (1:14):

And they lifted up their voice, and wept again; and Orpah kissed her mother-in-law; but Ruth held fast to her

This choice, and Ruth's subsequent famous speech, leads to her marriage with Boaz and the subsequent birth of the Davidic lineage.

 


II -   In the Scroll of Esther, Mordechai sends Queen Esther the terrifying instruction that she must go to the King although she has not been called - which carries a penalty of death.  

Mordechai says (4:14):

For if you remain silent at this time, then shall relief and deliverance arise to the Jews from another place; but you and your father’s house shall be destroyed. And who knows whether you have not come to the kingdom for such a time as this?

Esther replies in verse 16:

Go, gather together all the Jews who are present in Shushan, and fast for me, and neither eat nor drink three days, night or day; I also and my girls will fast likewise; and so will I go to the king, though it is against the law; and if I perish, I perish.

This fateful and heroic choice leads to the salvation of the Jews of the Persian Empire.

 


III -  In the Song of Songs, we see a different kind of moment. The two lovers have been seeking each other. He has finally arrived at her abode and knocks at the door. Instead of eagerly answering it, she is suddenly attacked by a moment of torpor and apathy, and makes a strange choice not to arise (5:3):

I have taken off my robe; how could I put it on? I have bathed my feet; how could I soil them?

Although a moment later, she realises her folly and jumps up, he has already gone. They do not meet.

The Song of Songs is traditionally symbolic of the relationship between God and the Jewish people. In this verse are encapsulated all those moments in which the Jewish people did not leap up to answer God's call, in whatever way that was manifest - often with disastrous consquences.

This is the negative. But fortunately, we have Ruth's shining example and later that of Esther.

And in a textual link between two of these narratives,  we find Esther explaining to King Ahasuerus:

For how can I endure to see the evil that shall come to my people? or how can I endure to see the destruction of my kindred? (Esther 8:6)


Interestingly enough, the Hebrew word for "how" is איככה.

This is the very same word used by the female lover in the Song of Songs for "how could I put it on?" The word appears nowhere else in the Tanach, and clearly signals a connection between the two stories.

Esther's איככה, her realisation of "I could not possibly (abandon my people)"shows that she has heard and answered the knock of destiny on her door. In doing so, she atones for and recitifies the moment of wooden-heartedness and sluggishness on the part of the lover who cannot possibly don her robe right now.

Tuesday
Mar212017

Separation and Integration

In the Havdala ceremony, we say "Who separated between the holy and the profane, between light and darkness, between Israel and the nations, between the seventh day and the six days of Creation."

The separation between Shabbat and the weekdays is not absolute. Our ideal is that through experiencing Shabbat, we enter the week and transform it. As is our Shabbat, so is our six days.

Perhaps we can also apply that to the category "Between Israel and the nations." We do not want to be isolated and separated. We want, from within our experience as Jews, to enter and be with our non-Jewish friends, carrying our Jewish experience there, and having it transform our interactions and shine a light upon others.

Let's remember that just as the six days of the week play an important role in our lives and make Shabbat what it is, and we cannot just live in Shabbat, so too we must live in the broader world, the arena where we play our our full historical purpose, and transform it from within our concentrated Jewish life.

The analogy I think of is of Judaism as being like apple juice concentrate. On its own, it is much too strong and barely drinkable. Its true delicate flavour emerges when mixed and diluted with water. From this perspective, the - or a significant - purpose of Judaism was to be mixed with the culture of the world, and to produce beautiful things through this synthesis.

 

Tuesday
Mar212017

Moses' Difficulty in Making the Menorah

The midrash Tanchuma (Shemini) describes how Moshe found himself unable to to make the menorah. 

מעשה המנורה נתקשה בה משה א"ל הקב"ה הרי אני עושה אותה לפניך מה עשה הקדוש ברוך הוא הראה לו אש לבנה ואש אדומה ואש שחורה אש ירוקה ועשה מהן את המנורה גביעיה כפתוריה ופרחיה וששת הקנים והוא אומר לו כך וכך עשה אותם שנאמר (במדבר ח) וזה מעשה המנורה מלמד שהראה לו הקדוש ברוך הוא באצבע את המנורה ואעפ"כ נתקשה בה הרבה משה לעשותו מה עשה הקב"ה חקקה על כף ידו של משה אמר לו וראה ועשה בתבניתם כשם שחקקתיה על כף ידך ואעפ"כ נתקשה בה משה ואמר מקשה תיעשה המנורה כלומר מה קשה לעשות א"ל הקב"ה השלך את הזהב לאש והמנורה תיעשה מאליה שנאמר (שמות כח) מקשה תיעשה המנורה כתיב תיעשה מעצמה תיעשה מלמד שנתקשה לו המנורה

 

G-d told him how to do it and even engraved it on his palm, but all His instructions still didn't help, so eventually He told Moses: "Just throw it in the fire and it will make itself."

This is a mysterious midrash. I asked people to speak at the Shabbat table to speak as Moshe and tell me why they were having so much trouble.

Here is one possibility:

I keep being challenged to do new things - I wasn't even sure I could lead the people out of Egypt, and now I've had to do a whole series of other things I wasn't prepared for. Each time it's something else. I rise to the challenges but I make mistakes. Sometimes, I just need to give it over to G-d as it's beyond my capabilities.

I think in this Moses is a role model for us with all of our struggles, successes and failures. 

Another answer is that Moses, having given over the Torah, was in danger of perceivign himself, and being perceived, as the great knower. Every so often in the Torah Moses is shown as not knowing. It is crucial that we understand that the Torah did not come from him, and he did not know of his own accord, only through G-d's grace.  So too us all.


Tuesday
Dec272016

Hear please! The limits of communication

Genesis 37:6
"And he said to them, Hear, please, this dream which I have dreamed"

This is the second dream Joseph is sharing with his brothers. The words "Hear please!" stand out in their emphasis. The commentary Hizkuni writes that in this Joseph is trying to convince his brothers that this second dream proves it is all coming from heaven.

Yet he fails to convince them - on the contrary, they hate him even more. 

We have all had, no doubt, the feeling of debating or arguing with someone, and thinking, "If I just say the right thing, or use the right words, s/he cannot help but see the truth of my position." Advocates of specific political positions, for example, continue to urgently share videos of posts on social media thnking, no one who sees this can remain unconvinced. And yet people do. Because when they are entrenched, or entirely committed to their viewpoint, or emotionally blocked, it basically does not matter what is said to them, it will not make a dent. And the brothers were entrenched. "Hear please!" begs Joseph, thinking logic or divinely-sent evidence will win the day; but it is a lost battle from the outset.

I'd like to make a connection between the above and a question that has been troubling me for years.

Jumping to an earlier section of Genesis: Rebecca and Isaac seem to have a good relationship. They pray together for children (vs. Rashi);  and Isaac, unlike Abraham or Jacob, never takes a second wife, even though the children are long in coming. So why did Rebecca, seeing that he was about to give the birthright blessings to Esau, not sit down to discuss with him this plan? After all, she has a very strong proof that the blessings should go to Jacob - the fact that God told her even before they were born, "And the older shall serve the younger?"

It seemed to me that the answer lay in Eve's curse:

To the woman he said, I will greatly multiply the pain of your child bearing; in sorrow you shall bring forth children; and your desire shall be to your husband, and he shall rule over you (Gen 3 16.)

We can't help noticing the parallel with Gen 4:7:

If you do well, shall you not be accepted? and if you do not well, sin lies at the door. And to you shall be its desire and [yet] you shall rule over it.

The parallel set up by these two verses is: as woman is to man (her desire to him, yet he rules)

so evil inclination is to human (its desire to him/her, yet s/he rules)

Here, woman and evil inclination are drawn similarly. What is the resemblance? I felt that a woman stuck in a patriarchal system is not free to make her wishes known. Just as the evil inclination must work by subterfuge, wispering its seducations quietly in your ear and making you think it's a great idea to go do that evil thing, so too a woman must manipulate, whisper, and make the man think he is acting independently. This is truly a curse!

But just as Adam can free himself from the curse by harnessing nature and progressing, so too woman can free herself by changing herself and society. By becoming fully whole and balanced, she invites wholeness and balance in the man. And so we can head for equal relationship. Sarah Yehudit Schneider explains that this is the final destination: The Ari states in this place that the 7th and ultimate relationship between man and woman is when they meet “face to face and are completely equal.” (You Are What You Hate, p. 93)

* *

I still stand by the above idea, that the world must try to move towards equal and open relationship, of communication and respectful debate and listening. However, in the recognition that the world might not yet be quite there, I learned something from the Joseph story that sheds other light on Rebecca's action. Perhaps she was simply aware of Isaac's blind spot. He loved Esau and would not be able to listen to any argument under the sun. So she had to resort to this rather repugnant trick.

This is not ideal,  it also relates to an imperfect world, but at least it is not as gender-imbalanced or tainted by curse as the first situation. Both men and women have their blind spots. Communication is not always the solution to problems in relationship. People have all sorts of emotional blocks than can only be resolved in other ways than direct speech.  Had Joseph been wiser and more mature, he might have looked for other ways to convince the brothers than appealing to their reason.

Tuesday
Dec272016

We Must Not Be Noah

A blog post at Times of Israel