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)

 

Tuesday
Nov052013

And Lilith fled

The mythology of the demon queen Lilith appears in a number of Jewish sources. Lilith represents an evil force who, among other things, kills babies. One of the sources where Lilith appears is the Zohar. However the Zohar tells us the story differently from other sources. Rather than being created demonic, she started off as a non-evil spirit:

There is a female, a spirit of all spirits, and her name is Lilith, and she was at first with Adam (Zohar 3:19)

She had union with Adam who was at that time a spirit, in primal undifferentiated form (i.e. encapsulating both male and female, as in the verse in Genesis 1:27). However, once Adam began differentiating into male and female, Lilith fled and became evil.

Thereafter the Holy One, blessed be He, sawed Adam into two, and made the female. And He brought her to Adam in her perfection like a bride to the canopy. When Lilith saw this, she fled. And she is in the cities of the sea, and she is still trying to harm the sons of the world. (Zohar 3:19)

What precisely made Lilith flee? The Zohar does not tell us, though this is an intriguing question in and of itself. It might be because she was jealous of Eve, or upset that Adam now had a body while she did not. But I want to suggest something more. We see that she saw Adam becoming whole – developing male and female aspects, while she remained only female. It seems to me that once Adam had evolved, but she had not, the union became imbalanced and that was why she fled. This is a lesson for male-female relationships. In some relationships, each partner is playing up only half of the aspects of the self - the gendered half. The woman plays up only her feminine aspects to the very masculine man. However, where one partner has developed to be more whole and integrate his/her own male and female aspects, the other partner will have to develop similarly for the relationship to endure and thrive.

A second important point here is that the Zohar’s Lilith was originally not evil. What made her evil was her feelings of offense, or upset, or rejection. The Zohar is making a profound statement about the roots of evil, that lie in our actions and reactions. How much damage rejection can do! I mentioned this already in this post, about Timna.

- - -

I originally ended this post here, with the words:

"Two wounded beings unleash so much bad into the world. How can we help people move beyond their negative emotions? What can we do to add to the world’s healing? Here's one route. "

However, today my teacher Avraham mentioned something that puts a much deeper spin on it, that repesents a spiritual development. He taught that Leah is kabbalistically seen as a reincarnation of Lilith, no less (and Rachel is Eve, with Jacob equivalent to Adam).

Like Lilith, Leah too suffers from tremendous rejection and pain. For her entire life, her husband Jacob has given his love to her sister Rachel. Leah's challenges in her lifetime represent the opportunity for growth and tikkun for the Lilith soul inside her. True repentance, says the Rambam, is only when you are back in the same situation and you act differently. Thus, in her lifetime Leah had a similar experience to Lilith, of rejection - but her response is different. Instead of acting in a childish, unevolved manner and storming off to do angry damage in the world, Leah lives within the situation, tries to resolve it, and even strives to feel gratitude for what she actually has, as we see when she names Judah and says "This time I shall thank G-d."

We all get to face our unique personal challenges again and again, in different forms, so that we can refine our responses and react from a more evolved place each time. This is how we heal the world (and meditation [see the link above] is indeed a very valuable tool, as it teaches us to hold our emotions in a different way).

 

[Thanks to my teacher Avraham Leader for introducing me to this passage. Translation of Zohar is from this site]

Thursday
Jun202013

Marrying the Kushite woman

At the end of parshat Beha’alotcha we find a mysterious and puzzling narrative. Its first three verses don’t seem to follow on from each other at all:

1. And Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Kushite woman whom he had married; for he had married a Kushite woman. 2. And they said, Has the Lord indeed spoken only by Moses? has he not spoken also by us? And the Lord heard it. 3. And the man Moses was very humble, more than any other men which were upon the face of the earth.

I am intrigued by verses 1 and 2 and the disconnect between them. We need to ask at least a couple of questions:

- What is the complaint here? Is it that Moses has married a Kushite woman (and if so, what is the problem with that?)

- What are Miriam and Aaron trying to say in verse 2 and what does that have to do with the Kushite woman?

The Midrash, Rashi and others suggest a non-literal interpretation – the complaint was that Moses had separated from his wife Tzipporah, and his siblings felt that that this was unnecessary and inappropriate. They too were prophets and yet had not separated themselves thus. This approach adequately explains the connection between the two verses, but it deviates from the plain meaning of the first verse: that Moses indeed married a Kushite woman.

Obviously if we follow the plain meaning, this in and of itself raises questions, such as: Where did he meet this woman? and: Why did he marry her? Rashbam and Daat zekenim quote a work called Divrei Hayamim LeMoshe Rabbenu, that somewhere between age 40 and 80, Moses married an Ethiopian queen (though he did not sleep with her. See further discussion of this interpretation here).

Daat zekenim goes on to explain the second verse as follows: They protested: “Was Moses so proud, because G-d spoke to him face to face, that he married out of the tribe? We (Miriam and Aaron) also had G-d speak to us, and we did not marry out of the tribe.”

 

I’d like to suggest an alternative reading. Unlike Miriam and Aaron, who grew up in amongst the Israelites in Egypt, Moses grew up in Pharaoh’s palace as a non-Jew. He then fled to Midian, lived once again among non-Jews, and married Tzipporah, daughter of an idol-worshipping priest (as Yitro was then). Moses spent his life among those who were other to him, and was familiar and comfortable with that. Thus, when G-d chose him to receive prophecy on a level never before or since attained, and to give the Torah through him – making him the ultimate Other, a human being with an experience he cannot share with any other person – he already had the inner kli (vessel) prepared and available to contain such a role.

Miriam and Aaron in all their greatness did not have this kind of vessel. Their protest derived from a lack of understanding of the greatness of Moses, who could be the leader of a people to which he was, in some regards, other. They saw him breaking the rules, and thought it was due to hubris in being spoken to G-d; but it was not. Hence verse 3, clarifying for us: No, Moses was humble.

In fact, if I can be bold enough as to take the Kushite woman as a metaphor, but in a different way than the Midrash does, and without meaning to be racist but simply to take the Tanach on its own terms and in its own context: the Kushite is a symbol of the quintessential Other, in that he is dark-skinned and exotic. When Moses marries the Kushite woman, he is embracing (“marrying”) his otherness to the full – perhaps accepting fully, finally, that he will never be just like everyone else, or like anyone else. Perhaps Miriam and Aaron sensed this and could not bear to fully, finally accept the separation from him that this would entail, as their younger brother whom they saved from death in the river.

- With thanks to Dan Goldblatt, through whose Bibliodrama session I arrived at this insight: Tammuz 5773

Sunday
Feb242013

Think before rejecting

One of the most incredible paragraphs in the Talmud explains that Amalek came into being due to Jewish rejection of a prospective convert:


And Lotan's sister was Timna... Timna was a royal princess... Desiring to become a proselyte, she went to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, but they did not accept her. So she went and became a concubine to Eliphaz the son of Esau, saying, 'I had rather be a servant to this people than a mistress of another nation.' From her Amalek was descended who afflicted Israel. Why so? — Because they should not have repulsed her.
(Sanhedrin 99b)

We are not told why she was rejected. Since the mission of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob was to spread monotheism, why did they not want to accept her? Was there something about her that made them feel uncomfortable? Whether that was true or not, this courageous section of Talmud makes no bones about its message. It was our own fault that we ended up plagued by Amalek, our arch-nemesis. Evil begets evil.

So next parshat Zachor, let's wipe out not only Amalek but also, in general, acts of rejection we commit due to insularity, snobbery, fear or hatred. Let's try harder to embrace and welcome people with open arms, even those who make us feel uncomfortable, and remember the words of Bob Marley in his song "Corner Stone":

Cause the things people refuse

Are the things they should choose

Sunday
Feb242013

Amalek - who cares anyway?

Zachor.

Once a year, Jews are commanded to read this paragraph aloud in Synagogue:

Remember what Amalek did to you by the way, when you came forth out of Egypt;
How he met you by the way, and struck at your rear, all who were feeble behind you, when you were faint and weary; and he did not fear God.

This commandment is taken very seriously, and the synagogue is much more crowded than usual as the late sleepers force themselves out of bed. (Some communities even read the paragraph twice in different accents to make sure it is understood by all!)

The essence of the commandment is to remember a nation named Amalek (descended from Esau), in order to blot out their name entirely. The question begs to be asked - if we had not bothered to remember Amalek all these years, their name would long ago have dropped out of human history. Thus we end up achieving the opposite effect from the one ostensibly desired. 

Furthermore, what is the point of this mitzvah anyway today? Amalek probably died out long ago, no one knows for sure, so why can't we stop flogging a dead horse?

This year, noticing my friends grappling with this question, I understood something. Since it is not obvious who Amalek is, the commandment forces us once a year to try to pinpoint what evil is. Is Amalek an evil nation? Is it a spiritual evil, and if so, what is its nature (doubt? chance? meaninglessness? rejection?) The commandment generates discussion and debate on this topic.

I think once a year to attempt to define what evil is constitutes an important and meaningful act. We remember that there is evil in the world... and perhaps ask ourselves what we can do in order to combat it.

(With thanks to Ethan Stephen Press and Barak Tzuberi, through whose struggle with the question of Amalek this insight arose).

 

Wednesday
Jan232013

Singing your soul song

The Nadvorna Rebbe (צמח ה' לצבי) points out that it was only when the people of Israel, after the splitting of the Sea, finally at long last

"believed in G-d, and in Moses His prophet," (Exodus 14:31)

that

"Then Moses sang this song" (Exodus 15:1) - which is of course the famous song of praise, Az Yashir.

The Nadvorna takes this in a certain direction (that we should sing even before the miracle occurs).
However I noticed another point that speaks to me: that just before the song, we hear that the people believed in G-d and in Moses.

Moses, who held back so much in following his calling at the beginning; Moses of "the uncircumcized lips", who resisted the call to leadership; who was also uncertain what to do at the Red Sea and had to be firmly instructed by G-d, "Why do you cry to me? Speak to the people of Israel, that they go forward!" (Ex. 14:15). This is the Moses who suddenly sings out without hesitation, with great confidence.

Perhaps it was precisely the people's palpable faith in him that now suddenly granted Moses the ability to sing  this extended, articulate and poetic paean to G-d. Perhaps this even enables the next phase of his spiritual career, as he becomes a fine-tuned instrument of G-d and goes on to receive the Torah on Mt Sinai.

Faith in G-d, is one important lesson of this part of the Exodus narrative; but here we also have a window into the importance of faith in people, especially our leaders.

The famous Torah of R' Nachman, the Azamra Torah (292) that speaks of finding the good points in another person and thus elevating them, continues with the following:

In just the same way you must carry on searching until you find another good point. Even if you feel that this good point is also full of flaws, you must still search for some good in it. And so you must continue finding more and more good points. This is how songs are made.

Now I understand this idea expressed by R' Nachman, which I have read several times in the past, in a more meaningful way. This truly is how songs are made.

Also, we are told they believed in Moses G-d's servant. Thus, our perception of the potential in people and leaders is most empowering to them when we focus on their calling in this life, on how they can be of unique Divine service.

So let us hold a gaze of steady faith in those others we have been given to love and admire - friends, family, leaders - so as to enable them to sing their unique divine soul song, a gift to all who surround them.

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