Torah Blog


A blog of Torah thoughts, poems and other random odds 'n' sods. For tag cloud click here.
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Entries in God (6)


From the Heights to the Depths

If you were Joseph sitting in prison, what would you be thinking? Might it be:
"I don't understand this. My life makes no sense. The dreams I had in childhood felt so real and true - and they are further than ever from being realised. What am I doing here?"

But what if, unbeknowst to him at the time. every element in Joseph's life was being carefully crafted by a Divine hand in order to shape him into becoming the man of God he must become?

It's interesting to note that Joseph was not thrown into just any prison, but specifically into Pharaoh's jail. There he would meet many ministers and offficials who had fallen out of favour. One day they were at the top of the power food chain, the next they had been toppled into the pits of prison. 

Perhaps Joseph was being shown this sight deliberately. He learned repeatedly that a person could, upon the king's whim, go from fame to incaraceration. He himself had gone from the heights of favour twice - the first time, a teen beloved by his father, he ended up in a pit by the hand of his cruel brothers; the second, the trusted manager of all of Potiphar's household, he was falsely accused of rape and thrown into prison. The King of Kings, just like the mortal king, could do precisely that - whiplash you  מאיגרא רמה לבירא עמיקתא. We are not in control.

This lesson was branded upon Joseph's mind. Finally released, he knew to his core that no interpretation can be made without divine aid, and was able to be the איש אלהים that could carry out God's plan properly and without hubris.

p.s. adding something I heard after writing this - that Rebbe Nachman sees precisely this kind of symbolism in the dreidel. Everything turns around, revolving and changing from one thing to the next, from top to bottom and from bottom to top again. Connecting the Joseph story to Chanukah, the time at when it is read every year.


The Jonah Epiphany

While doing a Bibliodrama recently on the book of Jonah, I came to a tremendously important realisation that helped me in my attitudes towards myself, and can also help us have compassion on others:

G-d came to Jonah and said, "Go to Nineveh and tell them to repent." Had Jonah been a good little prophet, he would have said "Ok", gone to Nineveh, said "Repent...", they would have repented - and that would have been the end of the story. Very boring story, and no book of Jonah. It was only because he was a bad prophet, running away from his mission, going down...then down... then down some more... that we even have the marvelous story of Chapter 1  of Jonah, with the amazing sailors and the process that Jonah himself goes through, continuing in Chapter 2.

Those sailors came to know G-d because of Jonah. It is only due to Jonah's "malfunctioning" that they all experienced the crisis of the weird storm and rose to its existential challenge. Jonah himself gets to, in the eye of the storm, stand up and declare "I am a Hebrew", which may represent a very important moment in his life - a moment he would not have had, had he been a good boy.

The lesson is that even when we seem to ourselves to be dysfunctional, to be running away, we are still on a meaningful journey and still impacting the people around us, possibly even in a tremendous way, as Jonah did for those sailors, and as the book of Jonah does for us. We are writing chapters of the book of our life, even if we ourselves do not notice any plot and character development in particular.

G-d will send us opportunities from within that escaping place, to be and to do, and we get to choose there too, just as we always get to choose.

For me, quite frequently feeling like I am running away from who I am "meant" to be, this really helps. Perhaps there are some other people out there who feel similarly.

P.s. Jonah (in Hebrew "Yonah") means dove, and my friend Chaviva Speter also notes similar lessons we can learn from the dove in the flood. The first time that Noah sends the dove, it fails to land. The second time, it does not fly far, returning with an olive branch. Only the third time does it fly free and not return. Just as Jonah failed initially in his mission, so did the dove, and so do we. It's part of life and we must keep trying.


The Bearable Lightness of Being

Midrash Tanhuma on Ki Tisa:

Since he came down and approached the camp and saw the calf, the written letters flew away from them and were found to be heavy on Moshe's hands, immediately (Exodus 32:18) "And Moshe's anger burned and he threw the tablets out of his hand"

Interesting. A bunch of letters chiseled into the stone allowed Moshe to be able to carry these huge stone tablets . In their absence, the tablets just became lumps of stone and Moshe dropped them (the Midrash changes our understanding of the verse that Moshe flung them down in anger; but see discussion here)

I see this Midrash as a metaphor for life. The tablets are our lives, with all of their challenges and burdens. The letters, our spiritual life - Torah learning, awareness and mindfulness, prayer and service of G-d. If we invest in keeping those letters nice and sharp, they can carry our lives for us and we can feel light and clear at every moment. If we let them drop and fade, whether out of laziness, anger or pain, we risk life becoming a heavy burden to schlep around. That's been my experience, anyway.

It reminds me of the Hassidic tale of the man who hitched a ride on a wagon. The man sat there with a huge bag on his knees. The driver said: "Why don't you put your bag down on the floor?" The hitchhiker replied: "You've been kind enough to take me, I don't need you to take my bag as well."

I think we can drop our bags - our baggage - and trust that if G-d can carry everything else, G-d can carry our bags for us too. We're not being helpful when we schlep all that stuff around, just foolish.

Thus, too, the ark was said to "carry its bearers" rather than the expected, that the bearers carried it.

So our job is to invest in our spiritual lives, and then they will carry us, G-d will carry us, our baggage, and all those things that currently feel so heavy. We have "wings of spirit", as Rav kook writes, and with them we can soar.


ויספר משה לחתנו And Moses told his father-in-law

I love to learn Parsha with a chabura (group) of people, where we just read the text carefully and discuss together without preparing in advance. It's great - things pop out at you that you never seem to notice when learning on your own. I highly recommend it.
Here's something I noticed this week in one such group learning session. At the beginning of Parshat Yitro, Yitro comes to visit Moshe because he has heard of all the miraculous things that God has done, specifically the Exodus from Egypt.
But then Shemot chapter 18, verse 8 tells us:

And Moses told his father-in-law all that the Lord had done to Pharaoh and to the Egyptians for Israel’s sake, and all the hardship that had come upon them by the way, and how the Lord saved them.

Yitro's reaction is:

And Jethro rejoiced because of all the goodness which the Lord had done to Israel, whom he had delivered from the hand of the Egyptians.

It seems superfluous for Moshe
to tell this story over to a person who has already heard it! What can we learn from this?

We could take three possible directions: 

  1. The rumours of the miracles had spread to Midyan. Rumours have a way of spreading, as the Talmud in Sotah colourfully describes it, by gossiping women spinning tales by moonlight, or as the Talmud in Baba Batra says, simply things get around, "For the bird of the heaven shall carry the voice"
    BUT you don't just want to rely on a rumour, it's important to check the veracity of it from someone who was there

  2. When you hear a first person account it has an entirely different effect than hearing the generalities. This happens to us all the time - we hear of a disaster and it's just numbers: 250 killed in a plane crash, 50000 killed in an earthquake. Our brain registers, but our hearts remain untouched. But when we hear one individual story, tears come to our eyes. Yitro's reaction is one of rejoicing, but the word used ויחד is odd. The rabbis translated it as goosebumps - a powerful reaction of awe and wonder. To hear it from the horse's mouth so to speak, was almost to relive it. אינו דומה שמיעה לראייה - hearing is not like seeing. We see this also when Moshe is up Mt Sinai and the people are worshipping the Golden Calf below. God says (Shemot 32:7-8)
Go down; for your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt, have corrupted themselves;
They have turned aside quickly from the way which I commanded them; they have made them a molten calf, and have worshipped it...

So he knew about this - who would doubt the word of God? Yet only when Moshe SAW the calf and the dancing did his anger burn and he dropped the tablets. 

3. The third angle we can take on Moshe's retelling is less about Yitro's need to hear and more regarding Moshe's need to tell the story over. When we tell a story over to an outsider, it helps us to understand what we have been through. It helps to organise our thoughts and may be cathartic, as in psychoanalysis. It makes a difference who we are speaking to also - here, Yitro was a powerful religious figure, also a leader, and Moshe could speak to him as a peer and share all of the emotions regarding everything he had just been through - including the hardship. I wonder how long that conversation took - perhaps they sat in a tent all day, eating Manna, smoking a nargilla, in one of those unforgettable ten hour conversations that make life worth living.

Perhaps that is also why Yitro was the one who a few verses later suggested to Moshe that he needed to lighten his burden. He most deeply understood what Moshe had been through and where he was at.
This is an early example of coaching - a deep listening followed by advice to match where the person is!

And it is interesting that all this takes place just before the tremendous revelation at Sinai - an event which in Jewish consciousness takes its place in import alongside the Creation of the World. At the Creation, God speaks ten sayings, but there is really no one to talk to - God is saying them to Him/Herself.
לולא מסתפימא I would say, God is lonely.
Now at Sinai, God gets to "do a tikkun - have a healing experience" so to speak, when S/He can say ten things to 600000 people who are listening attentively. We all need to speak out our truth to another, and this is to be not alone.

by Hyam Plutzik

(Once, when I entered the Holy of Holies to burn the incense, I saw the Lord
of all Hosts sitting on a high and exalted throne, and He said to me:
"Ishmael, my son, bless me." —
The Talmud)

He is lonely then within the pale of the palace
The Enthroned Will, whose fingers must ever shore
The pitiful islands against the destroyer of all.

To guard the breath of the violet for its time
And Helen’s face, and the gay moment the sun
Touches the street in the town where children play.

To shape and reshape forever the crumbling substances
Yet see the ruin so quickly, the figurines
Wasting in air, the brush-strokes graying like ash
If only once out of the flow, the river,
To make the lasting, the perfect – O to create
What will endure for all the creator’s time.

Lonely, lonely in the pale of the palace.
Once there were others, rivals, Ammon or Zeus.
Brother or foe, to bring the blood to the face,

Or who fashioned himself a mate out of the ground,
For eternity, his paltry thousand years.
But to shape and reshape forever the dust, the dust.

And the desperate tricks, the man or the nation beloved.
The disguises: dream or fire or a cloak by the gate
Of an unknown city, beyond the candlelight's friendship,

Where the guard cries out who goes, and sees no thing
But the darkening sand and a desert bird wheeling
With the cry that a gull makes on an empty coast.

O he is lonely in the pale of the palace¬— The Enthroned
Will, whose fingers must ever shore
The pitiful islands against the destroyer of all.


Holy Laws...?

I find myself at a bit of a loss when faced with mishpatim.
I open up the Torah as a work for spiritual guidance and am faced with all these laws, including ones referring to archaic societal structures. How would you feel if you bought a book entitled Get in Touch With Your Soul and opened it up to find half of it was tort law from thirteenth century France? How can we connect to this? And why do we even need these laws when we have up-to-date democratic systems?

The Netivot Shalom - the Slonimer - writes that mishpatim falls in the middle of the giving of the Ten Commandments (see Chapter 24 of Shemot where the Har Sinai narrative appears to continue) for a reason. To teach us that these laws are just as holy as the Ten Commandments. But how? I can't accept that everything a rabbi or a dayan says is God's will (any more than lots of other things said by lots of other people).

This is the challenge for me - where is God in these legalities?

Ultimately the legal and the religious are not separated in Jewish thought. According to Menachem Elon, the Halacha itself does not recognise the concept of special religious laws that are different from other legal norms. In Talmudic discussions, the same theoretical argumentation, terminology and modes of interpretation are applied to both civil law and also the laws of Shabbat, the sacrifices and ritual purity and impurity. The laws of agency apply in the same way to issues of hekdesh and terumah as they do to marriage and divorce.


There are some very interesting Jewish legal procedures that bring God into the law as a partner or witness. There is an interesting procedure called “mi shepara”. This is used in a case where someone might change his or her mind after making a verbal contract, something halachically impossible to enforce when there were no witnesses to the verbal commitment. So they called in God as the punisher. The Rambam tells us in Hilchot Mechirah of his Mishneh Torah that if someone has paid for his goods but not yet received them, if either the seller or buyer retract at that point, they have not acted in a Jewish fashion and are obligated to receive the curse of “Mi Sheparah, He who punished”… and how is the curse administered? A curse is pronounced against him in a court of law, saying “He who punished the generation of the flood and the generation of the confusion of tongues at Babel and the people of Sodom and Gemorrah and the Egyptians who were drowned in the sea, may He exact punishment from him who does not stand by his word.”

There are two ways of looking at this. One is the anthropological way, to suggest that the rabbis utilised people’s fear and superstitions in order to provide some kind of deterrent. The other, inside-spiritual point of view, is that God is being called in to help with issues that are beyond the powers of the Bet Din. That a people who genuinely believe in an interventionist God, in a God who wants (whatever it means to say that God wants) for there to be morality in the world, as demonstrated by what He did to the people of the flood, Sodom and Gemorrah etc. will not even stand by when a simple farmer reneges on a verbal contract.

There are verses in Parshat Mishpatim that also overtly bring God into the picture. I'm not going to spoon-feed you - see if you can find them, and look at the Rashi there.

The message is that God is watching with Divine Providence and has arranged everything perfectly. The challenge is - how to apply this kind of thinking to all laws? and to make them speak to us spiritually, not just ethically?

V'idach zil gmor