Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Parashat Ki Tisa - Torah vs. Torah


One Torah, or Two?

When the Torah is brought out to be read on Shabbat morning, Ashkenazim sing "Baruch shenatan Torah Torah". The repetition of the word Torah fits the melody. But does it fit the religion?

The Mishnah, in describing the prayer service, states that it is prohibited for the Ba'al Tefillah -- the person leading the service from the Bimah -- to say "Modim, modim..." "We thank, we thank," because repeating the verb for thanks implies there exists more than one Supreme Being to whom we are to be thankful.

What are we to make of the chant that says "Blessed is the one who gave Torah Torah..."?

Is it merely a coincidence of scansion?

Is it a secret acknowledgement of the second giving of Torah, at the end of this week's Parasha?

Is it an admonition that, in trying to re-make Torah in our own image, we are only making a Golden Calf?


The Zohar on this week's parashah goes into an extended riff on the phrase 'Erev Rav, commonly translated as "Mixed Multitude", the non-Israelites who joined us and went up out of Egypt with us. But the Zohar reads it differently. For 'Erev means "mixture", but it also means "evening". And Rav means "great" or "large".

The Zohar says that there was 'Erev Rav and 'Erev Katan -- corresponding to Mincha Gedola and Mincha Ketana. Mincha gedolah is the earliest time permissible to say the afternoon (mincha) prayer. The word mincha means "offering" and the prayer services are set to correspond to offerings in the Beit HaMikdash -- the Temple in Jerusalem. Since the destruction of the Beit HaMikdash, Tefillah (prayer) has been used as a substitute for the offerings. There is a disagreement as to whether the Divine Plan includes a rebuilding of a physical Beit HaMikdash, and a return to bringing actual animal sacrifices and agricultural offerings, or whether the Divine Plan is evolutionary, and we have now progressed to a spiritual level and must strive through Tefillah to perfect ourselves spiritually.

This discussion is particularly hot right now. In Israel, the Knesset just voted to approve the withdrawal from Occupied Territories. Government ministers are being denounced for giving away G-d's Land which, the argument goes, it was not the government's to give. Remember that Yitzhak Rabin was murdered over this dispute. There are now reports of Jewish religious extremists (I call them extremists -- they call me a traitor) preparing suicide bombing attacks against government officials. Members of Knesset who voted in favor of the pullout are being protected round-the-clock by Shin Bet, the Israeli intelligence agency.

Meanwhile, we are discussing the Sin of the Golden Calf. Some would argue that ceding one inch of Holy Land to non-Jews is anathema, and that Jews who participate in this act should be destroyed. If this sounds like something from recent headlines, recall Osama Bin Laden who sent three thousand people to their deaths to protest the presence of Infidels (read "US Military Personnel") on the sacred ground of Saudi Arabia. Lest Daled Amot ("four ells" -- a standard halachic measurement) of land in Israeli-occupied Gaza become the next Golden Calf...

OK, so you can guess where I stand on the Land-For-Peace issue.

Without going into detail about the derivations and meanings of the various times: Halacha divides the day into twelve hours. Regardless of the season, we divide the daylight time into twelve equal parts, each of which is then called a Halachic "Hour". (So, Yes, there really is such a thing as "Jewish time." And you thought it was a joke made up by your caterer!)

What is of interest to us here is the afternoon and evening, which is divided into Mincha Gedola, Mincha Ketana, Plag HaMincha, Sunset, and Tzet HaKochavim ("Stars Coming Out"). Mincha Gedola ("Great Mincha"), the first hour we are permitted to say the afternoon prayer, is shortly after halachic midday -- 30 halachic minutes. Mincha Ketana ("Little Mincha") is 3 1/2 halachic hours after halachic noon, and was the time of the daily afternoon sacrifice in the Beit HaMikdash. Then, 10 3/4 halachic hours into the day comes Plag ("Half") HaMincha.

The practical application today has to do with different Halachic rulings for when is the latest hour permissible to say the Mincha prayer, as well as when is the earliest hour permissible to say the evening prayer, known as 'Arvit, or Ma'ariv, and especially how early one is permitted to start Shabbat or Yom Tov. Since the prayer services were instituted to correspond to the sacrifices in the Temple, one might logically think there would be no prayer said at night. The only sacrifice brought at night was the Korban Pesach, hardly the basis for a daily ritual. But there were two aspects of the sacrifices that did apply after dark. First, there are sacrifices which may be consumed during the entire night. Second, there was a daily requirement to rake and shovel the ashes and bones from the altars.

Thanks for sitting through this digression. Now back to our story.

The Zohar says there was an 'Erev Rav, and an 'Erev Katan. This sets up a kind of Bizarro World of inverted halacha, where the services and rituals of day are carried out after nightfall in a travesty of the service of the Mishkan.

The Zohar tells us that the two head magicians of Egypt, Yamnes and Yambres, served as the priests during the various rituals of the evening: the offerings and sacrifices of the 'Erev rav and 'erev katan were Dark Side versions of the sacrifices and offerings due to be brought in the Mishkan, and later in the Beit HaMikdash. This Platonic inversion, bringing the Imperfect down to earth, has all the earmarks of a Star Trek episode. Remember the one where the guy from the antimatter universe was chasing after his twin from the matter universe, and they end up locked in eternity in a transitional dimension, because if they ever met in either universe -- matter encountering its antimatter analogue -- both universes would explode and cease to exist?

The Zohar, as is often the case, is really onto something here. It seems to place this inversion of the Avodah prior to the construction of the Mishkan, which makes it a good parallel to the two givings of Torah -- the one we could not accept, the one we finally did accept. The first giving, which the Midrash tells us Moshe did not read -- and the second giving, which Moshe appears to have written down himself, taking dictation from G-d.

The Zohar then switches to the other sense of 'erev rav, that of Mixed Multitude. The non-Israelites who came along wanted their own identity post-exodus. Aharon -- remember, Moshe is up the mountain and out of the picture -- fashions a golden calf, using an engraving tool. It is meant to for the idol-worshipping Multitude. But the Israelites see it and are intrigued. And when Yamnes and Yambres throw the magic switch, the calf comes to life and everyone gets into the act together.

What exactly is the Golden Calf?

In chapter 32, verse 6, the Torah tells us that after the calf had been made, and offerings brought, the people sat down to eat and drink, then got up to party. Drinking is an integral part of the Sin of the Calf, for the Rabbis note that the Torah only tells explicitly of drinking when there is a disaster associated with it. Other obvious instances are Noach, Lot and his daughters, and of course Nadav and Abihu.

To reinforce this, in verse 8, G-d tells Moshe that the people have made themselves an 'egel masecha -- translated as a Molten Calf. The word Masecha is from the root M'S'CH, from which are also derived words meaning various types of wine. The Midrash goes right to this and says the Calf is mesech , meaning clarified (fortified?) wine.

And what does Moshe do?

He destroys the Luchot, the stone tablets written by the finger of G-d. He also destroys the Calf. The Torah will be rewritten, will be re-created, but nothing else in this scene will be. Night and day are put back in their proper place, and the cycle of offerings and prayer is restored to forward motion, as it will be established in the Mishkan, which finally gets built next week. This Proper Order will carry over to the Beit HaMikdash and will ultimately take root in the Halachic order of our days: the rituals and prayers and blessings, the permissions and strictures with which we live our lives as Jews. With Divinity dwelling only in Heaven, and with the sacred service (Avodat HaShem) being carried out on Earth, the balance is restored.

So, did G-d give two Torahs? Or did G-d give the same Torah twice?

In chapter 34, starting at verse 11, we have a list of commandments (they can be squeezed into ten, if you like) which G-d gives Moshe imediately before giving the Torah for the second time. This is a clear replay of the Ten Words ("Commandments") given as a prologue to the giving of Torah.

Or you may want to take the entire narrative a vast logical leap forward and posit that, really, Torah was only ever given once. That the entire series of Parshiyot surrounding the giving of Torah are in effect a vast cubist canvas, a synasthesic confusion out of which a Torah emerges which, by virtue of its infinitude, can not comfortably be put into a straightforward narrative.

Torah is too complex to be studied in any one way, too powerful and infinite and profound and eternal to be taken in any single way. By receiving Torah, we receive Everything. And so G-d makes sure we experience the receiving of Torah over and over again, new each day, and in every way humanly conceivable.

* * * * *

Today (Wednesday 23 February / 14 Adar rishon) is Purim Katan -- the precursor to Purim, which will be celebrated next month on 14 Adar sheni. The occurence of two months of Adar, common enough, gives us an extra month before Purim. For what? To prepare to be drunk?

There are two "holidays" that we do not observe, and there is a balance between them: Purim Katan and Pesach Sheni -- a second Passover observed one month later, for people who were traveling and not able to bring the Paschal offerings to the Beit HaMikdash.

It is all about readying ourselves. Purim is Jewish Mardi Gras -- it is our last blast in preparation for the spiritual housecleaning that leads up to Pesach, the beginning of our spiritual year. For those who were not ready on time, there is a second chance -- Pesach sheni. And for those who need extra time to prepare, there is an extra Adar, a pre-minder of Purim.

Purim. Where night is turned into day. Where holy becomes profane and we can no longer distinguish between blessing Mordechai and cursing haman. Where Yamnes and Yambres appear, and we think they are Moshe and Aharon.

And where, for a little while, we are permitted to come dangerously close to what it must have felt like to worship the Golden Calf.

If we were not able to receive Torah the first time, we should be worried. We should be terrified! Gevalt! G-d came down on the mountain, we stood there and promised we would do and obey. And then we went out and got drunk and forgot everything!...

But G-d gives G-d's Torah over and over again. Twice? No! Constantly! Chazal ("the wise ones, of blessed memory" - a respectful and traditional way of referring to the Rabbis of ancient tradition) tell us that each time we pray, we are not merely repeating a cyclical act. Rather, when we recite Shema in the morning, and again in the evening, we are renewing our personal and national Covenant with G-d. That each time is mamash ("really") for the first time. Each act is new. Just as the Torah, which was given again after Moshe had destroyed it, is given to us new each day.

G-d does not abandon us to our fate. Each day is a renewal of Creation. We say it in the prayer service: "Who makes new eternally each day the Work of Creation." We forget that, in renewing all of Creation daily, G-d is renewing each of us, too.

Make a le'chayim for me this Purim Katan. And for all Israel -- we mamash need it desperately. Every blessing we can get. And make a lechayim for everyone you have ever loved, whether they are with you now, or gone forever. And make a lechayim for this whole beautiful, sad, beloved, sweet, sweet world.

Just to be on the safe side, though, this Shabbat morning -- as on all shabbat mornings -- I will sing the word "Torah" only once.

yours for a better world...

Simhat Purim Katan!

Monday, February 21, 2005

Zil Gmar!



Those of our Chevra who have followed the recent give-and-take between my snotty, opinionated self and an anonymous Ineterlocutor will note that we diverge over whether Moshe can be characerized as a Murderer, because he killed the Egyptian. I believe the general rabbinic line is: Yes. My Anonymous Ineterlocutor (henceforth: AI) takes virulent exception with my characterization and leaps roundly to Moshe's defense. AI's basis for his position is that Rashi states -- Shemot 2:12, the killing of the Mizri (="Egyptian" in Hebrew) -- the Moshe killed the Mizri by using the Shem HaMephorash, the mystical 72-letter name of G-d. This Name is used by the Cohanim in certain arcane rituals in the Beit HaMikdash -- principally in the Yom Kippur service when they use the Name in the blessing of the people. AI then takes Rashi's text one step further -- perhaps a logical reach, perhaps not -- and states that, since Rashi tells us that Moshe uses the Name of G-d to kill the Mizri, this must surely be a proper act, even a praiseworthy one, since Moshe prevented an innocent Hebrew from being murdered.

There are a few problems with this approach. In reverse order: the Hebrew is not identified. If not for the midrash quoted by Rash, I would not even suspect there may be any link between the assailant and his victim. Rashi: "he [Moshe] saw what the Mizri died to the Hebrew in the house and he saw what he did to him in the field" -- from the text "he looked here and there..." Rashi then, however, immediately corrects himself. Although this is from the midrash in Shemot Rabbah, Rashi then states, "but you should take the words in the text in their plain meaning."

The text gives no indication that the Hebrew was in danger of being killed, nor does Rashi even hint at the idea. The notion that the Egyptians were bent on killing the Hebrews, rather than exploiting their labor, is most likely out of place, within the text itself. Remember, these were the same people who built the cities of Pithom and Ramses for Pharoah. A slave was a piece of property and had definite monetary value. The gemara -- although not speaking of Hebrwe slaves in Mizraim -- goes so far as to state that slaves are in a unique economic category, somewhat between real property and moveables. Slaves can have the properties of both other classes of goods and, like real property, can be awarded to creditors out of the estate of the deceased, even to the detriment of the orphans who inherit.

There are several passages in the gemara, supplemented by writings of Rishonim and Acharonim alike, all of which accepts that there is a Biblical prohibition against cursing another human being, and that this prohibition explicitly extends to using the Divine Name to injure or kill another person. The fact that Rashi states that Moshe used the Name to kill the Mizri is merely like saying that Fred used a gun to kill George: the instrumentalilty is described for the sake of forensic completeness, not to lend credence to the act. If anything, in light of the extensive writings that make cursing or killing with the name of G-d a prohibited act, it damns Moshe that much more than if he had merely beaten the man to death. Rashi would surely have known of these gemaras, and of other writings that support this prohibition.

Now, however, we come to the truly Big Problem in all this. Rashi never said that Moshe used the Shem HaMeforash to kill the Mizri.

I have before me my own copy of The Stone Edition of the Chumash (travel-size edition), commoly called "The ArtScroll Chumash". And before I launch into my tirade -- (remember: Snotty and Opinionated) let me sincerely praise the ArtScroll project. I have heard talk over the years of the Spiritual Center of Humankind moving from India / Tibet / China... wherever it was previously thought to be... and coming to rest on the USA. (Funny that those who speak in terms neglect to mention other spiritual centers, many of which actually no longer exist -- Lublin, say, or Volozhin. No matter.) To the extent that Judaism has been able to thrive in the US, the ArtScroll phenomenon is a monumentally important undertaking. The profound level of dedication to Torah of those involved in ArtScroll leaps out from every page. The passion and the sense of learning Torah Lishmah -- for its own sake, the way it is supposed to be done -- is palpable in every footnote. For all the arguments I have heard against what many perceive as the doctrinaire approach of Hacham Scroll, it is safe to say that there are many practicing Jews today who would not be found within a hundred yards of a shul, nor within eighteen minutes of Shabbat, without the existence of ArtScroll / Mesorah Publications.

Those who were never new to Jewish practice may not properly appreciate just how forbidding it can be to walk into an Orthodox shul on Friday night. You don't know which page to turn to -- you probably don't remember how to read Hebrew, if you ever knew at all. You aren't sure when, or whether, to sit, stand, bow, turn (left or right?), kiss the book, put on a tallit, engage in conversation, say "Amen"... as to the tunes that everyone seems to be swingin' along to... forget it! It is no exaggeration to say that I am observant today -- a matter of personal definition, to be sure: many in my own community consider me so Orthodox they are afraid to invite me into their homes for fear I will be offended by their insufficient levels of Kashrut; by contrast, in Lakewood, where I am blessed to have two separate Chavrusas each week, I wear a black suit, white shirt, black velvet yarmulke, but I am considered unusual because I wear Techelet, a "hippie". Go figure... -- Anyway, I would not have been able to draw so close to Orthodoxy, and so quickly, and with such comfort, if not for the combination of the Jewish Catalogues and the ArtScroll Siddur, both of which were my first guides into daily practice in the late '70's.

Today I continue to purchase and use ArtScroll publications. I would be lost without their edition of the Talmud, and the various Bible publications offer a wealth of diverse commentary.

Which is not to say that they do not have an Agenda.

Which is where I personally diverge from Hacham Scroll. For example, I do not care for the volume which does not translate the Song of Songs, but retells it in a religious parable derived, so it announces, from Rashi's interpretation. Rashi's interpretation on Shir HaShirim is, itself, a book. Also, Rashi, and many of the other standard commentaries on this book, inject a political message, to wit: There may not be an inherent sanctity to the Land of Israel, and it is not proper for Jews to emmigrate en masse to the Land, nor to take up permanent residence prior to the coming of Mashiach and the ultimate Redemption. This gives rise to a knotty problem: Hacham Scroll probably does not want to be so blatantly controversial -- Hacham Scroll may, in fact, be a religious Zionist -- a Gush-nik. If I had to bet, I would lay my shekel on Schvartz. It's just a feeling... Besides, how bad do we want to make Rashi look to the contemporary Religious Zionists?

Sidebar: remember the first Rashi of all, on the first verse of Bereshit? (free translation) "In future generations they will say to Israel, 'You are thieves, because you stole the Land of Canaan from the tribes that lived there...' and we will say: 'The Land belongs to G-d. G-d created the Land, and it pleased G-d to take it from the former inhabitants and give it to us.'" Rashi is a genius. And it doesn't take a genius to see the slippery slope in this argument: that, if you say that G-d took the Land from the Canaanaties and gave it to us, then you must also say that G-d took the land away from us and gave it to the Romans, the Greeks, the Turks... the Palestinians... or is it only when it comes to us that we can perceive the hand of G-d?

To return to our theme: In my edition of the ArtScroll Chumash -- page 299 -- the footnote to Chapter 2, verse 12 reads, in its entirety:

"That there was no man. Seeing prophetically that no future proselyte would descend from the Egyptian assailant, Moses killed him by reciting the secret Name of G-d (Rashi) That the Egyptian died is proof that he was worthy of death, for the sacred Name would not cause the death of an innocent person. Moses' concern with future generations teaches that one must consider all facets of a complex situation before acting. Had Moses' responsibility to save a fellow Jew resulted in the loss of future Jews, he would have chosen another course."

[Snotty Opinionated Silver note: Hacham Scroll writes out the name of G-d with the letter 'o'. I choose not to. Not because I believe there is any sanctity to the word, but as a convention with its own meaning. There is a story told of Rav Moshe Feinstein z'tz'l who was teaching a section of Talmud concerning Judges -- the Hebrew word is Elohim -- and he kept saying 'EloKim', the euphemism for a name of G-d. After, some of his students asked, is it really necessary to say 'EloKim' when you are using the word, not as a name of G-d, but in its plain sense? His answer was: people will go home after the shiur, and all they'll remember was 'Rav Moshe said the name of G-d over and over again. Gevalt!' Not that I place myself on his level, Chas veShalom! But it is a worthy standard to strive to emulate.]

Rashi's actual comment on that verse: [my own translation, pretty literal] (Shemot 2:12) [on “and he turned this way and that way”] “He saw what he did to him in the house, and what he did to him in the field – this is from Midrash Shemot Rabbah, but the text is to be understood in its simple / common meaning” then, on the second part of the verse [“and he saw there was no man”] “… who would come from him who would convert – this is from Targum Jonathan.”

There is a midrashic statement that Moshe killed the Mizri using the Shem HaMephorash, but Rashi doesn’t bring it. Hacham Scroll sneaks in a redrafting of Rashi, all with a simple misplacement of a parenthesis, then compounds the intellectual sin by adding a value judgment which, because of its placement, could easily be construed as also coming from Rashi. In fact, Rashi says explicitly: "this is the Midrash, but you should read the plain meaning of the words."

In chapter 2, verse 12, the Hebrew word in the text – vayach – means “and he struck”. There are no shades of meaning there. It is an active, transitive verb and it means hit/strike. It is a physical act.

With all respect to Hacham Scroll -- I will continue to buy your books, but I will also continue to scrutinize your commentary critically, for this is not the first case of Revisionism I have come across in your work -- Judaism is not a set of moral principles. It is a closed system, based on Halachah. It fosters morality, it requires moral choices and an unshakeable moral stance, but its “purpose” is Avodat HaShem.

The "purpose" of Judaism, in fact, is explicitly NOT to create a just society – there are multiple paths that can lead to that outcome. Rashi reminds us forcefully at the beginning of Parashat Mishpatim, we are forbidden to take our disputes to a non-Jewish court, even if we know for a fact that they will come up with the same legal ruling, giving the same result as would be obtained from a Bet Din, a Rabbinic Court! Because, in the end, it is not the same. A non-Jewish court has a sense of Justice, of Right and Wrong. Of what we in Torah-speak call Tikkun Olam -- repairing the world. A Jewish court has Torah as its foundation. This is fundamentally and, literally, cosmically different. The outcome on the surface may match: Reuven will be judged guilty, and will have to return the money to Shimon; but the total outcome will be very different, because Din Torah, a Rabbinic Court, is also part of Avodat HaShem, serving G-d. Both the parties come away having performed a Mitzvah, and having preserved the integrity of Torah. In Din Torah, the outcome is supposed to make all parties happy. The one judged right is, if anything, the less happy. The one judged wrong -- Gevalt! This person was just prevented from committing a transgression! How overjoyed should that person be?!

Hillel uttered his famous dictum: "Zil gmar!" -- "Go out and learn!" He was hitting the nail on the head. Learn, study. The purpose of Jewish learning is to run as afar as we can in all directions with the inner meaning of the text. Thinkers as diverse as Rebbe Nachman to Yeshayahu Leibovitz agree that Judaism dwells in the Halachah -- and that, apart from that, our mission is to seek out the diversity of meanings that swell in our body of literature. If G-d created everything, then surely everything is to be found in G-d's word. If we seek less than the totality of meanings of which our literature is capable, then we are not Learning, but merely Memorizing. For this, G-d did not need to create humanity.

You may be familiar with the joke about two Yeshiva bocherim – one asks the other “Where is it written that you have to wear a hat when you go in shul?” After a long quest they finally come to the Rebbe. The Rebbe takes down a TaNaCh and reads to them -- ”And Shlomo the King walked into the Beit HaMikdash” They stare dumbfounded. The Rebbe slams his fist on the table and shouts, “Idiots! Would King Solomon walk into the Beit HaMikdash without a hat on?!”

We call it a joke; the rabbis call it a proof-text, and we lose many good people because too much of traditional Judaism is presented in this dumbed-down, all too transparent circular reasoning. “It is good to be a good Jew. I am a good Jew. I am reading the Torah, as a good Jew should. Moshe is the hero of the Torah, so whatever he does must be good. Moshe killed the Mizri – that wicked, wicked Mizri! Surely, he deserved it!"

Is this our vision for the future of the Jewish people? All this leads to is racism and internicene sectarianism. Which, by the way, are two of our biggest problems. Curious, for a people whose identity is based on the historical act of having been freed from slavery…

yours for a better world --


Thursday, February 17, 2005

Parashat Tetzaveh Q & A part II

Dear Chevrah --

further to previous post...

Q: According to Rashi (as reported in Art Scroll), Moshe uttered the secret name of Hashem, which would not cause an innocent person to die. (If we must depart from the text itself, surely Rashi is a reasonable source.)

A: I am familiar with the midrashic tradition that Rashi brings -- and of the way it plays out differently in the David narrative, for example, where David permits certain Moabites to live, and executes others. The fact of Moshe, with spirit of prophecy, perhaps seeing into the dim future and seeing that no good people would come from this Egyptian does not change it from murder. More to the point: we must not be misled into the intellectual quagmire: Rabbinic and midrashic literature do not support the contention that the use of the "secret name of G-d" would not cause an innocent person to die.

In fact, it is just the opposite.

There is a tradition of the Sefer Yetzira - the "Book of [the secrets of] Creation". The rabbis tell us this book was written by Abraham Avinu, who passed it on to his son Yitzhak. Yitzhak passed it down to Yaakov, and Yaakov passed it, NOT to Yosef, but to the sons of his other wives. Apparently, at the time it became necessary to transmit the Sefer, Yosef was not mature enough to use it.

According to the gemara, Yosef reported to his father that the sons of Leah were eating 'ever min ha chai -- limbs severed from a live animal, which is an act prhibited by the Torah, not only to Jews, but to all people. ( By the way, if you argue that the Torah had not yet been given, the answer is that this law is one of the Seven Laws of the Children of Noach, and was given right after the Flood. They were certainly bound by it at the time, even if you do not accept the strain in midrash that argues that all the Avot studied Torah, knew Torah, and kept all the Torah mitzvot, even though the physical Tablets had not yet been given.) The explanation is that the sons of Leah were reading the Sefer Yetzirah, only in order to familiarize themselves with its content -- and indeed, that they did NOT have the intention of actually performing any miracles. But, we are told, the mere act of reading the Sefer Yetzirah is sufficient to invoke its miraculous power, so very potent is it, and the animals from whom the sons of Leah ate materialized unbidden. There ensues a Mahloket -- a rabbinic dispute -- as to whether animals created by reading the Sefer Yetzirah are actual animals, requiring Shechitah -- kosher slaughter -- or whether they do not have that status, and may be eaten in any fashion.

The fact that Moshe may have known the Secret Name, and may have uttered it, and may have killed with it, does not ineluctably lead to the conclusion that the Mizri deserved to die. Which perhaps explains G-d's invoking the death of the Mizri as the ultimate reason that Moshe has to die. Further: the fact that the Mizri may deserve to die STILL does not give Moshe the right to kill him. Remember: G-d tells Abraham that his descendants will be afflicted in a Land Not Their Own (G-d does not name the land. More on that in another place and time.) G-d then assures Abraham that, because of the asffliction meted out by the Strangers to the descendants of Abraham, G-d will punish these people in their own course. The Torah seems to be leaning more towards Karma, and less towards clear-cut tabloid versions of Good and Evil and Justice. This is such an important point to bear in mind.

Extra bonus! The Sefer Yetzirah is available in English from Amazon.com. I'm not making this up. Another website listed on Google has Sefer Yetzirah under "Alternative Religions", which is afar more appropriate place for it. Followers of Madonna-ism can point and click and add to cart. Readers who bought this book also bought Sefer Bahir (another mystical work), the Zohar, and the guide to Jewish mediation. I haven't bought a copy of Sefer Yetzirah yet, neither in Hebrew nor English, so I will not be navigating over to Amazon.com to write my own review. I am concerned that if Yaakov thought Yosef, at age seventeen, was not yet spiritually mature enough to handle it, then perhaps I, even at the advanced age of fifty-one, might need another Gilgul or two before I approach it. The way things are going, we should probably expect to see Madonna / Esther turn Sefer Yetzirah into a Kabbalistic Music Vidion (A "Yid-Vid"?) Come to think of it, perhaps Madonna is, herself, the result of someone reading Sefer Yetzirah aloud without conscious thought as to the consequences...


Q: Moshe was defending a single innocent Jew from an assailant. One may speculate that he went beyond defense, on to punishment, even though I do not see this in the text, and you have used the word "murder", which the text does not use in saying what Moshe did, only in recounting what one of the two Hebrew men said to Moshe the next day. Given the number of other possible reasons for assigning the priesthood to Aharon, including his own merit, I do not wish to accept a negative reason regarding Moshe, unless you leave me no choice. This was the point of my original question.

A: It is not clear that Moshe's act was one of defense. As Hemingway says: "Isn't it pretty to think so." And we do believe that. But that again puts us in a position of believing something is good because we can't bring ourselves to believe that Moshe ever did anything bad. I find that posture (1) incredibly widespread among observant Jews, and (2) intellectually indefensible.
The text does not use the word "murder". It uses the word "kill". Hacham Scroll mistranslates the text "halehargeni atah omer" which literally means "do you mean to kill me?" as: "do you propose to murder me, as you murdered the Egyptian?" The sense is both halachically and midrashically accurate: we define Moshe's act as murder. But it is textually wrong: the Hebrew asks "Who made you a judge over us? Do you mean to kill me, like you killed the Egyptian?"

The rabbinic tradition, both halachic and homelitic literature, is full of all the reasons Moshe loses the Kahunah. Why is it so terrible to view Moshe as having foibles? Do we not praise Abraham for point out G-d's own foibles to G-d at Sodom and Gemorrah? Will we not praise Moshe next week in Parashat Ki Tisa for preventing G-d from getting out of control and destroying the entire people? If G-d can lose G-d's temper, if people are permitted to point out to G-d when there might be another valid point of view, surely we can permit Moshe a little downfall?

Q: A death penalty does not have the immediate effect of saving a life, and agreed that we cannot imagine that we are empowered to make such a judgment. An act of defense spares the life of one who is innocent. Surely you are not saying it would have been better for Moshe to let the innocent Hebrew man die rather than slay the Mizri?

A: I do not presuppose that the Hebrew was in imminent danger of being killed. I also do not presuppose that, if he had died, it would not have entailed some other Divine judgement of which we are necessarily ignorant. Therefore, I do not agree that Moshe's was necessarily an act of defense, that he saved a life, or that the Hebrew was "innocent". As against which, it is my task to try to understand the text of Torah, and to share my meager learning and overinflated opinions with whomever I can irritate enough to make them want to come back for more. I am not saying "it would have been better for Moshe to let an innocent Hebrew man die rather than slay the Mizri." I do not deal in "better" as an absolute moral category, because I don't believe the Torah does. I believe all our natural inclination and efforts to read The Good into the actions of our forebears undermines the vastness of Torah and the profound essence of a G-d who is at once both entirely unknowable, yet immanent and wholly reachable.

shabbat shalom!

Parashat Tetzaveh: Q & A

Dear Blog-Chevrah,

I share with you a question that came my way, arising from a remark in my blog about Parashat Teztaveh. I welcome commentary -- that is what this is all about! -- so please don't be shy. Following is the question (identity of the questioner not revealed, as I am not sure he wants to go public), and my attempt at an answer. Thank you!

On 16 Feb 2005, at 5:26 AM, MOSHE SILVER wrote:

Second, Moshe is a murderer. And a cohen who commits murder no
longer has the capacity to approach the altar in the Kodesh -- the
sacred courtyard -- or the ark in the Kodesh Kodashim -- the inner
Holy of Holies -- to atone for the people.

Dear Moshe,

When you write "murderer", whom do you say was the victim? Do you
mean the Egyptian in Ex 2:12? Although under Egyptian law, this may
have been "murder", accounting for what the fighting Israelites said
subsequently to Moses, nothing in the text implies that this killing
was unjustified in the sight of Hashem.

Given that Moses is holy enough to stand with Hashem on Sinai, it
seems inconsistent from the text to say not holy enough to approach
the altar.

Please explain.


The Midrash describes Moshe arguing with G-d when the time comes for Moshe to write down the passage in Devarim dealing with his own death. He asks G-d why he must die. There is a list of comparisons: Moshe argues that he is more righteous than Abraham, than Noach, than Yosef -- and he brings convincing arguments, none of which G-d directly challenges. At the end of the conversation, Moshe says, So on what basis do you say I should die? G-d's response is a question: "And did I in any way tell you to kill the Egyptian?" The Midrash continues, Moshe was silent and wrote, with tears streaming from his eyes.

It is clear from the sources that Moshe's killing of the Egyptian is not a priaseworthy act: not in the eyes of Egyptian society, to be sure, but also not in the eyes of the Torah, not in the eyes of G-d, and not in the eyes of the Halachah.

The problem your question raises is that Torah / Judaism / G-d are not defined by what we like. Torah is not a collection of moral standards that apply to us when they suit us, and apply differently to the rest of the world if they are nasty to us. Indeed, Torah is not a set of moral standards at all. Both Freud and Hitler stated that the problem posed by the existence of Jews was that we had introduced the notion of Morality into the world, and created havoc. This statement was made by two people who were hostile to Judaism, and it is perceived as true by those who do not understand Torah. Unfortunately, it is also perceived as true by many Jews.

Torah contains many moral dicta, and the laarger Torah, including the rabbinic writings, is rife with moral statements. However our brief, as Jews, is to adhere to Halachah. The highest good, in terms of observance of Mitzvot, is to perform them lishmah -- for their own sake. The rabbis of the gemara concede that many people are not capable of carrying out their observance on that level -- people have different intellectual and spiritual capacities. The rabbis state that it is acceptable if a person who can not act on the level of pure lishmah nonetheless carries out the Mitzvot because of a belief in Reward and Punishment, or because of a conviction that there are overriding Moral Standards that must be adhered to, or for Spiritual Reward. But the driving concept behind all this is that the Mitzvot and the Halachah exist unto themselves and constitute both their own means, and their own end. Their purpose is for Jews to observe them, and thus to perform Avodat HaShem -- service to G-d. To put them in the context of anything else is ultimately to frame them in a human perspective. We may agree that it is impossible to truly know G-d. The Halachah is a means to have a conversation with G-d, even if we can not comprehend G-d. When we learn Torah, when we perform the other Mizvot, we are speaking to G-d in G-d's own language. We may never understand that language, but our need and nature as human beings is to strive. Once we view the world from the human perspective, even that of Morality, we abandon the relationship with G-d and Torah and revert to a relationship with ourselves. Which is, after all, no relationship.

The question of why G-d permits: enslavement in Egypt, the Spanish Inquisition, the Pogroms, the Shoah... all of these are superficial issues. They have at their root the human need for meaning. Someone once said (a Reform rabbi, his name escapes me) that human beings are retroactive meaning-makers. Well put. The "meaning" of Torah is, first and foremost, itself. And that is probably all that we, as human beings, are ever to truly know about G-d. The rest is speculation.

It may be interesting, in a homelitical sense, to speculate that G-d may have thought positively about Moshe's killing the Egyptian. Where does this lead us? We know that G-d converted all the people killed in battle by King David into Korbanot, sacrifrices, and that G-d told David he wuold die as a Tzaddik. One explanation is that David was fighting for the political and religio-national survival of the Jewish people. That same argument does not apply to Moshe and the Mizri.

Another argument is that it was kill or be killed. The gemara in Sanhedrin states that a person is permitted to kill a person who is chasing after someone else to murder that person. This killing is done, partly to save a life (prevent murder) and partly to execute the judgement that should be handed down by the Bet Din anyway. Considering that the Rabbis of the Great Sanhedrin were themselves reluctant to impose the death penalty, even after long days of deliberation, we would be hard pressed to claim that any of us qualifies to make a judgement on the spot to strike someone down on a crowded sidewalk. Moshe himself only carries out these extreme forms of punishment at the direct order of G-d or, as we shall see in Parashat Ki Tissa, to keep G-d's own uncontrollable wrath in check, to prevent total destruction.

The midrash tells of the angels who started singing after the splitting of the sea. When we were singing the Shirah Shel Yam, to celebrate our deliverance from Egypt and the army of Pharoah, the angels started singing as well. G-d asked, Why do you sing? They answered, We are rejoicing because your enemies have been destroyed. G-d became enraged and cried out to all the angels of heaven, Do you rejoice over the destruction of My creation?

The Egyptians are not fair game. Yes, there may have been mitigating circumstances. It is possible -- though by no means clear from the text -- that Moshe may have saved the life of an Israelite by killing the Mizri when he did. But it is crystal clear that the Torah, and the rabbinic tradition in both Aggadah and Halachah, views Moshe as a murderer.

Yours for a better world --


Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Parashat Terumah, Part III / Remembering Sam

The Project is designed to provide full-time employment for hundreds: there will be design teams; there will be manufacturers; there will be assemblers; there will be watchers and guarders; there will be maintenance crews round the clock; there will be dissassemblers and transporters. The various components of the Project will be fabricated in a variety of off-site locations, providing opportunities for local industry. The Project will be financed entirely by its creators. The Project will be installed in such a way as not to disturb the environment. When the Project has been fully erected, those walking inside the Project will experience a sense of quiet joy, of oneness with the environment. The Project gives voice to the ultimate democratic expression of the equality of all. The Project will embrace all who enter into it with its gently overwhelming sense of spirituality and Oneness. Once the components have been fabricated, and the framework set up, the fabric curtains will be hung in place and the Project will be completed. The people will then be able to enter the Project. The Project is a gift to the entire community.

The foregoing paragraph sounds like a precis of Parashat Terumah. For those who believe there is no such thing as coincidence...

... on Saturday 12 February -- Shabbat Terumah -- 7,500 saffron curtains were unfurled in Central Park, marking the completion, inauguration and opening of Christo's and Jeanne-Claude's The Gates. The descriptive sentences above are paraphrased from Christo and Jeanne-Claude's website describing The Gates.

On Sunday, 13 February, we were on the Upper West Side of Manhattan for a hesped -- a memorial, marking the end of shloshim, the initial thirty-day mourning period for Sam Kayman -- a friend too close to myself in age for me to dwell for long on the topic.

After we left Ansche Hesed Synagogue on West 100th Street, we walked down to Central Park in the incredibly beautiful and chill and sun-struck amazing afternoon. As we came within sight of Central Park West, the orange frames of The Gates rose into view. The rectangular saffron curtains hanging from them made associations with Tibetan Buddhism inescapable, an impression that was greatly enhanced by the peaceful atmosphere cast over the Park and its thousands of strollers-by, by the combination of the blessedly beautiful weather and the undulating rows of The Gates, its colors a hint of earth and autumn -- or of returning spring, for the red in the root and stem is first to come as the earth revives, then last to vanish in the tips of the leaves before they fall and turn to mud and mulch and dust -- and evocations of the Dalai Lama's visit to the Park, of quiet murmured chanting, of incense, of meditation. The Park looked like a vast lamasary -- or perhaps like a reverse lamasary, where the people were in assorted colors and textures, while the structures were all of a piece, uniform and in majestic repose, each wrapped in flowing saffron.

According to their website -- I am paraphrasing, as I am not sure what information on their website is copyrighted; I urge you to explore for yourself at http://christojeanneclaude.net -- the purpose of their gigantic environmental works is to use one part of an environment temporarily, using it as an installation site for an artwork which brings us to view the entire environment differently. A handy definition of Art is: the act of putting a frame / framework around something, thereby making it unique.

In Parashat Terumah, Moshe is told to frame empty space with the golden statues of the Keruvim atop the Aron. Indeed, the Aron, standing at the center of the Kodash Kodashim, is at the heart of the Mishkan, and the space atop the Aron is the heart of the heart of the Mishkan. The Mishkan is a vast undertaking of craftsmanship and community cooperation whose whole purpose is to frame the empty space of the Midbar, the wilderness, drawing our focus to a place which -- because we placed a frame around it -- becomes a conduit for holiness.

The holiness was always there. We needed to create a framework, and a frame, to bring our own focus to it.

Like The Gates, the Mishkan was meant to be temporary. Unfortunately, the planned brief sojourn in the Midbar turns into a forty-year stay, most of that time spent with the Mishkan standing in one spot. The fact of something being by its nature temporary may not be sufficient to prevent it from becoming permanent. Or semi-permanent. A symbol of Those Who Have Stayed On Too Long. It is tempting to say that, with the Mishkan in our midst, we continue to dwell in G-d's blessing. Those who think that is all right should contemplate that, for thirty-eight years in the Midbar, G-d ceased to talk to Moshe, and their dialogue only resumed on the eve of our entry into the Land of Canaan. This should give those who fervently wish to build a third Beit HaMikdash at least a moment's pause.

The Gates are scheduled to come down after sixteen days. On their website, Christo and Jeanne-Claude mention that the standard duration of their envronmental artworks is fourteen days -- but they extended The Gates to sixteen days because New York is their home, and they want to make a special gift to the City and its people.

There is much to be said for not overstaying one's welcome. Imagine Moshe, the tragedy of waiting for thirty-eight years, not sure whether G-d would ever speak to him again. Waiting every day in his tent for the visit that never comes.

Sam Kayman was something like that too. In his way, Sam struggled to bring holiness into the world. Sam was a scientist who devoted himself to AIDS research. To say "In his way" may seem a faint and invidious compliment. What I mean was: there are those of us who do not know what to do with our lives. Who do not know what Our Way is. Sam was not one of those. His Way was the way of dedication. His dedication was to total honesty -- a critical, and unfortunately rare, quality for a scientist -- and to making a better world.

At the Hesped, one of Sam's recent papers was presented. Did you know that there are currently over thirty AIDS vaccines in clinical trials? I did not. That is bad news. Actually, very bad news. It means that we really don't know what we ae looking at. If we did, there would be one vaccine, and we would merely be tweaking and refining it.

Sam divided his life and work into a few compartments. His Work in his family was to support and push his wife and son to succeed in the world, to be realized human beings in their own right. His Work in the community was to make whatever contribution was needed. Sam was known as someone who would Get Things Done. And as a terrific cook.

Sam's Work in the lab was to search tirelessly, to contribute to making the definitive difference that would eradicate AIDS. And certain breakthroughs have come, even in the weeks since his passing. But there is still so much further to go. Sam, we needed you.

There is a Tosafot in the gemara in Chagigah that says that Rabbi Akiva agrees it is possible for a person who died before their time to give their remaining years to someone else.

How does this happen?

And what does the famous gemara in Rosh HaShanah mean when it says G-d sits with the Book of the Living and the Book of the Dead opened before G-d?

We know this gemara very well, because the concept is talked over and over in the Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur services. And these two holidays are really about preparing for death. Which is truly the only proper way we can prepare for life.

But does G-d need TWO books? By definition, if you are not in the Book of the Living, then you are...?

But the gemara is getting at something far more profound. What we did last Sunday was to give over our own thoughts and feelings about Sam, give over to one another, to his wife, to ourselves all the funny and loving and touching and amazing things that Sam was and did. In this way, Sam is with us still. And each year on the anniversary of his passing, when his wife and son stand up to say Kaddish, it will be a palpable reminder that Sam is with us still.

Because the Torah's message, the message of the Jewish tradition, is that Sam is still alive, in so many meaningful ways.

The Book of the Living and the Book of the Dead both lie open before G-d because, even after we die, G-d continues to judge us. G-d judges us by the way our life has effected other people. G-d judges us by the way our children behave, by the way we are remembered by friends and loved ones. Does someone set up a foundation in our name? That is a continuation of our life. Does our child excel in Torah learning? In the arts? Academically? As a loving child to the remaining parent, and spouse, and parent? And contributing member of society? All these are part of how we continue to shape and change the world, even in death. And the judging goes on.

When G-d judges Sam -- now, alas, in the Book of the Dead -- the judgment will be positive. Sam's tireless and selfless and so completely, completely honest dedication to his research -- to making the world a better place -- will one day BS"D bring about a result.

Good-bye, Sam. We love you. We will always miss you.

* * * * * *

The Mishkan will stand in the wilderness for almost forty years -- and during the time of G-d's silence, Moshe's exile will be unbearable. And yet, through this personal agony of waiting, Moshe will continue his task as the leader of the Jewish people, a people still in formation. He will complete his part in moulding this rag-tag gaggle of runaway slaves into the People of the Torah, the people whose destiny is to be a nation of priests. And then the silence will break. On the eve of the realization of G-d's promise, the entrance into the Land of Canaan, Moshe will die. On the seventh day of the month of Adar -- which was yesterday. His work is completed, though the task is far from over. The Mishkan will be taken down and the desert will revert to trackless wilderness, out of which we shall march into the Land.

After sixteen days, the floating and beautiful and serene curtains will be furled, the gates will be disassembled and recycled, and Central Park will return to its own space, its space once again will be differentiated by its own configuration.

After Sam left the world, there was a pile of clothing no one would ever again wear, a laboratory bench that would never be used in quite the same way. Cooking pots that would never be handled with quite the same care. A family and a community that will never replace him.

But the Mishkan will be reflected, first in the Bet HaMikdash -- the Temple at Jerusalem -- and then in the eternal blueprint we carry, the design that we read aloud over and over again each year when we come to these Parshiyot. The words remind us that it is the Mishkan we carry within each of us that truly matters; that it is our own national and personal destiny and gift and burden to repair this broken world. And as long as we read those words, as long as Torah remains in the world, so long does Moshe remain with us. Our Teacher.

Central Park, and New York City -- and in a small and beautiful and meaningful way, the whole world -- will be forever changed by the vision and generosity of Christo and Jeanne-Claude. We will never be able to wlk through the Park again without remembering the stunning serenity of The Gates.

Thank you, Christo. Thank you, Jeanne-Claude.

And Rabbi Akiva was right. It IS possible to give over the unused years of a life cut too short. And one day, G-d willing, a generation of chiuldren will be born, will live healthy lives and will make their own contribution to the World. Children who, for the moment, are not even a hope. Are barely a fearful prayer. Children who would never even come into the world if not for the work of Sam Kayman.

shabbat shalom

Parashat Tetzaveh - The Miracle of Diversity

The great mystery of the universe -- after the fact of its existing at all -- is Diversification. Why isn't everything in the universe the same? How did the universe evolve into the infinite diversity we see today? In the Platonic / Neo-Platonic world of Jewish thought, it is this very diversity that proves the excellence of the Universe: the definition of a perfect universe is that there is nothing that it does not contain.

What about things that do not exist? The answer is: If you can conceive of it, then it has existence. Even a dream or a thought experiment exists. This is not Solipsism, not Sophistry, not anti-intellectual cuteness. Kabbalah tells us that G-d created the world by withdrawing, by limiting G-d's self, thereby permitting the space for the world of time, space and motion to come into existence. At the beginning of Bereshit, G-d creates with a word. And as does G-d, so do we create with language, which is perhaps the ultimate restriction. As we saw in the midrash describing Moshe bringing the first set of tablets down the mountain, the surest way to open ideas to misinterpretation is to put them into language.

This Parasha begins with the words ve'atah tetzaveh "And you command" or, "And you will command". G-d commands Moshe to take his brother Aharon, and to invest him with the trappings and office of Cohen Gadol - the High Priest. It has been often noted that, while Aharon's name appears seven times in this Parashah, the name Moshe appears not at all.

Moshe was originally supposed to be the single grand leader of Bnei Israel -- both the temporal and the spiritual leader: King and Priest. But Moshe was disqualified from the post of Cohen Gadol on two grounds. First, he hesitated and did not want the job. When G-d calls in Aharon as Moshe's spokesman in the court of Pharoah, G-d is setting the stage for the future relationsip.

Second, Moshe is a murderer. And a cohen who commits murder no longer has the capacity to approach the altar in the Kodesh -- the sacred courtyard -- or the ark in the Kodesh Kodashim -- the inner Holy of Holies -- to atone for the people.

In Parashat Yitro, we saw that differentiation of authority is critical to keeping a society going. So in a sense this "problem" is actually a cure. But for Moshe it must be difficult, bittersweet at best. Perhaps this is one explanation of why Moshe's name does not appear: to prevent him from being put to shame when someone else was taking over his rightful position. And yet, in recognition of the place Moshe was born to, even though he does not get to exercise the function, Moshe serves as cohen during the seven days of inauguration of the Mishkan and the cohanim.

And this act is critical. Just as G-d keeps trying to transfer power and authority to humans, so too, Moshe must transfer his authority to Aharon. Aharon does not merely step in at the fiat of the Almighty; Moshe must perform the act of inaugurating him, and in so doing, the Kahunah -- the priesthood -- is transferred. Moshe, though flawed, is nonetheless the rightful bearer of the Kahunah. He must transfer it properly, of his own free will. If he does not give it over, the Kahunah, and the ability of the Nation to seek closeness with G-d, to enter into our unique relationship (atonement = "at-one-ment") will remain with him and be un-exercisable. Thus, for example, the RaMBaM, writing on the opening words ofthe Parashah, says: "Ve'atah tetzaveh -- 'And YOU command' You, and do not delegate to another." This, too, is an explanation of why Moshe's name does not appear in the Parashah: he refused to put his brother to shame at the time when Aharon was taking on the role of Cohen Gadol. If Moshe's name appeared, we would reflect that his brother is a mere pretender and a poor substitute.

In Parashat Yitro, societal differentiation is revealed as critical to the continued existence of a people. That, in fact, the group of Israelites wandering in the desert and clustering day by day around Moshe, looking for guidance, would not become a people until there was a hierarchy of authority, of leadership. Just as we are later differentiated into tribes, we are first broken down into layers and lines of authority. Yitro, by bringing Moshe statecraft, gave us the practical and political tools to turn us from a wandering band of escaped slaves into the nucleus of a People. It is not accidental that this happens before we receive Torah. Remember the locusts in Parashat Bo -- they look like a giant mass, all moving together. In reality, though they come and go together, when they alight, it is every locust for itself. Bnei Israel, prior to Yitro, are a large mass of individuals. Yitro helps Moshe to start imposing the rudiments of order, to introduce to us the notion of differentiation. To help prepare us to receive Torah.

As with last week's parashah, Tetzaveh is prospective: it describes acts that Moshe is to take in the future, at the time the Mishkan is actually fashioned and erected. The verb, tetzaveh, is in future tense. And while the implication of both Parshiyot, Terumah and Tetzaveh is that this is the plan for the next step, there are intervening events. First, there is the actual giving of Torah, which we appear to be in the middle of. Second, there is the incident of the golden calf, which almost results in Bnei Israel being destroyed. In other words: the prospective nature of these parshiyot contains the risk that they will never be actualized. Terumah and Tetzaveh are theoretical. Like the Torah itself, which is at this point merely words, we still have a long way to go before we learn to put these notions into action.

Yours for a better world.

shabbat shalom

Monday, February 14, 2005

Torah Link

This website was kind (or smart?) enough to feature the toratmoshe blog. I took only a very cursory look at it, but it has some interesting links.

Thanks for the mention, technocrati!


Parashat Terumah - II

The midrash says that when Moshe came down the mountain for the first time, he carried the Luchot - the stone tablets on which the Torah had been written byt the finger of G-d -- facing away from himself. We could see the words, but, the Midrash says, Moshe had not even read them.

So what exactly had he done on the mountaintop for forty days and nights?

The Torah tells us that Moshe, unique in human history, spoke to G-d "face to face, as a man speaks with his friend." Even so, we are not certain what that means. In another two weeks, Moshe will ask that G-d reveal G-d's self to Moshe, and G-d will say "no one can see my face and live." Still, there is an intimacy in the relationship between G-d and Moshe unparalleled in human experience.

After Moshe's face-to-back experience with G-d in parashat Ki Tissa (watch this space!) we are told that Moshe has to wear a veil when he goes out in public, because of the beams of light streaming from his face. Perhaps it is the same between G-d and Moshe: G-d sits with Moshe "face to face", but G-d's face is veiled.

Why doesn't Moshe read the Torah?

The answer is simple: he doesn't have to. In fact, not only does he not have to: if he did, he would lose so much! He has just spent forty days and forty nights in intimate conversation with G-d -- he neither ate, nor drank, nor slept the entire time, but absorbed G-d's wisdom in a way no one else has ever experienced it. And now he brings us two stone tablets with writing on them. Is this not a poor substitute?

In kaballaa, there is a concept of The Exile of Language -- the acknowledgement that to put thoughts into words instantaneously robs them of most of their meaning. The mere scraps of significance that remain must be teasted and tested and struggled with over and over until hints of the original meaning are revealed. This is true of all thought, of all language. Wittgenstein did not invent this concept -- it was thousands of years old by the time the Zohar was written.

The two parshiyot -- Terumah and Tetzaveh -- that describe the plans for the Mishkan, the garments of the Cohanim, and the furnishings and vessels of the Mishkan and the holy service -- these sections are theoretical. After the incident of the calf, the tablets are shattered and Moshe trudges back up the mountain to spend another forty days and nights with G-d. This time, the Torah tells us, it is Moshe himself who writes, taking dictation from G-d. And when he returns, he has combined all aspects of the Torah -- the inner wisdom granted to him by G-d in his first stay on the mountain, but also the human application, gained by writing down the words himself.

The design and the actual creation of the Mishkan parallel this process -- first we absorb the theory, then we are commanded to put it into practice, and the resulting structure is the culmination of the Book of Exodus -- Sefer Shemot.

The problem with Moshe's infinite wisdom is that it remains within, is all but untransmittable. The problem with the written word is that it is necessarily devoid of the profound wisdom that underlies it.

Which Mishkan is better? The theoretical Mishkan that each of us carries in our soul? The actual Mishkan that is fashioned with our hands?

At the beginning of Parashat Terumah, G-d gives a shopping list: gold, silver, copper; turqoise, purple and scarlet wool,; linen and goat's hair; red-dyed ram skins; skins of tachash [animal of uncertain definition]; acacia wood; oil for illuminating, spices for anointing oil and for incense; shoham stones [definition unclear] and stones for the Cohen's Ephod and Breastplate. In other words, while we are commanded to bring these offerings, we are given an array to choose from. When the Torah says "every person whose heart makes them feel generous", it is giving us a profound message: there is a halachah, expressed in the gemara in Avodah Zarah -- it is a positive commandment, not merely to study Torah, but to DELIGHT in studying Torah. Not merely to be generous by bringing something that you won't miss, but search among the items on the list until you find something you can be passionate about. Then learn how to inculcate that passion to bring it to all your duties -- to building the Mishkan, to learning Torah. To your entire life, and all your interactions.

Make no mistake: this passion for the meaning of it all is a profound part of what it means to be Jewish.

At the heart of the Parashah -- chapter 25, verses 17-22 -- we see what lies at the heart of the Mishkan. Read the text for yourself; envision the top of the Ark, the two gold Keruvim ("Cherubim" - not baby boys with tiny angel wings, but gold statues with human faces and wings curved out to form an arc, reaching towards one another). Verse 22: "And I will make meetings for you thereand I will tell you from above the Ark-covering, from between the two Keruvim that are on top of the Ark of the Testimony, all that I shall command you regarding Bnei Israel."

G-d speaks from nothingness. From an empty space. To be sure, the space is framed by the Keruvim, and the Keruvim are framed by the Mishkan, and the Mishak is framed by the tribes of Bnei Israel encamped about it in array. And we, Bnei Israel, are framed by Torah. And if not, around us, and running away forever in all directions, lies the vast and undifferentiated desert.

The giving and the making of the Mishkan are a parallel story to the giving and the re-giving of Torah. We do not live on the spiritual plane. Torah recognizes this. As Jews, we acknowledge that we live in the world. And we live for the world, and it is our eternal task to make the world a better place. To carry in our hearts the blueprint for the Mishkan. But also to turn our hands every day to the task of fashioning it.

"May the pleasantness of G-d our L-rd be upon us. And the work of our hands, establish it for us. And the work of our hands, establish it." (Psalm 90)

yours for a better world

Thursday, February 10, 2005

Parashat Terumah

Happy Adar!!!

Book of Exodus, Chapter 25, begins with the formula: "And G-d spoke to Moshe, saying..." which is the standard introduction to new mitzvot. Tha Abarbanel observes that this phrase does not occur again for five chapters. He reads the entire section from here until Parashat Ki Tissa as a single long command from G-d to Moshe, laying out the the design of the Mishkan, the Tabernacle we are to build in the desert. And the command to create the Mishkan opens with a curious expression: (Chapter 25, verse 2) "Speak to Bnei Israel, let them take for me a contribution / offering; from each man whose heart will be generous they shall take my contribution / offering."

In last week's parasha, we saw Moshe so motivated to receive Torah that he tried his own hand at drafting the text. And the midrash tells us that G-d did not give Torah until Bnei Israel came thronging to Mt Sinai, all of us passionate and desperate to receive Torah, and nothing else. And the Midrash tells us that, on our way to Sinai, as we approached the mountain, all our limbs straightened -- cripples and the maimed were cured, and so all of us were able to stand at the foot of Sinai and receive the word of G-d. And the text tells us that we were so prepared that even before G-d handed the stone tablets to Moshe, we cried with one voice, "Everything that G-d has said, we will do, and we will hear!", that we were willing to take on all the Mitzvot, even those we did not know.

This is full generosity. For what is giving? The Rambam gives us stages in the giving of Tzedakah -- charity -- starting from those who give only grudglingly, and only after being asked and prodded repeatedly, and who still have a bad attitude about those to whom they give. At the top of the chain are those who, unsaught, onasked, give enough to enable a poor person to become financially independent -- they set people up in business, they help people get college degrees, and all without asking for a reward, for mostly these people give anonymously. And those who are truly generous give with the intention of attaining their goal, rather than of giving a fixed amount.

And so G-d specifies "All those whose hearts will make them generous". Torah is an undertaking best suited for those who are willling to give their all.

The act of making the Mishkan occupies the balance of tthe book of Exodus, and there is a very real way in which it can be seen as THE theme of the balance of Shemot / Exodus: all the narrative can be seen as interwoven with the ultimate setting up of the Mishkan which will take place at the very end of the book, a re-enactment of G-d's first act of creation.

The Mishkan is built in a three-stage process. Today's parashah gives the design, and there are firey midrashim about G-d showing Moshe heavenly drawings, a menorah of pure flame, and the like, when Moshe asks for clarification of the instructions he is being given.

The actual fashioning of the components of the Mishkan takes places in Parashat Vayakhel, and the construction is completed in Parashat Pequdei. These are the last two parshiot of Shemot, and are often read together.

Today we are focused only on the concept. We are given the blueprint for the Mishkan -- much as the midrash tells us G-d took the blueprint for Creation out of Torah, we are now given, in Torah, the blueprint for our own re-enactment of Creation.

And even though the mishkan will be built as a physical structure -- and the Torah is acutely aware of the tension inherent in the dual system, the world of Space Time and Motion, paired with the world of spirit where none of these exists -- the ultimate lesson for us is the spiritual one.

Watch closely, as you read the Parashah. Look at what stands at the heart of the heart of the mishkan. Do you see? Can we see Sacred Space? And this is the ultimate message of Torah: that when we learn in our hearts to create sanctified space, that is where G-d will meet us.

shabbat shalom

Sunday, February 06, 2005

Parashat Mishpatim - part II - Love of Torah

In chapter 24 of the book of Exodus, there is a remarkable text, underscored by an even more remarkable Rashi, which is so radical that later interpreters literally had to turn the text inside-out to accommodate what Rashi tells us in black and white.

Exodus 24:4 tells us that "Moshe wrote all the words of G-d..." Then, verse 7: "And he [Moshe] took the Book of the Covenant and read it into the ears of the people, and they said 'Everything that G-d said we will do and we will hear." This is seen by many commentators as one of the most important verses in Torah -- the "we will do and we will hear" is the very heart of observance. (It's easy to remember, because it is chapter 24, verse 7, and we should all, of course, be involved in Torah 24/7...)

The more famous half of the verse -- "we will do and we will hear" -- is taken to mean that we accept all the mitzvot, and we will do them, even the ones we haven't heard yet. This is the formula that is required of a convert, and signals the readiness of Bnei Israel to accept Torah without reservation. But what does the first half of the verse mean, "Moshe read the book into the ears of the people..."?

But what is the text telling us here? Moshe, in verse 4, wrote the book? Then he read it to the people in verse 7? Then, in verse 15, Moshe actually ascends the mountain to receive the Torah? And Rashi is no help, because on verse 7 he states that Moshe reads to the people all of the Book of Genesis, plus the entire Book of Exodus up to this point, this being what he had written in verse 4!

There is an ongoing debate -- crystallized in the approaches of Rashi versus Ramban -- about the order of the giving of Torah. How many times does Moshe go up the mountain? There are multiple ways to count, perhaps as many as seven. Perhaps more. Perhaps only two.

How many times is torah given? Rashi says twice: once at the giving of the Ten Commandments, which conflates with the giving in Parashat Mishpatim; and a second time after the Golden Calf. The Ramban seems to say three times -- with the Ten Commandments being an aperitif, separate and distinct from the two times the tablets are given.

Each morning we say three blessings on the study of Torah. The first is a blessing of performance of a mitzvah -- the mitzvah of Torah study. Sephardim say "... who has commanded us on / concerning words / things of Torah." Ashkenazim say"... who has commanded us la'asoq in words / things of Torah." The word la'asoq is generally translated "To engage in", and this is certainly a correct translation. However, the root of the word -- 'eseq -- has the meaning of engagement / struggle / dispute / involvement / transaction. Thus, it is possible to read this Berachah: "To carry on our business in accordance with words of Torah", also: "To fight with words of Torah" -- in other words, to struggle with the text until it yields its inner meaning.

The second starts: "And make sweet, we ask you, the words of Torah..." The rabbis tell us that this blessing is not a blessing of performance of a mitzvah. When we put on tefillin, for example, we make a blessing regarding the performance of that mitzvah -- just as the first Torah blessing is a blessing of mitzvah. Here, though, the rabbis say this is actually a birkat ha-nehenin -- a blessing of enjoyment, similar to the blessings we make when we eat food.

And indeed, enjoyment, delight is one of the key components of Torah study. If we do not approach our study of Torah with passion and profound delight, we are not living up to the fulfillment of the mitzvah! The gemara in Avodah Zarah (18a) states: "At all times, a person should study Torah in the place that his heart delights." Enjoyment is not a side-effect, not a collateral benefit of Torah study. Indeed, the gemara tells us it is a precondition to proper fulfillment of the mitzvah!


And so, "In the place in which he delights..." As the midrash tells us, Israel rushed towards Mt Sinai in passionate desire for Torah.

And what did Moshe do? Before he had even received the words of Torah, he sat down and composed them. Did he write the words that G-d would later speak? Did he learn the words of the Ten Commandments and tease out from them the inner meaning, thus enabling him to write the actual text of Genesis?

Who is right: Rashi? The Ramban? Neither?

The answer is: both. And then some. For Torah tells its own story, and the tellings and retellings of the giving of Torah is like a vast cubist painting, where the same event is examined from multiple perspectives, is turned over and over, and each angle reveals new truths we never grasped before.

Moshe, passionate, desperate, pining for his Beloved, the Torah, was creating Torah for himself. Creating Torah out of a pure love. He was truly "in the place that his heart delights" and could wait no longer for his Beloved. And, seeing this, G-d realized Torah had to be given immediately. Otherwise, the people, in their passion and love, would cling to the words written by a man.

Why does G-d wait so long to give Torah to the world in all its glory, in complete form? Is it because nobody wanted it? Over and over in Torah we see the theme that merely wanting something is not sufficient. A combination of readiness and necessity must prevail, a delicate and complex mix of conditions must be met before G-d intervenes. We have just seen this clearly in Mitzraim, where our salvation came only after we lost sight of G-d completely, and at the same time, Moshe was able to see and comprehend the vast scope of exile.

As Hamlet says: The readiness is all.

As with the redemption from Egypt, and as he will do on repeated occasions, so too with the giving of Torah, Moshe forced G-d's hand.

Are you ready?

Thursday, February 03, 2005


Parashat Mishpatim

Rashi makes a cryptic comment on this week's parashah.
In chapter 24, verse 13, we are told that Moshe goes up the mountain and takes with him Yehoshua (Joshua). Rashi, who famously is the definitive explactor of text, says: "I don't know what is the purpose of Joshua here." Rashi doesn't know? What is significant is the fact the Rashi feels contrained to tell us that he doesn't know. When Rashi tells you he doesn't know something, it's clear that we must probe very deeply indeed.

We know - or we will know, after we have read the entire Torah - that Yehoshua is the new Moshe. Like Moshe, who led us out of the spiritual exile of Egypt, through the divided waters of Yam Suf (the "Sea of Reeds"), Yehoshua will lead us out of the physical exile of the Midbar (desert) and, through the divided waters of the Jordan, into the land of Canaan.

I can't draw a picture here, but the configuration on the mountain is: Moshe at the top, face to face with G-d. Yehoshua is down far enough that he and Moshe can call to one another, but Yehoshua can not see G-d. Further down still, after having completed their picnic bathed in the glory of G-d, sit Aharon and Hur, Aharon's older sons Nadav and Avihu, and the Elders of Israel. Finally, at the foot of the mountain, are Aharon's two younger sons, Elazar and Itamar, and the People.

The literary theme of Up/Down, of a Platonic above/below dichotomy has played out throughout the book of Exodus, largely in the imagery of G-d commanding Moshe to lift his staff, or to lift his hand. It is only when Moshe finally learns to use his hand completely on its own, without the assitance of the staff, that Yam Suf splits. Notably, the Hebrew word for staff -- matteh -- is a form of the verb NTEH - meaning to lift, to move up and down. A staff is perpendicular in shape. The power that is ultimately taken on by Moshe is the same sacred power G-d invests into the staff. Once Moshe learns how to use it, he can dispense with the staff. This is the way into Torah: we need props, we need supports, we need aid. When we have mastered the spiritual and moral lessons of Torah, then we no longer need any appurtenances.

The Vilna Gaon was the greatest Torah mind of the modern age. The Vilna Gaon (1720-1797), Rabbi Elijah ben Solomon Zalman, also known as Ha-Gra, was an incredible genius by any measure. He began composing tracts on halacha by the time he was five years old, gave his first public teaching at the age of seven. By the time he was ten years old, there was no one left who could teach him anything. The Gaon because the definitive master of Talmud, but also of Kabbalah. He was also an authority on numerous secular subjects, including mathematics, astronomy, and music. It is well documented that he slept only two hours a day -- four thirty-minute periods, three at night and one in the daytime. One of his students stated that he absorbed books on secular subjects when he was in the toilet, where Torah study is prohibited. There is indeed no other scholar who had such immense, vast knwoledge of Torah text, of Talmud, of the rabbinic commentators. The Vilna Gaon was the single most influential leader of European Jewry in his time. Towards the end of his life, the Gaon had literally learned everything there was to know. He had absorbed and mastered all the commentaries on Torah, the entire Talmud and all the later commentators as well. Finally, he reached the point wherel as had occurred in his childhood, no one could teach him anything. He spent his final years studying directly from a Sefer Torah - a Torah scroll. Finally, having mastered the entire universe, he returned to the original source. It is an amazing story.

This is the power that Moshe has learned to wield. He learns to draw Down and embody all that comes from Above. But, as G-d told Moshe -- You will be as a god to Pharoah, and Aharon will be your prophet -- what is the next generation to be? As Yitro reminded Moshe last week -- You will waste away and die: you, and ALL these people. What then? Who will carry on, if there is nothing given over?

And so Yehoshua stands alone, 2/3 way up the mountain. He can hear Moshe, but not see what is going on. He can hear the sounds from the camp at the foot of the mountain, but can not discern their meaning (as we will see in the story of the Golden Calf). Those above him and below him -- Moshe at the top, and Aharon, Hur, Nadav and Avihu, 1/3 up the mountain -- none of these will enter the Land. Nor will the Peole in the camp below, for they are the Generation of the Wilderness. Some, but not most, will in fact survive and follow Yehoshua. Now Yehoshua, in a synasthaesic fog on the side of the mountain, is trying to piece together what is going on. He hears and perceives bits and pieces from both above and below, but he gets it wrong.

The Zohar uses this Parasha's discussion of the laws of slavery to launch into an extended discourse on reincarnation and transmigration. Anticipating the Law of Conservation Of Energy / Matter, the Zohar tells us that G-d created all the souls that ever will be at the moment of Creation. From time to time, G-d calls to a soul and says "Go down to such-and-such a place, to such a body." The soul responds, "I am satisfied to be here. I do not desire to go to another place to be enslaved and soiled." G-d replies, "From teh first day of Creation, you had no other destiny!" And the soul departs and descends to its fate.

This is a fascinating and penetrating understanding. For slavery, in the Torah, has two facets: there is Indentured Servitude, which is in many respects one of the mainstays of society. It enabled Jacob to live in the world, and historically it enabled many poor to become self sufficient. But there were strings atached. Or rather, there were strings severed. For a Hebrew Slave who indentured himself took on the obligation to leave behind what he had wrought in his master's household, including a wife and children, if his master provided a wife during the term of servitude.

The other type of slavery, the slavery that oppresses, is clearly pointed out in the Parasha. The Hebrew slave who does not choose to go out free is taken to the door of the house, and the Master bores a hole in his ear, thrusting the awl through and into the doorpost. "This is the ear that heard 'You shall have no other masters but Me'" says the Midrash. "The ear that heard'For the Children of Israel are my slaves', and yet he chose to become the slave to another human being."

Destiny, then, is what is prepared for us. It is available to us, but we must choose it. And even within our Destiny, there is an infinity of choices to be made. And each choice unleashes another infinity of choices.

Yehoshua is in the fog. He is not sure whether he is going to go higher, or be instructed to go down. He can't tell what G-d is saying to Moshe, nor can he tell whether the cries from the camp are of terror or rejoicing. His Destiny is to lead the Jewish People. And he will lead us, because he must.

His immediate dilemma, though, is to find his direction. Like Noah, enclosed in a windowless, foursquare ark, a rudderless craft, he doesn't know where he is, nor where he is going. He doesn't even know how to tell where he must go.

The moment of Destiny, then, is that moment when we are ripest for learning. That is when we are ready to receive Torah.

shabbat shalom