Thursday, February 17, 2005

Parashat Tetzaveh Q & A part II

B"H
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!

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