Vayikra Rabbah 30:12 – Identity vs. Actions

There is an oft-quoted midrash that most people are familiar with about how the four species, one of Sukkot’s most notable mitsvot, correspond to four different types of people found in the nation of Israel. This midrash is often quoted to talk about the value of diversity or how ever Jew has a place within Judaism, ideas that are important, to be sure, but ones that I think miss the power of how the midrash follows up the typology of Israelite-flora correspondences. Below is the text of the midrash and an English translation,[1] after which I will examine some of the neglected lines, without pretending to exhaust the meaning of this midrash.

דבר אחר: פרי עץ הדר, אלו ישראל. מה אתרוג זה, יש בו טעם ויש בו ריח. כך ישראל, יש בהם בני אדם, שיש בהם תורה, ויש בהם מעשים טובים. כפות תמרים, אלו ישראל. מה התמרה הזו, יש בו טעם ואין בו ריח. כך הם ישראל, יש בהם שיש בהם תורה ואין בהם מעשים טובים. וענף עץ עבות, אלו ישראל. מה הדס, יש בו ריח ואין בו טעם.כך ישראל, יש בהם שיש בהם מעשים טובים ואין בהם תורה. וערבי נחל, אלו ישראל. מה ערבה זו, אין בה טעם ואין בה ריח. כך הם ישראל, יש בהם בני אדם שאין בהם לא תורה ולא מעשים טובים. ומה הקב”ה עושה להם? לאבדן אי אפשר, אלא אמר הקדוש ברוך הוא יוקשרו כולם אגודה אחת, והן מכפרין אלו על אלו, ואם עשיתם כך אותה שעה אני מתעלה, הדא הוא דכתיב (עמוס ט): הבונה בשמים מעלותיו. ואימתי הוא מתעלה? כשהן עשויין אגודה אחת, שנאמר (שם): ואגודתו על ארץ יסדה. לפיכך משה מזהיר לישראל: ולקחתם לכם ביום הראשון:

Another explanation: “The fruit of a beautiful tree” – these are [referring to] Israel. Just like this citron (etrog), which has taste and has smell, so too Israel has among them people that have Torah and have good deeds. “The branches of a date palm” – these are [referring to] Israel. Just like this date, which has taste and has no smell, so too Israel has among them those that have Torah but do not have good deeds. “And a branch of a braided tree (a myrtle)” – these are [referring to] Israel. Just like this myrtle, which has smell and has no taste, so too Israel has among them those that have good deeds but do not have Torah. “And brook willows” – these are [referring to] Israel. Just like this willow, which has no smell and has no taste, so too Israel has among them people that have no Torah and have no good deeds. And what does the Holy One, blessed be He, do to them? To destroy them is impossible, but rather the Holy One, blessed be He, said “bind them all together [into] one grouping and these will atone for those.” And if you will have done that, I will be elevated at that time. This is [the meaning of] what is written (Amos 9:6), “He Who built the upper chambers in the heavens” (indicating his elevation). And when is He elevated? When they make one grouping, as it is stated (Ibid.), “and established His grouping on the earth.” Hence Moshe warned Israel, “And you shall take for yourselves on the first day.”

The majority of the text of the midrash is taken up by laying out the correspondences one after the other. After the midrash gets to the last correspondence, however, it does not simply move on.

“And brook willows” – these are [referring to] Israel. Just like this willow, which has no smell and has no taste, so too Israel has among them people that have no Torah and have no good deeds. And what does the Holy One, blessed be He, do to them? To destroy them is impossible, but rather the Holy One, blessed be He, said “bind them all together [into] one grouping and these will atone for those.”

Faced with a category of Jews who do not have any meritorious actions, ritual or ethical, to their name, the midrash asks what God should do with such people. It raises the possibility that they should be destroyed by way of rejecting the possibility, in favor of proposing that national unity can enable “these” to “atone for those.”

The first point of note here is that the midrash is asking what should be done with such people. The question implies that the whole description of the various types of Jews isn’t just an exercise in description, or in midrashic creativity. There is a sense that some sort of Divine judgment[2] is at work, and this group of Jews have no merit that should enable them to survive. Presumably this is working off the way Sukkot comes hot on the heels of Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, traditionally understood as a time of Divine judgment and forgiveness.

What’s interesting is that it is inconceivable that God would destroy this section of the Jewish people. Given that fact, God has to then justify their survival, which he does by way prescribing national unity. This national unity does more than simply justify their survival, however; it actually atones for these Jews.[3]

This is an important turn in the midrash. Just a few lines before, these Jews had not a single merit on their side, to the point where their survival of Divine judgment had to be justified by God himself. Now they have been atoned for.[4] They are now worthy to survive in and of themselves.

This leads to a different conception of Divine judgment than what the midrash started out with. The initial standard of evaluation used by the midrash was based on people’s actions, ritual and ethical, and to receive a positive evaluation was to have performed positive ritual or ethical actions. Now, however,  the midrash is suggesting that identity is an important factor in Divine evaluation. A Jew can be deemed meritorious not by virtue of actions they have performed, but by virtue of being part of the Jewish people.

“Being part of the Jewish people” is something of an ambiguous idea. It might just mean identifying as a Jew, without any external actions attached to that. Or it might mean that you have to express this identity in some way, likely in your relationship to your Jews. However, given that the midrash says they Jews don’t have any ethical or ritual actions to their merit, it seems likely that this national unity is just a function of internal identity. We thus emerge from the typological correspondences of the midrash with a standard of evaluation where, in order to survive Divine Judgment, you have to either have performed certain actions, or simply possess the identify as a part of the Jewish nation.

This unity of national identity is articulated not just as an ideal state by which to survive judgment, but as an instruction from God to the Jews to unite in order to make sure even the most marginalized survive judgment. To paraphrase, the Jews who have acted righteously are essentially told, “You want to save the rest of the Jews? Help them feel Jewish.” Importantly, they are not told to help the other Jews perform more mitsvot or to do more good in the world. That would potentially be a solution, moving the Jews of the fourth category, the “willow Jews,” into the previous floral categories But God, according to the midrash, does not take that route; God does not turn to what we typically think of as “kiruv.” It seems to be less important to God, at least for the purposes of the present Divine judgment, that the Jews perform ritual and ethical actions than that they identify as Jewish. The next line of the midrash takes it beyond just the practical needs of the present judgment, however.

And if you will have done that, I will be elevated at that time. This is [the meaning of] what is written (Amos 9:6), “He Who built the upper chambers in the heavens” (indicating his elevation). And when is He elevated? When they make one grouping, as it is stated (Ibid.), “and established His grouping on the earth.”

The unity of the Jews leads to the elevation of God. The identifying of all of the Jews as Jewish, more even than their performance of mitsvot, leads to the elevation of God. This unity is not just a practical move in order to help the Jews survive judgment; it is a goal unto itself. It might be argued that it is the survival of the Jews in judgment that elevates God, but the midrash preempts that argument by using a verse from Amos to explicitly link God’s elevation to Israel’s unity. It is thus the very fact of the Jews’ collective existence and identity that elevates God.

This may serve as an explanation for why God cannot destroy the meritless among the Jewish people. The midrash posits an inherent connection between the elevation of God (whatever that means) and the national body of the Jewish people. So destroying Jews, even just a small part of the larger collective, goes against God’s elevation.

This also leads to a sharp conclusion: It is more important that the Jews exist as a collective group with a shared identity than that Jews should perform specific actions. While this might seem strange to some, it is well grounded in an important idea from Tanakh. This is the idea that God sometimes saves the Israelite nation for the sake of God’s name.[5] God is connected to the bodily existence of the Jewish nation (a relationship of elevation, according to our midrash) so it’s destruction is something God has an active interest in avoiding. Thus even when the Israelites are sinning, to the point where they would merit destruction, God may still avert this destruction for the sake of God’s Name. This midrash can thus be seen as extending this idea to a new and exciting conclusion: it is not just the national collective that God is interested in saving for the sake of God’s name, but also individual Jews, meritorious or not.

 

Hence Moshe warned Israel, “And you shall take for yourselves on the first day.”

The midrash then funnels all of this theological momentum into the mitsvah of of the four species. The mitsvah is a reminder of the importance of Jewish identity. Regardless of the importance of what actions we do or not perform, the essential point is that we identify as part of the Jewish nation.

 

[1] Hebrew text and translation from http://www.sefaria.org/Vayikra_Rabbah.30.12?lang=bi&with=Amos&lang2=en.

[2] Judgment in this article should be understood as shorthand for judgment of the Jews specifically.

[3] Due the the midrash’s use of inherently vague pronouns, it is possible to understand the midrash is suggesting that each type of Jew atones for some lack in all the others, and perhaps even that God has to justify not destroying all of different types of Jews. I find such a reading unlikely and forced, however, but rejecting that specific reading goes beyond the scope of this article.

[4] Notably, “atonement” usually has to do with removal of actual sin rather than a lack of merit. The midrash seems to assume that people who lack merit are inherently sinful, or are for sure also sinning, or something to that effect. Examining this understanding of merit and human nature would be an intriguing topic for a different composition.

[5] I have written about this theme in this essay.

Eruvin 54a – Hedonism, Death, and Non-Being

Before you is an aggadah from Masekhet Eruvin that seems almost hedonistic on a textual level, but I think the motivation behind the hedonistic statements is almost more interesting. Beneath the main quotation of the whole text is my breakdown and analysis thereof.

אמר ליה שמואל לרב יהודה: שיננא, חטוף ואכול חטוף ואישתי, דעלמא דאזלינן מיניה כהלולא דמי.

אמר ליה רב לרב המנונא: בני, אם יש לך – היטב לך, שאין בשאול תענוג ואין למות התמהמה. ואם תאמר אניח לבני – חוק בשאול מי יגיד לך. בני האדם דומים לעשבי השדה, הללו נוצצין והללו נובלין.

Samuel further said to Rab Judah, ‘Shinena [commentators indicate this means something like “clever one” ~LM], hurry on [lit. “grab” ~LM] and eat, hurry on and drink, since the world from which we must depart is like a wedding feast’.

Rab said to R. Hamnuna, ‘My son, according to thy ability do good to thyself, for there is no enjoyment in she’ol nor will death be long in coming. And shouldst thou say: “I would leave a portion for my children” — who will tell thee in the grave? The children of man[or more colloquially, “People” ~LM] are like the grasses of the field, some blossom and some fade’. (translation from halakha.com)

This gemara has a broader context that would certainly be worth looking into for anyone interested, but it’s not so important for the purposes of analyzing these two statements, which I will now examine piecemeal.

אמר ליה שמואל לרב יהודה: שיננא, חטוף ואכול חטוף ואישתי,

Samuel further said to Rab Judah, ‘Shinena [commentators indicate this means something like “clever one” ~LM], hurry on[lit. “grab” ~LM] and eat, hurry on and drink,

Shmuel’s statement to his student Rav Yehudah, to take and consume, and quickly, seems to express a hedonistic sentiment that we’re not used to seeing in religious text. The contrast is so stark that several commentators argue that the various forms of hedonistic pleasure that appear in aggadah all refer to learning Torah and performing mitsvot (Meiri, Sefat Emet). Despite this, Rashi is quite clear that the simple, hedonistic, meaning of the gemara is the correct understanding. Interestingly, the Maharsha comments throughout the aggadah, noting how consistently the aggadah reflects themes and ideas found in Sefer Kohelet, if not always as intensely. What makes this particularly interesting is that there is a rabbinic statement in Kohelet Rabbah to the effect that “every time Kohelet discusses food and drink, it is in reality referring to Torah and Mitsvot.”[1] This then suggests that perhaps the approach of the first commentators we mentioned is not so wild after all. Certainly, it shows how the commentators often relate to the Gemara the same way Hazal related to the Biblical text.

What is, to my mind at least, more interesting is the explanation Shmuel invokes for why Rav Yehudah should consume so voraciously.

דעלמא דאזלינן מיניה כהלולא דמי.

since the world from which we must depart is like a wedding feast’.

The most obvious connection between this argument and the instruction to hedonistically consume is the statement that the world we live in is like a celebratory feast. The clear purpose of such a meal is to enjoy it, so the argument based on that would just be “the world is for enjoying yourself, so enjoy yourself.” But there’s more to it than that.

Rashi explains that the “wedding feast” image is meant to convey the rapidity with which our tenure in this world ends. Much as a wedding feast is over in the course of a night, so too we all one day wake up much closer to the ends of our lives than we’re comfortable admitting. This also means that the wedding feast section of the argument is of one cloth with the section of the argument that we had skipped until now.

The first part of Shmuel’s argument is actually in the term he uses to refer to the world we live in, “the world from which we must depart,” or perhaps more literally, “the world from which we are departing.” Our time in this world is measured in sparse seconds that slip through our fingers ever fast the more we try to hold on to them. Our existence is not static; we are inexorably moving toward the ends of our lives, leaving more and more of this life behind us. Taken this way, Shmuel’s argument is strikingly reminiscent of the existentialist philosopher Martin Heidegger’s idea that existence is “dasein,” a term which literally means “being there.” Heidegger argued that to exist to is be “thrown” into this life without a choice in the matter, and to be inexorably moving towards death. Moreover, human existence in particular is marked by consciousness of this inevitable process. Shmuel may thus be best understood to be saying, “this life is short and fleeting, so make use of it while you can!” Whether you understand that as physical or spiritual pleasure is up to you.[2]

And now to turn to the second section of our aggadah.

אמר ליה רב לרב המנונא: בני, אם יש לך – היטב לך,

Rab said to R. Hamnuna, ‘My son, according to thy ability do good to thyself,

Rav’s instruction to Rav Hamnuna opens, as with Shmuel’s to Rav Yehudah, with a simple and seemingly hedonistic instruction: “according to thy ability do good to thyself.” If you have it, enjoy it. Once again paralleling Shmuel’s statement, Rav then provides a reason for this instruction. His reason, however, differs from Shmuel’s in ways that I think are significant.

שאין בשאול תענוג ואין למות התמהמה.

for there is no enjoyment in she’ol nor will death be long in coming.

In She’ol, an ancient and murky term for the afterlife, there is no enjoyment or physical pleasure. Moreover, not only is there no pleasure after death, but death is fast approaching. Thus it is imperative, Rav seems to argue, to get your pleasure now, while you can. Once again, there are commentators who understand this to refer to the pleasure of Torah and Mitsvot, rather than more hedonistic satisfactions, but Rashi is consistent as to hedonism being the plain sense of the aggadah.

This explanation differs from that of Shmuel in its consciousness of life after death. Shmuel simply argues that this life ends. Being disappears into Non-Being.[3] Rav, in contrast, is arguing that Being continues after death, only qualitatively differently. It is this qualitative difference that motivates his instruction to Rav Hamnuna. Death is coming and She’ol fast on its heels. We leave this life and and move to one without pleasure, spiritual or physical. It is thus incumbent upon us, argues Rav, to seek out this pleasure while we can.

 ואם תאמר אניח לבני – חוק בשאול מי יגיד לך. בני האדם דומים לעשבי השדה, הללו נוצצין והללו נובלין.

And shouldst thou say: “I would leave a portion for my children” — who will tell thee in the grave? The children of man [or more colloquially, “People” ~LM] are like the grasses of the field, some blossom and some fade’.

Perhaps the most immediate, natural, response to “If you have it, enjoy it” might be, “Can’t I share it?” Most particularly, what if a person wants to share what they have with their children, an act that manages to be caring for another person while simultaneously caring for oneself. This could be material wealth, or the knowledge and ability to succeed in Torah and Mitsvot, as per the consistent debate we have seen among commentators.

Rav preempts this response, suggesting that it fails on two counts. First off, it’s all very nice to say that you want to leave behind something for your children. However, Rav argues, what you really care about is their experiencing whatever you left for them, and you will have no way of knowing about it after you have died. Second, when a person leaves something for their children, it is generally with a specific idea in mind of how they want their children to use it, how they want it to affect their children’s lives. But after you have died, says Rav, your children will continue to grow without your supervision, and you will have no way of controlling how they develop. So it is pointless to deny yourself enjoyment, be it spiritual or physical, for this reason.

We have thus seen two distinct but similar reasons provided by sages to pursue some sort of pleasure in this world. Shmuel, whose reason I will call “Non-Being,” focused on the end of Being as we know it. This world is for pleasure and it ends, so you better use it quick. Rav, whose reason I will call “Death,” focused on not the end of this life so much as the beginning of a new way of Being, one which differs significantly from this one. In that existence, in She’ol, there is neither pleasure, nor knowledge of pleasure occurring in this world. And She’ol comes sooner that we expect.

While they differ in their discussion of Being after this life, Death and Non-Being share the same sense of the end of life as a crisis. There is something about this world that ends permanently, that cannot be regained or recalled even in the afterlife. This sense of loss is quite powerful, and moreover is a stark contrast to ideas we may be more used to hearing, such as how suffering in this world is compensated for by reward in the next, and how this world is just an entry-way to the more real existence in the next world. These ideas aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive, but it is a stark contrast. Other ideas from Hazal that indicate that death is a crisis might be Lo’eg LeRash, the idea that the departed are bothered by their inability to perform mitsvot. This is clearly the same idea as “Death” that we have looked at here, where there is a distinct form of existence after this life, but it is missing a crucial aspect of this life. So too the mishnah in Avot (4:17) which states that one moment of good deeds in this world is better than all of the next, though that also states that one moment of bliss in the next world is better than all of this one, and is thus more complicated.

As with my piece on the subversive aggadah about tefillah in Masekhet Berakhot, I don’t have a specific point I’m getting at with this piece. I just think that it’s an interesting and somewhat surprising viewpoint to find in Hazal, and it’s worth talking about. I would to hear any questions or comments.

 

[1] Sourced in the second chapter of Moshe Halbertal’s “People of the Book,” in a discussion of interpretation and the Principle of Charity.

[2] The ever-scholarly David Nagarpowers has pointed out to me that both historically and content-wise, Epicurus may be a more apt comparison than Heidegger. However, I’ve chosen to stick with Heidegger due to the sense of movement inherent in both Shmuel’s “the world that we are departing from” and Heidegger’s “being-towards-death.”

[3] This isn’t to say that Shmuel denies the existence of the afterlife. It simply does not feature in his argument.

Berakhot 32b – The Subversion of Tefillah

Berakhot 32b – The Subversion of Tefillah

Before you is a gemara from Masekhet Berakhot that I can only describe as subversive. Beneath the main quotation of the whole text is my breakdown and analysis thereof.

 

אמר רבי חנין אמר רבי חנינא: כל המאריך בתפלתו אין תפלתו חוזרת ריקם. מנא לן – ממשה רבינו שנאמר: “ואתפלל אל ה’,” וכתיב בתריה “וישמע ה’ אלי גם בפעם ההיא.”

איני? והא אמר רבי חייא בר אבא אמר רבי יוחנן: כל המאריך בתפלתו ומעיין בה – סוף בא לידי כאב לב, שנאמר: “תוחלת ממשכה מחלה לב,” מאי תקנתיה – יעסוק בתורה, שנאמר “ועץ חיים תאוה באה,” ואין עץ חיים אלא תורה, שנאמר “עץ חיים היא למחזיקים בה!”

לא קשיא, הא – דמאריך ומעיין בה, הא – דמאריך ולא מעיין בה.

אמר רבי חמא ברבי חנינא: אם ראה אדם שהתפלל ולא נענה יחזור ויתפלל שנאמר “קוה אל ה’ חזק ויאמץ לבך וקוה אל ה’.”

Hanin said in the name of R. Hanina: If one prays long his prayer does not pass unheeded. Whence do we know this? From Moses our Master; for it says, “And I prayed unto the Lord,” and it is written afterwards, “And the Lord hearkened unto me that time also.”

But is that so? Has not R. Hiyya b. Abba said in the name of R. Johanan: “If one prays long and looks for the fulfilment of his prayer, in the end he will have vexation of heart, as it says, ‘Hope deferred maketh the heart sick?’ What is his remedy? Let him study the Torah, as it says, ‘But desire fulfilled is a tree of life;’ and the tree of life is nought but the Torah, as it says, ‘She is a tree of life to them that lay hold on her!”

There is no contradiction: one statement speaks of a man who prays long and looks for the fulfilment of his prayer, the other of one who prays long without looking for the fulfilment of his prayer.

Hama son of R. Hanina said: If a man sees that he prays and is not answered, he should pray again, as it says, “Wait for the Lord, be strong and let thy heart take courage; yea, wait thou for the Lord.” (Translation from halakhah.com)

 

This gemara presents 4 differing approaches to the question of the effectiveness of prayer, with most of them being quite subversive. I’m still not quite sure what to do with this gemara myself, so for now I would just like to lay out the gemara as I understand it.

 

אמר רבי חנין אמר רבי חנינא: כל המאריך בתפלתו אין תפלתו חוזרת ריקם. מנא לן – ממשה רבינו שנאמר: “ואתפלל אל ה’,” וכתיב בתריה “וישמע ה’ אלי גם בפעם ההיא.”

Hanin said in the name of R. Hanina: If one prays long his prayer does not pass unheeded. Whence do we know this? From Moses our Master; for it says, “And I prayed unto the Lord,” and it is written afterwards, “And the Lord hearkened unto me that time also.”

 

Opinion #1, that of Rabbi Hanin and Rabbi Hanina is what I think of as the classical approach to tefillah. Prayer works. If you pray for something you will get a response. If you pray for something and there is no noticeable, presumably positive, response, it is because you are not praying properly. If you want your prayer to succeed, then you have to pray harder. Pray longer. Prayer works, so if it’s not working for you than the problem must be with you/ The flipside is that this means the problem is likely within your power to fix.

 

איני? והא אמר רבי חייא בר אבא אמר רבי יוחנן: כל המאריך בתפלתו ומעיין בה – סוף בא לידי כאב לב, שנאמר: “תוחלת ממשכה מחלה לב,” מאי תקנתיה – יעסוק בתורה, שנאמר “ועץ חיים תאוה באה,” ואין עץ חיים אלא תורה, שנאמר “עץ חיים היא למחזיקים בה!”

But is that so? Has not R. Hiyya b. Abba said in the name of R. Johanan: “If one prays long and looks for the fulfilment of his prayer, in the end he will have vexation of heart, as it says, ‘Hope deferred maketh the heart sick?’ What is his remedy? Let him study the Torah, as it says, ‘But desire fulfilled is a tree of life;’ and the tree of life is nought but the Torah, as it says, ‘She is a tree of life to them that lay hold on her!”

 

Rabbi Hiyya the son of Abba presents Opinion #2, a radically opposite to Opinion #1. Expecting your prayer to work is just going to frustrate you. Tefillah doesn’t “work” in the classical sense. However tefillah is thought to work, it is not a guarantee. It does not itself effect any process in some sort of mechanical way. If you think it does, then prayer will inevitably be a frustrating experience for you. His solution for this frustration is to study Torah, presumably either because A) it is a process the results of which are obvious, thus alleviating the frustration of waiting unendingly for the results of prayer, or, conversely, because B) Torah study is a practice with no expected results, and the change of mindset from result-focused to process-focused relieves the frustration.

 

לא קשיא, הא – דמאריך ומעיין בה, הא – דמאריך ולא מעיין בה.

There is no contradiction: one statement speaks of a man who prays long and looks for the fulfilment of his prayer, the other of one who prays long without looking for the fulfilment of his prayer.

 

The gemara is alive to the fundamental contradiction between the two opinions. The two opinions present opposite results (tefillah works/frustrates) for almost exactly the same process (one who prays long, כל המאריך בתפילתו). The gemara resolves this by focusing on the one difference between the two descriptions of tefillah: “looking for fulfillment,” “המעיין בה.” The gemara thus resolves the contradiction by saying that the two results (works/frustrates) apply to two distinctly different processes.

This provides us with Opinion #3. Tefillah works, but only when you have given up on any thought that it works. If you pray thinking that your tefillah works, that your prayer sets in motion a process leading to the results you desire, then it is seemingly guaranteed that your prayer will not work. If you think tefillah works, then it only frustrates. On a theological level this has its own logic to it. Process A leads to Result A; while Process B leads to Result B. On an existential level, Opinion #3 is asking you to pray without expecting any results from it.

EDIT: It’s important to note, in terms of understanding the Gemara, that at this point one should probably assume Opinions 1 & 2 never existed. They arise in the course of the discussion with a superficial contradiction, but a careful reading by the anonymous voice of the Talmud points out the obvious resolution, leading us to realize that Opinions 1 & 2, then, are really just different facets of one opinion, Opinion #3. My thanks to David Nagarpowers for pushing me to clarify this point.

 

אמר רבי חמא ברבי חנינא: אם ראה אדם שהתפלל ולא נענה יחזור ויתפלל שנאמר “קוה אל ה’ חזק ויאמץ לבך וקוה אל ה’.”

Hama son of R. Hanina said: If a man sees that he prays and is not answered, he should pray again, as it says, “Wait for the Lord, be strong and let thy heart take courage; yea, wait thou for the Lord.”

 

This last piece of the gemara might seem to be technically separate from the previous pieces. It falls outside the immediate argument, but is also about prayer and thus might have been recorded together. However, I think the connection goes deeper than that. Rabbi Hama the son of Rabbi Hanina (see the author of Opinion #1) gives us Opinion #4, which is somewhere in between Opinions #1 & #3, while rejecting Opinion #2. Rabbi Hama says that tefillah does not work in a strict sense. There is no one-to-one connection between prayer and result. Thus when one prays one should not expect their prayer to work, but nor should they simply expect their desires to be frustrated. Instead, they should hope. Rav Hama invokes a verse which equates praying with “קוה,” which can be translated as “wait” or “hope.” The verse refers to קוה, then to taking courage, then to קוה again. So too Rav Hama says that a person should pray, then they should not be frustrated if their tefillah is not answered, and then they should pray again.

Opinion #4 says tefilla can work even if you think it works, but also says that it may or may not work no matter what you think. But it’s that “may” that makes it distinct from Opinion #2, indeed from all the previous opinions. All those opinions insisted on an absolute approach to tefillah. It either works, or it doesn’t, or either one depending on the specific conditions of the prayer. Opinion #4 doesn’t leave you with a strong sense of certainty, which can be troubling. But it leaves the options open, and leaves you the ability to hope.

 

This gemara presents 4 opinions about tefillah, with one being the classical approach that “Tefillah works” (#1), while the other three range from simply complicating how tefilla works (#3) to rejecting the idea entirely (#2), suggesting, that rather than working, Tefillah frustrates. Even the more moderate final approaches that the gemara concludes with (#3 & #4) are a strong step away from the classical model that the gemara starts with, and thus this gemara can only be seen as subversive. I’m not sure yet what to make of this gemara, how to fit it into a broader picture of prayer, Hazal, Judaism, etc. I am, however, fascinated by it, and I would love to hear if anyone has any different ways of interpreting it.

Rabbinic Readings – Yael Ziegler’s Ruth

Ruth: From Alienation to Monarchy” is the fourth of Maggid Books’ new Tanakh series, Maggid Studies in Tanakh. Written by Dr. Yael Ziegler, Ruth explores the biblical book of Rut, also known as Megillat Rut, from what the author terms a “literary-theological” perspective. The book focuses primarily on three things: (1) the ways in which Megillat Rut responds to and attempts to rectify Sefer Shoftim; (2) the purpose of Megillat Rut, particularly as it relates to interpersonal ethics, kindness, and the establishment of the monarchy; (3) the way rabbinic literature expand on and respond to the biblical text of Megillat Rut. Throughout these explorations, Ruth is both unabashedly traditional and fervently academic, probably the most academic of Maggid’s Tanakh series thus far.

ziegler-ruth_final_2d_1_1Megillat Rut opens with the time-frame within which the book occurs. “And it was in the days of the judging of the judges” (Rut 1:1)[1]. Ziegler discusses the exact meaning of this extensively. She brings in a variety of midrashic opinions that attempt to narrow down exactly when in the several hundred years encompassed by the book of Shoftim the narrative of Megillat Rut is supposed to have occurred, analyzing these rabbinic texts to determine not just what textual cues they are based on but also what thematic elements they are drawing out of the biblical text. This thematic analysis combines with an extensive discussion of the book of Shoftim itself, in an attempt to determine what message about society Sefer Shoftim is trying to convey overall. Concluding that Shoftim depicts a society that is rife with alienation and anarchy,   where people are regarded as objects rather than subjects, Ziegler argues that Rut depicts the solution to, or reparation of, this society by depicting a narrative that moves from alienation to recognition, culminating in the creation of the Davidic line and, implicitly, the monarchy.

The entire purpose of Megillat Rut is to explain the lineage of the monarchy, to the provide the family tree of king David, at least according to one midrash Ziegler quotes. Another suggests that the purpose of the book is to teach about proper behavior, not in the realm of halakhah of but in the realm of interpersonal ethics. Rut, according to this midrash, should be read with an eye to acts of Ḥesed, lovingkindness, and the rewards received for those actions. Ziegler accepts both of these midrashim, arguing that Megillat Rut depicts a form of self-abnegating kindness that, while it might be too extreme for the average person in their daily lives, is absolutely necessary for a proper monarch. It is through acts of such extreme giving and openness to the Other, Ziegler argues, that Rut takes the characters, and the reader, from the leaderless period of the judges to the rising of the monarchy.

Ruth constantly quotes and references midrashim from across the entire span of rabbinic literature. Ziegler analyzes midrashim with an eye to two things, midrashic sensitivity to the biblical text and themes that the midrash is either drawing out of or introducing into the biblical text. The themes highlighted by a midrash can be used to illuminate a character or scene left somewhat sparse by the biblical text. Rabbinic texts also often identify anonymous or mysterious characters with more well-known figures, and analyzing their reasons for doing so can provide deep insights into the nuances of the biblical text. However, the plentitude of midrashim quoted in the book can also create a sense of separation from the biblical text. The reader of Ruth may occasionally feel that, while they know the relevant rabbinic literature quite well, they are somewhat unclear on, and disconnected from, the biblical text. This weakness could itself be a strength, however. The midrashic survey that constitutes much of Ziegler’s book could be an excellent introduction to midrashim more generally, guiding the reader through learning how to read and analyze midrashim.

Ruth is also in dialogue with contemporary academic commentaries on Rut. References to agreements and disagreements with scholarship show up throughout the text and footnotes of Ruth. Despite this, Ruth is not an academic text. In the introduction, subtitled “Methodology of Tanakh Study,” Ziegler explicitly steps out of academic discourse, stating a preference for reading Rut with an eye to contemporary theological relevance[2]. The introduction also gives the reader a broader historical context for Ruth, and for the “literary-theological” method employed therein, exploring the rise of literary criticism, its development within the Bible scholarship, and its adoption within traditional Jewish study of Tanakh. For this introduction alone, Ruth is a must for the Modern Orthodox reader of Tanakh, giving precious background for the tools and teachers that enrich our studying of the biblical text.

The academic engagement of the book goes beyond references and background, fundamentally shaping Ziegler’s methodology and discussion of the biblical text. Attention is paid to the literary effects of word choices and syntax. Parallels from across the entirety of Tanakh are brought to bear in interpreting the meaning of various passages. There are several excursuses on a variety of larger topics in the study of Tanakh, including type-scenes, oaths, and more. All of this is melded with a more traditional rabbinic approach, often showing how midrashim and rabbinic commentators were doing the same, or similar, things to what modern academic scholars to today.

Yael Ziegler’s Ruth: From Alienation to Monarchy is an excellent study of the text of Megillat Rut, plumbing its linguistic depths, its purposes and goals, and its extensive rabbinic interpretation, all of which is conveyed in contemporary language, with clear intention that the moral and theological lessons gleaned should be applied by the reader in their own lives. It is also a great introduction to the basics of an academic, literary-critical, method of studying Tanakh. And most of all, Ruth demonstrates how the tradition and the modern, the rabbinic and the academic, can work so wonderfully together.

 

[1] Translation copied from the text used by Ziegler in “Ruth.”

[2] The irony of a methodological introduction that professes the larger book, and thus itself, not to be academic is hard to miss.

Midrash Purim 5776 – My Soul Acts Madly For The Lord

מדרש פורים תשע״ו – בא׳ תתהולל נפשי

 

לְדָוִד בְּשַׁנּוֹתוֹ אֶת טַעְמוֹ לִפְנֵי אֲבִימֶלֶךְ וַיְגָרְשֵׁהוּ וַיֵּלַךְ. אין מידת הקב״ה כמידת מלך בשר ודם. מלך בו״ד מגרש את המשנה טעמו ומתהולל ולא מביא אותו לביתו, כמו שכתוב, ״וַיְשַׁנּוֹ אֶת-טַעְמוֹ בְּעֵינֵיהֶם וַיִּתְהֹלֵל״ (שמואל א כא:יד), וכתוב, ״לָמָּה תָּבִיאוּ אֹתוֹ אֵלָי? הֲזֶה יָבוֹא אֶל-בֵּיתִי?״ (שם טו-טז). לא כן הקב״ה, כמו שכתוב, ״טַעֲמוּ וּרְאוּ כִּי-טוֹב יְ׳הוָה״ (תהילים לד:ט), וכתוב, ״תָּמִיד תְּהִלָּתוֹ בְּפִי בַּי׳הוָה תִּתְהַלֵּל נַפְשִׁי״ (שם ב-ג), אל תקרי תתהלל אלא תתהולל, כי גם בהוללות מתהללים את א׳. ובטעם יין ושכר חוסים בו, כמו שכתוב, ״אשרי הגבר יחסו בו״ (שם ט). וכתוב, ״פֹּדֶה יְ׳הוָה נֶפֶשׁ עֲבָדָיו וְלֹא יֶאְשְׁמוּ כָּל-הַחֹסִים בּוֹ״ (שם כג), כי אין עון ואין אשמה לחוסים בו ולמאמינים בו באמת, ועיין בירמיהו לא. וכתוב, ״שִׁבְתִּי בְּבֵית-יְ׳הוָה כָּל-יְמֵי חַיַּי לַחֲזוֹת בְּנֹעַם-יְ׳הוָה וּלְבַקֵּר בְּהֵיכָלוֹ״ (שם כז:ד). זה המתהולל, כמו שכתוב, ״טַעֲמוּ וּרְאוּ כִּי-טוֹב יְ׳הוָה,״ וכתוב, ״לוּלֵא הֶאֱמַנְתִּי לִרְאוֹת בְּטוּב-יְ׳הוָה״ (שם יג). רק מי שתהילתו היא הוללות והוללותו היא תהילה, רק הוא מאמין באמת ורק הוא יכול לבוא בבית א׳.

Of David, when he acted madly before Avimelech, so that he drove him out, and he went away. א׳’s personality is not like of a human king. A human king expels a mindless person and does now welcome them into his home, as it is written, “ So he changed his behavior before them; he acted madly” (Shmuel Alef 21:14), and it is written, “why then have you brought him to me? Shall this fellow come into my house?” (ibid. 15-16). Not so is א׳, as it is written, “Taste and see that God is good” (Tehillim 34:9), and it is written, “His praise shall continually be in my mouth.  My soul praises for the Lord” (ibid. 2-3), but do not read “praises” (תתהלל), rather “acts madly” (תתהולל), for also through madness we praise א׳. And in the taste of wine and alcohol we take refuge in Him, as it is written, “Fortunate is the man who takes refuge in Him” (ibid. 9). And it is written, “The Lord redeems the soul of his servants; none of those who take refuge in him will be condemned” (ibid 23), for there is no sin and no guilt for those who trust in Him and truly believe in Him, and see Yirmiyahu 31. And it is written, “I dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord and to inquire in his hall” (ibid. 27:3). This is the one who acts madly, as it is written, “Taste and see that God is good,” and it is written, “I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord” (ibid. 13). Only he for whom praise is madness and madness is praise, only he truly believes, and only he can be welcomed into the House of א׳.

Love and Sinai – A Derashah for the Wedding of Frankie Ziman and Yael Bar

Love and Sinai

A Derashah in Honor of the Wedding of Frankie Ziman and Yael Bar

The moment of revelation at Har Sinai has long been thought of as a wedding between God and the people of Israel[1]. It is the moment when the intimate bond between Israel and God was sealed. However, the picture becomes a little less rosy when we consider what is likely the most famous midrashic image of the revelation at Har Sinai.

“And they stood under the mount”: R. Abdimi b. Hama b. Hasa said: This teaches that the Holy One, blessed be He, overturned the mountain upon them like an [inverted] cask, and said to them,’If you accept the Torah, good; if not, there shall be your burial.’ R. Aha b. Jacob observed: This furnishes a strong protest against the Torah. Said Raba, Yet even so, they re-accepted it in the days of Ahasuerus, for it is written, [the Jews] confirmed, and took upon them [etc.]: [i.e.,] they confirmed what they had accepted long before.[2]

This famous midrash says that the Torah was accepted by Bnei Yisrael under pain of death: not exactly a romantic image. If this is a marriage than it was a forced marriage, which is incredibly problematic. The midrash picks up on that problem, noting that if the Torah was forced on the Israelites than they could hardly have been expected to keep it, and then resolves it by saying that they accepted the Torah again out of free will in the days of Esther and Mordechai. That solution hardly saves the idea of seeing Sinai as a marriage, however, because saying that they grew to love each other doesn’t stop a marriage from being forced. This is even more troubling in light of versions that lack the line about freely re-accepting the Torah, meaning that it was actually entirely forced.[3]

However, with the words of our Sages, we find other midrashim with radically different understandings of the same basic image.

“And they took their places.” They pressed together.  It teaches that they were scared on account of the flashing and trembling and thunder, on account of the approaching lightning. “The foot of the mountain.”  It teaches that the mountain was plucked from its place, and they approached and stood under the mountain, as it is said, “and you approached and stood under the mountain” (Deut 4:11).  Of them it is explicated in the tradition (Song 2:14): “My dove in the clefts of the rock, in the covert of the cliff, show me your appearance, etc.”[4] (Translation from Dr. Tzvi Novick)

In this version, God did not suspend the mountain above the Israelites as an act of coercion and intimidation, but in order to comfort the frightened Children of Israel. The supernatural storm shrouding the revelation at Sinai terrified Bnei Yisrael, and so God raised up the mountain and sheltered them in its shadow.

Working off the same verse from Shir HaShirim (2:14) quoted at the end of the last midrash, Shir HaShirim Rabbah depicts the suspension of the mountain yet a little differently.

Rabbi Akiva interpreted the verse as a reference to Israel: When they stood before Mount Sinai, “My dove is in the clefts of the rock,” for they were hidden in the hiding-place of Sinai, “show me your appearance,” As the verse says, “The entire nation saw the voices,” (Exodus 20:14) “let me hear your voice,” This is the voice from before the [ten] commandments, as the verse says, “Everything that God has said we will do and we will obey,” (Exodus 24:7) “For your voice is sweet,” This is the voice from after the [ten] commandments, as the verse says, “The LORD heard the voice of your words… They have done well in all that they have spoken,” In what have they “done well”? “In all that they have spoken.”[5]

This midrash sees God suspending the mountain over the heads of Bnei Yisrael not as a form of intimidation, but as the setting for a conversation. Hidden beneath the mountain, the people affirm their desire to enter a binding relationship with God, and then God agrees to everything they have said. The vaulted caverns of the mountain are not a forceful threat but the swell of a lover’s embrace, not a threatening grave but the chuppah of a historical wedding.

Now that we can comfortably look at the revelation at Sinai as a wedding between God and Bnei Yisrael, it is a valuable lens through which to discuss a debate in Hazal about the specific nature of that revelation. One midrash suggest that the entirety of not just the written Torah, but of anything that might ever be taught as Torah, was given to Moshe on Har Sinai.

Rabbi Shimon Ben Levi said: It could have written “on them”, so why did it write “and on them”? Why did it write “like all the words” when it could have written “the words”? These are to teach that Mikra, Mishna, Talmud, and Aggadah, even what a diligent student will teach in the future before his master, were already said to Moshe at Sinai.[6]

In this midrash, the revelation at Sinai is depicted as absolute, as complete in every way. How could it not include anything that might ever be considered “Torah”? However, there is another midrash with a very different opinion about what was given to Moshe on Har Sinai.

Did Moshe really learn all the Torah? It is written regarding the Torah, “Its measure is longer than the earth and broader than the sea” (Iyov 11:9), and Moshe is supposed to have learned all of it in forty days? Rather God taught Moshe [only] the general principles.[7]

Struck by the vastness of the Torah, this midrash finds the idea that Moshe could have learned all of it in forty days simply impossible. Instead, Moshe received the written Torah, to whatever degree, accompanied by the interpretive principles necessary to derive the rest of Torah from it.

A similar debate exists is mentioned in the Gemara regarding the origin of the physical Torah as we know it.

Abaye asked Rabbah: Is it permitted to write out a scroll [containing a single passage] for a child to learn from? This is a problem alike for one who says that the Torah was transmitted scroll by scroll, and for one who says that the Torah was transmitted sealed.[8]

In discussing whether or not it is permitted to write an incomplete Torah scroll for educational purposes, the gemara mentions two diverging opinions: 1. Moshe originally wrote down each prophecy on a separate scroll as it was given to him. 2. Moshe wrote the entire Torah down at once. According to the first opinion, the text of the Torah developed over the course of the forty years in the desert; According to the second, there’s no such thing as an incomplete Torah[9], and so the Torah was written down all at one time.

Both of these debates hinge around a single question: Is revelation something that happens all at once, or does it develop over time? Seeing Sinai as a wedding, this can be reframed as: does love occur in a great surge at the wedding, or does it build over time? Is the love of the wedding greater? Or the love of the marriage? There is nothing like the pomp and celebration of the wedding. All of your friends and family are gathered around, everyone is singing and dancing, and the bride and groom couldn’t be more excited. But the depth and sincerity of a marriage, the true emotional intimacy of it, is something that develops as a husband and wife live out their shared life. Love is something that builds through shared experiences, as everyday life enables you to discover newer and more amazing facets of your spouse to love.

One side of the midrashic debate sees the love expressed at sinai as absolute, as perfect, as unsurpassable, and it’s our job to carry this complete Torah into our lives through every day of history. The other side of the debate sees the Torah expressed at Sinai as the starting point of something made ever richer and deeper as it develops through the shared life of God and the Jewish People. But ultimately, according to all opinions, “The words of the scribes are more loving than the words of the Torah, and more beloved.”[10] Love that develops over time, that is enriched by the communication and commitment of the couple in their everyday lives, is much deeper and more precious that the love and excitement of the wedding day. Frankie and Yael, the love you feel for each other today is so amazing, and so exciting. But it’s just a start. The love you will feel fifty years from now, even the love you will feel on Tuesday, will be so much greater.

קוֹל חָתָן וְקוֹל כַּלָּה[11]; קוֹל גָּדוֹל, וְלֹא יָסָף![12]

[1]צאינה וראינה בנות ציון במלך שלמה בעטרה שעטרה לו אמו ביום חתנתו וביום שמחת לבו, ביום חתנתו – זה מתן תורה.

(תלמוד בבלי, תענית כו:)

[2]

ויתיצבו בתחתית ההר, אמר רב אבדימי בר חמא בר חסא: מלמד שכפה הקדוש ברוך הוא עליהם את ההר כגיגית, ואמר להם: אם אתם מקבלים התורה מוטב, ואם לאו שם תהא קבורתכם. אמר רב אחא בר יעקב: מכאן מודעא רבה לאורייתא. אמר רבא: אף על פי כן, הדור קבלוה בימי אחשורוש. דכתיב קימו וקבלו היהודים, קיימו מה שקיבלו כבר.

(תלמוד בבלי, מסכת שבת, פח.)

[3]

תחת התפוח עוררתיך – דרש פלטיון איש רומי ואמר: נתלש הר סיני ונצב בשמי מרום, והיו ישראל נתונים תחתיו שנאמר: (דברים ד’) ותקריבון ותעמדון תחת ההראמר הקב”ה: אם אתם מקבלים עליכם תורתי מוטב, ואם לאו, הריני כובש עליכם ההר הזה והורג אתכם.

(שיר השירים רבה ח:ה)

[4]

ויתיצבו – נצפפו. מלמד שהיו ישראל מתיראין מפני הזיקין מפני הזועות מפני הרעמים מפני הברקים הבאים. בתחתית ההר – מלמד שנתלש ההר ממקומו, וקרבו ועמדו תחת ההר, שנאמר (דברים ד, יא) ותקרבון ותעמדון תחת ההר, עליהם מפורש בקבלה: יונתי בחגוי הסלע בסתר המדרגה הראיני את מראיך.

(מכילתא דרבי ישמעאל, מסכתא דבחדש, יתרו פרשה ג)

[5]

רבי עקיבא פתר קרייה בישראל: בשעה שעמדו לפני הר סיני, יונתי בחגוי הסלע, שהיו חבויין בסתרו של סיני, הראיני את מראיך, שנאמר: וכל העם רואים את הקולות, השמיעני את קולך, זה קול שלפני הדברות, שנאמר: (שמות כ”ד) כל אשר דבר ה’ נעשה ונשמע, כי קולך ערב זה קול שלאחר הדברות, שנאמר: (דברים ה’) וישמע ה’ את קול דבריכם וגו’ הטיבו כל אשר דברו,  מהו הטיבו? כל אשר דברו.

(שיר השירים רבה ב:ד)

[6]

רבי יהושע בן לוי אמר עליהם ועליהם כל ככל דברים הדברים מקרא משנה תלמוד ואגדה אפילו מה שתלמיד וותיק עתיד להורות לפני רבו כבר נאמר למשה בסיני.

(ירושלמי, פאה יז.)

[7]

וכי כל התורה למד משה כתיב בתורה (איוב יא) ארוכה מארץ מדה ורחבה מני ים ולארבעים יום למדה משה אלא כללים למדהו הקב”ה למשה.

(שמות רבה מא:ו)

[8]

בעא מיניה אביי מרבה:מהו לכתוב מגילה לתינוק להתלמד בה? תיבעי למאן דאמר תורה מגילה מגילה ניתנה, תיבעי למאן דאמר תורה חתומה ניתנה.

(בבלי גיטין ס.)

[9]

אמר לו ר׳ שמעון אפשר ספר תורה חסר אות אחת?!  ֿ

(בבלי בבא בתרא טו.)

[10]

שמעון בר ווה בשם ר’ יוחנן דודים דברי סופרים לד”ת וחביבים יותר מד”ת (שיר השירים א) כי טובים דודיך מיין.

(ירושלמי ברכות א:ד, וכן סנהדרין יא:ד)

[11]

קוֹל שָׂשׂוֹן וְקוֹל שִׂמְחָה קוֹל חָתָן וְקוֹל כַּלָּה קוֹל אֹמְרִים הוֹדוּ אֶת־יְקֹוָק צְבָאוֹת כִּי־טוֹב יְקֹוָק כִּי־לְעוֹלָם חַסְדּוֹ מְבִאִים תּוֹדָה בֵּית יְקֹוָק כִּי־אָשִׁיב אֶת־שְׁבוּת־הָאָרֶץ כְּבָרִאשֹׁנָה אָמַר יְקֹוָק.

(ירמיהו לג:יא)

[12]

אֶת-הַדְּבָרִים הָאֵלֶּה דִּבֶּר יְקוָק אֶל-כָּל-קְהַלְכֶם בָּהָר, מִתּוֹךְ הָאֵשׁ הֶעָנָן וְהָעֲרָפֶל–קוֹל גָּדוֹל, וְלֹא יָסָף; וַיִּכְתְּבֵם, עַל-שְׁנֵי לֻחֹת אֲבָנִים, וַיִּתְּנֵם, אֵלָי.

(דברים ה:יט)

ולא יסף – כי זה היה פעם אחת.

(אבן עזרא שם)

ולא יסף – מתרגמינן ולא פסק כי קולו חזק וקיים לעולם.

(רש״י שם)

Purim 5774 – And It Was In the Days of Ahashverosh: On the Timely and Timeless in Megilat Esther

וַיְהִי בִּימֵי אֲחַשְׁוֵרוֹשׁ

The books of Tanakh are meant to be both timeless and timely. The Torah existed for thousands of years before the world was created[1] but was written in the language of man[2]. It is meant to have meaning on multiple levels. This means that while distinguishing the historical context of a biblical event is important, one should not disregard the unique extra-historical significance[3]. However, when a book opens up with a line like, “And it was in the days of..” it is clear that the history is going to be important. With this introductory line, the author of the Scroll of Esther tells the reader that this book is dominated by a timely message, which means that the timely significance will have to be drawn from there[4].

Which Persian king exactly is intended when the Book of Esther says the name “Achashveros” is not a simple question to answer. There are several perfectly good candidates, which is further complicated by  the presence of a second Achashverosh in tanakh[5]. However, sufficient examination of the history of the Persian kings of the era would indicate that the Achashverosh of Megillat Esther is the Persian king known as Xerxes. This in and of itself is not particularly meaningful, but what makes this important is Xerxes’s position shortly after Cyrus the Great, referred to in Tanakh as Coresh. Cyrus the Great is most famous for undoing the work of the Assyrian Empire. When the Babylonians took power from the Assyrians, Cyrus decided that the best policy was not the Assyrian policy of exiling peoples from their native lands, but rather that each nation should be returned to its native land, and be permitted to rebuild its temples in a semblance of independence[6]. The relevance of this to Megillat Esther is deeper than the sea, a fact that midrashei Chazal highlight beautifully.

Of all the various Midrashim on Megillat Esther, perhaps the most famous is that of the “כלים שונים”, the vessels used in the Feast of Achashverosh in the beginning of Megillat Esther. In an attempt to simultaneously answer the questions of why this first chapter is needed in the narrative and, more importantly, what Bnei Yisrael did to merit the decree of destruction[7], the midrash says that ‘א decreed destruction upon the Jews because they participated in the Feast wherein the vessels of the Beit HaMikdash were being used. This midrash is problematic on two fronts. Firstly, why is this a big enough sin to merit destruction. Eating from the vessels of the Mikdash is really more of a misdemeanor. Secondly, this is historically problematic. Achashverosh comes after Coresh, and Coresh was the king who sent the Jews back to Israel to rebuild the Beit HaMikdash, and alongside this he sent the vessels of the Mikdash back to Israel for the rebuilding. Thus when the vessels are being depicted by the Midrash as being in Shushan, they are actually already back in Israel. So what is going on?

In truth, this is not a problem at all, assuming one has a proper understanding of midrashim. Midrashim are not necessarily meant to be understood literally. Rather, what midrashim do is highlight and expand upon latent ideas in the text. Most midrashim are based off of incredibly close readings of the text, and if you can’t figure out what a midrash is based off of, it means you’re not paying enough attention. Thus midrashim, by depicting thematic scenes in the text, also draw your attention to these themes. If you take a midrash literally you miss the whole point, and worse, you obscure the value and and purpose of the text of Tanakh[8]. Thus the midrash of the vessels is not saying that Bnei Yisrael ate from the vessels of the Mikdash but rather exactly the opposite[9]. Instead of being in Israel eating from the vessels, the Jews of Shushan are in the exile eating from the vessels of King Achashverosh. This image becomes a startling theme evident throughout the text of Megillat Esther.

Megillat Esther, on a textual level, bears out the assertion of this Midrash. In all of Tanakh, only Jerusalem, the Beit HaMikdash, and Shushan are called “HaBirah”. Achashverosh’s first feast lasts 180 days, followed by a shorter 7 day feast, corresponding exactly to the amount of time from the command to build the Mishkan and its completion, plus the 7 days of its inauguration. Both King Shlomo and Achashverosh held feasts in the 3rd year of their reign, Achashverosh in order to show off his “Riches and Glories” (אושר וכבוד), Shlomo in context of a prophecy about building the Beit HaMikdash where ‘א promises him “Riches and Glory”. If one imagined a scenario where all the Jews are fasting, including their leader, and said leader has to appropriately enter the throne room of the King at great risk to their well being,that could either refer to the Kohen HaGadol in the Mikdash on Yom Kippur or Esther coming before Achashverosh in the Megillah[10]. When Mordechai is introduced it is specifically noted, as part of his introduction, that he is an exile. All of these verses serve to highlight the contrast between the Jews of the Exile and the theoretical messianic era occurring in parallel to the narrative of the Megillah, a parallel brought to its peak when one considers that the days of Achashverosh would have been shortly after the days of Zecharia.

The prophet Zecharia is one of the major prophets of the Return to Zion and the Second Temple. Thus, when the Jews of the exile had a question two years into the building of the new temple, they sent it to Zecharia. With the building of the Second Temple well under way, the Jews of the Exile needed to know if they should still be observing the fasts that were enacted to remember the destruction of the First Temple. In typical prophetic fashion, Zecharia launches into a tirade about how if they would just take care of the poor and their fellow man all roads would be open to them, how all they really need to do is to create Truth and Peace. These of course parallel the mitzvot of Purim to give gifts to the poor and others in need, and the scene from the last chapter of the Megillah Esther, in which a letter comprised of “words of Truth and Peace” is sent out. Perhaps most accusingly of all, Zechariah (Ch. 7) describes a messianic vision in which the nations of the world all come to Jerusalem (הבירה) in order to ask the איש יהודי for religious advice. In contrast, the only other  איש יהודי in Tanakh is Mordechai the exile, sitting in the gates of Shushan. Everything is turned on its head.

The consistent, timely, theme of Megillat Esther is obvious. The Jews of the days of Achashverosh knew that they were supposed to be in Israel, and yet they weren’t. Megillat Esther was given to them to remind them of their forgotten duty. They ought to have been in Israel helping build the Beit HaMikdash, not languishing in the Exile. This is the timely message, from which the timeless message can be easily recognized.

The Jews of the Exile knew what they ought to have been doing. They had a prophet declaring to them that Coresh was doing ‘א’s work in sending them back to Israel and that they ought to have gone to help build the Second Temple[11]. We don’t have prophecy today to tell us what to do. Instead all we have is ‘א’s word as embodied in the Torah, and generally speaking, we all know what it says. More often than not, we know what we are supposed to be doing. We know what the right choice is. The charge that Megillat Esther leveled at the Jews in the Babylonian Exile is the same charge we ought to be leveling at ourselves every day: you know what you have to do, now go do it.

[1] Talmud Bavli Shabbat 88b, Bereishit Rabbah 8:2.

[2] Sifre Bamidbar 112, Moreh Nevukhim 1:26.

[3] The Bible From Within, Meir Weiss, First Introduction.

[4] This essay draws heavily from R’ Hayyim Angel’s lecture “Megillat Ester: What they didn’t teach us in school” and Rav Menachem Lebitag’s lecture, “Between Ezra and Esther: considering author’s intent in Ketuvim”, both easily available at www.yutorah.org. Another useful resource in this composition were Yonatan Grossman’s essays on Megillat Esther from http://www.vbm-torah.org/ester.html.

[5] For more, see the above mentioned sources from Leibtag and Grossman.

[6]  This can be found at the beginning of Ezra and the end of Divrei HaYamim II, the very last verses of Tanakh.

[7] To highlight how difficult this question is, it is worth noting that not only does the text never mention Bnei Yisrael performing any sin, the only thing Haman really has to accuse them with before the King was that they were keeping to their own laws.

[8] R’ Yoel Bin Nun, http://www.ybn.co.il/mamrim/PDF/Pesach_Lot.pdf

[9] In a similar vein, the midrash says that feast was intended to celebrate the passing of Yirmiyahu’s date for the return to Israel. Achashverosh would have had no reason to celebrate the 70 years coming to an end, but the Jews out to have been celebrating in Israel and weren’t.

[10] This is reminiscent of the midrash stating that anytime “המלך” is used it is actually a reference to ‘א. Achasheverosh has replaced ‘א in the story, and his palace has replaced א’s palace.

[11] See R’ Leibtag’s “One Isaiah or Two?”, also available on www.yutorah.org.