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.

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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.

Parashat Yitro 5774 – What Happened At Sinai

אַתֶּם רְאִיתֶם כִּי מִן הַשָּׁמַיִם דִּבַּרְתִּי עִמָּכֶם

Shemot 19 and 20 frame the picture of the Revelation at Sinai. ‘א descends on the mountain. Moshe goes up. The nation stands and shakes from afar. The scene in set and the air is full of tension. The Ten Commandments form the crescendo to the narrative. The people then express that they would rather have Moshe speak to them than ‘א, at which point ‘א gives Moshe a message for the nation. These chapters are convoluted and confusing in their entirety, causing the commentators to jump through serious hoops to find compelling explanations. The strangest part, however might be the blatant contradiction between ‘א’s actions in chapter 19 and his words in chapter 20. The Torah goes out of its way to describe ‘א descending on the mountain, presumably an important piece of the narrative, and yet in 20:19 He says, “You have seen that I spoke to you from Heaven.” So from where did ‘א speak to them? From the Mountain or from Heaven? This question, and its attending philosophical difficulties, is interesting enough on its own. However, the midrashic explanations of these events, including some very creative attempts to resolve this and other problems of the text, have some very powerful messages to teach us not just about the Revelation at Sinai but about our relationship with ‘א on the whole.

Perhaps the simplest resolution in provided by a midrash in the first few pages of Mesekhet Sukkah (TB Sukkah 5a). Based on the verse, “The Heavens are the Heavens of the LORD; but the Earth hath He given to the children of men” (Tehillim 115:16)[1], the gemara explains that ‘א’s presence never comes all the way down to Earth and Man can never go up to Heaven. Instead, when it says that ‘א descended on the mountain, His presence stopped a short distance above the mountain, close enough to be considered as having “descended on the mountain,” but still far enough away that ‘א could be considered to have spoken to the people “from Heaven.” This, however, stands in direct opposition to a large number of midrashim.

The Mekhilta DeRabbi Yishmael[2] resolves this problem by expanding the idea of ‘א descending on the mountain. Not only does ‘א descend, he brings Heaven with him. Thus ‘א descends on the mountain and is able to speak from Heaven simultaneously. This is very problematic in  regards to the midrash in Mesekhet Sukkah. If Moshe goes up on the mountain, and Heaven comes down to it, then has he gone up to Heaven? Perhaps, but regardless of that, ‘א and Heaven coming down to Earth would certainly clashes with the previous midrash.

This issue is further complicated Shemot 19:3 which reads, “And Moses went up to ‘א.” If Moshe went up to ‘א then presumably he left what is typically thought of as Earth and ascended to the divine realm. This can be explained as Moshe simply going to the location on the mountain from which ‘א had called to him, but many midrashim take it more literally. Not only do they describe Moshe ascending to Heaven, they give detailed accounts of what ensued there. Famously, the gemara depicts Moshe arguing with the Angels over who ought to receive the Torah (Shabbat 88b). Midrashic exegeses of the verses,“Gird thy sword upon thy thigh, O mighty one, thy glory and thy majesty. And in thy majesty prosper, ride on.”(Tehillim 45:4-5)[3] and, “A wise man scaleth the city of the mighty, and bringeth down the stronghold wherein it trusteth.” (Mishlei 21:22)[4] depict Moshe not just as receiving the Torah, but as actively going up into the depths of Heaven and taking it himself.

A subtle prerequisite for the midrashim describing moshe going to heaven and taking the torah is the idea that the torah was already existing in heaven for moshe to go and take. One midrash not only says that the torah existed in heaven for 974 generations before the creation of the world,[5] but also that when moshe broke the Luchot the angels rejoiced, saying that the torah was now returned to them.[6] It’s also the basic assumption of the famous midrash stating that ‘א “looked into the torah and created the world,” much the way an architect has tablets and notebooks.[7] The Sifre says that ‘א agree to the suggestion of the daughters of Zelophechad because that’s how it was written before him in Heaven.[8] A Gaonic responsa uses the idea of ‘א having the torah written before him in heaven to explain why a person should not recite verses from the Torah without the text in front of him.[9]

These midrashim are not simply cute stories attempting to fill in the details of perhaps the most important moment in the history of Bnei Yisrael. These midrashim discuss the very natures of ‘א, Man, and Prophecy, the connection between us. The gemara in Sukkah takes a view that is highly transcendent. Man and ‘א are very separate, and but for the fact that there is revelation one would assume they were totally unconnected in any way. A contrast is found in the doctrine of Heaven’s Descent, wherein ‘א is manifest within this world. The lines are blurred. Similarly blurring is the conception of Moshe’s ascent to Heaven. In  a world where the Finite and Infinite can manifest in each other’s realms, it becomes difficulties to absolutely distinguish between them. This of course, is the upshot of the view of total separation.

Is prophecy something that happens to Man or something that happens to ‘א? Who is the active partner and who is the passive? When Moshe goes to Heaven and takes the Torah, then ‘א is not an active partner. This is mirrored in the later view of the Rambam where Moshe, via perfecting his intellect, unites with ‘א and learns the torah. Moshe is the active one. This is even clearer if the Torah is already a whole item in Heaven, just waiting for Moshe to come take it. The idea of Heaven’s descent makes ‘א the active one. He descends on the mountain to bring the Torah. Moshe need not even ascend, and in fact, may not have been up on the mountain at the time of the revelation. This view doesn’t see revelation as a function of man’s perfection, but rather as a matter of ‘א’s purpose. When ‘א wants revelation to happen then it does not matter whether or not man is worthy.[10]

So which is it? Does ‘א reveal himself or does man discover the divine truth? Is the Torah a document from beyond time, born of Heaven, or is it a crystallization of ‘א’s relationship with His people at the moment[11] of Revelation? The answer, as usual, is more complicated than the either/or. ‘א descends on the mountain, but Moshe also goes up. The people aren’t allowed to touch the mountain, but they do need to spend three days purifying themselves. ‘א and Man are searching for each other. The truth of revelation is that it happens between man and ‘א, sometimes one side is more active, sometimes the other, but the consistent factor is that of the relationship between them. Revelation requires relation. And this is the greatest message of the Revelation at Sinai, the clearest truth from amidst an otherwise obfuscated pericope: that ‘א and His people desire to be involved each with the other.

[1] Biblical translations from http://www.mechon-mamre.org

[2] Bahodesh 4

[3] Midrash on Tehillim, ad loc.

[4] Pesikta Rabbati 20:4. Strikingly, some of these descriptions are actually quite violent.

[5] This is an idea found throughout midrashic literature, based on the idea that the Torah existed for 2000 generations before the Revelation at Sinai. The Revelation at Sinai occurs in the 26th generation recorded in the Torah, which mean the remaining 974 generations have to have been before Creation. Explanations of this idea have ranged from the midrash about ‘א creating and destroying worlds before creating this one (the Arizal) to this universe actually being nearly 15 billion years old (R’ Isaac of Acre and R’ Aryeh Kaplan). It may be more likely that the Revelation at Sinai happens in the 26th generation because that’s the numerical value of YHVH, the Ineffable Name of God, also revealed in the 26th generation.

[6] Midrash on Tehillim 28:6

[7] Bereishit Rabbah 1:4

[8] Sifre Pinhas 134

[9] Teshuvot HaGeonim, Shaarei Teshuva 352

[10] The Kabbalistic idea that Bnei Yisrael didn’t get the whole Torah, rather just what was fitting for them, is an interesting combination of these views, and opens the door to discussion of the fullness of the Torah being revealed at a later date, a titillating and dangerous concept.

[11] This might be rephrased as the question, “is the Torah Timeless or Timely?” and it has serious ramifications for the way we interpret the Torah, including the relevance of using Critical Literary  techniques and parallels to other Ancient Near Eastern texts.

Parashat Beshalah – On Who We Were and Who We Can Be

א’ יִמְלֹךְ לְעֹלָם וָעֶד

Parashat Beshalach is composed of 116 pesukim that split neatly into two groups of 58. In the first, which might be best titled ‘Miracles’, Bnei Yisrael are guided through the desert by miraculous pillars of cloud and fire and are saved from Egypt by ‘א’s miraculous intervention at the dead sea (Shemot 13:17-15:21). The second section, let’s call it ‘Complaints’, consists of Bnei Yisrael complaining to Moshe twice about lack of water and once about lack of food, their failure to uphold any of the requirements of the manna, and the battle with Amalek (15:22-17:17).

Miracles establishes the new status quo in the desert, wherein all of the people’s needs are cared for in a miraculous fashion. They are guided not by a human leader, but by pillars of cloud or fire that moved on their own. Despite this, the people still feared Paroah (14:10) and could not fight back when they were attacked at the Sea of Reeds, and so ‘א  fought for them, destroying the Egyptian army, and leading to the people fearing ‘א instead, and this is capped by the singular use in Tanakh of the root “have faith in” by a nation, “the people feared the Lord; they had faith in the Lord and His servant Moses.”[1] (14:31). This would seem to represent a great changeover in the mindset of the people after they leave Egypt. Unfortunately, things are not so simple.

In direct contradiction to the trust of 14:31, Complaints depicts a situation of complaining and doubting. The complaints betray not only a strange desire to return to Egypt, but also a complete lack of trust in ‘א and in Moshe His servant. What explains this strange contradiction? The answer lies in the unifying factor between the complaints of Bnei Yisrael after the splitting of the Sea of Reeds and their singular complaint prior to it.

The main thrust of their complaint before the Splitting of the Sea of Reeds is that they would rather have been slaves in Egypt. This formulation, and others like it, characterize all of the complains found in parashat Beshalach, but this one is particularly poignant because of one fact: Bnei Yisrael could have fought back. The torah specifically states that they left Egypt armed, and yet they don’t even try fight back. Not only do they not attempt to fight back, they don’t even ask ‘א to fight for them. The Ibn Ezra explains this problem with a deep psychological insight. He says that Bnei Yisrael were still stuck in their mindset as slaves to Egypt, and as slaves they could not possibly imagine the possibility of successfully fighting their masters. Slaves rarely succeed in armed rebellion. This “slave mindset” is the reason that they did not fight back[2], but it in itself is just one manifestation of a more basic issue: Bnei Yisrael are still thinking like they’re in Egypt.

This “Egypt-mindset” becomes obvious from a close reading of the text. The desire to be back in Egypt is an obvious example. More interesting is the parallel between “the people feared the Lord”(14:31) and “the people feared Paroah”(14:10). 14:31 is seem on the surface like a statement of praise for Bnei Yisrael, that they have achieved this new level of trust in ‘א. But this parallel highlight a subtly devastating problem in their relationship with ‘א. They’re relating to Him in the same manner they related to Paroah.  That’s why Bnei Yisrael emphasize all the things they had in Egypt and why the lack of those things cause them to question the presence and attentiveness of their new master. They don’t get that leaving Egypt didn’t mean trading one master for another. Leaving Egypt was meant to be a paradigm shift, and Bnei Yisrael didn’t get the message.

Several powerful midrashim highlight this idea.[3] The Mekhilta explains “And Moses led Israel onward from the Red Sea” (15:22) to mean that Moshe had to force Bnei Yisrael to move on from the sea, that Bnei Yisrael just wanted to go back to Egypt. The Midrash says that when Bnei Yisrael saw the Egyptian army wiped out in the Sea they took it to mean that they could return to Egypt without fearing for their freedom and worship idols there, which was why Moshe had to make them move on. Perhaps most strikingly, the Midrash Rabbah says that despite all of the miracles that had been, and would yet be, done for Bnei Yisrael, they brought the “idol of Michah” with them as they crossed the bottom of the sea. This is a reference to Shoftim 17-18 which depicts the creating and worshiping of this idol. As it had not been created at the time of the Splitting of the Sea, the midrash obviously intends not the idol itself but rather the idea it represents, that of Bnei Yisrael making a fundamental mistake in how they conceive of their relationship[4] with ‘א. Bnei Yisrael are may have physically left Egypt, but they brought their misconceptions with them.

The strongest indicator of this misconception is found in a seemingly innocuous line in the Song at the Sea. Shemot 16:18, “The Lord shall reign for ever and ever.” This phrase has since been reproduced all over the Jewish liturgy. However, much of its meaning is lost in the subtlety of Ancient Hebrew grammar. This phrase is technically in Future-tense, and so would literally mean not that ‘א reigns “now-and-forever” but rather that ‘א will in the future reign forever and ever. This is of course theologically untenable, but the vagaries of Ancient Hebrew grammar enabled commentators to explain it as “now-and-forever.”[5] The Mekhilta, however, understands this line literally, and sees there the ultimate corruption of Yetziat Mitsraim.[6] Essentially, this line places redemption now in the present, but in the future. Could there be any more powerful statement about the mindset of Bnei Yisrael?

This Galut Mindset has many ramifications. Most obvious but perhaps least significant, is just a matter of wanting to be in Galut. Being in Galut make one want to be in Galut, something that makes it very hard to leave. Rashi (Bereishit 47:28) actually puts the start of Galut Mitzrayim at Beraishit 47:27-28, the end of Parashat Vayigash and the beginning of Parashat Vayehi. The lack of a separation between the two Parshiyot is unique in the Torah, and cause the redundancy of the phrases “And Israel dwelt in the land of Egypt”(27) and “And Jacob lived in the land of Egypt”(28) to be quite obvious. Galut only starts when they going from “dwelling” in Egypt to “living” there. In that sense, your mindset is at least as important as your location, which is why leaving Egypt doesn’t stop Bnei Yisrael from wanting to be there. The first step to leaving Galut is wanting to.

The second ramification of this idea is a function of how we live our lives on a daily basis. Is Redemption happening now, or are we still waiting for it? This issue is far from theoretical. Redemption makes certain demands of us, not just in terms of where we choose to live but also in terms of how we choose to live. Galut is a consequence of incorrect behavior, and Geulah means that we need to make sure we don’t bring Galut upon ourselves yet again. Our actions ought to reflect Redemption, regardless of where we live.

Lastly, a matter of vision and purpose. How we think of ourselves and our past dictates how we think of others and our future, and thinking about the future in terms of the past is both harmfully and unnecessarily limiting[7]. In Galut we have come to think of ourselves as “Hated Amongst the Nations,” something that was certainly true once, but is not necessarily so any longer[8]. The sense of persecution and isolation we have acquired in Galut colors how we see everything. Halakha in the Galut has been very defensive and isolationist, separating us more and more from the rest of ‘א’s children[9]. This need not be so. There have been enough more open and accepting Halakhic-decisors throughout Jewish history, the Meiri being a prime example, for Bnei Yisrael today to be able to interact with the Nations of the World in an open and Halakhic manner[10]. Beyond Halakha, the Redemption is a matter of eschatology[11]. Throughout the prophetic literature we find many different possibilities in terms of what the future redemption will look like. Many books discuss a war with the nations, either with them attacking Bnei Yisrael, with ‘א exacting vengeance on them for their crimes, or something in between. But there are also prophets for whom no such war will occur, where the End of History is depicted not as a age of Dominance but as an era of Harmony, where Bnei Yisrael enable the nations to live in the presence of ‘א. These are all potential eschatological visions. All are embraced by the last pair of Maimonides Principles of Faith. So which do we believe in? What future are we hoping for? Feeling like we are hated has many Jews hoping for the destruction of the nations. But ultimately this is an obscuration of Bnei Yisrael’s goal as a Light unto the Nations. We cannot be a Kingdom of Priests if there are none to aid in the service of ‘א. We cannot experience Redemption if our idea of Redemption is actually more reflective of Galut.

 

[1] Translations from http://www.mechon-mamre.org

[2] Rav Yehuda Amital, Z”TL, used this mindset as an explanation for ‘א taking the jewish people on a different path than the Road of the Land of the Philistines.

[3] All the midrashim in this paragraph are brought from their quotation in “Seven Years of Lectures on the Weekly torah Portion,” Yeshayahu Lebovich, Parashat Beshalah (Hebrew)

[4] “Seven Years of Lectures on the Weekly torah Portion,” Yeshayahu Lebovich, Parashat Beshalach (Hebrew)

[5] See Onkelos, Ramban, and Rabbeinu Bechaye Ad loc.

[6] Quoted in “Seven Years of Lectures on the Weekly torah Portion,” Yeshayahu Lebovich, Parashat Beshalach (Hebrew)

[7] For an examples of this one need look no further than the paintings we make depicting the future. The Old City of Jerusalem is full to the brim with paintings depicting the Temple Mount with neither the Dome of the Rock nor the Al-Akhsa mosque atop it, clearly an eschatological depiction, and yet there is no Beit HaMikdash; Bnei Yisrael gather at the Western Wall, Or worse yet, sometimes the pictures do depict the Bet HaMikdash atop the Temple Mount, but Bnei Yisrael still gather at the Wall! Paintings like these are something only a Galut-mindset could create.

[8] Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks’ book, “Future Tense,” discusses this issue at length.

[9] Prof. Eliezer Berkovits, The Halakha: Its Power and Its Purpose (Hebrew)

[10] For those concerned that the Meiri is a minority opinion, I refer you to Mishna Eduyot 1:4, “Why do we mention the words of the individual alongside the words of the majority even though the law follows the majority? In case Beit Din should choose to rely on his words.”

[11] A fancy word meaning “religious thought about the end-times”.

Derashah L’Shabbat Chatan – Marriage and the State of Creation

I prepared a derashah in case I was asked to speak at my shabbat chatan. In the end I did not give it, but I wrote it up and present it here for public consumption and critique.

 

Derashah L’Shabbat Chatan

The relationship between Man and Woman first arises in the second chapter of Sefer Bereishit (2:20-24). In order to rectify the first man’s state of being alone and without a partner, the man is put to sleep and a woman is formed using one of his ribs. The man then declares, “This one at last is bone of my bones, flesh of my flesh. This one shall be called Woman, for from Man she was taken,” (2:23). Man and woman have now been created as distinct entities, but due to their inherent sameness, they can, and must, join together to create new lives, both for themselves together and for their children. While the beauty and power of these statements cannot be overstated, they beg the question of why Man and woman were not simply initially created together from the same source material. It seems an oddity that suddenly in the middle of the rest of the process of Creation ‘א essentially had to go back and change his previous design. However, as we shall see, Rabbinic thought did not see this as an oddity, but rather as a paradigm for much of creation, and a brief look at several midrashim will demonstrate that this paradigm, rather than just being a particular way to read the Torah, is actually an approach of great depth regarding the nature of existence.

The first time the midrashim note that maybe creation did not go quite according to ‘א’s original plan is what might be called “The Sin of the Earth.” In Bereishit 1:11, on the Third day of Creation, ‘א commanded that the earth should bring forth “fruit-bearing trees of fruit.” However, in the actual creation moment in verse 11, the earth simply brings forth “fruit-bearing trees.” The midrash[1] leaps upon this deviation and declares that, originally, the tree would have been just as edible as its fruit but the earth failed to produce such trees. Rashi, ad loc., goes so far as to describe this as the earth “sinning,” and says that this is why the ground is punished in the sin of Adam and Chava in Bereishit chapter 3.

A similar and perhaps even more extreme deviation is found in the midrashic understanding of the Fourth day of Creation. Bereishit 1:16 says, “א made the two great lights, the Greater Light to rule the day, and the Lesser Light to rule the night and the stars.” In the first half of the verse, the two lights are described as equally great, whereas in the latter half the Sun and the Moon are differentiated as “greater” and “lesser” respectively. Noting this distinction, the Gemara[2] says that originally the Sun and the Moon were equal in size and brightness. The gemara describes the Moon speaking before the Creator of the Universe, and asking, “Can two kings wear one crown?” essentially questioning the status quo wherein it and the Sun were equal. To this, the Master of the Universe replies, “Go and Diminish yourself.” The Moon, noting that ‘א did not actually deny the validity of its question, responds, “I spoke correctly, and now I must diminish myself?” to which ‘א responds, “Go and rule the night.” Essentially, this midrash states that any and all differentiation between the Sun and the Moon is purely a function of the temerity of the Moon in questioning ‘א’s plan. Originally there would simply have been two equal lights at all times.

While the query of the moon that leads to the lessening of its stature is not explicitly called a “sin”, one might be tempted to think of it as such. However, the approach of the Gemara[3] diverges radically from such an idea. Instead of blaming the Moon, the midrash puts the blame on ‘א. “Bring atonement upon me, for I diminished the Moon!” cries ‘א in the midrash. The Chatat offering brought on Rosh Chodesh is described in Bamidbar 28:15: “And these shall be one goat as a sin offering to ‘א, , to be offered in addition to the regular Olah offering and its pouring.” This Chatat is unique in being referred to as “to ‘א” and Resh Lakish, based on the ambiguity of the Hebrew prefix “ל-” that could mean “to” or “for”, understands this as being a sin-offering brought to atone for ‘א’s sin in diminishing the Moon. Thus, this departure from the original plan is great in that it cannot simply be punished, as with the Sin of the Earth, but must be actively atoned for.

Returning to Creation of Man, the midrash in Bereishit Rabbah sees this very paradigm in the tension between the first two chapters of Bereishit, expanding on and emphasizing the ideas inherent in the text. Whereas Bereishit 2 describes the creation of Man and Woman as two chronologically separate acts, Bereishit 1 describes them as happening at the same time. “And ‘א created Man in His image, in the Image of ‘א He created him; Male and Female He created them.” (1:27). This would seem to contradict the chronological process described in Bereishit 2, but instead, the midrash[4] sees the two depictions as two parts of a larger chronological process. “R’ Shmuel Bar Nahman says, ‘When ‘א created Man He created him with two faces.” According to R’ Shmuel Bar Nahman, Man and Woman were originally created as one entity, composed of the two of them fused back to back. Then, when it says in Bereishit 2 that ‘א took the man’s rib and made the woman from it, it really means that He removed her from man’s side and fashioned her as a distinct entity. In this conception, Bereishit 2:24, “Therefore man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh,” is not simply enabled by man and woman’s inherent sameness, but is in fact a return to their original state of existence. As opposed to the Sin of the Earth, which was punished, and the Sin of the Diminishing of the Moon, for which an atonement is made by man, the splitting of Man and Woman can actually be rectified. When man and woman take their places side by side and build a life together, they restore the original plan of creation.

This paradigm of breaking and repairing creation is what is known in Kabbalistic literature as the process of Shevirah and Tikkun, wherein the original creation is broken, and then the creation repairs itself. The creation must re-create itself, and in doing so, not only does the Creation become Creator[5], it also gains the ability to build and develop on its original structure[6]. The joining of a husband and wife in marriage is part of this process. In the midrashic depiction of Day Six, Man and Woman are one fused entity. After they are split in Bereishit 2:21-22, they are two distinct entities, and, though they “cling to each other,” they remain separate entities. As such, they exist in a relationship, and have the ability to work together and improve each other. Marriage is not simply a new stage in the lives of the newlywed husband and wife; marriage is a part of the process of building and rebuilding Creation.

 

[1] בראשית רבה (וילנא) פרשת בראשית פרשה ה סימן ט

[2] תלמוד בבלי מסכת חולין דף ס עמוד ב

[3] Ibid.

[4] בראשית רבה ח:א

[5] ראי״ה קוק, אורות הקודש ב׳ עמ׳ תקכז

[6] רב שג״ר, כלים שבורים, ״ערכים ואמונה בעידן בפוסט-מודרני״