Category Archives: Bible

Moses Goes to Law School

This week, Moses goes to law school. Contending with Pharaoh had been easy – it came with a magic staff and miracles. Even last week’s Ten Commandments were child’s play, compared to this week’s  crash course on bailment, theft, kidnapping, labor law, the indigent, mayhem and murder.

And this was just the first lecture. “This is what God calls freedom?” Moses must have wondered. Lawyers reading this will probably sympathize.

By the reading’s end, God sympathizes also. Moses is invited for a personal tutorial in God’s office on Mt. Sinai. God will personally dictate a set of course notes – to be called “the Torah.”  It will take some 40 days and nights.

But why so long? asks Abravanel. “How long does it take for God to write the Torah? Creating the entire world took only a week!”

Ah, says Sforno. This 40-day stretch was for Moses’s sake, not God’s. New-born babies, he reminds us, are not considered fully alive until they make it through the first 40 days. Faced with this wholly new challenge of mastering Torah, Moses was like a new-born.

So God gave him 40 days to adjust. “Come join me on the mountain,” God said. “I can dictate the details to you in an instant, but you’ll need more time than that — someday, people will call it a ‘time-out.’ Forty days in the rarified air of the mountain will provide a bird’s eye view of it all, the big-picture reason for being, and the confidence to start again.”

I love that idea: Time-out in life for us as well – like in major-league football, where play stops on occasion for teams to catch their breath, restrategize, and reenter the game refreshed and renewed. When living wears us down, we too should get to signal to whoever is running us around at the time, and retire for a while without penalty. As in football, life would stop temporarily, maybe with a commercial in some unknown planet where extraterrestrial beings are watching. Who knows?

When the time-out ends, we would bound back into our work and families, new strategies in place, as if reborn and newly ready to face whatever challenges life throws our way.

As it happens, tradition credits Moses with climbing the mountain not just once, but three times – for the first tablets, then the second ones, and, also, in-between, to plead for Israel after the Golden Calf. Three times, Moses huddles alone with God, to rethink, re-strategize, and (like the new-born baby) reemerge reborn. That’s my plan for us as well. We too should schedule a time-out three times in the course of a normal lifetime: as young adults about launch our independence in the world; in our middle years, our “mid-life crisis,” when what we have been doing may not sustain us through the years ahead; and when we grow old, when a lot of life may still be left and we need “time out” to consider what to do with it.

We may need others as well. I won’t limit it to three, because life regularly throws us curves, erects new challenges, and wears us down. At some point it dawns on us that life’s complexities cannot always be mastered just by trying harder and doing better. The solution, then, must lie in stepping back and looking for some hidden reserve deep down within ourselves — the kind of wisdom that comes only from taking time out to reflect on where we’ve been, and to recalibrate where we still most want to go. We call that “revelation.”

Revelation was not just for Moses atop Mt. Sinai; it is available to us all, atop whatever counts as our own personal mountain. Whenever we feel overwhelmed, we need time out to rediscover the still small voice of God within, the renewed discovery of our own self-worth, and the confidence required to reaffirm our purpose and know again how precious life can be.

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The Plague Zone

“A season of Darkness”: that’s how Charles Dickens describes the reign of terror that gripped revolutionary France under the spell of the guillotine. He might equally have had in mind the plagues that seized Egypt, one after the other. Plagues are nothing, if not death-like in their darkness.

And not just metaphoric darkness either. Abravanel notes that all three plagues in this week’s reading — the last and the worst, compared to which the first seven plagues were child’s play — have darkness in common. The locusts arrived in droves so thick that “the land was in darkness” (10:14). Locusts come and locusts go, however – Egypt had experienced them before. So the next plague upped the ante: just deep darkness; lasting and inexplicable; “thick darkness that can be touched, for three whole days” (10:21-22). Still, no one died from it; people huddled together, holding hands, perhaps, until it was over. The final plague, therefore, added death to darkness: every first-born killed, precisely at midnight.

No one willingly enters a plague zone. Even if you think you are personally exempt from danger, the horror of being there is just too much to bear. That is why, with the locusts about to arrive, Moses had to be “brought,” to Pharaoh (10:8) – he would not come willingly. Blood, frogs, boils and the rest – those he could handle. But not pure darkness, the sun and all the stars in total eclipse. Not that! “Let someone else tell Pharaoh that three stages of increasing darkness are on their way,” Moses must have hoped.

He should have paid closer attention to God’s command: “Come,” not “Go,” to Pharaoh. “We can never distance ourselves from God,” says Menachem Mendel of Kotsk, “When God said ‘Come,’ God meant, ‘Come with Me. I, God, will accompany you.”  God would not send even Moses all alone to announce the plagues of escalating darkness.

I think of this when I visit a dying patient. We picture plagues as mass diseases, spreading person to person, home to home. But terminal illness is equally a plague for the person suffering it. It too spreads, limb by limb, organ by organ. It may start with the metastatic proliferation of murderous cells that consume the body like locusts devouring a landscape. Then comes darkness of despair so thick it can be touched; and, finally, death at what may as well be midnight.

It is a terrible thing to watch someone die. “The mind withdraws,” says Louise Harmon, in her Fragments on the Death Watch. “There is a turning in toward the self, a curvature of the spine that directs the remaining life force toward the center. The knees are tucked up under the body. The arms are folded like a praying mantis, a caricature of moot supplication, and the petition is for safety.”

As I say, no one willingly enters a plague zone – because no sane person wants to watch this happen. So when disease approaches hopelessness, and the hospital room becomes a virtual plague zone, people invent reasons not to visit. As the plague advances, loneliness sets in: no one to talk to, even as we lose the light to see them by.

But precisely when final darkness looms, the dying need our visits most, and not just to talk banalities. We come at such a time to share the darkness, not turn on lights. It can be a horrible ordeal to sit, and wait, and do nothing more than lend a loving presence through the moments leading up to midnight. But it can be strangely satisfying too, if we remember that the commandment is “Come,” not “Go.”  “Come with Me,” says God, “I will sit there with you.”

The Talmud locates God’s comforting presence alongside the patient’s head. Visitors too report sensing that presence at times, especially when death finally arrives. And why not? God never dispatches us all alone to endure the darkness.

The Family Business

“So what do you do?” That’s the question we most frequently ask upon meeting someone new.

A version projected onto medieval times has a builder reply, “See that cathedral? I build the story 60 feet up; my father built the one below it, and his father built the one below that. My son will build it higher still, as will his son after him.”

Talk about going into the family business!

We Jews, however, build no such multi-generational cathedrals; our equivalent is a generational chain of blessing, an idea with which the Book of Genesis ends.

The scene is Jacob on his death bed, blessing his children. “This,” says the Torah, “is what their father said.” But why call Jacob “their father” rather than “Jacob,” his name? Because, says Genesis Rabbah (100:12), these future progenitors of Israel will receive blessing from many generations of parents, not just from Jacob. “Where one generation ends, the next one begins.”

Blessing began with Abraham and Sarah, then continued with Isaac and Rebekah, and kept going all the way to Moses. The Haftarah extends the chain still further, by picturing King David dying and adjuring Solomon to “keep God’s charge” just as he, David, had done.

Generational continuity is a way to solve a perennially difficult passage in the history of biblical interpretation: Ramban’s insistence that beyond being the story of what has already happened, Genesis is a prophetic premonition of what was yet to be. The plain sense of Ramban’s claim has prompted endless futile efforts to find a code by which chance combinations of biblical letters might somehow reveal the future.

As a confirmed medieval mystic, Ramban may indeed have believed that, but equally, he may have meant something more intellectually acceptable. Genesis is not just stories about particular individuals, he realized; it provides patterns that recur through time: sibling rivalry, for example; and (our case here) the parental insistence on blessing. Every parental generation is heir to the cumulative blessing of its past; and then passes that on enhanced by its own contribution to posterity. Each successive generation thus inherits a compound set of blessings: what its immediate parents were able to fashion, and what parental generations over the centuries managed to pass along earlier.

We have here an early Jewish affirmation of a doctrine that captured western thought only with the Enlightenment: the idea of progress. Most ancient peoples saw history as an endless and repetitive cycle. Not so Israel, said Mircea Eliade, the professor who founded History of Religion as a discipline. Israel adopted a linear view of history, a developmental line by which every generation can build on the accomplishment of those who came before. We are not just doomed to repeat what others have done. We can all accomplish together what no single generation can bring about alone.

To be sure, some parental generations bequeath the opposite: not blessings but curses. Hence our prayer on holidays, livrachah v’lo liklalah: “May we know blessing, not curse.” Every generation must struggle with the legacy it leaves behind. Are we adding to the blessing or detracting from it? Yet Jews insist that over time, blessing will prove victorious. History is cumulative and the good will win the day. “On that day, God shall be One and God’s name shall be One” (Zechariah 14:9 and the end of Alenu).

Our insistence on progress derives from our reading of Genesis. Each generation inherits the legacy of blessings left by those who came before, and then strives to add its own set of blessings onto that.  Not for nothing did we choose Hatikvah(“The Hope”) as Israel’s national anthem. We are a people of hope and of promise.

“So what do you do?”

The next time people ask you that, tell them, “See this thing called history? I inherit the blessings of my predecessors and I add my blessings to theirs; my children and my children’s children will do likewise. I am a Jew. I believe in progress.

The Secret Well Greeted By Silence

Hidden away in this week’s reading is a single tiny verse with implications that should take our breath away. During Abraham’s day, we are told, “the Canaanites were thenin the land” (Genesis 12:6). But the Torah is said to have been composed by Moses, and when Moses died, they were still in the land. The verse must, therefore, have been composed by an author living after Moses died.

Abraham Ibn Ezra (1091/2-1167), who gives us this insight, calls it a sod, a “secret” and cautions, “The wise will keep silent.”

Ibn Ezra’s caution is usually explained by assuming he was wary of openly questioning Moses’s authorship of Torah. But Ibn Ezra doesn’t sound afraid. He repeats his discovery regarding several other verses, including Deuteronomy 34:1, where he identifies the other author as Joshua, an opinion he got from the Talmud itself (Menachot 30a). To be sure, questioning the Genesis verse went one step farther, but why assume, gratuitously, that Ibn Ezra was afraid to go there? Maybe he was not just playing it safe when he said the wise would greet his sod with “silence.”

In the context of Torah,sodis no ordinary “secret.” It is an advanced, even esoteric, interpretation of the text. In time, it came to denote meanings that are specifically “mystical,” but in the 12thcentury, it more likely meant “profound” – the description of an insight so penetrating, that it takes the breath away. Fools who rush to judgement might indeed charge Ibn Ezra with heresy, but as to the wise, his bold interpretation would simply stop them in their tracks, inducing “silence” (as he says) to allow its full significance to sink in.

Ibn Ezra’s breakthrough would someday change the very way we think about God, revelation, and religious truth itself, because in retrospect, we can see that it anticipated the scientific study of the Bible: a method that revealed even Torah as a composite document repeatedly edited over the course of centuries. Its authors are legion.

Some people still worry that if the Torah was written by human beings over time, it cannot be sacred. But the exact opposite is the case. The miracle of Torah is not dependent on God’s speaking it into being once and for all time at Sinai. It is that the Jewish People, in covenant with God, has consistently been discerning divine purpose, generation after generation; that generations of such discernment were somehow edited into what we call “The Torah”; and that generations thereafter have been reading and interpreting that very same Torah ever since.

Rather than destroy religious sensibility, Ibn Ezra’s modest beginning only enhances it. God did not just speak at Sinai. God, we say, is melekh ha’olam, and olam means not just “universe” but “infinity,” making God not just “ruler of the universe” (our usual translation) but “ruler of time and space”!  God addresses us always and everywhere.

The very essence of rabbinic Judaism is the conviction that through Torah, God speaks to every generation anew. That is why we have columns such as this, why rabbis sermonize, why we study sacred texts not just for what the original author intended, but for what the Talmud later thought, what centuries of commentators intuited even after that, and what our own sages discover today.

The Rabbis also insisted that God is revealed in day-to-day encounters that set us wondering why we are here and what counts as a life well led. We find God similarly in mathematics and science, the ways through which the world works. Judaism provides blessings to greet the intricacies of nature, no less than for religious commandments.

Ibn Ezra was discussing more than a single verse here and there. He was unveiling the reality of a divine mind that cannot be limited to a one-off revelation at Sinai. To be fully human is to uncover one divine secret after another, and to have our breath taken away by the incredible mystery of it all.

“Loving God”:The Meaning of the Sh’ma

What Jew doesn’t know the Sh’ma with its following V’ahavta, the command to love God with all our heart, soul, and might. We learn it as children and die with it on our lips. But do we all believe it?

What makes people believe in God to the point of offering God love?

Some people reason their way to God – like Maimonides (1138-1204). Seeing how everything in the universe is dependent on something else, he concluded that there had to be something ultimate and unchanging to support it all. By definition, that was God. Loving God, he thought, followed naturally from observing “the magnificence of all that is,” and “the incomparable and infinite wisdom” of the One who made it.

But reason can also lead away from God, so most God-believers depend on intuition; or, frequently, a “Eureka moment” when God’s reality just, somehow, becomes clear. After the fact, they may argue their case, but belief comes first; reason only justifies it.

Think of the Bible as the record of our ancestors’ Eureka moments. Jacob’s dream of a heavenly ladder convinces him that “God is in this place and I did not know it.” Moses encounters God personally and descends Mt. Sinai to tell his people what he now cannot doubt: Sh’ma yisra’el Adonai eloheinu Adonai echad, “Listen up, Israel: Adonai is our God; Adonai alone; v’ahavta…  “Love God with all your heart, soul and might.”

The Israelites take his word for it, as do we. But their faith lapses on occasion, as does ours. With no Eureka moment of our own, it can be hard to believe with certainty in a personal God.

Philosophers after Maimonides also apply reason – that’s what philosophers do – but they had prior Eureka moments, or at least, intuition. Take Chasdai Crescas (1340-1410), who, even in Spain, encountered Italian humanism and its reassertion of the emotions. The way to God, it followed, was not by Maimonidean logical detachment, but by love. For Maimonides, the command to love God was secondary to the argument for God’s singularity. Crescas reversed the order. Open yourself to God’s love by offering love back, and the Eureka-like certainty of God’s reality will hit home.

Franz Rosenzweig (1886-1929) too believed, “We know love only when we love and are loved.” He simply “knew” God’s love and could not help but return it.

All three thinkers began with something they experienced as indubitably real: reason (Maimonides) or love (Crescas and Rosenzweig).

We too value reason and love. But we have issues of our own: and with them, an opportunity to think anew about “loving God.”

We are the wealthiest, most accepted, most educated, and most powerful diasporan community in Jewish history. Yet contentment eludes us. We are successful, but is that all there is? We live longer, only to watch family and friends die off, and to know that we too are here today and gone tomorrow. Good health fails; relationships sour; families turn out differently than we imagined; life itself is tenuous. To love any of these above all else is to court eventual disaster. The Sh’ma insists on something beyond it all.

Our era is awash with people looking for that something — in eastern philosophies, Buddhist meditation, deeper yoga. Yet, Judaism already has it, if we take the Sh’ma seriously.

Jewish thought offers many ways to picture the God of the Sh’ma:  a person; a friendly presence; a force for good; and more. But these cannot do God justice, says Maimonides, because God is beyond our imaginative capacity.

The Sh’ma, therefore, refers to none of these pictures in particular. It insists only on something beyond the phenomena that fail: something that is eternal, trustworthy, and good: it names that “God.”

Loving God is a state of mind, a spiritual perspective, whereby we anchor ourselves in “the eternal, trustworthy, and good,” so that when all else fails (as eventually it will), we are not left empty and bereft.

Government of Checks and Balances: But With an Interesting Twist!

Americans are not the first to devise a constitution calling for the separation of powers. The Torah too legislated institutionalized checks and balances – but with an “interesting twist.”

In keeping with antiquity, the executive branch was a monarchy, but in Israel’s case, a limited monarchy, a king who was subject to the rule of law, and chosen from among the people (Deut. 17:15)  — lest he rule with no empathy for the ruled. Also, he could not use his position to amass excessive wealth, especially horses – what we would call his own private militia, a natural proclivity of kings, says Ramban. Kings had to maintain their own written reminder of these limitations (17:18-19), which, says the Talmud (San. 21a), they were to carry with them wherever they went.

Ancient Israel had yet to envision a democratically elected legislature, but its priestly class was a legislature of sorts; it could not actually vote in new laws (as we do) because the Torah was assumed to have all the laws the people needed. But priests could “interpret” old laws to get new ones, a practice the Rabbis extended, with their doctrine of an “oral Torah” that supplemented the written one.  Like the king, priests too were hemmed in by limitations: having no landed patrimony of their own, they were supported by, and dependent on, the Temple offerings brought by the people (18:1).

The Torah also demands an independent judiciary with the necessary complement of law-enforcing officials, including police with punitive authority to enforce the law (Rashi, 16:18). Hence this portion’s name (16:18), Shoftim (“Judges”) but, more properly, Shoftim v’shotrim, “Judges and Officials” — what the celebrated TV series called “law and order.”

In matters of punishment, however, the people are to appeal to the “judge,” not the “police” (17:9). The judge decides what the police can do – a principle important enough for the Torah to demand it explicitly in every generation (17:9). Worrying about romantics who might bypass the judiciary of their time as being inferior to the judges of “the good old days,” the Torah expressly empowers judges of every era. “They are all we have,” says Rashi; “We must obey them.”

So there you have it, all in this week’s portion: an executive (a king, but chosen from the people, for the people); a legislature (a priesthood, dependent on support from the people they serve); and a judiciary (with attendant police power, but no independent police force that might abuse its power).

Still, even a good system of checks and balances can break down, so we get this “interesting twist”: a fourth element called “prophets.” All ancient people had prophets, but not like Israel’s, individuals who operated outside the system to bring conscience to bear on everyone else. Institutionalized power abhors conscience, however; it prefers the predictability of routinized bureaucracy. So in time, prophecy came to an end: in the commonwealth established after the return from Babylonian exile, the priests and monarch simply declared prophecy over and done with.

The Rabbis too distrusted individuals claiming direct revelation from God.  But anticipating history’s need for independent conscience, the Rabbis gave us an alternative to prophets: every single citizen, you and me. They then demanded that the citizenry be informed: hence the centrality of study in Jewish culture.

And finally, the Rabbis demanded responsible exercise of that informed conscience by every single person. When the Torah says, “Establish law and order,” it adds “at your gates” and “for yourself  [singular]” (16:18) – leading Sefer Yetsirah to identify “the gates” as the gateways to every person’s senses, our eyes, ears, nose and mouth. The ultimate gatekeepers of justice are informed citizens, who monitor what is said, heard, seen, and even smelled.

The biblical prophets are gone, leaving every single one of us to take their place. Even the best of governments fail if we do not attune our senses to catch the telltale signs of moral rot right in our own back yard.

 

Parashat Sh’mini: The Holy Power of Hands

I have two tales about hands.

The first concerns the hands of my college president. When we ordain our rabbis and cantors at the Hebrew Union College — an annual event, scheduled this year in just a few weeks’ time — our president lays his hands on each candidate’s head or shoulders.

In theory, the idea goes back to Deuteronomy 34:9, where we hear of Moses laying hands on Joshua, Moses’s successor. In actuality, rabbinic ordination with the laying on of hands is altogether a modern innovation. But never mind. That’s what we do. The idea is sound, the practice unforgettable.

We call it s’michah, a word also used for sacrifices. The priests of old practiced s’michah — laying hands on the sacrifices before offering them to God. Moses tells Aaron, “This is the thing that God commanded you to do, that God’s presence may appear” (Lev.9:6). But the Torah does not say what “thing” Moses has in mind, so Italian commentator Obadiah Sforno (1475-1550) explains, “It is the laying on of hands.” Hand-laying is as central to Temple sacrifice of old as it is to my college’s ordination today: and for the same reason — not that rabbis and cantors are “sacrifices,” God forbid, but because the touch of human hands is how “God’s presence may appear.”

The second tale of hands comes from a sign I saw the other day: “Need a Handyman? Call me!” As someone who fixes nothing without making it worse, I always need people who are “handy.” Yes, “handy”! They too lay hands on things — hands, however, that mysteriously comprehend the inner life of gaskets, cams, cogs, and cranks. They unmake and remake complex machinery — make the old look like new.

By contrast, my college president’s hands — like the hands of the Temple priest — do absolutely nothing. They just sit there, utterly inert, untrained and unmoving. They are mere vessels for the work that God does through them.

Our Yom Kippur liturgy is insistent on that point: “God reaches out a hand” it says. But God has no actual hands, for God has no body at all. When priests or seminary presidents lay on hands, they do so on behalf of God, that God may reach out through them.

So too, Aaron’s descendants, the kohanim of today, reach out hands to offer the priestly benediction. Many people bless their children that way, too — or, nowadays, increasingly, even one another. In all these cases, the “hands” are not what we call “handy.” They are untrained. They accomplish nothing on their own. The people being blessed do not get put together differently; they are exactly the same as they were before. But there is this difference (a big one): they may sense they have been visited, through those outstretched hands, by the hand of God.

God visits the earth through the magic of human touch, as sacred a thing as there is. Like all things holy, it too is open to misuse — as when we warn, “Hands off,” or feel violated when someone touches us against our will. But also like all things holy, nothing bestows the certainty of hope and comfort better than the human touch, properly applied, by those we love: a friend at our bedside, their hand on our own; a soft embrace when words cannot assuage our pain.

On the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo captured the magic of creation by the hint of two hands touching: the hand of God from whom life flows, and the hand of Adam, the first human being to receive God’s life-giving force. We humans, ever after, can do “what God commanded… so that God’s presence may appear.” We too can lay on hands for blessing.

When explanations only make things worse, when words ring hollow, when we have nothing to say, we can reach out, God-like, feeling hope’s promise flow to those in need. God shows up best in the warming touch where two hands meet.