Category Archives: torah interpretation

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.

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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.

“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.

Our Love Affair With Doctors

The age-old Jewish love affair with medicine began this week, as it were: with Exodus 21:18/19, which discusses mayhem, the willful assault by one person upon another. According to Torah, the guilty party must provide healing for the victim — from which the Talmud deduces (BK 85a) the aggressor’s obligation to pay for medical care (with extra remuneration for pain, humiliation, and damages for loss of income, as well).

If the injuring party is also a doctor, who offers his/her own medical services instead of paying someone else, the injured party can refuse, because, to the victim, the assailant is like “a lion lying in wait,” and victims have the right to doctors whom they trust. Nor can the assailant supply a doctor-friend who will heal for free, since the victim can argue that “a doctor who heals for nothing is worth nothing” (BK 85a).

In addition, the assailant cannot claim (for example) that the victim need only pray and God will answer the prayer, because, says Rashi, it is forbidden to rely on God alone to provide healing, The Tosafot go farther, specifying consultation with doctors also for what we would call “acts of God”; even there, we cannot count on God alone to “undo the damage.”

The Talmud prohibits Jews from even dwelling in a town where there is no doctor (San. 17b).

So early on, Judaism decided that we cannot trust simply on God, that doctors are therefore necessary, that they may charge for what they do; and that those who need healing have a right to it. Pretty advanced thinking for late antiquity and The Middle Ages, I would say!

Yet inexplicably, the same Talmud also says (M. Kid. 4:14 = Kid. 82a), “The best of doctors belong in Hell” (gehinnom, in talmudic parlance). It’s only a side (and snide) comment, one of many unauthoritative aphorisms, so we cannot put much stock in it.  But we learn a lot from later rabbinic attempts to understand it. The comment pointedly specifies doctors who are “the best,” not “the most righteous,” we are told, having in mind doctors who think they are beyond the obligation to heal the poor (Rashi); or those whose arrogance prevents them from consulting with medical colleagues in cases of medical uncertainty (Maharsha, Samuel Edels, Poland, 1555-1631).

When it comes to valuing life and those who help sustain it, rabbinic tradition has much to be proud of.

But the Rabbis do not just anticipate modern-day perspectives. They offer a spiritual insight that is nowadays easily forgotten. Healing derives ultimately from God, they insist, so physicians do their work as deputies from God. To be called to the profession of healing is to be God’s presence in the face of pain. But it is more, even, than that.  Since God’s ultimate presence is seen in the original act of creation, healing must be viewed as the continuation of that act.

As a prisoner in Auschwitz, Primo Levi remembers having to watch a man die slowly on the gallows. As the victim twists in agony, Levi thinks, “To destroy a man is almost as difficult as to create one.” Like the gallows, disease too slowly destroys what God has created – destruction and sickness on one hand; creation and healing on the other. Those who heal are the antithesis of destroyers; they create new lives for those they save.

Each morning, we say a blessing that praises God for “healing and doing miracle work” (rofei kol basar umafli la’asot). “Healing,” then, is “miracle work.” We may know how medicine works its wonders, but it remains a wonder nonetheless — a miracle that anything works at all. The best of doctors are not those who deserve gehinnom, but those who stand in awe at the gift of being God’s personal agents on earth, charged with nothing short of creating lives as God once did.

 

 

 

 

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.

Do Jews Believe In A Soul?

Do Jews believe in a soul?

The answer is, “Yes, yes, yes, and “sort-of.”

The “sort-of” arises within the welter of detail regarding the Levitical sacrifices, a system that allowed for different levels of giving depending on personal financial means. Those unable to afford costly animal sacrifices brought a grain offering. Rashi observes that the person offering it is called a nefesh – a word usually translated as “soul.” He wants to know why here, particularly, the Torah calls a “person” a nefesh.

The answer, he says, is that grain is offered expressly by the poor. Objectively speaking, it may not cost much, but for the poor it is so enormous a sacrifice that God says to those who offer it, “I consider it as if you have offered your very soul.”

So nefesh — literally, just “person” – implies, for Rashi, something more. It bespeaks the moral core of our being: the part that overcomes selfishness; the deeply-rooted sense that we must live up to responsibility, doing what we can, as best we can. We ourselves call such people “good souls.” They come through; you can count on them.

Does nefesh mean “soul” in this case? In a way; metaphorically, at least; “sort-of.”

It is the Zohar that provides us with the “yes, yes, and yes” – three affirmatives corresponding to three different biblical and rabbinic words for “soul,” from which the kabbalists deduce the lesson that the soul has three parts.

The first “yes” affirms the highest part of the soul, the n’shamah what we normally think of as the soul that preexists us and lives on after we die. It is non-material, purely spiritual, so scientific study can neither prove nor disprove it. Brain science may discover the electro-chemistry of how we work, but not of all we are. We sense something more, an inexplicable entity that animates the deepest wellsprings of the “self” we hope to become.

The n’shamah is that “something more,” an invitation to realize the Godlike embrace of morality, creativity, artistry and truth. Being unexplainable scientifically, it appears within us as a mysterious gift from without. Hence the idea of a n’shamah as “heaven-sent”: a glimpse of transcendence; purpose beyond our admittedly paltry – and, conceivably, petty — personal lives, dwarfed as they are by the infinitude of the universe. When the rest of us dies – body, brain, and all – the soul part called n’shamah is what we say lives on.

The second “yes” denotes the second part of the soul, the ru’ach. If the n’shamah is wholly other, utterly ethereal and divine, the part of God that reaches down and pulls us up to greater moral, artistic, and intellectual stature, the ru’ach is the part of human nature that reaches up receptively to embrace the wonder it all.

Even people who disbelieve in the eternality of a separate and non-material n’shamah can appreciate the potential for nobility that lies miraculously within them. In Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities, the brilliant but dissolute Sydney Carton sacrifices himself on the guillotine to save somebody else. When he famously declares, “It is a far far better thing that I do than I have ever done,” he is (Jews would say) acknowledging the upward aspiration of his ru’ach.

The final “yes” returns to the nefesh, the part of the soul that is actually embodied. Even our bodies are sacred, Judaism says. Torture, enslavement, corporal punishment – we know these to be wrong, because human beings are more than conglomerations of bodily organs to be owned, used or abused. They are, simultaneously a nefesh – neither the n’shamah that is given from on high nor the ru’ach that reaches up from within, but our very earthly selves that must live with the financial loss engendered by the sacrifices we make.

This nefesh is Rashi’s “sort of.” But it is also a “yes,” because the earthly experience of loss comes with the satisfaction of reaching higher. And that is the nefesh talking.

A Realist’s View of Heaven; or Just, “Heaven, Really!”

The universe, we like to imagine, encompasses two categories of reality: the heavenly and the earthly. We know what the earthly is – science has been studying it for centuries. But what, exactly, is the heavenly? The usual explanations are often unenlightening – they just replace one problematic word (heavenly) with others (divine, Godly, spiritual, and so on), leaving us pretty much where we started: wondering if “heavenly” is anything real altogether — anything more, that is, than a wishful figure of speech.

The medieval commentator Ibn Ezra objects to this evasion of clarity. In the portion of Torah called Ha’azinu (Deuteronomy 32) — which Jews read in synagogue this coming week — for example, Moses calls on heaven and earth as witnesses (v. 32:1), and Ibn Ezra disparages interpretations that identify “the heavenly” as angels, or even rain. Yes, the angels must live in heaven and yes, rain comes from on high, but neither term tells us anything about heaven itself. “Actually,” he concludes, “heaven and earth” denote the two categories of “everything that has permanent existence.”

Let’s start there: we have two categories of existence that are permanent: the heavenly and the earthly. What can we add, without lapsing into dubious metaphysics?

The earthly is familiar to us. Over four centuries of scientific analysis has built up massive sets of laws describing it. Unfortunately, these laws are stunningly amoral – they explain the phenomena of nature, but without regard for good and bad, right and wrong. Philosopher John Stuart Mill captured the problem by observing: “Nature impales men… burns them to death… starves them with hunger, freezes them with cold…. A single hurricane destroys the hopes of a season…. All this Nature does with the most supercilious disregard both of mercy and of justice.”

So religion adds a category: the heavenly, something equally real, albeit not amenable to scientific measurement. We should not think of “the heavenly” as a separate realm, however, some actual space somewhere or other. It is just another perspective on the same phenomena that we study with science. It too looks at nature but from the perspective of human empathy, and the consequent demand for mercy and justice.

The earthly perspective of science provides an unsympathetic calculus of how the universe works: how hurricanes happen, for example. The heavenly perspective of empathy evaluates the way that universe affects the lives of those who live in it: not the science of how hurricanes happen, but sympathy for the way a hurricane devastates this ruined farmer or that grieving mother whose child was crushed under a falling tree. “Science and the earthly” measure truth; “empathy and the heavenly” allocate kindness.

The two perspectives coalesce in our concept of life. From a scientific perspective, the various forms of life come and go; Darwinian selection favors continuity of the species, but cares not one whit about any given instance of it. By analogy, sociology or economics, say, can rightly be called “sciences” insofar as they study the laws by which human organizations and the economy operate – without, however, any necessary sympathy for the poor, the sick, and the victimized in the systems that they study. When economists or urban planners actually decide to address these unfortunates, they adopt the perspective of the heavenly.

Thank God for the heavenly perspective that supplements scientific knowledge with kindness. But thank God for scientific understanding too – without it we wouldn’t know how to alleviate the misery that empathy uncovers.

Scholars tell us that the last three portions of the Torah (Deuteronomy 31-34, that is) follow from the portion before them, Nitsavim (Deuteronomy 29:9-30:20), which Jews read in synagogue just two weeks ago (and which Reform Jews read on Yom Kippur as well). There, Moses also summons heaven and earth (v. 30:19), this time to witness the claim that we are given life and death, and the insistence that we choose life. But who wouldn’t choose life? Why remind us about the obvious?

The point must be that in choosing life, we risk choosing only one of the two perspectives on it. We actually need both: the scientific laws on how life works, and the empathic kindness toward the way those laws impact the less fortunate among us.

Quite rightly, Moses calls both heaven and earth as witnesses to history. Either one alone, science without empathy or empathy without science, will ruin us.