Brachot 10:a: Songs, Astrology, Berurya & Shlomo Artzi

Prayer and song continue to be among the things on this week’s Talmud reading as well as a good story (Brachot 10:a). We’ll start with this:

אָמַר רַבִּי יוֹחָנָן מִשּׁוּם רַבִּי שִׁמְעוֹן בֶּן יוֹחַי. מַאי דִּכְתִיב, ״פִּיהָ פָּתְחָה בְחָכְמָה וְתוֹרַת חֶסֶד עַל לְשׁוֹנָהּ״.

כְּנֶגֶד מִי אָמַר שְׁלֹמֹה מִקְרָא זֶה? —

לֹא אֲמָרוֹ אֶלָּא כְּנֶגֶד דָּוִד אָבִיו, שֶׁדָּר בַּחֲמִשָּׁה עוֹלָמִים, וְאָמַר שִׁירָה.

Rabbi Yoḥanan said in the name of Rabbi Shimon ben Yoḥai: What is the meaning of that which is written: “She opens her mouth with wisdom, and the teaching of loving-kindness is on her tongue” (Proverbs 31:26)? With reference to whom did Solomon say this verse? He said this verse about none other than his father, David, who was the clearest example of one who opens his mouth in wisdom, and who resided in five worlds or stages of life and his soul said a song of praise corresponding to each of them.

This verse is taken from the famous song “eshet chayil”, a woman of valor, but explain the Sages, it’s also possible that this chapter discusses other (female) forms of wisdom and soulfulness. Five times David said: “Bless the Lord, O my soul,” each corresponding to a different stage of life. About one of them, it says:

יָצָא לַאֲוִיר הָעוֹלָם וְנִסְתַּכֵּל בְּכוֹכָבִים וּמַזָּלוֹת וְאָמַר שִׁירָה, ש

ֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: ״בָּרְכוּ ה׳ מַלְאָכָיו גִּבֹּרֵי כֹחַ עוֹשֵׂי דְבָרוֹ לִשְׁמֹעַ בְּקוֹל דְּבָרוֹ בָּרְכוּ ה׳ כָּל צְבָאָיו וְגוֹ׳״.

He emerged into the atmosphere of the world, his second world, looked upon the stars and constellations and said a song of praise of God for the entirety of creation, as it is stated: “Bless the Lord, His angels, mighty in strength, that fulfill His word, listening to the voice of His word. Bless the Lord, all His hosts, His servants, that do His will. Bless the Lord, all His works, in all places of His kingship, bless my soul, Lord” (Psalms 103:20–23).

Some say about this that David saw the grandeur of all creation and recognized that they are mere servants, carrying out the will of their Creator, while of course what caught my eye is that he looked at the “stars and constellations”. Astrology was a part of our people’s past; we know King David’s sign and more. In this way, we don’t “believe” in it in a deterministic manner, but we don’t deny it either. It’s one of G-d’s creation and here to shine and help us along.

*******

It’s hard to ignore another famous story this week, that of Bruriya and Rabbi Meir. Here it is:

הָנְהוּ בִּרְיוֹנֵי דַּהֲווֹ בְּשִׁבָבוּתֵיהּ דְּרַבִּי מֵאִיר וַהֲווֹ קָא מְצַעֲרוּ לֵיהּ טוּבָא. הֲוָה קָא בָּעֵי רַבִּי מֵאִיר רַחֲמֵי עִלָּוַיְהוּ כִּי הֵיכִי דְּלֵימוּתוּ. אָמְרָה לֵיהּ בְּרוּרְיָא דְּבֵיתְהוּ: מַאי דַּעְתָּךְ — מִשּׁוּם דִּכְתִיב ״יִתַּמּוּ חַטָּאִים״, מִי כְּתִיב ״חוֹטְאִים״? ״חַטָּאִים״ כְּתִיב.

The Gemara relates: There were these hooligans in Rabbi Meir’s neighborhood who caused him a great deal of anguish. Rabbi Meir prayed for God to have mercy on them, that they should die. Rabbi Meir’s wife, Berurya, said to him: What is your thinking? On what basis do you pray for the death of these hooligans? Do you base yourself on the verse, as it is written: “Let sins cease from the land” (Psalms 104:35), which you interpret to mean that the world would be better if the wicked were destroyed? But is it written, let sinners cease?” Let sins cease, is written. One should pray for an end to their transgressions, not for the demise of the transgressors themselves.

וְעוֹד, שְׁפֵיל לְסֵיפֵיהּ דִּקְרָא ״וּרְשָׁעִים עוֹד אֵינָם״, כֵּיוָן דְּ״יִתַּמּוּ חַטָּאִים״ ״וּרְשָׁעִים עוֹד אֵינָם״? אֶלָּא בְּעִי רַחֲמֵי עִלָּוַיְהוּ דְּלַהְדְּרוּ בִּתְשׁוּבָה, ״וּרְשָׁעִים עוֹד אֵינָם״.

Moreover, go to the end of the verse, where it says: “And the wicked will be no more.” If, as you suggest, transgressions shall cease refers to the demise of the evildoers, how is it possible that the wicked will be no more, i.e., that they will no longer be evil? Rather, pray for God to have mercy on them, that they should repent, as if they repent, then the wicked will be no more, as they will have repented.

בְּעָא רַחֲמֵי עִלָּוַיְהוּ, וַהֲדַרוּ בִּתְשׁוּבָה.

Rabbi Meir saw that Berurya was correct and he prayed for God to have mercy on them, and they repented.

Berurya then continues to “shoot her halachik arrows” at someone else who didn’t know better than to not fall into her mouth:

אֲמַר לַהּ הַהוּא מִינָא לִבְרוּרְיָא: כְּתִיב ״רָנִּי עֲקָרָה לֹא יָלָדָה״, מִשּׁוּם דְּלֹא יָלָדָה — רָנִּי?

The Gemara relates an additional example of Berurya’s incisive insight: A certain heretic said to Berurya: It is written: “Sing, barren woman who has not given birth, open forth in song and cry, you did not travail, for more are the children of the desolate than the children of the married wife, said the Lord” (Isaiah 54:1). Because she has not given birth, she should sing and rejoice?

אֲמַרָה לֵיהּ: שָׁטְיָא, שְׁפֵיל לְסֵיפֵיהּ דִּקְרָא, דִּכְתִיב: ״כִּי רַבִּים בְּנֵי שׁוֹמֵמָה מִבְּנֵי בְעוּלָה אָמַר ה׳״.

Berurya responded to this heretic’s mockery and said: Fool! Go to the end of the verse, where it is written: “For the children of the desolate shall be more numerous than the children of the married wife, said the Lord.”

אֶלָּא מַאי ״עֲקָרָה לָא יָלְדָה״ — רָנִּי כְּנֶסֶת יִשְׂרָאֵל שֶׁדּוֹמָה לְאִשָּׁה עֲקָרָה שֶׁלֹּא יָלְדָה בָּנִים לְגֵיהִנָּם כְּוָתַיְיכוּ.

Rather, what is the meaning of: “Sing, barren woman who has not given birth”? It means: Sing congregation of Israel, which is like a barren woman who did not give birth to children who are destined for Gehenna like you.

Bruriah was the daughter of Rabbi Haninah ben Teradion, one of the Ten Martyrs, who was burned to death for his faith, as was Bruriah’s mother. She had two known siblings, a brother, Simon ben Haninah, who turned to a life of crime after failing to match Bruriah’s success as a teacher, and an unnamed sister, who was sold into sexual slavery and later rescued from a Roman brothel by Bruriah’s husband, Rabbi Meir as described later in the Talmud.

She is greatly admired for her breadth of knowledge in matters pertaining to both halachah and aggadah, and is said to have learned from the rabbis 300 halachot on a single cloudy day, and her comments there are praised by various sages in the Talmud. She was also renowned for her sharp wit and often caustic jibes. The Talmud relates] that she once chastised Yossi the Galilean, when he asked her “By which way do we go to Lod?” claiming that he could have instead said “By which to Lod?” (two Hebrew words rather than four), and thereby kept the Talmudic injunction not to speak to women unnecessarily. Was it sarcasm? The sages smiling at their own aphorisms through her? While the end of her life is controversial and looms in mystery, she remained an inspiration.

*******

The hype around daf yomi continues. This week, singer Shlomo Artzi revealed that his grandmother’s brother was Rabbi Shapiro, the daf’s initiator. What’s great about that is not just the genealogical anecdote but his sharing his “special connection” to the daf publicly. Some years ago, no respectful public, entertainment persona, would want to be associated even remotely with anything so “religious”. And look now.

Shabbat Shalom.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Taste of Daf: Brachot 6a

Jerusalem, Sunday, Jan 5, 2020 – 8th of Tevet, 5780 – the end of the 13th cycle of daf yomi and immediate beginning of the 14th one, to end on June 7th, 2027. The Jewish world is celebrating, and it should. The fact that an obscure idea, which was meant to help exceptional yeshiva students in Eastern Europe of almost 100 years ago took over and inspired thousands – some say as many as 300 or 500 thousands (!) the world over, is almost as surprising as other facts from about 100 years ago, like those of another European, a “delusional” modern and progressive journalist, that one day, “in 5 or at most 50 years at most” (to paraphrase Hertzel from his famous book Altneuland), the Jews will have their own state. Not only in MetLife Stadium, Brooklyn Teaneck, Bnai Brak and Me’a She’arim, Talmud study is starting to be “in” which is almost as miraculous as establishing the State of Israel, where not only our physical existence took a leap but the spiritual one as well.

On that Sunday, one after the other, leading “rabbaniyot” / rebetzens – not only “wives of”, but “masters (madam?) of Torah” in their own right, got on stage to share deep, meaningful, knowledgeable words of Torah. I had the good fortune and incredible honor to be there, at the first, public, women’s “Siyum HaShas”  finale of daf yomi cycle marking, especially, women’s learners, an event that not that many years ago would have been unheard of and unthinkable. There was a time when Gemara and women were two very separate things. It’s no longer the case.

So, in that spirit, this blog is going to attempt and offer something new; something I’ve dabbling, teaching in the past and planning to continue: a weekly “taste of daf” (The “daf” is a two sided Gemara page). In lieu of Torah portion drash (there are so many already posted in this blog from the past 7 years 2013-2019), there will be a little something, an appetizer, from this weeks’ global Talmud learning, and, of course, no previous background required. SO, let’s start!

The good news – we are in the beginning. The “bad” news – there is no beginning! The beginning is a direct continuation for what came before it, i.e. the Torah. There won’t be any introductions, any explanations. The assumption is, we’ve been here and we know what’s going on. Another important note: we look like we’re discussing halacha, Jewish Law, but were really talking about all sorts of life things, seemingly small and minutia, and at the same time, big picture and huge. And: this book didn’t pass the American movie rating system, so brace yourself. There’s no warning as we shift abruptly between themes, drawing our examples from wherever they make sense to us, and yes, despite titles, this was compiled by association, not strictly by topic. We might be talking about vows, which reminds us we need to address vows between husband and wife, which means we’ll be talking about sex. We might be talking about different types of blood and can’t think of any better example for their colors other than the soils of the different valleys in the Galil when flooded in the winter months. Yes, we may reside in Babylon for a few hundred years, but we live – in the Land of Israel. And did you see the giraffe?? There was no giraffe you say?? Well…

Here is our taste for this week, from Brachot 6:a (with help from Sefaria):

תַּנְיָא, אַבָּא בִּנְיָמִין אוֹמֵר: אֵין תְּפִלָּה שֶׁל אָדָם נִשְׁמַעַת אֶלָּא בְּבֵית הַכְּנֶסֶת, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: ״לִשְׁמֹעַ אֶל הָרִנָּה וְאֶל הַתְּפִלָּה״. בִּמְקוֹם רִנָּה — שָׁם תְּהֵא תְּפִלָּה.

It was taught in a baraita that Abba Binyamin said: One’s prayer is only fully heard in a synagogue, as it is stated with regard to King Solomon’s prayer in the Temple: “Yet have You turned toward the prayer of Your servant and to his supplication, Lord my God, to listen to the song and the prayer which Your servant prays before You on this day” (I Kings 8:28). In a place of song, there prayer should be.

The teaching tells us that one’s prayer is heard – only ? better? – at the synagogue. This can be based on two things, not mutually exclusive: the one is, possibly imagining the energy that was in Temple, of which the synagogue is a smaller model (and the home, a further mini version). After all, the Temple no longer stood when this was written, and those who wrote this never saw the actual Temple and wanted to keep its memory. Along with that, my community organizing mind wonders if perhaps (2) they had some of the same challenges some of our shuls do, and because of low attendance, needed to “advertise” synagogue services as the place where G-d is, so as to draw people in. This must have been especially so in the growing Diaspora, in a time of great transition, moving from one central Temple to many synagogues all over the world, which solved one problem (what do we do with no Temple and how do we keep us as one people??) and introduced another (how are we going to make sure we maintain a united and uniting prayer service across the world??).

I happen to like shul, and I like lively, harmonious singing at shul so I’m good with prayer being song, but as I read this, I wondered about this going the other way around. Maybe, this is not only about shul and prayer “service” but what is also said is that song in itself, is a form of prayer.

Shabbat Shalom from CA.

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Joseph, Judah, Leviathan & Siyum HaSha”s – Shabbat Vayigash

After Judah’s speech, when Joseph finally reveals himself, he invites the brothers to come and live with him in plentiful Egypt. Egypt is the center of the world back then and Joseph is highly esteemed there, second only to the Pharaoh and at times, as high; and yet, when he invites his brother to join him, he tells them to “hurry, go up to my father and say to him… come down to me, do not delay” (Genesis 45:9).

“Come down”? It’s highly unlikely they meant “south”, as in down on the map, since maps in the ancient world faced east to the “orient” (hence “orientation”). If so what did he mean? The brothers are poor shepherds; Joseph is rich, owning lands, managing grain storehouses. The brothers struggle in a land that isn’t always hospitable towards them while Joseph’s children grow up in the palace. Heading to Egypt sounds like going “up”. However since time immemorial, like being called to the Torah, going to Israel has been called “aliya”, going up, and going away, is going down, even if one travels from the Himalaya’s to the Dead Sea. Further: Israel is described as a “good and wide” Land, while Egypt’s name, Mitzrayim, comes from the word tzar, narrow, tight. Could it be because in the vast desert, there is only a “tight” strip to live on along the Nile? Or perhaps because “down” and away, feels “tight” while home feel “good and wide”?
Joseph’s message is, there’s life outside of Israel. If we want to be a “light unto the nations”, we have to live there, while Judah believes in the Land; in our special connection to it and need to live on it.

Their conversation continued through the Talmud into our own days when it is as contemporary and relevant as ever. We all know Josephs who left Europe decades ago to come to America, the Golden Medina, only to find their grandchildren making aliya. We know Judahs who immigrated to Israel to dry the swamps and settle the Land, only to have their grandchildren relocate elsewhere. In a way, we are all part of the meet-up between Judah and Joseph, possibly taking on different roles in our own lifetime, knowing that at the end of the day, neither one could have stayed on history’s stage without the other.

*******

From my balcony I see Leviathan, not a large whale but a clump of lights in the middle of the water which turns out to be Israel’s natural gas field. This week Israel, Greece and Cyprus signed an agreement for a huge pipeline project to ship gas from the eastern Mediterranean to Europe, and I can’t help wonder: Some 80 years later, can our history get any more ironic than that??

*******

This weekend, Daf Yomi reaches one of its great milestones: the end of the 13th 7½ year cycle and immediate resuming of a daily page of Talmud learning. The fact that it’s happening is one thing; the fact that so many are involved is quite another. A few days ago, nearly 100,000 Jews, men and women, gathered in MetLife stadium in New Jersey to celebrate the “siyum” (finale), and this Sunday, for the first time, more than 3,000 women are gathering in Jerusalem, where I am planning to be as well. The Talmud is not only the base for Jewish law but the guide for how we think – creatively, analytically, broadly, compassionately, justly and so much more. It’s the spinal cord of Jewish thought. AS someone told me long ago, if the Bible is lost, we’ll be sad but able to reconstruct it; if the Talmud is lost, we’d be lost too. Whether that’s true or not, it gives us a feeling for how crucial the Talmud is.

This is a good time to take a moment and gaze around. We often look at the achievements of the Jewish people in the last 100 (or maybe even 2000) years, and count, first and foremost, the establishment of the State of Israel, which is indeed a grand thing. But / And… something else is happening, and that is the re-engagement in Jewish learning. No longer the property of the few, study groups, classes, schools, midrashot, yeshivot are everywhere. The revival is moving to tears. I attend a shiur (class) at a beit midrash (house of learning) for young women (18-20 years old), all joyful and studious around me, fully minded how impossible this was just a few decades ago; I visit a “combined school”, where religious and non-religious / secular students learn together with a “Judaica corner” in class, which was my parents’ “crazy” and “impossible” dream for me, never to imagine this; I read the newspaper where every other page there’s an ad about a seminar or program somewhere. There are links and aps and what-not to study the daf (and so many other things) at every level, language, accent possible, and I think wow, what a time and what an honor to be in this.

In honor of the daf, here’s a short section from this week’s pages. We are in the last tractate of the last order, Niddah, dealing with spiritual purity and impurity issues, primarily those of women, and along with that, the art of dipping in the mikveh. I love this line because I am partial to olive picking, but mostly because it’s such a picturesque way to describe something that can be complicated with so few words, you can literally see it (translation from Sefaria, an ap that is a must on everyone’s phone; the bold words are what the Talmud says in its succinct manner, and the regular font explains the text without damaging it):

אמר ריש לקיש האשה לא תטבול אלא דרך גדילתה כדתנן האיש נראה כעודר ומוסק זיתים אשה נראת כאורגת וכמניקה את בנה

Reish Lakish says: A woman may immerse herself in a ritual bath only in the manner that she grows, i.e., she may not force her arms to her sides or close her legs tightly. She is not obligated to spread her limbs widely, but simply stand in her normal manner. As we learned in a mishna (Nega’im 2:4): When a man has a leprous mark between his legs and stands before a priest for inspection, he should appear like one who is hoeing, i.e., with his legs slightly apart, and if it is under his arm, he should appear like one who is harvesting olives, with his arms slightly raised. If the mark is not visible when he is standing in that manner, it is not impure. By contrast, a woman with a leprous mark between her legs should appear like one who is weaving, and if the mark is beneath her breast she should appear like a woman who is nursing her son.

Here’s to continuous learning. Shabbat Shalom!

 

 

 

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Seeing is Not Hating… Shabbat Hanukkah & the Torah portion of Miketz

When she was 10 years old, R. accompanied her mom to a doctor’s visit because her little brother, M was not well. Mom was hesitant to make the trip from Tzefat to Tiberias by herself, and what’s more, she needed her almost sabra daughter to help with translation. Having arrived recently from North Africa, she heard stories and wanted her eldest with her, just in case.

“The baby needs some care, leave him here” said the nurse, bidding farewell to mom and daughter who left with a heavy heart, schlepping in buses back to their home in the hills. When they came back the next day, things were much worse. “The baby?” asked the nurse, “oh, he died”. What?? “We want to see him”, they demanded, realizing their worst fears might have come true. “Oh, we already buried him”. “Then we want to see the grave!” “Go away, we’re too busy here now; you’re being unreasonable”… The child was never seen again, which would be normal for dead people, but then, some 17 years later, a draft notice from the army appeared in their mailbox, implying that maybe he did not die at all.

Sadly, Israel is riddled with such tragedies, known as the “Yemenite Children”, and later realized this afflicted other Sefardi-Mizrachi groups as well. In the post holocaust era of newly established Israel, some people had no children, and some had “too many” and “won’t notice if one is given away to someone who really wants a child”… The government has not been forthright with the records and the archives remain closed as the stories continue to unfold privately. The depth and complexity of this saga is well beyond the scope of a dvar Torah. What is of interest to me this week, is the fact, that R. now in her 70’s never stops looking for her little brother, M. Everywhere she goes, she checks people closely: does he look like someone else? The eyes, smile, height, features? She sees him in her sons and grandsons. Never has she lost hope that one day, maybe on a bus or waiting in line; in the news or at a random event, she’ll see him. And no matter that 60 some years have gone by, she’s sure, she’ll know it’s him.

I think about this quite often and especially this week, because again and again I wonder, how come the brothers didn’t recognize Joseph?

I recently had the lovely opportunity of meeting up with my high school classmates. I was very nervous that I can’t remember and won’t be able to recognize half of them, but as they slowly walked in, it was obvious. It didn’t take long before the “Oh My G-d!’ followed by something along the lines of ‘you haven’t changed a bit!’ and while, of course, we have all changed, there is also something that is very much the same.

Joseph was not a baby when the brothers sold him to a caravan of merchants, traveling south. He was 17. Not quite fully grown, but definitely a young man with a unique look of his own. The caravan is described as “Yishma’elim” (Genesis 37:28), a term used for just about anyone living in Israel who is “not Jewish”, but originally, it should have been reserved for the descendants of Yishma’el and their kin. For Joseph, that meant that he was sold to his half-second cousins. Ok, “half second cousins” are not people we might have dinner with regularly, but this is not a big family. Surely, they knew at least that they were somehow related and who he is!? How come no one said anything to anyone, like, “hey, we dropped him off at…”? A man disappears for 13 years in the small region, roughly between Hebron / Be’er Sheva and Cairo, fully in the open, and no one knows his whereabouts?

Further, upon meeting him, the brothers don’t even begin to suspect that he looks slightly familiar! I know, I know: he had a different hair-do and new clothing, and maybe even make-up. He was out of context. And at least initially, he didn’t socialize with them and maybe stood at a distance (although later when they bring Benjamin he shared a meal alone with them). But seriously!! If anyone, they knew he was sold to someone going towards Egypt; they knew he was a dreamer, and then suddenly a “dreamer” who is a “foreigner”, “Hebrew”, no less as Joseph describes himself, shows up on Pharaoh’s side, the brother just yawn??

As I saw with R. usually people who have given a child to adoption or lost a relative with inconclusive ending, forever keep calculating what age might be this person, what could they be doing, where might s/he be… and here we have ten grown man, later 11, and no one sees anything? I can’t shake it: How come the brother didn’t recognize Joseph?

Add to that, that he immediately knew them. Of course, they were much more conspicuous; he waited for them; they didn’t know he was there. And yet the contrast is striking.

Perhaps the answer can be found in last week’s reading: “And when his brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers, they hated him, and could not speak peaceably unto him”; (Genesis 37:4). And immediately in the next verse: “And Joseph dreamed a dream, and he told it to his brothers, and they hated him yet the more” (37:5), and if we haven’t yet quite understood how the brothers felt about Joseph, the text says again: “…And they hated him yet the more…” (37:8).

One of Joseph’s greatest qualities is that he “sees”. Joseph sees dreams, just like his father Jacob did when he was younger; Joseph sees opportunities, solutions and, mostly, he sees G-d wherever he goes. Whether he is in a pit, sold to slavery, a servant in a compromised situation, a prisoner or second to Pharaoh, he feels G-d is with him. The brothers, on the other hand, have trouble “seeing”. The last time the verb “to see” is mentioned with them, is when they see Joseph coming and they conspire to kill him (37:18). It takes a while before the verb to see shows up again, and it is when Jacob finally sees that “there is food in Egypt” (42:1). That “seeing” is what leads to the family’s meeting, resolution and ultimate reunion. Continue and hear Judah’s words when he asks their father to take Benjamin with them. Judah implores Jacob, telling him that Joseph said: “You shall not see my face, unless your brother be with you.” (43:5). And last, after the emotional meeting and revelation, coming up next week, Joseph says to them: “And, behold, your eyes (now) see…” (45:12).

Could it be that was blinded the brothers was the power of hatred? How much do we miss when we let ourselves be guided by negativity and hatred!

We don’t know what Joseph’s intentions were when he initially told the brothers his dreams. We “assume” he was a showoff but the ones who read ill-will into his words were his brothers, not him. Perhaps Joseph wanted to share his joy at the fact that he sees them all together in the future! After all, up until now, the younger one was always “chosen” and the older one went off to establish another nation. This is the first time all the father’s children continue to be the “Children of Israel”! Since one needs to be the leader, maybe it’s Joseph, son of beloved Rachel, and a dreamer like his dad?
But the brothers couldn’t stand him, and therefore couldn’t even imagine anything good in his words. Their hatred shut off their ability to see and hear him.
As is the case this year, Miketz, this week’s reading, is often read during Hanukkah. Again, there is darkness. Again, we have an opportunity to add a small light, to make a conscious decision to see.

Shabbat Shalom, Chodesh Tov  & Haukkah Same’ach.

Chag shel Hachagim – holiday of holidays, Haifa, winter season

 

 

 

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Not buying my boys skirts! The Torah portion of Vayeshev and a taste of Hanukkah

Hanukkah starts this Sunday night with candle lighting, games and oily foods. There a discussion in the Talmud what happens if a hanukiya was lit and happens to get extinguished; does it need to be lit again? That is, is the mitzvah primarily, to have the light or is the lighting itself “it” and once that’s done, then we’re all good, even if the candles don’t last? (Tractate Shabbat, 21).

The discussion has practical implications (to paraphrase Shakespeare, ‘to light again, or not light again, that is the question’…) we well as spiritual ones. AS we say in the blessing, the mitzvah is lehadlik, “to light”. The “Zer Zahav” (nickname given to Chasidic rabbi Ze’ev Wolf Landa, 1807-1891 for the name of his book) explains that the teaching of the Talmud here is that we must begin; get off and do something. We don’t know and are not able to guarantee fully what the outcome will be, but just because we can’t complete the task, it does not mean that we are exempt from taking a stab at it (to paraphrase Pirkei Avot 2:21).
Likewise, about the famous “oil miracle”, we should ask, why aren’t we celebrating seven days? After all, there was enough oil for one day, so maybe there is no miracle in that day one, only in the ones after! But rather, the miracle there is the fact that someone even noticed the little oil can, and even bothered to use it. It was obviously not going to be enough! But a step forward, towards light was taken, into the unknown, in hope and prayer that somehow, something will open up, and that small beginning is already a great thing. Some days, the fact that we have hope, is a miracle in itself.

Not buying skirts for my boys. Every year when the Torah portion of Vayeshev comes around, with Joseph and his multi-colored coat, “righteous” parents post endlessly about how bad it is to discriminate between one’s children. “Not buying skirts for my boys” has been one of my repeated “parental sayings” trying to highlight how not discriminating between one’s children is just as bad if not worse. The statement has meanwhile become not p.c.: what do you mean?? You won’t buy skirts for your boys?! So I have to state that, of course, had my boys needed / wanted etc skirts, yes, I would buy those too. But the point is, that I, clearly, blatantly and at times proudly, discriminate between my kids. I don’t even make a fake effort to hide it, and worse yet, I believe it’s not only the norm, but the ideal. Attending to each child as an individual with his / her own uniqueness, and providing each differently, according to who this child is and what this particular child needs, is the most important parenting aspect. The idea that a parent would do otherwise, is absurd.
This is why reading the Joseph story in the “traditional” way, seems overly simplistic and does not quite make sense to me. There is no way that Jacob treated Reuven and Benjamin in the same way, and that verse describing Jacob’s love for Joseph “because” he was the youngest / born in his old age” and that therefore he made him a special coat (Genesis 37:3) must be misread and mistranslated. I am not arguing the special relationship between Jacob and Joseph but would like to qualify them slightly differently and then see where we can take it from there.
The first thing to notice is that Jacob in this verse is called Yisrael. Yisrael is his national, prophetic name. Joseph is described as “ben zkunim”, which is usually seen as a child born in a parent old age, usually the youngest. This presents at least two problems: 1. Joseph had two brothers, Yisaschar and Zvulun who were almost the same age as he was (not to mention Dina – the birth order is in Genesis 30:15-24). 2. He was not the youngest. He was also not the only one from beloved Rachel, to which we can say, that Benjamin reminded Jacob of Rachel’s death and therefore was less loved, but – we know from later parts of the story that this is simply not true. So, maybe there is a different way to understand “ben zkunim”?

Indeed, some of the commentators were bothered by the same issues. Onkelos, who brings us the Aramaic translation of the text, says it mean “ben zkunim” means ‘bar chakim’, a wise son, as in Jacob (the prophetic Jacob, Yisrael) noticed Joseph’s special intellectual and spiritual abilities. Rabbi Hirsch explains that the root for zaken, is ‘experience that brings wisdom’. Alternatively, according to Ramban (Nachmonides 1194-1270) it was the custom of older man – Jacob was 91 when Joseph was born – to have one of their boys stay back with them and help them with their needs. That’s why Joseph did not go with his brothers and the flock.
One more questionable word in this verse is “ki”, often translated as “because” but can also be “when” (as in Ki Tetze, Ki Tavo). If so, maybe – Prophetic Jacob loved Joseph as he (Joseph) was the one to serve him (Jacob). We can imagine the two spending many hours together, and as Rashi and others tell us, Jacob taught Joseph all he knew in spiritual learning.

It’s unclear why Jacob made Joseph a “striped coat” – some say he made it to cover the fact that Joseph was learning and growing spiritually; maybe Joseph too, was “smooth” (and beautiful) like his father, and anyway very different form his brothers. And if we want to stay really curious, it’s even hard to tell who made that coat (when it says “ve’asa lo” it’s unclear who is which pronoun). What’s more, up until now, only one child succeeded the father. This is the first time all the children become the “Children of Israel”. Clearly one has to be the leader and clearly (from past experience, it might be one of the younger ones. How exciting!

One thing is hard to argue: the brothers resented this whole scene, so much so that “they could not speak with him le’shalom – peacefully” (37:4). Communication was severed from both sides. The brothers’ inability to talk with him just made it worse. According to some commentators, had they only been able to talk with each other, even if they expressed their anger and upset-ness, they would have been able to make peace. But they did not develop a common language and listening ear. Joseph on his end, had the kind of social skills that leave a lot to be desired (which is what both gets him in trouble and saves him). It was one thing to tell his first dream, and quite another to tell the second, after the brothers’ displeasure was already obvious (some say, his “dreamer” quality is also a sign of his inability to stay focused in the present which is possibly what lands him in jail, maybe to connect him back to the here and now, and climb, symbolically, from the bottom / ground – up).

Joseph and his brothers represent different aspects of the Jewish people: the farmer and the shepherd; the Land and the world. This week’s Torah portion ends in suspense and there are more “episodes” to go, but suffice it to say that ultimately, it will not be an either or, but a “both”. This is still true today, and the sooner we learn it, the better.

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Dina – the Torah portion of Vayishlach

Dina is Jacob and Leah’s daughter, and the 13th child of the bunch. Is that a hint that actually each son had a sister or that she’s the only female among them? Yes. Interestingly, until now, no one had daughters at all. Why? Is there something wrong about having daughters? Is there a preference to having sons? Further: Abraham and Isaac were both meticulous about who their sons would marry. Why did Jacob not send any of his children to Charan, or anywhere, to get the “right” wife? Are women “not important” to our forefathers?

Considering Rashi states that Sarah was greater than Abraham in her prophetic abilities, and that Rebecca is the (only) one who received the prophecy from Hashem about her pregnancy, the latter is unlikely. So how do we understand even a tiny bit of this awful and harsh story in front of us?

In Hebrew, male is known as zachar, literally meaning “remembered” and connected to memory, zikaron. If to generalize, the male is the one transmitting the outward, overt, aware natural and national identity, while the female is the one transmitting the subconscious identity. This is why in our tradition, the national-religious identity is trough the mother, while the tribal-ceremonial identity is through the father. In practical terms, Jewishness is through the mother while whether one is a Cohen, Ashkenazi or Sefardi is through the father.

For Abraham and Isaac, establishing the outward identity of this new path was critical. This struggle is reflected in each having one son who was a successor and one son who began a new religion and nation. By Jacob’s time, that identity was complete. The family was strong enough to accept and incorporate outside elements without diluting who they were. “Intermarriage” was not only tolerated by welcomed as a way to grow the family, be better established in the Land and integrate aspects that were lacking in the Jewish people. This is how we see later, that King David’s grandmother is a Moabite and more.

This meant that on top of the 12 “masculine” tribes, there had to be a 13th tribe, a “feminine” one, one that accepts outside influence in, and enriches the people. Dina, like Leah, is described as “going out”. Many see it negatively, but it’s possible that this was intended as a positive quality: the ability to go out means one has a strong identity which can handle the outside world.

The Talmud (Brachot 60a) tells a fantastical story about Leah who was pregnant with a son, her 7th. Knowing the total is 12 sons (through prophecy -), she realized that if that is so, Rachel will not even have as many sons as the handmaids. She therefore prayed for that son to be a daughter. Rachel then bore Joseph and Leah – Dina. Leah and Dina are strongly connected, as both their tragedies – the rape of Dina and later sale of Joseph – happen in exactly the same place: Sh’chem, the heart of the Shomron, where, according to tradition, Joseph’s grave stands to this day. Joseph also represents Dina’s “outward” energy, the only one to make it in a foreign country.

And what about Sh’chem? This is where Abraham passed through on his way from Charan to Canaan. Some say, this is where his “souls” – converts – settled (Genesis 12:6). Jacob, after his struggle with the angel, doesn’t head to Hevron, where the family’s home used to be, but to Sh’chem as well (33:18). Perhaps he wants to see what happened with his grandpa’s students; can he find a suitable mate for his daughter among the people of the Land??

The rest is tragic. The midrash offers a – sort-off, half-handed  – consolation telling us that Dina’s daughter from that union, Osnat, was sent to be a servant at the home of the Egyptian priest, Potifera, later to be Joseph’s wife and mother of Menashe and Ephrayim from whom a messiah might be born. After all, the “right” things has happened and been fulfilled: we have a 13th tribe! but Jacob is silent. Unable to praise or condemn, maybe he too is wondering, yes, the “right thing” but at what cost? Is any cost ok, just because the “end” will be “well” or are there things that are just too much? What are those? Where is the line?

From stormy-rainy Haifa, Shabbat Shalom.

 

 

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Traveling up and down a ladder… the Torah portion of Vayetze

One again, the complex three-way relationship between us, The Land and “outside the Land” come into play in this week’s Torah reading. Jacob runs away Esau, his brother, who was going to kill him for stealing his blessing. But then, there are so many places Jacob could go. Even the ancient midrash tells us that Jacob did not go directly but stopped on the way at a yeshiva to study for 14 years. What?! That sounds fantastical! A yeshiva? back then?? But the writers of the midrash might want to tell us something. One, that he was learned and seeped in spirituality, and the other, that there were other places where he could be safe. Indeed, this portion is not called Vayivrach, “and he escaped” but Vayetze -“and he went out” implying a deliberate departure.

So maybe he had to travel so far north in order to get himself a wife? But then, he too could have sent a messenger, like his grandfather did when it was time to marry his father to his mother, especially since it’s not like he is looking to marry a stranger. Chances are, someone could have brought him the right woman, and do so with much less trouble than he’s gotten himself into.
So why go?!
One of our earliest descriptions of Jacob (Genesis 25:27) is that he is “ish tam” – a totally dedicated man (Rav Hirsch’s translation); a quiet man (Mechon Mamre), wholesome (the Stone Chumash). Jacob is not restless, not running around in the field seeking game. He dwells in the tent (yoshev, as in “sitting”, being stable). He is wholehearted, complete. At a young age, he’s reached life’s goal of peace and tranquility, like a noble yogi. From here on, life should have been coasting for him.

This is when he is forced to leave that place where everything is “perfect” for him, and go; go live with a person who is deceitful, greedy, manipulative and evil, and still, not a faraway enemy but part of the family, as if emphasizing that all these qualities are not somewhere “else” far away but right at home, within. Jacob has to face this other world, learn to be “in it but not of it”; he has to learn to find G-d in everything, everywhere. Only then, he is ready to go back. Only then, he will become Yisra’el, the one who struggles with (hu)man and G-d and prevails.

Jacob’s journey begins with a famous dream about a ladder, a way to connect heaven and earth, with rungs. Some say that when we go outside of the Land of Israel, we go to a place where heaven and earth are separated, unlike in the Land where they are together. On the edge, he dreams of a way to connect the two wherever he is. The angels who climb up imply that there were angels with him, on the ground already. Some say that perhaps there were actually two ladders: one, reaching to the heavens and one – to the ground, and that the journey between them is like inside a giant “figure-eight”, we’re going up, almost touching the highest-highs, but then going-falling down, almost touching the lowest-lows, then back… the endless movement, and the magical meetings along the way, is what connects the worlds around us.

Shabbat Shalom.

 

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