Friday, January 18, 2008

Netivoteha Shalom on B'shalah

Netivoteha Shalom on B'shalah

B'shalah starts off (13:17) trying to spare Israel from war, but ends (17:16) with a battle and an oath for more; God, who is designated as an איש מלחמה ish milhamah, a warrior hero (15:3), gives up halfway through the parashah keeping Israel out of the fray; while Israel was kept indoors and didn't even witness the violence of the 10th plague, it is the very sight of the Egyptians dying on the seashore (14:30) that brings them to faith. The biblical text provides the Archie Bunkers of all times with two earlier versions of God Bless America -- The Song of Moses, 15:1-19, and, in the haftarah, Deborah's Song, Judges chapter 5; however, תורה שבעל פה, torah sheb'al peh, the Oral Tradition has the last word, with its subversive interpretation of the last four words of Deborah's song: ואהביו כצאת השמש בגברתו v'ohavav k'tzet hashemesh bigvurato -- [thus may all your enemies perish, God], while those who love Him will be like the sun in its glory (Judges 5:31).

Googling Ken yovdu (thus may they perish), the first words of the verse, pulls up folkdance websites and Theodor Bikel. I clicked on the latter and came up with a picture of a record album cover (A Harvest of Israeli Folk Songs) that I hadn't seen in over forty years, but I still hear the drum beats, as well as the perversion of the biblical verse: instead of ken yovdu kol oyvecha hashem, -- thus may all your enemies perish, God, we have ken yovdu kol oyvecha yisrael -- thus may all your enemies perish, Israel [the same thing happened to mi y'malel g'vurot hashem (Ps. 106:2) when it became the Hanukkah song mi y'malel g'vurot yisrael, so it's clearly not a recurring typo but rather a secular Zionist statement that replaces God with Israel, confusing wheat and chaff, instrument and essence, etc.]. It was only many years later that I would hear other melodies, and discover other versions of גבורה g'vurah (glory, might, bravery).

Two of my guides along this journey had impeccable Judaic as well as Zionist credentials. The first, Yeshayahu Leibowitz, was famous for pointing out that in our Hanukkah texts, the term גיבורים giborim (heroes) actually refers to the infidel Seleucid, while God's faithful are termed חלשים halashim (weaklings); Jewish heroism, Leibowitz would say, is defined in the opening words of the Shulhan Aruch: יתגבר כארי לעמוד בבוקר לעבודת בוראו yitgaber ka'ari la'amod baboker la'avodat bor'o (rise up in the morning ferociously like a lion to worship God)...where's the heroism here? The Rama adds a marginal comment:
ולא יתבייש מפני בני אדם המלעיגים עליו בעבודת השי"ת v'lo yitbayesh mipnay b'nai adam hamal'igim alav b'avodat hashem yibarach (one must not be cowered by those who ridicule this devotion). Leibowitz was not a pacifist, nor was my hevruta who disagreed with me but instead of ostracizing me, showed me there was room for me in this tent by mercifully directed me to the passages in the Talmud (Yom 23a, Shabbat 88b, Gittin 36b) and Maimonides (Hilchot De'ot 2:3) that tell us that actually, that's where our Torah should be leading us:

עלובין ואינן עולבין שומעין חרפתם ואינם משיבין עושין מאהבה ושמחים ביסורים ועליהם הכתוב אומר ואוהביו כצאת השמש בגבורתו aluvin (or ne'elavin) v'eynan olvin, shom'in herpatam v'eynam m'shivin, osin me'ahavah us'meyhim bisurim, va'aleyhem hakatuv omer, v'ohavav k'tzet hashemesh bigvurato (those who receive insult but do not insult in return, who hear humiliation but do not respond, act out of love and happily accept suffering, of them the verse speaks: those who love Him are like the sun in its glory).

When our verse speaks of "your enemies, God," could it possibly be limiting itself to a political situation? Is אוהביו ohavav (those who love Him) meant here as a synonym for God's allies, e.g., as found in Near Eastern treaty language? When we search the Bible for metaphors of light, we find ourselves in the heart of piety, not international relations: אוהבי ה'...אור זרוע לצדיק ohavey hashem...or zaru'a latzadik (Ps. 97:10-11); וזרחה לכם יראי שמי שמש צדקה v'zarha lachem yir'ay sh'mi shemesh tzedakah (Malachi 3:20); אור צדיקים ישמח or tzadikim yismah (Proverbs 13:9); והמשכלים יזהרו כזהר הרקיע ומצדיקי הרבים ככוכבים לעולם ועד v'hamaskilim yazhiru k'zohar haraki'a umatzdikay harabim kakochavim l'olam va'ed (Daniel 12:3). In moving from the battlefront to אהלה של תורה ohalah shel Torah, the Oral Tradition is much closer to the p'shat (the plain meaning) than biblical criticism -- but it also does something much more practical and important for our religious lives: it helps us turn to our inner lives and then apply this in our pursuit of peace in the interpersonal sphere.

The Talmudic application of our verse may seem rather extreme; Maimonides calls those who reach this pinnace of joyful restraint Tsadikim; later pietists called such behavior מידת חסידות midat hasidut. I suppose there's something antisocial about one's face shining as bright as the sun, as Moses, whose face glowed after coming down from Mt.Sinai, discoved (Ex. 34:29-35). But that's the problem with holiness in general: either it carries the price of loneliness, or, if it is popular, it is a sham.

Maimonides, followed by later pietistic authors, brings this whole thing down to earth by going back to the verse and redefining the enemy: it is our anger. In the spirit of Proverbs 16:32, טוב ארך אפים מגבור ומושל ברוחו מלוכד עיר tov erech apayim migibor umoshel b'ruhu miloched 'ir (One who is slow to anger is better than the mighty, and one whose temper is controlled than one who captures a city), and Mishnah Avot's איזהו גבור הכובש את יצרו ayzehu gibor hakovesh et yitzro (a hero is one who controls one's passion), Maimonides sees anger, along with pride (cf. Bavli Pesahim 66b), as the equivalent of idolatry. As such, he is of course completely out of step with modern culture.

My alarm clock starts me off with classical music; but I'd like to see if I can follow the first instruction in the Sefardi prayerbook:

סדר השכמת הבקר:
יתגבר כארי לעמוד בבוקר לעבודת הבורא. ומיד כשיקיץ משנתו יתבונן בחסדי השי"ת שהחזיר לו נשמתו העייפה כשהיא רגועה וחדשה. ובעודו על מיטתו יודה לה' על כך... ויאמר:
מודה אני לפניך מלך חי וקים. שהחזרת בי נשמתי בחמלה. רבה אמונתך:
Seder hashkamat haboker: yitgaber ka'ari la'amod baboker la'avodat haboray: umiyad k'sheyakitz mishnato yitbonen b'hasday hashem yitbarach shehehezir lo nishmato ha'ayefah k'shehi r'gu'ah vahadashah. uv'odo al mitato yodeh l'hashem al kach...v'yomar: modeh ani l'fanecha melech hai v'kayam, shehehezarta bi nishmati b'hemlah, rabah emunatecha

how to start the day: rise up in the morning, ferocious like a lion, to worship God. As soon as you wake, be cognizant of God's grace in giving back to you a new, calm breath instead of a tired one. While still in your bed, thank God and say, " I'm thankful to you, living God, for mercifully putting breath back into me, you are so reliable/faithful!

Shabbat shalom,


B'shalah starts off (13:17) trying to spare Israel from war, but ends (17:16) with a battle and an oath for more; God, who is designated as an איש מלחמה ish milhamah, a warrior hero (15:3), gives up halfway through the parashah keeping Israel out of the fray; while Israel was kept indoors and didn't even witness the violence of the 10th plague, it is the very sight of the Egyptians dying on the seashore (14:30) that brings them to faith. The biblical text provides the Archie Bunkers of all times with two earlier versions of God Bless America -- The Song of Moses, 15:1-19, and, in the haftarah, Deborah's Song, Judges chapter 5; however, תורה שבעל פה, torah sheb'al peh, the Oral Tradition has the last word, with its subversive interpretation of the last four words verse of Deborah's song: ואהביו כצאת השמש בגברתו v'ohavav k'tzet hashemesh bigvurato -- [thus may all your enemies perish, God], while those who love Him will be like the sun in its glory (Judges 5:31).

I'm posting this earlier than usual, and in an unfinished state, so that those who will be giving divrei torah this Shabbat will have time to consider using these texts, which are among my favorite (i.e., I am nogeah badavar!), and of course I'd be happy to make this a collective effort. The texts that I want to examine include Bavli Yoma 23, Gittin 36b, Bava Batra 8b, as well as the following (which I'll identify in case they come out in gibberish): Rambam, Hilchot De'ot 2:3, Tana Dvey Eliyahu Zuta 12, and Sefer Hahinuch 338

best wishes,


(1) רמב"ם יד החזקה - הלכות דעות פרק ב
(ג) ויש דעות שאסור לו לאדם לנהוג בהן בבינונית אלא יתרחק מן הקצה האחד עד הקצה האחר והוא גובה לב שאין דרך הטובה שיהיה אדם עניו בלבד אלא שיהיה שפל רוח ותהיה רוחו נמוכה למאד ולפיכך נאמר במשה רבינו ענו מאד ולא נאמר ענו בלבד ולפיכך צוו חכמים מאד מאד הוי שפל רוח ועוד אמרו שכל המגביה לבו כפר בעיקר שנאמר ורם לבבך ושכחת את ה' אלקיך ועוד אמרו בשמתא מאן דאית ביה גסות הרוח ואפילו מקצתה וכן הכעס מדה רעה היא עד למאד וראוי לאדם שיתרחק ממנה עד הקצה האחר וילמד עצמו שלא יכעוס ואפילו על דבר שראוי לכעוס עליו ואם רצה להטיל אימה על בניו ובני ביתו או על הציבור אם היה פרנס ורצה לכעוס עליהן כדי שיחזרו למוטב יראה עצמו בפניהם שהוא כועס כדי לייסרם ותהיה דעתו מיושבת בינו לבין עצמו כאדם שהוא מדמה כועס בשעת כעסו והוא אינו כועס אמרו חכמים הראשונים כל הכועס כאילו עובד עבודת כוכבים ואמרו שכל הכועס אם חכם הוא חכמתו מסתלקת ממנו ואם נביא הוא נבואתו מסתלקת ממנו ובעלי כעס אין חייהם חיים לפיכך צוו להתרחק מן הכעס עד שינהיג עצמו שלא ירגיש אפילו לדברים המכעיסים וזו היא הדרך הטובה ודרך הצדיקים הן עלובין ואינן עולבין שומעים חרפתם ואינם משיבין עושין מאהבה ושמחים ביסורים ועליהם הכתוב אומר ואוהביו כצאת השמש בגבורתו:

תנא דבי אליהו זוטא פרק יב
אם תאמר מפני מה ברא הקדוש ב"ה את היצר הרע והלא כבר יש לו תשע מאות ותשעים ותשעה אלפים רבבות של מלאכי השרת שהן מקדשין לשמו הגדול בכל יום מיציאת החמה עד שקיעת החמה הן אומרים ק' ק' ק' ה' צבאות מלא כל הארץ כבודו ומשקיעת החמה ועד יציאת החמה הן אומרים ברוך כבוד ה' ממקומו וכשנגלה הקדוש ברוך הוא על הר סיני ליתן את התורה לעמו ישראל לא נגלה אלא במאתים וארבעים ושמונה אלפים מלאכים שהן משרתים תמיד לפני הקב"ה שנאמר (תהלים סח) רכב אלהים רבותים אלפי שנאן אדני בם סיני בקדש אלא לא ברא הקב"ה את היצה"ר אלא רק בשביל בשר ודם שהוא אוכל ושותה כבהמה והוא מוציא רעי כבהמה ובא לעבוד להקדוש ברוך הוא. משלו משל למה"ד למלך שהיו לו עבדים והיו יושבין מעבר לחומה של ברזל והיה המלך מכריז עליהם ואומר כל מי שירא אותי והוא אוהב אותי יעלה על החומה של ברזל ויבא אצלי וכל מי שהוא עולה על החומה של ברזל בודאי הוא ירא את המלך והוא אוהב את המלך וכל מי שאינו עולה בוודאי הוא אינו ירא את המלך והוא אינו אוהב את המלך. מאותן שעלו על החומה לאותן שלא עלו איזה מהן חביב הוי אומר אותן שעלו על החומה. ומה שכרן של העולין על החומה ראה מה נאמר בהן (שמות כד) ומראה כבוד ה' כאש אוכלת בראש ההר לעיני בני ישראל אבל אצל הצדיקים מה נאמר בהם (שופטים ה) ואוהביו כצאת השמש בגבורתו מה שאין כן במלאכי השרת מה יפה כחו של בעל הבית שהוא מייפה כתר עבדיו כמו כתרו. ואם תאמר מי שקרא הרבה ושנה הרבה ומי שקרא ושנה קמעא יהיה מאור פניהם שוין כאחד במאור פנים לעוה"ב. אינו כן. ברוך המקום ברוך הוא שאין לפניו משוא פנים. ומנין לך תדע לך שכן הוא צא ולמד ממשה ואהרן נדב ואביהוא וע' מזקני ישראל שהיו כולם בפרק אחד ומאור פניהם שוין כאחד וכיון שעלה משה למרום וקרא ושנה הרבה ד"ת יותר מכולם זכה שהיה מאור פניו גדול כל כך עד שלא היו בני אדם יכולין להסתכל בו שכן נאמר במקום אחר יתר מרעהו צדיק (משלי יב). וזאת היא השאלה ששאל בו חבקוק הנביא לפני הקדוש ברוך הוא ואמר לפניו רבונו של עולם מי שקרא ושנה הרבה ומי שקרא ושנה קמעא יהיה מאור פניהם שוין כאחד במאור פנים לעולם הבא ואמר לו הקדוש ברוך הוא לאו אלא כל אחד ואחד לפי דרכו ועל שעמד חבקוק ודבר דברים יתרים הראה לו הקדוש ברוך הוא כל המדות שנאמרו לו למשה אבי החכמה ואבי הנביאים והראה לו מאזני צדק ואבני צדק ואיפת צדק והין צדק שנאמר (חבקוק ג) ברוגז רחם תזכור אף ברוגז שיש לו להקב"ה רחמים יזכור וכן יהיה השמש נחת רוח ותענוג גדול לצדיקים לימות בן דוד ולעולם הבא. אבל רשעי עמי הארץ יהיו נדונין בה בשמש ויהיו בטלים בה שנאמר (מלאכי ג) ושבתם וראיתם בין צדיק לרשע בין עובד אלהים לאשר לא עבדו כי הנה היום בא בוער כתנור והיו כל זדים וכל עשה רשעה קש ולהט אותם היום הבא אמר ה' צבאות אשר לא יעזוב להם שרש וענף וזרחה לכם יראי שמי שמש צדקה ומרפא בכנפיה וגו' ועסותם רשעים כי יהיו אפר תחת כפות רגליכם וגו'. אבל רשעי עכו"ם נידונין תמיד לדורי דורות שנאמר (ישעיה סו) ויצאו וראו בפגרי האנשים הפושעים בי כי תולעתם לא תמות ואשם לא תכבה והיו דראון לכל בשר. אבל חסידי עמי הארץ אעפ"י שלא קראו ולא שנו הואיל והקראו והשנו את בניהם ואין בהם עובדי ע"ז ואין בהם חמס וגזל ואין בהם ג"ע וש"ד והיו מהנין תלמידי חכמים מנכסיהן הקב"ה מביא אותם ומושיבן אצל הצדיקים ויהיו נהנים מן השמש שיזרח לצדיקים לימות בן דוד ולעולם הבא שנאמר (שם יט) ביום ההוא יהיה ישראל שלישיה למצרים ולאשור ברכה בקרב הארץ ואיני יודע מקרא זה מהו. כשהוא אומר אחר כך בסמוך אשר ברכו ה' צבאות לאמר ברוך עמי מצרים ומעשה ידי אשור ונחלתי ישראל כך הוא אומר הפסוק ברוך עמי מצרים אלו בנ"י שיצאו ממצרים ומעשה ידי אשור אלו ב"י שגלו לאשור ונחלתי ישראל אלו עמי הארץ שהקראו והשנו את בניהן תורה בניהן מצילין את אביהן מאותה בושה וחרפה ומאותה כלימה ומדינה של גיהנם שנאמר (שם כט) לכן כה אמר ה' אל בית יעקב אשר פדה את אברהם לא עתה יבוש יעקב ולא עתה פניו יחורו וגו' לא עתה יבוש יעקב מאביו יצחק ולא עתה פניו יחורו מאבי אביו אברהם:

ספר החינוך
שלח. שֶׁלֹּא לְהוֹנוֹת אֶחָד מִיִּשְׂרָאֵל בִּדְבָרִים:
שֶׁלֹּא לְהוֹנוֹת אֶחָד מִיִּשְׂרָאֵל בִּדְבָרִים, כְּלוֹמַר, שֶׁלֹּא נֹאמַר לְיִשְׂרָאֵל דְּבָרִים שֶׁיַּכְאִיבוּהוּ וִיצַעֲרוּהוּ וְאֵין בּוֹ כֹחַ לְהֵעָזֵר מֵהֶם. וּבְפֵרוּשׁ אָמְרוּ זִכְרוֹנָם לִבְרָכָה (ב"מ נח, ב) כֵּיצַד, אִם הָיָה בַּעַל תְּשׁוּבָה לֹא יֹאמַר לוֹ זְכֹר מַעֲשֶׂיךָ הָרִאשׁוֹנִים, הָיוּ חֳלָאִים בָּאִין עָלָיו לֹא יֹאמַר לוֹ כְּדֶרֶךְ שֶׁאָמְרוּ חֲבֵרָיו לְאִיּוֹב (ד ו) הֲלֹא יִרְאָתְךָ כִּסְלָתֶךָ וְגוֹ'. רָאָה חַמָּרִים מְבַקְשִׁים תְּבוּאָה לֹא יֹאמַר לָהֶם לְכוּ אֵצֶל פְּלוֹנִי וְהוּא יוֹדֵעַ שֶׁאֵין לוֹ, וְלֹא יֹאמַר לְתַגָּר בְּכַמָּה חֵפֶץ זֶה וְהוּא אֵינוֹ רוֹצֶה לִקַּח, וְעַל זֶה נֶאֱמַר (ויקרא כה יז) וְלֹא תוֹנוּ אִישׁ אֶת עֲמִיתוֹ:
שֹׁרֶשׁ מִצְוָה זוֹ יָדוּעַ כִּי הוּא לָתֵת שָׁלוֹם בֵּין הַבְּרִיּוֹת, וְגָדוֹל הַשָּׁלוֹם שֶׁבּוֹ הַבְּרָכָה מְצוּיָה בָעםלָם וְקָשָׁה הַמַּחֲלֹקֶת כַּמָּה קְלָלוֹת וְכַמָּה תַקָּלוֹת תְּלוּיוֹת בּוֹ:
מִדִּינֵי הַמִּצְוָה. כַּמָּה אַזְהָרוֹת וְכַמָּה זֵרוּזִין שֶׁהִזְהִירוּנוּ זִכְרוֹנָם לִבְרָכָה בְּעִנְיָן זֶה שֶׁלֹּא לְהַכְאִיב הַבְּרִיוֹת בְּשׁוּם דָּבָר וְלֹא לְבַיְּשָׁם, וְהִפְלִיגוּ בַדָּבָר עַד שֶׁאָמְרוּ (שם), שֶׁלֹּא יִתְלֶה עֵינָיו עַל הַמֶּקָּח בְּשָׁעָה שֶׁאֵין לוֹ דָּמִים, וְרָאוּי לְהִזָּהֵר שֶׁאֲפִלּוּ בְּרֶמֶז דְּבָרָיו לֹא יִהְיֶה נִשְׁמָע חֵרוּף לִבְנֵי אָדָם, כִּי הַתּוֹרָה הִקְפִּידָה הַרְבֵּה בְּאוֹנָאַת הַדְּבָרִים, לְפִי שֶׁהוּא דָּבָר קָשֶׁה מְאֹד לְלֵב הַבְּרִיּוֹת, וְהַרְבֵּה מִבְּנֵי אָדָם יַקְפִּידוּ עֲלֵיהֶם יוֹתֵר מֵעַל הַמָּמוֹן. וּכְמוֹ שֶׁאָמְרוּ זִכְרוֹנָם לִבְרָכָה (שם) גְּדוֹלָה אוֹנָאַת דְבָרִים מֵאוֹנָאַת מָמוֹן, שֶׁבְּאוֹנָאַת דְּבָרִים הוּא אוֹמֵר וְיָרֵאתָ מֵאֱלֹהֶיךָ.
וְלֹא יִהְיֶה בְאֶפְשָׁר לִכְתֹּב פְּרָט כֹּל הַדְּבָרִים שֶׁיֵּשׁ בָּהֶן צַעַר לַבְּרִיּוֹת, אֲבָל כָּל אֶחָד צָרִיךְ לְהִזָּהֵר כְּפִי מַה שֶּׁיִּרְאֶה, כִּי הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא יוֹדֵעַ כֹּל פְּסִיעוֹתָיו וְכֹל רְמִיזוֹתָיו, כִּי הָאָדָם יִרְאֶה לַעֵינַיִם וְהוּא יִרְאֶה לַלֵּבָב, וְכַמָּה מַעֲשִׂים כָּתְבוּ לָנוּ זִכְרוֹנָם לִבְרָכָה בְּמִדְרָשִׁים לְלַמֵּד עַל זֶה מוּסָר, וְעִקַּר הָעִנְיָן בְּפֶרֶק רְבִיעִי מִמְּצִיעָא [שם]:
וְנוֹהֶגֶת מִצְוָה זוֹ בְּכָל מָקוֹם וּבְכָל זְמָן בִּזְכָרִים וּנְקֵבוֹת, וַאֲפִלּוּ בִקְטַנִּים, רָאוּי לְהִזָּהֵר שֶׁלֹּא לְהַכְאִיבָם בִּדְבָרִים יוֹתֵר מִדַּאי, זוּלָתִי בַּמֶּה שֶׁצְּרִיכִין הַרְבֵּה כְּדֵי שֶׁיִּקְחוּ מוּסָר, וַאֲפִלּוּ בְבָנָיו וּבְנוֹתָיו בְּנֵי בֵּיתוֹ שֶׁל אָדָם, וְהַמֵּקֵל בָּהֶם שֶׁלֹּא לְצַעֲרָם בְּעִנְיָנִים אֵלֶּה יִמְצָא חַיִּים בְּרָכָה וְכָבוֹד. וְהָעוֹבֵר עַל זֶה וְהִכְאִיב אֶת חֲבֵרוֹ בִדְבָרִים בְּאוֹתָן שֶׁפֵּרְשׁוּ חֲכָמֵינוּ זִכְרוֹנָם לִבְרָכָה בְּבַעַל תְּשׁוּבָה וּבְחוֹלֶה וּכַיּוֹצֵא בָהֶן עָבַר עַל לָאו זֶה, אֲבָל אֵין לוֹקִין עָבּוֹ מַעֲשֶׂה. וְכַמָּה מַלְקֻיּוֹת מִבְּלִי רְצוּעָה שֶׁל עֵגֶל יֵשׁ בְּיַד הָאָדוֹן הַמְצַוֶּה עַל זֶה, יִתְעַלֶה:

וְאוּלָם לְפִי הַדּוֹמֶה, אֵין בְּמַשְׁמָע שֶׁאִם בָּא יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶחָד וְהִתְחִיל וְהִרְשִׁיעַ לְצַעֵר חֲבֵירוֹ בִּדְבָרָיו הָרָעִים שֶׁלֹּא יַעֲנֵהוּ הַשּׁוֹמֵעַ, שֶׁאִי אֶפְשָׁר לִהְיוֹת הָאָדָם כְּאֶבֶן שֶׁאֵין לָהּ הוֹפְכִים, וְעוֹד, שֶׁיִּהְיֶה בִשְׁתִיקָתוֹ שָׁוֶה כְּמוֹ עַל הַחֵרוּפִין. וּבֶאֱמֶת, לֹא תְצַוֶּה הַתּוֹרָה לִהְיוֹת הָאָדָם כְּאֶבֶן, שׁוֹתֵק לִמְחָרְפִין כְּמוֹ לַמְבָרְכִים, אֲבָל תְּצַוֶּה אוֹתָנוּ שֶׁנִּתְרַחֵק מִן הַמִּדָּה הַזֹּאת וְשֶׁלֹּא נַתְחִיל לְהִתְקוֹטֵט וּלְחָרֵף בְּנֵי אָדָם, וּבְכֵן יִנָּצֵל כָּל אָדָם מִכָּל זֶה, כִּי מִי שֶׁאֵינוֹ בַּעַל קְטָטָה לֹא יְחָרְפוּהוּ בְּנֵי אָדָם, זוּלָתִי הַשּׁוֹטִים הַגְּמוּרִים, וְאֵין לָתֵת לֵב עַל הַשּׁוֹטִים. וְאִם אוּלַי יַכְרִיחֶנּוּ מְחָרֵף מִבְּנֵי אָדָם לְהָשִׁיב עַל דְּבָרָיו רָאוּי לְחָכָם שֶׁיָּשִׁיב לוֹ דֶּרֶךְ סִלְסוּל וּנְעִימוּת וְלֹא יִכְעַס הַרְבֵּה כִּי כַעַס בְּחֵיק כְּסִילִים יָנוּחַ (קהלת ז ט). וִינַצֵּל עַצְמוֹ אֶל הַשּׁוֹמְעִים מֵחֵרוּפָיו וְיַשְׁלִיךְ הַמַּשָּׂא עַל הַמְחָרֵף, זֶהוּ דֶּרֶךְ הַטּוֹבִים שֶׁבִּבְנֵי אָדָם. וְיֶשׁ לָנוּ לִלְמֹד דָּבָר זֶה שֶׁמֻּתָּר לָנוּ לַעֲנוֹת כְּסִיל לְפִי הַדּוֹמֶה מֵאֲשֶׁר הִתִּירָה הַתּוֹרָה הַבָּא בְּמַחְתֶּרֶת לְהַקְדִּים וּלְהָרְגוֹ, שֶׁאֵין סָפֵק שֶׁלֹּא נִתְחַיֵּב הָאָדָם לִסְבֹּל הַנְּזָּקִים מִיַּד חֲבֵירוֹ, כִּי יֶשׁ לוֹ רְשׁוּת לְהִנָּצֵל מִיָּדוֹ וּכְמוֹ כֵן מִדִּבְרֵי פִיהוּ אֲשֶׁר מָלֵא מִרְמוֹת וָתוֹךְ, בְּכָל דָּבָר שֶׁהוּא יָכוֹל לְהִנָּצֵל מִמֶּנּוּ. וְאוּלָם יֵשׁ כַּת מִבְּנֵי אָדָם שֶׁעוֹלָה חֲסִידוּתָם כָּל כָּךְ שֶׁלֹּא יִרְצוּ לְהַכְנִיס עַצְמָם בְּהוֹרָאָה זוֹ לְהָשִׁיב חוֹרְפֵיהֶם דָּבָר, פֶּן יִגְבַּר עֲלֵיהֶם הַכַּעַס וְיִתְפַּשְּׁטוּ בְּעִנְיָן יוֹתֵר מִדַּאי, וַעֲלֵיהֶם אָמְרוּ זִכְרוֹנָם לִבְרָכָה (שבת פח, ב) הַנֶּעֱלָבִין וְאֵינָם עוֹלְבִים, שׁוֹמְעִין חֶרְפָּתָם וְאֵינָם מְשִׁיבִין עֲלֵיהֶם הַכָּתוּב אוֹמֵר (שופטים ה לא) וְאוֹהֲבָיו כְּצֵאת הַשֶּׁמֶשׁ בִּגְבוּרָתוֹ:

Posted for Rabbi Jeremy Milgrom

Friday, January 11, 2008

Netivoteha Shalom on Parshat Bo


Please forgive the irreverence of the subject line: afraid as I am of irrelevance, and in a desperate attempt to improve the ratings of this column, I've decided to do a Solomon Schechter and appeal to the sport fan in all (ok, most...some...a few?) of us. Perhaps we could launch a Netivoteha Shalom ratings of parashot in which humanism, love, inclusion, non-violence, universalism etc., would be at one end of the scale, and brutality, exclusion, fear, violence, particularism, etc., would be at the other end...

So, here are a few of the challenges, and occasional sighs of relief, I find in Parashat Bo:

1. God's hardening of Pharaoh's heart, which appears in Sh'mot and Va'era as well, continues justify the punishment of the Egyptians. Thus, the plague of locusts is justified "in order that I may display these My signs among them and that you may recount in the hearing of your sons and of your sons' sons how I made a mockery of the Egyptians and how I displayed My signs among them -- in order that you may know that I am the Lord (Ex. 10 1-2, NJPS translation)".

2. As philosophically and morally difficult as this is, we have an added element of Moses' ego (aggrandized already in 11:3 -- גם האיש משה גדול מאד בארץ מצרים בעיני עבדי פרעה ובעיני העם gam ha'ish Moshe gadol m'od b'eretz mitzrayim b'einey avdey Par'oh uv'einey ha'am) and temperment in the rationalization of the tenth plague: "Then all these courtiers of yours [of Pharoh] shall come down to me and bow low to me, saying, 'Depart, you and all the people who follow you!' After that I will depart. And he left Pharaoh's presence in hot anger (11:8)"

3. Israel was not allowed to venture outside of their houses when the destroyer struck down the first born of Egypt (12:22). In a famous homily by Ehad Harabanim Hamargishim, Aharon Shmuel Tamaret ( ) the one-time protection of the Israelites from the destroyer was interpreted as the general distancing of violence from Israel.

4. In the rules pertaining to the Pascal lamb, uncircumcised men, and non-Israelites in general, are not allowed to participate in the ritual. Volumes could be written on the implications of this prohibition, then and now, but what is astonishing to me is that the passage (12:43-50) imagines slaves taking part in the ritual. Not even one commentary that I could find points out the incongruity of celebrating freedom while keeping slaves...did the authors of the Haggadah have slaves in attendance in mind when they included the line: "Hashata avdey, l'shana haba'ah b'nai horin -- this year we are slaves, may we be free next year ?"

5. The text (11: 2-3, 12:35-36, embellished by rabbinic legend) wants us to know that the Israelites departed from slavery with significant amounts of Egyptian wealth. As I mentioned a while ago, medieval commentators go to exteme lengths to show that the Israelites did not steal this wealth, but rather it was bequeathed to them as gifts. I particularly like the way Rabbenu Hananel introduces the issue: חס ושלום שיתיר הקב"ה לגנוב דעת הבריות שישאלו מהם כלי כסף וכלי זהב ולא ישיבו להם (has V'shalom sheyatir hakodesh baruch hu lignov da'at habriyot sheyish'alu meyhem chley chesef uchley zahav v'lo yashivu lahem -- perish the thought that God would allow them to behave fraudulently and borrow silver and gold and then not return it). Hizkuni, Sforno and Ha'amek Davar, going against the trend, say that it was davka a loan, so that Egypt would run after them to get it back when they left and then be drowned in the Red Sea. In his comment on "Let each man and woman borry from their רע (re-ah, neighbor/friend, 11:2), Rabbenu Bahya points out (wistfully?) that the fraternity that prevailed among human beings was lost after the Torah was given to Israel.

ומה שהזכיר לשון רעהו ורעותה, יראה לי שקודם מתן תורה היו כל הבריות חברים כאחד אבל לאחר מתן תורה שהחזיר הקב"ה את התורה על כל אומה ולשון ולא קבלוה עד שקבלוה ישראל יצאו כל האומות מן האחוה והריעות ונשאר השם הזה בעם ישראל בלבד

Uma shehizkir l'shon re'ehu ur'uta, yera'eh li shekodem matan torah hayu kol habriyot haverim ke'ehad aval l'ahar matan torah shehehezir hakodesh baruch hu et hatorah al kol uma v'lashon v'lo kibluha ad shekkibluha yisrael yatz'u kol ha'umot min ha'ahvah v'hare'ut v'nish'ar hashem hazeh b'am yisrael bilvad

7. We (and most of the traditional commentators!) are so used to reading מה זאת (ma zot, what is this? 13:14) out of context, as one of the lines of the four sons in the Haggadah, that we don't realize, as did Sforno, and much later, Hebrew University Prof. Israel Knohl, that the child has witnessed, and is simply reacting to the destruction of the unredeemed firstborn donkey. Sforno uses traditional legend to tell the rise and fall of the donkey, which, aside from bearing great resemblence to both the Egyptians and the Israelites, was used by the latter to carry out the silver and gold of the former; the donkey was therefore sanctified, but did not rise high enough to become "eligible" to be sacrificial animals, and therefore must be destroyed if not redeemed.

Knohl uses this scene of horror, scene of woe, rising from the shades below, adding new terror to the night (listen to "Scenes of horror", from Handel's Jephtha, I'm happy to send the aria upon request) to teach that the God of the Exodus story is not the God of justice, but rather the God of might; the essence of the story is the demonstration of God's terrible power, which is why בחוזק יד (b'hozek yad, with a strong arm) is repeated throughout the story. This is not a god to be loved but rather a god to be feared, and everything that can be said about that was recently summed up by Terry Eagleton: "A theologian friend of mine maintains that the opposite of love is not hate, it is fear. The image of Jesus in the Gospels is of someone who is fearless. People clutching on to their region [sic] or sect are very fearful of what lies beyond, and therefore very dangerous.",,2228092,00.html

Posted for Rabbi Jeremy Milgrom

Friday, January 4, 2008

Va'era: Connecting the Dots

Va'era, Exodus 6:2-9:35. Seven plagues, ranging from the weird (e.g., frogs) to the destructive and life threatening (blood and hail) and the worst is still to come, but we're so used to the count every Passover that we're dulled to the terror the Egyptians were going through. Can this be the working of the God of Israel? "So that you will know that there is none like our God (Ex. 8:6, 18; 9:14,16, 29)." It all comes to teach Pharaoh a lesson, an exercise in public relations. He's willing to let them go into the desert to pray, but God hardens Pharaoh's heart, because He's not finished showing his might. Count me out.

I must have read these chapters through half a dozen times, slowly, carefully, trying to no avail to pick up on something clever or meaningful variation in the storytelling or phraseology. Beginning with last night, and then this Friday morning, relevance crept up on me, gently, without flashing lights. I'll start from the end: on a Palestinian minibus at the southwestern checkpoint into Jerusalem, a woman behind me unsuccessfully pleaded with an Israeli female soldier perhaps one third her age: "I'm over fifty, and I want to pray [at al-Aksa mosque in the Old City of Jerusalem]". The reply: "Even if you're eighty you'll need a permit: get off the bus." Here it is: liberation theology comes (back!) to the Middle East.

I connected the dots last night in a passage that I thought was only of interest to biblical criticism: the discussion of God's name in chapter 6, in which Moses' question from last week's reading still echoes (Ex. 3:13): "When I say to them, 'The God of your ancestors sent me to you', and they ask me, 'What is his name?' what shall I tell them?" The story is also about finding meaning in chaos; in my particular predicament, close relatives have just had a baby and have chosen for him what seems to some of us to be an outrageous name, one that could only come via direct inspiration from a cruel god. Can I sit by and let them ruin this child's life? God forbid I should go out like Moses of chapter 2 and strike down the delusional parents; there must another way to tend this flock and bring back the lost sheep!

Some people change their mezuzah parchments when disaster strikes; the Egyptians were quicker to connect the dots of Israel's liberation than Pharaoh was (9:20; and even more clearly in next week's reading, 10:7). Midrash comforts us by telling us that slow learning is more the rule than the exception: 26 years ago this week, while driving in the Galilee, I heard a radio broadcast of a lecture by Yeshayahu Leibowitz that shook me so much it forced me to pull off the road. In reference to the propensity of some folks to add a fifth cup to the Seder, for the fifth verb of redemption, v'heveti (I will bring) (Ex. 6:8), he quoted R. Simai's teaching in the Babylonian Talmud (Sanhedrin 111a): "It says, 'I will take you' and 'I will bring you': learn about the exodus from Egypt from the entrance into the Land; just as in the latter case, only 2 out of 600,000 entered, so, too, in the former, only 2 out of 600,000 [really] left."

posted for
Rabbi Jeremy Milgrom

Friday, December 28, 2007

Joshua Bell and Moses try out a new environment

I.Joshua Bell and Moses try out a new environment

At the start of this week's Torah reading, Sh'mot (Exodus 1:1-6:1), there are 70 Israelites living in comfort in Egypt; at its end, they number multitudes, but in slavery. Pharaoh has decreed the drowning of every male Israelite newborn in the Nile, but one such baby is pulled out of the water and survives:
When Moses had grown up, he went out to his kinsfolk and witnessed their labors. He saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his kinsmen. 12 He turned this way and that and, seeing no one about, he struck down the Egyptian and hid him in the sand 13 When he went out the next day, he found two Hebrews fighting; so he said to the offender, "Why do you strike your fellow?" 14 He retorted, "Who made you chief and ruler over us? Do you mean to kill me as you killed the Egyptian?" Moses was frightened, and thought: Then the matter is known! 15 When Pharaoh learned of the matter, he sought to kill Moses; but Moses fled from Pharaoh. He arrived in the land of Midian, and sat down beside a well (chapter 2:11-15).

The adult life of Moses, receiver of the Torah who led Israel out of slavery and guided them for 40 years in the desert to the borders of the promised land, begins with what was, at best, an act of vigilante justice, quite possibly an unjustified homicide. It is followed by an exile that, according to the rabbis, lasted... 40 years. Both of these 40 year stretches brought on tremendous amounts of suffering, but they had to happen: the Torah rules out short-cuts. Just as the Israelites weren't ready to enter the land right after leaving slavery, so, too, was Moses not ready to confront Pharaoh and liberate the Israelites; first he had to move out of Pharaoh's court and become a shepherd.

For those of us -- all those reading this newsletter -- who agonize over the unending oppression of both the Israeli and the Palestinian people by the injustice and violence of the conflict in the Middle East, it is essential to realize that a just peace (actually, anything approaching peace) will not arrive through a clever advertising campaign, or the much desired departure of an incalcitrant leader. It may not come during our lifetime, or even that of our children. Like Moses, who tended sheep in Midian for many years, we will have to channel our passions into the slow but steady job of daily nurturing our flocks.
When Joshua Bell played Bach on his Stradivarius in the Washington DC metro for 43 minutes last January 12th, only 7 people stopped to listen.

If Moses had not had the time, he would not have stopped to marvel at the sight of a bush burning unusually...

II. What Gandhi, the text, and Midrash have to say about the killing of the Egyptian

בני ישראל , אותה משפחה מורחבת בת 70 נפשות החיים ברווחה שהכרנו מסיפור יוסף (סוף ספר
בראשית ) מתרבים ומתעצמים כבר בתחילת פרשתנו , פרשת "ואלה שמות" (ספר שמות פרקים א-ה ).
על מצרים רובץ "איום דמוגרפי " והמנהיג החזק שם מחליט "לטפל בהם ," לסדר להם תעסוקה
מתאימה, להגביר את פריון העבודה שלהם (אוי , כמה מוכר ...) ולהוריד את הריבוי הטבעי בחצי ע"י
הריגת כל בן הילוד . לאחר נסיון אחד שנכשל בעקבות המקרה הראשון בהיסטוריה של סירוב
מצפוני (המיילדות העבריות שיפרה ופועה ) מצווה פרעה להשליך כל תינוק ממין זכר ליאור , אך גזירה
זו חוזרת אליו כבוברנג כאשר בתו מוצאת תינוק צף, מאמצת אותו ומנציחה את האירוע בהענקת
שמו : ”ותקרא שמו משה , ותאמר, "כי מן המים משיתהו ".
שיפרה , פועה ובת פרעה מצילות נפש , ומשה, איך הוא יתחיל את הקריירה ?
ויהי בימים ההם ויגדל משה ויצא אל אחיו וירא בסבלותם וירא איש מצרי מכה איש עברי מאחיו : ויפן
( כה וכה וירא כי אין איש ויך את המצרי ויטמנהו בחול (פרק ב: 11-12
ובכן , גם משה מציל נפש, אך תוך נטילת נפש. ומעניין לגלות מה יש לתורה שבעל פה להוסיף כאן על
א. למרות שאצל חז "ל דווקא אחיו אהרון הוא הדמות למופת ביישוב סכסוכים בדרכי שלום ( הלל
אומר הוי מתלמידיו של אהרן , אוהב שלום ורודף שלום אוהב את הבריות ומקרבן לתורה , פרקי אבות)
גם ממשה התאמצו להרחיק את האלימות . במקרה שלנו , למדו ממה שנאמר בהמשך הסיפור ,
”הלהרגני אתה אומר כאשר הרגת את המצרי " שמשה הרג באמירה ולא במכה פיזית (פרס יינתן למי
שמנחש מה היתה אותה מילה שהמיתה...). כך גם בשני המקרים של הוצאה להורג בתורה (נוקב
השם , בספר ויקרא כ“ד ; ומקושש העצים בשבת , בספר במדבר ט "ו ): למרות שברורה אשמתם ודינם ,
אין משה מוציאם להורג ללא ציווי מפורש מגבוה (כך מדגיש הרב שאול ברמן יל "א)
ב. במדרש מוצאים אשמות נוספות לאיש המצרי שהרג, מה שמלמד אותנו שלחז "ל לא היה נוח
לראות במשה מי שיהרוג אדם שאין עליו דין מוות (מה שמעיד שהכלל "בא להרגך השכם להורגו " לא
היה שגור בפיהם)
אינני יודע אם הדברים שאכתוב עכשיו הם בגדר הפשט או שייחשבו דרש, אך נדמה לי שאפשר
לפרש את בריחתו של משה למדיין כמחאה של הטקסט נגד הריגת המצרי , משום הדמיון לגלותו של
רוצח בשגגה לעיר מקלט , שאיננו רק מקום בטוח מפני גואל הדם , אלא גם מעין בית סוהר שבו מרצה
הרוצח את עונשו עד מות הכהן הגדול (במקרה של משה , עד מות פרעה, שהיה גם דמות פולחנית ).
אך לא רק משה נענש פה – כל עם ישראל ממשיך להיות משועבד עד אשר משה יכול לחזור
ולהתייצב מול פרעה. וכך ניתן לאמר שכפי שחז "ל קבעו ש"כל המאבד נפש אחת מעלה עליו הכתוב
כאילו איבד עולם מלא ", כך גם במקרה שלנו , החירות שעם ישראל זכאי לו אינו אלא שיעבוד ליצרים
ולכוחנות אם הוא מושג ע"י אלימות . משה איננו מצווה לפעול לשחרר את עם ישראל מכל רסן – צריך
לדייק כשמצטטים את הסיסמה "שלח את עמי ," שאינו מופיע כך אף לא פעם אחת , אלא "שלח את
עמי ויעבדוני " – לעבודת בורא כל הנשמות כולן .

Friday, December 21, 2007

What Joseph Didn't Know

What Joseph Didn't Know

וימאן אביו ויאמר ידעתי בני ידעתי

vay'ma'en aviv vayomer yada'ti v'ni yada'ti

his father stubbornly refused and said, my son, I know, I know (Gen. 48:19)

Four tense conversations between fathers and sons resonate in this verse, four generations seeking their destiny. Plagued with failing vision like his father in a similar situation (chapter 27), Jacob resists his son's attempt to lift his hand from his favored grandson's head; earlier, an angel succeeds in convincing his grandfather not to reach out his hand against his favored son (chapter 22). In each encounter, a metaphysical knowledge trumps custom and logic; in the case of Joseph, the seer, his sudden ignorance is especially stunning.

Jacob's testaments (chapters 48 and 49) casts the future of all of his sons, and in chapter 50, wary of the revenge that could follow their father's death (the same fear attached to Isaac's death, 27:41) the brothers inform Joseph of one last verbal request that Jacob made before dying, that he forgive his brothers' sin. Joseph has no way of knowing what Jacob knew, nor do we. When he saw Joseph's blood-stained coat, he deduced Joseph had died, but he never believed it, and stubbornly refused to be comforted (וימאן להתנחם vay'ma'en l'hitnahem). Did he figure out his sons' guilt and the fragility of Joseph's forgiveness? Or did fear bring them to confess, but also to give it the authority of Jacob's voice? In any event, Joseph complies, responding to the invocation of Jacob's will with Jacob's words to Rachel (30:2), התחת אלהים אני hatahat elohim ani -- am I instead of God? Comforting his brothers (וינחם אותם vay'nahem otam) and speaking to their hearts (50:21), perhaps he finally achieves that which his clairvoyance had always denied him.

There's more to the story that we don't know, and questions of how to apply it. Here are my top three:

1. What do we do with Jacob's deathbed revelation of his violent Amorite conquest (Gen. 48:22)? How does it fit with his condemnation of Simeon and Levi, first stated in chapter 34 and expanded in chapter 49? Rabbi Yehudah's answer is to spiritualize the violence: בחרבי ובקשתי' במצות ובמעשים טובים'--b'harbi uv'kashti – b'mitzvot uv'ma'asim tovim--for “my sword and bow” read “commandments and good deeds” (Genesis Rabba 97:6)

2. Why doesn't Jewish tradition use the Joseph story to teach forgiveness? Jonathan Sacks, the exception who proves the rule ( ), brings Maimonides to show that forgiveness can be granted without an apology.

3. “When people lack the ability to forgive, they are unable to resolve conflict. The result is division, factionalism, and the fragmentation of a nation into competing groups and sects. That is why Joseph's forgiveness is the bridge between Genesis and Exodus (Sacks, ibid).”

“He (Jacob, on his deathbed) indicates that Simeon and Levi should be allotted such a position in the future Jacob-Israel nation, that political and military powers of decision should never lie in their hands.” “It is of the most profound importance that here, at once, at the laying the foundation of the Jewish nation, a curse is laid on any and every transgression of the laws of morality and justice even if done in the interests of the public and the state. All other states and nations justify themselves by the principle that public and state interests sanctify everything. Cunning, trickery and force, which, in private life would be punished with prison and gallows are rewarded with civic honours and medals; the laws of morality only exist for private life, but in politics and diplomacy the only code recognised is the interests of the party or state. The original testament for the Jewish nation here lays a curse on all trickery and violence even if practiced for the most justified cause in the public interest, and perpetuates the teaching that even in public life and in the public interests, not only the ends but the means, too, must be pure. In no case does the end justify the means.” (S. R. Hirsch on Gen. 34: 25ff and 49:7).

Although these quotes could be the basis for polarizing questions, I'd rather leave them as unifying prayers.

posted for Rabbi Jeremy Milgrom

Friday, December 14, 2007

Netivoteha Shalom on Vayigash: Joseph of many colors

Joseph's intense family dynamics took over last week's column; I couldn't wait to continue my quest into Vayigash (Genesis 44:18-47:27) even while the Torah scroll was still open at Miketz (41-44:17). I dreamt last week (I'm being serious)...there's a lot on my plate...but that's not what I thought Netivoteha Shalom was for; and sure enough, this week we're back to a wider, inter-ethnic perspective, and with a vengeance (unfortunately, quite literally).

It seems that Joseph's prediction of a seven year famine was a well-kept secret known only to Jacob's family and Pharaoh's court, and that while Pharaoh prepared for it by stockpiling food during the seven years of plenty, the Egyptian people did not budget for it; thus we learn (Gen. 47:14) that they are starving but have no more money to purchase the food Joseph has stored. When they come pleading to him, he tells them he'll feed them in exchange for their livestock. After they have expended this resource, they return to Joseph saying, “We have nothing left but our carcasses and our land; why should we die , we and our land? Buy us and our land for food, we and our land will be enslaved to Pharaoh; give us seed, so that we live and not die, and the land won't be desolate (47:18-19).” Joseph accepts this offer and implements the arrangement.

Now all this is told within an envelope of preceding and following verses (47:11-13 and 47:27) that tell us that Joseph is looking after his family, settling them in Goshen and feeding them, and it ends with the formula ויפרו וירבו מאוד they were fruitful and multiplied greatly – reminding us of the idyllic blessing of Genesis 1, but more importantly, recalling the language of Exodus 1, which introduces the enslavement of Joseph's descendents. I began to wonder whether the connection between these two enslavements goes beyond the shared phraseology. Would it not add an unstated motive of revenge to the paranoia that is brought in Ex. 1:9-10?

An online search of traditional commentaries I use, and recommend, the Feinburg E-collection at, pulled up the following comment by Siftey Cohen:

הוגד לי בחלום, שתם הכסף מארץ מצרים כדי שלא יהיה להם כסף, כדי שלא יקנו בני ישראל וישאו ויתנו בהם ויעשו סחורתם ויקשה עליהם יציאתם מאחר שלקחום בדמים, אם כשהיו בחנם רדפו אחריהם כל שכן כשהיו קנוים בדמים-- I learned in a dream (!) that "there was no money left in Egypt" (verse 15) kept them from purchasing the Israelites and trading in them, which would have made the Exodus more difficult; as it was, they pursued them, but had they paid for them, all the more so. I found this comment striking in its perception of Israelite vulnerability in a passage where Joseph's family is living in the lap of privilege; evidently, the memory of our enslavement in Egypt was so strong that it obscured the plain message of the text. But if this statement required some indulgence, what I found in the khumashim (Torah texts) that we put in our congregants hands really threw me for a loop.

Plaut (The Torah, A Modern Commentary, UAHC, 1981) provides the following introduction to this section (p. 293):

"We learn about the effects of the famine and, so it seems to many, the morally puzzling aspects of Joseph's economic and political management. Israel now dwells in Goshen, and a new chapter in his people's history is about to begin."

He is somewhat more explicit in his expansive afterword (page 298): "Because of the careful and unemotional accounting of the disenfranchisement of the Egyptian people and the apparent approval of Joseph's role in it, this section has been made "a show piece of anti-Semitic polemic" [von Rad]. Here is the Bible, it has been said, Jewry's sacred book, and look at the morality that, by its exaltation of Joseph, it obviously endorses [e.g., Gunkel]."

Plaut then proceeds to put Joseph's behavior in the context of the proper functioning of a civil servant in ancient Egypt, which brings him to conclude (p. 299): "To superimpose 20th century ideas of social and political morality on this story is, therefore, not helpful. Joseph served Pharaoh in his struggle with the Egyptian hierarchy. In so doing he saved the multitudes from starvation, and, apparently this was worth any price to them -- including a mortgage on their freedom. And it is altogether possible that they thought little of their freedom anyway. Jewish tradition sensed, long ago, that Joseph's actions might not have met with the same success had the Egyptians valued their freedom more highly. The Bible calls Egypt the "house of bondage" not only because Israel was enslaved there but also because its people accepted their own bondage as a normal condition of life." [In a footnote, Plaut gives a little in the other direction, stating, "Joseph's participation in bringing about this condition left later generations with a sense of uneasiness" and cites examples of positive attitudes to Egyptians elsewhere in the Bible.]

I am indebted to Plaut for sending me to von Rad, who opened my eyes to a hint of irony in the Egyptians' proclamation in verse 25: “You have kept us alive! we are grateful to my lord for making us slaves to Pharaoh." But aside from that, I'm left bewildered: I'm very sorry that anti-Semites go to town on this text, but this defence of the text and Judaism reeks of racism and blame-the-victim; and I can't find sources that corroborate his defamation of the Egyptians.

Sarna (The JPS Torah Commentary, 1989), too, seems ambivalent. On the one hand, ”Joseph's actions cannot be measured by the moral standards that the Hebrew Bible, especially the prophetic tradition, has inculcated in Western civilization. (p.322).” But then he goes on to suggest that the author of this story comes from another literary tradition/value system: “Rather, they must be judged in the context of the ancient Near Eastern world by whose norms Joseph emerges here as a highly admirable model of a shrewd and successful administrator (Sarna, JPS, pp. 322-323).”

I don't doubt that the Joseph story originates in wisdom literature, but looking at the broader context, not only the prophetic tradition but also the narrator here is indeed critical of Joseph, who saves one generation but enslaves many more; serving Pharaoh is not the same as serving God, or, in business terms, ethical behavior is ultimately profitable. When the Egyptians plead for their lives, למה נמות נגדך/לעיניך (“Why should we die in your presence/before your eyes”-- Gen. 47:15,19) we hear the echo of Esau's desperate הנה אנכי הולך למות, ולמה זה לי בכורה (“I'm about to die, what good will the birthright do me?”-- Gen. 25:32 ) made in trading his birthright for a stew. Yet, that transaction had limited validity, because otherwise, Jacob would not have had to deceive his father to receive Esau's blessing. It's shocking for Joseph to be denying the lesson his brothers learned when they realized their heartlessness which led to his sale: אשר ראינו צרת נפשו בהתחננו אלינו ולא שמענו (“We saw his desperation when he pleaded before us, but we didn't listen” – Gen. 42:21).

What it all boils down to is that we all find the Joseph we need: if we're looking for a devoted son and brother, we'll find it in the text (and even more easily in the Midrash), but it will also offer us someone struggling to find his place as a family member, and who is still locked in destructive patterns of selfish behavior; if it's a national savior, we'll find that, too, but if we're wary of being too close to Pharaoh (in his many manifestations) we'll also be able to see the long-term effects of selfishness on a national level, and the xenophobia that keeps us from commiserating and co-existing with the Other. The text is a magical mirror, to be handled with great care.

posted for Rabbi Jeremy Milgrom

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Zecharia speaks spirit to Joseph's power

ישימך אלהים כאפרים וכמנשה – “May God make you as Efraim and Menashe (Gen. 48:20).” For a name that is etched deep in the warmest memories of many Jewish boys who received that blessing from their parents every Friday night, the name Menashe doesn't fare too well in Jewish tradition: from the Bible, where the 7th c. BCE Menashe is considered the worst Judean king because he spilt innocent blood (apparently not such a hard act to follow...), till modern Jewish literature, where Menashe Hayyim is the lead, tragic character in Agnon's great short story והיה העקוב למישור (The Crooked Straight), the bearers of this name face an uphill struggle.

The birth of Joseph's children comes at the apogee of his family life: sold into slavery by his brothers and mourned for dead by his father, he has arrived at the opposite end of the spectrum of success in his new life. The usual translation of Menashe's name is one that insists on Joseph's determination to put his Canaanite past behind him: כי נשני אלהים את כל עמלי ואת כל בית אבי “God has made me forget all my troubles, everything to do with my father's home”. The echo of these insightful words, spoken by the one whose ability to predict the future has taken him from the pit to the pinnacle, is still with us when the scene switches to Jacob's household as his brothers are sent to Egypt to purchase food from his storehouse.

If Joseph understood his own words and realized his success was dependent on his leaving his past, he could have just treated them as ordinary customers, sold them grain and set them on their way. But he doesn't: he can't. I'd rather read Menashe's naming this way: “God stripped away all my troubles (just as my brothers stripped my father's coat off of me), but he also took me completely away from my father's house (but not forever).” So Joseph procedes to bring his father's house in its entirety to Egypt, in stages: first, he manages to provoke the brothers into disclosing the existence of their additional brothers. Now notice how he forces them to bring Benjamin: first, by holding them all captive except for the one who will fetch Benjamin, and then holding “only” one and having all the others struggle with Jacob and recreate the scenes of his childhood which included tale-bearing and declothing (hence his accusations of spying and exposing nakedness).

The rabbinic texts follow the biblical text in its focus on the Joseph's role as savior of the family and the people Israel (but do they extoll his role as savoir of humanity? I haven't checked). There are midrashic claims that Joseph kept his brothers in a comfortable lock-up, and that he fasted, didn't drink wine, and sat in sackcloth, i. e., mourned his father's absence throughout their entire separation (cf. Encyclopedia Judaica, “Joseph”). Indeed, Joseph the Tsadik. But can Joseph possibly escape our censure for the thrice-repeated statement of bereavement, שכלתם, שכלתי, שכלתי that he puts on Jacob's lips -- the most gripping point in the entire story -- which makes clear that the Joseph story is really only the last chapter of Jacob's life -- when he forces him to part with the last remaining son of Rachel? Next week's joyous reunion will not be enough to sweeten Jacob's summary of his life (47:9) as one of suffering.

Jacob struggles with God and men, and passes this down to Joseph, who, never shaking off his father's house, does the same, but even better. His vision doesn't only multiply flocks, it nourishes all of civilization. Brought up in a home where children trick fathers, he can outdo them all, because he has a divine power that bestows upon him mundane power, which he exercises while divining (with the cup, since, as Rachel's son, he also uses the concrete to reach the intangible). Joseph's story is one of power, but not of spirit, which is the ultimate biblical story. Joseph will bring his family to him, down to Egypt. Like him, they will go down, into slavery and up to power. And down again. But what will count is spirit.

I was taught, and would like still to believe, that the rabbis of late antiquity didn't have much use for the legacy of the Maccabees; Hanukkah, their holiday, is not even mentioned in the Mishnah, and is given only a few pages in the Babylonian Talmud. These are the same rabbis who had us respond to this week's part of Joseph's story with a Haftarah that proclaims:

לא בחיל ולא בכוח כי אם ברוחי אמר ה' צבאות

Not by might, not by power, but by my spirit, said the Lord Ts'va'ot (Zecharia 4:6)

Shabbat shalom v'Hanukkah sameah,

posted for Rabbi Jeremy Milgrom

Stripped Bare

Stripped Down Soul: The topics will range across the board; from time to time, I may suggest a topic, but by and large, this is a forum for voices who aren't the usual prog celebrities (or at least not yet) to talk about what they are interested in, from spirituality, to text, to social transformation, and anything else that is niggling away at them.