Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Drash Va'era 5766- Uncircumcised Tongues

After Moses’ first disaster talking to Pharaoh and the Israelites, God talks to Moses again and tells him to talk to the Israelites again, who are so stressed out, they promptly ignore them. Then God tells a despondent Moses to talk to Pharaoh once again, and Moses objects. God tells Moses that he will use signs and wonders to make sure everyone knows God’s power. First there is the wonder of the staff being turned into a snake, then the staff eating the other snakes. Then begins the plagues, where we have the first seven of the ten.

Moses, in response to God’s command to go see Pharaoh a second time, complains

And Moses spoke before the Lord, saying, Behold, the people of Israel have not listened to me; how then shall Pharaoh hear me, who am of uncircumcised lips? (Ex. 6:12)

The text then does a detailed genealogy of the Levites, ending with the verses (ex. 6:26-30)

26. These are Aaron and Moses, to whom the Lord said, Bring out the people of Israel from the land of Egypt by their hosts. 27. These are those who spoke to Pharaoh King of Egypt, to bring out the people of Israel from Egypt; these are Moses and Aaron. 28. And it came to pass on the day when the Lord spoke to Moses in the land of Egypt, 29. That the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, I am the Lord; speak to Pharaoh king of Egypt all that I say to you. 30. And Moses said before the Lord, Behold, I am of uncircumcised lips, and how shall Pharaoh listen to me?

These two passages appear to be describing the same incident where God talks to Moses and Aaron. Interestingly in both cases Moses uses a phrase found only here: uncircumcised lips. What are uncircumcised lips? What does this phrase mean? Once before in Exodus 4:10-11 Moses objects:

And Moses said to the Lord, O my Lord, I am not a man of words yesterday nor the day before, nor since you have spoken to your servant; but I am a heavy mouth, and a heavy tongue. And the Lord said to him, Who has made man’s mouth? Who makes the dumb, or deaf, or the seeing, or the blind? Is it not I the Lord? Now therefore go, and I will be with your mouth, and teach you what you shall say.

As discussed last week, one Midrash blames this on an injury while Moses was young, and he burned his mouth. But on evidence from Gods reply, the Midrash for these verses goes with the obvious answer to God’s rhetorical question: this was an intentional defect in Moses; if God wants to remove it, he will. The cause however does not help us understand what uncircumcised lips are. The word for uncircumcised has some interesting meanings. When not linked with speech it shows up thirty eight times in Tanach, and by context in these sentences has two meanings: In its natural state and dirty foreigner.

For the last few weeks I’ve been working on a final research paper for a class on medieval Judaism. While I’ll talk about the subject for that final in the Drash for Parshat Mishpatim, it’s the process of research here that I find interesting. Many of the primary sources I’m working on have no easily accessible nor reliable translation. Thus I have to translate the material from Medieval Hebrew. The commentator I’m translating, also named Shlomo, had a similar problem, though with a different language. Rabbi Shlomo b. Yitzchak, know to the world by his nickname Rashi, was one of the most prolific commentators in all of Jewish history, writing a commentary not just to Torah, but to all of the Talmud. Using a very literal method, he more or less gives his reader the bottom line about a phrase in the work he is commenting on. Often, they are incredibly short statements. For example, there’s the lead up to my tag line in Ber 62a. Compared to the Talmud obliquely describing the “talking and laughing and doing his requirements” of the Sage Rav, Rashi makes clear what going on: “he’s having sex.” Rashi, who spoke French, also understood that sometimes words don’t translate easily and would place French words transliterated in to Hebrew to explain a strange vocabulary word.

As I read Rashi in the original, it’s not easy. Italian printers, centuries after Rashi, decided their texts need a little visual something for segregating commentary from text. So they typeset Rashi in a wildly different font from most Hebrew. We today call this script Rashi script after the texts which get printed in this font, not the font’s inventor. Secondly, Rashi writes in a derivative of Rabbinic Hebrew, and I’m just learning Rabbinic Hebrew. While the basic rules of grammar are close to Biblical, they are not quite the same, and, even worse, Rabbinic Hebrew added a lot of colloquial expressions. For example the phrase for having sex I mentioned above is literally “serve his bed.” Thinking about the trouble I have in my studies, I have a different Midrash why Moses was not a man of words with an uncircumcised tongue.

Moses had to have known at least three languages: Hebrew, Egyptian, and Midianite. The forty years prior to the Exodus would have been in Midianite. After forty years of an exclusive use of a language, people forget a lot of their former use of language. Of course they do not know the contemporary colloquialisms. What this means is that his slowness of speech and unformed words were a matter of always being the foreigner in his speech, no matter who he talked to. He reminds me of my own struggles with Hebrew and Aramaic. I can put together a sentence and translate, but it takes me a long time, it is far from instantaneous and always requires a dictionary. Uncircumcised lips means with a naturally foreign accent and demeanor, one that makes the speech of Moses far from convincing. Imagine replacing Charleton Heston with Bob Marley as Moses in The Ten Commandments. To American audiences at least, particularly in the 1950’s but even today, this would be bordering on the ridiculous. As hard as we try not to be racist, Moses has to be the white all-American reciting from King James, not a black Jamaican with alien speech patterns. Such would be true of Pharaoh and the Israelites when Moses the Midianaite at first talks for God to Egyptian and Hebrew audiences. Moses knows this, and does have a better speaker there: Aaron, though with the “foreigner” tagging along even Aaron loses creditability.

God’s solution to all this is "Go anyway". At the burning bush God intimates that Moses not being a man of words is intentional. In the text of Exodus 6, we get two other responses. One response is these two who speak for God are not foreigners at all. They are direct line descendents from Levi. Their mother Yocheved, and grandfather Kohath are Levi’s grandchildren. Their father Amram was among Levi’s great grandchildren. They are far from foreign.

The second is what takes up the rest of the narrative of this portion. In the Perkei Avot there is this quote from R. Simeon b. Gamliel:

All my days I grew up among the sages, and I have found nothing better for a person than silence. Study is not the most important thing, but deed; whoever indulges in too many words brings about sin. (M. Avot 1:17)

From the time Moses and Aaron begin to act instead of talk things change. By the end of this portion they have not only the attention of all the Israelites, but even Pharaoh’s magicians concede “This is the finger of God!” On the other hand, the too many words of their first attempts not only didn’t work, they had a negative effect. Being a man of deeds and not a man of words turned out not to be a bad thing at all.

As Mark Twain once summarized this whole argument “Thunder is impressive, but lighting gets the job done!” Study is of course important, the rabbis were clear that knowledge led to action. But in the end it is what we do that matters. Moses may not have spoken well in Egypt, but he did the job and by doing so succeeded in freeing the Israelites. The lesson of uncircumcised lips is that we don’t always have to talk our way out of things; sometimes we won’t be able to. Often doing the good deed is far more effective.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Drash Shemot 5766 - dissing DeMille

This week we start the book of Exodus and are introduced to the setup for the rest of the Torah. A Pharaoh who does not know Joseph arises and appealing to national security, has the Israelites enslaved. Things get worse. Pharaoh has the midwives try to kill all the newborn boys but they do not heed him. In response Pharaoh then decides to kill all male Israelite newborns by drowning, though one baby escapes this by being sent down the river, ending up living in the palace, until this now grown man murders an Egyptian task master. The slave who this guy saves rewards him by ratting him out. To escape Pharaoh’s anger, this man flees to Midian where he finds a bride, becomes a shepherd and has a rather interesting conversation with a burning bush. This man is of course Moses. And this week is really his story. We read of his upbringing:

10. And the child grew, and she brought him to Pharaoh’s daughter, and he became her son. And she called his name Moses; and she said, Because I drew him out of the water. 11. And it came to pass in those days, when Moses was grown, that he went out to his brothers, and looked on their burdens; and he spied an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his brothers. (Ex. 2 10-11)

Midrash very often tries to resolve the contradictions, extraneous elements, and missing gaps in the text of Torah. In the story of Exodus 2, there are plenty. One of most known Midrash is not rabbinic however, but 1950’s American Christianity: Cecil B. Demille’s The Ten Commandments. A good amount of movie time is midrash of what happened between Exodus 2:10 and 2:11. There is no rabbinic text which really describes Moses being Ramses’ best buddy growing up, nor the implications of sibling rivalry over both women and power. But like most midrash, once written, it tends to stick. So when the animated version The Prince of Egypt came out, this midrash was still a critical part of the story, though this time with a plotline with shades of the Shoah, the issue which Moses links his heritage with. This movie midrash primarily answers one question: how much of his heritage did Moses know? For Demille and Dreamworks, the answer was none at all.

But was that the case in the rabbinic mind? Is it how an audience fifty years after DeMille’s movies should read this story? Oddly enough, at first glance, the Midrash and other commentaries do not seem to think there is much to add between verses 10 and 11. The only story is found in Exodus Rabbah I:26 about Moses as a young boy loving to put Pharaoh’s crown on his own head. Pharaoh’s advisors think this might be the child who the prophecies say will usurp Pharaoh’s power, so devise a test of putting a chunk of gold and a burning coal in front of the infant. If he reaches for the gold, they’ll kill him, if he reaches for the coal, then he’s just an imbecile. Moses reaches for the gold, but at the last minute the angel Gabriel pushes his hand onto the coal. Moses then reacts by jerking the live coal into his mouth, burning his tongue, and thus his speech impediment mentioned in Ex. 4:10.

Reading this story in the English seems to indicate that this is the story of a little baby. If that is the case, the story of Moses not knowing his heritage also makes sense. One assumption of Midrash however, is that every word is significant since in the mind of the rabbis every word of Torah was given by God, and thus has meaning. Like the name of another movie, we may have here a case of meaning lost in translation.

The phrase for “and the boy grew up” in Hebrew is ויגדל הילד vayigdal hayeled. In Biblical Hebrew, coming from the same root as gadol “big,” this is the verb for growing up. Yeled is the Hebrew for young child, and has the same root as the verb to give birth. This phrase shows up in two other places in Tanach. The first is in Genesis 21:8, speaking of Isaac:

When the child grew and was weaned, then Abraham made a great feast the same day that Isaac was weaned.

From a parallel analogy between the Exodus and the Genesis verse, it appears that grow in Moses’ case means that the child is weaned. Of course we read in Exodus 2: 8-9

8. And Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, Go. And the girl went and called the child’s mother. 9. And Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, Take this child away, and nurse it for me, and I will give you your wages. And the woman took the child, and nursed it.

This would seem to confirm that growing means to an age where nursing is no longer required. If this is true, then Moses was so young, that indeed he could have never known his birth family. Conversely, the second use of vayigdal hayeled is found in II Kings 4:18, speaking of a child promised to the Shunnamite by the prophet Elisha, who after his birth and growing up Elisha will have to now resurrect from the dead.

18 When the child was grown, he fell one day, when he went out to his father to the reapers. 19. And he said to his father, My head, my head. And he said to a lad, Carry him to his mother. 20. And when he had taken him, and brought him to his mother, he sat on her knees till noon, and then died.

Here the boy grows up to the point that he can walk out to a field to his father, and even speak. He certainly is not an infant or toddler, but much older. After the phrase, when referred to as a child he is not a yeled, but a na’ar (נער), best translated as a “lad” or “youth.” The age of a na’ar is problematic. Ephraim and Manasseh were somewhere in their twenties when blessed by Jacob, yet were both called na’ar (Gen 48:16) Moses then might have been much older than an age where he would not know his birth family.

The rabbis, when looking at phrases, would find that the more words that match in the two different passages would mean they have more significance with each other. In Exodus we have “the boy grew up” and then “he went out to his brothers” In II Kings we have “the boy grew up” and then “he went out to his father.” Thus there would be a stronger association between the Exodus and II Kings passages.

Interestingly, when referring to Moses in Exodus Rabbah I:26, he is several times called a na’ar, never a Yeled. For the rabbis, Moses may have been much older, and did understand to some degree his heritage. Exodus 2:11 does say he went out to his brothers, and saw their burdens. He had to have known who his brothers were. DeMille and Dreamworks have his identity revealed to him through others before he does that.

While each of these explanations is valid, I believe Moses knew who he was. There’s a phrase I’ve played with found at the beginning of this discussed Exodus Rabbah passage, that the Socino translation reads as Moses grew abnormally, literally it reads, “He did not grow up as the way of all the earth.” The phrase “way of the earth” (דרך הארץ) usually means manner or custom, or even good manners. The Ethics of the Fathers (M. Avot) 3:17 reads with this phrase,

R. Eleazar b. Azariah said: where there is no Torah there is no good manners; where there is no good manners there is no Torah.

Yet, all indicates the customary practices of all people, hence it means human practice or custom. Such a term is used for sex in Genesis 19:31 in terms of Lots Daughters thinking they will never have normal husbands since all men except their father are dead. It meaning as abnormal growth could also work. Yet another explanation is Moses was not raised with general practices of all humans, but with particular Jewish ethics and manners, the ones that lead to Torah. Since Moses knew who his brothers were, and they were not Egyptians, he learned on his mother’s knee who he was. His identity was an Israelite, not an Egyptian even while growing up in the ultimate Egyptian household.

I came up with this argument in Hebrew, not English. Much of the translations were inadequate for identifying what was going on in any of these texts. Too much is lost in the translation. And it is that that I think about when I think of this story of Moses’ early years. I think back to my own experience, and realize that most of my knowledge was acquired in my thirties, not when I was young. Yet, it was between before my sixth or seventh birthday when I gained my Jewish identity, not the one of my birth but the one in my head. It was an identity so strong even leaving Judaism for eastern religions meant I would eventually come back. Could Moses the Egyptian Prince really have had that revealed about him by some mere slaves? Would he believe it? Would he respond as he did in The Ten Commandments? More likely as the Egyptian prince, if he learned me was an Israelite, he would have had Aaron and Miriam killed to keep the secret and keep power and the girl. No one would have stopped him or even cared there were two more dead slaves. But his identity was already established in his youth. AS Isaiah 28:8 reminds us, to whom do we teach knowledge? To the one weaned from the breasts. In the biblical text that was Isaac, and that was Moses. With that knowledge and ethics Moses could do nothing but go out to his brothers because they were a part of him.

My Hebrew and knowledge of Torah keep getting better. But I am a minority. As I write this I know all to well, there are people out there who think movies like The Ten Commandments were the narrative of the Bible and not a mere Hollywood fiction. Indeed people would rather passively watch a movie than actively read the actual text, if they care at all. And that bothers me, watching the process of apathy and ignorance enslave and kill Jews as effectively as Pharaoh, that I feel the need to stop such slavery with knowledge of Torah.

May my efforts here at Shlomo’s Drash help in that effort.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Drash Vayechi 5766 - Who is a Jew?

Seventeen years after Jacob moved to Egypt, he becomes ill and close to death. He first blesses Ephraim and Manasseh as his own sons, though oddly changing the birth order around. Later, he blesses, if not prophesizes about all of his sons not of their birth order but on their merit. Jacob dies, is carried back to Canaan, and then the brothers fret Joseph will finally exact revenge, But Joseph tells them once again it was God who did all this and there is nothing to worry about. Fifty four years later, Joseph makes his brother promise that when they or their descendants leave Egypt they will take his bones with them. Joseph lives to see three generations and then at 110, dies ending the book of Genesis.

I don’t normally do requests, but I can’t break the mitzvah of Ex. 20:12, and it just so happens this one fits so well with one of my favorite passages in this portion that I decided to follow it up. This week, seventeen years after Jacob is in Egypt, there is an interesting exchange between Joseph and Jacob (Genesis 48:5-12)

8. And Israel saw Joseph’s sons, and said, Who are these? 9. And Joseph said to his father, They are my sons, whom God has given me in this place. And he said, Bring them, I beg you, to me, and I will bless them. 10. Now the eyes of Israel were dim from age, so that he could not see. And he brought them near to him; and he kissed them, and embraced them. 11. And Israel said to Joseph, I had not thought to see your face; and, lo, God has shown me also your seed.

In a scene quite similar to Isaac and Jacob, we have the granting of privileges on two who were part of the next generation, as though they are of the previous generation. Jacob, like his father, is unable to see clearly, and most believe his question “who are these?” is merely for Joseph to verify these are Joseph’s kids, even though Jacob must have seen them on occasion as they grew up from their very early years. Both were born during the seven years of plenty. At a maximum, the oldest, Manasseh was eight at the time Jacob came to Egypt, and his grandpa had seen him grown till a maximum possible age of twenty five. Ephraim would of course be younger than that. He knew them, knew their voices, and their shape. That may not have been the Issue.

Several midrash note that Manasseh and Ephraim wore Egyptian clothes - they did not dress in traditional Canaanite grab, and that would eventually be reflected in the look of their standards during the Exodus from Egypt. Part of this might be assimilation. Yet some Targums such as Pseudo Jonathan change the question to “whose are these?” questioning their heritage. More likely the pashat, the simple plain version is true for those reading or hearing this story during most of Biblical times up to the construction of the second Temple and Ezra.

However, it is the commentators after this time, the Rabbis, who ran into problems due to issues in their own times. They have a real problem in Joseph’s wife, Asnat, daughter of the Egyptian priest of On, Potiphera. Reflected in those Aramaic targums, they have Jacob ask of their heritage. Because Asnat is the mother, are Ephraim and Manasseh Jewish? Throughout history, there has been the question of who is and is not included in the covenant, in short who is a Jew. By rabbinic times, there was an institution in place know as Matrilineal decent to deal with this issue. Essentially, being Jewish is inherited by the mother. Its most concise discussion of this issue comes in the issue of permissibility to marry a gentile in Mishnah Kiddushin.
And whatever [woman] who can not contract kiddushin with that particular person or with others, the issue follows her status; this is the case with the issue of a bondmaid or a gentile woman.

The rabbis seem to be more concerned here with the negative case, when a woman is not Jewish, her children are not Jewish. This statement gets explained in B. Kiddushin 68a-b.

How do we know [it of a freeborn] Gentile woman? — Scripture says, neither shall you make marriages with them. (Deut 7:3) How do we know that her issue bears her status? — R. Johanan said on the authority of R. Simeon b. Yohai, Because Scripture says, For he will turn away your son from following me: (Deut. 7:4) ‘thy son’ by an Israelite woman is called ‘thy son’, but ‘thy son’ by a heathen is not called ‘thy son’. Rabina said: This proves that thy daughter's son by a heathen is called thy son. Shall we say that Rabina holds that if a heathen or a [non-Jewish] slave cohabits with a Jewess the issue is mamzer? — [No.] Granted that he is not [regarded as] fit, he is not mamzer either, but merely stigmatized as unfit (to marry into the priesthood).

Exodus 21:4 talks about keeping the wife and children of a freed slave, when the freed slave had married another slave and had the children under his term of indenture. The rabbis believe this means that children issued from the wife are part of the wife, and thus their status is transmitted via the mother. The rabbis then connect that with the prohibition in Deuteronomy 7:3 of marrying into Canaanite populations inhabiting Israel, to note that this applies to free women as well. Here the rabbis, going back to a teaching from the 2nd century CE scholar Shimon b. Yochai comments on the grammar of Deut. 7:4. The text says he will turn your son. Because it is in the masculine singular, the “he” must be the husband in intermarriage. Had it been gentiles in general, both male and female, the pronoun would have been “they.” R. Shimon then notes “your son” means that this child is Jewish, since the child would not be part of the “your” Moses is speaking to if he was a gentile. Hence if the father is not Jewish, but the child is Jewish, then the mother must be Jewish. One of the compilers of the Babylonian Talmud, Rabina, then concludes with the formula we know today, a child is Jewish if the mother is Jewish.

But to make this whole thing more complex for poor Jacob on his deathbed, there are more specific prohibitions about conversion, based on the following verses of Deuteronomy 23:

4. An Ammonite or Moabite shall not enter into the congregation of the Lord; to their tenth generation shall they not enter into the congregation of the Lord forever; 5. Because they met you not with bread and with water in the way, when you came out of Egypt; and because they hired against you Balaam the son of Beor of Pethor of Mesopotamia, to curse you….8. You shall not loathe an Edomite; for he is your brother; you shall not loathe an Egyptian; because you were a stranger in his land. 9. The children who are fathered by them shall enter into the congregation of the Lord in their third generation.

One problem with this passage is Ruth, who was a Moabite, but also the ancestor of David. But Ruth cannot convert according to the Deuteronomy passage. If Ruth cannot be Jewish according to Torah, then is David, or for that matter the Messiah, Jewish? That’s a big problem. The rabbis then notice 23:9, that for Edomites and Egyptians, only if the children are fathered by an Edomite or Egyptian, would there be a restriction of three generations. But here is it specifically fathered, not mothered. Therefore Egyptian women are excluded from the prohibition. By the logic of the early rabbis, if that is true of the Egyptian woman such would also be true of the women of Moab. While The Mishnah for Yevamot simply spells this out with only a little argumentation, the Gemara continues to argue this point for several folios, (76b-78b) However, the conclusion is kept. The prohibition does not extend to women; hence Ruth can legally convert, marry Boaz and be the legitimate ancestor of King David.

But in this discussion, we encounter still more problems. Most notably is this “third generation” concept for Egyptians. Who do you count the generations by, mother or father? Given this fathered phrase and the already decided matrilineal decent, the rabbis are not clear here, and debate back and forth between mother and father, never really reaching a conclusion. It is here that Asnat runs into Ambiguites. Given the rabbinic assumption that Torah extends to deeds of the Patriarchs before Sinai, then Ephraim and Manasseh, heads of two tribes from marriage of a Jew and an Egyptian, might not be legitimately part of the assembly. There were several ways of getting around this problem however. The Targum Pseudo Jonathan, an Aramaic translation of the Torah, and the Aggadic commentary Perkei d’Rabbi Eliezer adds that Asnat was the adopted daughter of Potiphar. Her real parents were Dinah and Shechem, the daughter from Dinah’s rape. As Dinah is a daughter of Jacob and Leah, she definitely is part of the assembly. Hence her daughter would be too, making Asnat part of the congregation, and thus matrilineal decent removes all problems. On the other hand Numbers Rabbah and Ecclesiastes Rabbah have her as a convert. This still leaves the problem of the third generation of an Egyptian of course, but we also read in Gen 50:23

23. And Joseph saw Ephraim’s children of the third generation; the children also of Machir the son of Manasseh were brought up upon Joseph’s knees.

Joseph lived long enough to see the generation who was allowed in the assembly. From these rabbinic interpretations we can see that Jacob’s question in the Rabbis’ mind was one not of personal but national identity - was the two grandsons he was about to bless as his sons really Jewish? The Rabbis, boxed into a corner by their own legal opinions, found ways to make sure they were.

While the Talmudic Rabbis were busy writing all these legal opinions, what is now known as matrilineal decent, as is often the case, they do not give us good reasons why they were dealing with the issue in the first place. These reasons or ta’amei mitzvot, really began to show up during the middle ages. Probably the best known of these is of course Maimonides’ Guide for the Perplexed. But there were others that attempted to determine what were the reasons we did what we did. The status of Ruth’s and Dinah’s children illustrates the two major rationalizations. The case of Ruth, following the context of the Talmudic arguments in Kiddushin, is the status of children of intermarriage. Then there is the case of Dinah, obliquely mentioned in a few commentaries, the status of the child of rape. Historically, the time of Shimon bar Yochai was the period just after the Bar Kokbah rebellions and there were more than few Roman soldiers around. While there are estimates of up to 600,000 killed in retribution for the rebellion, it is not unlikely that Roman soldiers did other things as well and hence the concern. So today we hear rationalizations about the rabbis did this to handle the issues of jewish identity from intermarriage issues and from rape.

The Matrilineal decent standard in modern times has been questioned from the more liberal parts of Judaism, which has tried to address this all in the context of the current intermarriage issues. Reform and Reconstructionism have moved to a Patrilineal decent, or ‘either parent is Jewish’ model, stipulating that the child and parents must do, in the words of the CCAR, “appropriate and timely public and formal acts of identification with the Jewish faith and people. The performance of these mitzvot serves to commit those who participate in them, both parent and child, to Jewish life. ” In some aspects, Reform Jews now hold Jewish children and parents to a higher standard than the Orthodox in determining Jewish identity. Another challenge, one which might be more serious, to the question “Who is a Jew?” and matrilineal decent is court cases such as Doswell vs. Smith in the Fourth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in 1988, where an inmate in prison who have no Jewish parents nor gone through conversion declare themselves Orthodox Jews in order to get the better quality kosher meals than standard prison fare. If such challenges continue, Who is a Jew might be decided by the U.S. Supreme Court that Jewish identity must be decided only on the declaration of a person that they are Jewish. Jacob back in Genesis, straining to see his grandsons, first asked the question, and we still ask the question, time and time again.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Drash Vayigash 5766

This week Judah pleads for the freedom of Benjamin, and is so moving Joseph reveals that he is their brother in a fearful and tearful reunion. Eventually Jacob comes down to Egypt too and they all live happily off the fat of the land of Egypt at the request of Pharaoh.

All this happy ending stuff makes me want to burst out in song. But no, it’s not some chorus from Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. In many ways it’s the song that summarizes not just the story of Joseph but the theme of the entire book of Genesis. Next week, the last Parsha of Genesis, is merely to finish the plot lines, bless everyone on their merits instead of birth order, record the death of both Jacob and Joseph, and set us up for the sequel, namely the Exodus from Egypt.

I was considering this song and its theme, but I was having trouble with it in one particular place, at the beginning of the story, with Adam and Eve. While I was on vacation last week, however, I was busy watching my twin nephew and niece, with my sister. Out of the blue, my sister asks me if Adam and Eve were born on the same day. “Technically yes, if you read literally” I said. “Well, then Adam and Eve are twins,” she concluded. I suppose they are, at that. Then I realized that completes the pattern: Adam and Eve; Cain and Abel; Ham, Shem, and Japheth; Isaac and Ishmael; Jacob and Esau; Joseph and his brothers. As Q was once again trying to steal his sisters’ toys from a lounge chair, I thought of how many times, like Adam and Eve either one of them will say “She made me do it! It’s your Fault! No, it his fault!” Fortunately at fifteen months they are barely walking so except for some serious crying this argument hasn’t started yet. But thinking about that, I realized the theme song of Genesis does follow all the stories of Genesis. It was not written by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, but a Maalot of David, Psalm 133 (Socino tr.).

1. A Song of Maalot of David.
Behold, how good and how pleasant it is
For brothers to dwell together in unity!
2. It is like the precious ointment upon the head,
That runs down upon the beard, Aaron’s beard,
That runs down to the hem of his garments.
3. Like the dew of Hermon descending upon the mountains of Zion;
For there the Lord has commanded the blessing,
Life for evermore.

Although I have heard many melodies for this psalm, my favorite is still the same old haunting melody, singing that first verse over and over again, often in a round: Henei ma tov u’ma nayim shevet achim gam yachad. Genesis is a book with a theme, that siblings should live together, yet more often, they don’t. Time after time in Genesis siblings fail to get along, at best having a tenuous peace. Maybe they bury a parent together, but yet won’t live together. Only with Joseph does everybody live together, able to keep together as a family. Genesis is the story of getting it right. Until we do, the story repeats once again.

Genesis then was about the multiple times this didn’t happen, when it does, the book ends. What is interesting is that all too often it is lashon hara, evil speech of one form or another that is at the center of the sibling conflict. As already mentioned, blaming someone else or following a forbidden suggestion was the contention between Adam and Eve. When Noah got drunk and naked, Noah’s son Ham gossiped to his brothers. Ishmael in some way teased Isaac, and their mothers’ were even worse in their words against each other. Jacob conned Esau - not just once but twice. At the beginning of the Joseph story, Joseph was a gossip and braggart, and his brothers were liars.

In the late nineteenth century in Lithuania, a very humble rabbi, who was so humble he didn’t even want a congregation but to work in the back of a small grocery store, wrote his first book. Being so humble Rabbi Israel Meir Kagan did not even let himself be acknowledged as the author, but instead insisted he was the publisher. The book, however became a classic, the Chofetz Chayyim, and R. Israel was nicknamed for this incredible work. A codification of the rules of Lashon Hara, he wrote the definitive text on the subject, read even today. I have yet to read this work, and I do hope I do have the chance to soon, since I do have an interest in the halakah of lashon hara. Indeed it was an act of slander against a rabbinic candidate which started Shlomo’s Drash four and a half years ago. In response to this slander, I came out with a response on Lashon Hara and, Baruch Hashem, never stopped writing.

That original slander happened on e-mail, and while the work of the Chofetz Chayim is timeless, I wonder if he were alive today, he would still need to write a new chapter when it comes to this medium. I’ve thought a lot about lashon hara on the Internet, as I’ve crossed the line a few times myself on this medium, though I try to guard myself as much as possible not to let that happen again. Yet lately, one variety of lashon hara on the Internet has my attention.

Joseph and Judah exchanged words, and both understood what the other was saying. It was clear that Joseph heard Judah, given his cry was heard all the way to Pharaoh. Both knew they were dealing with people. I find it interesting that most of the Talmudic and Midrashic statements concerning lashon hara group it with the crimes of idolatry and murder. Idolatry is taking a god as mere object. Murder is removing the life from a person. In a sense lashon hara can do both, and this Internet case might prove insightful. I have a friend in the Pacific Northwest, and she has a real problem with her e-mail. She has several times noted that not only does this happen on e-mail, but in human to human interactions as well in that part of the country. If you try to establish contact with someone, or send them something, they never acknowledge they got the message. In fact they never say anything. If they have bad news, even face to face, instead of telling you the bad news, they simply ignore you and hope the issue goes away.

While the lashon hara of Joseph’s brothers, lying that he was killed, was obviously a bad thing, would it have been worse to say nothing? At least faking Joseph’s death let Jacob grieve. Not saying anything would have left him in the distress of wondering. But how many times do we do this? By not speaking we save ourselves the stress of telling bad news, and sometime even good news. But in an e-mail message, we leave the sender anticipating a response that never comes. We treat the person not as a human being but, a mere name, an object, an empty smashable idol. The sender loses life; we murder the person then throw them in a pixilated garbage can.

How easy is it to change this? All e-mail systems have a reply button. Hit it. Type T-H-A-N-K Y-O-U and hit send. With eight letters, or six of you type “thanks,” you have accomplished a lot - you have given life to the bit of person’s soul they just sent you. The key is to simply acknowledge there is a person on the other side of that message. Granted it’s even better to write more, yet most of us don’t have the time to. But simply saying “thank you” is a start. If there is a response to be given, then give it, or say you have to take a few days to respond, and then respond in a few days. There’s enough stress in the world, acknowledging another human being ends a lot of it.

Judging people behind their back, slander and lies are all important and critical forms of lashon hara. For all of them we should hold our tongues. Genesis Rabbah writes

R. Aha said: Lashon hara is so cruel a thing
that having created it [the tongue] He [God] made a place for it where it may be

Yet there are times holding our tongues, our keyboards or Blackberries is also lashon hara. I will acknowledge in this time of hundreds of e-mails a day it is sometimes overwhelming to even type “thank you”. But we treat people like objects without feelings or a soul if we do not. In the blessings Jacob give to his sons next week, Jacob says of Joseph

The archers fiercely attacked him, and shot at him, and
hated him; (Genesis 49:23)

Which the Midrash has an interesting comment:
[To those] who cast at him words cruel as an arrow:
Sharp arrows of the mighty (Ps. 120, 4). Why does he [Jacob] compare them to an
arrow rather than to any other weapon? All other weapons smite from close
quarters, whereas this smites from the distance. Even so is slander, for it is
spoken in Rome and kills in Syria. Nor is it like any other coals, but like
coals of a broom tree (ibid.). For all other coals are extinguished inside [when
they are extinguished on the outside], but coals of broom are still burning
within when they are extinguished without. So is he who listens to slander: even
if you go and appease him and he lets himself be appeased, yet he is still
burning within. (Genesis Rabbah 98:19)

In a medium which can move a message to anywhere on the planet in mere seconds, these words from almost two thousand years ago still ring true. The hurt of lashon hara whether intentionally or unintentionally can hurt people far away. And the hurt is not one that goes away easily, but pierces the heart like an arrow, to wound internally for a long time. Mere apology is rarely enough; the wound is too deep and often, like a division of archers, effects too many people.

It is in the story of both Judah and Joseph finally refusing to stoop to lashon hara that leads to a happy conclusion of the book of Genesis. Both were very human in this story, and acknowledged this humanity. Judah’s appeal was to Joseph’s humanity, to how one should treat a father’s hope and love. The point of Genesis is not just the creation of the universe and the story of the Patriarchs. Brothers live in peace when they treat each other as human, not when they fling the piercing arrows of sharp words or of sharp silences.

For 2006, for a secular resolution let us all make a holy resolution to prevent at least the lashon hara of not acknowledging each other.

On that note, thank you for reading this.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Welcome to Shlomo's Drash!

Welcome Haver!

I've been posting Shlomos drash for four and a half years now as private e-list. I thought it was time to get this thing a little more accessible for those out there in DrashLand. So here I am!

For those of you on the-list, Welcome back!

For those of you who are new, let me tell you a little about the list and me. I'm a liberal post-denomination Jew whose getting his second masters in Jewish Studies ( my first was in Education). For lack of a better term, I'm a Torah Geek, who every week engages the text looking for meaning in modern life personally and in modern living. Shlomo's Drash is my weekly record of those explorations of Torah Talmud and Midrash. Often I will bring in examples from much of the Jewish History mainstream Jews have never heard of.

My motto "It is a mater of Torah and I need to learn" is from a strange story in the Talmud. Brachot 64b. It it the story of Rabbi Akiva when he was a student hiding in the bathroom of his teacher. He learnt which direction one should sit on the toilet and which direction to wipe afterwards. When he tells this story to his students he is greeted with shock, to which he replies "It is a mater of torah and I need to learn." the point is every activity, even the most mundane has some sacred value and spiritual meaning, and we need to find them. This is the quest I attempt with Shlomos Drash.

So sit back and enjoy. Comments are always welcome.