Thursday, November 23, 2006

Toldot 5767: Found in Translation

Genesis 25:19-28:9

This week Isaac and Rebecca are still childless. After some praying, Rebekah gets pregnant with twins, who won’t sit still in her womb, and so God tells Rebekah about her two sons. After the Birth of Esau and Jacob, the two are as different as can be, each preferred by opposite parents. Once the kids are older, Esau sells his birthright for a bowl of stew. The family then has to move into Philistine territory for a while, though they are eventually kicked out for Isaac trying the “sister” tactic of his father, though he gets caught when he can’t keep his hands off the lovely Rebekah. There is some trouble at the wells, and then Esau marries someone who his parents don’t particularly like. Finally, Isaac asks Esau to get him some venison, and that he should prepare him a meal, and then Esau will get the blessing. Rebekah helps Jacob trick his father into giving the blessing to Jacob instead of to Esau, which enrages Esau to the point he’s swearing to kill Jacob. Rebekah then makes a timely suggestion to Isaac that it is time to find a wife for Jacob among her family, so Jacob sets out toward Padan-Aram.

After the destruction of the first temple the Jews were forced to move to Babylon. Upon their return about a quarter century later, many of the people had only the language skills of their adopted home, and could not speak or read Hebrew, but instead Aramaic. In Nehemiah 8, we read of the first Rosh Hashanah service after their return to Israel. In this story is the framework for the ritual for the Torah service to this day. Interestingly verse 8:8 reads

8. So they read in the book in the Torah of God clearly, and gave the interpretation, so that they understood the reading.

Here however, gave the interpretation does not mean to interpret however. As the Talmud explains:

R. Ika said in the name of R. Hananel who had it from Rab: What is meant by the text, And they read in the book, in the law of God, with an interpretation. and they gave the sense, and caused them to understand the reading? ‘And they read in the book, in the law of God’: this indicates the [Hebrew] text; ‘with an interpretation’: this indicates the translation, ‘and they gave the sense’: this indicates the verse stops; ‘and caused them to understand the reading’: this indicates the accentuation, or, according to another version, the massoretic notes. [Megilah 3a]

The word that these later rabbis, who also spoke Aramaic, use for the word translation is the Aramaic word Targum. From the time of the early Rabbis on, we call any Aramaic translation of the biblical text a targum (plural targumim). From the time of the return from Babylon until the rise of Islam when there was a revival of Hebrew, Aramaic would be the second language of the Jews, and often the first and only of the common person. Indeed, the Babylonian Talmud is written in Aramaic, though with Hebrew quotes from the Tanach, Mishnah and other earlier rabbinic writings woven though the text. Today we still have remnants of this language in our liturgy, most notably the Kaddish and much of the Passover Haggadah.

But there were scholars who compiled written targumim, some of which have come down to us today. The de facto Targum of Torah is the Targum of Onkelos the Proselyte, who according to the Talmud was the nephew of the Roman Emperor Titus. [Gittin 57a] There is a story about Onkelos that after his conversion, the Emperor wanted to arrest him, but every time soldiers came to arrest him, in his enthusiasm and wisdom of his adopted religion he converted the soldiers instead until the Emperor gave up. [Meg. 3a] Onkelos, under the editorial guidance of the sages, wrote a rather literal Aramaic translation of the text.

Another Targum is attributed to Jonathan b. Uzziel. The Talmud mentions him as one of the eighty students of Hillel the Elder, and the best of these students who are known collectively as Beit Hillel. Supposedly when he studied Torah his intensity and understanding into its mystical meaning was so intense birds flying over him burned. [Baba Batra 134a, Sukkah 28a] He is attributed with the Targumim of the prophets, which apparently got God angry at him for spilling a lot of secrets hidden in the prophetic literature. Jonathan was going to write more targumim for the Writings, but was ordered not to by a divine voice so as not to give away the date of the Messiah’s arrival [Megilah 3a]. Others much later did eventually wrote such targumim, yet they are often attributed to Jonathan. Others, also attributing to Jonathan, wrote targumim to the Torah, but since we know through language clues that it was written centuries later, it is known as Pseudo Jonathan (Ps-J).

There were other targumim coming out of Israel, know as Jerusalem Targumim, but most are nothing more than small fragments of a complete text. In 1949 however Alejandro Diez-Macho discovered a copy of a Targum in the Vatican library which was marked Onkelos, but through examination, concluded by 1956 this was a new and complete Jerusalem Targum of the Torah. Named for the shelf it was found on, Neofiti I (N1), Targum Neofiti has been the subject of scholarly inquiry for half a century.

What all this means to the modern interpreter of Torah is we have two tools to help us try to understand the text. First for those who know Hebrew, we have a witness to the biblical text that can help in translation. Since we have a larger and more robust vocabulary for Aramaic than Biblical Hebrew, we can use the translation in Aramaic to help us translate the Hebrew. Given the near-completion of The Aramaic Bible Project, a complete English translation of all the major targumim, the other feature is now accessible to English speakers. At times targumim not only give translation, but instead add to the text to make the meaning clearer. Such additions can help us get more perspectives on the text.

Let’s use this week’s portion as an example of this perspective. Genesis 27 is for example the story of Jacob, under instruction of Rebecca, tricking his father into getting the blessing instead of Esau. In the Torah, Isaac first instructs Esau:

3. Now therefore take, I beg you, your weapons, your quiver and your bow and go out to the field, and catch me some venison; 4. And make me savory food, such as I love, and bring it to me, that I may eat; that my soul may bless you before I die. [Gen. 27:3]

While Ps-J and N1 do not change the phrase your weapons, your quiver and your bow Onkelos does.

3. So now take, then, your weapons, your sword, and your bow; and go out to the field and hunt me some game. 4. The prepare for me stewed dishes such as I like and bring it in to me so that I may eat, in order that my soul may bless you before I die

Onkelos changes the text from quiver to sword. When such things happen we can now ask ourselves why was this change was necessary, and in doing so gain the perspective of Onkelos. For those who read last year’s Shlomo’s Drash Toldot, Onkelos had the exact problem I had. The sages believed that the Patriarchs followed all of the mitzvot and halakah even before Sinai. But this leads to some odd inconsistencies. While venison is kosher, killing it with bows and arrows makes it treif. However, if Esau had a sword or knife, he could live catch the deer, and then perform proper ritual slaughter with the sword.

On the same principle, Onkelos may have changed savory dishes to stewed dishes. Savory items might have been eaten raw, stewed ones definitely could not. Thus to assure that Isaac was eating a properly cooked meal according to Kashrut, Onkelos changes the text.

We then read in Torah:

5. And Rebekah heard when Isaac spoke to Esau his son.

Yet, Pseudo Jonathan makes an interesting addition:

5. And Rebekah heard through the Holy Spirit while Isaac spoke with Esau his son.

While Neofiti 1 specifically states Rebekah heard the voice of Isaac, and Onkelos had the same as the literal Hebrew text, Pseudo Jonathan adds that she learned through prophecy. Again we need to ask why the need for the addition, or alternatively, what was the gap that needed filling. One possibility was to assure the reader Rebecca was not spying, but getting this information through divine channels because God wanted Jacob and not Esau to get the blessing. Rebekah using prophecy is also attested in verse 8:13 of Onkelos, where she assured her son that prophecy has told her no curses will come upon him, instead of the literal Upon me be your curse, my son;

Many of these additions found in the corpus of targumim are attested elsewhere in various midrash. Some however are not and are only found in the Targumim. Yet the targumim, unlike midrash, give us all these additions and commentaries in context of the story, and thus have a lot more meaning while trying to figure out what is going on. As I write this column, I often start with the targumim, and begin by asking the question of why did the Targum said that, and what was the gap they were filling. I go further and determine what the agenda was of this translator, and how their answers to those questions affect me as a contemporary Jew. How would I, in their situation answer the same question that compelled them to write that addition? From there I might find sources which reflect that view or even in some cases contradict it.

Targumim make a great springboard for engaging the text. By asking the right questions, we can begin to ask questions of the text we might not have though of, or gain perspectives that we otherwise would not have seen. It may be a mere word, or a whole story inserted into the text. It is not a separate commentary but woven into the text, as though part of the story. The three targumim might agree, or give entirely different answers. But with these three, new perspectives into the Torah can be found.

So after you talk turkey this week, you can also talk Targum.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Haye Sara 5767 Camels and pickup lines

Genesis 23:1-25:18

I had a really hard week this week, And didn’t have time(or energy) to write anything this week. So I’m re-posting last years drash instead.-Shlomo

This week’s portion named the Life of Sarah, ironically starts with her death. Abraham does some land deals to find a proper burial place for his late beloved wife, and then tells his trusty servant Eliezer to find a wife for Isaac back in the old country. Eliezer, not having a clue what to do decides the best thing to do is pray and to ask for a sign from God. Almost immediately the sign comes to pass, he meets Rebecca, and eventually brings her back to Isaac where she is so blown away by him she falls off her camel. Isaac and Rebecca get married, move into Sarah's old digs, and Isaac is comforted from the loss of his mother. Abraham remarries, (some rabbinic sources say he marries Hagar), and has a few more kids. Even with the death of Abraham, which both of his sons bury jointly, everybody's one happy family until the twins show up next week.

This week also marks the first shidduch, the first time a matchmaker makes a match. Eliezer however doesn't seem to take his job seriously as he uses a rather odd prayer to determine who will be Isaac’s wife:

12. And he said, O Lord God of my master Abraham, I beseech you, send me good speed this day, and show kindness to my master Abraham. 13. Behold, I stand here by the well of water; and the daughters of the men of the city come out to draw water; 14. And let it come to pass, that the girl to whom I shall say, Let down your water jar, I beg you, that I may drink; and she shall say, Drink, and I will give your camels drink also; let the same be she whom you have appointed for your servant Isaac; and thereby shall I know that you have shown kindness to my master.

The rabbis are rather shocked by all this:

R. Samuel b. Nahmani said in the name of R. Jonathan: Three [men] made haphazard requests, two of them were fortunate in the reply they received and one was not, namely, Eliezer, the servant of Abraham; Saul, the son of Kish; and Jephthah the Gileadite. Eliezer, the servant of Abraham, as it is written, So let it come to pass, that the damsel to whom I shall say, ‘Let down thy pitcher etc.’ She might have been lame or blind, but he was fortunate in the answer given to him in that Rebecca chanced to meet him. Saul, the son of Kish, as it is written, And it shall be, that the man who kills him (i.e. Goliath), the king will enrich him with great riches, and will give him his daughter. [He] might have been a slave or a bastard. He too was fortunate in that it chanced to be David. Jephthah, the Gileadite, as it is written, Then it shall be, that whatsoever comes forth out of the doors of my house etc. It might have been an unclean thing. He, however, was unfortunate in that it so happened that his own daughter came to meet him. (B Taanit 7b, cf. Gen R. 51:3)

Was Eliezer careless? There is midrash that Eliezer, a Canaanite servant, wanted to get out of his oath so Isaac would marry his daughter. (Gen R. 49:9) this could be a scheme to do just that - find an impossible or absurd thing that would get him out from his oath. Others think the carelessness is like the case of Jephthah. In Jephthah’s case, he said he would sacrifice whatever come out of his door if he won the war (judges 11:30-31)– and so the first one out of the door was his daughter(11:34), who was subsequently sacrificed (11:39), Ironically, Jephthah’s daughter gets the fate Isaac got a reprieve from. Unlike Jephthah however, God was being nice in the case of Isaac’s bride-to-be.

There is another text about Eliezer that I find an interesting as well:

Rab himself has said: An omen which is not after the form pronounced by Eliezer, Abraham's servant, or by Jonathan the son of Saul, is not considered a divination! (Hullin 95b)

Here he is the ultimate example of the incorrect omen. Divination is of course forbidden by Torah. (Lev 19:26) However, the rabbis did restrict the meaning to allow for some forms of divination. Eliezer, however, prayed for a specific sign. In the rabbinic mind Eliezer was telling God what to do, which is the mark of pagan divination and magic. Once again Eliezer is disparaged by the rabbis for the way he handled this. But Eliezer might have been much more intelligent than that. We have to remember his boss' attitude to things. When recovering from his circumcision Abraham goes running out into the wilderness to some folks he sees on the horizon, asks them to stop for a little bit to eat and proceed to wine and dine them with a full scale banquet.

It is here that we must remember that in the world today we forget how close to the narrative the people who heard it were. They understand the world of the desert and its inhabitants. They would understand the meaning of things differently than we do. Most people know the dromedary camel is quite remarkable beast, but maybe not how remarkable. It can survive without drinking for months. When given the chance however, it can drink almost a third of is bodyweight, about 30 gallons of water, in less than 10 minutes. Eliezer had ten camels with him, thus to water the camels would require 300 gallons of the precious liquid, about five gallons at a time. This would be quite a task for Rebecca, but one not only did she did accomplish but excced by pouring all of that water for the camels (Gen 24:19-22)

19. And when she had finished giving him drink, she said, I will draw water for your camels also, until they have finished drinking 20. And she hurried, and emptied her water jar into the trough, and ran back to the well to draw water, and drew for all his camels. 21. And the man wondering at her held his peace, to see whether the Lord had made his journey successful or not. 22. And it came to pass, as the camels finished drinking, that the man took a golden ear ring of half a shekel weight, and two bracelets for her hands of ten shekels weight of gold;

Had Eliezer as a Palestinian working for an Israeli citizen driven up in a caravan of ten Humvees to somewhere in northern Iraq how likely is it that there would be some Iraqi girl who would come up to him and offer to fill up all ten Hummers by hand? But this is close to what Eliezer is asking for. But then again, he’s got, from his point of view, a crazy boss who believes in a god no one else does, not even Eliezer. He does not pray “Oh Lord my God” but instead “O Lord God of my master Abraham.” His prayer then uses a Pagan formula to determine a sign if he had found the correct woman. But the biggest craziness of his boss Abraham is his obsessive hospitality. As crazy as Abraham is to Eliezer, He also probably found it hard to believe that Sarah actually went along with all that without a complaint. Not only that, when she knew they were coming she baked not one cake, but many. Her holiness in hospitality was there when she eavesdropped in conversation, hoping to know what next to bring to the guests.

What Eliezer might have realized is he needs to find a replacement for the Matriarch Sarah. Yes, Isaac would marry this woman, in accordance with Genesis 2:24 “thus a son leaves his father and mother and cleaves to his wife” But for Isaac that would require the same virtues of his mother in his wife. While God is totally silent in this portion, God’s favorite Shabbos pastime isn’t. One of my favorite stories from Midrash is this one from Genesis Rabbah (58:4):

A [Roman] matron asked R. Jose: ' In how many days did the Holy One, blessed be He, create His world?’ ' In six days,’ he answered. ' Then what has He been doing since then?’ ‘He sits and makes matches,’ he answered, ‘assigning this man to that woman, and this woman to that man.’ ‘If that is difficult,’ she gibed, ‘I too can do the same.’ She went and matched [her slaves], giving this man to that woman, this woman to that man and so on. Some time after those who were thus united went and beat one another, this woman saying, ' I do not want this man,’ while this man protested, ‘I do not want that woman.’ (Straightway she summoned R. Jose b. Halafta and admitted to him: ‘There is no god like your God: it is true, your Torah is indeed beautiful and praiseworthy, and you spoke the truth!’) Said he to her: ‘If it is easy in your eyes, it is as difficult before the Holy One, blessed be He, as the dividing of the Red Sea.’

God loves to make matches, even if they are a major miracle. Nonetheless we read in Genesis 24:15 of Eliezer’s prayer:

15. And it came to pass, before he had finished speaking, that, behold, Rebecca came out, who was born to Bethuel, son of Milcah, the wife of Nahor, Abraham’s brother, with her water jar upon her shoulder.

And so Eliezer finds Rebecca, whether he wants to or not. He is so astounded that the prayer actually worked, he tells Rebecca’s brother Laban the whole story all over again. Rebecca does return with Eliezer to his masters, Isaac and Rebecca fall in love at first sight, and everyone is happy. It is here that the Midrash throws some light that Rebecca primarily is Sarah’s replacement as Matriarch.

AND ISAAC BROUGHT HER INTO HIS MOTHER SARAH’S TENT (XXIV, 67). You find that as long as Sarah lived, a cloud hung over her tent; when she died, that cloud disappeared; but when Rebecca came, it returned. As long as Sarah lived, her doors were wide open; at her death that liberality ceased; but when Rebecca came, that openhandedness returned. As long as Sarah lived, there was a blessing on her dough, and the lamp used to burn from the evening of the Sabbath until the evening of the following Sabbath; when she died, these ceased, but when Rebecca came, they returned.

Important to this midrash is the idea of the cloud. As we read in Exodus 40:34-35

34. Then a cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. 35. And Moses was not able to enter into the Tent of Meeting, because the cloud abode on it, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle.

It is the Matriarch Sarah and not Abraham which brought down the Glory of the Lord to the tent. Without a Matriarch, the Shechinah was not present in the tent. It was the Matriarch’s hospitality to strangers, holiness in food preparation and Shabbat observance that were critical. Rebecca repeatedly proved she did have the merit of hospitality, the primary merit of the Matriarch, in front of Eliezer.

Eliezer may have been far shrewder than the rabbis thought. Then again, he may have been shrewder than he himself thought. Either way, if “let me water your camels” was a way for him to try to activate the escape clause in his oath, or a way of identifying the merit of a Matriarch to be, it did find Rebecca. But we cannot forget it was with the help of the very conspicuously missing voice from our Chapter: the divine matchmaker. Ha Kadosh Baruch Hu may be missing because the Matriarch is missing. The key to the game was not to find a wife for Isaac, but to bring a Matriarch back to the camp of his master, one who would bring the Shechinah back on her merit. Unlike such lines as “What’s your sign?” “Let me water your camels” may be the greatest pickup line ever, for instead of trying to try to care for the craving of the Self as most pickup lines, it shows the extreme selflessness and caring for others, the ultimate attribute of the next mother of the Jewish people.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Shlomo’s Drash - Vayera 5767 Sodom and Disney

Genesis 18:1-22:4

This week we continue the story of Abraham. Abraham is sitting in the heat of the day in his tent. While being visited by God, he sees some strangers, and runs out to them to show hospitality. After a big meal, they tell him that he and Sarah will have a son within a year, which makes Sarah laugh. When these strangers start back on their way to Sodom, they tell Abraham that they are to destroy Sodom and the other cities of the plain. Abraham has a debate with God if this is a good idea and even bargains down what it will take to save the city. We then cut to Sodom and two angels and their experiences in the town of Sodom, who decide the only one worth saving is Abraham's nephew Lot and his family, who escape, but not without casualties. Abraham then moves into the land of the Philistines, and once again uses the "sister" excuse describing his relationship with Sarah. After this adventure, Sarah conceives and has a son, Isaac, which causes more sibling and maternal rivalry with Hagar and Ishmael. The last major story in this section is, of course, God telling Abraham to go to a mountain and to sacrifice Isaac.

In the middle of the story we have the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. But the story has an interesting twist, in giving us a glimpse at the attitudes of the people of Sodom.

4. But before they lay down, the men of the city, the men of Sodom, surrounded the house, from boys to old men, all the people from every quarter; 5. And they called to Lot, and said to him, Where are the men who came in to you this night? Bring them out to us, that we may know them. 6. And Lot went out the door to them, and closed the door after him,7. And said, I beg you, my brothers, do not do so wickedly. 8. Behold now, I have two daughters who have not known man; let me, I beg you, bring them out to you, and do to them as is good in your eyes; only to these men do nothing; seeing that they have come under the shadow of my roof. 9. And they said, Stand back. And they said again, This one fellow came in to sojourn, and he wants to be a judge; now will we deal worse with you than with them. And they pressed hard upon the man, Lot, and came near to break the door. 10. But the men put forth their hand, and pulled Lot into the house to them, and closed the door. 11. And they struck with blindness the men who were at the door of the house, both small and great; so that they wearied themselves to find the door.

It is from this passage that some have interpreted any form of homosexuality as Sodomy. Yet in a good reading of it the issue is the lack of hospitality. It is clear given Lot’s pleas that sexual contact is involved, and he knows they are up to bad things. We also have plenty of evidence that “to Know” is a word for sexuality in Hebrew. Targum Pseudo Jonathan changes the word to the Aramaic N’shameish, a far more explicit name for sex, one which implies subservience of the one receiving sex. In Sodom everyone is involved in sex, and tellingly even young boys want to have sex with the strangers. This is a culture of rape and child abuse so ingrained that all from the youngest age find sex something to subject others to. In reality, Sodomy is not homosexuality, but something truly abhorrent -- rape and abuse as a form of power. The people of Sodom want to use the guests for their own purposes with out any consideration of their needs, with guests subservient to the pleasures of their hosts.

We can compare the Response of the People of Sodom to the presence of strangers to the response of two others. The first of course is Lot himself who urges that the two strangers don’t spend the night in the village square, and then offers them food and lodging. The second is Abraham, who, recovering from his circumcision, runs out of his tent to actually intercept strangers to be his guest, and turns a “small morsel” into a full nine-course meal. The difference is pretty clear -- the host met the needs of the guests first, and in both cases, the Guests end up doing something for the hosts.

Last week, I was in what was billed as “The Happiest Place on Earth” on vacation. I got a lot of well deserved rest, and feel very refreshed coming back to a mountain of things I have to do in the real world. It was the week for my annual pilgrimage to Walt Disney World in Orlando Florida. Waiting 30 minutes in line for Thunder Mountain I reflected on this place and wondered about many things. Checking the numbers later, they tend to be big: there are over 25,000 guest rooms and over 57,000 cast members at the Orlando property alone, making it the biggest single site employer in the United States. A bus driver told me they had a fleet of 400 buses with 1000 bus drivers. Disney resorts worldwide had revenues of 9 billion dollars for 2005. Looking at such numbers, one has to wonder why the world would spend so much money on such a place.

Of course, the talking candelabra from Beauty and the Beast, Lumiere, has the answer; “Be our guest!” Indeed Disney customer service is the reason I and a lot of other people, keep going back to do the same vacation time and time again. They know they are going to be treated well. As a single traveler, Disney is the only destination I have ever gone where I never felt like a pariah, ignored by servers and staff. Even in my home town, I have had that experience. But never, ever Disney. So every year, when I want to get away by myself and relax, I go to Orlando, knowing I will get treated as royally as Prince Charming.

Anybody can give you food, anybody can give you shelter. It’s how they give the service that makes a difference, that produces a wow! The rabbis note that Lot is not as credited with hospitality as much as Abraham is. Abraham and Sarah took time to make a whole feast, including bread and cake from the best flour, butter, meat etc. Lot served Matzah. But Abraham did not just make it, but made it all in front of his guests as a show, as a story. Lot never mentions cooking, and thus probably took a stale box of Matzah out of the cupboard. I think Abraham’s actions point to one more thing that makes hospitality work, and makes it holy and special. It is to tell a story.

In Disney, story is everywhere. I once took a course on Disney Imagineering, taught on property with plenty of backstage access. Before anything in a guest area is built, a story is written first. For example, for a new attraction at Animal Kingdom, a story was written about an express route train to the Base of Mount Everest where you can begin a trek up the mountain. However, this goes through the range of the protector of the mountain the Yeti, who may not be happy to see trespassers. When you get on the ride you find out how unhappy - the Yeti has torn up the tracks and throws you back and forth in your train car across the mountain range, through dark tunnels and down the steep ridge of a mountain, all the while roaring at you and taking swipes at you.

Had I said that they put in a rollercoaster in Animal Kingdom, that statement would not have gotten the same reaction as the Story of Expedition Everest. In my attempt to get over my fear of roller coasters, I did actually ride this one. It was not until I got on line did I find out that it was one of the most intense rides in the park, something I figured out while partially panicking in my first corkscrew (in the dark no less) on a roller coaster. But the ride started far before I got on line. The story of the ride started when I took a fork in the path from the Thai temples of Kali river rapids and the buildings around me were now disguised as climbers supply stores. The story followed in the dress of the cast members, the train station we lined up in to get into our railroad cars and the sacred shrines to the Yeti, complete with offerings. It continues as our cars climbed up the mountain, through a temple dedicated to the Yeti. The story was not just one robotic abominable snowman - it was everywhere. This is what separates Disney from a mere amusement park.

One other part of hospitality, I believe, is story. Abraham created story with his food preparation while his guests rested. This is the story found today in many a display kitchen, where you can watch the cooks make your food, a Mongolian barbecue or ultimately a teppanaki grill, where the grill itself is your table. The fun and story is watching the cook make your food. I stayed at the Budget-rate Pop Century resort on property. As I could tell from the abandoned second half of the project, this really was nothing more than a motel room at any generic rest stop in America. Yet Disney’s story at Pop Century resort was the popular culture of 1950-1990. Staying in my seventies-themed hotel room with a three story Big Wheel and Mickey Mouse phone in front of the elevators, the wallpaper with disco themes, to the 1990’s pool shaped like a laptop the ordinary became extraordinary because there is a story behind it. So too with people, the generic become extraordinary when we exchange story. Abraham turned a small morsel into a show reminiscent of Lumiere and Mrs. Potts in Beauty and the Beast, a story of what he was willing to give. The people of Sodom however, merely demanded something from their guests without offering anything first.

When we initiate any relationship, I believe, we must offer story. If we take on a host/guest relationship, it is not enough to offer food alone, but we must offer part of ourselves as a host, by initiating the stories. It may be the actual telling of a story, or it may be, Like Abraham and Sarah, a culinary feat. It may be a story directly about us, or a story reflecting us. Chapter 3 in Perkei Avot repeatedly notes that when people sit at a table, they should talk words of Torah, to tell the story. To not do so makes them scorners or as if they vomit on a table. To tell the story of Torah makes it as if the Shechinah sits with them at God’s table. To discuss Torah not only discusses the biblical text, but tells our story of how we see the layers of text. That makes for a much more enjoyable, and holy, meal as we sit face to face with another face of God.

We all tell our stories in many ways, but as we get into a season of parties, family get-togethers and conversations, it’s important to once again remember the idea of telling our stories, however we tell them. I have this drash of course. As I once remarked to someone who was telling me that I was giving away too much personal information, I do that in part to encourage others to tell their stories more, and to find their stories in the biblical text. I also use other stories, visual ones like my painting and drawing, one that even the most hard core cast members got excited about when given one of my drawings of Mickey Mouse or Goofy. Everything goes better with story.

We have a choice in how we treat guests. We can, like Sodom, rape and pillage them, being self centered and only taking, or we can give of our shelter, our food and of our heart in story. The first lasts for a moment, like Sodom, which stopped existing the next morning. The second may build relationships that last forever, with children as numerous as the stars, like Isaac and the Jewish people, who live on till today.

That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Putting my money where my mouth is....

As Shammai once said "speak little and do much". I know with a lot of busy schedules, and a bit of reluctance to go to a Hebrew class its hard to take a Hebrew Course. With that in mind I started a Hebrew course a few years ago, and have decided to get it going live again. This time however there will be downloadable audio files of my instruction to help you learn Hebrew by learning the prayers themselves.

I posted lesson 1 today. Lessons 2-6 have the print version done, but not audio, which will be coming soon. You an access the lessons at click the lesson name for the adobe acrobat print copy of the lesson and click the "audio" link for the audio. See directions on the page for how to download the audio.

I hope you all take up the challenge and learn some Hebrew this year.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Lech Lecha 5766 Avram Ha Ivri

Gen 12:1-17:27

This week we begin the story of Abraham. While Abram's early life begins at the end of Parshat Noah, it is here that he is told to Lech Lecha, to leave everything behind and go to a new place with his wife Sarai and his nephew Lot in tow. When he gets there he finds a famine, and so he ends up in Egypt, tells his wife Sarai to tell everyone that he is her sister, and ends up very rich from the fallout of that fib. From there, he returns to Canaan, gets into water rights battles with his nephew, who moves towards Sodom and Gomorrah. Lot is captured and taken hostage in a battle between local principalities, and in order to rescue him allies himself with Sodom and Gomorrah, and in a guerilla raid, beats the crap out of Lot's captors, saves Lot and the women of Sodom. Abram makes a strange sacrifice of animals and is told of the future of his progeny. Sarai who has not borne children then tells Abram to have a child by Hagar her Egyptian maidservant. This child Ishmael causes some contention between Hagar and Sarai. Finally God tells Abram that he will have a physical sign of their covenant through circumcision, and he will have a son from his wife Sara. Abram's name is changed to Abraham, and Sarai's to Sarah. We end with Abraham, at age 99 and Ishmael at 13 and the rest of the males of his household getting circumcised.

In the middle of all this Abram performs a Ramboesque hostage rescue of his nephew Lot.

12. And they took Lot, Abram’s brother’s son, who lived in Sodom, and his goods, and departed. 13. And there came one who had escaped, and told Abram the Hebrew; for he lived in the plain of Mamre the Amorite, brother of Eshkol, and brother of Aner; and these were confederate with Abram. 14. And when Abram heard that his brother was taken captive, he armed his trained servants, born in his own house, three hundred and eighteen, and pursued them to Dan. 15. And he divided himself against them, he and his servants, by night, and defeated them, and pursued them to Hobah, which is on the left side of Damascus. 16. And he brought back all the goods, and also brought again his brother Lot, and his goods, and the women also, and the people.[Genesis 14:12-16]

Here Abram is called "the Hebrew" as a form of identity. This is the only time he is called such in the text. Yet others are called by this identity as well. Shiphrah and Puah are called the Hebrew midwives in Exodus 1. Joseph too is identified by language as the “Hebrew servant” by Potiphar’s wife: In Jonah we read that Jonah identifies himself as a Hebrew. And most interestingly, it is the identity of language which is the determining factor in the text about slave’s rights. (Exodus 21:2, Deuteronomy 15:12)

I’m writing about this because of a discussion I had the other day, which I listened but did not participate concerning the increasing use of Hebrew in the Reform movement. Yet in this discussion, I found one thing disturbing. We weren’t talking Torah. One important Bit of Torah involved was of course the origin of language at the Tower of Babel.

4. And they said, Come, let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach to heaven; and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth. 5. And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which the sons of men built. 6. And the Lord said, Behold, the people are one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do; and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have schemed to do. 7. Come, let us go down, and there confuse their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech. 8. So the Lord scattered them abroad from there upon the face of all the earth; and they left off the building of the city.[Genesis 11:4-8]

I’ve looked up a few things and wanted to chime my two scents in on this topic, but this time based on Torah and tradition -- and Abraham’s example. The debate about Hebrew is not a new one. It goes back quite a way, to the book of Genesis itself. It definitely is a story of the Diaspora, one the rabbis did have to contend with. In Genesis we know that Abram spoke differently than his own relatives. Laban we know speaks Aramaic, from the time that Jacob and Laban make a pact over a set of stones:

And Laban called it Jegar sahadutha; but Jacob called it Galeed. [Genesis 31:47]

Both words mean the same, but Laban names it in Aramaic, Jacob in Hebrew. In following Lech-Lecha Abram also stopped using the language of his family and home, and transmitted to his descendants Hebrew. Yet, Jacob could communicate with Laban, and his son Joseph will be literate enough in Egyptian to run Potiphar’s household, and later so literate in Egyptian he can use the screen of an interpreter (who might have been Manasseh) to jerk the chain of this own brothers. Both knew more than one language.

We find this true in later times too. Maimonides wrote his codification of Jewish Law, the Mishneh Torah in Hebrew. Yet, he was literate in the language of his time and place and knew Arabic fluently. His major philosophical work The Guide for the Perplexed was not originally written in Hebrew, but Arabic. Rashi, living in the Champagne region of France, often would translate confusing words in both Talmud and Torah into medieval French, leaving one of the best records of medieval French vocabulary we have to day.

Primary parts of the Talmud Balvi, the Gemara is not in English but in Aramaic, the primary academic language of the Diaspora for hundreds of years. And even among the Rabbinic Hebrew which makes up the Mishnah, one is struck by the number of borrowed Persian, Greek and Latin words. Yet the biblical quotes are always the original word of Torah and thus always in Hebrew. Hebrew, because it is the language of the Torah is the language we always come back to.

All those loan words amid all that consistency for thousands of years points for me to one conclusion, one that the rabbis themselves hint at in the story of the tower of Babel. Found in Genesis Rabbah, 38:10, we read:

R. Abba interpreted it: Through their own lips will I destroy them. Thus one said to his fellow- worker, ' Bring me water,’ whereupon he would give him earth, at which he struck him and split his skull; ' Bring me an axe,’ but he brought him a spade, at which he struck him and split his skull. Thus it is written, Through their own lips I will destroy them.

The failure to communicate was the cause, and yet when there was a misunderstanding, in their arrogance, one who asked for something and didn’t get it would merely kill his fellow man, instead of trying to learn the other language. Nowhere in the story of Babel does it say that God wants to destroy the tower, but instead that he wanted to confuse their language, because they could do anything with one language. It was not the tower that was the issue, but the potential for human beings to plan and do anything they wanted. Thus God confuses their languages to slow them down and see if their determination remains.

This was not a destruction of the people, but a stumbling block, a test. It was a test they failed miserably. God would have let them complete the tower under one circumstance -- if one had learned his neighbor’s language. If they had achieved rapport with each other and understood each other, the tower could have continued and completed. The Midrash, written by men in a world where at least Greek, Latin, Hebrew and Aramaic were around these scholars every day, continues that the people hated each other because of their different languages they then dispersed on their own to form nations. The Torah continues that one of those nations would be Abram. Speaking his singular language, he still can communicate with others around him, including the Pharaoh and king of the Philistines, Sodom and Gomorrah. He knew languages. Hebrew might have been his national tongue, his identity, but that did not stop him from communicating with his neighbors and his servants who did not speak Hebrew, and being a hero to most of them.

And that is the heart to of the matter. Hebrew is a language of national identity since the time of Abram. When asked by the nations “who are you?” the answerer often is “I am Hebrew” Hebrew is one of those portable things that does not need a land to identify a people as a nation -- for those in the Diaspora it is a link to home. To those in Israel, it is a way they say “we are home.” No matter what the intellectual language of the time Aramaic, Arabic, German, etc. the text itself was still in Hebrew. Hebrew tells us that we are a people. Granted, there is some Aramaic that crept in, but for close to a thousand years that was the language of commentary for the text. Even today we still say something every service in Aramaic, no matter what stream of Judaism you are in: the Kaddish. But most would agree, even those who do not know Hebrew, the saying the mourners Kaddish in anything but Aramaic sounds wrong. To recite “Magnified and sanctified is his great name” just doesn’t have the impact of the Aramaic Yitgadal v’yitkadash Shmei Raba. It’s never prayed in English, and even some Native Israeli speakers can’t understand it completely. But it remains because it is a connection to our past, and to those who came before us. How much more so the rest of Hebrew.

Yet I understand the frustration of many who don’t know Hebrew. Mine is still slow and I do certainly not know every word I’m reading in a text. I know no Modern Hebrew, as I emphasize the language of our ancient Holy books more than the language of the State of Israel in my studies. I was once in a rather hostile environment about not knowing Hebrew too. I had to learn my bar mitzvah portion in an Orthodox Hebrew school, yet knew less Hebrew than the first graders there. I was outright scorned and insulted, not just by the students but by the teachers. I saw around me in my traditional Synagogue the competition of Hebrew versus English. This was not about holiness but about egos, and being the exclusive club. That if anything was my reason for straying East into Taoism and Zen for a decade. Like many objectors, I want to know what I am saying as well, is what I’m praying actually what I believe. I am critical enough to want to know that, and to explore what that means. But I am also aware that translations never do justice to the actual text, and often translations, from Targum to English siddurim, often edit the objectionable parts of the text. Artscroll’s translation of the Song of Songs isn’t even a direct translation but Rashi’s notes, so that no one “misunderstands” the meaning. Translation by nature changes the meaning; no translation tells you what it means.

Hebrew is about identity, and commonality of a people -- the Jewish people. We all can say the Shema in any synagogue on the world, not matter the stream, for we all say it exactly the same. When we say it in Hebrew we are as unified voice just as God is One. As our identity, it is important, and in my mind we should all learn at least the letters and be able to pronounce the words.

The sin of the tower of Babel was that people did not make the effort to learn another language -- they took the easy route and thought theirs was superior to everyone else’s and thus those who did not understand deserved to die. Yet, we are also told in Talmud Tractate Megillah that Mordecai, a member of the Sanhedrin’s precursor, Knew seventy languages and that it was a requirement for a high judge to have such knowledge so that they could understand any witness or case. The righteous make the effort to learn, though it may not be easy.

Hebrew to the modern English mind is not easy, but Hebrew makes us Jews into Jews. As many left Judaism because they did not understand Hebrew, even more left because they saw no need to do anything else Jewish when a major part of identity is completely eliminated. One of the biggest proponents of English, the early Reform movement, known as classical refom, believed in such of such hard core English arrogance. The modern Reform movement, however, has embraced Hebrew, so much so that there is more Hebrew in the new Mishkan Tefila siddur than any other Reform Siddur to date. And to show their commitment to praying in Hebrew, even for those who do not know the Aleph-Bet, the entire siddur is transliterated.

I’m writing the Drash this week, in Disneyworld, and as I walk around the parks I realize how many languages surround me that I do not know. People chatter away in dozens of languages, as they do at home, both as a matter of identity to their nationality and because their ability at the North American majority languages, English and Spanish are poor or nonexistent. Watching Japanese tourists taking flash photos when we are told not to, I remember, unlike the Mexicans next to me in a ride or show, they didn’t understand what was said as we entered the ride.

Maybe, for those of us who know only one language, the Example of Abraham is a good one: know as many languages as you can and be understood by as many people as you can. It’s reward is being in a peaceful place with all your neighbors. Its failure is Babel. Yet, as at Babel and with Abraham Hebrew is our unique attribute that makes us a unique people. Both of these positions we should preserve.