Thursday, January 31, 2008

Shlomo's Teacher on You tube

Yes I have a teacher and he's quite the inspiration. Much of what is here on Shlomo's Drash I owe to him.

Here's a video of R. Bernard (Dov Baer) Grossfeld talking with Rabbi Doug about Targumim and particularly the Targumim of Esther. I get this stuff every week.

If you like this and know a bit of Hebrew, check out Spertus College Webpage about us and our website.

Mishpatim 5768: Halakah and Aggadah, Bittersweet Joy.

For the first time in the Torah cycle, there is very little narrative, found only at the end of the parsha. This week is a continuation of the same day God gave the Ten Commandments on Sinai, with God giving directly to Moses a rapid-fire nonstop set of mitzvot, mostly covering civil and criminal law. It includes other things, such as a more elaborate explanation of the Ten Commandments including Shabbat, honoring parents, not murdering, not being a false witness, and not stealing. There also the famous line about witches, and the schedule for the three pilgrimage festivals. Towards the end of this portion, Moses writes down this week portion, and then ascends Sinai for the forty days and nights to receive the rest of the Torah and the tablets.

Key to this portion, unlike any one before it in Torah is the mitzvot which comprise the majority of the portion. Much, but not all of this is civil law. For example there is this bit of liability law:

28. If an ox gores a man or a woman, that they die; then the ox shall be surely stoned, and his flesh shall not be eaten; but the owner of the ox shall be acquitted. 29. But if the ox was wont to gore with its horn in times past, and its owner had been warned, and he has not kept it in, but it has killed a man or a woman; the ox shall be stoned, and its owner also shall be put to death.[23:28-9] … 33. And if a man shall open a pit, or if a man shall dig a pit, and not cover it, and an ox or an ass falls in it; 34. The owner of the pit shall make it good, and give money to its owner; and the dead beast shall be his. [23:33-4]

Then there is this piece in the next chapter:

4. If a man shall cause a field or vineyard to be eaten, and shall put in his beast, and shall feed in another man’s field; of the best of his own field, and of the best of his own vineyard, shall he make restitution. 5. If fire breaks out, and catches in thorns, so that the stacks of grain, or the standing grain, or the field, be consumed with it; he who kindled the fire shall surely make restitution. [22:4-5]

Last week I mentioned the thinking of Halakah, but did not dwell on it too deep. Using the parable of painting, I described this as one of the primary colors on a painter’s palette. In my painting class last week my teacher said something rather wise about my painting style that is also true of Torah. As I am color blind, and as such I can not go by the appearance of a color when it comes to colors, I must use a more analytical approach. As a watercolor painter I generally need to understand all of my colors in order to use any of them. So too with the three ‘colors’ I mentioned last week, Halakah, Aggadah, and Everyday Torah.

On a very basic concept, what defines a Jew as a Jew is acceptance of Halakah on some level. For some it is as deep and completely involved as I described last week. Whether one can sit on a hammock attached to tree on Shabbat is an important, serious matter to some, and for them it should be. Others treat Halakah far more lightly, as though it is some anachronism. Yet Halakah was still there. Even Classical Reform of the late 19th century which seemingly rejected Halakah for a while still had the Shema in the Union Prayerbook. Classical Reform found verses, both in this week’s mitzvot and the prophets who later quote them, important enough to make social action an important religious doctrine.

To continue the painting analogy, on my palette Alarizin Crimson and Cadmium Red Light are both red, but very different reds. To understand the color red I need to understand something about all the reds. Halakah is similar, there are ones that are simple civil law like ox case above and then there are ones we can never completely understand, like the prohibition of boiling a kid in its mother’s milk. Like Maimonides, we can make assumptions and guesses, but sufficient archaeological evidence does not exist to confirm his idea that mixing of milk and meat had to do with pagan rites. We can however come up with new rules to make sure, whatever its intent, we don’t break the rule.

My point is that Halakah can be really subtle at times. It is not just the doing but the understanding of where it comes from and what one can do with it. A large amount of the civil law tractates in the Talmud is nothing but an exposition on this week’s portion. A lot of things were derived from these few verses. The Mishnah to Baba Kama for example begins:

The principal categories of damage are four: the ox, the pit, the ‘spoliator’ [mab'eh] and the fire.

The rabbis categorized all forms of damages in terms of these four, all based on verses in Mishpatim. A majority of Baba Kama, hundreds of pages of debate, is an exposition of those few lines above. The ox goring, damage caused by falling into an open pit, uncontrolled fires, and the ‘spoilator, ’ which the rabbis get into a large discussion trying to define, becomes the basis of liability law in the Talmud. Understanding that there are subcategories of these, how those subcategories work, what is an accidental case and what is a non-accidental case is all there. A lush forest of laws and rules all derived from a few words as its seed.

For most Jews today, and for many non-Jews this seems a deep, impenetrable forest. For those who enter it is a beautiful tropical rainforest of wonder. There is the halakah of religious commandments and the halakah of civil, ethical rules. For those who enter this lavish beautiful jungle, it’s hard to tell the difference. Is this theology or civil law?

Man is always mu'ad whether [he acts] inadvertently or willfully, whether awake or asleep. If he blinded his neighbor’s eye or broke his articles, full compensation must [therefore] be made. [B.K. 26a]

Humanity is considered Mu’ad, but what is Mu’ad?

What is tam, and what is mu'ad? — [cattle become] mu'ad after [the owner has] been warned for three days [regarding the acts of goring], but [return to the state of] tam after refraining from goring for three days; these are the words of R. Judah. R. Meir, however, says: [cattle become] mu'ad after [the owner has] been warned three times [even on the same day], and [become again] tam when children keep on touching them and no goring results. [B.K. 23b]

Mu’ad is based on Exodus 21:29 above, that an animal with a record of warnings is considered dangerous. For cattle, there is a possibility to return to a state of simple and safe. R. Judah believe a safe ox is one whose track record is not to do anything wrong for three days. R. Meir believes only an ox which can be repeatedly taunted by children without incident is safe. To call the nature of man as though a man is always in the dangerous state, as though we are always a mad bull, is quite a remarkable statement. We are always and in all circumstances responsible for our actions even when asleep, and thus deserve the full penalty. As I asked before, is this a religious or civil statement?

The beauty and joy of reading and understanding Halakah is not just in its observance. It is in asking questions about the Mitzvot, where it comes from, and why others made the decisions they did, creating the practiced Halakah. To understand when a preventative measure, a fence around Torah is necessary in an ambiguous case is just as important as seeing there are exceptions to those stringencies. Even with the idea of full responsibility, the rabbis did make exemptions for simple accidents beyond human control. It all really does make some sense if you understand the thinking.

Sadly, very few do. There is a time commitment to study of course, one few have. Starting next month that will be me as well. I’m going to have to give up group Talmud study in order to make a living. It’s a very hard, sad decision for me, but one that was unfortunately necessary. I understand the time issues. Then there is the other issue, the one of not knowing what to do with a Talmud page. The education to do so in most Jews across the spectrum of observance, from Renewal to Reform to Even Orthodox Baalei T’Shuva is sorely lacking. I still have a dream to change that: to make knowledge of Talmud accessible to all. Again out of necessity that dream is sidelined, though I desperately pray not forever.

Talmud is one of the most beautiful things in my world; I’d like it to be in yours too. Teaching it and Learning from it is a source of life, unfortunately it doesn’t seem to pay the rent or grocery bills unless you have an R. for Rabbi in front of your name. I’ve wondered over the last few weeks at the dearth of opportunities for a guy like me whether my last five years of grad school was a waste of time and money. I sometimes doubt I picked the right life path. But then I remember: Halakah gives us a way to do things and a basis to make good decisions that Torah does not explicitly state. Yet Halakhah does not soothe the heart. It is times like this that aggadah paints its colors on the canvas. We also read this week:

20. Behold, I send an Angel before you, to keep you on the way, and to bring you into the place which I have prepared. 21. Take heed of him, and obey his voice, provoke him not; for he will not pardon your transgressions; for my name is in him. 22. But if you shall indeed obey his voice, and do all that I speak; then I will be an enemy to your enemies, and an adversary to your adversaries. 23. For my Angel shall go before you, and bring you in to the Amorites, and the Hittites, and the Perizzites, and the Canaanites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites; and I will cut them off. 24. You shall not bow down to their gods, nor serve them, nor do after their works; but you shall completely overthrow them, and break down their images in pieces. 25. And you shall serve the Lord your God, and he shall bless your bread, and your water; and I will take sickness away from the midst of you.

I do not read this just in its literal sense. I read it in another, to keep the faith in what I am doing, to keep up with the journey. It is to believe in not stopping nor ending what I have started. The other peoples in the land are not real people, but metaphors for my own stumbling blocks on the way to my living in the Land of Torah. My angel resides here in Shlomo’s Drash, and as long as I have a keyboard and a way to upload my Drash, I will continue to do this one way or the other.

Someday people will support me for Torah knowledge, and I can spread such knowledge with true holy joy and total devotion to Torah. But for now this might be a far longer journey than I thought.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Parshat Yitro 5768: The Torah of the Everyday

This week, moving towards Sinai, Moses’ father in law Yitro catches up with the Israelites bringing Moses’ sons and wife with him. Yitro explains the concepts of delegation and bureaucracy, and then the people get ready for the Ten Commandments, which take up the last part of this portion.

I had a lot of interesting and positive comments last weekend concerning my comments about Roller coasters, Disney and applying them to Torah. I seem to do things a little differently than others, and definitely off the beaten path. I’ve been thinking about what I do differently and how it shapes not only what I write here but what keeps me writing when I could be doing so many other things.

This week, we have the setup and the delivery not of the Mitzvot, but the identity statement of He who will Give the mitzvot to Israel. Every part of the Ten Commandments will be restated in a far clearer way later in the Torah, much of it in the next portion Mishpatim. What we have here is a summary, and an introduction to the relationship between the mitzvot, God, and the Jewish people.

1. And God spoke all these words, saying, 2. I am the Lord your God, who have brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. 3. You shall have no other gods before me. 4. You shall not make for you any engraved image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; 5. You shall not bow down yourself to them, nor serve them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generation of them that hate me; 6. And showing mercy to thousands of those who love me, and keep my commandments.

Past this point the commandments we have more concrete ideas: Shabbat can be explained the way Philo of Alexandria explained it. A person rested can be more productive the other six days. The rest is simple ethics. Thus we have three parts of Decalogue. We have the exclusive relationship with God, the witnessing of God’s creation on the day of rest, and the rules to be civil to one another. Yet all of them are about the first part, the relationship with God. We do these things to be in relationship with God. How we define and perceive this relationship differs among individuals and communities.

I recently was at an Orthodox home for Erev Shabbos. For the traditional D’var Torah at the dinner table, halakah for Shabbat was recited out of a very thick book of halakic rulings. Based on the rules derived from the Mishnah’s prohibition against harvesting during Shabbat came a ruling of not using a Hammock, for fear of knocking anything off the tree, and thus unintentionally harvesting. I actually understand the rabbinic thinking here, and do appreciate it. So I took the next step and asked another question: What if the tree is dead? With a little searching on our host’s part he found out that at least for hammocks it didn’t matter if the tree was alive or dead, and though the derivation wasn’t clear, it was probably based on dead produce or branches falling off the tree. Along the way, we found out that you can sit on a dead tree stump but not a live one, though some authorities believe you can only do that in summer and not winter when you can tell the difference between a live one and dead one.

Several of the guests who were not very religious at the table later mentioned to me they didn’t get such hairsplitting. Nor did they understand the seemingly contradictory nature of first restricting then finding loopholes to that restriction. But for me it makes sense if you make certain assumptions. The most vital of those assumptions is the nature of the relationship between God and Man. For those who religiously follow Halakah, they need to follow the mitzvot explicitly, even when not given full directions to do so. Yet, to completely restrict ourselves in every case leaves us unable to do anything, including fulfilling other mitzvot. This is much like a pattern of relationship where we love our partner so much we would do anything for them, even when we are not completely sure what they actually said or wanted. Such is the nature of Halakic Torah.

On the other hand there is a pattern I’ve seen in my experience in Liberal Judaism. During many discussions I’ve had in Reform settings, the same questions keep coming back. What is the nature of divine revelation, or does it even really exist? Why do bad thing happen to good people? Even though those are the hard philosophical questions; the “hard portions” to talk about are those which are all halakic. Stories are good stuff, Halakhah is avoided in discussion. Theology or in Hebrew Aggadah dominates discussions and belief. This has been true since the inception of the Reform movement, and while traditional elements are bringing back some things, such as a more traditional prayer service as exemplified by the new siddur Mishkan Tefilah, the core of this way of relationship is discussing the nature of the relationship. It is like two people dating who always go out on dates and spend the entire time talking about what their relationship is, and whether it really exists. They never bother to get around to holding hands, kissing or really enjoying the company of their love.

Then there is the third kind of relationship what I would call the Everyday Torah. Many people, mainly mystics, have seen it before. Yet, I believe it is far more approachable than some esoteric mysticism. My first exposure to it was not Jewish but as a core value of Taoism. It is fundamental to Lurianic Kabbalah. The Baal Shem Tov certainly knew of it and based much of what he did on it. Abraham Joshua Heschel’s Yiddish poetry sings of it. Probably of all movements the Renewal movement has the most consistent elements of this type of relationship. But maybe it is King David who sings of it most succinctly:

The earth is the Lord’s and all that fills it

The world and those who dwell in it

For he has founded it upon the seas,

And established it upon the rivers. [Psalm 24:1-2]

In this view there is a bit of holiness in everything, a bit of the divine in every part of our reality. The late Carl Sagan liked to talk that “we are made of Star stuff.” In this relationship, There is only God-Stuff, and everything is made of God stuff. God is everything and then some. Because the human mind needs to divide things to understand them, the “then some” part we call God, “the divine,” or the “worlds above.” The concrete part we can sense call “this world”, or “the worlds below.” We are in relationship with everything as we are in the relationship with the divine. One bittersweet way of looking at such a relationship I can find in my apartment, reminders of my late grandfathers (may their memory be for a blessing) On my desk, there are some letter openers and a big paperweight paperclip that used to sit on my Grandfather’s desk from as early as I can remember. Not far away is the talit katan and siddur of my other grandfather. In seeing those objects I remember my grandfathers and I get back into relationship with them. There is a tie I still have that I was given by an ex-girlfriend on Sweetest Day. I remember her every time I wear it. This often is the relationship we have with the Divine, as something that is not here, as transcendent, but there are reminders in our lives that if we see them we remember. The whole point of tzitzit is exactly that, to remember [Numbers 15:39]. Yet I believe not only in objects of holiness like tzitzit or an Eternal Light do this. Anything, a sign on a passing truck, a song on the radio, a bit of overheard conversation, we can remember God this if we only we make the effort.

Of course my ex-girlfriend is not the tie, and my grandfather is not a paperclip paperweight. To treat my tie like a girlfriend, buy it flowers, treat it to chocolate on Valentines Day, or even sleep with it would be outright insane. To say these objects are the person is wrong. That is idolatry, and that is the danger of misunderstanding this relationship, something I have seen on occasion. This is so much the case, God after saying “I am” in the Decalogue states not to get into this crazy thinking.

You shall not make for you any engraved image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; 5. You shall not bow down yourself to them, nor serve them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generation of them that hate me;

This is the relationship with the transcendent God. Yet Torah of the Everyday, like many mystic systems has no problems with paradox. God is both imminent and transcendent. God’s imminence means that every thing and action emanates God’s holiness out – it is not just reminder, but a conduit of the holy. It is the still small voice Elijah heard at Sinai [I K 19:12], a tiny spark in the sunshine, a small vibration. The Noise, vibrations and light of our secular world, tends to mask the holy world right there in front of us. Every action and every object is Torah and Midrash in this view, everything Divine Revelation and Miracle. They are not the thunder and fire of Sinai. Our experience is more like Elijah’s experience at Sinai, God was not in the fire. Instead God-expreience is very small or taken for granted but the experience is alwys there. We just have to get used to looking for it, and even then it’s difficult at times unless we make it habit. I’ve learned to see some of these, seeing roller coasters as Midrash or Harley-Davidson riders as a commentary on how to treat Torah. I often rely on such experience in writing this column, and in my view of holiness in general.

I have talked about Everyday Torah this week very inadequately falling back into that theology mode for some thing I usually do wordlessly. This is not about words but perceptions of the world around us, of perceiving what is really there. To help us in this, God mandated on Sinai a weekly practice day:

8. Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. 9. Six days shall you labor, and do all your work;

10. But the seventh day is the Sabbath of the Lord your God; in it you shall not do any work, you, nor your son, nor your daughter, your manservant, nor your maidservant, nor your cattle, nor your stranger that is within your gates; 11. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day, and made it holy.

Shabbat is there not only to rest our bodies but for us to witness creation, to see the Divine in the mundane. It’s the weekly exercise in getting the Torah of the Everyday into our everyday lives, when it is so hard to practice such things the other six days.

I believe there is not one right relationship to God of these three, nor is there one right blend. Since I’m taking a painting class right now I’d compare it to painting with the three primary colors, blue, red, and yellow. We can use them pure in places or blend them to make oranges violets and greens, even blacks. We might thin them to paler colors, or we can darken them. We put those colors to canvas or paper in different shapes and styles of painting. In our painting of Life we use these all together to make a masterpiece. The skill is to know which colors to use in what balance to achieve this painting, which is as unique as the individual.

That is what I try to accomplish every week. By the time I’m done writing these words every week, I take a dab of the scholarly Halakic mind immersed in a variety of classical texts and blend with some Aggadah. With those ranges of colors I paint over a glaze of Everyday Torah, then highlight again with parable from more everyday Torah. In the end I come up with a picture, one that defines me and my world. Often I’ve been told how personal my Midrash is. Actually everyone’s Midrash is, I’m just a bit more obvious about that. Rashi, Maimonides, and Judah HaNasi put their personalities and biographies into their works as much as I have, it’s just we rarely look for their hidden bios since they lived so far in the past. Torah has been called the blueprint of the Universe. The Ten Commandments this week are the abstract of that blueprint. Shlomo’s Drash is my dynamic blueprint of Shlomo’s World. Hopefully this week’s column is also my abstract of what I want to do – Live Torah fully.

Let me end with an invitation, which really is what Shlomo's Drash is, though an invitation rarely accepted to my knowledge. I invite everyone to write Midrash of the everyday, to see all the relationships we have with God and express them to others. Do this not to change other’s opinions as much as to report what one’s own unique perception brings to the Torah of the everyday. We each make a painting, Let us build an art gallery together.

Blessings and Midrash to all.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Parshat Beshallah 5768: Serious thrill issues Dude!

This week, we start with the Israelites leaving Egypt going the long way, so the Israelites don’t meet the Philistines and get discouraged by war. Instead, they get themselves sandwiched between Pharaoh’s whole army and the Red Sea, only to have a miracle save them. On the other side of the Red Sea, the people, and in a rare occurrence in biblical text, even the women led by Miriam, dance in joy. They sing that God is good, in their words mi chamocha, “who is like you?” From there, the people complain about the water and food, when miracles save the day, including the incredible food substance Manna. God also introduces Shabbat observance by commanding that a double portion of manna be taken on the six day, as he doesn’t cook on Shabbos. To end the portion, we are introduced to Joshua, who repels an Amelakite attack with the help of God, Moses and two very tired arms.

Last week, during my vacation in Disney world, on about my fourth ride on Test Track while turning a very tight curve at 64.8 MPH I had an odd thought. A man who only five years ago was terrified to get on this ride is riding it repeatedly. In the past, getting on thrill rides was merely an exercise in fear, seeing if I can get over my fear of such rides. Now, however they are actually fun and I’d do them over and over again. Screaming along the outside of the building, I thought: What makes such things fun?

While this may not seem to have a connection to this week’s portion, the answer to that question explains a lot of what happens through the portion of the people’s flip flopping between rejoicing and fear.

10. And when Pharaoh drew near, the people of Israel lifted up their eyes, and, behold, the Egyptians marched after them; and they were very afraid; and the people of Israel cried out to the Lord. 11. And they said to Moses, because there were no graves in Egypt, have you taken us away to die in the wilderness? Why have you dealt thus with us, to carry us forth out of Egypt? 12. Is not this the word that we did tell you in Egypt, saying, Let us alone, that we may serve the Egyptians? For it had been better for us to serve the Egyptians, than that we should die in the wilderness. [Ex 14:10-12]

1. Then sang Moses and the people of Israel this song to the Lord, and spoke, saying, I will sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously; the horse and his rider has he thrown into the sea…20. And Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took a tambourine in her hand; and all the women went out after her with tambourines, dancing. [Exodus 15]

2. (K) And the whole congregation of the people of Israel murmured against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness; 3. And the people of Israel said to them, Would to God we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the meat pots, and when we did eat bread to the full; for you have brought us forth into this wilderness, to kill this whole assembly with hunger.[16:2-3]

First they leave, and then are afraid of death by Pharaoh’s chariots. The splitting of the Red Sea, and its subsequent closing, leads to big celebration. Then a few days later they are grumbling about water, only to have that relieved, then a few weeks later they are grumbling about food, only to be relieved with manna. The last part of the portion has the curious battle with Amalek which goes one way then another, depending if Moses’ hands are up in the air or not.

Over and over we have fear and resolution of that fear. As I’ve written before, every time I go to Disney World, I’m fascinated by fear. Most don’t think of amusement parks this way, but they are a laboratory of fear. It is here that some of our most hard-wired fears are exploited, and many people come here exactly for that reason. Somewhere deep in our most primitive brain, we have been programmed to react to falling, being in the dark, being flung from a tree or of something thrown at us. Our physiology changes to react to this event. When the crisis is resolved, we have this euphoric relief. Now imagine having all of that thrown at you within seconds of each other, and each time there is almost instantaneous relief. Essentially you end up with a relief as you hit a new obstacle, cumulatively building to a continuous and joyous thrill. Your fear of dying is around every corner, and when you don’t you become a very happy puppy. You become so happy you need to ride again just to get the same feel.

From the crossing of the Sea until Moses strikes the rock in the Book of Numbers, we get a cycle of this type of behavior from the people. People get afraid for their lives then start whining until Moses has to bail them out by interceding with God. It is clear from the episode of the spies this is a generational thing, and the generation that continually pulls this kind of stunt is not the one that enters the land. Interestingly, the last time people whine, we are told Moses too will not enter the land. For the first time we get a new idea, Moses won’t be there to intercede in the new land –it’s up to the people. At that point, they change.

There are different ways of having a thrill addiction. One is when you have someone in your life who keeps bailing you out of situations, not only are you relieved, but there’s even a psychological high, a thrill, one people can get addicted to. Watching little kids one can see this. Some kids invent small crises, such as needing that princess outfit or pirate sword, to get their parents to save them. That the toy is quickly ignored once bought underlines it was the crisis, not the object that was the issue.

In Torah from Exodus 14 through Numbers 20 we have the Israelites whining like such five year olds. Yet in that same text, there are people who somehow act differently, and do the courageous thing. Joshua and Caleb definitely fit in this category. I would argue Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu do in martyrdom. But there is one character mentioned the Rabbis ascribe courage to more than any of these: Nahshon ben Amminadab.

Each tribe was unwilling to be the first to enter the sea. Then sprang forward Nahshon the son of Amminadab and descended first into the sea…At that time Moses was engaged for a long while in prayer; so the Holy One, blessed be He, said to him, ‘My beloved ones are drowning in the sea and thou prolongest prayer before Me!’ He spake before Him, ‘Lord of the Universe, what is there in my power to do?’ He replied to him, Speak unto the children of Israel that they go forward. And lift thou up thy rod, and stretch out thy hand etc. [Sotah 37a]

It was because of Nahshon’s actions that the sea split. My reason for being so interested in fear at Disney is not just about amusement rides. It’s a metaphor for something more. How do I, or anyone for that matter deal with fear? In our world there are far more complex mental fears that the basic physical fear of falling to our deaths. Social anxieties abound. For many, the fear of asking someone out on a date or of speaking in public is more terrifying than falling off a roof.

Nahshon showed courage and faith. That is why his otherwise obscure story becomes one of those rabbinic commentaries, like Abram smashing the idols, so beloved to be virtually part of the biblical story. Was his courage merely suppressing fear? I don’t think so. Why is it so many people, including me, seem to fail at being courageous? They try suppressing fear, and fear bounces back at them even stronger than before. Nahshon felt his fear, but not as fear but as thrill, and thus transformed it into a courageous act. Because of his perfect faith in God, Nahshon transforms his fear of drowning into the act the saves the people.

Nahshon felt thrill one way. The whiny Israelites before Moses struck the rock felt it another way. Yet I believe both enjoyed the experience. Like the party after the crossing of the sea, the people enjoyed it so much, they intentionally felt helpless so that they could feel it again. Nahshon on the other hand took control of his fear and changed it into thrill, which came out as courage. We can do either. Yet the way of the former Egyptian slaves condemns us to slavery. The way of Nahshon, turning our fear into something more powerful, opens the way to freedom.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Parshat Va’Era 5768: We need a (super)Hero

After Moses’ first disaster talking to Pharaoh and the Israelites, God talks to Moses again and tells him to talk to the Israelites again, they are so stressed out, they promptly ignore him. Then God tells a despondent Moses to talk to Pharaoh once again, and Moses objects -- again. God tells Moses that he will use signs and wonders in order to make completely clear 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: blood, frogs, lice, swarms, cattle disease, boils and hail.
Last week I asked some questins. One of those questions wasn’t answered: how does the Moses of Parshat Shmot differ in being a prophet from the Moses of after lat week’s portion?
1. And the Lord said to Moses, See, I have made you a god to Pharaoh; and Aaron
your brother shall be your prophet. 2. You shall speak all that I command you;
and Aaron your brother shall speak to Pharaoh, that he send the people of Israel
out of his land. 3. And I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and multiply my signs and
my wonders in the land of Egypt. [Exodus 7:1-3]

The difference is wonderworking. It is the number of signs and wonders God brings during the period until the Israelites leave Egypt. On his first attempt, mild mannered Moses simply asks Pharaoh to let the people go. On his second attempt, Aaron’s staff eats the other staffs, and things escalate from there. While we will learn later in the Torah that magic is a prohibited practice, wonderworking is not. What’s the difference? Magic as described by Pagan peoples is a force that is separate and superior to the gods, and which the gods use to manipulate the world. However, this same force can be harnessed by people as well and used against the gods and against other people. Wonderworking on the other hand, only comes from one source. It is part of God, thus it cannot be superior to God and cannot be turned against God. Indeed it is the Magicians of Pharaoh who declare this succinctly.
14. And the magicians did likewise with their enchantments to bring forth lice,
but they could not; so there were lice upon man, and upon beast. 15. Then the
magicians said to Pharaoh, This is the finger of God; yet Pharaoh’s heart was
hardened, and he listened not to them; as the Lord had said. Exodus
One way to look on such magic is in comparing two more modern stories. Coming into popularity in the 18th century, there is the story of the golem of the earlier Maharal of Prague. In the 19th century, Mary Shelly wrote Frankenstein with its famous monster. For Shelly, to make life from inanimate material was against the will of God. The golem however was brought to life through prayer. Jewish thinking believes that the Golem came to life through divine will, humans only facilitated that will. The Frankenstein monster ran amok, and caused great devastation. The Golem was a protector of the Jews as long as it was kept under control and used responsibly. Both were inanimate men made real, something that is a wonder.
The story of the Golem inspired Frankenstein, yet one was Jewish thinking and one was Western thinking. But that is not the only story that the golem inspired, as several books published recently have come to note. In fiction, we have the work of Michael Chabon in the Adventures of Cavlier and Clay. However more authoritative non fiction works about this come from Rabbi Simcah Weinstein and Journalist and Author Danny Fingeroth.
While not as bad as Germany, Anti Semitism was rampant in the early part of the twentieth century in America. In one industry, commercial graphics and comic strips, this was particularly true. If you were Jewish, you could not find work. Two good Jewish boys from Cleveland, Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster kept pitching this character they invented to newspapers. Being Jewish, the papers would not even talk to the duo. Eventually a New York publishing firm that was running not a single strip but a whole set of strips in a single book bought the concept: Superman.
Whether what they invented was Jewish or not is still a matter for debate. But the comic book industry in its inception was dominated by Jewish authors, editors and artists. With the exception of Wonder Woman, most of the major superheroes that came out of that early time including Batman and Captain America came from Jewish writers and editors. While reading the history of Jews and comic books stuff as my winter break recreation, I have been thinking a lot about one character doing one thing. In a lot of wish fulfillment in very isolationist America, months before Pearl Harbor, Captain America punches Hitler. Apparently a lot wish fulfillment: leading up to the war Captain America was outselling Batman and Superman.
While Superman’s origin story has a lot of overtones of Moses’ story, Captain America #1 has elements of Moses confronting Pharaoh – it is wonder he ever got that far to save the day. While debates of whether Superman is really an update of the Golem legend continue, one thing becomes clear about these characters. Very few of them went looking for powers. They were inherent or were thrust upon them, often in accidents or tragedies they could not have imagined. They work wonders, and they do so using their God-given powers. Even Batman, who uses his intellect and training alone, did this to avenge his parent’s tragic death. Superheroes use their powers to promote the good.
Prophets, on the other hand, don’t do a lot of good, they just talk up a storm. Even the few wonderworking prophets like Elisha and Elijah only give demonstrations of God’s power, and really do nothing that saves the people. Prophets might yell at you to not climb a tree, and tell you the consequences if you do, but only the superhero would fly up to catch you in mid air when you fall. Moses with the plagues, staff and the red sea, is actively leaving Egypt. This is not the actions of a prophet, but a superhero.
So, yes, what I’m saying is that Moses may have started as a prophet in the last portion, but ended up as the prototype of the superhero in much of the rest of the story. The next question is why. In time of darkness, there is a need for superheroes. The 1930’s and 40’s was a time where Antisemitism was rampant, the Holocaust was real, and FDR’s government actively suppressed information about the Shoah. In such times, a fictional character who had the ability to do the right things fired people’s imagination. With the Depression, one didn’t need to be Jewish to feel oppressed. To an oppressed people in Egypt, the plagues were not about Pharaoh, but about hope of the Israelites, the more wonders Moses does the more people get inspired. For the people who begin this portion who will not listen to Moses the prophet due to their “anguished spirit,” [Exodus 6:9] inspiration is just what they need, and Moses the superhero delivers.
Today, are we in need of superheroes? In the last two decades, Both Captain America and Superman died. Superman returned, but, Captain America is still dead. What does that tell us about ourselves?
Again, I’ll leave that as an open question.