Monday, December 25, 2023

A Visit from the Rebbe (a parody for Nittel Nacht)

A Visit from the Rebbe*

'Twas the night before Xmas, the night we call “Nittel”

Not a bochur was learning, not even a little;

The seforim lay closed on their shtenders with care,

Not to be opened till naitz would be there;

The kinder were nestled all snug in their beds;

Trying to rid Torah thoughts from their heads;

And I with my AirPods, and mamma with tichel,

Had just settled our brains for a Torah-free Nittel,

When out on the lawn something broke through my dremmel,

I sprang from my bed with a shrill "Gutt in Himmel!"

Away to the window I flew like a flash,

Tore open the shutters and threw up the sash.

The moon on the breast** of the new-fallen snow,

Gave a luster of midday to objects below,

When what to my wondering eyes did appear,

But a stretch limousine full of bochrim from shiur;

With a saintly old driver so lively and heimish,

I knew in a moment – ‘twas the Rebbe, Reb Beinish!

More rapid than eagles he and eight chevra came,

And he whistled, and shouted, and called them by name:

"Now, Itche! now, Mottel! now Yankel and Bumy!

On, Velvel! on, Lazer! on, Ber and Avrumy!

To the top of the porch! to the top of the wall!

Now dash away! dash away! dash away all!"

As leaves that before the wild hurricane fly,

When they meet with an obstacle, mount to the sky;

So up to my roof the chevra they climbed

With volumes of shas and achronim combined.

And then, in a twinkling, I heard, a bit loud

The daf-yomi shteiging of that lebedig crowd

As I drew in my head, and was turning around,

Down the chimney Reb Beinish came with a bound.

He was dressed all in black, from his head to his boots,

And his clothes were all tarnished with ashes and shmutz;

New sets of Gemaras he had stuffed into sacks

For every young talmid whose learning was lax.

His eyes—how they twinkled! his dimples, how merry!

His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry!

His mouth hummed a niggun, as if from a fiddle, 

And the beard on his chin was as white as a kittel;

With a wink of his eye and a kind smile he said,

Minhag shtus is this custom, there’s nothing to dread!”

Then, he admonished, “Not a moment of bittul –

There’s Torah to learn, even though it is Nittel!”

He knew what to do and went straight to his work,

And gave me a sefer; then turned with a jerk,

"Final thought," said he, "verse is more fun than prose!"

And giving a nod, up the chimney he rose;

He sprang to his limo, to the bochrim, "Come quick 

Someone may get the idea I'm St. Nick!"

But I heard him exclaim, with a hartzige lach 

“Happy Nittel to all, and to all gutte nacht!”

*Inspired by Clement Clarke Moore's classic ballad. See here for Marc B. Shapiro's study on Nittel Nacht.


Sunday, April 10, 2022

A night of midrash

וְדוֹרֵשׁ מֵאֲרַמִּי אוֹבֵד אָבִי, עַד שֶׁיִּגְמֹר כֹּל הַפָּרָשָׁה כֻלָּהּ (משנה פסחים י׃ד)

He expounds on “An Aramean tried to destroy my father, etc.” until he concludes the entire section (Pesahim 10:4).

The core text of the Passover Haggadah, an exposition of four verses in Deuteronomy (26:5-8), is a midrashic tour de force that places the rabbinic method of biblical interpretation on full display. With their well-honed sensitivity to biblical expression, the rabbis draw out a narrative of the exodus from a terse chronology in a completely unrelated context. While we may accept the overall thrust of the Haggadah's interpretative style, we must also admit that some of its hermeneutical leaps are so fanciful as to test the very limits of midrash. 

The Haggadah certainly has little interest in the plain meaning of Scripture ("peshat"). The word "Haggadah" itself is an alternative form of "Aggadah," a method largely unconstrained by literal or contextual meaning (though subject to its own logic). 

Take, for example, the first verse from the Deuteronomy passage, translated literally: 

 אֲרַמִּי אֹבֵד אָבִי וַיֵּרֶד מִצְרַיְמָה וַיָּגר שָׁם בִּמְתֵי מְעָט וַיְהִי־שָׁם לְגוֹי גָּדוֹל עָצוּם וָרָב׃

My father was a wandering Aramean. He went down to Egypt with meager numbers and sojourned there; but there he became a great and very populous nation.

The rabbis read the verse differently. They assumed that the "Aramean" was Laban, rather than Jacob, and אוֹבֵד is a transitive verb, i.e., "(Labanthe Aramean tried to destroy my father (Jacob)." Taking this identification for granted, without the slightest effort to convince its readers, the Haggadah uses אֲרַמִּי אוֹבֵד אָבִי to show how Laban "sought to uproot the whole people," that is, to destroy Jacob and the nascent tribes of Israel.

As a straightforward reading, this interpretation strains credulity (see Ibn Ezra and Rashbam) and I suspect the rabbis themselves would acknowledge that "Aramean," taken literally, refers to Jacob rather than Laban. Yet they crafted this midrash, not to undermine the simple meaning of the text, but to drive home a theological-historical idea. The idea is stated explicitly in the Haggadah at the beginning of Maggid and repeated at its conclusion, by means of the catchphrase בְּכָל־דּוֹר וָדוֹר (in every generation): 

שֶׁלֹּא אֶחָד בִּלְבָד עָמַד עָלֵינוּ לְכַלּוֹתֵנוּ, אֶלָּא שֶׁבְּכָל דּוֹר וָדוֹר עוֹמְדִים עָלֵינוּ לְכַלוֹתֵנוּ, וְהַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא מַצִּילֵנוּ מִיָּדָם.
It is not only one that has stood against us to destroy us, but rather in every generation, they stand against us to destroy us, but the Holy One, blessed be He, rescues us from their hand.

בְּכָל־דּוֹר וָדוֹר חַיָּב אָדָם לִרְאוֹת אֶת־עַצְמוֹ כְּאִלּוּ הוּא יָצָא מִמִּצְרַיִם 

In every generation, one is obligated to see himself as if he left Egypt.

In short, persecution and redemption are perennial features of Jewish existence. Even before the Egyptian bondage, in a sign of things to come for generations, the nation's progenitor was threatened with annihilation.

By means of midrash, stretched to its elastic limit, the biblical account of bondage and redemption is transformed from a unique historical event into a metahistorical experience, to be reenacted at the Seder בְּכָל־דּוֹר וָדוֹר, even at times and in places where Jews are free and prosperous. Only midrash can impart this metahistorical truth.

An even more startling demonstration of the gap between peshat and derash in the Haggadah is its interpretation of the last verse in the Deuteronomy passage. Here again, the Haggadah utilizes midrash to make an unequivocal, even extreme, theological claim which departs dramatically from a simple reading of the Torah:

 וַיּוֹצִאֵנוּ ה' מִמִּצְרַיִם בְּיָד חֲזָקָה וּבִזְרֹעַ נְטוּיָה וּבְמֹרָא גָּדֹל וּבְאֹתוֹת וּבְמֹפְתִים׃

The Lord freed us from Egypt by a mighty hand, by an outstretched arm and awesome power, and by signs and portents.

The rabbis thought "the Lord" was superfluous -- from previous verses, we already know that God is the subject -- so they took it to exclude all other agents, human or divine. God himself took us out of Egypt, without intermediaries. The Haggadah states this explicitly and emphatically, underscoring the point with metronomic repetition: 

וַיּוֹצִאֵנוּ ה' מִמִּצְרַיִם. לֹא עַל־יְדֵי מַלְאָךְ, וְלֹא עַל־יְדֵי שָׂרָף, וְלֹא עַל־יְדֵי שָׁלִיחַ, אֶלָּא הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא בִּכְבוֹדוֹ וּבְעַצְמוֹ. שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: וְעָבַרְתִּי בְאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם בַּלַּיְלָה הַזֶּה, וְהִכֵּיתִי כָּל־בְּכוֹר בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם מֵאָדָם וְעַד בְּהֵמָה, וּבְכָל אֱלֹהֵי מִצְרַיִם אֶעֱשֶׂה שְׁפָטִים. אֲנִי ה'.

"The Lord freed us from Egypt" - not through an angel and not through a seraph and not through a messenger, but directly by the Holy One, blessed be He, Himself, as it is stated (Ex. 12:12); "And I will pass through the Land of Egypt on that night and I will smite every firstborn in the Land of Egypt, from men to animals; and with all the gods of Egypt, I will make judgments, I am the Lord." 

But is that what Exodus actually says? Were the Egyptian firstborn killed by God directly or by an angel of death? While some ambiguity lingers in the text, it seems clear enough from references to a "destroyer" (Ex. 12:13, 12:23), and from the blood-ritual meant to dissuade that destroyer from entering Israelite homes, that an angel or demon was at least somewhat involved. Shemot Rabba (17:5), for example, leaves the matter open for debate: וְעָבַר ה' לִנְגֹף אֶת מִצְרַיִם, יֵשׁ אוֹמְרִים עַל יְדֵי מַלְאָךְ וְיֵשׁ אוֹמְרִים הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא בְּעַצְמוֹ. 

But the Haggadah (and parallel midrashim) goes much further in claiming that the entire exodus was conducted by God without assistance. And this, we know, is far from the plain sense of Scripture. The evidence is in Scripture itself: In his message to the King of Edom, Moses himself says, "We cried to the Lord who heard our plea, sending a messenger (וַיִּשְׁלַח מַלְאָךְ) who freed us from Egypt." (Num. 20:16). Whether this "messenger" is human (Moses) or an archangel (perhaps Michael or Metatron) is beside the point -- there was, in fact, a messenger. The Haggadah's repetitious insistence that the exodus occurred לֹא עַל־יְדֵי מַלְאָךְ, וְלֹא עַל־יְדֵי שָׂרָף, וְלֹא עַל־יְדֵי שָׁלִיחַ directly negates the verse in Numbers, almost to the word. Note that a parallel version in some midrashim lacks the phrase וְלֹא עַל־יְדֵי שָׂרָף, making the negation even more obvious (see Haggadah Shel Pesah, ed. E.D. Goldschmidt, Jerusalem, 1948, p. 40; Jerusalem, 1960, pp. 44-45).  

Rather than a recitation of events, the Seder is meant to be an exercise in deep storytelling. An historical timeline could only scratch the experiential surface and could be better accomplished by a few key passages from Exodus. The four verses in Deuteronomy, by contrast, were deliberately chosen for their extreme brevity. They are a springboard for interpretation, best delivered by the deep readings of midrash.

Tuesday, October 19, 2021

Proud tower, humbled man

The laconic Tower of Babel story in Genesis has always been a renewable resource of interpretation. From the ancient period onwards, biblical interpreters offered a healthy variety of explanations -- all only hinted at in Scripture -- for God’s ire at the "Generation of Dispersion." Among them: The tower-builders planned to breach heaven and replace God with a new deity; fearing another flood, they sought to buttress the celestial canopy, or to build a new (this time stationary) "ark" well above the earth's high water mark; or, the early Babylonians wanted a monument to their own glory in the form of a great city, but a city which would expand upwards instead of outwards, thus violating God’s command to “multiply and fill the Earth." According to this last interpretation, dispersion was for humanity's own good, not so much a punishment as the fulfillment of their manifest destiny.

A recent iteration of the idea that God disrupted the tower project for man's benefit reads the dispersion story as a rejection of totalitarian groupthink and a celebration of diversity. In this retelling, God prefers a “salad” of humanity over the conformist melting pot.

With its nod to cultural pluralism, this interpretation will resonate with modern audiences. As contemporary dersah, it works very well. But as an explanation for the scriptural purpose of the story, I think it falls short. And while this won't detract from its value or appeal, the idea is also an old one -- it has antecedents in earlier Jewish interpretation.

In the sixteenth century, Obadiah Seforno wrote that the dispersion was, indeed, supposed to diversify mankind. But he adds this plot twist: God’s original idea of human diversity was, in fact, polytheism. Man wanted to replace God with a single false deity but, at this early stage of history, he was meant to worship many gods. By means of this polytheistic error, mankind was supposed to arrive at the idea of the one true God. In Seforno’s view, this was a primarily theological, rather than social dispersion, which will ultimately fulfill the prophetic vision of humanity united under the banner of one God.

A nineteenth-century version of the “anti-groupthink” interpretation, in the commentary of R. Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin (Netziv), emphasizes the ideological conformism and political authoritarianism of the tower-builders. Netziv’s Babel was an aspiring thought-police state. First, the Babylonians allowed no citizen to leave. Later, the builders envisioned a watchtower designed to spy on the city’s inhabitants and thereby enforce their monolithic ideology. Dissent was punishable by death in the fiery furnace – the same furnace, of course, that baked bricks for the great metropolis – as illustrated by Abraham’s sentence for rejecting idolatry (Netziv's updated "midrash" combines two separate rabbinic traditions about Nimrod, the supposed founding ruler of Babel: Nimrod himself instigated the tower project; Nimrod sent Abraham into the fiery furnace for refusing to renounce monotheism). God foresaw, Netziv says, the inherent immorality of a totalitarian state and put an end to the plan. Almost certainly, this is a veiled critique of the Tsarist Russian Empire in which Netziv lived.

My own inclination, however, is to look for the meaning of such biblical stories not in their implications for contemporary social issues, but in their original scriptural setting (not to be confused with historical setting).

Yehezkel Kaufmann wrote that the first few chapters of Genesis are a series of etiological tales attributing the origin of evil to man’s rebellion against God. Adam and Eve brought death upon humanity by violating God’s command; and, by challenging God’s reign on earth, the tower builders gave rise to idolatry and social conflict. God’s response in both cases is to cut man down to size, reminding him that despite his remarkable achievements, he remains dust and ashes, a not-God: וַיֵּרֶד ה’ לִרְאֹת אֶת־הָעִיר וְאֶת־הַמִּגְדָּל אֲשֶׁר בָּנוּ בְּנֵי הָאָדָם׃.

Note the expression בְּנֵי הָאָדָם -- an unmistakable reference, by opposition, to בְּנֵי הָאֱ-לֹהִים (see Gen. 6:2-4; Ps. 82:6-7; Job 1:6, 2:1), the Divine Council God consults before man is first placed (in the creation story), and later reminded of his place (in the Tower story), in the hierarchy of being. The plurals in both stories imply God's collaboration with his angelic council: “Let us make man” just before man’s creation; “let us go down and confound their speech” just before his dispersion.

The early chapters of Genesis describe two pivotal events in human evolution (parallel, not coincidentally, to critical stages of early child development): The acquisition of morality and language. In each case, man has just acquired a godlike talent and God must intervene to prevent any further breach of the human-divine boundary. Parallel verses from each biblical narrative highlight their structural and linguistic similarities:

וַיֹּאמֶר ה’ אֱ-לֹהִים הֵן הָאָדָם הָיָה כְּאַחַד מִמֶּנּוּ לָדַעַת טוֹב וָרָע וְעַתָּה פֶּן־יִשְׁלַח יָדוֹ וְלָקַח גַּם מֵעֵץ הַחַיִּים וְאָכַל וָחַי לְעֹלָם׃

(Gen. 3:22)

וַיֹּאמֶר ה’ הֵן עַם אֶחָד וְשָׂפָה אַחַת לְכֻלָּם וְזֶה הַחִלָּם לַעֲשׂוֹת וְעַתָּה לֹא־יִבָּצֵר מֵהֶם כֹּל אֲשֶׁר יָזְמוּ לַעֲשׂוֹת

(Gen. 11:6)

God blocks Adam’s path to the Tree of Life because the quasi-divine combination of morality and immortality would make humans nearly indistinguishable from angels. In our own story, God worries that human beings -- unconstrained in technological skill and single-minded in language and purpose -- might become effectively omnipotent. 

Whether this interpretation conveys a contemporary message (in fact, it does) is beside the point, at least for me. But as peshat, I find it satisfying, even inspiring, on its own.


Friday, August 27, 2021

The Torah abhors a curse

Then the officials shall address the troops, as follows: “Is there anyone who has built a new house but has not dedicated it? Let him go back to his home, lest he die in battle and another dedicate it. Is there anyone who has planted a vineyard but has never harvested it? Let him go back to his home, lest he die in battle and another harvest it. Is there anyone who has paid the bride-price for a wife, but who has not yet married her? Let him go back to his home, lest he die in battle and another marry her.”

The officials shall go on addressing the troops and say, “Is there anyone afraid and disheartened? Let him go back to his home, lest the courage of his comrades flag like his.”

--Deuteronomy 20:5-8

Why are the soldiers in the first three verses singled out for honorable discharge? Doesn’t the real possibility of death on the battlefield weigh equally on the minds of every combatant? Of all the innumerable tragedies, actual and potential, that may afflict fallen soldiers and their families, there must be something unique about these. No doubt, it’s especially heart-wrenching to imagine the death of a young man or woman which robs them of a new home, the fruits of a major investment, or a marriage, just before consummation. The occasional obituary for a young bride or groom killed accidentally, only days before their wedding, evokes deep sorrow, if not shock and horror. 

But aren’t all these things -- more precisely, the fear of these things -- implicit in the last verse’s catchall category of the “afraid and disheartened” who are dismissed from the battlefield? Are these simply examples, admittedly extreme examples, of distractions that can make a soldier ineffective (see Ibn Ezra and Nahmanides)?

The answer seems to lie in the fact that the Torah is less worried here about the soldier’s fear of death, or even about his death per se, than with its outcome. We send him home out of concern for the secondary impact of his death. Our fear is that if he doesn’t leave now, 
אִישׁ אַחֵר (“another”) -- the phrase is repeated in each of the three verses -- might reap what he has sown. And, in Rashi’s words, וְדָבָר שֶׁל עָגְמַת נֶפֶשׁ הוּא זֶה -- this is an unusually cruel circumstance, resulting in profound mental anguish.

But whose anguish? If he is killed, the soldier won’t feel the anguish of his loss.

As it happens, the Torah reintroduces this house-vineyard-wife triptych later in Deuteronomy within the "Tokheha," the dire warnings by Moses of severe punishments Israel will suffer if it disobeys God’s laws. Among the seemingly endless list of curses, we find identical images, down to the very same wording:

If you pay the bride-price for a wife, another man shall enjoy her. If you build a house, you shall not live in it. If you plant a vineyard, you shall not harvest it. Your ox shall be slaughtered before your eyes, but you shall not eat of it . . . Your sons and daughters shall be delivered to another people, while you look on; and your eyes shall strain for them constantly, but you shall be helpless. A people you do not know shall eat up the produce of your soil and all your gains; you shall be abused and downtrodden continually, until you are driven mad by what your eyes behold.

--Deuteronomy 28:30-34

Note the repetition of “looking” and “seeing with your own eyes” in the latter verses. The soldier killed in battle, in the earlier passage, is spared the sight of his loss; here, the victim sees his life unravel right in front of him. The loss itself is tragic, but even more cruel is having to helplessly watch the untimely death of loved ones, to experience it in real time and to suffer its aftermath; to grapple daily -- morally, philosophically, and psychologically -- with the injustice of young lives cut short, their dreams remaining unrealized.

As tragic as these events are for the victims, the brunt of the punishment strikes those surrounding them. The dead don’t feel any pain -- if we are to believe Kohelet, at least, they feel and know nothing. Instead, they may leave a legacy of suffering to their survivors, who must endure the idea of an untimely and unjust death. 

The Talmud (Mo'ed Katan 25b) expresses this idea in a beautiful one-line elegy:

בְּכוּ לָאֲבֵלִים וְלֹא לָאֲבֵידָה, שֶׁהִיא לִמְנוּחָה וְאָנוּ לַאֲנָחָה.

Cry for the mourners and not for the loss, for the loss goes to rest, while we go to our sighs.

In allowing these special exemptions, the Torah, to the extent that it can, seeks to minimize the most morally offensive consequences of war, beyond those on the battlefield. Not that any combat death or, for that matter, any death at all, is less tragic than what Deuteronomy describes. Whether the victim is nineteen or ninety-nine, every human death is tragic, every life taken is wasted potential

In a category apart, however, are circumstances of such immeasurable cruelty, that death is not only tragic, but obscene; the mourners feel not only bereft, but cursed; where death makes a mockery of justice, undermines our confidence in a basically decent existence, and shatters the belief that "God’s kindness permeates the world.” 

For such evils, the Torah has no tolerance. Given the opportunity, we are obligated to deny death, at its most sinister, a needless victory.

Thursday, November 26, 2020

Jacob's stone(s)

 וַיִּפְגַּ֨ע בַּמָּק֜וֹם וַיָּ֤לֶן שָׁם֙ כִּי־בָ֣א הַשֶּׁ֔מֶשׁ וַיִּקַּח֙ מֵאַבְנֵ֣י הַמָּק֔וֹם וַיָּ֖שֶׂם מְרַֽאֲשֹׁתָ֑יו וַיִּשְׁכַּ֖ב בַּמָּק֥וֹם הַהֽוּא׃

וַיַּשְׁכֵּ֨ם יַעֲקֹ֜ב בַּבֹּ֗קֶר וַיִּקַּ֤ח אֶת־הָאֶ֙בֶן֙ אֲשֶׁר־שָׂ֣ם מְרַֽאֲשֹׁתָ֔יו וַיָּ֥שֶׂם אֹתָ֖הּ מַצֵּבָ֑ה וַיִּצֹ֥ק שֶׁ֖מֶן עַל־רֹאשָֽׁהּ׃

For students of Rashi's commentary on the Torah, these verses evoke the image of Jacob's quarreling stones. According to the rabbinic tradition Rashi cites, each stone demanded, "upon me let this righteous man lie his head," until God made peace among them by fusing them together (Rashi, Gen. 28:11 following Bereshit Rabba and Hulin 91b). 

A memorable story by itself -- with an echo of long-forgotten Israelite mythology -- this midrash is also an affecting metaphor for the unification of the twelve tribes under the banner of their forefather Jacob (according to a variation on this story, twelve stones merged into one -- the symbolism is stated explicitly in Bereshit Rabba and Pirke Rabbi Eliezer).

The peshat-oriented exegetes (e.g., Rashbam, Ibn Ezra, Bekhor Shor), of course, don't feel bound to read מֵאַבְנֵ֣י הַמָּק֔וֹם as multiple stones; Jacob took only one stone, they say, of many in the area. (Interestingly, the King James Version translation agrees with Rashi: "and he took of the stones of that place, and put them for his pillows, and lay down in that place to sleep.")

Why would the Torah go out of its way to tell us about an apparently random rock? Because of its special destiny. After sleeping beside it, and awaking from his famous dream, Jacob dedicates the rock as a מצבה (a stele or monument), anoints it with oil (an act of consecration) and vows that upon his safe return from Haran he will sacrifice thanksgiving offerings to God in that very spot, the site of a future temple.

But why did Jacob need a stone in the first place? וַיָּ֖שֶׂם מְרַֽאֲשֹׁתָ֑יו may seem to suggest he wanted to prop up his head on a stone pillow. And on one level, this makes sense. Jacob later says that he escaped from Esau carrying only his walking stick (Gen. 32:10). While this may be poetic hyperbole, Jacob would certainly not have had time to pack unnecessary belongings like cushions or extra garments to pad his campsite. A pillow of stone befits his desperate and spartan condition at the time.

Still, the word מְרַאֲשׁוֹת in the Bible doesn't always, or possibly ever, mean "under the head." Instead, it appears to mean "beside the head." The biblical usage includes, for example, the following (I Samuel 26:7, 11-12): וַחֲנִית֥וֹ מְעוּכָֽה־בָאָ֖רֶץ מְרַאֲשֹׁתָ֑יו -- "his spear stuck in the ground at his head" -- certainly not under his head! (see also Mandelkern's Concordance, p. 1065, which defines מְרַאֲשׁוֹת as "the opposite of מַרְגְּלֹתָיו," the latter meaning at the legs, rather than under the legs).

The most likely explanation is that Jacob took his stone, or stones, for warmth. Ancient travelers sleeping outside in the cool night air, especially in the desert, could take advantage of the heat that radiates, well into the night, from sunbaked rocks. Jacob may have also deliberately avoided lighting a fire at night so as not to draw attention from Esau and his men who, he would have feared, were already pursuing him. 

If so, then the Midrash, rather than the peshat commentaries, may have gotten it right after all. For maximum radiant heat, Jacob would no doubt have gathered as many large stones as he could.

Jacob's descendants, an imperfect union of often warring tribes, are fortunate that those honor-hungry, self-centered stones ultimately, if involuntarily, made peace with each other.