Archive for October, 2000

Bereshit 5761

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Bereshit

This d’var Torah was originally distributed by Kolel: The Adult Center for Jewish Learning during the year 5761 and can be found in its archives.

Breishit (Gen. 1:1-6:8)

OVERVIEW

In the first parsha of the Torah, the cosmos is created in 7 days, ending with the culmination of creation, the weekly Sabbath. Adam and Eve are placed in the Garden, but are expelled after eating the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Cain and Abel fight and Cain kills his brother, thus setting up the pattern of jealousy and conflict which will persist throughout the Book of Genesis. The parsha ends with a review of the generations from Adam to Noah.

IN FOCUS

“And God saw all that God had made, and found it very good. And there was evening, and there was morning, the sixth day.” (Genesis 1:31)

PSHAT

The first part of the creation story follows a certain rhythm and structure: God creates by bringing forth a certain aspect of life, from the most simple divisions through the most complex creatures, and then reviews God’s work, finding it good. On the sixth day God finishes the physical creation, and finds it “very good.”

DRASH

Last year we looked at the final phrase of this very same verse, noticing that it was different from the “review” verses of all the other days of Creation. This year, I want to go back to the middle of our verse, to another anomaly, noted above: all the other days of Creation are pronounced “good,” while the sixth day is called “very good”- in Hebrew, tov meod.

Of course, this sort of variation in the text is an opening for creative interpretation, and in fact one midrashic text, Midrash Rabbah, [“The Great Midrash”] offers about 16 different interpretations of this one phrase. One of the most interesting midrashim challenges us to reconsider simple distinctions between those parts of us which are “bad” and “good:”

    R. Nahman said in R. Samuel’s name: BEHOLD, IT WAS VERY GOOD refers to the Good Desire; AND BEHOLD, IT WAS VERY GOOD, to the Evil Desire. Can then the Evil Desire be very good? That would be extraordinary! But for the Evil Desire, however, no man would build a house, take a wife and beget children; and thus said Solomon: “Again, I considered all labour and all excelling in work, that it is a man’s rivalry with his neighbour.” (Kohelet IV, 4)  

    (Genesis Rabbah, 9:7, Soncino translation; this midrash is attributed slightly differently in the Mirkin Hebrew edition.)

The translators have rendered yetzer hara literally, as “evil desire,” but as a recurring concept from classic texts, I would think of it as “selfish” or “egocentric” rather than “evil” in its ordinary sense. Thus the midrash works something like this: all of creation is “good” in that it fits together in a harmonious scheme, and is beautiful, bountiful, and reflective of its Source. Basing itself on two textual variations from the other days- the “and” and the “very” – R. Nahman points out that humans have an extra or additional aspect, different from the rest of creation. We have the capacity to be altruistic or selfish, good or evil, generous or stingy. Human beings are neither inherently good nor bad, but are given the impulse and desire for either direction.

If the midrash stopped there, we’d have a fairly straightforward point: humans possess a moral consciousness that animals don’t, and are thus morally responsible for our choices. R. Nahman, however, goes a step further, and points out that things that we might think of as self-centred can actually produce great things. The human drive for achievement might be based in ego, but without it, the world would be poorer.

This is not Judaism’s blank cheque for unbridled careerism, for look carefully at R. Nahman’s examples (with apologies for the gender bias of ancient texts): without the yetzer hara, a person would not build a house, get married, or have children. In his example, I understand R. Nahman to be acknowledging that human relationships contain elements of both selfishness and selflessness; perhaps he is even suggesting that without the personal satisfaction of intimate relationships, the hard work and emotional struggle just wouldn’t be worth it for many people.

R. Nahman is certainly also challenging the views of those religions that posit poverty and celibacy as the spiritual ideal- in his midrash, God directly approves of personal fulfillment in worldly relationships. Again, this is not about hedonism, but balance. No reasonable reading of Jewish sources would produce the idea that personal, self-centred fulfillment is the ultimate goal of life. On the other hand, this reading of the story of Creation seems to teach us that we are meant to enjoy life and find it good. Hard things can happen, but the challenge is to see the world through God’s eyes, making the choices and connections that raise the material world, which is good, to the level of spiritual fulfillment, which can be “very good” indeed.

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V’zot Habracha and Simchat Torah 5761

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: V’zot Habracha and Simchat Torah

This d’var Torah was originally distributed by Kolel: The Adult Center for Jewish Learning during the year 5761 and can be found in its archives.

Simchat Torah/ V’zot Habracha (Deuteronomy 33:1-34:12)

OVERVIEW

Moshe addresses the Israelites one last time, blessing them tribe by tribe. The Israelites are standing on a mountain overlooking the Jordan Valley from the east, but Moshe will not be allowed to enter the Land of Israel with the rest of the people. He dies, and is buried; the story of the Torah is now finished, and the story of the judges and prophets begins.

IN FOCUS

“And Moses the servant of the Lord died there in Moab, as the Lord had said. God buried him in Moab, in the valley opposite Beth Peor, but to this day no one knows where his grave is”. (Deuteronomy 34:5-6)

PSHAT

Moshe was punished for his sin of striking the rock, way back in Numbers 20. He somehow disobeyed God’s instructions, and as a result was not allowed to enter the Land of Israel with the people. He is buried on the other side of the valley- in what we now called Jordan- in a deliberately obscure grave.

DRASH

The fact that the Torah ends with Moshe’s death presents a big problem for many commentators, because there is a line of thinking in some traditional Jewish theologies that says the Torah was dictated word for word to Moshe on Mount Sinai. If so, how could the Torah say that Moshe died? Who then wrote the last few lines of the Torah?

The Talmud records an argument about this problem from the very earliest days of post-biblical Judaism:

    The Master has said: Joshua wrote the book which bears his name and the last eight verses of the Pentateuch. This statement is in agreement with the authority who says that eight verses in the Torah were written by Joshua, as [It is written], “So Moses the servant of the Lord died there.”

    Now is it possible that Moses being dead could have written the words, ‘Moses died there’? The truth is, however, that up to this point Moses wrote, from this point [onwards], Joshua wrote. This is the opinion of R. Judah, or, according to others, of R. Nehemiah. Said R. Simeon to him: Can [we imagine the] scroll of the Law being short of one word ?!?. . . .

    No; what we must say is that up to this point [where Moses dies] the Holy One, Blessed be God, dictated and Moses repeated and wrote, and from this point God dictated and Moses wrote with tears, as it says of another occasion, “Then Baruch answered them, He pronounced all these words to me with his mouth, and I wrote them with ink in the book.” (Jeremiah 36:18)

    (Taken from Talmud, Bava Batra 15a, Soncino translation, some interpolations mine.)

For the moment, let’s leave to one side any modern-era questions about the Torah’s origins and authorship, and just try to understand these arguments on their own terms. The “Master” of the first argument- identified as R. Judah- has a straightforward and sensible solution to the problem: Moshe wrote the whole Torah up until the verse “and Moshe died”, at which point Moshe’s successor, Joshua, takes over.

R. Simeon [Shimon, in Hebrew] can’t accept this viewpoint; he believes that God dictated the entire Torah to Moshe on Mount Sinai. According to this view, when God got to the verses pertaining to Moshe’s death outside the Land, Moshe wrote even those, weeping as he recorded his future fate. Perhaps R. Shimon attributes every single word of the Torah to Moshe in order to defend the Torah’s status as a unique sacred text, or in order to link later rabbinic teachings to the earlier revelation. Whatever his motivations, R. Shimon brings a prooftext to defend his position, where he points out that other scribes took “dictation” of holy texts in their entirety (in this case, the prophecies of Jeremiah.)

R. Shimon’s midrash presents an emotionally moving image, compelling us to imagine that Moshe was the ultimate selfless soul, giving his life to lead the people even with full knowledge of disappointments in the future. Yet at least one commentator makes an even more dramatic midrash on the midrash. R. Shlomo ben Aderet, an early medieval commentator from Spain (also known as the Rashba), takes R. Shimon’s interpretation even further, by understanding the words “and Moses wrote with tears” in the most literal sense. The Rashba says that Moshe used his own tears as the ink with which he wrote the last few verses of the Torah.*

Adding the Rashba’s twist to R. Shimon’s midrash takes us in a whole new direction, making Moshe into the exemplar of not only communal service, but of the creation of Torah itself. To me, the image of a person writing words of Torah with their very own tears suggests that Torah may be learned “by dictation,” but in order to really make it complete- to add the final few verses, as it were- we have to invest ourselves in it, bringing to our religious lives our emotions, our spirits, our most intimate experiences.

Not only that, but the Rashba’s image also suggests that in sorrow is opportunity. “Turning one’s tears into Torah” is a powerful reminder that we can learn from our troubles, even make the inevitable pains of life into something holy, something transformative. Moshe may have been the original teacher of Torah, but his life experience is something with which we can call identify- we too know, in advance, that life will bring joys and sorrows, triumphs and some unavoidable disappointments. Unlike Moshe in these midrashim, we don’t know when those times will be- but we do have the same choices: to serve others as selflessly as possible, to invest ourselves fully in spiritual pursuits, and to learn Torah from each experience.

*Quoted in Ha’gaot B’Parshiyot HaTorah, by Yehuda Nachshoni.

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Ha’azinu and Shabbat Shuva 5761

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Ha’azniu and Shabbat Shuva

This d’var Torah was originally distributed by Kolel: The Adult Center for Jewish Learning during the year 5761 and can be found in its archives.

Ha’azinu/ Shabbat Shuva (Deuteronomy 32:1-52)

OVERVIEW

Parashat Ha’azinu is Moshe’s last speech to the Israelites- it is a powerful poem recalling the sacred history since the Exodus from Egypt, and warning the Israelites in the strongest terms not to stray from the path that God has commanded. At the end of the parasha, God tells Moshe that he will be able to see the Land of Israel, but will not be able to enter it.

The Shabbat between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is called Shabbat Shuva– literally the “Sabbath of Returning”- because of the special haftarot (readings from the prophets) which emphasize the theme of tshuvah, or repentance, characteristic of the High Holidays.

IN FOCUS

“Remember the days of old, understand the years of the generations. . .” (Deuteronomy 32:7)

PSHAT

At the beginning of his long, poetic, theological discourse, Moshe asks the current generation to consider the past, when the previous generations had done things that brought about God’s anger. Presumably Moshe is referring to the people’s complaining in the desert, the building of the Golden Calf, and other acts of apparent rebellion. As we make our choices in life, it’s important to consider and be open to learning the lessons of history.

DRASH

Rabbi Shmuel Bornstein, a Chassidic rabbi who lived in Poland in the late 19th century, makes a wonderful drash out of a wordplay on the word “years” in our verse above. “Years,” in Hebrew, is shanot; picking up on a comment by the medieval scholar Ibn Ezra, R. Bornstein relates this to the root of the word for changes, which in Hebrew is shinui. So he reads the verse like this: “understand the changes throughout the generations.”

For R. Bornstein, the highest point of the Jewish people was the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, and we’ve been in slow spiritual decline every year since. So “considering the changes” in the generations, in his perspective, is a humbling experience- we might think that the latest, most technologically advanced age is the best, but perhaps the spiritual accomplishments of the previous generation were even greater than our own. We should humbly reflect on both the faults and achievements of those who came before us, and ask ourselves if we’ve really worked on improving the faults and living up to the achievements.

That’s not a bad idea to mull over at this introspective time of year, but we might take his midrash in a different direction too. Perhaps “considering the changes of the generations” means that we can reflect on the potential for change in every generation. I understand one essential element of Judaism as the teaching that people are never “stuck” in a spiritually dismal place- there is always the possibility of change, growth, forgiveness, reconciliation, and return to our best selves. All these would be elements of tshuvah, or “repentance,” but more literally understood as “returning” to that which makes us most fully human.

Thus on this “Shabbat of Returning,” we might understand Moshe’s poem as not only urging us to consider the mistakes of the past, and learn accordingly (which is hard enough), but also to consider that the past is not necessarily a prologue to the future. We are not doomed to repeat the errors of the past, either as individuals, communities, or nations- to me, Judaism is more optimistic than that. Consider the past, but don’t feel that you’re stuck in it; this is a central message of the holiday season.

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