Thursday, February 23, 2017

Slavery and the Eternal Law conundrum - Torah portion Mishpatim

Protesting child slavery, 1909 labor parade, NYC
The Torah portion opens with a set of laws about the treatment of Hebrew slaves: How long does a slave stay with you before he goes free? What happens if he's married when he comes into servitude? What if a man sells his daughter into slavery? (Ex 21:2-11) And further on: What happens to a slave-owner if he strikes his slave and the slave dies, or doesn't die? What if the slave's eye is blinded or tooth gets knocked out? (Ex 21:20-21, 26-27)

This is all part of what scholars refer to as the Covenant Code, the laws given to Moses at Sinai. There are other collections of laws in the Torah pertaining to slavery. One is Lev 25:39-46, another is Deut 15:12-18. I'm not getting into the issue of comparing these codes. (If you're interested, here's one analysis.) Instead, I want to talk about the fact of the Torah containing laws about slavery at all.

Though before I even go there, I might pose the question: Do we really even need to talk about this? After all, the Torah was written at a time when slavery was an economic and social reality, and clearly laws had to be put in place in order to address that reality: Slaves needed to be treated fairly, and everyday brutality toward slaves needed to be combated. People needed to know that even if a slave was financially-speaking their "property," he/she wasn't theirs to abuse.

Also, it's not as though the Torah was propounding a "philosophy" of slavery. Contrast that with say, Aristotle, who accepted the idea of "natural slavery":
“From the hour of their birth, some are marked for subjection, others for rule... And it is clear that the rule of the soul over the body, and of the mind and the rational faculty over the passionate, is natural and expedient.” (Politics 1:5)

“It is clear, then, that some men are by nature free, and others slaves, and that for the latter, slavery is both expedient and right.” (Ibid., 1:13)

Here's the thing though. There's the question of not "promoting" slavery per se, and legislating more humanitarian practices toward slaves. That's all well and good. But how about abolition?

At the tender age of 22, when I experienced my first in-depth exposure to Orthodox Judaism, I recall asking some believing folks I'd met: "What about slavery?" Meaning, how could the Torah allow it? And when presented with answers about protecting the rights of indentured servants and slaves, I retorted:
"But why doesn't the Torah simply say, 'Thou shalt not keep slaves'?"
Yes, slavery was a fixture of ancient society, an intractable institution. But so was idolatry. And the Torah managed to forbid that, as part of the ambitious task given to the Israelites of being a holy nation, a nation of priests. So why not abolish slavery as a nation? How difficult would that really have been for them, especially after having been slaves themselves in Egypt? Can you imagine what a shining example that would've been for humanity? All the suffering and brutality throughout the millennia that could potentially have been avoided?

I don't remember the response. (Which happens often. When you have a strong enough question, that's what you tend to remember, not people's answers.) In any case, here I am revisiting the question nearly 25 years later. My thoughts on it? I think it's a fair question vis-à-vis standard Orthodox philosophy, but a non-question in terms of the Torah itself. Let me explain.

I posed my "Thou shalt not keep slaves" challenge against the background of assumptions held by the Orthodox people I'd met. One of those assumptions is that the Torah's laws are eternal. Therefore they must be every bit as relevant to us nowadays as they were to those early generations who first heard them. So at least in terms of the law, there is nothing the Torah would have written any differently if it were given in our generation.

But the notion of an "eternal law" is, I believe, a grave mistake. Yes, it sounds pious. It even sounds logical. After all, if God is going to write a book, it should convey laws that have a shelf life of "forever," shouldn't it? No, I don't think that's realistic or necessary to posit.

First off, the laws of the Torah do not sound particularly eternal. In fact, they positively scream out: "Ancient Near East." And it's not just concerning slavery. Think about levirate marriage, or not allowing a witch to live, or how many sheep to offer as a sacrifice, or redeeming your firstborn male donkey, or giving the first of your wool to the priest, or not erecting a pillar for purposes of idolatry, or the laws of the Sotah, or not making oneself bald on behalf of the dead, or not uttering false prophecy, or stoning and burning as capital punishments. Examples like that go on and on. And that's not even getting into parallels within Sumerian, Babylonian, Ugaritic, and Akkadian law codes.

Which is not to say that there aren't things we can learn from some of these laws today. There are. It's not to say that there aren't ways we can extrapolate from these laws to things which are more directly relevant to us today. There are. But is there any doubt that they were written for the ancient world, addressing their specific set of concerns? Is there any doubt that if the Torah were written today, to address our specific concerns, that its laws would be formulated radically differently?

Why give us laws about sheep when we could have laws about organ donation, or blood-alcohol levels, or abortion, or artificial life support, or firearms ownership, or the colonization of planets, or cloning, or consuming trans fats, or social media and texting, or the right to privacy, or intellectual property, etc.? There are countless areas of immediate concern to us that an "eternal law" would presumably need to address.

The Torah presents the laws of slavery in "casuistic" (conditional, case law) terms, as in, "When you will acquire a Hebrew slave, [then do X]." And we no longer have those conditions, thankfully, so we no longer apply the law. The same could in theory have been done for laws whose conditions didn't exist yet at the time the Torah was first given, but which would come into play some millennia down the road. But the Torah wasn't written that way. It was written for its time.

But then what do we say about phrases in the Torah like chok olam ledorotam, "an everlasting statute for their generations"? Doesn't that sound as if the Torah is presenting its laws as eternal, as equally relevant to all generations?

Since we're talking about slavery, let's ponder the phrase eved olam (Deut 15:17, see also Ex 21:6). Is that to say the person is meant to be an "eternal slave"? Even beyond their death? After the sun turns into a red giant and consumes Earth? No, it means "continually," "in perpetuity." As opposed to a temporary situation. As opposed to a "horaat shaah" (temporary decree). Chok olam ledorotam then implies in perpetuity, i.e. until it ceases to be relevant.

But did the Torah possibly mean: Keep these laws as long as they make sense to you; after that, change them as you wish? No, I think that would be dishonest to say as well. However, to be fair, there is no law ever given which explicitly stipulates a finite shelf life like that. It's just assumed that people will adjust their laws and conduct according to the needs of the time. And we have. Think of the sweeping reforms of Chazal, the sages of the Talmud. Such is the purpose, and process, of Halacha. Torah is a living, breathing thing. The practices of the patriarchs and matriarchs would have been foreign to King David, as King David would've been to Ezra, Ezra to the sages of the Talmud, they to Medieval Jewry, and they to us.

Also don't forget that we live in a time of unprecedented accelerated change. At the time the Torah was given, it would have been entirely reasonable to think of a law being perfectly relevant "forevermore."

There's no such thing as a "perfect law for all time." Because people change, and law is designed to bring stability to society, and you will not have societal stability and cohesion if the law does not comport to some degree to where people are at.

Aside from distorting reality and making the Torah into something it's clearly not, the other problem with asserting "eternal law" is that we then have to jump through hoops to explain why the laws of slavery are likewise "eternal" on some level. If we say that they were meant to address life in the Ancient Near East, and have nothing to do with us today, that there is nothing whatsoever "ideal" or "eternal" about those laws, that's a much stronger moral position.

Which also explains why I view "Thou shalt not keep slaves" as a non-question in terms of the Torah itself. Because to expect that the Torah should have "seen ahead" to days of abolition and emancipation is asking way too much of the Torah! The laws of the Torah were no doubt formulated in an attempt to create a set of best practices for the various situations that presented themselves at the time. And that, incidentally, is precisely what we all need to do today - deal as best we can with what is in front of us.

In fact, we might even call that very principle a "rule for all time."

Friday, February 17, 2017

Ten Commandments vs. Aseret Hadevarim - Torah portion Yitro

If you're reading the text of Exodus 20 straight, without any preconceptions and without thinking you had to divide verses 2-13 into ten distinct laws, you'd most likely never assume that "I am YHVH your God" is, by many people's interpretations, a command.

First off, in the traditional parsing of verses, it's not even a separate verse:
I am the YHVH your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the home of slavery; you should have no other gods before me. (Ex 20:2)
Though to be fair, verse 12 contains 4 commandments. And verses 7-10 encompass one commandment. So you can't look to the verse as a unit of measure for a commandment here.

But even in the traditional paragraph spacing (petuchot and setumot), "I am YHVH" is grouped with the commands relating to idolatry, i.e. with no break in between, whereas there is a space between all the other commandments. (Interestingly though, there's also a space between "Do not cover your neighbor's house" and "Do not covet your neighbor's wife," making ten separate paragraph sections in total, albeit not matching the traditional Jewish division of commandments.)

Point being, completely apart from the fact that "I am YHVH" doesn't have the wording of a command, neither the verse nor the paragraph particularly lends to the idea that it should be counted as a separate commandment.

And then there's the fact that there are numerous other places in the Torah where "I am YHVH" appears - 4 additional instances of "anochi YHVH" (like our verse) and 28 times as "ani YHVH." Some of these instances even mirror the "who brought you out" language:
"I am YHVH, who brought you out of Ur Kasdim..." (Gen 15:7)

"I am YHVH, and I have brought you out from under the burdens of Egypt..." (Ex 6:6)

"I am YHVH, your God, who has brought you out from the land of Egypt to give you the land of Canaan..." (Lev 25:38)

"I am YHVH, your God, who has brought you out from the land of Egypt, from your being slaves..." (Lev 26:13)
And if we say a comparison only applies if "I am YHVH" comes in the context of law and/or covenant language, the last two above verses appear at the end of sections detailing specific laws and speaking in general about keeping "my laws and statues."

Sometimes "I am YHVH" is used as a signature at the end of a legal passage, as in, "Keep my statutes and rules that a person will do and live by them, I am YHVH." (Lev 18:5) Sometimes, as in the Ten Commandments passage, it's a preamble, an introduction.

Scholars talk about "I am YHVH" following the structure of Hittite vassal treaties, where the ruler identifies himself and his deeds as an introduction and justification for the binding legal covenant that follows. And like the two tablets, two copies of the covenant are made - one for the ruler, the other for the vassal.

Like so many other instances of "I am YHVH" throughout the Torah, it appears (if you didn't know anything to the contrary) that "I am YHVH" in the Ten Commandments text is providing a justification for the covenant to follow.

And indeed Jewish tradition is divided as to whether "I am YHVH" should be included as a separate commandment. Some, notably Maimonides, say yes. Others, such as R. Shimon Kiyara ("Behag," Ba'al Halachot Gedolot, 8th C.) and Abarbanel, say no.

For traditional Jewish commentators who don't count "I am YHVH" as a separate command, how do they get 10 commandments? Well, the Torah actually refers to "ten statements" (aseret hadevarim), not "ten commandments." So they can simply take the first statement, "I am YHVH," as an axiom rather than a command, making it 1 axiom plus 9 commandments, totaling 10 statements. There have been others in history who don't count "I am YHVH" and yet still find ways of counting 10 "commandments," but I haven't seen this from traditional Jewish commentators, with the possible exception of Philo ("possible" meaning he's not really a traditional commentator in the rabbinic/Talmudic sense). If anyone has info to impart on this issue, please let me know.

And while we're on the subject of the "ten statements," there are three places the phrase "aseret hadevarim" appears in the Torah. The first is:
"And [Moses] was there with YHVH, forty days and forty nights; he did not eat bread and he did not drink water, and he wrote upon the tablets the words of the covenant, the ten statements. (Ex 34:28)
At the beginning of this chapter, Moses is asked to carve two tablets like the first which he broke. And what words, what covenant, was written on the originals?

The first time the tablets are mentioned is Ex 24:12, where Moses is simply told that he'll be given "tablets of stone, and the Torah and the mitzva that I have written." So no hint there about their specific content. The next time is Ex 31:18, where Moses is actually given two "tablets of stone, written with the finger of God." (Note: This is already a full 11 chapters after the Sinai covenant, which had no mention of "tablets," or "ten statements" for that matter.) In Exodus 31, Betzalel and Oholiav are appointed as master craftsmen to supervise the building of the Tabernacle and its vessels. But in the five verses immediately preceding the giving of the tablets, the discussion is about keeping the Sabbath as an "eternal covenant."

So that is indeed a covenant, but nothing resembling "ten statements." Interestingly, Exodus 34 itself offers what scholars have identified as ten statements, sometimes referred to as the "Ritual Decalogue" (as opposed to the "Ethical Decalogue," beginning "I am YHVH"). These include an opening statement about driving out the Canaanite nations, followed by various injunctions involving idolatry, the command to keep Passover, redemption of firstborn animals, keeping the Sabbath and the Feast of Weeks, appearing before God three times a year, not offering sacrifices with leaven, offering first fruits, and not boiling a kid in its mother's milk.

In other words, sandwiched between "Carve yourself two stone tablets" and "he wrote upon the tablets the words of the covenant, the ten statements," is this whole section of various laws. Which on the face of it looks like that's what's written on the tablets!
But let's look at the second and third instances of the phrase "aseret hadevarim":
"And he told you his covenant that he commanded you to do, the ten statements, and he wrote them on two stone tablets." (Deut 4:13)
The context here is clearly the Sinai revelation: "Assemble for me my people, and I will make them hear my words... And you stood under the mountain, and the mountain burned with fire... And YHVH spoke to you from the midst of the fire..." (Deut 4:10-12)

The final instance puts it all in one verse:
"And he wrote on the tablets according to the first writing, the ten statements, which YHVH spoke to you on the mountain from the midst of the fire, on the day of the assembly..." (Deut 10:4)
To sum up, we have a set of "something important" given at Sinai, beginning "I am YHVH," and the text is fairly easily divided into 10 parts, albeit not all "commandments" necessarily. This text doesn't refer to itself as "aseret hadevarim" (the ten statements), nor is there any discussion of "tablets" anywhere proximal to this text. Later on in Exodus, we have a chapter bounded by "tablets" talk, and which refers to aseret hadevarim, whose legal content can be divided into 10 parts (the Ritual Decalogue) and is arguably what the text is referring to as being written on the tablets. However, in Deuteronomy, we have an explicit connection made between the tablets/ten statements, and the Sinai covenant (i.e. Ethical Decalogue).

Modern scholarship attempts to resolve the confusion by hypothesizing several different, individually coherent sources within the text. This is a long and involved discussion (interested readers can look here for an overview), so I'll leave it there for now.

I just want to quickly mention the photo I attached to this post. A while back we acquired a sort of "old-school" Ten Commandments wood carving. Whatever we say about the Torah text and what it originally meant, for Jewish religious and cultural purposes, this is still the "Ten Commandments," or in Hebrew, "Aseret Hadibrot." These 10, starting with "I am YHVH," are what we visualize God giving to Moses and the Israelites at Sinai. These are what we say are carved on the stone tablets. It's what we depict in the imagery found in our shuls and elsewhere. The idea of Ten Commandments from "I am YHVH" to "Do not covet," carved on two stone tablets, is taken for granted in nearly every Torah lecture you'll ever hear on the topic. Why? Because that's Jewish tradition. Judaism is not academia - it's the package of norms and thought we've carried with us across the ages. The Ten Commandments, Aseret Hadibrot, are in the realm of Judaism, and the exact identification of the "ten statements," the aseret hadevarim, is a matter of scholarship and academic debate.

Many prefer to choose one over the other, Judaism at the expense of scholarship, or scholarship at the expense of Judaism. I for one see no reason why we can't have and appreciate both.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Suspended Waters, Suspending Disbelief - Torah portion Beshalach

Visual development art from “The Prince of Egypt”
When it comes to evaluating truth claims, I admit to being a fan of rational scientific skepticism. It strikes me as the best methodology at our disposal for ascertaining factual reality.

But what does that mean then for evaluating Biblical narratives like the Parting of the Red Sea? Well, as enamored as I am of skepticism, it occurs to me that it's hopelessly out of place here. It's the wrong paradigm, the wrong set of glasses to be looking through. Because it views the Red Sea episode first and foremost as a "claim" to be scrutinized, instead of a narrative to immerse oneself in, to visualize, experience, and comprehend for its content.

Here I am ready to get into the story...
A nation enslaved. A Pharaoh so obsessed with maintaining the subjugation that he lets his own nation absorb blow after destructive blow and refuses to release his grip. He finally relents just long enough for the fledgling Israelite nation to escape. But Pharaoh and his army are soon in hot pursuit. The Israelites find themselves trapped, the Red Sea dead ahead, and Pharaoh's army behind them. Then just when it looks like the end for Israel, Moses raises his staff, and God dispatches a wind that cuts the sea clear in half. The seawater stands like a wall on two sides, creating a corridor of dry earth in between, which the Israelites follow to safety. The Egyptian army gives chase, but Moses once again stretches out his staff. The gravity-defying waters come crashing down, the weight of the sea destroying Israel's oppressors...
Saved at the very last moment! Water suspended in mid-air! The weak triumphs over the mighty. Good over evil. Several millennia later, it's no less of an epic story. Maybe even worthy of a movie or two...

That's what I want to think about when I get to the Red Sea episode. I want to immerse myself in the story - the vivid imagery, the rich tapestry of themes and ideas. I want to check my skepticism at the door, suspend my disbelief, and just go with it. And yet I find this exceedingly difficult to do. Why? Because of all the energy, the "noise," around the question: Did the Red Sea really split? The noise comes from every angle - from believers focusing on the historicity of the miracle, to skeptics reflexively rebuffing it, to rationalist in-betweeners positing that a strong enough east wind could have formed a temporary land bridge, thereby allowing the Israelites to cross the sea, etc.

Now imagine for a moment that you're in a theater watching a Superman movie. Half the audience is talking about it being a documentary about Kal-El the Kryptonian. The others are either calling the documentary folks nuts, or they're proposing theories about how Superman could fly without defying the laws of physics if in fact he utilized the Jet Stream. As for me, I'm thinking: Hey guys, I'm trying to get into the movie here! Would you please cut the chatter??

No, I'm not comparing the Torah to Superman. I'm not making claims of fact vs. fiction. In fact I'm suggesting that we leave those kinds of questions aside. I fully recognize that this is hard to manage in a world where we're incessantly fact-checking and myth-busting, where we have to worry about fake news and the proliferation of outright lies. We've grown enormously sensitive to the idea we're being deliberately duped, misled.

The reason I referenced Superman is to remind us of a different kind of mental space we can enter, where we're not so concerned with claims and counter-claims, explanations and rationalizations and debunking, where we can just concentrate on the quality of the content, and our experience of that content. Where we expend our energy focusing on the imagery, ideas, feelings and values that the text is trying to convey: The power of God. The miraculous birth of Israel. Good prevailing over evil. Never giving up hope even when it looks like there's nowhere to turn... These are themes that never get old. And many of them are themes so universal that everyone can contribute to the conversation: skeptics, believers, and in-betweeners alike.

So see you in shul. Who's bringing the popcorn?

Thursday, February 2, 2017

"Aviv" and "Nisan": Case studies in adaptation over originality - Torah portion Bo

Moses speaks to the people, "Remember this day when you exited Egypt," and then goes on to actually name the month:
הַיּוֹם אַתֶּם יֹצְאִים בְּחֹדֶשׁ הָאָבִיב Today you are exiting, in the month of Aviv. (Ex 13:4)
Why is this unusual? Because in the Torah, months are only ever referred to by number, except on occasion for the month of "Aviv." But Aviv is not just a name like "March" (named after Mars, the Roman god of war) - it's a descriptive term which pertains to the agricultural season. We actually encounter the word aviv a few chapters earlier, in the plague of hail:
וְהַפִּשְׁתָּה וְהַשְּׂעֹרָה נֻכָּתָה כִּי הַשְּׂעֹרָה אָבִיב וְהַפִּשְׁתָּה גִּבְעֹל And the flax and the barley were struck down, because the barley was a fresh ear (aviv) and the flax was budding. (Ex 9:31)
Meaning, the crops were devastated because they had already started to bloom. An aviv is a fresh, green ear, appearing in late winter or early spring (depending on the crop and location). That's as opposed to the golden, sun-parched ear that's reaped at the harvest. Or as opposed to crops too early in their growth to be damaged by hail, as mentioned in the next verse:
וְהַחִטָּה וְהַכֻּסֶּמֶת לֹא נֻכּוּ כִּי אֲפִילֹת הֵנָּה And the wheat and the spelt were not struck down, because they were late crops (lit. dark). (Ex 9:32)
An "aviv" (fresh ear) of barley
Rashi says these crops were soft and supple and therefore wouldn't break off because of the hail. "Dark" in that case might indicate their relatively dark shade of green. Ibn Ezra says the crops were covered in darkness, "concealed," meaning they were still underground. They're later crops in the annual cycle. Barley and flax ripen before wheat and spelt.

Apart from the agricultural angle, the name Aviv gives us a window into an ancient calendar system, of which Aviv was just one month out of the year. The Book of Kings gives us three more months: Ziv, Eitanim, and Bul. These names were seemingly in use during the Israelite monarchy and are assumed by scholars to be part of a wider Canaanite/regional calendar system, since names like Bul are also found in Phoenician inscriptions.

In fact some scholars posit three calendars used by Israelites/Jews in antiquity: First was the Canaanite calendar (Aviv, Ziv, etc.), followed by the numerical calendar (First Month, Second Month, etc.), and finally the Babylonian calendar (Nisan, Iyar, etc.).

"Gezer" agricultural calendar, c. 925 B.C.E.
This is not just a question of naming schemes but also of switching between systems. For instance, the Babylonian calendar was lunar-based with intercalation and is the basis of the Jewish calendar we use today. But the Canaanite calendar may have been solar-based, which would have meant a major shift in our method of timekeeping.

But that is the point - historically we've been a people who shift. We adapt to the surrounding culture and its norms, put our own spin on it, and in some cases even sanctify it.

For instance, we create drashot (homiletic interpretations) based on the Babylonian month names. The most famous is Elul, taken as an acronym for ani ledodi vedodi li, "I am my beloved, and my beloved is mine" (Song of Songs 6:3). The month of Nisan is taken as hinting to the nisim ("miracles") of the Exodus from Egypt. The last two letters in Kislev numerically add up to 36, the total number of candles lit over the duration Hanukkah. And the list goes on.

Yet it is indisputable that the months of Elul, Nisan, Kislev are merely Hebraicized adaptations of the Babylonian months of Ulūlu, Nisānu, and Kislimu, which are themselves adaptations of Sumerian names predating the Babylonian exile by over 1500 years!

In other words, far be it from being part of a sacred, God-given tradition, the names of the months were co-opted by Jews in exile (as we did previously in Israel/Canaan with their months) and incorporated as part of the tradition. And that includes the month of Tamuz, which is really "Dumuzi," the Mesopotamian god of food and vegetation. Yet even Tamuz is taken as an acronym-anagram for "the times of repentance are forthcoming." Did Rabbi Yitzchak Luria, to whom this acronym is attributed, know that Tamuz was really a Babylonian deity? Maybe he did but nonetheless saw a larger meaning in it. It's an interesting point to ponder I think.

Of course, the calendar is by no means the only thing we've co-opted and made our own. The shapes of the Hebrew letters as we know them today are an evolution of Imperial Aramaic script. The Hebrew language was a dialect of Canaanite. (Abraham would not have been told "lech lecha" in Hebrew but the equivalent in Sumerian.) Sacrifices and the Temple layout were an adaptation of worship rites in Iron Age Levant. Even certain narratives in the Torah (humans created out of clay, floods used to destroy the world, babies in a basket of reeds placed in the river, etc.) seem to have been common themes at the time - though who borrowed from whom can always be debated. And it holds true today. What we think of as "Jewish" food, music, clothing, etc. is more often than not an adaptation of European or Middle Eastern culture.

Some people may find these kinds of facts jarring. "No, we were the first!" Well, I say being first is overrated. So is having a "pure" source for things we take as sacred or traditional.

Far more important than originality is the ability to adapt and thrive. More important than the source of our traditions is what we do with them, how well our traditions serve us. So yes, by all means, keep on darshening the names of the months, even Tamuz. Just acknowledge that many of these things aren't "inherently sacred." Rather, it's our effort to interject meaning in our lives, imbue within ourselves a sense of positive purpose in the world, and all the while retaining a distinct identity as a Jewish civilization, which is the sacred act.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Accepting the non-acceptance of consolation - Torah portion Va'era

Moses assures his people they will be freed from slavery, extracted from Egypt with God's outstretched arm, and brought to the land of their ancestral inheritance. The people balk:
וְלֹא שָׁמְעוּ אֶל מֹשֶׁה מִקֹּצֶר רוּחַ וּמֵעֲבֹדָה קָשָׁה "...but they did not listen to Moses, out of shortness of spirit and hard labor." (Ex 6:9)
Rashi understands the phrase "they didn't listen to Moses" to mean:
לא קבלו תנחומין "They did not accept [his] words of consolation."
But is what Moses says really "consolation?" He essentially tells the people that everything is going to be okay. Which pretty much flies in the face of all conventional wisdom about how to offer consolation. When you go to a shiva house, you don't pronounce that everything is going to be okay. Because it's not "okay." Far better to simply be there with the mourner, listen to them. Something more along the lines of what God tells Moses just a few verses earlier:
אֲנִי שָׁמַעְתִּי אֶת נַאֲקַת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל אֲשֶׁר מִצְרַיִם מַעֲבִדִים אֹתָם "I have heard the moans of the children of Israel, whom the Egyptians are enslaving" (6:5)
Or earlier, at the burning bush:
רָאֹה רָאִיתִי אֶת עֳנִי עַמִּי אֲשֶׁר בְּמִצְרָיִם וְאֶת צַעֲקָתָם שָׁמַעְתִּי מִפְּנֵי נֹגְשָׂיו כִּי יָדַעְתִּי אֶת מַכְאֹבָיו "I have indeed seen the affliction of my people in Egypt, and I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters, for I know their pains." (3:7)
Or simply:
וַיַּרְא אֱ-לֹהִים אֶת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וַיֵּדַע אֱ-לֹהִים "God saw the children of Israel, and God knew." (2:25)
This sounds more like what we typically think of as consolation - acknowledging, listening, being there, and thereby easing people's emotional burden. Yet these verses are either in the narrative of the text, or part of the dialog between God and Moses. They're not included in what Moses is supposed to tell the people.

Slaves making bricks, Egyptian tomb ca. 1450 BCE
Of course, death is not the same thing as slavery, and so the consolation given might also be different. There's no "solution" you can offer to someone who's lost a loved one. You can't reverse the situation. Slavery of course can be reversed. Moses' words could very well offer people a glimmer of hope in a bleak and seemingly intractable nightmare of systematic oppression.

Also, the Hebrew verb nacham doesn't simply mean "console." It conveys reframing, shifting one's mindset. In some instances, the shift localizes in changing one's mind, reconsidering, e.g. God reconsidering having created humans (see Gen 6:6). In others, it can refer to the shift from distress to calm, as in offering comfort. And indeed much of the "comfort" offered in the Bible typically is centered around assurances of better things down the road, i.e. hope for the future.

So why don't the people find Moses' words consoling? It could be that they simply don't believe him. Here they are in the midst of endless, crushing slavery, and along comes this guy with a speech impediment promising them that God's salvation is near. He would have understandably been taken as some sort of crackpot.

One could ask the question: How could God tell Moses to offer words of comfort to the people if God presumably knew his words wouldn't be accepted?

First off, the question is a "false start" philosophically. God as presented in the Torah doesn't necessarily know how people are going to act, or react. The God of the Torah gets angry, reconsiders, smells satisfying aromas, tries strategies that don't always work, then has to switch tactics, etc. This isn't the cosmic, ineffable, perfect God of philosophical treatises. It's the God of the Torah narratives, presented as quasi-human. So therefore God can tell Moses something that doesn't fly with the people, and it's not a logical contradiction.

But also, who says that just because they didn't listen, didn't accept his consolation, that it wasn't helpful? There's a benefit to saying something and just letting the idea seep in, percolate, even if it isn't "accepted." It's related to the psychology of persuasion. People typically need to hear something several times before they're willing to commit, before they're ready make the mental shift.

Similarly, the mood at the start of a shiva is different than the mood toward the end. There's a difference between being in the midst of trauma, shock, distress, and being in a place where you're ready to have someone help you shift to the next phase. But it doesn't mean that the comfort offered at the beginning isn't important in its own right.

People are not machines - we don't have an on/off switch. We need the space to be able to move from one state to another, to shift. It's a process, and every person, every process, has its own timeline. It's a fact we should probably be cognizant of in matters of comfort, as well as all other areas of growth and change in life, so we don't rush people and derail an otherwise organic transformation.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Refugee or Fugitive - Torah portion Shemot

In his zeal to counter the perceived threat from the Hebrews, Pharaoh issues a decree to kill the newborn boys:
"And Pharaoh commanded all his people, saying: Every newborn boy you must throw into the Nile, and every girl keep alive." (Ex 1:22)
He commands "all" his people, and doesn't specify "Hebrew" boys. The Talmud (T.B. Sotah 12a) picks up on this and suggests that Pharaoh's astrologers told him that the savior of the Hebrews was just born, but they didn't know if he was an Egyptian or a Hebrew. So Pharaoh imposed his decree to drown every boy on Egyptians and Hebrews alike.

In this interpretation, Pharaoh is so determined to stop the Hebrews that he's willing to kill his own people if that's what it takes.

The plain meaning however is that "Hebrew boys" is implied by the context. The phrase "all his people" then means that all Egyptians were commanded to carry out the decree against the Hebrews. Which is pretty terrifying when you think about it.

Just imagine for a moment... You're a Hebrew woman, and you're pregnant. No ultrasound in ancient Egypt, so you don't know the sex of your baby. You hope upon hope that it's a girl, because the terror of what will happen otherwise is too horrific to consider. You carry the baby to term and give birth. The baby emerges a boy. Your heart sinks. What should be a joy is now a living nightmare. The Egyptians have been notified of the birth, enter your house on Pharaoh's orders, wrench your newborn baby out of your arms, and then take him away to be murdered, discarded in the Nile. And you're not alone. Countless families are likewise bereft. The Hebrew community is beside itself with trauma and grief.

One mother however manages to avert the decree:
"... she saw that he was good, and she hid him three months. And she could no longer hide him, and she took for him a basket of bulrushes..." (Ex 2:2-3)
She hides him because she sees "that he was good." But this is a bit odd. Doesn't every mother see their child as "good"? Wouldn't they all try to hide their babies if they could? How does Moses' mother manage to hide him? This gives slightly different picture than the one I painted above, where the Hebrews are presumably resigned to the decree and painfully but obediently give up their babies to the Egyptians. Moses' mother is the exception, who sees something so special in her child that she rebels and does not consent. Instead, she hides him.

Let's skip ahead now. Moses grows up in Pharaoh's house. He sees an Egyptian taskmaster beating one of the Hebrew slaves, and Moses kills him. And he's forced on the run:
"And Pharaoh heard of this matter, and he sought to kill Moses, and Moses fled..." (Ex 2:15)
Interesting that Pharaoh, who would have been a grandfather to Moses, nonetheless sought to kill him, his own daughter's son. It might be surprising, except that this is the same Pharaoh after all who issued the initial decrees to kill the Hebrew boys. So Moses being a Hebrew might have always at the forefront of Pharaoh's mind. Perhaps he agreed to the initial adoption only as a very reluctant concession to his daughter. Or maybe he'd hoped that Moses' would cease to identify as a Hebrew and become fully Egyptian, which this incident clearly proved wrong.

In any case, note the textual proximity of these two events, Moses being hidden and Moses fleeing. They exemplify two different types of hiding:
1. Hiding because of who you are.
2. Hiding because of what you've done.
It's something like the difference between being a refugee, and being a fugitive. (Both words incidentally come from the Latin fugere - to flee.)

Clearly, we have sympathy for people who are being chased, hounded, hunted, for no good reason other than bigotry and baseless hate. We have less sympathy for those being chased and forced into hiding because of wrongdoings they've committed. The refugee is a victim. The fugitive has it coming to them.

One would think that this distinction should be pretty clear. The problem however is that those who force others into hiding because of who they are, often times also claim that these people have done something wrong, if not individually then collectively. To the oppressors and victimizers, the people they're hunting are looked at as fugitives, not refugees.

Yes, the Torah talks about the Egyptians terrorizing, murdering and enslaving the Hebrews, but the complicit Egyptians would no doubt have justified it by the notion that the Hebrews posed a threat to their society. And it is the same throughout history. Societies with an ideology and/or a policy to harm or oppress whole groups of people, invariably rationalize their righteousness and innocence based on the "good" they convince themselves they are ultimately promoting.

And yet there are instances where a problem, a real threat, does localize within a particular group. So how do we work out whether we're actually on the right side, responsibly addressing a bona fide threat, or whether we're simply deluding ourselves with rationalizations? I'll offer one suggestion:

If we lose sight of the individual, it's time to reassess.

Groups can have characteristics. You can make generalizations about groups. You can come up with statistics about groups. And those can be 100% true. But at the same time, many of the individuals within that group (and in some cases even the vast majority of that group) lack those characteristics, defy those generalizations.

Every individual therefore deserves to be judged, evaluated, for who they are - and not based on generalizations about their group. A focus on the individual human being has to be the overriding goal.

It sounds so obvious, but we are constantly judging people based on "categorical" assessments. We talk about whole groups of people as if they were a single entity. That is a blatant falsehood. Yes, erasing the individual makes it "easy" then to justify taking X, Y or Z actions against them. Erase the individual, and we erase our own guilt.

So in very practical terms, we need to start being more aware of the language we use to describe people. Notice when we refer to groups, and what that means to us about individuals within that group. Listen to how people talk. Pay attention. And don't let ourselves - or others - fall into the trap.

Start to do more of that, and we'll be living in a vastly improved world.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Did Jacob die? Yes and No - Torah portion Vayechi

Jacob finishes blessing (and admonishing) his children, and dies. Or does he? Yes, of course he does. Here's the verse:
Egyptian wooden sarcophagus, circa 14th century BCE
"And Jacob concluded commanding his sons, and he gathered his legs into the bed, and expired and was gathered to his people." (Gen 49:33)
Rashi cites the Talmud here, where Rabbi Yitzchak is invited to speak some words of Torah at Rabbi Nachman's table and says the following in the name of Rabbi Yochanan:
"Jacob our patriarch did not die." (B.T. Ta'anit 5b)
The scriptural basis for the idea, says Rashi, is that Jacob is the only person whose death is described in the Torah merely as "he expired" - as opposed to "he expired and died," as it says for Abraham (25:8), Ishmael (25:17), Isaac (35:29), and Aaron (Num 20:26).

Rashi doesn't quote the rest of the conversation from the Talmud. When Rabbi Yitzchak suggests that Jacob didn't die, Rabbi Nachman objects:
"Was it then for nothing that [Jacob] was eulogized and embalmed?"
Meaning, Jacob obviously died. The Torah talks about 40 days of embalming, 70 days where the Egyptians wept, Jacob's sarcophagus, a great procession of horses, chariots, and elders of Egypt accompanying Jacob's body to its resting place in Canaan, an additional 7 days of mourning in Canaan itself - so what do you mean he "didn't die"? I'll also add the slew of other verses in the very same narrative that do in fact use the word "die" relating to Jacob:
"When the time drew near for Israel to die..." (47:29)
"Behold, I am going to die..." (48:21)
"Joseph's brothers saw that their father had died..." (49:15)
"Your father commanded before his death..." (49:16)
So where is Rabbi Yitzchak coming from? He answers as follows:
"I derive it from Scripture, as it says: 'And you, my servant Jacob, do not fear - says YHVH - and do not be dismayed, Israel, for I am saving you from afar, and your descendants from the land of their captivity.' (Jer 30:10) The verse likens him (Jacob) to his descendants (Israel). Just as his descendants are alive, so too is he alive."
The conversation about Jacob ends there. The first thing to note is that Rabbi Yitzchak wasn't at all referring to Gen 49:33, regarding Jacob's death. He was talking about a verse in Jeremiah. It's Rashi who first connects Rabbi Yitzchak's statement to Gen 49:33, picking up on the fact that it doesn't use the word "died."

And that is precisely what a good "drash" does - it takes a teaching from the tradition and attaches it creatively to a verse. Of course, it was already explicitly connected to the verse in Jeremiah. But I imagine that Rashi saw an opening here that was too good to pass up - another "hint" to the idea that Jacob never died, and so therefore another place to attach Rabbi Yitzchak's concept.

But did Rashi actually believe that Jacob, the biblical figure, was still alive? Did Rabbi Yitzchak believe it? If so, did they believe he was alive physically, or spiritually, or in a metaphorical sense - i.e. by virtue of his descendants, the "children of Israel," being alive?

The question of "what did so-and-so believe" (i.e. what did they mean by their statement) is an interesting question, but ultimately an academic one, for historians and other scholars to debate. For instance, based on beliefs held at the time, or based on his collective statements in the Talmud, we might conclude that it's very unlikely Rabbi Yitzchak would have meant that Jacob the patriarch himself was still walking the earth. On the other hand, it might be the case that such a belief was not so outlandish at the time.

I say it's "academic" because I'm not sure what the religious significance would be for us if we had a definitive answer one way or the other. Is the goal to try to mimic the beliefs of others, to believe what Rashi or Rabbi Yitzchak believed? What if they believed different things? And even if we wanted to do it, how do we "get" ourselves to believe that Jacob is alive - physically or spiritually - if we really don't believe it?

In any case, I think the first thing to do is to acknowledge that "Jacob our forefather didn't die" is not the pshat (plain meaning) of the text in Genesis, nor in Jeremiah, which frequently uses the terms "Jacob" and "Israel" poetically to refer to the Jewish nation. It's a drash, a homiletic interpretation. Pshat is an academic pursuit - its goal is to "discover" the plain meaning. Drash is a religious, pedagogical approach - it's goal is to "teach" something, using a verse as a mnemonic device or a jumping off point. Which doesn't mean that drash can't utilize vast knowledge and scholarship - it certainly can! Stringing bits of data from the tradition meaningfully and creatively together via associative thinking can entail the work of incredible genius. If done well, it can also impart vital ideas to people and offer guidance in their religious outlook and lives.

So yes, I'm interested from the standpoint of pure curiosity what Rashi and Rabbi Yitzchak believed about Jacob not dying - the "pshat on the drash" if you will. But from a practical, religious standpoint, I'm interested in what significance we derive from their words. What's our "drash on the drash" - i.e. what ideas are we reinforcing by attaching them to the idea that Jacob never died?

Of course you'll encounter some very different answers depending on who you ask. Many resonate with the mystical approach, the idea that Jacob himself is alive in a spiritual sense, for instance based on the Midrashic concept that the righteous are alive in their death - take away the bodily garment and their soul shines even more powerfully. Possibly the Jewish equivalent of Obiwan's "Strike me down and I shall become more possible than you can possibly imagine."

I'll say that for myself, I increasingly prefer the rational, non-metaphysical approach. For me, the statement "Jacob did not die," does not mean that Jacob the person continues to live - rather, it's another way of saying am Yisrael chai, "the people of Israel live." Which when you think about it is an incredible and inspiring thought, one that connects us to thousands of years of history. It's the idea of the Jewish nation as a living entity, one which continues the process of "growing up" and (hopefully) finding ways to contribute to the greater human project. That's how I personally would choose to understand the drash - because I believe it's a thought worth reinforcing.