Thursday, November 30, 2006

Potluck from the parsha

Reviewing this week's parsha, some things caught my eye, but generally as the source of questions rather than the souce of any real insights. So what follows is a sort of potluck from the parsha.

First, a couple of bloggers have questioned Jacob's reputation for being a simple, honest man, given all the scheming and trickery he is involved in throughout Bereshit. He persuades Esau to trade his birthright for a meal; he disguises himself to fool Isaac and gain the blessings Isaac meant for Esau; his entire relationship with Laban is fraught with trickery on both sides. And those are simply the intrigues in which he is one of the prime players. In this parsha we have the business of Rachel trading mandrakes for a conjugal visit, and Rachel stealing her father's idols; later on we get to the business of Schechem and the sale of Joseph to the Ishmaelites, and even further out the schemes which Joseph uses to test his brothers; in all of these Jacob is either unknowing victim or an unaware particpant or a simple bystander. One is reminded of Dynasty and The Young and the Restless. But in thorough fairness to Jacob, the only trickery he actually initiates is really a counteroffensive, to gain what is his due from Laban. He forthrightly trades Esau, without any hint of fraud or force (all Esau had to do was go on a little further to the main encampment to find other food); the scheming to gain the blessings is started and planned out by Rebecca, with the end of fulfilling the prophecy she heard when she was pregnant with the twins, with Jacob definitely being the junior member of the team. He is tricked into marrying Leah by Laban, who is far more of a trickster and con artist than Jacob would ever want to be. He gets his due from Laban at the end of his term of service not by actually tricking Laban but by using what can be described on one level as folk magic (how it is described on other levels I'll get to further on), and it's merely defensive trickery, to ensure that Laban can get no excuse to accuse of him any negligence or theft, or otherwise cheat him. The rest of the time, he is forthright and straightforward in his dealings.

Second, the Zohar on this parshah several times sees fit to bring the same interpretation as Rashi; either Rashi wrote with the Zohar in front of him, or was learned in the sources on which the Zohar also drew. (Or at least that Moses De Leon wrote the Zohar with Rashi in front of him, if you believe De Leon wrote the Zohar.) But it is interesting--whether you believe the Zohar was pseudipigrapha of medieval origin or the real product of a Talmudic school--that it should choose to make the same points, in almost the same language, as Rashi.

Third, the Zohar sees the business of the striped rods which Jacob utilizes to maximize the sheep assigned to him as an exercise in what Buddhism terms "skillful means". It explains Jacob as manipulating the Forces of Severity by mitigating them with the Forces of Mercy--the mitigation being represented by the peeling of the rods.

Fourth, Rachel gets all the romance, because Jacob falls in love with her at first sight and in true romantic fashion experiences the seven years of waiting as a short time, and she gets all the sympathy because she dies prematurely, but it is Leah who is the Griselda of Bereshit. The fact of her fecundity is specifically linked by the parshah to Jacob's preference for Rachel. The loved wife is barren; the "hated" wife is fertile. [Hertz points out the translation "hated" is misleading. The text really says only that Leah was not as well liked by Jacob as Rachel.] And time and again, Leah sees each new son as a way to gain Jacob's love, in an almost pathetic refrain of "Now he'll love me!" And later on she is reduced to trading mandrakes for a conjugal visit.

Fifth, the last verse of the Parsha--"and he called the place "Two Camps"--is rather vague. Rashi says that the two camps are the two bands of angels who escorted him, one group going with him from Haran to Eretz Yisrael, then handing him over to the angels who guarded him in Eretz Yisrael itself. Hertz mundanely refers it to Yaakov's camp and Laban's camp, despite the fact that the text seems to indicate that Laban had already left by this point. The Zohar offers a combination of the two: one camp belongs to the ministering angels who met him as he entered Eretz Yisrael, and the other is Yaakov's one--the Zohar does not mention any angels who accompanied him from Haran.
But the text can be read in a more recondite manner. The word translated as "the place" is ha-makom. HaMakom is a term used by Chazal to refer to G-d, often rendered into English as the Omnipresent or the Almighty. ("He has no place, but He is the place of the universe'.) Does this mean that Jacob is calling G-d "Two Camps"?I have no explanation to offer as to what this might mean, although I suspect that it takes place on the borders of Eretz Yisrael has some bearing on the matter.

Monday, November 27, 2006

from the art gallery

Another painting to illustrate the parshah.
Poussin's imagining of the meeting of Jacob and Rachel.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

The wells of the Patriarchs

The episode of the wells in this week's parsha reads, in some ways, like a description of modern events. The modern Arabs of the Holy Land claim to be descended from the Biblical Philistines. Their behavior certainly conforms to how the ancient Philistines acted in relation to Isaac. Driven by famine, Isaac moves to Gerar, but does not trust the Philistines, apparently, as far as he can throw them, and accordingly he makes a significant omission in describing Rebecca to the Philistines, until Abimelech notices the couple sporting with each other. Then, to deflect Isaac's implicit accusation that the Philistines could not be trusted, he launches (in true "Palestinian" style) a counter-accusation. But notice that he doesn't actually deny what Isaac says.
Then Isaac sows and prospers, and the Philistines become envious of him. Isaac's prosperity doesn't take anything away from the Philistines, but they resent it anyway. How dare he be blessed by G-d! How dare he become prosperous while living with us! So they go to the wells which Abraham had dug, and fill them in with earth so no one can use them. [The chronology here is a little confusing. The text implies that the plugging of the wells had occurred earlier, but the fact of the plugging of the wells is told to us in a textual location that links it to the envy of the Philistines and Abimelech's order for Isaac to leave Gerar. So presumably the plugging of the wells had some tie in to the Philistine dislike of Isaac which the Torah does not think it necessary to inform us about. Or perhaps the Philistines, having earlier stopped up the wells, were motivated to go back and fill them in even more.] Plugging the wells has no apparent benefit to the Philistines, and possible hurt to them: if other used the wells, they did not lose thereby, and by filling in the wells, they denied themselves a potential source of water. Better that the Philistines thirst than others drink, apparently. Again, something that has the hallmarks of the true "Palestinian" style.
So Isaac moves a little, and re-digs the wells so he can make use of them; and then digs two more wells which the Philistines make trouble over, so he can not use them. Perhaps they imagined he was digging on their land; but after Isaac's servants do the labor and bring the wells to functioning, the Philistines claim them as their own. It is only when Isaac has dug a third well, farther away, that he is left alone. Then he moves on to Beersheva, and immediately G-d appears to him and blesses him, and his servants begin to dig a fourth well. While they are doing this, the Philistines pay the sort of friendly visit that true friends do not make. Isaac, given their past behavior, is suspicious, and states the truth plainly: they hated him and forced him out of Gerar. Abimelech smoothly answers that they really have been his friends all along, and now want to make a covenant of peace with Isaac, and claims, "as we have not touched thee, and as we have done unto thee nothing but good, and have sent thee away in peace". The first two statements were patently untrue, and the third at the very least stretches the truth more than a little. And how many similar statements have we heard from the Arab side over the decades? But Isaac chooses to take their statements at face value, and makes a peace and swears an oath of amity with them, and they "depart from him in peace." Since it is the Torah itself, and not Abimelech, which says this, we can assume the Philistines actually did leave Isaac in peace. The one bit of Philistine behavior the modern "Palestinians" ought to imitate is exactly the one bit they choose not to. And to wind up this episode, Isaac's servants announce they have been succesful in digging the latest well.
The actions of the Philistines appear in a more sinister light once one remembers the teaching of the Zohar on this passage: the wells are symbols of the Shekinah, the supernal Well of Living Waters. The Philistines are trying to block the flow upon which our welfare, both spiritual and material, depend. Abraham originally dug them, Isaac tries to re-open them. Yet the Philistine do their best to stop his efforts...
"Let the Student apply his Ingeniuum."

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

I said I might post about Bach...

so here it is.
Actually, a link to a post on Hirhurim.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Freeing Eliezer/Og

After Eliezer of Damascus, the servant of Abraham, completed his mission and found Issac a proper match, Abraham rewarded his slave by granting the slave his freedom. Abraham allowed this man Eliezer of Damascus to ascent to the throne of the Bashanite Kingdom, after which Eliezer of Damascus became known as Og, King of Bashan. Abraham knew how wicked Og/Eliezer was and did not want Og/Eliezer to be rewarded in the World to Come for his help in finding Issac a bride, so Abraham caused Og/Eliezer to have his reward for his good deed repaid in the This World, instead of the World to Come.[1]

The Braisa records[2] a story from when Og/Eliezer was a servant of Abraham: One time, Abraham screamed at this servant Og/Eliezer, which caused Og/Eliezer to be so scared that his tooth fell out. Now, Og was a giant, whose ankle was thirty handbreadths high off of the ground[3], it thus serves to reason that his tooth was a huge monolith. The pragmatic Abraham made use of this monolith by making it into a bed or a chair for his personal use[4]. The question arises that there is a Halacha that when one knocks out his servants tooth or eye, the servant automatically becomes free. According to this story, then, Eliezer would have been freed not willingly by Abraham, but after Abraham scared his tooth out.

The Talmud rules[5] that if one scares someone which in turn causes damage to that person (e.g. one goes behind another and screams "boo!" which causes the other to run in fear and smash his face into a wall), the damager is exempt from paying the damaged any monetary compensation. Rashi understands[6] that this is because the damaged caused the damage to him by reacting to the damager's action which scared him. According to this, when Abraham scared Eliezer and caused Eliezer's tooth to fall out, Eliezer actually brought the damage upon himself by reacting to Abraham screaming at him. Therefore, Abraham did not damage Eliezer, and Eliezer would not go free because of this episode, but was rather let free by Abraham after finding Issac a bride.

However, Rabbi Yom Tov ben Avraham Asevilli (1250-1330) learns[7] that the reason why when someone scares another he is exempt from paying for the damages is that the damager only indirectly caused the damage and cannot be held liable. According to this explanation, Abraham did cause Eliezer's tooth to fall out, albeit he did so indirectly, so Eliezer should have went free. Even though one is exempt for indirect damages, he is only exempt in the earthly courts, but the heavenly courts will still rule that such a person is liable[8]. When one is obligated to pay in the heavenly court, but not in the earthly courts, he whom is owed the money can rightfully grab the money from the one who owes the money and not have to return it legally. So, Eliezer can "grab" himself and claim that he is free because Abraham would have been liable for damaging him the heavenly courts, so why does the Midrash say that Eliezer was emancipated after finding a Shidduch for Issac, if he really went free after having his tooth fall out? The Rashash, Rabbi Shmuel Shtrashun of Vilna (1819-1885), answers[9] that one is only obligated to pay in heavenly courts because of a rabbinical penalty, but technically he is fully legally exempt. The Steipler Gaon, Rabbi Yaakov Yisrael Kanievsky (1899–1985), writes[10] that in order for one to have his slave go free, one must physically cause his tooth or eye to be knocked out, legally causing it to happen is not enough. Even if the action can be attributed to him, it is as if he did not do it because it was done indirectly, so Eliezer was only emancipated when Abraham willingly freed him, not when Abraham scared his tooth out.

[1] Pirkei D'Rabbi Eliezer, Chapter 16
[2] Tractate Sofrim 21:9
[3] Brachos 54b
[4] Tractate Sofrim 21:9
[5] Bava Kamma 91a
[6] To Kiddushin 24b
[7] Chiddushei HaRitva to Kiddushin 24b
[8] Bava Kamma 55b-56a
[9] Chiddushei HaRashash to Kiddushin 24b
[10] Kehillas Yaakov on Kiddushin §28

Friday, November 17, 2006

The Daughter of Abraham

Chayei Sarah—The Daughter of Abraham

The Torah says[1] that HaShem blessed Abraham with Bakol (literally "everything"). One understanding in the Talmud[2]  is that this means that although Abraham had already been blessed with Issac, his blessings reached an apex with the birth of a daughter named Bakol[3]. Tosafos ask[4], if this is true, then according to the opinion that a Noahide may marry his sister[5], why Issac did not marry Bakol. In the first answer, Tosafos say that since Bakol was too young at the time that Issac was looking for a wife, Abraham did not consider taking her as a wife for his son[6]. At the time of the Binding of Issac, when Issac was thirty-seven years old[7], Rebecca, a reincarnation of Sarah, was born[8], married Issac three years later, when Issac was forty[9]. The question then arises why Issac married his young cousin Rebecca, if Rebecca herself was only three years[10] (and a month[11]) old at the time of their marriage, and it seems that Abraham would not have wanted his son to marry a pre-pubescent girl. This seems to be a proof to the opinion recorded in Tosafos[12] that Rebecca was actually fourteen years old at the time of her marriage, not three. In describing Rebecca, the Torah states, "And the maiden [na'arah] was very good in appearance; [she was] a virgin, whom no man had known her[13]". Since the term Na'arah usually refers specifically to a girl over the age of twelve, this implies that Rebecca was "of age" already. Furthermore, the Torah seems to be praising Rebecca for her chastity, which implies that she had reached an age when there is normally a desire to engage in sexual relations, and yet she remained chaste because of her modesty. This age is obviously older than three years old.

Rabbi Shimon Schwab (1908-1993) explains[14] in the name of Rabbi Michael HaCohen Forshlager of Baltimore (a student of the Sochachover Rebbe, the Avnei Nezer) that both opinions are actually correct, and his explanation can incidentally answer the question as to why Issac could have married such a young girl as Rebecca, but not Bakol. He explains that physically, Rebecca was a fourteen-year-old young bride at the time of her marriage, but spiritually she was a reincarnation of Sarah, who had only died three years prior[15]. Only once Sarah's soul left her at the time of the Binding of Issac, did Rebecca become a reincarnation of Sarah, and thus at that time she was "born again." Rabbi Schwab adds that this explains why Rashi explained that when the Torah says, "Issac brought her [Rebecca] into the tent of Sarah, his mother"[16], the Torah means to say that Rebecca was Sarah; this is because they shared a soul.

In a second answer, Tosafos say[17] that Bakol was a daughter of Hagar, not Sarah[18], thus she was not worthy of marriage to Issac. Rabbi Yaakov Emden (1697-1776) explains[19] that even though Hagar converted to Judaism[20], it was still not fitting that Issac, Abraham's son through his main mistress, Sarah, should marry Bakol, who was a daughter of Abraham through his maidservant, Hagar. Furthermore, writes Rabbi Yaakov Emden, when one marries a girl, he is supposed to examine his prospective bride's brothers in order to see if she is worthy for marriage[21]. If Bakol was a daughter of Hagar, then her brother was Ishmael, who had already been established as a wild hunter, whose full sister would be completely unsuitable for marriage.

However, writes Rabbi Yaakov Emden, the original question of Tosafos as to why Issac did not marry Bacoll does not even begin as a question. He writes that Abraham certainly did not have the status of a Noahide once he circumcised himself (which predated Isaac's birth by a year). He also suggests that perhaps Abraham lost his status as a Noahide and became a Jew even before his circumcision, that is, at the time that he began engaging in Torah study[22]. In this detail, Rabbi Yaakov Emden is consistent with his opinion elsewhere[23] where he explained that the betrothed women with whom Esau engaged in adultery were converts from the time of Abraham. This answers the question of Tosafos who ask with which women had halachikly recognizable marriages in the time of Jacob and Esau that Esau could have been vilified for committing adultery[24].

Rabbi Yehoshua Leib Diskin of Brisk/Jerusalem (1818-1898) explains[25] that Bakol was a daughter of Sarah, but she could not have married Issac because she died at the same time as her mother Sarah died[26], which was before Abraham began looking for a match for Issac. A proof to this is that when Abraham came to Hebron to lament the loss of his wife, the chaf in the word ve'livkosoh ("and to cry for her") is written small in the Torah[27], as if it should be omitted and read velivita ("and for her daughter"), meaning that Abraham mourned for his daughter, Bakol, also. However, in a letter dated 1979, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein (1895-1986) questions whether the Maharil Diskin ever said this explanation[28]. Firstly, the order of the verses in the Torah seems to imply that the Bakol lived after Sarah because the verse, which is expounded, is written immediately after the passage describing Abraham's burial procedures for his deceased wife. Secondly, if Bakol had died during the lifetime of Abraham, how can that have been considered a blessing for Abraham? One can also ask that if Bakol died before Issac began searching for a spouse, then why Tosafos asked that Issac should have married her.

According to the explanation that Bakol died at the same time as Sarah, it is also difficult to understand a Midrash, which explains Abraham marriage to Keturah after Issac's marriage to Rivkah[29]. The Midrash says[30] that Abraham's actions are a fulfillment of the verse[31], "Sow your seed in the morning, but do not rest your hand in the evening". Rabbi Yehudah Aryeh Leib Rothenberg/Alter (1847-1905) explains[32] that this seems to say that the reason why Abraham married Keturah is simply to raise children in his older years as he did in his younger years, not in order to fulfill his commandment of procreation, because he already fulfilled it with his daughter Bakol. Abraham fulfilled his obligation to procreate according to both Beis Shammai and Beis Hillel[33] by having two sons, Issac and Ishmael, according to Beis Shammai and a son and daughter, Issac/Ishmael and Bakol. However, if Bakol had already died by that time, then Abraham obviously married Keturah in order to fulfill his commandment of procreation, which Bais Hillel says requires one to father both a son and a daughter—even if one child, heaven forbid, dies, the obligation returns[34]. Perhaps one can answer that Abraham subscribed to Beis Shammai's opinion that two sons is enough to fulfill the obligation or that even according to Beis Hillel, Abraham had another daughter[35]. The Talmud[36] and Midrash[37] both mention based on a verse in Song of Songs that Abraham had a daughter named Nediv.

The Tosefta records[38] the opinion of Rabbi Meir, the husband of the seemingly egalitarian Bruria. Rabbi Meir said that Abraham's blessing was that he did not have any daughters. The simple understanding of this is based on a Talmudic dictum[39], "Woe onto he whose children are female" which implies that having daughters is not a blessing, but rather a curse. Rabbi Yaakov Culi (d. 1732) explains[40] that according to Rabbi Meir, having a daughter would have been a curse for Abraham because he would have been forced to marry his daughter to a native Canaanite, so Abraham was blessed by not birthing daughters. Nachmanides (1194-1270) explains[41] that even if Abraham would have had a daughter and sent her to his family east of the Jordan to get married, then she would have adopted their idol worshipping practices, which would have been a curse for Abraham. Furthermore, Nachmanides understands (unlike the second answer of Tosafos) that Bakol was a daughter of Sarah, and Abraham would not have wanted his daughter from Sarah to leave the Land of Israel, just like Issac never left the land of Israel. Because of these reasons, Rabbi Meir reasoned that Abraham having a daughter would have been more painful for himself than him not having fathered a girl. However, according to Rabbi Yehuda's opinion that Abraham did father a girl named Bakol, one can say that it was not a curse for him because she did not live to a marriageable age, so Abraham never had the pain of having to take an idolatrous son-in-law or send his daughter out of Israel. Rabbi Yehuda reasoned that since Abraham was blessed with "everything", he must have even had a daughter, whose name, Acheirim say, was Bakol. Rabbeinu Bachya ben Asher (d. 1340) adds[42] that usually a man desires to father both girls and boys, so according to the opinion that Abraham had a girl, he fulfilled this desire.

[1] Genesis 24:1
[2] Bava Basra 116b
[3] See Eitz Yosef to Bava Basra 116b
[4] To Bava Basra 141a
[5] Sanhedrin 58b
[6] Perhaps this is because marrying a pre-pubescent girl, who cannot yet conceive, delays the arrival of Moshiach (Niddah 13b) or because when the Talmud said (Pesachim 113a) one should marry off one's daughter as quickly as possible, even to one's slave, that was said only once she becomes "of age" and not before.
[7] Pirkei D'Rabbi Eliezer, Chapter 31, Yalkut Shimoni, beginning of Toldos
[8] Genesis Rabbah §57
[9] Genesis 35:20
[10] Pirkei D'Rabbi Eliezer Chapter 32, Seder Olam, and Tosafos to Yevamos 61b
[11] Tractate Sofrim, end of Chapter 21
[12] Yevamos 61b
[13] Genesis 24?:16
[14] Maayan Beis ha-Sho'eva to Genesis 25:20
[15] See Leviticus Rabbah §20, Midrash Tanchuma end of Vayera, Pirkei D'Rabbi Eliezer Ch. 32, which say that Sarah died around the time of the Binding of Issac
[16] Genesis 24:67
[17] To Bava Basra 141a
[18] Tosafos HaShalaeim (Genesis 16:2) write that Bakol was indeed the daughter of Sarah, not Hagar. They explain that so is evident from an implication in a scriptural passage in which, before the conception of Isaac, Sarah tells Abraham (ibid.) that G-d has stopped (atazar) her from birthing. In a similar story, Rebecca prayers (Genesis 25:21) to become pregnant because she was barren (akar). From the fact that by Sarah the Torah says stopped and by Rebecca says she was barren (or uprooted from having children according to a literal transaltion of akar), Tosafos HaShaleim infer that Sarah did give birth previously, i.e. to Bakol, and was merely telling Abraham that she had failed to sire him a son. While, on the other hand, Rebecca did not have any children at all because she was completely barren.
[19] Hagahos Ya'avetz to Bava Basra 141a
[20] Yevamos 100b
[21] Bava Basra 110a. This is learned out from the fact that the Torah (Exodus 6:23) tells that Aharon HaKohen married Elisheva, daughter of Aminadav and that she was the sister of Nachshon. The Talmud understands that Aharon HaKohen decided she was a suitable wife because her brother was the prince of the tribe of Judah.
[22]The halachik status of the forefather is an issue which is beyond the scope of this essay.
[23] Hagahos Ya'avetz to Tosafos to Bava Basra 16b
[24] Tosafos to Bava Basra 16b
[25] Kisvei Maharil Diskin
[26] Shai L’Torah (Parsha Chayei Sarah) writes in the name of Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky that a recently-published early medieval source, known as Mincha Bellulah, writes the exact same explantion as Rabbi Diskin. This explanation is also found in the introduction to responsa Binyan Shlomo (new ed.) from Rabbi Shlomo HaKohen of Vilna (1828-1905) in the Torah novellae written by the father of the author (Parshas Chayeh Sara).
[27] Genesis 23:2
[28] Iggress Moshe, Volume 4 of Orach Chaim, §6
[29] Genesis 25:1
[30] Genesis Rabbah §61:3
[31] Ecclesiastes 11:6
[32] Sefas Emes to Parshas Chayei Sarah
[33] Yevamos 61b
[34] Yevamos 62a
[35] See "Avrohom and Pru U'revu - What About His (Not So Well-Known) Daughter?" by Rabbi Moshe Heigh
[36] Chagigah 3a
[37] Song of Songs Rabbah §7:2
[38] Kiddushin 5:14
[39] Kiddushin 82b, see also Sanhedrin 100b which explains why daughters are such a "curse."
[40] Me'Am Loez To Genesis 24:1
[41] Ramban to Genesis 24:1
[42] Rabbeinu Bachaya to Genesis 24:1

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

"...and he was gathered to his ancestors"

"and he expired, and died, and was gathered to his fathers"

In the case of Abraham, as with several others figures in the narrative of Bereshit, Scripture is not content to simply say "he died": it must re-iterate the point in three times. Welsh bards liked things in threes, which is why the triad is one of the most typical forms of Celtic literature:

Three are the fathers--Abraham crosser of rivers and father of nations;
Isaac willingly bound and fearer of G-d;
Jacob who wrestled and wept for his son and blessed tribes.

But the Author of the Torah is not a Cymric poet: the triple usage is there to teach us something. So why does the Torah use this triplicity to tell us that Abraham and the others shuffled off their mortal coil?

None of the sources I have been able to consult in the last few days, since my attention was attracted to this point, have anything to say directly in answer to the question. Rashi says that "expired" is used in connection with righteous persons, but this can not be a strict rule: otherwise we would have to infer, for instance, that neither Rachel nor Joseph were righteous, because the term is not used in connection with their demises. They simply die. The same with Moses.

Further investigation reveals that the word translated into English as "expire" does not really mean "die"; it refers to the ceasing of toil and labor, to being worn out: we have here expire in the meaning of expiration date on a carton of milk. It is not death itself that is meant, but the ending of work and labor, and the ending (since we are said to be referring to the righteous) to that person's good deeds and charity. It is not only Abraham's life that ceased, but his hospitality as well. (Although we may presume that Isaac kept up his father's open tent policy.) His good deeds cease; his righteous toil and labor have come to their end.

Then we get to the physical death, in the case of Abraham elaborated with the statement that it was in a good old age and full of years. And then comes the statement that "he was gathered to his fathers". The generic gloss on this phrase is that it denotes spiritual immortality--he joins the ancestors in Heaven. But it can also be considered in the sense that he becomes one of the ancestors. The deceased becomes part of our heritage, and his righteousness (since we are speaking of a righteous person) is among the influences, examples, and precedents by which our own lives are shaped. The lovingkindness and good deeds of Abraham himself are no longer here, but we can carry on the work of lovingkindness and good deeds which he began, and maintain the tradition of lovingkindness and good deeds which he started.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Chasidic Kung Fu

I suppose it's inevitable that I'm reminded of the Jewish Hammer:

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

The real sin of Sodom

If one actually pays attention to Chazal, one might conclude that the long tradition of equating the sins of Sodom to sexual depravity is not warranted and probably unfair to the sexually depraved. Rashi, for instance, in glossing this parshah, refers, instead of homosexual practices, to the death through torture of a maid who gave charity to a beggar. Avot 5:13, in delineating a character trait which "some say is the character of Sodom," focuses on materialistic thinking and not sexuality ("he who says what is mine is mine and what is yours is yours". Ezekiel describes "Sodom and her daughters", as haughty, rich, idle, and totally lacking in charity, with sexual immorality thrown in as a undetailed afterthought (if it is mentioned at all--we would be presuming that the prophet in fact meant sexual immorality when he used the term "abominations", and not one of the other types of behavior to which Scripture applies that term). Rabbinic tradition, filling in the details of Ezekiel's condemnation, shows us a society in which justice was routinely perverted--in fact, where normal "justice" was perverse--and philanthropy not merely lacking but against the law (as the case of the maid whom Rashi mentions illustrates), and to be a stranger, an outsider, was ipso facto a crime.. Someone beat you up? Then they get to charge you a medical fee because they drew blood. The caution which Lot uses to keep his hospitality secret is easily understandable if one keeps these traditions in mind. Less understandable is why the Sodomites allowed Lot to settle among them. Perhaps because he had many possessions, and could keep up with them in the practice of proud idleness. The parshah begins with Abraham's hospitality, and continues with his pleas to spare the Cities of the Plain: the very virtues of concern for one's fellow human being which Sodom was so woefully lacking.

Pride, greed, overemphasis on material goods, turning justice upside down and inside out, disdain of the poor and the weak, intolerance of those who are alien in language or culture, refusal to concern oneself with the good of one's fellow human beings--these were the sins of Sodom, the depravities for which He Who Judges in Truth condemned it. (I will leave it to the reader to determine how far the parallels apply to contemporary America and Israel.) Sexual immorality gets barely a nod, and homosexuality is mentioned in the Scriptural narrative only to point out the other sins of the Sodomites. They planned homosexual rape not primarily as a means of sexual gratification but as a tool of dominance. They wanted to rape Lot's guests for the same reason that the strong rape the weak in prison--to show who was the boss.

And when the Judge of All the World does call up the case of Universe v. Sodom for trial, Scripture attributes to Him the behaviors which mark the character that is the anti-type of Sodom. He is not proud: He goes Himself to see what the facts of the case are, and allows Abraham his chance to plead for the doomed cities. He does not rush to judgment based on hearsay and the opinions imbibed from others; as he did with the Tower of Babel, He goes Himself to see what the facts of the case are. He does condemn an entire group, but judges them as individuals, taking care to bring out Lot and his family before the destruction begins. It is the fault of the Sodomites that only Lot and his daughters survive: Abraham whittled down the saving remnant to a mere handful, but still Sodom could not produce enough to fill up even that small quota. He tolerates the sins of Sodom to the point that it becomes clear to everyone but the people of Sodom themselves not merely why Sodom is condemned but why it must be condemned as antithetical to everything a truly civilized society should be.

Turn from the time of Abraham Avinu to the time of Chaim Qoton. This week, if the plans of the human planners are allowed to work, the so-called Gay Pride Parade will be taking place in Jerusalem. Superficially, at least, it is the religious who are intolerant, who are (in some instances) offering violence as punishment for the affront of not thinking and acting as they think. The world looks on, and treats the fact that the lifestyle and acts of the paraders are moral and rational. Indeed, by the values of the world, they are moral and rational, and it is the religious who are immoral and irrational. It so happens that the values taught by the world and the values taught by the Torah differ rather radically at this point, and there are many who try to soothe the conflict into nothingness, who try to reconcile the one with the other and make the values taught by the Torah conform to the values taught by the world. I would say such people should not call themselves Jews: or at least, should not call themselves believers in the Torah.

We must accept the fact that the values of the world and the values of the Torah are fundamentally different, and because we are Jews, we choose (or at least, we ought to choose) to fit our values and judgments and actions on the values of the Torah and not those of the world. The values of the Torah are those that G-d wishes us to have. The values of the world are those that other humans have worked out. Often the two do not conflict, but sometimes they do conflict, and one must choose between what G-d teaches and what men teach. To believe in the Torah is, by definition, to choose in such cases to follow what G-d teaches. And in the case of homosexuality and other sexual lifestyles and practices, the Torah says rather clearly, in places other than this parshah, that they are wrong; and if the world say they are right, then the world itself is wrong.

The reason why the Torah prohibits homosexuality and similar things is because they are perversions and misuses of the sexual impulse. The world defines the purpose of sexuality as pleasure, with reproduction an accidental product that can be aborted if the pleasure seeker does not want to be bothered with the results of reproduction. The Torah defines the purpose of sexuality as reproduction, with pleasure a secondary goal. In the context of a union which is seeking to produce a new generation of humans, pleasure is fine. We may note that Abraham and Sarah apparently were enjoying themselves that way even during the time when both believed Sarah unable to have children. But some sexual acts with no possibility of healthy reproduction. That is why all the forbidden unions and practices are forbidden--because they can only result in pleasure, and not in reproduction (or at least, not in reproduction that will yield healthy children raised in a stable household). With most other sexual mispractices, reproduction, albeit of an unhealthy kind (physically and/or emotionally unhealthy) , is a possibility. With homosexuality, it is biologically impossible. It can only be done for the sake of pleasure. It is (with bestiality, condemned almost in the same breath by the Torah) the most obvious denial of the reproductive purpose and the most obvious affirmation of the pleasure purpose. We may perceive different reasons why some people are born with a sexuality that focuses on their own gender, and why G-d created them that way, and what purpose He has in such cases. But being born with such a sexuality is no excuse for putting it into action. Homosexual sex is sex for the sake of pleasure, and wrong just as any other sexual act done only for the sake of pleasure--adultery, bestiality, incest, and the rest--is wrong. (For an different but interesting take on this matter, read a post from ADDerabbi from a year ago, see here:

The world refuses to accept this: the world and the paraders are intolerant of what the Torah teaches on this point. We must face the fact that is they who are the intolerant ones. It is they who thrust themselves forward, who act proudly and greedily, who look down on those who do not agree with them, who scorn the teachings of the Torah and those who follow those teaches, who seek to invert the accepted social norms. It is they who, by demanding that everyone else accept their view, are intolerant. And so they repeat the fundamental sin of Sodom, albeit not in the way that most people think.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Carlebach's Pischu Li - Sung by a Gospel Choir!

In honor of his yar'tziet Carlebach's "pischu li" sung by a gospel choir!!

Monday, November 06, 2006

some art

Some art linked to this week's parshah.
First, the hospitality of Abraham, as imaged by Chagall.

Next, Rembrandt on the Binding of Isaac.

Finally, another view of the Binding of Isaac. I believe it's Caravaggio, but I'm not sure.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

The spiritual view of autism

An interesting post on the interplay of one individual's autism and her spirituality

I don't want to directly comment on her post, except to say that in some respects it meshes with my experience and in others it conflicts with it--which is to be expected, since everyone experiences the Source of All Being in their own individual way, as befits their own individual being.

First, a preliminary comment: autism may be described as not being fully connected to the world around us--or to having connections which are not correctly wired, so the experience of the outside world is not the usual one.

But I might remark on the Jewish (or rather, Kabbalistically based) view of autism. Judaism has indeed a pronounced tendency to view "mentally deficient" people as spiritually superior. (Google "Ben Goldin" for a very contemporary expression of this phenomenon.) But the more sophisticated view is to see us as souls that are not completely incarnated into our present bodies, either because we tried to withdraw from incarnating at a late stage of the process, or for other reasons. This is another way of saying that we are not fully connected to the physical plane.

The Kabbalah teaches, in essence, that between us, in the physical world, there are a series of veils between us and G-d, and that these veils are more apparent than real, and that with proper spiritual endeavour--teshuvah, tefilah, Torah: repentance, prayer, study of the Torah; and observance of the mitzvot--we can to a degree "see" through those veils, and be aware of the Omnipresent Omniexistence of the Deity. The fully incarnated soul has all of those veils between itself and Its Source. The not-so-fully incarnated soul may not have all of those veils there: its view of the Source of Existence is a shade less obscured than normal. Just a shade less. It may be possible for us to see a bit deeper and a bit more clearly, but only with effort. The yetzer harah is alive and well in us, as it is in everyone (unless you're a tzaddik. And if you're a tzaddik, you probably don't need my blathering to instruct you). But just because we are within the veils does not mean we are superior in any way. It is possible to remain stuck in the same place, and not see any further or deeper, for us just as it is for anyone else; and anyone can, as indicated above, work on themselves so they can see through the veils themselves. So we have no claim to a special place; there is nothing we can do that any other person can not also do.

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