Thursday, July 23, 2015

So Much From One Word / Parshat Devarim 2015-5775

One of the joys of Torah is that each time we return to it, we find new meaning in the text. Midrash[1] says there are seventy faces of Torah, but in fact there are many more. This is true for each Torah portion, each passage, and even individual words.

This week as we open to Sefer Devarim (the Book of Deuteronomy), Moses addresses the people, reviewing their itinerary and summing up their experience in the Wilderness, in the course of which Moses recounts:
רַב-לָכֶם, סֹב אֶת-הָהָר הַזֶּה; פְּנוּ לָכֶם, צָפֹנָה.
Then the Lord said to me: You have been skirting this hill country long enough; now turn צָפֹנָה tzafona/northward. (Deuteronomy 2:3)

Northward. Seems simple and clear enough, doesnt it? Merely a cardinal direction? But the Hebrew term צָפֹנָה tzafona (northward) looks and sounds like the Hebrew word צָפוּן  (tzafun) meaning hide or hidden. This generates a raft of interpretationsall based not merely on the one word, but on reading that one word as its homonym.

This week, I offer you three different directions commentators take based on reading northward as hidden. These commentaries were written 1,100 years ago, 400 years ago, and 200 years ago.

This first is from midrash Devarim Rabbah 1:19, edited perhaps as late as 900 C.E. Reading northward as hidden producing these three teachings:

1.     R. Chiyya interpreted: Moses said to Israel: If you see that [Esau/the Edomites] seeks to make war on you, then do not stand up to him but hide yourselves from him until his world [his time of power and sovereignty] will have passed. (For R. Chiyya, turning tzafona/northward is a message to Israel that powerless though they be at this time, their time to flourish will come. Torah delivers an imperative to hidelay low, bide their time, and wait patientlyuntil the evil empire will fall.)
2.     For R. Yehudah b. Shallum, northward also resonates with the word hide but also north in the sense of the direction Israel should go, which is toward Torah, Israels North Star: R. Yehudah b. Shallum said: Israel complained before God: Master of the Universe, [Esaus] father blessed him with the words, By the sword shall you live [Jacobs blessing of Esau in Genesis 27:40], and You approved of the blessing, and You say to us, Hide yourselves before him? Where shall we flee? God replied: When you see that he would attack you, then flee to the Torah. And tzafonah/northward surely means the Torah, as it is written, יִצְפֹּן לַיְשָׁרִים He lays up sound wisdom for the upright (Proverbs 2:7). (I suspect that R. Yehudah understands the verse in Deuteronomy to be a hint that Israel should thoroughly immerse themselves in Toraha hiding of sortswhen their political situation is precarious, because the remainder of Proverbs 2:7, not quoted in the midrash, says: מָגֵן לְהֹלְכֵי תֹם It is a shield to those who walk with it wholly. The message: Torah will protect them.)
3.     A third explanation of tzafonah/northward is offered by R. Yitzhak: R. Yitzhak said: The Holy One of Blessing said [to Israel]: Wait, the King Messiah has yet to come to fulfill the words of Scripture, מָה רַב-טוּבְךָ  אֲשֶׁר צָפַנְתָּ לִּירֵאֶיךָ How abundant is Your goodness that You have tzafanta/laid up for those who fear You (Psalm 31:20). (For R. Yitzhak, tzafona/northward also connotes something laid up or hidden away, which he understands as the reward awaiting Israel in the world-to-come.)
Taken together,  Devarim Rabbah 1:19 speaks to a people experiencing a high degree of vulnerability. It says: (1) Lay low and hide from the current iteration of Esau”—their contemporary because their power will eventually fade; (2) Israels best refuge and guarantee of survival is Torah; and (3) recall the promise of ultimate reward in olam ha-ba (the world-to-come). Perhaps the message can be summed up this way: However onerous and difficult life is, submerse yourself in Torah and await your divine reward.

The second commentary is found in Kli Yakar, the work of Rabbi Shlomo Ephraim b. Aaron Luntschitz (1550-1619), who also reads tzafona as hidden. But he hears a different message, one germane to the situation of his community as he understands it. For Kli Yakar, Deuteronomy 2:3 delivers a resounding warning about ostentation. Living in Lemberg, Poland and then Prague, Czechoslovakia in the late 16th and early 17th century, he is keenly aware of the tenuous position of Jews in both communities and throughout Europe. He explains that the verse instructs Israel to live hidden in exile, meaning that they should not flaunt their wealth or live beyond their means, because that could attract the attention and arouse the envy of their potentially violent and vindictive Gentiles neighbors. Here, too, we hear the echo of a vulnerable communitys anxiety, but unlike Devarim Rabbah, which counsels laying low and riding it out if need be until the messianic age, Rabbi Luntschitz seems to hold the Jews of his generation responsible for at least some of the ill-treatment they experience.

Now please consider a third and different direction of interpretation that nonetheless begins with reading tzafona as hidden rather than northward. For the hasidic teacher, R. Binyanim b. Aharon of Zalocze, a student of the Maggid of Mezeritch who lived in the 18th century, the verse suggests something more internal, personal, and psychological. In Torey Zahav (published 1816) he tells us that the enemy is personal and internal: the yetzer ra, the inclination inherent in each of us to do evil. R. Binyamin addresses his warning to tzaddikim, in particular. These are the charismatic hasidic teachers who lead the community in his day. Here is how R. Binyamin explains tzafona. (Please note: it helps to read the Talmudic referencesone passage of Gemara and two mishnayotin his commentary. I have included them for you as footnotes #2-4.)

We are taught that the Evil Inclination appears to the righteous like a mountain.[2] I heard in the name of that wondrous hasid R. Nachman Kossover [a disciple of the Baal Shem Tov] an interpretation of, The holiest offerings are slaughtered on the north [side of the altar] (M Zevachim 5:1[3]). The Evil Inclination entices people to commit serious transgressions. But in the case of a tzaddik, who has already overcome him several times, the Evil Inclination begins by convincing him to perform a mitzvah that really turns out to be a great sin. It might involve informing on a person or publicly shaming someone. Sometimes just a bit of improper motivation is brought in, something you dont realize unless you look into it with great care. Only then do you feel it. Because of this, the tzaddik must always be vigilant, not letting go of this self-awareness even for a moment. Of this a pious one [Bachya b. Yosef ibn Pakuda] once said: You may be asleep, but he [the Evil Inclination] is awake; you may be distracted, but he is always attentive, seeking to expel you from both this world and next (Chovot ha-Levavot, Shaar Yichud ha-Maaseh 5). This is the meaning of the holiest offerings”—those are the tzaddikim—“are slaughtered on the north. The Evil Inclination slaughters them in matters that are tzafun/hidden. He knows the tzaddik wont follow him into obvious sin. The same is not true, however, of ordinary people. Therefore offerings of lesser holiness are slaughtered in any place in [the Temple] Court (M Zevachim 5:7[4]). People of little awareness can get caught up in obvious transgressions, so they can be slaughtered anywhere. This much I heard.

R. Binyanim recognizes that the Evil Inclination threatens us all. We all face temptation. But those who hold themselves out as leadersand especially on the basis of their righteousness, which is what tzaddik meansface a special temptation: that their very holiness and special position will draw them into wrong doing, that in their quest for purity and righteousness and their expectation that others live up to their standards, they go overboard and commit grievous wrongdoings. R. Binyomin is issuing a warning to the hasidic leaders of his day, the tzaddikim. Today we would say that the risks inherent in being a holy person derive from ego and power. Informing on people and publicly shaming others are excellent examples; one appears to be doing the prescribed task, but goes overboard and causes grievous hurt to others.

This is, of course, not a danger reserved for hasidic leaders alone. Donald Miller is a young evangelical who went viral in the evangelical world after publishing his post-modern evangelical spiritual journey, Blue Like Jazz. In another forum he tells the story of a pastor in the small church in Texas where he grew up.

            A committee was put in place to replace our [retiring] pastor and the committee decided to hire a dynamic young man from Louisiana. The man had been a traveling preacher, moving from church to church to perform revivals, to tell people about Jesus. He was a tall man and loud. He flailed his arms as he spoke. He talked about Gods power, about Gods wrath, about Gods love and to be honest he was quite moving On any given Sunday we would experience a range of emotions from guilt and shame to fear and sometimes joy.
            I even remember his first sermon. It was entitled Appoint those you trust and trust those you appoint. That should have been an obvious sign to everybody. He was saying, without question, if you hire me to be your pastor, I am the boss. You must never question my authority.
            Soon, the entire congregation fell under his spell. We loved it when he delighted in us but feared screwing up. One Sunday he snapped at the man working in the sound booth so sharply the man turned red from embarrassment. The pastor, realizing hed gone too far, explained, ferociously, that God is a God of excellence and wouldnt stand for mistakes, even from volunteer sound guys. He then quoted a passage about how we were supposed to be perfect even as Christ is perfect.
            Looking back, this was all manipulation. People who care about the truth understand they are capable of self-deception and surround themselves with accountability. This pastor got rid of the accountability. He drove off any elder who wouldnt submit, once again, quoting scripture and spinning the Bible so that those questioning his motives looked like infidels. He even said he felt justified using violence against them, simply because they refused to trust the leader God had appointed.

What Donald Miller describes is much like what R. Binyanim b. Aharon of Zalocze warns against in Torey Zahav. But is it a danger only for tzaddikim and evangelical pastors? Clearly not. Anyone with power or authority over others, whether explicit or of a more subtle nature, can succumb to the yetzer ra (Evil Inclination) who begins by convincing him to do a mitzvah that really turns out to be a great sin. Bosses, parents, teachers many of us are in the position to fall into the trap. The trenchant warning of Torey Zahav should not be missed.

While midrash Devarim Rabbah  and Kli Dakar express anxiety about Jewish powerlessness and vulnerability in exile, Torey Zahav is concerned with the abuse of power by Jewish leaders in the hasidic world. Could their messages be more different? All three commentaries depend upon reading one wordצָפֹנָהas hidden rather than its contextual meaning of northward.

Torah and the rabbinic enterprise of interpretation offer us a world of, and means to, making meaning for our lives. Midrash Tanna de-vei Eliezer expresses it through a beautiful allegory that tells us in giving Israel the Torah, God had precisely this in mind: that we should engage in creative interpretation to allow our sacred texts to speak to our lives:

A king of flesh and blood had two servants whom he loved dearly. He gave each of them a measure of wheat and a bundle of flax. The intelligent one what did he do? He wove the flax into a cloth and made flour from the wheat, sifted it, ground it, kneaded it, and baked it, and arranged it on the table, spread on it the cloth and left it until the king returned. The stupid one did not do anything. After a time, the king returned to his house and said to them: My sons, bring me what I gave you. One brought out the table set with the bread and the cloth spread upon it, and the other brought the wheat in a basket and the bundle of flax with it. Oh what an embarrassment and a disgrace! Which do you think was most beloved? The one who brought the table with the bread upon it So, too, the Holy One gave the Torah to Israel, God gave it as wheat from which to make flour and flax from which to make clothing. (Tanna de-vei Eliyahu, ch. 2)

Torah is not fully Torah until we dive into it, interpret it, and make it our own. We find further encouragement in Pirke Avot:

בן בגבג אומר, הפוך בה והפך בה, והגי בה דכולא בה, ובה תחזי, סיב ובלי בה; ומינה לא תזוז, שאין לך מידה טובה יותר ממנה.  בן האהא אומר, לפום צערא אגרא.
Ben Bag-Bag used to say of the Torah: Turn it and turn it again, for everything is in it. Pore over it, and wax gray and old over it. Stir not from it for you can have no better measure than it. Ben Heh-Heh used to say: According to the effort is the reward. (Pirke Avot 5:24-25)

If this is what we get from just one word, consider that Torah has 79,847 words. Imagine the hidden possibilities.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

[1] Bamidbar Rabbah 13:15.
[2] He is referring to BT Sukkot 52a: R. Yehudah expounded: In the time to come the Holy One of Blessing will bring the Evil Inclination and slay it in the presence of both the righteous and the wicked. To the righteous it will have the appearance of a mountain; to the wicked it will have the appearance of a hair thread. Both the former and the latter will weep: The righteous will weep saying, How were we able to overcome such a mountain! The wicked will also weep saying, How is it that we were unable to conquer this hair thread! And the Holy One of Blessing will also marvel together with them, as it is said, כֹּה אָמַר, יְהוָה צְבָאוֹת, כִּי יִפָּלֵא בְּעֵינֵי שְׁאֵרִית הָעָם הַזֶּה, בַּיָּמִים הָהֵם--גַּם-בְּעֵינַי, יִפָּלֵא, נְאֻם, יְהוָה צְבָאוֹת.Thus says the Lord of Hosts: If it be marvelous in the eyes of the remnant of this people in those days, should it also be marvelous in My eyes? (Zechariah 8:6).
[3] M Zevachim 5:1: What are the locations of the sacrifices? The holiest offerings were slaughtered on the north [side of the altar]. The bullock and the he-goat of Yom Kippur were slaughtered on the north side and their blood was received in a consecrated vessel on the north side and had to be sprinkled between the staves [of the Ark] and the Curtain [of the Holy of Holies], and on the golden incense altar. [Omission] of one of these applications invalidates [the offering]. He [a priest] poured the remaining blood on the western base of the outer altar, but if he did not do so, it does not invalidate [the offering].
[4] M Zevachim 5:7: The Shelamim [peace offerings] were offerings of lesser holiness are slaughtered in any place in [the Temple] Court. Two double sprinklings of their blood were made [at the altar so as so] as to constitute four; and they might be eaten, dressed in any manner, anywhere in the city, by any person, during  two day sand the intervening night. The portions of it [i.e., breast and shank] belonging to the priests were subject to the same rule [as other sacrifices] except that they could be eaten only by priests their wives, their children, and their bondservants.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Eat, Drink, and Feel the Spark / Parshat Mattot-Mas'ei 2015-5775

I saw a birthday card in a store recently that said, Do More Of What Makes You Happy and the quote was attributed to Carmel McConnell. I thought about the philosophy those words bespeak, and how antithetical it seems to be to the biblical notion of vows and oaths, and especially the vow of the nazirite.

Vows and oaths are tricky things. Before written documents were the standard mode of conducting business and making contracts, and long before the materials needed to produce written documents were ubiquitous, people relied on vows and oaths to formally express and confirm their commitments. Parshat Mattot, which we read this week together with Parshat Masei, begins by impressing upon us the importance of fulfilling an oath.

אִישׁ כִּי-יִדֹּר נֶדֶר לַיהוָה, אוֹ-הִשָּׁבַע שְׁבֻעָה לֶאְסֹר אִסָּר עַל-נַפְשׁוֹ--לֹא יַחֵל, דְּבָרוֹ:  כְּכָל-הַיֹּצֵא מִפִּיו, יַעֲשֶׂה.

If a man makes a vow to the Lord or takes an oath imposing an obligation on himself, he shall not break his pledge; he must carry out all that has crossed his lips. (Numbers 30:3)

Torah continues with a discussion of the vows made by women. We ought not be surprised that the vows of women are more complex, given that they generally lived under the authority of a father or a husband. Torah (Numbers 30:4-16) explains that if a women makes a vow or oath prior to marriage, her husband can annul it on the day he learns of it; if he raises no objection, the vow stands. And finally, the vow of a widow or divorcee is binding upon her. The Torahs care in delineating the various circumstances under which a vow is uttered, and a mans brief 24-hour window to annul the vow of a woman under his jurisdiction confirms the seriousness of vows.

Vows and oaths are very different from written contracts in a significant way. The latter require time and effort, thought and editing, sometimes negotiation and conversation, to produce. Vows and oaths are verbal declarations, and as such they can be made spontaneously and without appropriate thought and consideration. Consider how often you have heard an outburst that began, I swear that…” Emotions weigh in far more quickly than reason and thereby have the advantage of hijacking our brains and determining our responsesthat is the biological nature
of  the human brain. It is well-documented by neuroscientists and weve all experienced it many times. Bottom line: people are prone to making rash statements in the heat of the moment; if an outburst is phrased as an oath or a vow, with witnesses to attest to its utterance, trouble can ensue. For this reason, the Rabbis look askance at vows and discouraged people from making them. Talmud devotes an entire tractateNedarimto vows, discussing at length whether, under what conditions, and how a person could be absolved of their vow. And they also register this strongly negative view of oath-making. Raba relates that the Sages in Eretz Yisrael considered it a sin to make a vow, even if the maker fulfilled it.

א"ל רבא לרב נחמן חזי מר האי מרבנן דאתא ממערבא ואמר איזדקיקו ליה רבנן לבריה דרב הונא בר אבין ושרו ליה נדריה ואמרו ליה זיל ובעי רחמי על נפשך דחטאת דתני רב דימי אחוה דרב ספרא כל הנודר אע"פ שהוא מקיימו נקרא חוטא אמר רב זביד מאי קרא (דברים כג) וכי תחדל לנדור לא יהיה בך חטא הא לא חדלת איכא חטא

Raba said to R. Nachman: Behold, Master, a scholar who came from the West [Eretz Yisrael] and related that the Rabbis gave a hearing to the son of R. Huna b. Avin and absolved him of his vow, and then said to him, 'Go and pray for mercy, because you have sinned. For R. Dimi, the brother of R. Safra, learned: He who makes a vow, even though he fulfills it, is nonetheless a sinner.' R. Zevid said: What verse [teaches this]? [When you make a vow to Adonai your God, do not put off fulfilling it, for Adonai your God will require it of you, and you will have incurred guilt] but you will incur no guilt if you refrain from vowing (Deuteronomy 23:22-23); hence, if you have not made a vow, there is sin. (BT Nedarim 77b)

The vow that seems to have concerned the Rabbis most was that of the nazirite, which is discussed in Numbers chapter 6. A nazir (nazirite) was one who vowed to abstain from grapes and anything made from grapes (including wine), cutting his/her hair, and physical contact with a corpse for some period of time. It appears to be a way that someone could take on even more obligations than Torah provides in order to be holy to the Lord (Leviticus 21:6; Numbers 6:8) in a manner that is similar to the kohanim (priests). Given that it is entirely voluntary, however, it is more akin to asceticism.

The Rabbis wrestled with the idea of asceticism. The Talmud is filled with accounts of sages who imposed long fasts upon themselves. Rav Sheshet, we are told, would pray: "Lord of the Universe, You know that while the Temple stood, when a person sinned he brought a sacrifice and [the priests] offered only the fat and the blood [from the sacrificial animal], and atonement was thereby made for him. Now I have sat and fasted, and my fat and blood have been diminished. May it be Your will that this diminution of my fat and blood be as though I had offered a sacrifice on Your altar, and be gracious to me. (BT Berakhot 17a) Nonetheless, the Rabbis took a dim view of asceticism and discouraged it as a religious practice. The Jerusalem Talmud reports that Rav taught: A person will have to give an account on the Day of Judgment of every pleasurable thing he was permitted to enjoy but did not. (JT Kiddushin 4:12, 66d)

The Rabbis were not alone in their disdain and disapproval of the Nazarite vows. We find another  and fascinating voice in the writings of the hasidic teacher, Rabbi Menachem Nachum Twersky of Chernobyl (1730-1797), also know as the Chernobler Rebbe, in his book Meor Eynayim. Concerning the stipulations in Parshat Mattot surrounding vows, he directs us to first consider the vows of the nazirite. He recounts a discussion in the Bavli (Babylonian Talmud, tractate Taanit 11a):

On the verse, the priest will offer him atonement for his sin (Numbers 6:11), they [the Amoraim of the Talmud] asked: What sin has he committed? They replied: That of causing himself pain by abstaining from wine.

The Chernobler goes on to explain why the Rabbis equated abstention from enjoying wine with sin.

The world and everything within it, both great and small, was created by the word of God. By the word of God were the heavens made, and all their hosts [were created] by the breath of [Gods] mouth (Psalm 33:6). That word also sustains them and gives them life. You enliven them all (Nehemiah 9:6). Were it not for the life-force within each thing it would vanish from existence. But [people] are in a broken state in this lowly world, having come about through the sin of Adam and the generations that followed. Sparks of fallen souls became encased in things of this world, including food and drink. There is nothing in this world that does not have a holy spark within it, proceeding from the world of the blessed Holy One, making it alive.

The Chernobler Rebbe tells us that the life-force that animates each of us is a spark of the divine. But since the time that the primordial people left the Garden of Eden, humanity has existed in a broken, lowered state, pre-occupied with the material components of life (as opposed to the spiritual aspects of life). He specifically identifies food and drink and will elaborate on them shortly. He next appears to draw a line between the material side of life (food and drink) and the spiritual side (the divine spark within). But the dichotomy between material and spiritual that we have come to expect from classic Western thought and might have expected to find here, as well, does not materialize; quite to the contrary!

That divine spark is the taste within the thingthat which makes it sweet to the palate.

The pleasure we derive from the material world is not set against the spiritual qualities of life, but rather is the fulfillment of the spiritual quality inherent in all creation. The Chernobler now brings us a remarkable proof text: טַעֲמוּ וּרְאוּ, כִּי-טוֹב יְהוָה Taste and see how good Adonai is (Psalm 34:9). In the context of Psalm 34, טַעֲמוּ (lit. taste) is used metaphorically to mean consider. But for the Chernobler Rebbe, the taste and enjoyment of the things of this world is to be taken seriously as an experience of God, a spark of the divine. Explaining next that the food we consume is composed of both nourishing elements and waste, he tells us:

After a person partakes of food, the sustenance remains within while the waste, which does not give life, is expelled. [The waste] is worthless and negative, since the main purpose of food is that the person be sustained and given strength. That derives from the holy spark, the good taste one enjoys in that food or drink. Therefore, when you eat something, the spark within it [the nourishing part of the food] is joined to your own life-energy [to provide you sustenance], and you become nourished by it.

This is a remarkably earthy explanation of eating and drink as biological processes, and at the same time a deeply religious account of how our bodies function on the spiritual plane. The result of understanding all this, and living through this understanding, is an integration of the material and spiritual”—the division evaporates.

When you have complete faith that this spiritual sustenance is indeed Gods presence hidden within that thing, you will turn your mind and heart entirely inward. Linking both those aspects of yourself to the sustenance coming from that spark, you will join them all to the Root of all, the One from whom all life flows. Then you bring that broken, exiled spark before God, causing great delight. The whole purpose of our religious life is to bring those holy sparks out from under the shells, those broken places, into the realm of the holy. Thus is holiness raised from its broken state.

When we come to understand that God is not up in heaven or out beyond this world but rather inherent in all creationincluding the food and drink we consume without much thoughtthen we will reconnect the broken parts of ourselves (the dichotomy between the material and the spiritual) and thereby reconnect with the One from whom all life flows. This will end our personal exile. This is redemptionthe purpose of life.

Therefore everyone who serves God needs to look toward the inner nature of things. Then all our deeds, including eating and drinking, are being done for the sake of heaven. Holy sparks are thus redeemed from their broken state, brought forth from exile or captivity, led into sublime holiness

In case you are wondering if we have wandered far afield from the topic of vows, the answer is: No. When a person makes a vow to refrain from the aspects of life that bring us into contact with the One, the Root life-force of the universesuch as foreswearing wine or any other sort of pleasurewe cut ourselves off from the spark within them which is no different from cutting ourselves off from an access road to God and holiness.

Im not sure that the Chernobler would have endorsed the birthday card greeting, Do More Of What Makes You Happy. Perhaps he would have rephrased it: Find Happiness and Holiness in All That You Do. And, indeed, I have come to learn that Carmel McConnell of London lives by that philosophy. McConnell set out in 2000 to conduct research for her book Change Activist; she explored whether society is has improved in terms of material wealth and justice. What she discovered was that thousands of school children arrive at school each day hungry because their parents cannot afford to provide breakfast for them. As a result, it is difficult for them to learn, which in turn diminishes their chances of rising out of poverty. McConnell immediately set out to deliver breakfasts to schools. She even mortgaged her home to get the project off the ground. Magic Breakfast now delivers breakfasts consisting of cereal, porridge, bagels, fruit, and juice to 16,000 children in 400 schools every morning. McConnell understands the connection between food and drink, the divine spark, pleasure and happiness.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman