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Monday, December 19, 2016

Revering God #3 and Garlic #1 — BT Shabbat 31b — #65

Rav Ulla expounded: What is the meaning of what is written: Don’t overdo wickedness… (Ecclesiastes 7:17). Only to an excess one should not be wicked?! To a small degree one should be wicked?! [Obviously not!] Rather, if one who has eaten a clove of garlic and his breath smells bad, should he go back and eat another clove of garlic so that his breath smells even worse?

INTRODUCTION
The past two editions of TMT (#63 and #64) have followed a discussion of the concept of reverence for God. (The term I have translated “reverence” is sometimes understood to connote “awe” and other times understood to connote “fear”). The discussion of reverence for God was a sidebar conversation to one that asked why Ecclesiastes is included in the Tana”kh (Hebrew Scriptures). The passage above, which follows immediately from the passage in TMT #65, can be understood to mark a return to the original topic of conversation on Kohelet (Ecclesiastes). Rav Ulla, explaining a verse from Kohelet, demonstrating consistency with rabbinic concepts and values. In addition, although it doesn’t mention reverence explicitly, it also serves as a capstone to the previous conversation about reverence for God.

The author of Kohelet identifies himself as the “son of David, king in Jerusalem” and, on that basis, tradition ascribes the book to King Solomon, presumably written late in life. Scholars, however, on the basis of Persian loan-words and Aramaic, have determined that Kohelet was written long after Solomon lived. Kohelet is markedly different from most other books in the Tana”kh in its tone and content. Scholars disagree whether it dates to the Persian or Hellenistic period, whether it is optimistic or pessimistic in its attitude toward the meaning of life, and whether the author is the narrator or the book is a fictional autobiography. What all agree upon is that the book is a search for wisdom that dispenses advice for living life amidst reflections on philosophical conundrums of meaning and purpose. Kohelet expresses a deep degree of skepticism not found in Torah or the books of the Prophets, nor even in Job or Proverbs, which are also wisdom book. Rav Ulla explains a verse that seems especially bizarre: Don’t overdo wickedness and don’t be a fool or you may die before your time (Ecclesiastes 7:17). 

COMMENTARY
Rav Ulla quotes merely three words of Ecclesiastes 7:17 that move one to ask, “Who would say such a thing?” To advise people not to be excessively wicked suggests that some degree of evil behavior is acceptable; it is going to excess that is not wise. Rav Ulla says, as we might: Does this mean that the problem is only in the excess, but not in the evil itself? Of course not! Rejecting this way of reading the verse, he provides an analogy intended to explain its proper understanding: If I were to eat a clove of garlic and my breath became offensive to others, upon realizing that were the case, I should not go back for seconds. Don’t overdo  wickedness, then, means not to continue down the path of wickedness: stop and change directions.

We might respond to Ulla: But, knowing that I would be in close quarters with other people, I shouldn’t have eaten the garlic in the first place. We might also ask: Why does Rav Ulla use such a trivial example as garlic when discussing wickedness? Garlic-eating, whether intentional or not, might be deemed inconsiderate, but wicked?

Rav Ulla uses the awkward and peculiar phrase, Don’t overdo wickedness, to make a point that seems obvious, yet is difficult to digest. Human beings are creatures of habit. We tend to spend time with the same people again and again. We tend to do again and again what we’ve done before. And we tend to justify what we do, even when we know it violates social strictures and ethical norms. Rav Ulla reminds us that we have the freedom to choose a new direction for our lives. Having chewed one clove of garlic, we can decide to not consume another—even when the good taste of garlic lingers in our mouth. Perhaps the metaphor of eating garlic is used because it creates a vivid picture in one’s mind and because it is delicious to the one who eats it, but pleasant to others nearby.

Perhaps Rav Ulla has in mind that we do things that, at least initially, seem innocuous. With repetition, however, they grew increasingly bothersome and problematic. Yet once we have established a pattern of behavior, it becomes more and more difficult to change as time goes on. Rav Ulla’s analogy to eating garlic helps us focus on how our actions effect those around us. Sometimes “a little more” is not unnoticeable or innocuous.

What has this to do with reverence for God? Ostensibly, the passage does not address the concept of yirat shamayim, but rather returns us to the earlier discussion of Kohelet. However, its placement—immediately following the conversation on yirat shamayim—suggests a connection. When we head down the wrong path in life, the ever-present possibility for course correction. Rav Ulla suggests that wherever we are, God is accessible and available to help and support our desire to change. It’s never too late and we’re never too far afield to experience yirat shamayim.

QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER AND DISCUSS
  1. Is there a difference between wickedness and excessive wickedness? If so, where is the boundary and what are the implications of making the distinction between them? 
  2. Which is harder: Refraining from wickedness (or a bad habit) or ceasing wickedness (or a bad habit)? Why?
  3. Our previous passages (TMT #63 and #64) suggest that reverence for God is a religious, spiritual attitude: Rabbah bar Rav Huna says that reverence is essential for truly mastering Torah learning; without it, one’s learning is empty. Does Rav Ulla think of reverence in terms of attitude or deeds?

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Revering God #2 — BT Shabbat 31b — #64

Rabbah bar Rav Huna said, “Any person who has [mastered] Torah learning but lacks yirat shamayim (reverence for heaven, or God) is like a treasurer who has been given the keys to the inner chambers, but who has not been given the keys to the outer chambers. How can [the treasurer] enter [the inner chamber]?” R. Yannai proclaimed, “Woe to the one who does not have a courtyard, but nonetheless makes a gate for a courtyard!” Rav Yehudah said, “The Holy Blessed One created the world only so that [people] would stand in awe of [God], as it is written, God acted so that people would stand in awe of [God] (Ecclesiastes 3:14).”
 R. Shimon and R. Elazar were sitting [together when] R. Yaakov walked by. One said to his colleague, “Let us rise before him because he is a person who fears sin.” The other said to him, “Let us rise before him because he is a Torah scholar.” [The first] said to him, “I said that [we should stand because] he is one who fears sin, and you say that [we should stand because] he is a Torah scholar?” It can be concluded that R. Elazar was the one who said that [R. Yaakov] was “one who fears sins,” for R. Yochanan said in the name of R. Elazar, “The Holy Blessed One has nothing in the world except reverence for heaven, as it is written, Now, O Israel, what does Adonai your God require of you? Only to revere Adonai your God… (Deuteronomy 10:12), and it is written, [God] said to humanity: Hein [behold], reverence for God is wisdom (Job 28:28). In Greek, the term “hein” means one.” It is concluded.

INTRODUCTION
What is the relationship between Torah learning and reverence for God? Does Torah learning teach or inspire reverence? Or does reverence facilitate meaningful and genuine Torah learning? 

What is the most important religious quality? It might seem silly to us to try to pin down the singular most important attribute to cultivate, but for the Rabbis, there are traits they deem crucial because they influence so much else about how we live our lives. In this discussion, the Rabbis have narrowed the conversation to Torah learning and revering God. In the case of the latter, the Rabbis express this attribute in several ways: (1) awe or fear of God; (2) awe or fear of heaven; (3) fear of sin. The conversation between Rabbah bar Rav Huna speaks of yirat shamayim (“awe/fear of heaven”) consistently, while the story about R. Shimon and R. Elazar’s evaluation of R. Yaakov concerns cheil chata’im (“fear of sin”). When the Gemara reflects on the story of their conversation, it employs “reverence for  heaven,” not “fear of sin” as R. Shimon and R. Elazar did. It would appear that the anecdote about R. Shimon and R. Elazar was inserted here by the redactor because in this position, it is used to support the claim made by Rabbah bar Rav Huna that reverence for God is the singular most important attribute to possess.

COMMENTARY
Gemara offers three ways to understand the relationship between Torah learning and reverence for God, each expressed through a metaphor in which the inner chamber (which connotes the Holy of Holies, the inner sanctum of the Temple where The Torah was kept) is genuine Torah  learning, and the courtyard surrounding the inner chamber is reverence for God. Rabbah bar Rav Huna goes further. He tells us that the key to accessing the inner chamber is actually the key to the surrounding courtyard of yirat shamayim (reverence for God): to master genuine and meaningful Torah learning, one must first have reverence for God. R. Yannai expresses concern about one who does not have a courtyard (i.e., lacks reverence for God)  but makes a key for it (i.e., pretends reverence). Rav Yehudah goes further still, suggesting that God’s ultimate goal is for people to be imbued with reverence for God. Torah learning (the inner chamber) serves that goal: God acted (i.e., gave the Torah) so that people would stand in awe of God.

R. Shimon and R. Elazar concur that R. Yaakov is worthy of admiration and respect, but disagree concerning his finest trait. One claims it is the trait of fear of sin (taken here to be equivalent to reverence for God) and the other holds that it is R. Yaakov’s Torah learning that commands respect. While ostensibly it seems that Gemara’s concern is determining which sage holds which opinion, R. Yochanan’s teaching in R. Elazar’s name reveals the underlying goal: the teaching holds that God considers yirat Adonai the ultimate priority. We need the entire biblical passage to understand Gemara’s claim: Now, O Israel, what does Adonai your God require of you? Only this: to revere Adonai your God, to walk only in [God’s] paths, to love [God], and to serve Adonai your God with all your heart and soul, keeping Adonai’s commandments and laws, which I enjoin upon you today, for your good. (Dt. 10:12-13). Gemara is saying that reverence is listed first because it is most important and all the rest listed in the verse flow from it. Gemara further cites a verse from Job that mentions reverence for God and wisdom (i.e., Torah) together—in that order—following the word hein. Because hein sounds like the word for “one” in Greek, Gemara takes this as further evidence that reverence is more important even than Torah.

QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER AND DISCUSS

  1. How would you define “awe/fear of God?” In your opinion, are “awe/fear of God” and “fear of sin” equivalent? If not, how are they different from one another?
  2. How is your understanding of “awe/fear of God” connected with how you conceive of God? If one’s conception of God is abstract (e.g., the source of goodness, the unity of universe, the entirety of the universe, or existence itself), how might “reverence/awe of God” be understood?
  3. Can Torah learning connote objective knowledge divorced from religious and moral attitudes and values? If so, is there a danger in the separation?

Monday, December 5, 2016

Revering God #1 — BT Shabbat 31a — #63

Reish Lakish said, “What is the meaning of that which is written, Faithfulness to Your time and the strength of salvation is wisdom and knowledge; [reverence for God is the storehouse] (Isaiah 33:6)? Faithfulness refers to order [division of the Mishnah] Zerai’m. Your time refers to the order Mo’ed. Strength refers to the order Nashim. Salvation refers to the order Nezikim. Wisdom refers to the order Kodashim. Knowledge refers to the order Tohorot. Nonetheless, Reverence for God is the storehouse.”
 Rava said: When they escort a person to judgment, they ask him: Did you conduct your business faithfully? Did you set a fixed time for Torah study? Did you engage in procreation? Did you wait in hope for salvation  Did you delve into wisdom? When you learned Torah, did you infer one thing from another? Nonetheless, if reverence for God was a person’s storehouse, then yes; if not, then no. It is analogous to one who said to his agent, “Bring me a kor [a volume measure] wheat to the upper story [for storage]. [The agent] went and brought it up for him. He said [to the agent], “Did you mix a kav [a volume measure] of chumton [sandy, salty soil that acts as a preservative] into it for me?” [The agent] said to him, “No.” He said to [the agent], “It would have been better had you not brought it up.”

INTRODUCTION
On daf 30b, the Sages consider the closing verse of Ecclesiastes (12:13), which counsels: The making of many books is without limit and much study is a wearying of the flesh. The sum of the matter, when all is said and done: Revere God and observe [God’s] commandments! Ecclesiastes  seems to be saying that despite all the diligent study and deeds religion prescribes, in the last analysis what truly counts is yirat Adonai—reverence for God. In the passage above, Reish Lakish and Rava each explicate a recondite verse in Isaiah in the light of Ecclesiastes 12:13. My translation of Isaiah 33:6 is designed to help make sense of their explications. Here, underlined, are the six terms they interpret: Faithfulness to Your time and the strength of salvation is wisdom and knowledge; reverence for God is the storehouse

COMMENTARY
Reish Lakish identifies each of the six significant terms in Isaiah 33:6 with one of the orders (major divisions) of the Mishnah based on a variety of linguistic and conceptual connections.“Faith” and “Seeds” are connected both because humans need to rely on God for rain  to grow produce, and because people need to rely on farmers to tithe their produce in order for them to be permitted to eat it. “Your time” alludes to “Festivals” which are celebrated at specific times. The term used for “strength” sounds much like a term for “inheritance” or “heirs,” which a man secures through his wife via marriage, the subject of “Women.” Rashi explains that by learning the laws in “Damages,” one can “save” oneself from either causing or incurring monetary damage. “Wisdom,” for Reish Lakish, connotes the laws of the Temple sacrifices discussed in “Holy Things,” and “Knowledge” alludes to deeper and more profound matters of ritual purity and impurity discussed in “Purities.” Together, the six orders of Mishnah signify all of Mishnah and hence Talmud—the Oral Torah. For Reish Lakish, Isaiah 33:6 teaches us that one should learn all of Oral Torah, but even having accomplished that, the trait of yirat Adonai (reverence for God; sometimes translated “fear of God”) is even more important; it is the vessel or storehouse that holds all that is ultimately important, meaningful, and valuable to God.

The Six Orders of Mishnah:
  1. Zera’im/Seeds
  2. Mo’ed/Festivals
  3. Nashim/Women
  4. Nezikim/Damages-Torts
  5. Kodashim/Holy Things
  6. Tohorot/Purities
Rava offers an alternative way to parse Isaiah 33:6. He asks us to picture ourselves, after we die, being escorted to God’s Throne in heaven to be judged. There we will be asked six questions, each of which is connected by a linguistic or conceptual thread, to the same six terms in Isaiah 33:6: Did you conduct your business “faithfully?” Did you set a fixed “time” for Torah study? Again, the term “strength” reminds one of a term for “heirs;” hence Rava says we will be asked whether we contributed to the continuation of humanity (many commentators hasten to explain that Rava is not saying that  actual biological procreation is the point here, but rather whether we did something to aid in the larger communal effort to raise the next generation). “Salvation” signals that we will be asked whether we lived our lives with the expectation of messianic  salvation; “Wisdom” is shorthand for delving into wisdom and “Knowledge” connotes the deeper learning in which one infers one thing from another. Yet, despite these questions, if we sincerely revered God, we will be judged favorably and if not, we will not be judged favorably. Rava further says that reverence for God is the vessel that holds, supports, nurtures everything good that we do: the “storehouse.” He provides an analogy to wheat stored without a preservative: it is worthless because it will spoil. What is done out of a reverence for God (rather than in expectation of a  reward) is worthwhile and lasts.

QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER AND DISCUSS

  1. What is your understanding of yirat Adonai (reverence/fear of God) and how does it function in your life?
  2. How would you answer Rava’s six questions? Do you conduct your business faithfully/honestly? Do you engage in Jewish study regularly? How do to nurture the next generation? Do you help move the world closer to the messianic vision? Do you seek wisdom and engage in deep thinking and reasoning?
  3. Psalm 16:8 famously says, Shiviti Adonai l’negdi tamid/“I will place Adonai always before me.” How would living always with God in mind change your life?  The Shiviti is a traditional Jewish art form that includes the name of God and a variety of symbols and verses to use for meditation and prayer.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

The Sweet Fruits of Patience — BT Eruvin 54b — #62

R. Preida had a student for whom he would have to repeat everything four hundred times before he learned it. One day [R. Preida] was needed [elsewhere] for a matter concerning a mitzvah. He taught [the student four hundred times, as usual] but he did not learn it. [R. Preida] said to him, “Why is today different?” [The student] said to him, “From the moment they told master that there is a matter concerning a mitzvah [that would call you away], my attention was diverted. Every moment, I said [to myself], ‘Now master will get up [and leave]; now the master will get up [and leave].’” [R. Preida] said to him, “Pay attention and I will teach you.” He taught him again four hundred times. A heavenly voice called forth and asked, “[R. Preida,] do you prefer that four hundred years be added to your lifespan, or that you and [all] your generation merit olam ha-ba (the world-to-come)?” [R. Preida] said, “That I and my generation merit olam ha-ba.” The Holy Blessed One said, “Give him both.”

INTRODUCTION
“Patience is bitter, but its fruit is sweet.” These words are often attributed (though possibly erroneously) to the 18th century philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Rousseau is most famous for The Social Contract (1762), in which he charges nation states with corruption, repression of citizens’ physical freedoms, and failure to further their civil freedom—the last being the reason  d’ĂȘtre of civil society. Rousseau sounded a clarion call for a Social Contract that all citizens enter and to pledge to work for their mutual protection and preservation. Governmental legitimacy must rest on the consent of the governed. Rousseau’s treatise led to vast political reforms, and even social revolutions in Europe. He also authored a novel entitled Emile, or On Education, concerning the education of the individual to function in a corrupt society. Our Talmudic story, from tractate Eruvin, speaks to the fundamental necessities for delivering effective education: a caring and committed relationship between the teacher and the student and a patient teacher. Relationship and patience. Here we learn that patience is not bitter at all—it is as sweet as its fruit.

COMMENTARY
Teaching bright, motivated, and engaged students is a joy. It can also be joyous, but more challenging, to teach students who find learning difficult, struggle with attention and focus, often feel insecure, and experience anxiety. R. Preida had just such a student. In R. Preida’s time, learning entailed, first and foremost, memorization. Texts were handwritten and consequently costly and rare. A student would repeat a teaching—for example, a mishnah (which comes from the root “repeat”)—in order to commit it to memory. R. Preida’s student is a severely challenged learner. Under the best of conditions, R. Preida must repeat material four hundred times before his student can recite it by himself. This speaks volumes about how patient and committed R. Preida is to his student.

One day, when the usual four hundred run-throughs do not succeed, R. Preida does not berate the student for being distracted or for failing to try hard enough. He asks what interfered with his learning. In other words: “Tell me where the problem is so we can solve it together.” The student explains that from the moment someone came to tell R. Preida that he would be called away in the middle of the lesson to attend to a mitzvah matter, the student had been overcome with anxiety about the imminent interruption and had thereafter been unable to focus. R. Preida responds with compassion, understanding and reassurance: That’s okay; I’m going to teach you again. And R. Preida started from the beginning: No harm, no foul. 

So great is this act of compassionate patience and kindness in the advance of Torah learning that Heaven offers R. Preida a choice of rewards. From a rabbinic perspective, olam ha-ba (the world-to-come), is the highest reward one can attain, but if a person who knows he merits olam ha-ba (indeed that he has already earned it) he would likely choose an additional four centuries of life. After all, olam ha-ba is forever, but life is not. Yet it doesn’t surprise the reader that R. Preida, who is so generous to his student, choses the reward that includes everyone else, not just himself. Again, Heaven is so pleased with him that he is  granted both rewards.

QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER AND DISCUSS

  1. Who was the most patient teacher you ever had? How did you benefit from this teacher’s patience?
  2. Rousseau’s philosophy of education focused on the connection between the education of individuals and the overall quality of society. In Emile, he asserts that the goal of education is to cultivate our natural human tendency to be good. Education, therefore, entails character development to nurture morality and a healthy sense of self-worth. Do you see these ideas reflected in the story of R. Preida and his student? Do you think Rousseau would approve of R. Preida’s teaching style?  Why or why not?
  3. Impatience is far more noticeable than patience. Those who honk in traffic jams, complain loudly while waiting in a doctor’s office or on line at the supermarket, or yell at their children to hurry up are hard to miss. Think of an occasion when you were impatient with others. How did it effect them? How did it effect you? Patient people wait calmly and quietly, knowing that life is full of delays and inconveniences. Recall a time when you were patient. How did it effect you? Others?

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Giving Thanks — BT Berakhot 54b — #61

Rav Yehudah said in the name of Rav: Four [classes of people] give thanks: seafarers, those who traverse the wilderness, one who was ill and recovered, and one who was imprisoned and set free… What blessing does he say? Rav Yehudah said, “Blessed [are You] who bestows loving kindness.” Abaye said, “One expresses thanksgiving in the presence of ten, as it is written, Let them exalt [God] in the congregation of the people (Psalm 107:32).”  Mar Zutra said, “Two of them must be rabbis, as it says, Praise [God] in the assembly of the elders (Psalm 107:32).” R. Ashi challenged this, “You might as well say that all must be rabbis!” Is it written (in Psalm 107:32), “in the assembly of elders?” [No!] It is written, In the congregation of the people. Say, then, in the presence of ten plus two rabbis? This is a difficulty. Rav Yehudah was ill and recovered. R. Chana of Bagdad and other rabbis went to visit him. They said to him, “Blessed is the All Merciful who gave you back to us and did not give you to the dust.” He said to them, “You have released me from the obligation of giving thanks.” But did not Abaye say that one must express thanksgiving in the presence of ten? There were ten present. But [Rav Yehudah, himself] did not express thanks! There was no need, since he answered them, “Amen.”

INTRODUCTION
The Gemara prior to our passage has been discussing blessings said in places where a miracle occurred, or where idolatry was uprooted.  The Gemara includes a famous list of blessings: for thunder and lightning, for seeing the ocean, for receiving good news and even bad news, upon entering a large city, for visiting the site of the Temple, for surviving a lion or camel attack, and for visiting the place where the Israelites crossed the Reed Sea.

This passage is the source for reciting Birkat ha-Gomel, the blessing of thanksgiving that is said in synagogue after one has survived a dangerous situation or an ordeal, such as surgery or crossing an ocean. Customarily, the one who recites birkat ha-gomel is honored with an aliyah to the Torah and, following the second blessing, says, “Praised are You, Adonai our God, Sovereign of the universe, Who bestows goodness beyond our merit, for bestowing favor upon me.” The congregation responds, “May God who has been gracious to you continue to favor you with all that is good.”

COMMENTARY
Rav Yehudah, whose very name is derived from hoda’ah (“thanks”) when Leah names her son Yehudah (Genesis 29:35), says that there are inherently dangerous experiences in life that call for an expression of thanksgiving when one survives them: travel across the sea or desert, recovery from a dangerous illness, and release from incarceration. Each is tantamount to facing death; survival is a new lease on life. (The passage continues with a lengthy recitation of verses to establish each of the four categories that I have not included above.) Rav Yehudah provides the formulation that serves as the foundation for Birkat ha-Gomel

Next is a discussion of the context for reciting the blessing of thanksgiving. Abaye says it should be recited in the presence of a minyan, based on the first half of Psalm 107:32: Let them exalt [God] in the congregation of the people, praise [God] in the assembly of the elders. Mar Zutra, focusing on the latter half of the same verse, concludes that two rabbis must be present because“elders” is plural and is taken to refer to rabbis based on BT Kiddushin 32b where zakein (“elder”) is understood to mean “rabbi” by interpreting it as a contraction of zeh kana chokhmah (“this one acquired wisdom”). Rav Ashi, in response to Mar Zutra, remarks that one might as well claim that all ten must be rabbis—a high standard for reciting a blessing of thanksgiving. Then Gemara points out that Psalm 107:32 says “congregation of the people,” not “congregation of elders,” and hence requiring ten rabbis is absurd. Yet the verse says both “congregation of the people” and “assembly of the elders,” prompting the Gemara to  ask if perhaps both a minyan and an additional two rabbis need to be present to hear the blessing of thanksgiving. The Gemara concedes that while logical, this interpretation results in a problematic solution.

We then read a short story about Rav Yehudah who had occasion to recite Birkat ha-Gomel (or something similar) following an illness—but never did. A group of colleagues (later affirmed to be a minyan of rabbis, thereby fulfilling both Abaye’s and Mar Zutra’s opinions) visited him and recited their own blessing of thanksgiving . Rav Yehudah responded, “Amen,” understanding this as releasing him of the obligation to explicitly express thanks himself. This is a beautiful model of the reciprocal nurturing relationship of the individual and community through prayer.

A Thanksgiving Pray
by Rabbi Naomi Levy
For the laughter of the children,For my own life breath,For the abundance of food on this tableFor the ones who prepared this sumptuous feast,For the roof over our heads,The clothes on our backs,For our health,And our wealth of blessings,For this opportunity to celebrate with family and friends,For the freedom to pray these wordsWithout fear,In any language,In any faith,In this great country,Whose landscape is as vast and beautiful as her inhabitants.Thank You, God, for giving us all these.  Amen.

QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER AND DISCUSS

  1. Why might it matter if there are two, ten, or no rabbis present when a person recites Birkat ha-Gomel? Can you argue both for and against the need for rabbis to be present?
  2. Which is more powerful and meaningful for you: saying a blessing yourself, or having those around you spontaneously say a blessing on your behalf? Why?
  3. Birkat ha-Gomel credits God with having saved the individual reciting the blessing from danger or ordeal. If your understanding of the universe is that causality depends upon the laws of nature (including the inherent role of probability, which we might translate as luck), what meaning can you attach to Birkat ha-Gomel?

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Burned By Boiling Anger—BT Pesachim 66b—#60

Resh Lakish said, “When a person becomes angry: if wise, wisdom will desert them; if a prophet, prophecy will desert them.” 
 We learn that if they are wise, wisdom will desert them from Moses, for it is written, And Moses became angry at the commanders of the army… (Numbers 31:14), and it is written, Elazar the priest said to soldiers who came to the war, “This is the law of the Torah that Adonai commanded to Moses…” (Numbers 31:21). This implies that the halakhic ruling was hidden from Moses. 
[We learn that] if they are a prophet, their prophecy deserts them, from Elisha, for it is written, And Elisha said to the king of Israel, “What have you to do with me?!” (2 Kings 3:13), and it is written, “And now get me a musician.” As the musician played, the hand of Adonai came upon him, etc. (2 Kings 3:14).

INTRODUCTION
Anger is among the most common (and sadly for some people, frequent) emotions we experience. There are those who counsel letting one’s anger out because bottling it up is unhealthy. But some people not only don’t hold it in, they spew their anger on everyone. A study in the Journal of Medicine and Life warns that anger can cause the production of stress  hormones (specifically, corticosteroids and catecholamine) leading to “an avalanche of events, including  hemodynamic and metabolic modifications, vascular problems, and disorders of the cardiac rhythm”—directly impacting upon cardiovascular diseases. Certainly expressions of anger can wound and lead to discord and severely damage relationships, and even to extreme, physically violent behavior.  In addition, we would do well to consider the influence our behavior has on children who witness our angry outbursts. What are they learning about appropriate responses to insult, frustration, impatience—or whatever provoked our anger—from watching our response?

The Sages may not have the scientific vocabulary to discuss these consequences of uncontrolled anger, but they understand it intuitively and through life experience. Perhaps that is why this teaching about anger is attributed to Resh Lakish. Talmud holds that his first career was as a robber or gladiator. After a chance meeting with R. Yochanan while crossing the Jordan River, he became a student of Torah, a disciple of R. Yochanan. He married his master’s sister, and became R. Yochanan’s study partner. Theirs was an exceptionally close relationship until one day, while discussing the halakhah concerning the purity of weapons, R. Yochanan referred a question to Resh Lakish with a snide and hurtful comment about Resh Lakish’s first career. Shocked and wounded, Resh Lakish responded in anger, calling into question the value of the Torah R. Yochanan had taught him—essentially the substance and purpose of R. Yochanan’s life. The result was that the two refused to speak to one another or forgive one another. R. Yochanan died of a broken heart, and Resh Lakish died shortly thereafter from the pain of it all. In this one tragic story, the dire consequences of uncontrolled anger are all played out.

COMMENTARY
We are warned: One who is slow to anger has great understanding, but impatience leads to foolishness (Proverbs 14:29). Buddha taught: “You will not be punished for your anger; you will be punished by your anger.” The Rabbis concur, and illustrate the point by asserting that anger clouds one’s judgment and vision, eclipsing both wisdom and prophecy.  
“Anger is an acid that can do more harm to the vessel in which it is stored than to anything on which it is poured.” 
Mark Twain

Moses serves as the example of lost wisdom. The Talmud cites an incident recounted in the Book of Numbers in which Moses becomes enraged with the Israelites’ army commanders for collecting booty in the war with Midian. Subsequently, the priest Eleazar explicates ritual law. The Rabbis’ understanding is that because Moses becomes enraged, he forgets the halakhic rules and Elazar must teach them. 

Elisha supplies the illustration for the Sages’ point about prophecy. Elisha, the disciple of Elijah, loses his divine inspiration due to overwhelming and distracting anger he harbors for King Yehoram of Israel. “The hand of Adonai came upon him” is understood to imply that divine inspiration had deserted him until this point.

QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER AND DISCUSS

  1. When is it appropriate and constructive to express anger, and when is it not? How is it appropriate and constructive to express anger, and how is it not? Has your expression of anger ever damaged a relationship? Are there times when even if your anger is justified, it is best to keep it to yourself?
  2. A famous talmudic teaching attributed to R. Ilai tells us that a person’s character can be discerned by three things: koso (“his cup”), kiso (“his purse”), and kaso (“his anger”) (BT Eruvin 65b)—how people handle alcohol, their money, and their anger. How do these provide valuable insights and criterion for judging character?
  3. Groucho Marx once quipped, “If you speak when angry, you’ll make the best speech you’ll ever regret.” Have you said something in anger that you later regretted? The Rabbis notes that, “Of those who are insulted but do not insult, who hear themselves reviled but do not answer, and who act through love and rejoice in [their own] suffering, Scripture says, Those who love [God] are like the sun rising in might (Judges 5:31).” (BT Shabbat 88b) Have you ever been insulted or reviled but not responded? Was this a good decision in the short term? In the long run?

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Seeing in the Dark — BT Megillah 24b — #59

It was taught in a baraita: The [Sages] said to R. Yehudah, “Many people have tried to expound on the Merkavah though they have never seen it.” R. Yehudah [says]: “[There expounding on the Merkavah] depends upon the understanding of the mind, and one can concentrate one’s mind and know, but here [concerning blessing the luminaries, which we say] because of the benefit [derived from them], and he had no benefit.
The Rabbis say that [a blind person] derives benefit, as R. Yose taught in a baraita: R. Yose said, “All my days I was troubled by this verse: You shall grope at noonday as a blind person gropes in darkness (Deuteronomy 28:29)—what difference is there to a blind person between darkness and light?—until I observed this incident: Once I was walking in the dark at night and I saw a blind person walking on the road with a torch in his hand. I said to him, ‘My son,  why do you need this torch?’ He said to me, ‘So long as I have a torch in my hand, people see me and save me from ditches, thorns, and briers.’”

INTRODUCTION
The larger context of this passage concerns who may lead public prayers and read the Torah and Haftarah portions in synagogue. The narrower question to which this passage responds is this: May one who, being blind from birth, has never seen the luminaries, recite on behalf of others the blessing Birchat ha-Me’orot in the morning prayers that praises God for creating them? The mishnah tells us that a blind person may certainly do so, but also preserves the opinion of R. Yehudah that anyone who has never seen the luminaries may not. Our passage explores two approaches to explain the disagreement between R. Yehudah and the Sages. Both attempts draw on baraitot (mishnaic-era teachings of the tanna’im).

COMMENTARY
The first explanation of the difference of opinion between R. Yehudah and the Sages concerns human attempts to understand God’s chariot (the Merkavah), an early school of Jewish mysticism that focused on the visions of God’s chariot found in the Book of Ezekiel (chapter 1). Ezekiel, according to tradition, is the only human who has seen the Merkavah, yet many have tried to describe it. How? They attempted to fathom it through the powers of the mind, the Sages contend. R. Yehudah, however, rejects this analogy, claiming that it is solely through the powers of the mind that one can comprehend the Merkavah because no one can actually see it. In the case of the luminaries, however, most people see them and thereby benefit from them directly.

Wouldn’t it suffice for Torah to say that Israel will be as sightless at high noon as in complete darkness? Why does Torah add “a blind person gropes in darkness”? Doesn’t everyone grope in the darkness?

The second explanation comes from another baraita attributed to R. Yose who tells us that for a long time, he could not understand Deuteronomy 28:29, which poetically describes the  curses that will afflict Israel if they violate God’s covenant: You shall grope at noonday as a blind person gropes in darkness. With only a glance, the gist of the verse is clear: Israel will be as compromised as the blind (a distinctive and dangerous disadvantage in the ancient world). But a closer look—which R. Yose’s keen eye supplies—reveals something peculiar in the verse: Why does the verse mention a blind person? Wouldn’t it suffice to say that Israel will be as sightless at high noon as in complete darkness? R. Yose tells us that he pondered this peculiarity until he encountered a blind person walking along a road at night carrying a torch. Why would the blind person need a torch? How could it possibly benefit him? The light his torch projected enabled sighted people to see obstacles in his path and warn him to avoid them. Hence the blind person benefited from the light he could not see. So, too, the Sages are suggesting, blind people benefit from the luminaries although they cannot see them.

“The One Who in compassion grants light to the earth and those who dwell on it, and in goodness renews the work of Creation each day…Be blessed, Adonai our God, for the glory of the work of Your hands and for the light-giving luminaries that You made so that they would glorify You. Selah.” (morning prayers)

QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER AND DISCUSS

  1. One way to view the disagreement between the Rabbis and R. Yehudah is that it hinges on whether blessings and prayers should be firmly anchored in concrete, physical experiences in our lives, or rather open to more abstract interpretations and applications. R. Yehudah’s rejection of the Sages’ reasoning as offered in the first baraita suggests that  a person without direct physical experience of a blessing cannot recite it for one who directly  experiences the benefit. Do you agree with R. Yehudah’s reasoning? Why or why not?
  2. Mishnah sees fit to preserve R. Yehudah’s opinion, even though he is overruled by the Rabbis. It is not uncommon for Mishnah to preserve a minority opinion, but we might nonetheless ask: Why? What is the value in R. Yehudah’s viewpoint? R. Yehudah, it seems, wants to retain a more concrete connection  between the recitation of blessings and the human experience of those blessings. What are the strengths and weaknesses of this approach?
  3.   The case of the blind man who carried the torch raises another question: Can one be said to benefit when the benefit accrues to someone else? Can the pleasure derived from altruistic behavior be considered a benefit?

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Chain of Attributes — BT Avodah Zarah 20b — #58

R. Pinchas b. Yair said: Study of Torah leads to caution; caution leads to diligence; diligence leads to cleanliness; cleanliness leads to restraint; restraint leads to purity; purity leads to piety; piety leads to humility; humility leads to fear of sin; fear of sin leads to holiness; holiness leads to divine inspiration; divine inspiration leads to resurrection of the dead. And piety is the greatest of them all, as it says, Then You spoke in a vision to your pious ones (Psalm 89:20). This differs from R. Yehoshua b. Levi, who said, “The spirit of God is upon me, for God has anointed me to bring tidings to the humble ones (Isaiah 61:1). It does not say ‘pious ones’ but rather ‘humble ones.’ Thus you learned that humility is the greatest of all of them.”

INTRODUCTION
This baraita (a teaching from the first or second century), attributed to R. Pinchas b. Yair, is reminiscent of the favorite Passover song, Chad Gadya, which outlines a cascade of disastrous events that comes to a halt when God abolishes death. (Please note: you are obligated to read the next sentence in one breath.) The came the Holy One, Blessed is God, and slew the Angel of Death who killed the slaughterer who slaughtered the ox that drank the water that quenched the fire that burned the stick that beat the dog that bit the cat that ate the kid my father bought for two zuzim. The events in Chad Gadya, however, are not linked causally.

A closer analogy comes to us from Rabbi Yoda, who taught: “Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.” (View his shiur here.) The thinking  behind Yoda’s teaching is that one emotion leads to another in a logical chain of causality. The Talmud offers us a causal chain in which the nodes are middot (religious character attributes and the behaviors they imply). R. Pinchas b. Yair explains that cultivating in ourselves specific qualities or characteristics leads to the development of others in a chain that leads, ultimately, to resurrection when the messiah comes.

The context for R. Pinchas b. Yair’s teaching is a mishnah concerning what objects one may craft and sell to idolaters knowing that they might use them in idolatrous worship. This segues to a discussion of the threat that beautiful idolatrous women present to righteous men. For the Rabbis, this marked the intersection of the two most dangerous pulls away from Torah: idolatry and women. The Sages explain, You shall keep away from every evil thing (Deuteronomy 23:10) to mean that one should avoid any daytime thoughts that might give rise to tum’ah (impurity) during the nighttime. In other words, sexual thoughts. R. Pinchas b. Yair explains how it works.

COMMENTARY
R. Pinchas offers a causal chain—like a ladder with 11 rungs—beginning with caution and ending with resurrection of the dead. He tells us that mastering one attribute paves the way for one to acquire the next, and so on. The final two rungs, divine inspiration and resurrection, are surprising. Can one develop the gift of prophecy in oneself, or is this a gift from God? Why is resurrection the highest rung, given that it is not even an attribute to master and what is more, everyone will be resurrected in order to face final judgment at the end of time? Perhaps R. Pinchas means that at the time of resurrection, the one who has mastered the aforementioned qualities will merit a far greater reward in olam ha-ba (world-to-come). Some commentators interpret the Gemara to mean that one who climbs higher than even divine inspiration—a gift reserved for prophets—will gain the power to resurrect the dead, an accomplishment achieved only by Elijah and Elisha. A more metaphorical interpretation is that one who reaches such an  exalted spiritual level will inspire others to turn away from evil and onto the path of righteousness, thereby “resurrecting” them from spiritual death.

The attributes in R. Pinchas b. Yair’s teaching have become the focus of Musar (the teaching and practice of Jewish Ethics) and interpreted both concretely and metaphorically. For example, R. Mendel of Satanov, in Cheshbon ha-Nefesh (“Accounting of the Soul”), includes four of the first nine (cleanliness, humility, diligence, and restraint) among his list of thirteen essential soul-traits. The first nine attributes are the organizing principle of R. Moses Chaim Luzzatto’s classical work of Musar, Mesillat Yesharim (“The Path of the Righteous”).

The baraita concludes with a disagreement, first suggesting that despite the ordering, piety is the highest attribute. R. Yehoshua b. Levi, however, holds that humility trumps even piety in the divine hierarchy of religious attributes.

QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER AND DISCUSS

  1. Reflect on the causal order of R. Pinchas b. Yair’s teaching. Do you agree with it? How would you order the elements in R. Pinchas’ list and how do you see the relationships between the elements? For example, I’d be inclined to view the elements in Yoda’s formulation differently: suffering leads to fear (pain and powerlessness beget fear); fear leads to anger (powerlessness and fear beget resentment); anger leads to hate (born of a desire to cast blame for one’s suffering). Hence suffering can provide entry to evil in the absence of an empathetic response and compassionate care. What is your view?
  2. How important is R. Yair’s order? Is it possible that the Rabbis present R. Pinchas b. Yair’s teaching not as absolute truth, but rather to inspire thought and conversation, in the hope that we can identify in ourselves the attributes that need further development and might give rise in us to other attributes? Or is the order important, and why?
  3. Do you agree with the baraita that piety is the highest attribute, or with R. Yehoshua b. Levi that humility is the greatest quality? Which middah you believe to be the most important, and why?

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Sharing a Lulav With a Friend — BT Sukkah 41 b (#2) — #57

GEMARA: Whence do we know [what Mishnah Sukkah 3:12 taught]? The Rabbis taught: You shall take (Leviticus 23:40)—each and every person should take up [the lulav] by hand. For yourselves—that which belongs to you, which excludes a borrowed or stolen [lulav]. From this the Sages explained that a person cannot fulfill [the mitzvah of the lulav] on the first day of the festival with their friend’s lulav unless [the friend] gave [the lulav] to them as a gift.
 It once happened that [on the first day of Sukkot] Rabban Gamliel and R. Yehoshua and R. Elazar b. Azariah and R. Akiba were traveling by ship and only Rabban Gamliel had a lulav, which he had bought for a thousand zuz. Rabban Gamliel took it and fulfilled the obligation [of waving the lulav] with it. Then he gave it to R. Yehoshua as a gift. R. Yehoshua took it and fulfilled the obligation with it, then gave it to R. Elazar b. Azariah as a gift. R. Elazar b. Azariah took it and fulfilled the obligation with it, then gave it to R. Akiba as a gift. R. Akiba took it and fulfilled the obligation with it, then returned it to Rabban Gamliel.
Why do we need to mention that R. Akiba returned it? In this way, he teaches us that a gift made on condition that it be returned is nonetheless a valid gift, which is like what Rava said: “[If a person said,] ‘Here is an etrog [as a gift] on condition that you return it to me,’ and he took it and fulfilled his obligation with it and then returned it, he is regarded as having fulfilled his obligation. If he did not return it, he is regarded as not having fulfilled his obligation.”

INTRODUCTION
In the previous edition of TMT, we examined Mishnah Sukkah 3:12, which tells us that, “One cannot fulfill their obligation on the first day [of Sukkot] with another person’s lulav, but on the remaining days of the festival, a person can fulfill their obligation with another person’s lulav.” The Gemara asks: What is the Rabbis’ source for this ruling?

COMMENTARY
We might think that Torah could not be the source for this ruling, since Torah does not appear to address the question of ownership of the lulav. Torah tell us: On the first day [of Sukkot] you shall take for yourselves (u’l’kachtem lachem) the product of hadar trees, branches of palm trees, boughs of leafy trees, and willows of the brook, and you shall rejoice before Adonai your God seven days (Leviticus 23:40). Despite the fact that there appears to be nothing overt in this verse to warrant the Rabbis’ ruling, they nonetheless derive their teaching from this it: From the word u’l’kachtem (“you [plural] shall take”), the Rabbis learn that each individual is obligated to hold a lulav in their hands and wave it. This means that another person cannot fulfill the obligation for you or exempt you from it; you must wave the lulav yourself. From the plural word lachem (“for yourselves”), the Rabbis learn that one must own the lulav one waves to fulfill the obligation, because the term “lachem” connotes ownership. Hence, waving a borrowed or stolen lulav on Sukkot is unacceptable for fulfilling the mitzvah.

The Gemara next tells a story about four famous rabbis whose circumstance suggests that only by lending and borrowing a single lulav can they each fulfill the mitzvah. They happen to be traveling together by ship when the first day of Sukkot arrives. Presumably, their circumstance explains why only one of the four has a lulav in his possession. Additionally, the cost of the lulav—1,000 zuz is a hefty sum!—may explain why only Rabban Gamliel, who is independently wealthy, is in possession of a lulav, and perhaps why the other three are not. Thus we have a situation of four rabbis, only one of whom possesses a lulav; the other three cannot acquire one once the ship sets sail (ships in those days did not have gift shops). What are they to do? The story describes how Rabban Gamliel gifts R. Yehoshua b. Chananiah with his lulav so that the latter can fulfill the mitzvah. R. Yehoshua, in turn, gifts R. Elazar with the lulav and, having fulfilled his obligation, R. Elazar gifts R. Akiba with the lulav. When R. Akiba has fulfilled his obligation, he returns the lulav to Rabban Gamliel.

The story’s ending inspires a question: Why does R. Akiba return the lulav to Rabban Gamliel? Was a condition attached to the gift that the lulav be returned after it was used? And if that is the case, was the lulav truly a gift, and did R. Yehoshua, R. Elazar, and R. Akiba truly own  the lulav while it was in their possession? We are accustomed to thinking that when a person gives a gift, the ownership is permanently and unequivocally transferred from the giver to the recipient. If I give you something, you are completely free to do with it as you choose, and you have no obligation to return it to me. It appears that the gifting of the lulav in the story was conditional: only for the purpose of fulfilling the mitzvah, after which it would be passed along to another for the same purpose and eventually returned to the original owner. Did Rabbis Yehoshua, Elazar, and Akiba truly own the lulav when they fulfilled the mitzvah with it? The Gemara explains that yes, the gift was legitimate. Rabban Gamliel did not give possession of the lulav to his colleagues for all time, but in order to fulfill the mitzvah with the stipulation that the lulav be returned to him.

QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER AND DISCUSS

  1. Do you think that Gemara brings the story of the four rabbis to prove the contention that the mitzvah cannot be fulfilled on the first day with a borrowed lulav, or rather in order to illustrate a work-around to enable someone doesn’t own a lulav to fulfill the mitzvah?
  2. Do you think the Rabbis are stretching the meaning of “gift” and “ownership” excessively? Does it make a difference that the object under discussion is needed only for a short time?
  3. Could the Rabbis be offering a simple and workable solution for a common communal problem when not everyone has a lulav (or can afford one)? Could they be creating a category of temporary ownership that encourages (which we might be inclined to call “lending”) in order to insure that everyone can fulfill the mitzvah of lulav?

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Bring the Lulav: When? Whose? — BT Sukkah 41b (#1) — #56

MISHNAH: If the first day of the festival [of Sukkot] falls on shabbat, everyone brings their lulavim [and etrogim] to the synagogue [prior to shabbat]. The following day, they come early. Everyone recognizes their own [lulav and etrog] and takes it. [Why must everyone have their own lulav?] Because the Sages said: One cannot fulfill their obligation on the first day [of Sukkot] with another person’s lulav, but on the remaining days of the festival, a person can fulfill their obligation with another person’s lulav. R. Yose says: If the first day of the festival falls on shabbat and one forgets and carries their lulav out into the public domain, they are not liable because because they carried it out with permission.

INTRODUCTION
The most obvious obligation of Sukkot is the sukkah, itself, a modest and temporary hut with a roof of vegetation, in which one lives for a week—eating, studying, reading, playing games, entertaining guests, and even sleeping (if you live in a conducive clime). Torah stipulates that, On the first day [of Sukkot] you shall take for yourselves (lachem) the product of hadar trees, branches of palm trees, boughs of leafy trees, and willows of the brook, and you shall rejoice before Adonai your God seven days (Leviticus 23:40). The fruit of the hadar is the citron, also known as the etrog. The other three species—palms, myrtle, and willow—are bound together and form the lulav, the preeminent symbol of the festival. Graphic images of lulavim have been found on the walls of ancient synagogues throughout the Middle East and even on the walls of burial caves and carved into sarcophagi.
(All three are seen in the photo to the right is an inscription plaque from a third century C.E. synagogue in Asia Minor on the southern coast of Turkey. There is a lulav to the left of the menorah and a shofar to the right. This artifact is today in the Antalya Museum in Turkey.)

COMMENTARY
On the basis of Leviticus 23:40 (quoted above), the Rabbis ask and answer several questions in the mishnah. First, Leviticus 23:40 instructs us to take up the lulav to celebrate Sukkot on the first day of the festival. For those who lived while the Temples stood, this entailed carrying the lulav and etrog to the Temple on the first day of Sukkot. For the Rabbis, this means carrying the lulav and etrog to the synagogue. They therefore ask: What if the first day of Sukkot is shabbat, when one is not permitted to carry items from the private domain (one’s house and courtyard) into the public domain (streets, the Temple) because doing so constitutes m’lachah (work) as the Rabbis have defined it? The mishnah reports a work-around: People would bring their lulav and etrog to the synagogue prior to shabbat and leave it there. They collected it the following day on shabbat. Today, lulav and etrog are not waved on shabbat, just as shofar is not blown on Rosh Hashanah when it coincides with shabbat, both due to the prohibition against carrying on shabbat. 

 Leviticus 23:40 includes the seemingly superfluous word lachem (“for yourselves”), from which the Rabbis learn that in order to fulfill the mitzvah of lulav, one must own the lulav over which one makes the blessing and which one waves. The ownership requirement applies only on the first day of the festival, however, because the biblical verse in question requires that we bring lulav and etrog only on the first day. The Rabbis extended the ritual of waving lulav to all seven days of Sukkot and applied to the latter six days the leniency that since Torah does not specifically require lulav on the subsequent days, one need not own the lulav one waves on those days. Therefore, it’s fine to borrow your friend’s lulav to fulfill the (rabbinic) mitzvah of lulav on the last six days of Sukkot.

Finally, R. Yose addresses an inevitable (and likely not infrequent) occurrence: Someone brings their lulav to synagogue on the first day of the festival, forgetting that it is also shabbat. Normally, they would need to bring a sin-offering as atonement, but R. Yose exempts  them because the act was done “with permission” of the mitzvah of the lulav, meaning that R. Yose presumes that the mistake was made not out of willful disregard for halakhah, but rather because the person was focused on fulfilling the mitzvah of lulav and, as a result, forgot it was shabbat.

QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER AND DISCUSS

  1. Is the lulav waved in your synagogue when the first day of Sukkot falls on shabbat? Is shofar blown in your synagogue when Rosh Hashanah coincides with shabbat? The Mishnah suggests a solution to the conflict presented when a festival (or Rosh Hashanah) falls on shabbat. If the items needed—lulav and etrog on Sukkot; shofar on Rosh Hashanah—are left in the synagogue prior to the advent of the holy day, then they can be used on shabbat without violating the prohibition of carrying an object from the private domain to the public domain. Is the Mishnah’s “work around” practiced in your community?
  2. Do you agree with R. Yose that the violation against carrying the lulav from the private domain to the public domain on shabbat is cancelled by the individual’s intent to fulfill the mitzvah of lulav? Why or why not? Can you argue in support of both views?
  3. Some people argue that foregoing shofar on Rosh Hashanah when it falls on shabbat serves to constructively affirm the priority and holiness of shabbat even above Rosh Hashanah. (A similar argument is made concerning Avinu Malkeinu, which is not said on shabbat by Ashkenazim for the reason that we avoid supplications on shabbat.) Others argue that not waving the lulav is an unnecessary sacrifice of an important and meaningful ritual practiced only once a year and therefore should be preserved. What is your view?

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Divine Prayer Leader — BT Rosh Hashanah 17b (part 2) — #55

And Adonai passed before [Moses] and proclaimed (Exodus 34:6). R. Yochanan said, “Had not Torah written this, it would be impossible to say this. This teaches that the Holy One of Blessing wrapped himself [in a tallit, prayer shawl] like a prayer leader and demonstrated to Moses the order of prayer. [God] said to him, ‘Any time that Israel sins, let them perform this order of prayer before Me and I will forgive them.’”
 Adonai! Adonai! (Exodus 34:6) I am [God] before a person sins, and I am [God] after a person sins and repents.

INTRODUCTION
In TMT #54 we examined the Gemara immediately preceding the passage above. There, three rabbis cited three biblical verses that they interpret to prove God’s desire to act out of loving kindness rather than stern justice. God prefers mercy and forgiveness to judgement and punishment. The third verse cited is Exodus 34:6-7 which expresses what has come to be known as the Thirteen Attributes of God: Adonai passed before [Moses] and proclaimed: Adonai! Adonai! A God compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in kindness and faithfulness, extending kindness to the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin; yet [God] does not  remit all punishment, but visits the iniquity of parents upon children and children’s children, upon the third and fourth generations.

The first set of attributes (prior to the semi-colon) are those we associate with a loving, merciful, and forgiving God; the second set are those of a stern judge who meets out punishment. In TMT #54, the Rabbis seek to reconcile these seemingly opposing aspects of the Divine personality and temperament by saying that God initially sits on the Throne of Justice, but then moves to the Throne of Mercy because God desires to forgive us. In this week’s passage above (which follows last week’s passage in the Gemara) the Rabbis interpret the opening words of Exodus 34:6.

COMMENTARY
According to the Torah, “Adonai passed before [Moses]…” prior to reciting the Thirteen Attributes. The expression “passed before” is also how the Rabbis describe a shaliach tzibbur (public prayer leader), who is said to “pass before” the ark. This provides a linguistic opening for the Rabbis to envision God as acting the part of a shaliach tzibbur in order to teach Moses how to lead the community in prayer whenever they have sinned and are in need of forgiveness. Given the verses’ context in the Torah—Moses has ascended Mount Sinai to receive the Torah a second time, following the incident of the Golden Calf—this is a touching interpretation. God nearly wiped out the Israelites after they worshiped the Golden Calf; the Rabbis’ contention that God now teaches Moses how to invoke divine forgiveness bespeaks just how desperately God wants to forgive those who sin, even when the sin is idolatry. 

As the Rabbis imagine the scene, so keenly does God wish to be able to pardon the Israelites, that God dons a tallit and demonstrates to Moses how to pray and what to say to illicit God’s compassionate forgiveness. This highly anthropomorphic image of God—in human form wrapped in a tallit—appears to have caused some discomfort, which is reflected in R. Yochanan’s defensive contention that Torah itself makes the claim that God personally tutored Moses. Otherwise, R. Yochanan contends, no one would dare to say such a thing about God!

The Rabbis next interpret, Adonai! Adonai! (Exodus 34:6). Why is God’s Name doubled in the verse? They explain that the first iteration of “Adonai” applies to our relationship with God prior to violating the covenant; the second “Adonai” affirms our relationship with God after we have sinned. While we might well fear that sin distances us from God, in reality God remains very much concerned about us and attached to us regardless of our behavior. No doubt this interpretation was meant to be a reassuring message to people that even if they felt they had strayed far from God and violated serious dictates of the covenant, God remains in relationship with them and welcomes their teshuvah (repentance and return) at any time. God’s love and connection are eternal and unconditional. Teshuvah (repentance) is easier when one knows that God will receive it favorably.

QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER AND DISCUSS

  1. The image of God as a prayer leader wrapped in a tallit raises the question of how we imagine and speak about God. On Rosh Hashanah, just one week away, we will deploy numerous images of God, chief among them “Father/Parent and Ruler” (Avinu malkeinu). Throughout the High Holy Day season, we will add many more vivid metaphors, including God as Shepherd, Potter,  Lover, Friend. Which of these metaphors help you in thinking about your relationship with God? Are any of them a hindrance? Why?
  2. The Talmud seems to be saying that if we go through certain motions—specifically, the recitation of prescribed prayers—God will (automatically?) forgive. Where is teshuvah (repentance) in this process? (See the baraita below, which appears on the same page of Talmud as our passage.)  Does the recital require or inspire a certain state of mind? Or is it a workaround to genuine teshuvah?
  3. How do you use the prayers, music, scriptural readings, and the atmosphere of the High Holy Days to help you do teshuvah (repentance)?
They challenged this [from a baraita]: If one repents between [Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur], he is pardoned. If he did not repent between [Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur], even if he brought all the rams of Nevayot [the finest rams; see Isaiah 60:7] that exist [as offerings] he is not pardoned. (Rosh Hashanah 17b)

This edition of Ten Minutes of Talmud is available as a pdf here