Monday, 11 December 2017

Book Review: Wrestling Jacob

I originally heard about Shmuel Klitsner's book Wrestling Jacob on Sarah Rindner's excellent Book of Books blog. It sat on my list of books to order for a long time, but recently made the cut when I was making an Amazon order and I found a used copy on the cheap.

What you get is 180 pages of close literary reading and Modern commentary on the story of Jacob and Esau. The analysis begins with Rivka's tempestuous pregnancy, continues through to their momentous meeting upon Jacob's return to Canaan, and ends with a final exploration of parallel passages in the Torah, specifically God trying to kill Moshe at the Inn and Bilaam's encounter with the Angelic swordsman.

Klitsner's methodology is interesting. He has a long introduction detailing methodology and assumptions. It's important, so let's summarize the salient features:
  • Close literary readings
    • as opposed to Critical readings which put idiosyncrasies down to progressive changes/additions
    • as opposed to Fundamentalist readings which explain-away ideosyncrasies
    • instead, Klitsner takes idiosyncrasies/repetition as an authorial choice with a literary payload
  • Bible as a "Divine Anthropology" of Jewish people
    • As opposed to novels or even Greek classics which focus on Human individuality
  • Subtext gives insight into authorial intent

Rabbi Klitsner
Klitsner ultimately suggests these stories have as a theme, the struggle between Human autonomy and divine destiny. Yet he contrasts how this theme plays out in the Bible with how it plays out in Greek literature. In Greek literature, people must follow their destiny as determined by the Gods, when they break this mold, bad things happen. The Bible carries this theme in the opposite direction. Characters try to fulfill their destiny, but suffer when they use illicit means to achieve those ends.

This is a very Modern literary reading, with the focus being on Jacob's individual religious experience, his inner struggle, and his eventual redemption.

Bottom line, Wrestling Jacob is a great book for anyone interested in Literary Bible studies. It's a short book, but is dense with ideas, close readings, and intertextualities. Highly recommended!

Monday, 15 August 2016

Yemei Iyun Be-Tanakh 2016

I recently had the opportunity to attend Herzog College's annual Tanach Conference, Yemei Iyun Be-Tanakh. The conference takes place on the Herzog/Har Etzion campus in Alon Shvut over five days, and had 7000 attendees this year. Each day has five time slots, with seven parallel lecture tracks for a total of 175 lectures!(As you might imagine, just choosing what to sign-up for was a somewhat daunting task) The lectures are given by teachers at the college, as well as by prominent Israeli Tanach scholars. In any case, I'm only going to summarize the 10 lectures I attended over the course of two days.


המבנה והמסר של הספר השני בתהלים, חטא דוד ותיקונו, ד"ר גזונדהייט בני

Dr. Benny Gezundheit has a passion for structure and a love of visual aids. His lecture on the structure of the 2nd book of Tehilim came with 7 colored handouts summarizing the structure of the book at large, as well as a more detailed look at books 2, 3 and psalm 51. He argues, quite convincingly, that the second section of Davidic psalms, appearing in chapter 2, is arranged to tell an aggadic story of David's path from the sin of Bat Sheva to repentance and redemption. He also identifies a chiastic structure by which this section is surrounded by psalms of the Levitical authors, Assaf and the descendants of Korach, thus suggesting the physical layout of the Temple.

דוד, יונתן ומפיבושת: הטרגדיה מאחורי אהבה שאינה תלויה בדבר, הרב בזק אמנון

Rav Amnon Bazak read us through the passages where David interacts with Yonatan and his son Mephiboshet. He points out the text's repeated emphasis of Yonatan's returning to his father's house. This suggests a tragic reading whereby Yonatan is torn between his love of David and his familial affiliation, ending in his death beside his father. This explains David's anger at the loyal Mephiboshet at not following him, and his strange decision to divide Mephiboshet's inheiritance with Ziba, as an expression of David's disappointment with Yonatan's mixed-loyalties. My favorite moment from the Yemei Iyun was when Rav Bazak read the passage where David rescinds Mephiboshet's inheritance- there was an audible gasp from the audience at this emotionally loaded passage.

כיצד מונים את המצוות?, הרב סבתו חיים

Rav Sabato takes us through the history of medieval exegetes and their efforts to count the 613 mitzvot. He points out the Ramban's ambivalence about the number 613, based solely on Rav Shimlai's statement in the gemara.

משנולד יוסף נולד שטנו של עשו – צאצאי רחל נלחמים בעמלק, שלוסברג יעל

A review of biblical conflict between Yaakov and Eisav and their descendants. She pointed out some very suggestive patterns in these passages, noting that Yosef tends to attack directly while Binyamin schemes. She concludes that Shaul's mistake with Amalek was that he is a descendant of Binyamin yet he attacked them directly. This argument did not sit well with me. It smacks of mysticism and doesn't really gel with the story, as far as I can tell(Shaul's direct attack works fine, it's the aftermath in which he fails.)

יצחק ורבקה יעקב ועשיו, הרב מדן יעקב

Rav Yakov Medan asks if scripture is consistent with Chazal's characterization of Esau as wicked. He points out that no explicit sin is mentioned regarding Esau, though his attitude towards the bechora is disappointing. Not only that, but Yitzchak's love of Esau the hunter seems justified since food  for the wandering household is scarce, and the treaty Avimelech and Phichol is likely the result of Esau's raids. Rav Medan argues that Yitzchak actually intended to give Yaacov the blessing of Abraham while Esau was to be the military leader. Rivka misunderstands, thinking that Yitzchak intends to give both roles to Esau, resulting tragically in Esau's exclusion and the eternal enmity between the brothers' descendants.


בכיו של נביא – אלישע בדמשק, הרב סמט אלחנן

Rav Elchanan Samet  points out the curious story of Elisha's prophecy to Hazael. Why is the prophet in Damascus? Why does he break down and cry mid-prophecy? Why does he reveal so much to Hazael? Rav Samet answers these question by pointing out that the worst of Elisha's prophecy was not actually inflicted on Israel. Elisha used his prophecy to build his reputation among the Aramean elites. As a result, they tempered their approach to Israel and the harsh prophecy was only partially fulfilled.

ערכה של יוזמה אנושית בספר שופטים, הרב מרקוס יוסף

Rav Yosef Marcus points out that the six judges in the book of Shoftim are not listed in chronological order, rather in order of descending spiritual level, a well established reading of the book. He adds that there is an additional point here in that they also descend in regard to the amount of personal initiative they take in their service of God, thus estabelishing personal initiative as the central value of the book of Judges:
  1. Otniel is Caleb's son-in-law/partner, paragons of bravery and initiative
  2. Ehud is also quite proactive and inventive in his strategy to overcome Moav
  3. Devora/Barak are already a step down. Devora takes the initiative, but Barak needs a good deal of convincing and his honor is passed-on to a woman as a result
  4. Gidon doesn't take initiative, but follows an Angel's instructions
  5. Yiftach only saves Israel on the condition that he is granted permanent leadership status
  6. Shimshon helps Israel not out of his own will, but providentially as he pursues his own agenda
This was a great shiur and I'll just take a moment to add my own twist on Sefi's idea. Many organizations go through a similar life-cycle. They are founded by highly motivated individuals, but as they grow and mature, they take on a more corporate structure, manned with by professionals who do things in a more careful, organized fashion. Perhaps the judges' descending initiative is not the result of their descending spiritual level, but rather is a separate track. Perhaps the point being made here is that, while the young nation can be founded by Otniels, the mature nation requires a more organized form of government, otherwise, the spiritual momentum cannot be maintained. In this way, Judges makes the argument for the appointing of King Shaul that follows in the book of Shmuel.

איך נראתה "יהדות" בתקופת השופטים?, ד"ר משגב חגי

Hagai Misgav asks how Jewish ritual/law looked in the days of the Judges, long before the codification of Jewish practice based on the discussions of the sages recorded in the Talmud. He points to a number of interesting text that give us hints:
  1. Yibum and inheritance laws in sefer Ruth differ markedly from scripture and our accepted understanding of it
  2. Shoftim mentions a number of holidays unknown to us today
    1. The Shiloh Holiday
    2. The Festival of Yiftach's Daughter
    3. Zevach Mishpacha
    4. Rosh Chodesh feast, pilgrimage to the prophet

מגילת אסתר כסיפור קומי, ד"ר ורדיגר תמר

Tamar Vardiger claims that, while the Tanach contains many humorous passages, such as the story of Bilaaam, Megillat Esther is unique in that the entire work is a comedy. She argues that Esther, Ahasueros, and Haman embody the comedy archetypes of the Trickster, the Fool, and the Villain. She details how nearly every scene in the Megilla acts to undermine our expectations of what will happen next, and how Ahasueros, Haman, and the Persian Legal System are humorously undermined time and again. In light of this reading, Dr. Vardiger argues that the Megilla's purpose is to temper the great Chillul Hashem of the Persian exile by showing that those who appear to be in charge rule, in truth, at the mercy of the one true God.

ניסי אלישע - מה באו ללמדנו?, הרב מדן יעקב

In this lecture, Rav Medan draws attention to the abundance and variety of miracles performed by the prophet Elisha. What is the purpose of this uncharacteristic focus on minor wonders? The Rav's answer is to point out that the 45 year period of Aram's domination of Israel, a domination facilitated by Elisha's own actions, was a terrible time. Jewish men were routinely slaughtered, their woman and children sold into slavery, while those who remained suffered from decimated crops and starvation. During this difficult time, Elisha wandered the land, performing miracles and giving the people hope for the coming redemption.

Online Resources

So, as you can see from this sampling, Yemei Iyun had a really impressive selection of lectures. You can see some more of the conference's lectures at
(Note that only the lectures that took place in the Alon Shvut synagogue were filmed)

We were also given a demo of Tanakh Herzog, the college's new online tanach learning platform
It makes for a very respectable alternative to

Tuesday, 26 July 2016

Bilaam and the Anti-Akeida

In parshat Balak, we meet the character of Bilaam the sorcerer. The midrash compares Bilaam with Moshe.

תנחומה במדבר כב
כשם שהעמיד מלכים חכמים ונביאים לישראל, כך העמיד לאומות העולם, ונבדקו מלכיהם ונביאיהם וחכמיהם של ישראל עם מלכיהם ונביאיהם וחכמיהם של אומות העולם.
העמיד משה לישראל שהיה מדבר עמו כל זמן שירצה. העמיד להם בלעם, מדבר עמו כל זמן שירצה.
ראה מה בין נביאי ישראל לנביאי האומות. נביאי ישראל מזהירין את האומות על העבירות. וכן הוא אומר: נביא לגוים נתתיך. ונביאים שהעמיד מן האומות, נותנים פרצה לאבד את הבריות מן העולם הבא.

Bilaam as Foil for Avraham

Yet, as Rav Ari Kahn points out, a close literary analysis suggests that it is Avraham, not Moshe, we should be comparing him with. To summarize his major points:
  • Bilaam is hired by Avraham's disinheireted descendents, Moav and Midyan, to undermine the children of Yitzchak's success
  • Bilaam comes from Aram, the same land as Avraham
  • Like Avraham, Bilaam is described as having the power to bless and to curse
  • Bilaam's journey begins with the same early start and saddling of his donkey as Avraham's

Bilaam's Journey as Anti-Akeida

Yet, despite all of the similarities, there are also key differences between the two. In fact, if we look closely, Bilaam's journey parallels that of Avraham in the Akeida:

  1. The Akeida story begins with Avraham being commanded to undertake the journey. Bilaam, on the other hand, is first commanded not to proceed, but is then commanded grudgingly, with explicit limitations placed on his mandate.
  2.  Both Avraham and Bilaam get up early to undertake the journey, with gender-swapped donkeys.
  3. In the Akeida, the Angel interferes with Avraham, stopping his knife-hand. In Bilaam's story, the Angel itself wields the blade, interfering with his journey in a way that highlights his ineptitude.
  4. The journey ends with Avraham ascending the a holy mountain. Bilaam, on the other hand, ascends the "Heights of Baal", clearly an idolatrous cult location, and there, of all places, attempts to win God's favor.
  5. Avraham ultimately sacrifices a ram caught by it's horns in a bramble, a powerfully symbolic offering that is accepted by God. Bilaam, on the other hand, brings ever more extravagant sacrifices, but to no avail. He reminds us of  some poor shlub stumbling around in search of better cellular reception.
  6. As a reward for his selfless obedience, Avraham, his descendants, and the nations of the Earth are blessed. Bilaam, on the other hand, is forced to bless Israel, much to the chagrin of his employer.

A Parody of the Akeida

Shakespearean Donkey Humor
Ultimately, what parshat Bilaam offers us is a parody of the Akeida, performed by a poor imitator of Avraham. The parallel is clear enough, the question remains: Why does the Torah chooses to provide us with this bizarre reenactment of the Akeida as a Comedy of Errors?

As we already noted, our story is about Moav and Midyan trying to better their lot among the descendants of Avraham's household. Hashem's answer is a farcical version of Akeidat Yitzchak. The message is clear, it is not only Avraham that God singled out as worthy, Yitzchak, the object of the Akeida, was also selected. Bilaam's bumbled reenactment of the Akeida demonstrates that he is no Avraham and Moav/Midyan are no Yitzchak.

Unfortunately, our parsha's antagonists don't internalize this message and more severe consequences follow in Parshat Pinchas.

Sunday, 1 May 2016

Genesis and the Splitting of the Sea

This post is in memory of my mother, Shira bat Sarah, who passed away April 13th, the 5th of Nissan, תשע"ו. She always supported me in all my endeavors, Torah or otherwise, and she is dearly missed.

On the 7th day of Passover we read the parsha of the splitting of the sea, so lets talk about that. Having read Genesis, the splitting of the sea comes as a surprise. This is because Genesis has already told us twice what to expect from the Exodus.

The first time is implicit via the short story of Avraham's descent to Egypt(Genesis 12). This proves to be the blueprint for the Children of Israel's later sojourn there in the spirit of מעשה אבות סימן לבנים, as we saw previously

י וַיְהִי רָעָב, בָּאָרֶץ; וַיֵּרֶד אַבְרָם מִצְרַיְמָה לָגוּר שָׁם, כִּי-כָבֵד הָרָעָב בָּאָרֶץ. יא וַיְהִי, כַּאֲשֶׁר הִקְרִיב לָבוֹא מִצְרָיְמָה; וַיֹּאמֶר, אֶל-שָׂרַי אִשְׁתּוֹ, הִנֵּה-נָא יָדַעְתִּי, כִּי אִשָּׁה יְפַת-מַרְאֶה אָתְּ. יב וְהָיָה, כִּי-יִרְאוּ אֹתָךְ הַמִּצְרִים, וְאָמְרוּ, אִשְׁתּוֹ זֹאת; וְהָרְגוּ אֹתִי, וְאֹתָךְ יְחַיּוּ. יג אִמְרִי-נָא, אֲחֹתִי אָתְּ--לְמַעַן יִיטַב-לִי בַעֲבוּרֵךְ, וְחָיְתָה נַפְשִׁי בִּגְלָלֵךְ. יד וַיְהִי, כְּבוֹא אַבְרָם מִצְרָיְמָה; וַיִּרְאוּ הַמִּצְרִים אֶת-הָאִשָּׁה, כִּי-יָפָה הִוא מְאֹד. טו וַיִּרְאוּ אֹתָהּ שָׂרֵי פַרְעֹה, וַיְהַלְלוּ אֹתָהּ אֶל-פַּרְעֹה; וַתֻּקַּח הָאִשָּׁה, בֵּית פַּרְעֹה. טז וּלְאַבְרָם הֵיטִיב, בַּעֲבוּרָהּ; וַיְהִי-לוֹ צֹאן-וּבָקָר, וַחֲמֹרִים, וַעֲבָדִים וּשְׁפָחֹת, וַאֲתֹנֹת וּגְמַלִּים. יז וַיְנַגַּע יְהוָה אֶת-פַּרְעֹה נְגָעִים גְּדֹלִים, וְאֶת-בֵּיתוֹ, עַל-דְּבַר שָׂרַי, אֵשֶׁת אַבְרָם. יח וַיִּקְרָא פַרְעֹה, לְאַבְרָם, וַיֹּאמֶר, מַה-זֹּאת עָשִׂיתָ לִּי; לָמָּה לֹא-הִגַּדְתָּ לִּי, כִּי אִשְׁתְּךָ הִוא. יט לָמָה אָמַרְתָּ אֲחֹתִי הִוא, וָאֶקַּח אֹתָהּ לִי לְאִשָּׁה; וְעַתָּה, הִנֵּה אִשְׁתְּךָ קַח וָלֵךְ. כ וַיְצַו עָלָיו פַּרְעֹה, אֲנָשִׁים; וַיְשַׁלְּחוּ אֹתוֹ וְאֶת-אִשְׁתּוֹ, וְאֶת-כָּל-אֲשֶׁר-לוֹ.

The second time the Exodus is foreshadowed in Sefer Bereshit is in Avraham's vision at Brit Bein Habetarim (Genesis 15)

יג וַיֹּאמֶר לְאַבְרָם, יָדֹעַ תֵּדַע כִּי-גֵר יִהְיֶה זַרְעֲךָ בְּאֶרֶץ לֹא לָהֶם, וַעֲבָדוּם, וְעִנּוּ אֹתָם--אַרְבַּע מֵאוֹת, שָׁנָה. יד וְגַם אֶת-הַגּוֹי אֲשֶׁר יַעֲבֹדוּ, דָּן אָנֹכִי; וְאַחֲרֵי-כֵן יֵצְאוּ, בִּרְכֻשׁ גָּדוֹל.

Neither passage gives us a hint that the Splitting of the Sea is still to come. We're led to believe that the Egyptians will be punished, that Bnei Israel will leave Egypt for the Promised Land, and that they will do so with the riches they gained in Egypt. All this comes to pass and that should have been the end of our interaction with Pharaoh and his minions. Instead, Hashem instructs Moshe to set a trap for the Egyptians (Exodus 14), resulting in the destruction of Pharaoh and his fully assembled army.

א וַיְדַבֵּר יְהוָה, אֶל-מֹשֶׁה לֵּאמֹר. ב דַּבֵּר, אֶל-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, וְיָשֻׁבוּ וְיַחֲנוּ לִפְנֵי פִּי הַחִירֹת, בֵּין מִגְדֹּל וּבֵין הַיָּם: לִפְנֵי בַּעַל צְפֹן, נִכְחוֹ תַחֲנוּ עַל-הַיָּם. ג וְאָמַר פַּרְעֹה לִבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, נְבֻכִים הֵם בָּאָרֶץ; סָגַר עֲלֵיהֶם, הַמִּדְבָּר. ד וְחִזַּקְתִּי אֶת-לֵב-פַּרְעֹה, וְרָדַף אַחֲרֵיהֶם, וְאִכָּבְדָה בְּפַרְעֹה וּבְכָל-חֵילוֹ, וְיָדְעוּ מִצְרַיִם כִּי-אֲנִי יְהוָה; וַיַּעֲשׂוּ-כֵן.

I'd like to suggest that the message here is as follows. Up until this point, everything Hashem has done has been "in the merit of the fathers". The plagues, the Egyptian gold and silver, the Exodus- it is all being done because it was promised to Avraham. How is Kriyat Yam Suf different? It is extra. It is being done, not to fulfill a covenantal obligation, but solely for the sake of the generation of the Exodus. Specifically, Egypt's finest are mustered and crushed in order that Israel be freed from bondage not only physically, but psychologically as well.

יג וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה אֶל-הָעָם, אַל-תִּירָאוּ--הִתְיַצְּבוּ וּרְאוּ אֶת-יְשׁוּעַת יְהוָה, אֲשֶׁר-יַעֲשֶׂה לָכֶם הַיּוֹם: כִּי, אֲשֶׁר רְאִיתֶם אֶת-מִצְרַיִם הַיּוֹם--לֹא תֹסִפוּ לִרְאֹתָם עוֹד, עַד-עוֹלָם. יד יְהוָה, יִלָּחֵם לָכֶם; וְאַתֶּם, תַּחֲרִשׁוּן.

In this sense, Kriyat Yam Suf is not part of the Exodus, the fulfillment of God's pact with Abraham, rather it is preparation for the next step, for Mount Sinai, God's new covenant with the Nation of Israel.

Wednesday, 30 March 2016

The Korbanot as National Ritual

Sefer Vayikra begins with God commanding the sacrificial service to be performed in the Mishkan, and later in the Mikdash. But for all the chapters of detailed description of korbanot, these passages present us with a considerable challenge of understanding.

The Yom Kippur Service
In particular, the scripture itself seems undecided regarding the importance of korbanot. On one hand, a large proportion of the Torah's normative portions are dedicated to the korbanot, the mishkan where they are brought, and the responsibilities of the kohanim/leviim who carry out the service. On the other hand, the later prophets seem intent on diminishing the importance of the korbanot in favor of other commandments. For example:

שִׁמְעוּ דְבַר-יְהוָה, קְצִינֵי סְדֹם; הַאֲזִינוּ תּוֹרַת אֱלֹהֵינוּ, עַם עֲמֹרָה.  יא לָמָּה-לִּי רֹב-זִבְחֵיכֶם יֹאמַר יְהוָה, שָׂבַעְתִּי עֹלוֹת אֵילִים וְחֵלֶב מְרִיאִים; וְדַם פָּרִים וּכְבָשִׂים וְעַתּוּדִים, לֹא חָפָצְתִּי.  יב כִּי תָבֹאוּ, לֵרָאוֹת פָּנָי--מִי-בִקֵּשׁ זֹאת מִיֶּדְכֶם, רְמֹס חֲצֵרָי.  יג לֹא תוֹסִיפוּ, הָבִיא מִנְחַת-שָׁוְא--קְטֹרֶת תּוֹעֵבָה הִיא, לִי; חֹדֶשׁ וְשַׁבָּת קְרֹא מִקְרָא, לֹא-אוּכַל אָוֶן וַעֲצָרָה.  יד חָדְשֵׁיכֶם וּמוֹעֲדֵיכֶם שָׂנְאָה נַפְשִׁי, הָיוּ עָלַי לָטֹרַח; נִלְאֵיתִי, נְשֹׂא.  טו וּבְפָרִשְׂכֶם כַּפֵּיכֶם, אַעְלִים עֵינַי מִכֶּם--גַּם כִּי-תַרְבּוּ תְפִלָּה, אֵינֶנִּי שֹׁמֵעַ:  יְדֵיכֶם, דָּמִים מָלֵאוּ.  טז רַחֲצוּ, הִזַּכּוּ--הָסִירוּ רֹעַ מַעַלְלֵיכֶם, מִנֶּגֶד עֵינָי:  חִדְלוּ, הָרֵעַ.  יז לִמְדוּ הֵיטֵב דִּרְשׁוּ מִשְׁפָּט, אַשְּׁרוּ חָמוֹץ; שִׁפְטוּ יָתוֹם, רִיבוּ אַלְמָנָה. (ישעיהו א)

כב כִּי לֹא-דִבַּרְתִּי אֶת-אֲבוֹתֵיכֶם, וְלֹא צִוִּיתִים, בְּיוֹם הוציא (הוֹצִיאִי) אוֹתָם, מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם--עַל-דִּבְרֵי עוֹלָה, וָזָבַח.  כג כִּי אִם-אֶת-הַדָּבָר הַזֶּה צִוִּיתִי אוֹתָם לֵאמֹר, שִׁמְעוּ בְקוֹלִי--וְהָיִיתִי לָכֶם לֵאלֹהִים, וְאַתֶּם תִּהְיוּ-לִי לְעָם; וַהֲלַכְתֶּם, בְּכָל-הַדֶּרֶךְ אֲשֶׁר אֲצַוֶּה אֶתְכֶם, לְמַעַן, יִיטַב לָכֶם. (ירמיהו ז)

כב כִּי אִם-תַּעֲלוּ-לִי עֹלוֹת וּמִנְחֹתֵיכֶם, לֹא אֶרְצֶה; וְשֶׁלֶם מְרִיאֵיכֶם, לֹא אַבִּיט.  כג הָסֵר מֵעָלַי, הֲמוֹן שִׁרֶיךָ; וְזִמְרַת נְבָלֶיךָ, לֹא אֶשְׁמָע.  כד וְיִגַּל כַּמַּיִם, מִשְׁפָּט; וּצְדָקָה, כְּנַחַל אֵיתָן. (עמוס ה)

These contradictory sources leave us with a quandary as to the significance of this service and it's status relative to other mitzvot.

The Oresteia

Before we take on this question, I'd like to turn to Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly's book All Things Shining, and its discussion of the Oresteia.

The Oresteia is a trilogy of plays written by the Greek playwright Aeschylus around 458 BCE during the Golden Age of Athens. But as Dreyfus and Kelly point out, the Oresteia was not just another Athenian play.

At the end of the play Athena affirms the new way of life she has established in Athens...The former Furies, now the Kindly Ones, and the Olympian gods then march out of the theater together singing the glory of Athens, inviting the audience--the citizens of Athens themselves--to join them saying: "Singing all follow our footsteps." Thus both groups of gods together with the citizens of Athens walk right out of the play into the streets of Athens chanting the city's praise.

...Each year the citizens of Athens selected a new prize-winning tragedy to be performed at the expense of the city for just that year. The Oresteia was the only play that was performed at the city's expense year after year. (pp. 98-99)
Indeed, the Oresteia was not just another Athenian play. It was a National ritual publicly funded and participated in by the masses year-round. But what purpose did this practice play in Athenian society?

Clytemnestra sacrifices a ram in Taneyev’s adaptation of the Oresteia
The play itself, then, becomes a glamorized example--indeed a genuine paradigm--of what the Athenians have accomplished...they have reconciled the old gods--the angry, bloody emotions of outrage and revenge--and the new gods, with their tendency towards detachment and moral fanaticism.

The mass-ritual of the Oresteia asserts clearly what is essential in Athenian culture(in particular the successful reconciliation of two competing spiritual traditions). Not only that, but it strengthens those values in the broader culture by celebrating them publicly and having the citizens of Athens themselves participate in that celebration.

The Korbanot as National Ritual

Returning to the temple service, what if we were to view it, as with the Oresteia, as a sort of National Ritual meant to emphasize and strengthen that which is essential to Jewish culture. Suddenly the scriptural contradictions fall away. On one hand the Chumash goes into great detail designing this central cultural edifice. On the other hand, the Neviim Achronim de-emphasize it in favor of other mitzvot because it has little inherent value. Rather, the primary value of this mass ritual is to strengthen that which is essential, such as the Justice and Charity that Amos calls for.

But if this is the correct view of the korbanot, then what are the values they promote and how? There is lots of potential for analysis here. For now, however,  I'll simply refer you to Rabbi Jonathan Sacks' recent shiur on the topic:
What, then, was sacrifice in Judaism and why does it remain important, at least as an idea, even today? The simplest answer – though it does not explain the details of the different kinds of offering – is this: We love what we are willing to make sacrifices for. That is why, when they were a nation of farmers and shepherds, the Israelites demonstrated their love of God by bringing Him a symbolic gift of their flocks and herds, their grain and fruit; that is, their livelihood. To love is to thank. To love is to want to bring an offering to the Beloved. To love is to give. Sacrifice is the choreography of love.

Friday, 18 March 2016

The Keruvim

Keruvim on the aron
The Keruvim are two winged creatures that appear in parshat Terumah as part of the Mishkan. There are two golden Keruvim on the cover of the Aron, and there are also Keruvim stiched into the 10 yeriot, the walls of the Mishkan.

The Problem

Keruvim on the aron and the yeriot
But isn't it strange that, right after receiving the 10 commandments and hearing the prohibition against idols and images, the Mishkan is build with two idols at it's very heart?

לֹא תַעֲשֶׂה לְךָ פֶסֶל וְכָל תְּמוּנָה אֲשֶׁר בַּשָּׁמַיִם מִמַּעַל וַאֲשֶׁר בָּאָרֶץ מִתָּחַת וַאֲשֶׁר בַּמַּיִם מִתַּחַת לָאָרֶץ.

Similarly, isn't it strange that, right after thousands are killed for the sin of the golden calf, we are instructed to build a mishkan with two golden images. 

Even more disturbing is the fact that Ezekiel implies that the Keruv is a winged Ox-like creature.

יחזקאל תיאר את ה"מרכבה" בצורה מפורטת יותר. בחזונו היו חיות המרכבה ארבע במספר – אחד של אריה, אחד של שור, אחד של נשר ואחד של אדם, ותכונותיהם המשותפות: גוף וידי אדם, רגלי פרסה של העגל וכנפיים. בתיאור אחר של החזון, מוחלפים פני השור בפני כרוב, ומכאן היו שהבינו שלכרוב צורה של שור.(מקור)
Kirubu at the Louvre
Finally, there is the observation that Keruvim sound mighty similar to  the "Kirubu" or Assyrian winged Ox type deity.

What all of these questions have in common is that the Keruvim seem a highly inappropriate choice to decorate the Mishkan and the Holy of Holies.

The First Keruvim

To understand the significance of the Keruvim in the Mishkan, let's go back to the first place they appear in the Torah, to the story of the Garden of Eden.
  "וַיְגָרֶשׁ, אֶת-הָאָדָם; וַיַּשְׁכֵּן מִקֶּדֶם לְגַן-עֵדֶן אֶת-הַכְּרֻבִים, וְאֵת לַהַט הַחֶרֶב הַמִּתְהַפֶּכֶת, לִשְׁמֹר, אֶת-דֶּרֶךְ עֵץ הַחַיִּים"
בראשית, ג', כ"ד
When Man sins and is expelled, the Keruvim are the guardians of the path to Gan Eden. What is their message in this context?

Mankind has an innate desire for Paradise. This desire has taken many forms over the ages, from ascetics that attempt to gain Paradise by withdrawing from this world, to warrior cultures who seek to attain Valhalla through their battle prowess, to secular Utopian movements who seek to build the perfect society through technology. Yet Paradise remains ever distant, obscure, ever unreachable.

The Keruvim of the Mishkan

The Mishkan addresses this basic Human desire with it's own Keruvim, as if to say, "Here lies the path to Paradise". The Torah redeems our innate desire for Paradise by directing it towards the Torah spoken to Moshe from between the Keruvim. One who desires Paradise should learn the Torah and uphold the covenant, symbolized by the Luchot Habrit contained within the Aron, supporting the Keruvim. In this way we may elevate Mankind and walk the path back to Eden.

Wednesday, 27 January 2016

Our Story is Written in Blood

The 10 plagues begin with blood and they end with blood. They begin with the plague of blood(Shemot 7), and they end with the blood of the Pascal lamb spread across the doorjambs(Shemot 12).

יד וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוָה אֶל-מֹשֶׁה, כָּבֵד לֵב פַּרְעֹה; מֵאֵן, לְשַׁלַּח הָעָם.  טו לֵךְ אֶל-פַּרְעֹה בַּבֹּקֶר, הִנֵּה יֹצֵא הַמַּיְמָה, וְנִצַּבְתָּ לִקְרָאתוֹ, עַל-שְׂפַת הַיְאֹר; וְהַמַּטֶּה אֲשֶׁר-נֶהְפַּךְ לְנָחָשׁ, תִּקַּח בְּיָדֶךָ.  טז וְאָמַרְתָּ אֵלָיו, יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵי הָעִבְרִים שְׁלָחַנִי אֵלֶיךָ לֵאמֹר, שַׁלַּח אֶת-עַמִּי, וְיַעַבְדֻנִי בַּמִּדְבָּר; וְהִנֵּה לֹא-שָׁמַעְתָּ, עַד-כֹּה.  יז כֹּה, אָמַר יְהוָה, בְּזֹאת תֵּדַע, כִּי אֲנִי יְהוָה:  הִנֵּה אָנֹכִי מַכֶּה בַּמַּטֶּה אֲשֶׁר-בְּיָדִי, עַל-הַמַּיִם אֲשֶׁר בַּיְאֹר--וְנֶהֶפְכוּ לְדָם.  יח וְהַדָּגָה אֲשֶׁר-בַּיְאֹר תָּמוּת, וּבָאַשׁ הַיְאֹר; וְנִלְאוּ מִצְרַיִם, לִשְׁתּוֹת מַיִם מִן-הַיְאֹר.  {ס}  יט וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוָה אֶל-מֹשֶׁה, אֱמֹר אֶל-אַהֲרֹן קַח מַטְּךָ וּנְטֵה-יָדְךָ עַל-מֵימֵי מִצְרַיִם עַל-נַהֲרֹתָם עַל-יְאֹרֵיהֶם וְעַל-אַגְמֵיהֶם וְעַל כָּל-מִקְוֵה מֵימֵיהֶם--וְיִהְיוּ-דָם; וְהָיָה דָם בְּכָל-אֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם, וּבָעֵצִים וּבָאֲבָנִים.  כ וַיַּעֲשׂוּ-כֵן מֹשֶׁה וְאַהֲרֹן כַּאֲשֶׁר צִוָּה יְהוָה, וַיָּרֶם בַּמַּטֶּה וַיַּךְ אֶת-הַמַּיִם אֲשֶׁר בַּיְאֹר, לְעֵינֵי פַרְעֹה, וּלְעֵינֵי עֲבָדָיו; וַיֵּהָפְכוּ כָּל-הַמַּיִם אֲשֶׁר-בַּיְאֹר, לְדָם.  כא וְהַדָּגָה אֲשֶׁר-בַּיְאֹר מֵתָה, וַיִּבְאַשׁ הַיְאֹר, וְלֹא-יָכְלוּ מִצְרַיִם, לִשְׁתּוֹת מַיִם מִן-הַיְאֹר; וַיְהִי הַדָּם, בְּכָל-אֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם.  כב וַיַּעֲשׂוּ-כֵן חַרְטֻמֵּי מִצְרַיִם, בְּלָטֵיהֶם; וַיֶּחֱזַק לֵב-פַּרְעֹה וְלֹא-שָׁמַע אֲלֵהֶם, כַּאֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר יְהוָה.  כג וַיִּפֶן פַּרְעֹה, וַיָּבֹא אֶל-בֵּיתוֹ; וְלֹא-שָׁת לִבּוֹ, גַּם-לָזֹאת.  כד וַיַּחְפְּרוּ כָל-מִצְרַיִם סְבִיבֹת הַיְאֹר, מַיִם לִשְׁתּוֹת:  כִּי לֹא יָכְלוּ לִשְׁתֹּת, מִמֵּימֵי הַיְאֹר.  כה וַיִּמָּלֵא, שִׁבְעַת יָמִים, אַחֲרֵי הַכּוֹת-יְהוָה, אֶת-הַיְאֹר.  {פ}

ז וְלָקְחוּ, מִן-הַדָּם, וְנָתְנוּ עַל-שְׁתֵּי הַמְּזוּזֹת, וְעַל-הַמַּשְׁקוֹף--עַל, הַבָּתִּים, אֲשֶׁר-יֹאכְלוּ אֹתוֹ, בָּהֶם.  ח וְאָכְלוּ אֶת-הַבָּשָׂר, בַּלַּיְלָה הַזֶּה:  צְלִי-אֵשׁ וּמַצּוֹת, עַל-מְרֹרִים יֹאכְלֻהוּ.  ט אַל-תֹּאכְלוּ מִמֶּנּוּ נָא, וּבָשֵׁל מְבֻשָּׁל בַּמָּיִם:  כִּי אִם-צְלִי-אֵשׁ, רֹאשׁוֹ עַל-כְּרָעָיו וְעַל-קִרְבּוֹ.  י וְלֹא-תוֹתִירוּ מִמֶּנּוּ, עַד-בֹּקֶר; וְהַנֹּתָר מִמֶּנּוּ עַד-בֹּקֶר, בָּאֵשׁ תִּשְׂרֹפוּ.  יא וְכָכָה, תֹּאכְלוּ אֹתוֹ--מָתְנֵיכֶם חֲגֻרִים, נַעֲלֵיכֶם בְּרַגְלֵיכֶם וּמַקֶּלְכֶם בְּיֶדְכֶם; וַאֲכַלְתֶּם אֹתוֹ בְּחִפָּזוֹן, פֶּסַח הוּא לַיהוָה.  יב וְעָבַרְתִּי בְאֶרֶץ-מִצְרַיִם, בַּלַּיְלָה הַזֶּה, וְהִכֵּיתִי כָל-בְּכוֹר בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם, מֵאָדָם וְעַד-בְּהֵמָה; וּבְכָל-אֱלֹהֵי מִצְרַיִם אֶעֱשֶׂה שְׁפָטִים, אֲנִי יְהוָה.  יג וְהָיָה הַדָּם לָכֶם לְאֹת, עַל הַבָּתִּים אֲשֶׁר אַתֶּם שָׁם, וְרָאִיתִי אֶת-הַדָּם, וּפָסַחְתִּי עֲלֵכֶם; וְלֹא-יִהְיֶה בָכֶם נֶגֶף לְמַשְׁחִית, בְּהַכֹּתִי בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם.

The question that follows is "Why?" Why this framing of the 10 plagues in blood? What message lies in this pronounced use of parallelism?

The Plague of Blood

We recently discussed the Plague of Blood as symbolizing the blood of the Israelite children Pharaoh ordered thrown into the Nile. This comes within the broader context of events meant to elicit foreboding and even Horror on the part of Pharaoh and his servants. We have covered the plague of blood pretty well. What of the blood of the Pascal lamb, though?

Moshe at the Malon

Before we get there, lets first discuss the first reference to blood in Sefer Shemot. I'm referring, of course, to the incident at the inn when Moshe and his family are on their way to Egypt(Shemot 4).
 כד וַיְהִי בַדֶּרֶךְ, בַּמָּלוֹן; וַיִּפְגְּשֵׁהוּ יְהוָה, וַיְבַקֵּשׁ הֲמִיתוֹ. כה וַתִּקַּח צִפֹּרָה צֹר, וַתִּכְרֹת אֶת-עָרְלַת בְּנָהּ, וַתַּגַּע, לְרַגְלָיו; וַתֹּאמֶר, כִּי חֲתַן-דָּמִים אַתָּה לִי. כו וַיִּרֶף, מִמֶּנּוּ; אָז, אָמְרָה, חֲתַן דָּמִים, לַמּוּלֹת.

After circumcising her son and thus saving Moshe's life from God's Angel, Tzipora calls God "Groom of Blood to the Circumcised".

We already noted previously the parallel between this passage and Yaakov wrestling with the Angel, but now let us note the difference between the passages. Here Moshe fails to overcome his heavenly attacker. Instead, he is only saved by the blood of his son's circumcision, by continuing to pass on Abraham's covenant with God.

Circumcision and Pesach

So why talk about Moshe at the inn? The reason is that this passage is itself connected to the blood of the Pascal lamb in a few ways:
  1. Both portray Jews being saved from God's angel by ritually spilled blood
  2. Moshe's own arc parallels that of the plagues. Like many less fortunate infants, he is left in the waters of the Nile(blood), he emerges from them alive(frogs-locusts), he kills an Egyptian(locusts-killing of firstborn). As such, Moshe's experience at the inn is a fitting parallel for the pascal lamb.
  3. As Rav Yoel Ben-Nun points out( איזה ילד לא נימול ומדוע, תורת עציון על ספר שמות), the mitzva of the Passover sacrifice is related to the mitzva of circumcision. There is a rule that that the uncircumcised may not partake of the Passover sacrifice(Shemot 12)

מח וְכִי-יָגוּר אִתְּךָ גֵּר, וְעָשָׂה פֶסַח לַיהוָה--הִמּוֹל לוֹ כָל-זָכָר וְאָז יִקְרַב לַעֲשֹׂתוֹ, וְהָיָה כְּאֶזְרַח הָאָרֶץ; וְכָל-עָרֵל, לֹא-יֹאכַל בּוֹ. 

What emerges from this association is the idea that, like Moses at the malon, Israel's firstborn are only saved from the 10th plague due to their continued participation in Abraham's covenant with God i.e. by partaking of the Pascal Lamb in Egypt, and presumably because they are themselves circumcised.


 Blood of Retribution, Blood of Redemption

Having now thoroughly dissected blood as it appears in the first plague and the last, let us return to our original question. What message lies within this gory framing of the 10 plagues.

One answer that comes to mind is a message of reward and punishment. Blood that is spilled in sin awakens God's awful punishment, as experienced by the Egyptians. Blood spilled in God's service awakens Gods glorious redemption, as experienced by the Children of Israel.
That's if we merely contrast the two bloods, but I would claim the text also invites us to draw a comparison. The children of Israel showed their allegiance to the God of Abraham through circumcision and the highly public sign of smearing the blood of the pascal lamb on their doorposts. In doing so, they are giving meaning to the otherwise senseless deaths of their infants, thrown into the Nile by order of the Pharaoh. In declaring publicly our commitment to God, the epitome of our oppression in Egypt becomes an essential part of the story of Israel's Redemption, the story of how God's holy nation was born.

On a final note, Yechezkel refers to these two bloods that bore us when he says(chapter 16)

ה לֹא חָסָה עָלַיִךְ עַיִן לַעֲשׂוֹת לָךְ אַחַת מֵאֵלֶּה לְחֻמְלָה עָלָיִךְ וַתֻּשְׁלְכִי אֶל פְּנֵי הַשָּׂדֶה בְּגֹעַל נַפְשֵׁךְ בְּיוֹם הֻלֶּדֶת אֹתָךְ. ו וָאֶעֱבֹר עָלַיִךְ וָאֶרְאֵךְ מִתְבּוֹסֶסֶת בְּדָמָיִךְ וָאֹמַר לָךְ בְּדָמַיִךְ חֲיִי וָאֹמַר לָךְ בְּדָמַיִךְ חֲיִי