February 23, 2012
Hallel, the collection of psalms we recite on holidays, begins with Psalm 113. The psalm opens with some expected praises of God (this is Hallel, after all), and ultimately makes its way to this particular formulation (vv. 7-9):
He raises the poor from the dust, and lifts the needy from the ash heap;
He seats them with princes, with the princes of his people;
He settles the childless woman in her home as a happy mother of children.
The narrative suggested by the Psalm is that of the Exodus: the lowly Israelites are taken from the lowest point (slavery) and brought to the highest point (becoming God’s people at Sinai). This is a normative traditional understanding of the Psalm, and would seem to be a key factor in its placement at the start of Hallel, since Hallel is recited at the seder, and the recitation of Hallel is rooted in the experience of the liberation from Egypt. In fact, this particular Psalm is recited as part of the Maggid section of the Seder–it precedes the meal–and is therefore understood to be the culmination of the Rabbis’ instruction to “begin in lowliness and conclude in praise” (Pesachim 116a).
Yet there’s something very interesting in the formulation of these verses. Verse 7 makes sense: raising the poor, lifting the needy. But what about verse 8: What does the psalmist mean in saying that the poor is seated not only with princes, but with the princes of his people? This would imply that there were already princes among them. It could therefore refer to Moses (though he was a prince among the Egyptians). It could refer to the first-born or the elders among the Israelites.
In his Haggadah, Rabbi David Silber points to a more likely possibility. The word translated here as “prince” is the Hebrew term nadiv. This word suggests not so much the office or status of a noble, but rather the characteristic of nobility. It is linked to the term for generosity: nedavah (a free-will offering), or nediv-lev (one whose heart moves him to contribute). Here the idea of nobility is bound up with what noble people do: they’re generous. It is not about station, but about behavior and character.
Thus to be “seated with the princes of his people” is perhaps a broader suggestion. Rabbi Silber points us to the first use of the term in the Torah, which comes at the beginning of this week’s parasha (Ex. 25:2): “Tell the Israelites to bring me an offering. You are to receive the offering for me from everyone whose heart prompts them to give,” kol ish asher yidvenu-libo. After Revelation, God creates the possibility for every Israelite to be generous through the joint project of building the Mishkan. Everyone can give. And in giving, everyone can be a person who gives–a nadiv, a noble.
There’s an important message here about collective belonging, one that can inform all of our group experiences. As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes in his book The Home We Build Together, “A nation is built by building.” So are communities, companies, congregations, sports teams, and families. But there’s also an important message about the Exodus: the culmination of the Exodus is not the crossing of the sea, and not even the revelation of the Torah. The culmination of the Exodus is in the building of the Mishkan, in the empowerment of the powerless to be noble, to be generous, to contribute. That is why we sing Psalm 113 before our meal at the Seder, and it is why the last 15 chapters of the book of Exodus are devoted to the story of the Mishkan.
February 9, 2012
I want to focus this week on a couple of midrashim from Midrash Tanhuma. The first (Yitro 11) offers this understanding, which is found in several other places in Rabbinic literature: “‘And God spoke all these words saying: I am the Lord.’ Rabbi Yitzhak said: Even that which the prophets would prophesy in the future, all of it was received from [the moment of] Mount Sinai. How do we know this? From the verse, ‘I am making this covenant with its oath not only with you who are standing here with us today in the presence of the Lord our God but also with those who are not here today (Deut. 29:14-15).”
Rabbi Yitzhak claims that everything that later prophets would say was in some way uttered or revealed during the revelation at Mount Sinai. The words of Samuel or Isaiah or Amos or Zechariah were uttered at Sinai. Which is to say that the power of their prophecy derived from the Sinai revelation. Or, the insight of God that they understood in their own time had its roots in the God’s appearance to Israel at Sinai. In witty fashion, the prooftext he uses for this claim itself comes from a moment demonstrably after the Sinai revelation: 40 years later when Moses is taking his leave of the people. And yet, according to Rabbi Yitzhak, Moses’s words then are likewise an elaboration of the Sinai moment.
This is a challenging idea for us to understand. We tend to think in historical terms, which means that we understand moments to be separate: two moments cannot really be linked. What happened at Sinai happened then; what Moses said 40 years later, or what Isaiah said centuries after that, cannot really be the same thing. But Rabbi Yitzhak insists that they can. His understanding of history is different than ours. As Faulkner put it, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
The midrash (Yitro 12) goes on to make a related, more comprehensive claim about the moment of Revelation:
“And God said all these words”–All at one moment. ‘I bring death and give life,’ at one moment. ‘I punish and heal,’ at one moment. ‘I answer the woman on the birthstool, the ones on the seas, the wanderers in the desert, the ones locked in prison; the one in the east and the one in the west, the one in the north and the one in the south; I fashion light and create darkness, make peace and create evil,’ all of these at one moment…’ “What is the meaning of what is written above this passage, that “Mount Sinai was covered with smoke?” (Ex. 19:18) Perhaps it was because of God’s glory. But the Torah comes to teach that it is was because God descended upon the mountain in fire. For the Torah is entirely fire–from fire it was given, and in fire it is completed. Just as the nature of fire is such that if a person comes too close to it he is burned, and if he is too far from it he becomes cold, so with Torah: a person must come near the light of its scholars to warm himself.”
Like Rabbi Yitzhak’s earlier assertion, the Midrash here goes even further in articulating that the essence of the moment of Sinai was paradox. Sinai was the moment of profound unity, not only in history, but in all human experience. It is the taproot of prayer, as the Midrash suggests by referring to God’s ability to answer the prayers of people in far-flung places all at the same time. And it is the moment when those present had some insight into the parts of life and the universe that are beyond our ability to explain: the presence of good and evil, the mysteries of light and darkness. As we say every Friday night, Sinai was the moment when language itself was transcended: “Shamor v’zachor b’dibur echad,” ‘Keep’ and ‘Remember’ [the Sabbath day; cf. the Exodus and Deuteronomy accounts of the 10 Commandments] were uttered in one word.
Rabbi Yitzhak claims that all prophecy has its roots in this moment. But other thinkers, most prominently in Hasidus, go further. “And these words which I [anochi] command you today [hayom]” (Deut. 6:6) means that Anochi, the same Anochi as in the first word of the Ten Commandments, speaks to us every day. Every day can be Sinai, not only for the prophets, but for us–we who were not at Sinai, but who, according to the Midrash, really were.
Sinai then is not something far off, something remote and separate from us. It is something we can experience every day, if we learn to stop and listen and look for it.
February 3, 2012
One of the keywords of Parshat Beshallach is really two words with the same root. The first is milchama, the Hebrew word for war. The second is lechem, which means bread.
The opening verses of the parasha set the stage for the final battle between God and the Egyptians: “When Pharaoh sent the people out, God did not lead them on the road through the Philistine country, though that was shorter. For God said, “If they face war, they might change their minds and return to Egypt.” So God led the people around by the desert road toward the Red Sea.The Israelites went up out of Egypt ready for battle” (Ex. 13:17-18). This last clause, describing the Israelites as chamushim, ‘ready for battle,’ is extraneous–the text could read just as well without it. The commentators point to several possibilities for its inclusion: the verse explains how the Israelites were prepared for making war against Amalek (which will happen later in the parasha); or, famously, that the word chamushim indicates that only one-fifth (chomesh) of the people came out of Egypt.
But I would argue that the clause serves two additional purposes. First, it marks a fulfillment of Pharaoh’s original concern back in chapter 1 of Exodus: “‘Look,’ he said to his people, ‘the Israelites have become far too numerous for us. Come, we must deal shrewdly with them or they will become even more numerous and, if war breaks out, will join our enemies, fight against us and leave the country’” (1:9-10). While it sounded crazy at the time, it turns out Pharaoh was right: the Israelites have indeed left Egypt, and now they’re ready to do battle against him.
Second, the emphasis on milchama here presages Moses’s dramatic announcement to the people just before the sea is split: “The LORD will fight for you (yilachem lachem); and you will be silent” (14:14). It is not the Israelites who fight; rather it is God. And thus they sing, “Adonai ish milchama,” “The LORD is a man of war” (15:3). God is the one who does battle. The placement of milchama in this first half of the parasha is the culmination of the plagues: God not only does wonders, but God does battle against the Egyptian oppressor as well.
It also hearkens to the ending of the parasha, when Amalek comes and makes war, vayilachem, against Israel. Here the people do have to take matters into their own hands. But they are also still dependent on God, as victory requires that Moses hold up his arms for the duration of the war. The people are not entirely dependent on God, but God is still very much involved in their battles. The eternal war against Amalek will be one fought by Israel on God’s behalf.
In the middle of the parasha, we find the same root–lamed, chet, mem–but with a different meaning. “In the desert the whole community grumbled against Moses and Aaron. The Israelites said to them, ‘If only we had died by the LORD’s hand in Egypt! There we sat around pots of meat and ate all the bread (lechem) we wanted, but you have brought us out into this desert to starve this entire assembly to death’” (16:2-3). This complaint results in God providing manna, which is here referred to as lechem: “Then the LORD said to Moses, ‘I will rain down bread from heaven for you’” (16:4). In fact, over the course of chapter 16, the word lechem appears eight times–signifying its centrality to the narrative.
The juxtaposition of these two words that look identical, lechem and milchama, bread and war, is striking. Hasidic thinkers, including the Kedushas Levi and Reb Shneur Zalman of Liadi, have picked up on the similarities in the words in order to understand the relationship between them more deeply. The latter explains that every time we eat, a battle takes place between the holy and the unholy. Our eating can become an act of sanctification, reflection, and improvement; or it can become an act of baseness, coarseness, and vulgarity. If we take the time to prepare, to focus, and to make our eating purposeful and intentional, we can make the act into one of holiness. But if we eat quickly, inhaling our food and failing to acknowledge its significance, then we are no more than animals satisfying our base desires.
We can make one more observation: the centerpiece of the story of the manna is Shabbat. The manna would appear six days a week, and on Friday a double portion would appear. On Shabbat there would be none–Friday’s had to suffice. Thinking of the wordplay between lechem and milchama, we can also consider that Shabbat is a time when we should be at peace, a time when our entire awareness–in food, clothing, behavior, and time itself–is no longer in a state of milchama, but in a state of lechem mishneh, a double portion of bread. On Shabbat we aim to live without the battles of the workweek, and instead transform them into a source of sustenance.