Student Teaching in the New Millenium

Posts Tagged ‘Torah’

Pesach and God’s Face

In Exodus on March 31, 2013 at 12:32 am

We discussed Moses’ request to see God’s face in Torah study this morning. It was a very interesting discussion. People struggled with the idea of an abstract God whose “back” could be seen, but whose “face” could not be. If the sight of God is so awesome that it could destroy a man, what difference does it make whether you see God’s back or God’s face? What does it mean to look on God, as Moses did? What does this encounter tell us about ourselves, and our relationships with each other?

Is God’s face a dangerous secret?

What about Pesach, whose portion this is? Why discuss these issues on Pesach? One of the reasons we wear tefillin to daven is so that the name of God can be upon us (paraphrase from Shulchan Aruch). This is accomplished literally; the different ways of tying tefillin usually spell “Shaddai,” on of God’s names, on our body. So is that which bears the name, also the face? Is God’s face…..people?

True Wealth

In Exodus on January 29, 2012 at 3:45 pm

I go to market
and see some people buying,
others just looking.

I go to the ones
who are looking and give each
of them a pence piece.

They buy candies and
toy whistles. They are happy.
They make me wealthy.

Parsha Bo

But if the household is too small for a lamb, let him share one with a neighbor who dwells nearby, in proportion to the number of persons: you shall contribute for the lamb according to what each household will eat.

Exodus 12.4

Is it striking that the third thing we’re told is to be nice to each other? The first is it shall be the first month of the year for you. The second is take every man a lamb…a lamb for a household. The third is our text above.

Does this apply to The Exodus only, and Passover, when it is said that no Jew should have no place to go? Or to any Exodus situation? Define an Exodus situation.

Does this say the haves are responsible for the have nots? Or are the haves responsible for helping the have nots become haves? Is this a mere suggestion? Or a commandment to be sensitive to the needs of others, and not turn the needy away?

How does this instruction relate to the first two instructions received?  The hard part: I don’t want to hear about Passover.  Get creative!

Should the definition of needy be someone in need? Or someone who won’t help someone in need?

Even in hardship, do we affirm our humanity by affirming others’?

Do all creatures deserve to share our hours of triumph?

Eaten Alive

In Exodus, ReBlogged on January 24, 2012 at 8:53 am

I see the people,
eyes gray, skin pale, like the sky
Eating and sleeping

What do they have? Their
clothes, their beds, their food, their wives
eyes gray, and skin pale.

Parsha Bo

They shall devour the surviving remnant that was left to you after the hail.

Exodus 10.5

Ultra Orthodox Jews and the Modesty Fight (link)

A wonderful article by a courageous orthodox (male) rabbi. Responsibility for ourselves is in our own hands, no one else’s. Don’t the people he discusses have better things to do? Shouldn’t they be studying? Have they not learned anything?  Who are these people, really?

Take Pharoah in our parsha. He’s been through seven plagues already. Why does he invite an eighth?

God hardens his (Pharoah’s) heart and the hearts of his courtiers (Ex. 10.1). Yet the courtiers disagree with Pharoah’s established policy, saying “How long shall this one be a snare to us? Let the men go to worship the Lord their God! Are you not yet aware that Egypt is lost?” (Ex. 10.7) Jeremiah, our prophet this week, says:


He made many to stumble,
they fell over one another.
They said: “Up! let us return to our people,
To the land of our birth,
Because of the deadly sword.”
There they called Pharaoh king of Egypt:
“Braggart who let the hour go by.”

Jeremiah 46.16-17

What were the courtiers doing here?  Were they trying to protect Pharoah? The Egyptian people? The Israelites? Or their own necks?

Is Pharoah serving Egypt’s interests? Or his own?

When we become our unbalanced selfish interests, do we lose ourselves? Are we eaten alive by locusts?

In God’s Shoes

In Exodus on January 23, 2012 at 8:23 am

Days are tough sometimes
When I talk, and only the
bricks hear what I say.

They talk back, saying
“What do you mean? I don’t know!”
I enjoy good tea.

Parsha Waera

And the LORD said unto Moses: ‘See, I have set thee in God’s stead to Pharaoh.’

Exodus 7.1

Does God actually make Moses a capital-G God here?  This is a fantastic statement to make, given God’s position on other gods, capital-G or small-g. What’s going on here?  See Great Expectations for Moses’ human credentials.

Is Moses being set up as a God? Or is Moses simply getting a crash course in God-hood? Compare the exchanges between Moses and Pharoah over the next two chapters, between Moses and the Israelites over the rest of the Torah, and between God and people over the rest of recorded human history.

How often do people tell God, “no”?

How often do people tell you, “no”?

Is Moses Mamzer?

In Exodus on January 12, 2012 at 8:23 am
English: Moses Laid Amid the Flags, c. 1896-19...

Moses Laid Amid the Flags, c. 1896-1902, by James Jacques Joseph Tissot

My child is born.
I look down and see. It is
the prettiest thing.

I look at my wife.
They said she was forbidden
and not like to me.

Others will say this:
“She is not like us,” until
she makes herself great.

My child is already great.

Exodus 1.1 – 6.1
Isaiah 27.6 – 28.13; 29.22 – 23

Parsha Shemot

And there went a man of the house of Levi, and took to wife a daughter of Levi. And the woman conceived, and bore a son; and when she saw him that he was a goodly child, she hid him three months.

Exodus 2.1-2

And Moses said unto the LORD: ‘Oh Lord, I am not a man of words, neither heretofore, nor since Thou hast spoken unto Thy servant; for I am slow of speech, and of a slow tongue.’

Exodus 4.10

Why does the text say and there went a man of the house of Levi, and took [to wife] a daughter of Levi?  This is the old JPS translation.  The new JPS translation renders it a certain man of the house of Levi went and married a Levite woman.  Why not just “a man took to wife a woman”?

Ramban explains that the Sages explained the verse to mean that the man separated from his wife to avoid fathering a child following Pharoah’s decree and remarried her to have Moses.  Rashi and Rashbam echo this idea.  Ramban further explains that the plain meaning of the text describes marriage, not reunion, and that Torah does not relate events in strict chronological order.  The couple married, bore Aaron and Miriam, heard Pharoah’s decree, and then bore Moses, who was beautiful.  Of course, the statement that Torah does not relate events in their strict order is not an incontrovertible defense of either position.  In either case, the passage means that the certain man was already this woman’s husband, having already fathered Aaron and Miriam.

Ramban says something else interesting that contradicts the Sages, that to say the man went and did something does not mean to do over but to do something new.  He cites Reuben went and lay with Bilhah (Gen. 35.22) and he went and married Gomer (Hosea 1.1).  What fascinates me is what these phrases have in common.  Bilhah was Jacob’s concubine, or wife in the biblical sense, their marriage being established by sex.  Gomer was a sacred prostitute.  Both of these phrases refer to forbidden relations.  Perhaps nothing new, but exceptional.

It seems to me the onus of the statement went and did lies on the active participant, who in this case is the Levite man.  Ibn Ezra explains that Amram and Jochobed were later identified as Moses’ parents, and that Jochobed was Moses’ aunt. So here again, an exception has taken place.

What else is there?  We are taught later in Exodus that Moses is slow of speech and of a slow tongue.  Rashi explains slow of speech to mean that Moses was a stutterer.  Rashbam explains that slow of speech is part of Moses’ nature.  Ramban identifies it as an impediment, which seems to me to have support in who makes him dumb or deaf, seeing or blind?  Is it not I, the Lord? (Exodus 4.11)  So does Moses, the beautiful son of a certain man who went and married his aunt, have a speech impediment?

Was the certain man a certain man because there was something certain about him?  Did Moses inherit his speech impediment from him?  Or was the certain man a certain man, certain of what he wanted to do, with his own self-formulated opinions and direction and sense of his own and others’ rights, regardless of others’ thoughts?  Why not both?  Is this irresponsible?  Or liberated?

Is the man chosen by God to be the greatest prophet of the Torah and the giver of the Law, a mamzer?

Now…what does this teach us?

Midwives and Crazy People

In Exodus on January 11, 2012 at 9:26 pm
English: Pharaoh and the Midwives, c. 1896-190...

Approached by man in
motley and he says to me
drink this tasty poison.

Its quite good for you
and you’ll never feel better.
I say thanks and leave.

Exodus 1.1 – 6.1
Isaiah 27.6 – 28.13; 29.22 – 23

Parsha Shemot

What does this passage teach?

But the midwives feared God, and did not as the king of Egypt commanded them, but saved the men-children alive. And the king of Egypt called for the midwives, and said unto them: ‘Why have ye done this thing, and have saved the men-children alive?’ And the midwives said unto Pharaoh: ‘Because the Hebrew women are not as the Egyptian women; for they are lively, and are delivered ere the midwife come unto them.’ And God dealt well with the midwives; and the people multiplied, and waxed very mighty. And it came to pass, because the midwives feared God, that He made them houses.

Exodus 1.17-21

Why would the midwives apparently lie to Pharoah?  Does our discussion of the white lie apply here or not?  When Joseph’s brothers presented Israel’s alleged statements to Joseph in the last parsha, we assume their intent was to keep peace.  Can we say the same here?

Are the Hebrew women more robust than the Egyptian women?  Why do the midwives deal in racial stereotypes?

Are we supposed to behave based on stimuli or values?  Here it says the midwives feared God, and did not as the king…commanded them.  Did the midwives disobey Pharoah because they fear God?  Or did the midwives fear God, and disobey Pharoah, because this was right behavior in their eyes?  This distinction is subtle, but important.

If you don’t hold steadfast to your values, how do you expect to build a stable home?  Is this why the midwives were made houses after this episode?  Does the phrase made them houses make any sense?  Let’s put it another way:  were the midwives allowed to be fertile and lively because they allowed their sisters to be fertile and lively?  When we steadfastly preserve others’ liberties, do we promote our own?

So, the parsha makes the midwives’ lie not a lie.  The Israelites are granted fertility and livelihood as a result of the midwives actions.  God dealt well with the midwives; and the people multiplied, and waxed very mighty.  How is this accomplished?

First we must ask what Pharoah was doing talking with the midwives directly in the first place.  If the Egyptians were adread of the Israelites (Exodus 1.12) why would Pharoah trust the Hebrew midwives (v.15) to do his dirty work?  While we’re at it we should ask: why does Pharoah treat the Israelites as he does?  Was Pharoah provoked?  Where does the Torah tell us this?  How absolutely ridiculous is this situation?

I’d like to share a Zen story.  One day, on market day in a village, someone let a bull loose.  The bull was angry.  He ran up and down an alley destroying stalls and chasing people.  The villagers brought the local wise man and said to him “Wise man!  There’s a bull loose in the alley!  He’s angry.  He’s running up and down an alley destroying stalls and chasing people.  What should we do?”  The wise man took one look down the alley at the bull, before running down the road…to a different alley.  What does this teach us?

Sometimes, we’re forced to deal with crazy people.  This is an inescapable fact of life.  Everybody operates differently from everybody else, but the crazy person differs in that they’ve left the rest of us, and our common ground of humanity, far behind.  If someone is behaving in a way that makes no sense to you, if someone is endangering your life, what should you do?  You should do what’s necessary to get out of there.

This is what the midwives did.

You’re walking down the street.  Someone comes up behind you and says “drop your money on the ground and walk away.” You feel a knife to your back.  Do you say no and die?  Or do you do what’s necessary and live? No one is fertile or lively when they’re dead.

Reconstructing Yiddishkeit (Article)

In ReBlogged on January 7, 2012 at 7:05 pm

Reconstructing Yiddishkeit.

This article elucidates on refreshing Jewish identity in the 21st century, and discusses the Liberal Jewish push to conservatism in religious expression. I disagree with the author’s idea that the Reconstructionist Synagogue is the answer, but he says valuable things that all Jews, and all people for that matter, should do and hear.

Shabbat Blessing for 11th of Tevet

In Midrash on January 6, 2012 at 3:53 pm

The first week of the new year is complete.
It’s past time to ask ourselves what we want this year. 

Truth or Creativity?

One forms part of the other. 
Do you want the one that you might think?

What Is Merit? (5772 Vayechi)

In Genesis on January 2, 2012 at 12:30 am

May God be with Us,
Our Children, and Their Children,
And All They Know.

1 Kings 2:1.12
Genesis 47.28-50.26

And now thy two sons, who were born unto thee in the land of Egypt before I came unto thee into Egypt, are mine; Ephraim and Manasseh, even as Reuben and Simeon, shall be mine. (Genesis 48.5)

Why does the Torah induct Ephraim and Manasseh into the company of Jacob’s children with such pomp and circumstance? Why does Solomon become King of Israel although he is not first in line to the throne? Adonijah has the better claim.

Or does he? Later, Israel blesses his sons, each according to their blessings. We could also say each according to their merits. Adonijah’s character was not ideal for leadership, so Solomon was made king by David.

Is this to say Solomon was made king by David’s merit alone?

And Solomon said: ‘Thou hast shown unto Thy servant David my father great kindness, according as he walked before Thee in truth, and in righteousness, and in uprightness of heart with Thee; and Thou hast kept for him this great kindness, that Thou hast given him a son to sit on his throne, as it is this day. And now, O LORD my God, Thou hast made Thy servant king instead of David my father; and I am but a little child; I know not how to go out or come in.’. (1 Kings 3.6-7)

Note the phrase Thou has made Thy servant king instead of David my father. Whatever the merits of our forebears, it is our own merits that qualify us to rule instead of our parents. Merit is a matter of personal character. This has incredible implications for any prophecy concerning the Davidic line: any descendants of David must meet the standards of leadership on their own. What does this mean for a child of David who doesn’t meet the standard? What does this mean for someone else’s child who does? David was a great king in his own time. Would he have made a great king in Solomon’s time?

What are Ephraim and Manasseh’s merits? The phrase used is Ephraim and Manasseh, even as Reuben and Simeon, shall be mine. We’ve known Reuben as a conniving, weak willed, impulsive coward, and Simeon has severe anger management problems and a sadism fetish. They are the first of Israel’s sons. Why count Ephraim and Manasseh among them?

Ephraim and Manasseh as children are equally worthy of the honor accorded Reuben and Simeon. Joseph’s sons are innocents. They are also Israelites, though born in Egypt, and raised by their father after his father’s tradition. It is also Jacob’s wish. I do this because…Rachel died, to my sorrow, while I was journeying. (Genesis 48.7).

Jacob also says I never expected to see you again, and here God has let me see your children as well. (Genesis 48.11). The text says see, and not know. Jacob doesn’t know what to expect from these children. This is the lot of all ancestors. What does this teach us? To give people the benefit of the doubt.

Israel decides to bless young Ephraim and Manasseh, and tells Joseph so. Then he says Who are these? (Genesis 48.8) How can Jacob not know the very sons he plans to bless?

Do we all know merit when we see it?

Is merit knowable?

A Nation Of Peoples (5772 Vayigash)

In Genesis on January 1, 2012 at 5:45 pm

I don’t pick and choose
What veggies are on my plate.
They’re all good for me.

Ezekiel 37.15-28
Genesis 44.18-47.27

The prophet Exekiel prophecies the unification of the Israelites. If this is so, why is emphasis placed on the language of many and not one? Ezekiel says…

Of Judah and the Israelites associated with him
Of Joseph — the stick of Ephraim — and all the House of Israel associated with him. (37.16)

Thus said the Lord GOD: I am going to take the stick of Joseph — which is in the hand of Ephraim — and of the tribes of Israel associated with him, and I will place the stick of Judah upon it and make them into one stick; they shall be joined in My hand. (37.19)

The prophet takes special care to even celebrate the diversity of the people in anticipation of this unification. Then they shall be My people, and I will be their God. (37.23) Why does Ezekiel do this?

Ezekiel recognizes the sanctity of the individual. His is possibly one of the most individualistic ministries of the prophets, marked by odd statements and visions and, legend says, seizuring in public. Ezekiel’s relationship with us is an apt allegory for our own relationships with others: how often do other’s behaviors make no sense to you? How often do our own behaviors make no sense to other people? Ezekiel doesn’t discuss the unification of the people at the hip as an utterly collective body, homogenized by some epic religious spiritual lobotomy. He advocates the unification of the people in peace, and in celebration of our differences towards common purposes.

Isn’t marriage an exercise in this idea? How about procreation?

Ezekiel’s question for the parsha is this. Does the people include the people of Egypt?