Disclaimer: I am not connected to Sefaria in any way, this is just the enthusiastic sharing of something I discovered.
I have recently discovered Sefaria, a "living library of Jewish texts" according to their self-description. They have the texts of many classic Jewish sources, the Tanakh (bible), the Mishna and Talmud, many of the commentaries and even some of the important halachic works like the Shulchan Aruch. Some are only available in the Hebrew original, but for a few there is an English translation. The interface is intuitive and clear and the font looks nice.
And finally, the best feature: They have a source sheet creator! So I have tried to produce my first sheet and seen that many of my sources are only available in Hebrew. But you can add your own translations and even make them available to the community! So when I have more time, I will do that and publish the sources sheet.
The command to hate and wipe out Amalek (including innocent babies) is a troubling one for many modern Jews. You can avoid thinking about the whole thing by arguing that anyway we do not know who is Amalek today, but that doesn’t change the moral dilemma. Rabbi Sacks asks a different question, not about the morality, but about the reason behind the command:
We are commanded not to hate Egypt, but never to forget Amalek. Why the difference? The simplest answer is to recall the rabbis’ statement in The Ethics of the Fathers [5:16]: "If love depends on a specific cause, when the cause ends, so does the love. If love does not depend on a specific cause, then it never ends." The same applies to hate. When hate depends on a specific cause, it ends once the cause disappears. Causeless, baseless hate lasts forever.
That is why are commanded to remember and never forget Amalek, not because the historic people still exists, but because a society of rational actors can sometimes believe that the world is full of rational actors with whom one can negotiate peace. It is not always so.
(Rabbi Sacks: The Face of Evil)
When people hate you for a reason you can address this reason. You can argue, discuss facts, make them understand your point of view, understand theirs, modify circumstances and behaviours, find a compromise, and generally negotiate and come to a solution. In the Torah, these are the Egyptians [maybe not every one of them, but the leaders].
When people just hate you and afterwards come up with reasons for it, there is nothing you can do. If you remove the reason for their hate, they will just find another reason. That is Amalek, they had no dealings with the Israelite and still attacked them. There’s no point in trying to resolve the conflict as there is no reason for it.
The challenge is to see when it’s one or the other and concentrate your energy on those people that have valid reasons for their hate and try to arrive at a common ground.
It should not come as a surprise that I like the parasha thoughts of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. Here’s a paragraph from this year’s discussion of parashat Vayeshev that I wanted to share:
[…] We, the semikhah and yeshiva students, were davenning the morning service in one of the lounges in the chateau when the Reform woman entered, wearing tallit and tefillin, and sat herself down in the middle of the group.
This is something the students had not encountered before. What were they to do? There was no mechitzah. There was no way of separating themselves. How should they react to a woman wearing tallit and tefillin and praying in the midst of a group of men? They ran up to the Rav in a state of great agitation and asked what they should do. Without a moment’s hesitation he quoted to them the saying of the sages: A person should be willing to throw himself into a furnace of fire rather than shame another person in public.
(Rabbi Jonathan Sacks: The Heroism of Tamar (Vayeshev 5775))
This is a lesson that contrasts with the seemingly never-ending news about religious Jews who throw tantrums on airplanes because they have to sit next to a woman and other such stories. A little humility, taking back oneself rather than shame another. And the worlds would be a better place. For those that like to have sources they can point to, here are those Rabbi Sacks gives:
Because Mar Zutra b. Tobiah said in the name of Rab (others state: R. Huna40 b. Bizna said in the name of R. Simeon the Pious; and others again state: R. Johanan said in the name of R. Simeon b. Yohai): Better had a man thrown himself into a fiery furnace than publicly put his neighbour to shame. Whence do we derive this? From [the action of] Tamar; for it is written in Scripture, When she was brought forth, [she sent to her father-in-law].
(Babylonian Talmud, Ketubot 67b)
R. Zutra b. Tobiah further said in the name of Rab — according to others. R. Hanah b. Bizna said it in the name of R. Simeon the Pious, and according to others again. R. Johanan said it in the name of R. Simeon b Yohai: It is better for a man that he should cast himself into a fiery furnace rather than that he should put his fellow to shame in public.13 Whence do we know this? From Tamar, of whom it says, When she was brought forth etc.
(Babylonian Talmud, Brachot 43b)
A corollary from the Sinai mass revelation discussion. Another argument for the uniqueness (and by implication divinity) of the Torah that I have heard a few times is that the leading figures in Torah are all imperfect. The Torah describes all their sins very openly. Other (men-written) texts from the time glorify their leaders.
Yes, you have these perfect stories about some leaders. They list victory after victory and nothing else. Every king has a record of his accomplishments which conveniently forgets the defeats. We have many inscriptions of greatness, but who remembers the party that lost. Actually, this is not a phenomenon that we have left behind, even today biographies of great persons are sometimes "cleaned up" because we want our hero to be perfect.
But there are also plenty of non-biblical stories of flawed heroes around. Greek and Roman mythology would be nothing without a character flaw. Romulus, founder of Rome, kills his own brother. Odysseus is overly proud. And so on. For that matter Greek and Roman gods are not better, they are angry, jealous, unfaithful and arrogant. Norse gods (Odin, Thor, etc) are a bunch with pretty much the same qualities as their southern counterparts. Iceland’s famous Njál saga is full of people deceiving and killing each other. And these are just a few examples.
Stories of perfect beings are just not that interesting. And stories are created to teach a character lesson. We need to see the hero overcome their flaws – or go down because of them. So in itself stories with flawed heroes are not rare. Still, I would say there is a difference between the examples I listed above and the stories about the patriarchs, Moses and the other great Jewish leaders. But what exactly is the difference?
With all the discussion about why it was Pessach when the angels visited Abraham, I forgot to mention why I included the reason in the first place (this quote is from AskMoses, but stands as only one representation of this type of statement you can also find at Chabad, Aish, and all the other orthodox-mystical-kiruv-sites):
It is a tradition that Abraham kept the entire Torah even though it had not yet been given. So he would have celebrated Passover even before the Jews had entered Egypt!
(Rabbi Yossi Marcus on AskMoses Why do we have three matzot on the Seder plate?)
Yeah, sure. Abraham celebrated Pesach and ate matzot. He probably wore a shtreimel. I don’t know what to say about this other than Abraham lived way before the exodus happened and there is just no rational reason why he should have baked matzot. So I’ll just conclude with a video on the topic (not specifically matzot and Abraham, but Eisav and the bracha on lentil stew and a-historic anti-rational views of the patriarchs in general):
"The Torah commands us to write a Sefer Torah. Did Yaakov observe that commandment?" – "Of course" – "So why didn’t he just take out this Sefer Torah and read it to find out that his son Yosef was alive and avoid all that heartache?"
"The gemara brings down a machlokes about whether the correct bracha on lentils is shehakol or mesonos. The best way to avoid any problems is to wash on bread."
"If Yakov knew the entire Torah, why didn’t he know the correct bracha for lentils. Why didn’t he know which of the opinions in Masechet Brachos was correct?
End of rant, have fun on Youtube.
As promised in my last post, here some words on the angels’ visit of Abraham which supposedly takes place on Pessach (or so I read on Chabad). First, the source text:
And He said: ‘I will certainly return unto thee when the season cometh round; and, lo, Sarah thy wife shall have a son.’ […]
(Genesis 18:10, translation from Mechon Mamre)
So how and where does Pessach enter into this? Rashi says this in his comment on the verse:
At this time in the coming year. It was Passover, and on the following Passover, Isaac was born […]
(Rashi on Genesis 18:10, translation from Chabad)
And where did he get this from? Well, I found some answers online (R. David Silverberg: Parashat Vayera, from third section on), let’s try to piece it together. Very fascinating stuff! Source is of course the Talmud, where we find many such questions. The underlying assumption is always that the patriarchs kept the whole Torah, including holidays commemorating events that hadn’t happened yet. If you find this disturbing, skip ahead to the next post.
In this specific case, the discussion hinges on the meaning of the Hebrew "LaMo’ed ashuv eleicha". The word "mo’ed" could mean "festival". So which festival? The Talmud says Isaac’s birth was on Pesach. There must be enough time between the visit and the "next festival" for pregnancy and birth, so the Talmud discusses two opinions for the visit, Succot (Tractate Rosh Hashanah 11a) and somewhere between Yom Kippur and Succot (Tractate Bava Metzia 86b). This is the widest timeframe possible between two festivals. And – of course – there is another opinion. Chazal (sages from that time whose statements did not necessarily enter into the Talmud) state that the visit was on Pesach and the birth was on Pesach the next year. This is the view Rashi is citing in his comment that we saw above.
There’s more that we could discuss, but here’s what I wondered about the most when I read the Hebrew: The word "mo’ed" under discussion is not in the verse! Here’s the verse again, this time in Hebrew (sorry for the formatting):
וַיֹּאמֶר, שׁוֹב אָשׁוּב אֵלֶיךָ כָּעֵת חַיָּה, וְהִנֵּה-בֵן, לְשָׂרָה אִשְׁתֶּךָ; וְשָׂרָה שֹׁמַעַת פֶּתַח הָאֹהֶל, וְהוּא אַחֲרָיו.
[Vayomer, shuv ashuv eleicha ka’et chaya, veHine-ben, leSara ishtecha; VeSara shama’at petach haOhel, veHu acharav.]
No "mo’ed"! I was utterly confused until I read on and found the verse the discussion is actually referring to:
הֲיִפָּלֵא מֵיְהוָה, דָּבָר; לַמּוֹעֵד אָשׁוּב אֵלֶיךָ, כָּעֵת חַיָּה–וּלְשָׂרָה בֵן.
[Hayipale meAdonay, davar; laMo’ed ashuv eleicha, ka’et chaya – uleSara ben.]
Is any thing too hard for the LORD. At the set time I will return unto thee, when the season cometh round, and Sarah shall have a son.’
(Genesis 18:14 at Mechon Mamre)
There it is, our "mo’ed". So what does Rashi have to say about this verse?
At the appointed time: At that time that was appointed, that I set for you yesterday, [when I said] (17:21): “at this time next year.”
(Rashi on Genesis 18:14, translation from Chabad)
Genesis 17:21 says "But My covenant I will establish with Isaac, whom Sarah will bear to you at this time next year.", containing "laMo’ed" as well. Only verse 18:10, the one Rashi puts his comment on, does not. Well… he could’ve saved the world from this post by putting the comment somewhere else!
Ok, a short summary: Abraham is visited by angels, they tell him that they will come back "laMo’ed" when he will have a son. The word "mo’ed" in Genesis 18:14 may be interpreted as "festival". The sages discuss different festivals, including Pesach. Rashi selects Pesach and this is in turn what Chabad references. To really understand the argument, we’d need to talk about the date of Abraham’s circumsision, the date of the angels’ visit of Lot, the date of Isaac’s birth – but this post is long enough as it is.
Just another quote by Rabbi Sacks, from the ‘Covenant & Conversation’ parasha commentary series, part Bo (5774) – The Far Horizon:
There is only one way to change the world, and that is by education. You have to teach children the importance of justice, righteousness, kindness and compassion. You have to teach them that freedom can only be sustained by the laws and habits of self-restraint. You have continually to remind them of the lessons of history, “We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt,” because those who forget the bitterness of slavery eventually lose the commitment and courage to fight for freedom. And you have to empower children to ask, challenge and argue. You have to respect them if they are to respect the values you wish them to embrace.
For a long time, I have been convinced that education is the only power that can truly change the world. And education is also the foundation on which to build a living, thriving Jewish community. Where I live, nearly my complete generation has been lost to Judaism and I attribute a lot of it to missing education. In my community, 90% of my generation came here from the former Soviet Union as children of parents who had no education in Judaism. The communities welcomed the growth, helped the families integrate into their new home country, helped with the paperwork, medical aid, etc. But due to the very small size of the original communities, no time and energy was left for religious education. The children who grew up here have as little attachement and knowledge of the religion as their parents who were forced to abandon it by the communists. The only young people in my community you see at services are converts or people who move here from other countries. This is so sad and I hope we can somehow reclaim at least part of them or their children!
After Moses’ death, Joshua ben Nun took over for him and led the 12 tribes into the land of Israel. Starting point is on the east side of the Jordan river (they didn’t really take the shortest route!). Mainly the book describes how one city/state after the other falls to the Israelites’ conquest (until chapter 12) and when this is done how the land is distributed between the tribes (look it up in a map in the tribal allotments of Israel article on Wikipedia) and the cities of refuge are instated. The book ends with Joshua’s death when he is 110 years old.
- The spies in Jericho: Isralite spies were hidden by Rahab, a prostitute, and let her and her family live (Joshua 2:1-22, Joshua 6:22-25).
- Splitting of the Jordan: The waters of the Jordan river stop when the priests enter the water with the ark of the covenant so that all the people can pass (Joshua 3:1-4:24).
- Destruction of Jerich: The walls of Jericho crumbled when the Israelites blew their trumpets (Joshua 6:1-26).
- Zelophehad’s daughters get their inheritance: Remember the women fighting for their piece of the land in Numbers/Bamidbar 27:1-11? They also get their share of the land (Joshua 17:3-4).
I have just finished reading a very interesting series of essays that tries to explain the discrepancies between books Shemot (Exodus) and Bamidbar (Numbers) on the one hand and Devarim (Deuteronomy) on the other hand. The issue is, that Devarim recounts in some places the same stories that have already been told beforehand in Shemot-Bamidbar – but slightly different.
In the series Rethinking Orthodoxy and Biblical Criticism, Professor Joshua Berman explains his theory that the Tora follows the form of a treaty between sovereign and vassal kings as was common in the ancient near east at around 1300 BCE. He explains that we find in the Tora many elements typical for such a treaty: a historical prologue, followed by the conditions of the treaty, witnesses, blessings and curses.
The repetitions in Devarim would be explained by it being a follow-up treaty, where the elements of the previous treaty are repeated. But they are not repeated verbatim. The conditions may change (read: variations on halachot between Shemot-Bamidbar and Devarim, although the series does not really go into this point). And also the historical prologue is not intended to be a faithful recounting of what actually happened, but a diplomatic instrument, a way of setting the tone of the relationship. It reflects what has happened in the meantime and the differences are not errors, different traditions or anything, they are meant to be analyzed in terms of good/bad diplomatic relations.
The first treaty of G-d with the exodus-generation as written down in Shemot-Bamidbar was more positive. The second treaty was with the new generation born in the desert, after lots of things have happened that have influenced the relationship negatively. So the discrepancies we see are all painting Israel in a more critical light.
I am no expert in biblical criticism and do not know the alternative theories very well. I do not even know the plain text of the Tora well enough. To me the treaty-theory makes sense. Still, I am left with lots of questions. Where do Bereshit (Genesis) and Vayikra (Levitikus) enter the picture? Is it normal that the "salvation" element, i.e., the story of the exodus, that precedes the historical prologue, is not in the renewal treaty? Why the change of narratological tone between the accounts if both are treaties in the same format? Still, I recommend reading the whole series and I am looking forward to the series on halachot differences between the two parts.
Joseph, son of Yaakov, grows up as the beloved son. But suddenly his whole world turns upside down: he gets sold as a slave by his brothers, his master’s wife wants to seduce him, he is thrown into prison with a life-long sentence. If wuold have been easy at this point to lose hope.
But he does not give up, he knows that G-d has a plan for him, he fights depression. And so even in prison, tries to cheer up other prisoners by interpreting their dreams. And this turns into his way out later on.
Just like Joseph, we need to fight depression, every day. Even if it seems like everything is lost. Never give up, never surrender!
Hat tip: R. Moshe Bendahan (from 10:30 on).
"אַתֶּם רְאִיתֶם, אֲשֶׁר עָשִׂיתִי לְמִצְרָיִם; וָאֶשָּׂא אֶתְכֶם עַל-כַּנְפֵי נְשָׁרִים, וָאָבִא אֶתְכֶם אֵלָי."
"Ye have seen what I did unto the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings, and brought you unto Myself."
"כְּנֶשֶׁר יָעִיר קִנּוֹ, עַל-גּוֹזָלָיו יְרַחֵף; יִפְרֹשׂ כְּנָפָיו יִקָּחֵהוּ, יִשָּׂאֵהוּ עַל-אֶבְרָתוֹ."
"As an eagle that stirreth up her nest, hovereth over her young, spreadeth abroad her wings, taketh them, beareth them on her pinions–"
Rashi says in his famous comment (translation from Chabad):
“All other birds carry their young in their talons, out of fear of a larger predator attacking them from behind and above. The eagle, however, fears no other bird, only man. For this reason it carries its young on its wings, reasoning that if it is attacked by arrows, it would suffer the injury, not their young. When the Egyptians attacked the Jews at the Red Sea, G‑d sent angels to situate themselves between the camp of Israel and the Egyptian camp, and the Divine clouds absorbed the missiles and arrows.”
This is truly a very beautiful image and I can definitely relate to the idea that G’d carries us on his wings.
But the old sceptic in me asks: Is it true literally? Do eagles really carry their young on their back?
I am no zoologist, but this is what I found:
- Several Jewish and Christian pages have this citation and discuss the theological ramifications (just search for "do eagles carry their young"
- Some of these pages, e.g. Zoo Torah (about halfway down the page), bring reported observations of parent birds that let their young rest on their back.
- There seems to be a discussion about what species exactly "nesher" refers to, an eagle or maybe a vulture or some more general animal category.
- Zoologist or bird enthusiansts seem to be very sceptic to the claim, e.g. Ask a Scientist.
- Among other things, young eagles seem to weigh more than their parents, which would it make very hard for the parents to carry them.
So I tend to say no, but of course it is not easy to prove that something can not happen. It might always happen when we are not looking…