This week’s portion involves the infamous Flood, including God’s command that Noah bring both clean and unclean animals (Gen. 7:8). This seems a mite confusing, since the Torah does not list “clean” and “unclean” animals until the days of Moses many centuries later.
Soncino lists two very different explanations. Nachmanides has an explanation that makes sense; God told Noah which animals to sacrifice, and the Torah is being succinct as it often is. Rashi has a much more fanciful explanation; he claims that Noah studied the as-yet-unrevealed Torah. For some reason, Rashi seems to prefer the most off-the-wall explanations of the Torah, and rabbis (especially, in my experience, yeshivish rabbis) tend to prefer those explanations.
I don’t quite understand why; do rabbis think that people will accept traditional Judaism only if they are encouraged time and again to suspend their common sense? More likely, they are just passing on the mistakes made by their teachers, who got them from their teachers. But when did this love of nonsense start?
This is a really long Torah portion, and there are two things that struck me as interesting in Soncino’s commentary.
Early in the portion, God says that man shall have “dominion” over other life (Gen. 1:26). Soncino cites Rashi’s statement that vyirdu (“dominion”) sounds a lot like the Hebrew word for descent, indicating that when man is not worthy “he descends below [animals'] level and the animals rule over him.” I realize Rashi was not thinking about climate change, but this passage makes me think of rising sea levels and other possible problems. If man is not worthy of addressing the climate change problem, it won’t just be the animals that rule over him, but the seas and other inanimate objects. Unfortunately, the political process seems paralyzed not just in the U.S., but also in China, India, and other major emitters of greenhouse gases. So humanity is looking pretty unworthy right now.
On a not-so-global note, the story eventually turns to Adam and Eve and Cain and Abel. Cain’s name is pretty flattering; it means “possession” (according to Soncino) and Eve says “I have gotten a man with the help of the LORD” (Gen. 4:1). By contrast, Soncino calls her other son Abel, derived from “vanity” (hebel). So one son is a possession from God, and the other is just vanity? It seems to me that as early as the baby naming process Eve is setting her children up for sibling rivalry, which of course ends badly. Of course, this story also foreshadows the sibling rivalry among Joseph and his brothers; the difference is that the story ends somewhat less badly.
What’s going on? First, the Torah wants us to keep this idea of sibling rivalry in mind. But also, the Torah wants to show positive evolution, as the sibling rivalry situation goes from murderous (Cain/Abel) in the case of primordial humanity, to almost-murderous (Jacob/Esau, then Joseph/brothers) with pre-Torah proto-Judaism, to not-so-bad (after the giving of the Torah, when sibling rivalry becomes a weaker theme). In other words, we are learning that covenant, and even more so Torah, can mitigate the natural urge of brothers to kill each other.
This week I am finally done with following the Scharfstein chumash (yay!)
For the coming year, I am following the Soncino chumash, edited in Britain in the 1950s; it was commonly used in Orthodox synagogues before Artscroll (though it was less popular, I think, than the Hertz chumash). Like Artscroll, Soncino relies on the work of the major medieval commentators. Unlike Artscroll, it is limited to seven major commentators: Rashi, Ibn Ezra, Gersonides, Nachmanides, David Kimhi, sforno, and Rashbam.
Side note: my (used) copy has the following handwritten note in front:
“To my dear son,
Who has to raise a family away from Jewish community, astranged [I assume she meant estranged] from Jewish tradition. Please, remember who you are and who you came from.
The book apparently was in the Tuscon public library at some point, so I am guessing that Haya’s son got the book from his mother and quickly regifted it to the Tuscon library- not quite what Haya had in mind. On the positive side, Tuscon has half a dozen or so synagogues of all denominations so maybe this story did not end as sadly as I suspect.
When I was a youngster growing up in small-town America in the 1940s, the only sukkah in town stood behind the synagogue. It did service for the entire congregation. Even my father, the rabbi of our Conservative synagogue and devoutly observant, never seemed to entertain the idea of putting up a sukkah in our backyard. In those days, people had less time for domestic rituals and shied away from any public display of their Jewishness. The synagogue in Pottstown, a large, handsome, basilican structure on the main street, had become the last arena of individual and collective Jewish expression.
The same was true for the lulav and esrog, two or three sets in the synagogue for rabbi, cantor and interested lay persons. Again, no one ever thought of acquiring a personal set, perhaps because of cost, though, I suspect, more so because Judaism had increasingly been reduced to a religion that was done for you.
- Ismar Schorsch
The key words today are bland and hydrate- eat low sodium, bland food to avoid thirst and get hydrated with watery fruits and water.
For bland I had lentils, low sodium tuna and sardines (because I figured some animal protein might prevent me from feeling too hungry). Also a few almonds.
For hydrated I will have plums and dried dates.
Also I made kreplach (really pancakes since pan fried not boiled) with strawberry jam and dried dates.
The last Torah portion mentions that God “appeared from Mt. Paran and came from numerous angels.” Scharfstein quotes some midrash by Rashi about God asking the Ishmaelites to accept the Torah.
This is my last Torah portion with Scharfstein, and this remark illustrates why I am glad to leave him. Scharfstein is quoting a midrash which, if taken literally, is completely nuts. The notion that there were in fact mass revelations to non-Jews a) doesn’t actually seem consistent with the Torah’s text and (b) contradicts one of the most common arguments for the Torah’s truth (the so-called Kuzari proof). But the relentlessly simple-minded commentator treats Rashi as revelation.
After Simchat Torah I am using the Soncino chumash, which I hope will be better.
(Sorry I did this after Yom Tov; I forgot that last week was a double portion)
“Vengeance is mine, I will repay them” (Deut. 32:35)
Scharfstein writes that here, God “promises that He will take revenge against the enemies of Israel. History has proved [God] right. The ancient enemies of Israel- Babylonia and others- are footnotes in history books, while the modern state of Israel is alive and well.”
Scharfstein seems to have forgotten about the Muslims, who are hardly “footnotes in history books”. And I’m not sure how “well” Israel is, given that the numerous Arab and Muslim nations out to destroy it, all of whom are sending immigrants to Europe and America and are busy turning non-Israeli Jews into hostages in their own countries through anti-Jewish violence. Admittedly, Christian European civilization is arguably in decline- but the chief beneficiaries of that decline seem to be Muslim extremists, since nations like France seem to have difficulty keeping order or protecting the Jews from the Muslims.
The first night dinner was in shul (neighborhood Chabad) so I won’t talk about that. I tried to have some of the ritual foods, but without fish heads (this not being NYC) it wasn’t as much fun.
apples and honey of course
sauerkraut w/bbq sauce
dill herring (too sweet for me, wouldn’t do again)
turkey roll in rice/beans mix with bbq sauce (not a ritual food but I thought it would be nice to have some meat for yom tov)\
chocolate coin for dessert
Part of the Rosh Hashanah liturgy is acknowledging God’s kingship. I got a little more perspective about that this morning. I was going out for coffee with a faculty colleague, and I mentioned that when I was at another job some years ago, I was on the hiring committee. She asked me what I had learned. My first thought was “not much.” But as I told stories, I realized there was a theme: that it was all dependent on luck (aka God’s will, since if God created everything, by definition God created luck).
For example: after an interview the committee was discussing one candidate for a minute or two. Then the Dean said “I didn’t like her that much.” After that she was toast, because of a remark by the Dean that took two seconds. If the Dean had not been in the room, she would have probably gotten a callback.
So this Rosh Hashanah I learn: I am in control of my life a little bit, but only somewhat. (Of course, even to the extent I have free will, whatever that means, it was created by the same Force that created luck, so even that is a manifestation of Divine kingship).
In this week’s portion, Moses tells the Jews that he cannot lead them into the Promised Land, and that Joshua must take over soon. Commenting on Moses’s remarks, Scharfstein states that Moses must die on the wrong side of the tracks (so to speak) for his “sin of pride and disobedience” . Leaving aside the issue of whether Scharfstein is right about this, I’d like to discuss the issue of pride. Scharfstein worries about pride, and so does the Tanach (see Proverbs 16:18, translated as “pride goes before a fall” or something like that).
And yet today many people are very pro-pride. For example, one of our patriotic songs is “I’m Proud to Be An American.” And I’ve often heard Jews say that we should wear yarmulkes outside to show that we are “proud” to be Jews.
But as Scharfstein suggests, even pride in one’s own accomplishments is dangerous. So it seems to me that pride in something you have no control over (such as being born American, or for that matter being born Jewish) is even worse, because it is silly as well as harmful. One might as well be proud to be a carbon-based life form.