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.
This coming week”s Torah portion mentions that there are secret things that are for God and not for the listeners (Deut. 29:28). Scharfstein interprets this language as follows: “There are numerous secrets that [God] has not revealed to us because our minds are limited and will not be able to grasp the meaning of these secrets.” Scharfstein seems to think that this language is meant to refer to things that will never be within the grasp of humanity.
But it seems to me that there is another possible interpretation. In Scharfstein’s translation, the “secrets [are what] God has not told us.” Maybe “us” is the generation Moses is speaking to, and the scientific and moral advances of the past few centuries are “secrets” that premodern generations could not handle, but that we perhaps can- for example, evolution or the idea that slavery is actually a bad thing.
If you are wondering why I’m not blogging about food, its because I’ve gone to the Chabad shliach’s house two shabboses in a row, and all the food I was planning to eat for Shabbos dinner/lunch I eat at seudah shlichit (the “third meal” right before Shabbos ends) or during the week. But I did have a couple of interesting meals in the latter category.
Last week, the Torah portion was all about not taking a mother bird away with her eggs. So naturally I had eggs. I was wondering whether fowl with eggs would be kind of trangressive (even if not a literal violation of the mitzvah) so I had turkey pastrami on a separate plate.
This week the portion kept mentioning milk and honey so I had bunuelo pancakes with same. (Yes, you can have kosher bunuelos if you are in the right place – Goya’s Columbia-made bunuelos now have circle K certification!)
In this week’s Torah portion, Moses tells the Jews to “set up large stones and coat them with plaster” (Deut. 27:2). Scharfstein explains that the custom of inscribing laws on large stones was actually pretty common in the Near East; for example, the Code of Hammurabi is on a stone 7 feet high. By plastering, Moses means whitewashing, which according to Scharfstein was a common Egyptian practice. The stone was then “written on or painted on in black ink or other contrasting color.” Here is an example of what he is talking about.
Finally, something resembling (though not quite identical to) a normal shabbat. The good news is that the neighborhood Chabad rabbi opened his house for services. The bad news was only one person besides myself showed up, so we all davened at our own pace.