This week’s portion contains the Shema: “Listen Israel HASHEM is our God, HASHEM is one.” There are lots of different interpretations of this of course. One I never heard (from Rashi by way of Soncino Chumash): now Hashem is just OUR God, but in the future the whole world’s.
Rashi was on to something even in the 1000s. At the time of the Torah, the invisible God of the Jews was arguably just our God.* But by the time he was writing, our God was already the God of the Christians and Muslims, and both religions have (I suspect) grown over the past millenium as they have spread into Latin America, Southeast Asia and Africa. So our God is, if not quite the entire world’s deity, probably that of a majority of humanity. So in a sense Jews are winning.
But has this trend made people any better? Hard to say (though here’s an argument that the answer is yes).
*or at least not the God of the Greeks and Romans and Egyptians- given the sparse historical record, we don’t really know if Canaanites and other Torah-era neighbors of the Jews thought of our God is part of their pantheon of deities or not.
This was my first shabbos dinner in my new city (not counting last week when I was invited to someone’s house). I didn’t really think as hard as I usually do about dinner (and tying dinner to the parsha) because I was too busy moving in. So I just took advantage of the fact that I was in a city with an actual kosher market and got some things I couldn’t have gotten where I lived last year.
In particular, the main course was a tuna filet with tomato sauce and mustard. (Next time I’d try a stronger sauce like BBQ or hoisin). Also, I discovered a cupcake-size kosher angel food cake (made by a company in the region, so a local specialty), which was nice to have warm.
On a more boring note:
– marinated eggplant mixed with chickpeas (kind of an odd mix, the eggplant was too salty to go with the chickpeas very well, but mustard makes it all nice).
– caramel wheat cakes
– dates and figs (part of my pre-fast meal)
– raspberry hamantashen
I spent all day (till 2:30) at one of my new city’s Modern Orthodox shuls (it has about six or seven O shuls of varying degrees of modernity in my neighborhood alone).
Such a difference from last year! Last year I lived in a city with a smaller (and more suburbanized) Jewish community; I missed evening Kinot because I got lost, and went to the city’s only non-Chabad orthodox congregation at 8 am or so. I figured they would be in the middle of Kinot; instead they were all leaving for work after a minyan and a small number of kinot. I spent a couple of hours there watching tapes more or less alone, then went to the suburb’s public library till mincha.
This year I am in a city (still not NYC or Philly, but a smaller city with a large Jewish community). The rabbi spoke a lot between kinot, and said a few things I liked:
1. Jeremiah was regarded as an “appeaser” and self-hating Jew by the Jewish Establishment- sounds a bit like the way hawks think of doves (though I don’t think this rabbi would say that; my guess is that the congregation is mostly on the right, because it seems like a right-wing modern Orthodox congregation and those shuls tend to be overwhelmingly Republican).
2. He spoke about the failure of Judah to build on Josiah’s reforms, and on Josiah’s own death (which arose out of foolish meddling in Egypt-Babylon rivalry). He drew the lesson that no matter how frum you are, the absence of good sense can be dangerous – and more broadly, never assume you are so virtuous as to be beyond ill fortune.
Some things I didn’t like:
1. He remarked about a midrash on Titus (about him having sex with a prostitute on top of a Torah, or something like that) and defended it by noting that the Nazis might seem so unbelievable that people might think of some Shoah atrocities as midrash. Big difference: we still have witnesses to the Shoah while midrash was written 400 yrs or so after the Temple’s destruction as far as we know. (Also, Titus’s Jewish mistress would not have approved).
2. Various stories about Jews praying for each other in different countries, and saying “you can’t prove it didn’t help.” Well, yes but proving a negative is usually impossible- after all, how can we prove that the Virgin Birth didn’t happen?
In this week’s portion, Moses repeats the story of various Jewish sins, including the “sin of the spies”- the Jews’ sudden lack of desire to invade Eretz Yisrael after receiving an unfavorable report from some spies. Moses states that according to the Jews, “the LORD hated us” (1:27). Why would they think that after all the miracles they had experienced?
Rashbam has an interesting explanation; he suggests that the Jews thought God “hated” the Jews for having worshipped Egyptian deities when they were slaves in Egypt. This doesn’t seem particularly obvious from the text, but it certainly is psychologically astute: if the Jews in fact were idolaters in Egypt, and then were told at Sinai that being idolaters was absolutely the worst thing they could do, it is quite reasonable to imagine that they would feel more than a little guilty. And if they in fact did feel very, very guilty, it is reasonable to imagine that they didn’t quite trust God to take them into the land of Israel. In other words, Rashbam is creating a midrash about the paralyzing effects of guilt- a useful thought as we head towards the season of teshuva.
I spent shabbos in a Midwestern city (not Chicago or Kansas City where I live now) and was at a shul where there was a separate kiddush for women. (I didn’t see any women at the third meal either- but then again I didn’t see any prayer space for women at mincha). And this was the only shul in the neighborhood and pretty big, not a shtiebel.
On the other hand, there was a shiur before mincha and a couple of dozen women showed up.
This week’s Torah portion contains something that, at first glance, looks like the first urban growth boundary– a line drawn around the city to limit suburban sprawl. It states that Levites shall have dozens of cities and that open land “shall be from the wall of the city and outward a thousand cubits round about” (Numbers 35:4) and that the Jews shall measure two thousand cubits around the city in every direction (35:5).
But this section is a bit confusing- first it says 1000 cubits and then 2000. What’s up with that? Rashi and Rashbam explain that this means that there shall be two 1000-cubit rings around the towns- one for open space and the other for agriculture.
One other thing I just noticed: the limits apply to the suburb-like rings around the towns. In other words, the towns themselves can grow without any Torah-dictated limit. So in theory you could have a large city surrounded by a 2000-cubit ring. (A cubit is about a foot and a half, so this means 3000 feet, or slightly over half a mile, in any direction). On the other hand, these 2000-cubit rings wouldn’t support millions of people, so they’d be less useful near a larger city. On the other other hand, the larger city might just have to import a larger amount of food etc from other places. I would guess that in the context of First Temple Judaism, these issues wouldn’t matter much, because no town would be very big.
In a few days, I am going to leave the midwestern city I live now (where I did a one year academic gig). I just threw together some fairly random stuff for shabbos, trying to avoid leaving any food behind.
My main course was a one pan dish of cabbage, black beans, soy sausage (note to self: avoid Tofurkey kielbasa), sardines and tomato sauce.
My dessert was a low sugar chocolate cake that turned out reasonably well (I put caramel flavored hot cocoa mix so it wasn’t completely sugar free).
I’ll be happy to leave this city; you can’t really live intown there and have much of a Jewish life. (The intown chabad only meets once a month- most other weekends I either traveled out of town or went to the closest-in Conservative shul four miles away).. I am moving to a northeastern Rust Belt city for another one year academic gig.
I actually found this week’s Hafotrah to be more interesting than the Torah portion. After Jezebel threatens the life of Elijah, Elijah goes into the wilderness and talks to God. But the “going into the wilderness” part is most interesting. The medieval commentator David Kimhi (according to the Soncino Chumash) points out that after Elijah learns his life is in danger, he first flees to the southern kingdom of Judah (not ruled by Jezebel and her husband Ahab) and then flees to the wilderness because he decides that even in urban Judah he is not safe from the northern kingdom’s assassins.
So what? I occasionally read what I call “vending machine theology”- the idea that if you put mitzvah x into the machine of reality, God will give you some desired outcome – or conversely, the idea that if you put sin y in the machine God will punish you.
The Elijah story strikes me as a rejection of that view. Presumably Elijah, a prophet of great repute, did many fine things. Yet even he fled Jezebel rather than expecting Divine protection.
1. I was on a airport shuttle to take a plane to Greece. When I was getting off the shuttle, I discovered I could not find my shoes. I started thinking about whether I needed shoes to fly. Then I woke up.
2. I was about to finish grading student exams and had the option of having someone mildly torture students (I don’t remember how but it wasn’t supposed to be life threatening). The first student had suffered four of the six tortures, and then I stopped it and felt remorseful. Then I woke up.
In this week’s portion, the pagan seer Balak is hired to curse the Jews, but blesses them instead. One of his prophecies is that Israel will destry Edom (Num. 24:18-19). Rashi interprets Edom not as a small nation next to the land of Israel (its biblical meaning) but as the Roman Empire, and claims that Rome will be destroyed by the Messiah. Since the Roman Empire had been destroyed centuries before Rashi was writing, what did he mean?
Presumably Rashi meant European Christendom, which was headquartered in Rome since that is where the pope lived (and lives).
And why do rabbis think of Christendom as Edom? Jacob Neusner has explained that Jewish sources do not start to use Edom as a synonym for Rome until after the Christian takeover of the Roman Empire (i.e. in the Talmud as opposed to the Mishna, which was written when the Roman Empire was run by Christian-oppressing pagans). He suggests that just as Edom is Jacob’s brother/rival, Christianity is Judaism’s brother/rival, insofar as both rabbinic Judaism and Christianity grew out of Second Temple Judaism. So it might have seemed poetic to treat Edom as a symbol of Christianity.
And of course, the rabbis (and Rashi) want history to end happily- so they decide that eventually, the good guys (Judaism) will somehow triumph over Edom.
It certainly does seem to be the case that Christendom is losing vitality: declining birthrates and rampant secularism mean that European Christianity, much like paganism in the 200s and 300s, has lost its ability to inspire people or to sway politics (as shown for example by the rising tide of same sex marriage). Unfortunately for Jews, its major rival seems to be not Judaism but Islam.