In response to reader complaints, I am leaving Tripod and moving this blog to Wordpress (http://woodrowconservadox.wordpress.com)
"And they hearkened not unto Moses for impatience of spirit, and for cruel bondage." (Exodus 6:9) (referring to Hebrew slaves, who were less interested in Moses' words after the Pharoah came down on them like a ton of bricks- pun intended!)
Nachmanides interprets the phrase "cruel bondage" to mean "the pressure, for the taskmasters pressed them and hurried them which gave them no chance to hear anything and consider it."
This interpretation presents a lesson not just for Egyptian slaves but for our ancestors and for us. In the first couple of generations of immigration to America, work pressures prevented many Jews from observing Shabbat at all; the six-day work week was the norm, and taking a day off other than Sunday (the dominant U.S. day off thanks to Christian practice) really was not an option, especially for small businessmen who were required by states to close on Sunday.
Today, many of us have the option of not working Saturday (though weekday Yom Tovs are much more difficult, I think). But the hurry and bustle of the work week still prevents people from reading and reflecting during the week- whether that means reflecting about Torah, or intellectual inquiry more broadly defined. Even if people have time to read, they are often too exhausted to read anything serious.
Conversely, when people have more time they are freed up for such pursuits. I did not start my journey into Jewish learning and observance until I left law practice and went into an academic job with a more flexible schedule.
In last week's Torah portion God promises Moses (for the first time but not the last) that the Hebrews will be delivered to a land of "milk and honey." (Ex. 3:17). So I decided to do a bit with dairy and honey (both bee and date, since I've read in various sources that the "honey" in question is some sort of date paste).
In particular, I made
pancakes with seminola flour (just to be different), milk, farmer cheese, date paste and honey
ditto but with plaintain flour (alas, the seminola ones were better)
smoked semga trout
romaine lettuce salad w/brown tomatoes
boiled eggplant with biryani sauce (cut with mustard to make less spicy)
walnut pastry from a former Soviet Union-oriented pastry shop
a kind of fudgy cake ( labelled a chocolate souffle) ditto
and some light ice cream
In this week's portion, we are introduced to Moses, who in turn is introduced to God at a burning bush. God describes Godself as "ehyeh asher ehyeh" (Exodus 3:14), often translated as "I will be that which I will be" or "I am that I am."
Nachmanides describes a variety of interpretations of this statement. One midrash interprets it to refer to God "who has been, who is now, and who will be in the future."
Nachmanides in turn interprets this statement to mean that "since with respect to the Creator, past and uture times are concieved completely in terms of the present - for there is no host succeeding host with regards to Him, and nothing of His time has passed- hence all times with reference to Him are called by one name."
In other words, God is beyond time. So do not trouble yourselves worrying about God "changing His mind", etc. - such passages do not mean what they would mean for a human.
Even more broadly, if God is beyond time, God is utterly incomprehensible. But if God is that incomprehensible, how can we know God's will or intelligently interpret God's words (even if we assume the Torah, or whatever scripture someone else has, is exactly that?) Isn't the idea of God's incomprehensibility a standing rebuttal to any sort of religious absolutism?
Of course, I don't think Nachmanides would have gone that far.
This week' Torah portions begins when Jacob discusses his death and burial with Joseph. In particular, Jacob wants to be buried in Eretz Yisrael rather than in Egypt, and states "swear unto me." (Gen. 47:31).
Why does Jacob insist upon swearing? Does Jacob think Joseph might ignore his father's wishes?
Ramban says no; instead, "Jacob did so in order to strenght the matter in the eyes of Pharoah, as perhaps he might not give Joseph permission to leave him."
I think Ramban's grasp of human nature here is shrewd. Most people want their word to be perceived as their bond, and might even respect that wish in others. So if Joseph (not just this Joseph, but any Joseph, or Tom, Dick, or Harry, committed to anything) says "I have committed to do X", he is naturally going to get more deference than if he says "I want to do X."
And Joseph gets something out of the transaction too. Without a real committment, he might face a difficult choice between work (staying in Egypt doing the king's business) and family (supervising his father's burial in Israel). The commitment, by depriving him of the need to agonize over which of his duties is more important, makes his life easier in a way.
Indeed, I would add that religious commitments such as halachic compliance can play a similar role in life to Joseph's oath: a way to structure our lives and protect us from being overwhelmed by a multitude of choices.
I was feeling a little ill from a cold I picked up in Eretz Yisrael, so I made a pretty minimal meal. All I cooked was:
-black beans w/tomato (adding ketchup and biryani paste to experiment; wasn't in mood for latter)
- broiled salmon (half topped by some sort of bread crumbs, the other half by some sort of alleged tagine seasoning- not really enough)
plus low sugar chocolate pudding (bad) and fat free whipped cream (not so bad) and an ice cream bar for dessert.
Am in Israel using Internet cafe so this will be a short one. In this week's Torah portion, Joseph reveals himself to his brothers and makes plans to settle them in Egypt. The Torah states that "it pleased Pharoah well and his servants" (Gen. 45:10).
Ramban adds: "For it was a disgrace for them to be ruled by a stranger, a servant [who came out of prison].. now when his honorable brothers came to him, and it became known that Joseph was worthy to stand before kings, they all rejoiced in the matter."
Why is Joseph not a stranger merely because he has brothers? I think Ramban is trying to say that the Egyptians are uncomfortable with a leader who seems completely rootless.
Perhaps this concern is at the heart of some Americans' discontent with President Obama, and in particular of the birther myth (the idea that he was born in Kenya or something). We like a leader who seems like he is from a place- for example, Coolidge of rural Vermont and Massachusetts, FDR of New York. Someone who went from Hawaii to Indonesia to Hawaii to NY to Chicago seems just a little ...weird, and incomprehensible.
On the other hand, sometimes the most rooted leaders aren't the best, either in the Torah or in modern life. Moses was certainly a bit rootless, going back and forth from Jew to Egyptian to refugee in Midian.
On the other hand, when I think of roots I think of Michael Dukakis, who was born in Brookline (an inner suburb of Boston) and lived there even as governor. It didn't do him much good in 1988, when he got hammered by George H.W. Bush (of both Connecticut and Texas) in the U.S. Presidential election.
Perhaps people think they want roots- but they also want the breadth of perspective that can be difficult for someone who spent his entire life in one environment.
Because I am in Israel with family this weeks dvar will be short. The Torah states that Joseph's brothers came to Egypt to seek food because "the famine was in all lands" (gen. 41:54). Does this mean the famine was everywhere, even in, say, America? Raman says this was only "in the lands that surround Egypt. Otherwise, what could the distant lands do if there was such a famine in them?".
Broader point: biblical literalism is sometimes silly. And if this famine was not literally worldwide we can say the same thing about the great flood or the tower of babel (sorry for lack of caps, am in Israel typing on mom's iPad and don't have time for capitalization)
Because I am leaving town for a couple of wks again I decided to have a pretty simple shabbos dinner.
spinach w/shakshuka sauce (too peppery for me)
high fiber noodles
blueberry cobbler (prepackaged, not that great)
vanilla sweet potato latkes (vanilla cake flour with bits of s.p. fries, fairly good)
pumpkin latkes with a bit of choc chip flour (needs more flour- not very well bound so I had to burn it to get it to cohere even slightly)
This week's Torah portion is dominated by the exploits of Joseph. Joseph is sold as a slave to some wandering traders at the behest of his brothers, and is then sold to Potiphar, an Egyptian bureaucrat of some sort. Potiphar's wife takes a liking to him, but Joseph refuses to betray his master, stating that he would be sinning against both his master and God (Gen. 39:9).
Why does Joseph mention his master first? Nachmanides writes: "It is only due to her feminine lack of knowledge that he first told her that the act would constitute a betrayal of his master who trusted him."
I guess this sort of thing reminds us that the voice of the Middle Ages is not the voice of God.
I also note that this statement is a little different from most premodern Jewish statements about women; most such discussion relates to Jewish women (and includes both pro- and anti-female statements). This discussion relates to a heathen woman. So Ramban isn't saying that all women are inferior- just idol-worshipping women.
Why are idol-worshipping women stupider than idol-worshipping men?
I suppose there are two possible explanations. One is that Nachmanides is just a sexist, period. A more generous explanation is that in backwards cultures, women are kept ignorant, creating a kind of vicious circle: women are not educated, causing a public perception that they are not capable of knowing very much, causing continued non-education of women.
The most bizarre part of this week's Torah portion is the massacre at Shechem (Gen. 34). A big shot in this town either rapes or seduces (Nachmanides seems to think rapes) Jacob's daughter Dina. Shimon and Levi, two of her brothers, are not happy. In fact, they are so unhappy that they kill not only the alleged rapists, but every male in the town. Moreover, they do so after telling the Shechemites that if they circumcised themselves,
then will we give our daughters unto you, and we will take your daughters to us, and we will dwell with you, and we will become one people (Gen. 34: 16).
A commonsense reading of the Torah suggests that this behavior is not nice. In fact, Jacob seems to agree, stating later in the Torah:
Simeon and Levi are brethren; weapons of violence their kinship. 6 Let my soul not come into their council; unto their assembly let my glory not be united; for in their anger they slew men, and in their self-will they houghed oxen. 7 Cursed be their anger, for it was fierce, and their wrath, for it was cruel; I will divide them in Jacob, and scatter them in Israel. (Gen. 49:5-7).
But the medieval commentators fall all over themselves to excuse Simeon and Levi's behaviors. For example, Rambam writes that part of the "Noahide Laws" (a bunch of rules given to Noah allegedly given to Noah, but elaborated on greatly through rabbinic interpretation) includes the duty to punish rapists and other malefactors, and that by failing to punish their perverted prince, the men of Shechem deserved extermination. (Of course this is a bit nuts since (a) the men of Shechem presumably had not read Rambam's work, written some 2500 years later. and (b) he was indeed the prince so maybe there was nothing they could have done).
Nachmanides at first seems to agree with Rambam, stating that the people of Shechem must have somehow violated the Noahide laws.
But he then writes that if Simeon and Levi had kept their word, "They would have chosen to believe in God and trust their word, and perhaps they might have indeed returned to God and thus Simeon and Levi killed them without cause for the people had done them no evil at all." (commentary to Gen. 34:13).
Surprisingly, Nachmanides appears to be embracing a fairly universalistic message: if you make nice with the gentiles and act as role models (by keeping your word), maybe they will repent their sins and play nice with you.
To put it another way, he believes that good behavior in front of non-Jews is a kiddush hashem (sanctification of the Divine name) and will reflect well on Jews.
This is a common message today, but kind of surprising to hear in the 13th century, a time of pretty high levels of religious persecution.
Rachel wants some dudaim (possibly "mandrakes") that Reuben's son Leah gathered, and barters them for a night with Jacob (which Leah uses to produce yet another son). (Gen. 30:14-19).
Why does Rachel want the mandrakes? The conventional wisdom, as enunciated by R. Hertz, is that the mandrakes are some sort of "love-charm."
Ramban disagrees; he cites Ibn Ezra's statement that the mandrakes "have a good odor" and suggests that Rachel wanted them for that reason.
What about the idea that the mandrakes are somehow an aid to pregnancy? Ramban writes: "I have not seen in thus in any of the medicinal books discussing mandrakes."
This illustrates one argument within Judaism: to what extent is secular knowledge important? Ramban clearly believes that secular knowledge (in this case, medical knowledge) is important because it helps us understand the Torah.
Of course, this is an easy case; more difficult questions are presented by knowledge less obviously relevant to the Torah. What about history? Philosophy? Some would argue that these disciplines are likely to contradict the Torah, and thus best ignored.
On the other hand, it seems to me that if these disciplines appear to contradict the Torah, perhaps it is the case that neither history nor Torah is wrong, but that we have interpreted the Torah too literally, or otherwise misunderstood it. The Karaites may have interpreted the Torah literally*, but the rest of us have never done so.
*Or at least so their critics claimed.
Kosher venison (since Isaac so favored deer) [definitely not as good as beef or lamb- I don't see what he saw in it!)
lentils (since Esau sold his birthright for same)
plus lots of "red red" (since Esau loved red so much)-
red eggplant sauce (mixed with pink salmon), strawberries, pears, apples, tomatoes, plums
strawberry kosher diet gelatin (not bad, mainly because i cooked one cup of it with some sort of strawberry vitamin drink instead of water)
and some sort of Russian concoction that appears to be a cross between a meringue and marshmallows but at any rate is not that good.
I've always had a wishy-washy attitude about Thanksgiving. Because it often was pretty close to Chanukah (a "must do" holiday in my parents' house) I often didn't go home for it, and didn't always knock myself out to make plans for it. If I was invited someplace I went, but otherwise I was fine alone (though I would usually have a turkey sandwich sometime during the day to at least acknowledge the holiday).
Not much has changed since I got more religious- the only difference is that often, Thanskgiving got overshadowed by Shabbat. This year even more so, since Thanksgiving precedes Toldot, my favorite Torah portion from a culinary perspective (since I have an excuse for a real theme night- almost everything will be red!) (Plus this year, Isaac's favorite food- kosher venison!)
However, I did have somewhat of a Thanksgiving meal- a turkey pastrami sandwich, turkey pastrami dumplings, pumpkin and pumpkin dumplings, and some beef dumpling that I was planning to eat tomorrow but couldn't quite help myself not to eat. (Why so many dumplings? I am spending most of December out of the city and am trying to eat most of my frozen and refrigerated food, so I have used a big packed of same over the past few days).
One of the most noteworthy events in this week's Torah portion is Esau's sale of his birthright to Jacob. What is the birthright and why would Esau "despise" (Gen. 25:34) it?
First of all, the birthright might have been a matter of honor and nothing else. Ramban notes that although the Torah gives a double portion to the firstborn, this law was not in effect before the Torah was promulgated.* So perhaps the birthright "was only a matter of inheriting the preeminence of the father and his authority so that [the firstborn] would receive honor and distinction."
Second, why does Esau despise it (other than the possibility that there might not be that much involved financially)? Ramban writes that "he was in mortal danger from his hunting animals, and it was likely that he would die while his father was alive... So of what benefit was the birthright to him?" Even if the birthright meant a few extra oxen, why wouldn't Esau "despise it" if he didn't expect much of a long-run future?
Even today, this sort of mentality exists. I occasionally read of people in America's slums who expect to die young, and accordingly are not that eager to behave responsibly.
On the other hand, was hunting really that dangerous? I'm sure Ramban thought so, since the laws of kosher slaughter discourage Jews from hunting from food, which in turn means Ramban probably didn't have that much experience with hunting. I find it hard to place myself in the shoes of a bow-and-arrow hunter in the Israel of 3900 years ago. However, it does seem (from the Bible's frequent references to lions and similar predators) that deer weren't the only wild animals running around, and that maybe Esau would have been worried about those predators.
*Although some sages say that the patriarchs kept the entire Torah, Ramban points out (in his comments to 26:5) that this is by no means the only plausible view.
This week's Torah portion notes that by the end of Abraham's life, God 'blessed him in all things." (Gen. 24:1). Ramban notes that the Talmud-era sages differ on whether Abraham had a daughter; R. Meir "said that Abraham was blessed in that he did not have a daughter" while R. Yehudah said he did. (Ramban adopts a mystical explanation, asserting that the phrase "in all things" has nothing to do with daughters and instead relates to divine attributes- but that's not what I want to discuss!)
R. Yehudah's explanation is easy to understand; he writes that Abraham "had everything that people desire, completely without exception" presumably including a daughter.
So about R. Meir? Why would he not view a daughter as a blessing? He explains that if the daughter stayed in Canaan she would marry Canaanites [a definite no-no]. And if, like Isaac, she sought a spouse from Abraham's Mesopotamian relatives, that would be bad too; "she would also worship the idols as they did because a woman is subject to the authority of her husband."
R. Meir's remark tells us something about the sexism of ancient society; the subordination of women was viewed as pretty much inevitable, a fact of life like the Roman Empire or the occasional famine. So it seems to me that to the extent one interprets ancient Judaism is sexist, one has to realize that they were just accommodating the inevitable, something that they couldn't fight.
I found a kosher store in Manhattan with lots of prepackaged stuff, so I made a feast for myself
Chicken pad thai
Venison shank (first time I’ve had kosher deer- not prepackaged, a bit too fatty for me)
Venison ribs (ditto)
Samsa [bukharan beef dumpling, left over from a few nights ago]
Duck salad (w/soy sauce and veg- too salty for me)
Chicken necks and soup
sugar free rugalach (from another store)
apples (ditto; supposedly "heirloom" apples but tasted pretty ordinary to me)
This week's Torah portion is action-packed, including the explusion of Ishmael and Hagar from Abraham's household, the destruction of Sodom, and of course the Akedah (Abraham's almost-sacrifice of Isaac).
Nachmanides' comments on Sodom are the most interesting. He writes (based on Ezekiel 13;13) that the sin of Sodom was primarily that they wanted to "stop people from coming among them...for they thought that because of the excellence of their land, many will come there, and they despised charity." This sounds a bit like Americans' concerns over immigration; on the other hand, in America [unlike Sodom] caterwauling about illegal aliens, etc. tends to be relatively muted when the economy is excellent, and to become louder when [as now] there arguably is less to go around.
Nachmanides adds that "their fate was sealed because ... they did not strengthen the hand of the poor and needy." Somehow I don't think he would have liked the Tea Party!
Lot lives among the Sodomites, and has some men (who turn out to be angels) over as guests. The men of Sodom apparently lust after the guests, but Lot responds by offering a daughter or two. Nachmanides is outraged, asserting that Lot's attitude towards his daughters shows "an evil heart" and that according to Tanchuma [a Talmud-era rabbinic text], a normal man "fights to the death for the honor of his daughters and his wife..."
But Abraham's attitude seems a bit closer to Lot's. When he enters Egypt, he worries that the Egyptians might take his wife and kill him to avoid his objections. So what does he do? Tell the Egyptians Sarah is his sister! Like Lot [but unlike later rabbis], Abraham is not obsessive about the honor of his nearest and dearest.
The difference between Abraham and Lot tells us something about the evolution of civilization. In the primitive world of the 15th century BC, women were pretty much disposable. A couple of millenia later, women were like children: second-class citizens to be sure, but at least second-class citizens who mattered to the first-class citizens.
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