Exile, Passover, and Melting Pot

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Exploring Babylon Chapter 18

“The Americas were far. The Americas were different. It was rabbinic exile.” This, writes Rabbi Oran Zweiter, is how European immigrant rabbis to the New World felt, beginning with Rabbi Isaac Aboab da Fonesca, who left Holland for Brazil in 1642. Aboab (1607-1693), the first ordained rabbi known to make such a move, served the Jewish community in Recife until after Portugal re-captured the Dutch colony in 1654.

There is much of interest for #ExploringBabylon in Zweiter’s article, published in honor of Aboab’s yahrzeit, Adar 27, (March 14 in 2018). In preparation for Passover, however, let’s direct our attention to one phrase that links the New World to Mitzraim.

Please note: this piece, first posted late on March 18, was updated slightly at 9:00 a.m. March 19.

Brazil, kur ha-barzel

Zweiter illustrates Aboab’s “personal feelings of exile” using examples from his Brazil-based writings:

Aboab’s [vidui/confessional] poem is an account of the Portuguese siege. It is also a deeply personal reflection on what it meant for him to be sent as a rabbi to the far end of the world. He used biblical words with similar pronunciation and spelling to allude to Brazil, such as kur ha-barzel, the “melting pot,” which in the Torah refers to Egypt (Deuteronomy 4:20).

Similarly, Aboab referenced the new geography in which the Jews found themselves….

Brazil “represented a state of exile,” the Jewish community were “Dwellers in the shadows of the universe,” and Aboab declared: “For my sin, I have been tossed to a faraway land.”

Aboab’s sense of exile for sin makes the play on words with “Brazil” and “kur ha-barzel” a poignant one. Zweiter’s translation of the latter as “melting pot” adds another interesting layer of meaning.

Isaac_Aboab_Fonseca

R. Isaac Aboab. Image in public domain, from Brown University

Uses of “kur

My concordance lists three uses of “kur ha-barzel” in the Tanakh:

וְאֶתְכֶם֙ לָקַ֣ח יְהוָ֔ה וַיּוֹצִ֥א אֶתְכֶ֛ם
מִכּ֥וּר הַבַּרְזֶ֖ל
מִמִּצְרָ֑יִם לִהְי֥וֹת ל֛וֹ לְעַ֥ם נַחֲלָ֖ה כַּיּ֥וֹם הַזֶּֽה׃
but you the LORD took and brought out of Egypt,
that iron blast furnace,
to be His very own people, as is now the case.
— Deuteronomy 4:20

כִּי-עַמְּךָ וְנַחֲלָתְךָ, הֵם, אֲשֶׁר הוֹצֵאתָ מִמִּצְרַיִם,
מִתּוֹךְ כּוּר הַבַּרְזֶל.
For they are Your very own people that You freed from Egypt,
from the midst of the iron furnace.
— 1 Kings 8:51

“Hear the terms of this covenant, and recite them to the men of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem! And say to them, Thus said the LORD, the God of Israel: Cursed be the man who will not obey the terms of this covenant,
אֲשֶׁר צִוִּיתִי אֶת־אֲבֽוֹתֵיכֶם בְּיוֹם הוֹצִיאִי־אוֹתָם מֵאֶרֶץ־מִצְרַיִם
מִכּוּר הַבַּרְזֶל
לֵאמֹר שִׁמְעוּ בְקוֹלִי וַעֲשִׂיתֶם אוֹתָם כְּכֹל אֲשֶׁר־אֲצַוֶּה אֶתְכֶם וִהְיִיתֶם לִי לְעָם וְאָנֹכִי אֶהְיֶה לָכֶם
לֵאלֹהִים׃
which I enjoined upon your fathers when I freed them from the land of Egypt,
the iron crucible,
saying, ‘Obey Me and observe them, just as I command you, that you may be My people and I may be your God’— [11:4]
in order to fulfill the oath which I swore to your fathers, to give them a land flowing with milk and honey, as is now the case.” And I responded, “Amen, LORD.”
— Jeremiah 11:2-5

There are six more uses of the word “kur“: Two in Proverbs (17:3, 27:21), three in Ezekiel (22:18, 20, 22), and one in Isaiah (48:10). The word is “always metaphorically employed to describe great trouble and misery,” according to the 1906 Jewish Encyclopedia. Moreover, all uses involve trial in relation to sin, and four of the six specifically reference Jews suffering God’s wrath.

Furnace, Forge, and Crucible

When Zweiter describes Aboab’s Brazil/barzel pun, he translateskur ha-barzel” as “melting pot.” Perhaps Aboab’s poem includes other clues that point to “melting pot.” The Deuteronomy verse that Zweiter cites, the first use of the expression “kur ha-barzel” for the experience of Hebrew slaves in Egypt, is not usually translated that way, however.

Instead, we find:

  • “iron blast furnace” (JPS, quoted above),
  • “iron crucible” (Artscroll),
  • “Iron Furnace” (Fox), and
  • “iron forge” (Alter).

Alter’s translation includes this note:

The argument of the sermon now moves another step back in time, from Sinai to the Exodus. The origins of Israel as a people subject to another people in whose land it dwelled, rescued from the crucible of slavery by God, are adduced as further evidence of God’s unique election of Israel.


Melting Pot

The first use of the expression “melting pot” in American English is dated to 1887 by Merriam-Webster. The term came to describe the peculiar struggles in the U.S. around immigration and assimilation. This usage was popularized by Israel Zangwill’s play, The Melting Pot, which was first performed — and reportedly applauded by President Theodore Roosevelt — in 1908.

It seems unlikely that Aboab, in Brazil in the mid-17th Century, could have envisioned the scenes of Ellis Island, in the early 20th, that inspired this speech:

America is God’s Crucible, the great Melting-Pot where all the races of Europe are melting and re-forming!…A fig for your feuds and vendettas! Germans and Frenchmen, Irishmen and Englishmen, Jews and Russians—into the Crucible with you all! God is making the American.
— David Quixano to Verendal, The Melting Pot
more below

But Zweiter’s use of the expression is interesting and provocative in the context of Passover:

  • It highlights the tension between “God’s unique election of Israel” in the Exodus story and the notion of “God making the American”;
  • It raises more general questions about divine providence and civic duty, exile and learning; and
  • It reminds us that the concept of “melting pot” is no more gentle than “iron blast furnace” or some of the other translations for “kur ha-barzel.”

Zweiter concludes his piece:

The writings of Rabbi Isaac Aboab, the first rabbi in the Americas, reveal challenges that would continuously confront rabbis, immigrant and native alike, in the Americas. His writing reflects the uniqueness of the Jewish experience in the New World from its earliest stages. His story demonstrates that the challenges that have faced spiritual leadership in the Americas are not new. They began with the very first rabbi to settle, however shortly, in the New World.

In that sense, Aboab’s experience is precursor to that of Zangwill’s Quizano family, with the mezuzah, “Stars-and-Stripes,” mizrach, and old-world violin competing for space at the front door. And with these words, Zweiter’s piece prods us to think, as Passover approaches, about the peculiarly American aspects of the challenge in the Deuteronomy verse: “but you, the LORD took and brought out of Egypt, that iron blast furnace [or melting pot], to be God’s very own people, as is now the case.”




NOTES:
I have no direct access to Aboab’s writings, which I believe are extant in Portuguese and Hebrew and not widely available. Zweiter cites Hakhmei Recife Ve-Amsterdam, with a link to the National Library of Israel; here is a more direct link, for what it’s worth, to the catalog listing for rare books.
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Isaiah 48:10 uses the phrase “kur oni” —

הִנֵּה צְרַפְתִּיךָ, וְלֹא בְכָסֶף; בְּחַרְתִּיךָ,
בְּכוּר עֹנִי
Behold, I have refined thee, but not as silver; I have tried thee
in the furnace of affliction [sometimes: poverty].

— which calls to mind Passover’s “lechem oni,” bread of affliction or poverty. This verse is also related to an odd, and cryptic, midrash (B. Chag 9b) on poverty. More on this soon, I hope.
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Closing lines of The Melting Pot:

DAVID: There she lies, the great Melting Pot—listen! Can’t you hear the roaring and the bubbling? There gapes her mouth [He points east]—the harbour where a thousand mammoth feeders come from the ends of the world to pour in their human freight. Ah, what a stirring and a seething! Celt and Latin, Slav and Teuton, Greek and Syrian,—black and yellow—

VERA: Jew and Gentile—

DAVID: Yes, East and West, and North and South, the palm and the pine, the pole and the equator, the crescent and the cross—how the great Alchemist melts and fuses them with his purging flame! Here shall they all unite to build the Republic of Man and the Kingdom of God. Ah, Vera, what is the glory of Rome and Jerusalem where all nations and races come to worship and look back, compared with the glory of America, where all races and nations come to labour and look forward!

NOTE: This play, and historical notes, are available via Project Guttenberg (public domain). If you have not read it, or read it recently, check it out!
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Ezekiel, Exodus, and Babylon

Exploring Babylon Chapter 17

Recent scholarship concerning the prophet Ezekiel touches on some fascinating questions about the extent to which Judeans in Babylonian exile were acculturated and how cultural contact between Babylon and Israel might have affected Jewish sacred text. Much of the discussion revolves around links between the Book of Exodus and Ezekiel’s visions. And this week — which includes both the final readings in the Book of Exodus and a reading from Ezekiel — seems a good one to begin exploring some of the scholarship.

Background on the prophet Ezekiel comes exclusively from biblical evidence (i.e., no extra-biblical references have been found). He lived first in Judea, part of a priestly family, and was then forcibly relocated as in the first Exile to Babylon in 597 BCE. Because he served in the Temple, it is assumed that he was at least 20 years old while still living in Jerusalem. The visions he records encompass both Jerusalem and Babylon.

A brief scan of scholarship — at this point, using only free sources accessible on-line; more to come, and suggestions for resources most welcome! — includes several views about the life in Babylon available to someone of Ezekiel’s background.

Ezekiel and Babylonian Literature

“Ezekiel in and on Babylon,” by D. S. Vanderhooft discusses acculturation of Judean exiles, pointing out the difference between acculturation and assimilation and raising a number of possibilities for what Ezekiel might have encountered. (Here’s Vanderhooft’s paper, via Academia.edu, from TRANSEUPHRATÈNE 2014,)

Vanderhooft and many others cite the work of Laurie E. Pearce, Assyriologist in the Dept. of Ancient Near Eastern Studies at University of California-Berkeley. She looks at “Identifying Judeans and Judean Identity in the Babylonian Evidence” in the collection Exile and Return: The Babylonian Context (Jonathan Stökl & Caroline Waerzeggers, eds. Berlin/Boston: de Gruyter, 2015 — available in part through Google Books.) More specifically, she posits several suggestions for if/how Ezekiel would have learned cuneiform and gained familiarity with Babylonian literature (Ezekiel: A Jewish Priest and a Babylonian Intellectual).

In “Ancient Jewish Cultural Encounters and a Case Study on Ezekiel,” Mladen Popović discusses the relative strength of proposed literary parallels between Ezekiel and Babylonian literature as well as other evidence for knowledge sharing across cultural boundaries during Ezekiel’s time. His article introduces the Jewish Cultural Encounters in the Ancient Mediterranean and Near Eastern World which he edited with Myles Schoonover and Marijn Vandenberghe (Leiden, the Netherlands: Koninklijke Brill, 2017 — also available in part through Google Books).

Ezekiel’s Visions and Babylon

In “Ezekiel’s Temple in Babylonian Context,” Tova Ganzel and Shalom E. Holtz discuss the possible influence of Neo-Babylonian temples on Ezekiel’s visions. Their focus is on how both Babylonian temples and Ezekiel’s visionary architecture are designed similarly to separate sacred from profane. They conclude:

We cannot say with any certainty that Ezekiel borrowed these features from his environment. We may say, however, that Ezekiel and his audience might have understood the plan for the rebuilt temple by looking to their surroundings. They had, in short, a working model not too far from their homes in exile.
Ganzel/Holtz paper, from Vetus Testamentum 64 [2014], via Academia.edu

Abraham Winitzer raises a more radical suggestion in his article, “Assyriology and Jewish Studies in Tel Aviv: Ezekiel among the Babylonian literati.” He notes that other scholars have found similarities between images in Mesopotamian mythology, visions of Ezekiel (1:26–27), and descriptions in Exodus (24:9–10). He continues, however, suggesting that parts of Exodus (chaps. 25–31, 35–40) not only “share important features with Ezekiel but in fact may be derivative of it.” Winitzer then adds:

The ramifications of this proposal – if it finds acceptance – are considerable, and would further the basic claim made here concerning the place of Babylon in the formation of early Jewish tradition. For not only would it shed new light on the place of Ezekiel and, more broadly, of the biblical prophets in a way presciently anticipated by early modern biblical scholarship, it would also highlight exposure to Babylonian culture as a productive force behind this evolution.
— Winitzer, IN Encounters by the Rivers of Babylon: Scholarly Conversations Between Jews, Iranians and Babylonians in Antiquity.
Uri Gabbay and Shai Secunda, eds. (Tubingen, Germany: Mohr Siebeck, 2014)

Ezekiel's Vision

from freebibleimages.org

Shabbat Parah

This week’s Torah portion concludes the Book of Exodus and the construction of the Tabernacle (Ex 40, in the double-portion, Vayakhel-Pekudei, Ex 35:1-40:38). Special readings for Shabbat Parah, one of the special Shabbatot leading up to Passover, are Numbers 19:1-22 and Ezekiel 36:16-38.

The extra Torah reading speaks of the ritual of the red heifer, which purifies after contact with a corpse. As My Jewish Learning explains, this theme is tied to Passover because “only people who were pure could eat from the Passover sacrifice, in ancient times a public announcement reminded anyone who had become impure to purify themselves before making the Passover pilgrimage to Jerusalem.”

The haftarah includes a different view of purity, linked with Judea returning from Babylonian exile:

וְזָרַקְתִּ֧י עֲלֵיכֶ֛ם מַ֥יִם טְהוֹרִ֖ים וּטְהַרְתֶּ֑ם מִכֹּ֧ל טֻמְאוֹתֵיכֶ֛ם וּמִכָּל־גִּלּ֥וּלֵיכֶ֖ם אֲטַהֵ֥ר אֶתְכֶֽם׃
I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean: I will cleanse you from all your uncleanness and from all your fetishes.

וְנָתַתִּ֤י לָכֶם֙ לֵ֣ב חָדָ֔שׁ וְר֥וּחַ חֲדָשָׁ֖ה אֶתֵּ֣ן בְּקִרְבְּכֶ֑ם וַהֲסִ֨רֹתִ֜י אֶת־לֵ֤ב הָאֶ֙בֶן֙ מִבְּשַׂרְכֶ֔ם וְנָתַתִּ֥י לָכֶ֖ם לֵ֥ב בָּשָֽׂר׃
And I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit into you: I will remove the heart of stone from your body and give you a heart of flesh;

וְאֶת־רוּחִ֖י אֶתֵּ֣ן בְּקִרְבְּכֶ֑ם וְעָשִׂ֗יתִי אֵ֤ת אֲשֶׁר־בְּחֻקַּי֙ תֵּלֵ֔כוּ וּמִשְׁפָּטַ֥י תִּשְׁמְר֖וּ וַעֲשִׂיתֶֽם׃
and I will put My spirit into you. Thus I will cause you to follow My laws and faithfully to observe My rules.
— Ez 36:25-27

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Computing Failures and Babylon

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Exploring Babylon Chapter 16.2

Attempts to calculate the end of exile — by both Belshazzar in Babylon and Ahashverus in Persia — have something powerful in common with the People’s behavior in at the foot of Mt. Sinai in the Torah portion Ki Tisa (Ex 30:11 – 34:35).

Moses Bosheish!

I love spots in the Torah where translators disagree. When a Torah verse is translated by different sources in very different ways, it’s a reminder that translation is never straightforward and that no one translation can tell the whole story, even if scholars agree on what it is. Differing translations are also frequently a clue that more is going on under the surface of any one translation. We have a powerful example in Ki Tisa:

When the people saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain, the people gathered against Aaron and said to him, “Come, make us a god who shall go before us, for that man Moses, who brought us from the land of Egypt—we do not know what has happened to him.”
וַיַּרְא הָעָם, כִּי-בֹשֵׁשׁ מֹשֶׁה לָרֶדֶת מִן-הָהָר; וַיִּקָּהֵל הָעָם עַל-אַהֲרֹן, וַיֹּאמְרוּ אֵלָיו קוּם עֲשֵׂה-לָנוּ אֱלֹהִים אֲשֶׁר יֵלְכוּ לְפָנֵינוּ–כִּי-זֶה מֹשֶׁה הָאִישׁ אֲשֶׁר הֶעֱלָנוּ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם, לֹא יָדַעְנוּ מֶה-הָיָה לוֹ.
– Ex 32:1, JPS Tanakh, 1985

Based on language alone, there are at least three obvious ambiguities in this verse:

  • Did the People demand gods, plural, or one god? “Elohim” works both ways in Hebrew, referring to God or to human judges, and scholars argue for both possibilities in this context. Because there was ultimately only one Golden Calf created in the story, translators usually employ “god,” singular;
  • What kind of leadership are the People expecting from Aaron? When Moses went up the mountain – which is back in chapter 24 – he told the people that Aaron and Hur would be in charge in his absence. But we have no mention of earlier interactions with the interim leaders – and then there’s the odd failure to mention Hur again, which lead some midrashim to suggest that things were already so dire that Hur had already been killed by the agitated crowd. Still, the language could mean the people are standing opposite Aaron to speak to him or that they are gathering more aggressively.
  • Finally, what, exactly has Moses done to upset the People so severely? A common translation is that he “delayed” or “was so long” in coming down. Robert Alter says he “lagged.” And Everett Fox chooses “shamefully-late.” These three versions reflect a spectrum of angst: something taking “so long” could possibly be neutral or positive, even if excess is implied; “lagged” leaves less room for a non-negative interpretation; and “shamefully-late” might leave room for a positive explanation – helping someone with an emergency concern, for example, rather than forgetting or procrastinating – but it’s still obvious that whoever is waiting is distressed by the delay.

Regardless of translation, commentators spend a lot of energy trying to devise some kind of explanation for the People’s behavior that prompted what comes next: the quick turn to idol worship, Moses destroying the tablets, God threatening to destroy the whole People, and three thousand killed in camp.

004-moses-golden-calf

from freebibleimages.org

 

Shame and Delay

It doesn’t help translation or interpretation that the word central to this narrative, “bosheish,” doesn’t appear anywhere else in the Torah and shows up only once in the Tanakh.

Sisera’s mother, who doesn’t yet know that her son the general, was killed, wonders why his chariot bosheish (Judges 5:28). It’s a heart-breaking scene that might shed some light on the kind of anxiety the People were experiencing.

The related word “bosh,” translated as “shame,” is more common, appearing 106 times in the Tanakh, according to my concordance. Aviva Zornberg, in her discussion of this portion in the Particulars of Rapture, mentions one instance in particular, another verse in Judges, from the odd story of King Eglon, whose servants wait for him ad-bosh, “until they’re ashamed,” after he has been stabbed and retreats to his room, possibly to relieve himself, only the servants soon learn that he is dead(Judges 3:25). Another indication that bosh and bosheish are associated with very troubling – even life and death – situations.

I don’t fully grasp the biblical connection between shame and being late. But I think we’ve all experienced the peculiar state of waiting for someone who was expected at a certain time, terrified that something awful happened and equally, simultaneously ashamed at likely making a mountain out of a molehill.

With this in mind, some Golden Calf midrashim put part of the blame on Moses for being unclear about his return, when he went up the mountain, thereby causing unnecessary angst. The Talmud puns on bosheish and the word for “six,” saying that Moses had announced he would return by the sixth hour – noon, by Talmudic accounting – after 40 days. But the People miscalculated his expected return, because Moses failed to specify that the day he went up did not count as a full night and day.

Uncertainty and ha-Satan

And then, the midrash continues, the satan took advantage of the ambiguity and the People’s concern to convince them that Moses was dead. Thus, they’re so quick to look for another way forward.

There are similar stories, in midrash, in which the satan shows up. At the Akedah, for example: Sarah knows nothing about the journey Abraham and Isaac are taking, so the satan can convince her that Isaac is dead. I have not made an extensive study, but I notice that one key element in Jewish stories where Satan shows up is a disturbing level of uncertainty that can be exploited. The satan even convinces God to test Job based on uncertainty (about Job’s faithfulness). So, I’d to concentrate on the uncertainty in the Golden Calf story.

One way I look at this Torah moment is akin to being on a roadtrip with strangers to parts unknown, when the driver disappears behind a creepy truck-stop: Is he seeking directions or obtaining supplies? In need of privacy – to relieve himself, or meditate, or whatever? Or, given that we’re all relative strangers, can we rule out that he might be doing something nefarious that we’d rather not witness or involved in something that could get us all into terrible trouble?

Unless the instruction before he disappeared were dramatic and very specific – like “give me ten minutes and then come after me” or “wait twenty minutes and then take off, no matter what” – how do we decide what to do and when, as his return is delayed? If the driver left someone else in charge, do we automatically trust them? If relationships among other travelers are stronger than links to a leader, will factions develop? How long do we wait before declaring “enough is enough” and commandeering the car or going our own ways?

I suspect that most of us, at some point, have been in a situation of uncertainty and some gravity which forced us to decide, for safety and sanity, if and when to bail.

Maybe there was also a God factor, that is, a situation in which someone claims to speak for God and all involved have to decide whom to trust, how to discern divine will – assuming such is even possible – and how to move forward, individually and collectively.

Most of this portion does not offer the best model for handling such situations. It does remind us, however, of how frightening uncertainty can be – on our own and within a community – and the Golden Calf story warns us of how dangerous it is to let that fright convince us to jump to conclusions and then launch into action, thinking that we know the answers.

The Perils of Calculus

While the ancient Rabbis had compassion for the People’s precarious state of mind, they had no sympathy for, in essence, trying to out-calculate God.

The futility of this is also decried in Rabbinic writings about predicting the expected end of the Babylonian Exile and rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem. One such attempt is by Belshazzar in Babylon. He calculated that the time of exile, prophesied by Jeremiah, was complete but the Jews were not yet rescued, so God had abandoned them (Daniel 5). This results in the “writing on the wall,” followed by Belshazzar’s death and the conquest of Babylon by Persia.

In midrash to the Book of Esther, Ahashverus in Persia tries to avoid Belshazzar’s error with his own calculations, planning to similarly celebrate the Jew’ abandonment by God, because the Temple is not yet reconstructed. But his calculations also fail, and, after a number of reversals, it turns out that “the Jews had rule over them that hated them” (Esther 9:1). (See B. Megillah 11b).

The Golden Calf story and these midrashim about Babylon and Persia all seem to point to Jewish tradition warning against trying to guess the future or what is going on with other people.

A Suggestion

So, what are we supposed to do when faced with uncertainty?

We have a strong suggestion in the aftermath of the Golden Calf incident: God teaches Moses how to pray when in trouble, telling him to recite the 13 divine attributes:

…יְהוָה יְהוָה, אֵל רַחוּם וְחַנּוּן–אֶרֶךְ אַפַּיִם, וְרַב-חֶסֶד וֶאֱמֶת
“merciful and gracious, long-suffering, and abundant in goodness and truth”
– Ex 34:6

When faced with uncertainty and fear, the way forward, the portion tell us finally, is not to try to out-calculate or second-guess God or other people but to call on God’s attributes and work to help them become manifest in our world.

These remarks were prepared as a dvar torah for Hill Havurah
Calf from FreeBibleImages.org

Lament for Mismatched Glassware

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Exploring Babylon Chapter 16.1

At several points in the Megillah reading, the chant for the Book of Esther shifts to the Lamentations chant. The lament behind some verses seems clear: Mordecai’s introduction as a descendant of Babylonian exiles (2:6) and the decree telling all provinces to destroy the Jews (3:15), for example. It’s less obvious what is lamentable about three words — the whole verse does not change trope, just the three words — describing how banquet guests were served wine:

…וְכֵלִים מִכֵּלִים שׁוֹנִים…
“…the vessels being diverse one from another…” OR
“…beakers of varied design…”
— Esther 1:7

An explanation based on Esther Rabbah 2:11 brings us back to Babylon — although the spirit of Purim seems to cry out for a brief detour to consider the heartbreak of mismatched glassware. (See also note on publication schedule.)

Vessels at the Feast

The Megillah describes the decorations in the palace, the ornate couches, and “vessels of gold” used at the king’s seven-day feast. The text then adds: “Also Vashti the queen made a feast for the women in the royal house which belonged to king Ahasuerus” (Esther 1:8).

There is no mention of the vessels’ origin, beyond the enigmatic “shonim” [“different” or “diverse”]. (Many other explanations have been offered, over the centuries, to explain how the vessels were “different” — a topic, perhaps, for another day.) But Esther Rabbah says the vessels are “different” from ordinary ones in that those used at this feast are the same ones that Nebuchadnezzar took from the Temple in Jerusalem. The passing along of the Temple vessels is also linked in midrash to Queen Vashti.

The Megillah includes nothing about Queen Vashti’s background, although midrash has much to say about her. In terms of lineage, she is described midrashically as Babylonian royalty. She is sometimes identified as Nebuchadnezzar’s daughter (B. Megillah 10b). In one account, she is married to Ahashverus, who was her father’s steward (Esther Rabbah 3:14). Alternatively, she was the daughter of Belshazzar, and Darius married her to his son, Ahashverus, after her father was killed (Esther Rabbah 3:5). The latter story also provides a direct link between Vashti and the vessels in her palace, on the one hand, and, on the other, Belshazzar and the vessels at the “writing on the wall” feast (Daniel 5).

Daniel 5 opens with Belshazzar calling for “the golden and silver vessels which Nebuchadnezzar his father had taken out of the temple which was in Jerusalem.” It is clear, from the text (and midrash) that the party is meant to show contempt for Hebrews and all they hold sacred. The Megillah, in contrast, describes the feasting at the palace of Ahashverus in more neutral terms, while more negative connotations have been added by layers of midrash.

Offspring of Babylon

A strong thread in the negative midrash related to the Megillah stems from identification of Vashti as the “offspring” of Babylon:

וְקַמְתִּי עֲלֵיהֶם, נְאֻם יְהוָה צְבָאוֹת; וְהִכְרַתִּי לְבָבֶל שֵׁם וּשְׁאָר, וְנִין וָנֶכֶד–נְאֻם-יְהוָה.
And I will rise up against them, saith the LORD of hosts, and cut off from Babylon name and remnant, and offshoot and offspring, saith the LORD.
— Isaiah 14:22.

R. Jonathan prefaced his discourse on this section (Book of Esther) with the text, And I will rise against them… (Isa 14:22) [which he expounded as follows]: ‘Name’ means script; ‘remnant’ is language; ‘offshoot’ is kingdom, and ‘offspring’ is Vashti.
— B. Megillah 10b

R. Jonathan’s interpretation of the Isaiah verse can also be linked to the decree about households using the husband’s language (Esther 1:22 — midrash citation to come). Meanwhile, however, Vashti’s brief appearance and then exile have a powerful influence on the rest of the story. (See, for just one example, “The Role of Vashti in the Purim Story,” by Deena Rabinovich — PDF here.) At least one midrash suggests that the language decree, a response to suspicion about Vashti, set up opposition to Ahashverus, resulting, ultimately, in preservation of the Jews (again, citation to come). So perhaps Vashti, as offspring of Babylon, comes to tell us that the past is not so easy to eradicate, and that we are strengthened by preserving lessons — and cultural diversity — brought to us by the past.

Lamentable Banquet Service

This is based very loosely on the “Poetry Game,” created by Zahara Hecksher (9/12/64-2/24/18; her memory for a blessing), and offered in her honor and memory.

Vessels
Instructions:

  • Something in your poem occurs in an alley
  • Refer to a problem in a factory
  • Include the phrase “I remember ____” in your poem

Resulting poem: “Lament for Mismatched Glassware”

Goblets special ordered.
The king wants his display.
“It is time for us to host
A palace feast awash with wine
fine vessels for a toast.”

The queen cannot shake misgivings.
“I remember,” she explains,
“that writing on the wall.
A lavish party, I suspect,
may not end well at all.”

As the date grows near
workshop staff reports the order gone awry.
It appears that no two goblets match.
And not just one odd barrel,
batch after hodgepodge batch.

Palace staff is in the alley
unpacking mismatched wares.
Amid his duties the steward fears.
Royal wrath is a grave concern
as are faux-pas-related tears.

Royal banquet time is nigh.
Guests arriving at the gates.
Will history this night malign?
In trepidation the palace serves
with beakers of varied design.


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Note to subscribers and other followers of “Exploring Babylon” —
Apologies for the hiatus born of flu and weeks of scrambling to catch up with all that was left undone.
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The Treasure and the Favor

Exploring Babylon Chapter 15.2

Just as the stories of Exile and Return include people of quite different mindsets, Exodus peoples are not monolithic, Rabbi Gerry Serotta told me recently. He suggests that #ExploringBabylon could profitably consider some differences among Egyptians in the Exodus tale and look at related texts, in this portion and earlier, about Egyptians becoming “favorably disposed” toward the Israelites.

Difference

Rabbi Serotta points to three groups of Egyptians:

  • those who left with the Israelites — וְגַם-עֵרֶב רַב — “and also the erev-rav [often “mixed multitudes”; Alter uses “motley throng”]” (Ex 12:38);
  • those who did not join the Israelites but gave gold and silver and “raiment/cloaks” (Ex 12:35; see also “The Powers and the Wealth“); and
  • Pharaoh (and, perhaps, other unrepentant oppressors).

 
He adds that it’s good practice to look for the variety of people and perspectives in biblical narrative because “variety is God’s plan.” We see this in the story of Bavel (Genesis Chapter 11) and in many later teachings about the value of galut [exile] and dispersion.

God’s preference for variety is a hard concept to hold in the midst of a tale with the themes “You are MY people and I am YOUR God” and “Let My people go that they may serve ME.” But it can be found in the Exodus tale and in centuries of Jewish teaching centered around it. Seeking out and naming variety within biblical stories helps us avoid pigeonholing people and stereotyping groups in the text, in history, and in contemporary life. Exploring and amplifying difference-celebrating strands of Jewish teaching, from ancient times to the present, provides a foundation for inter-group understanding and cooperation.

…It is no accident that Rabbi Serotta, who has dedicated his career to interfaith, religious freedom, and peace and justice work, is drawn to teachings on diversity and galut [exile]. He offers additional ideas for #ExploringBabylon that will take some time to research; this week, we gratefully continue to pursue his suggestion to “follow the treasure,” so to speak, which appears in this week’s torah portion (Bo: Exodus 10:1-13:16), and its implications….

Boundaries

As discussed in the last episode, ancient commentaries on the gold and silver — mentioned in Ex 3:21-22, 11:2-3, and 12:35-36 (see below) — included the ideas of back wages/reparations and prior ownership of the wealth given to the fleeing Israelites. One important extension to the latter theme focuses on the prominence of women in this exchange to suggest that women used jewels and other portable wealth to bribe neighbors to overlook, or perhaps hide, their infant boys when Pharaoh decreed they be tossed into the river (exact citation temporarily AWOL, sorry).

Robert Alter notes, in his 2004 Five Books of Moses (see Source Materials), that “neighbor” and “sojourner” in 3:22 are feminine nouns, adding:

[The verse] reflects a frequent social phenomenon–also registered in the rabbinic literature of Late Antiquity–in which women constitute the porous boundary between adjacent ethnic communities: borrowers of the proverbial cup of sugar, sharers of gossip and women’s lore.

Alter goes on to insist, however, that exegesis which sees Egyptian women as lodgers in Israelite houses doesn’t match the plague narrative. (He then describes the overall tale as one of “Israelite triumphalism.” More on this below.)

Benno Jacob (1862-1945) also explores boundary crossing and long-term relationships which he sees as hidden in plain sight in Exodus:

The Israelites had settled as herdsmen, a necessary but disdained occupation in Egypt. The details of our story suggest that they were scattered throughout Egypt, which must have led to many personal friendships; only a systematically encouraged hate propaganda was able to change this.
Jacob, The Second Book of the Bible p.343


Protest and Change

Jacob extensively discusses the wealth exchange in Parashat Bo. He uses linguistic and narrative analysis to support his view that God wanted the Israelites and Egyptians to part on good terms and had repeatedly told Moses that was to be the end result. He argues that the Egyptians had already, before Pesach night, come around to seeking compassion and justice for the Israelites, and the farewell gifts are part of the evidence of a change in position:

The Egyptians’ gifts to the Israelites were a clear public protest against the policies of the royal tyrant. They demonstrated a renewal of public conscience…a moral change; the receptive heart of the Egyptian people was now contrasted to the hard heart of Pharaoh.
— Jacob, p.343

He goes further, insisting that this must be a mutual change of heart, from peoples on both sides of the conflict. Jacob links the opening phrase of Ex 11:2 to the similar expression Joseph used in requesting burial for his father (Gen 50:4) and suggests that this link means God was trying to trigger positive feelings:

[God] knew that some Egyptians recalled Joseph, others would have been impressed by the miracles they had witnessed or now had a high a regard for Moses, so they would seek a friendly farewell….

God’s command Moses [Ex 11:2] simultaneously threatened Pharaoh and searched for peace between the two peoples. These peaceful relations were God’s principal concern during Israel’s last hours in Egypt. This was the true meaning of the farewell gifts which the Israelites sought and the Egyptians willingly gave.
— Jacob, p. 344 (emphasis in original)

Rabbi Shai Held, of Mechon Hadar, includes a poignant addendum on this teaching in “Receiving Gifts (and Learning to Love?): The “Stripping” of the Egyptians.” Held quotes Jacob calling this episode “the most elevated and spiritual reconciliation among people; it was full of wisdom and love of fellow man” (p.339 in the above cited Jacob commentary). He then confesses skepticism as to whether Jacob’s story jives with the plain sense of the text but concludes:

One senses in Jacob’s words the insights of a brilliant exegete but also the pain of a rabbi and teacher in a Germany consumed by hate**….In a world suffused with bigotry and hostility, a world in which people of faith often marshal sacred texts to legitimate acts of cruelty and to extol hatred as a virtue, there is great power in reading Jacob’s words and being reminded: At the heart of the religious enterprise is the attempt to soften, and open, one’s heart, to God and to one-another. If even the Egyptians and the Israelites can be (successfully!) called to love one-another, then perhaps, even in the darkest of times, slim glimmers of hope are available to us.

**Held includes a footnote citing personal communication with R. Walter Jacob (Benno’s son) to confirm that his father was working on the Exodus commentary between 1934 and 1939, while still in Germany.

Two Final Comments

Just so we don’t lose sight of the triumphalist nature of the Exodus story in its basic literary form, here are a few more comments from just one scholar:

Denizens of simple farms and the relatively crude towns of Judea would have known about imperial Egypt’s fabulous luxuries, its exquisite jewelry, and the affluent among them would have enjoyed imported Egyptian linens and papyrus. It is easy to imagine how this tale of despoiling or stripping bare Egypt would have given pleasure to its early audiences.
— Alter, on Ex 3:22

Alter adds that the three “sister-wife stories” of Genesis — Abraham and Sarah in Egypt (12:1-10), Abraham and Sarah in Gerar (Gen 20:1-18), and Isaac and Rebecca in Gerar (26:1-16) — “adumbrate the Exodus narrative,” by portraying the couple as arriving with little and leaving with much. Despoiling, he argues, is “an essential part of the story of liberation from bondage in the early national traditions.”

And, finally, also from Benno Jacob:

The Israelites received gifts from their neighbors when they left the Babylonian Exile in a manner parallel to our narrative; these consisted of gold, silver, etc. Some were in response to the royal mandate and were intended for the rebuiling of the Temple while others were freely given (Ezek 1: 4,6)
— Jacob, p.341




TEXTS

And I will give this people favour in the sight of the Egyptians. And it shall come to pass, that, when ye go, ye shall not go empty;
וְנָתַתִּי אֶת-חֵן הָעָם-הַזֶּה, בְּעֵינֵי מִצְרָיִם; וְהָיָה כִּי תֵלֵכוּן, לֹא תֵלְכוּ רֵיקָם.
but every woman shall ask of her neighbour, and of her that sojourns in her house, jewels of silver, and jewels of gold, and raiment; and you shall put them upon your sons, and upon your daughters; and ye shall spoil the Egyptians.’
וְשָׁאֲלָה אִשָּׁה מִשְּׁכֶנְתָּהּ וּמִגָּרַת בֵּיתָהּ, כְּלֵי-כֶסֶף וּכְלֵי זָהָב וּשְׂמָלֹת; וְשַׂמְתֶּם, עַל-בְּנֵיכֶם וְעַל-בְּנֹתֵיכֶם, וְנִצַּלְתֶּם, אֶת-מִצְרָיִם.
–Exodus 3:21-22

Speak now in the ears of the people, and let them ask every man of his neighbour, and every woman of her neighbour, jewels of silver, and jewels of gold.’
דַּבֶּר-נָא, בְּאָזְנֵי הָעָם; וְיִשְׁאֲלוּ אִישׁ מֵאֵת רֵעֵהוּ, וְאִשָּׁה מֵאֵת רְעוּתָהּ, כְּלֵי-כֶסֶף, וּכְלֵי זָהָב.
And the LORD gave the people favour in the sight of the Egyptians. Moreover the man Moses was very great in the land of Egypt, in the sight of Pharaoh’s servants, and in the sight of the people.
וַיִּתֵּן יְהוָה אֶת-חֵן הָעָם, בְּעֵינֵי מִצְרָיִם; גַּם הָאִישׁ מֹשֶׁה, גָּדוֹל מְאֹד בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם, בְּעֵינֵי עַבְדֵי-פַרְעֹה, וּבְעֵינֵי הָעָם.
–Exodus 11:2-3

Exodus 12:35-36 was copied in “The Powers and the Wealth
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Benno Jacob

The Second Book of the Bible: Exodus, Interpreted by Benno Jacob. Walter Jacob and Yaakov Elman, trans. (Hoboken, NJ: Ktav, 1992).

Benno Jacob was a rabbi and scholar born in Breslau and active in German Jewish life through the 1930s. He spent his last five years in England, where he completed his Exodus commentary in 1940 and continued to revise it until his death, at age 83, in 1945. See short biography (by his son, Walter Jacob) in the Exodus commentary.

We learn know this biography that Jacob was still in Germany when most synagogues were burned; he watched the German Jewish community to which he’d dedicated his life destroyed; he witnessed the deportation (and eventual return) of his son, R. Ernst Jacob, to Dachau; and he lost nearly everything in moving to England in his late seventies.

Jacobs also produced a commentary on Genesis, which is, as I understand it, not fully available to English readers. Nechama Leibowitz, in her New Studies series, often quotes Benno Jacob, based on unpublished manuscripts. Her chapter on the wealth exchange in Bo makes use of Jacob’s 1924 article, “Gott und Pharao.”
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The Powers and the Wealth

Exploring Babylon Chapter 15.1

The battle between God and Pharaoh reaches a crescendo in this week’s Torah portion — Bo (Ex 10:1 – 13:16) — and the denouement includes an exchange of treasure between the Egyptians and the Israelites. Rabbinic lore links these riches back to Genesis and forward through history, ending with the familiar “powers” trope. The trail of this treasure, and the interwoven responsibilities illuminated along the way, sheds a bit of light for #ExploringBabylon.

Travels of the World’s Wealth

The Tenth Plague convinces Pharaoh to let the People go, and the Egyptians give or lend the Israelites “objects of silver and gold, and clothing” to take with them upon departure (Ex 12:35). One Talmudic discussion (B. Pes 119a) begins by noting how Joseph amassed riches for a different pharaoh during a famine: gathering funds from around the world and “all the money that was to be found in the land of Egypt and in the land of Canaan” (Gen 41 and 47). This discussion then goes beyond Torah to list the treasure’s later history, ending — as we’ve seen in many similar stories — in Rome:

The treasure remained [in the Land of Israel] until the time of Rehoboam, son of Solomon….(1 Kings 14:26)…Next Jehosophat came and took the treasure back from the Ammonites (2 Chron 20). It remained in the Land until the time of Ahaz, when Sennecherib came and took it from Ahaz. Then came Hezekiah, who took it from Sennacherib, and it remained in the Land until Zedekiah, when the Chaldeans [Babylonians] came and took it from Zedekiah. Then came the Persians, who took it from the Chaldeans; the Greeks, who took it from the Persians; the Romans, who took it from the Greeks. And the treasure is still in Rome.
Sefer Ha-Aggadah 70:70, from B. Pes 119a

 

Wages Due

Elsewhere (B. San 91a) pursues a different direction in attempting to explain why the Israelites should have such riches:

Another occasion the Egyptians came in a lawsuit against the Jews before Alexander of Macedon. They pleaded thus: ‘Is it not written, And the Lord gave the people favour in the sight of the Egyptians, and they lent them [gold and precious stones, etc. (Ex 12:35)] Then return us the gold and silver which ye took!’…

[Temple doorkeeper Gebiha b. Pesisa asked permission of the Sages to answer the charge and responded as follows:]

‘Whence do ye adduce your proof?’ asked he, ‘From the Torah,’ they replied. ‘Then I too,’ said he, ‘will bring you proof only from the Torah, for it is written, Now the sojourning of the children of Israel, who dwelt in Egypt, was four hundred and thirty years (Ex 12:40). Pay us for the toil of six hundred thousand men whom ye enslaved for four hundred thirty years.’
— B. San 91a; see also Sefer Ha-Aggadah 166:30


Questions to Consider

There are centuries’ worth of commentaries further exploring this treasure in particular, links between Joseph’s actions at the close of Genesis and enslavement in Exodus, and related issues. To begin, however, some questions the texts above raise:

  • Joseph helped pharaoh take advantage of famine conditions, amassing wealth from around the world and even taking land and means of livelihood from the people in exchange for food. Whose, in that light, is that treasure?
  • What (if any) are the implications of the Genesis part of the story for the “wage” argument?
  • What (if any) lessons might be drawn for the need for Reparations for people descended from enslaved populations in the United States?
  • Are there connections, direct or metaphorical, between this treasure and the Temple vessels used in the “writing on the wall” story in the Book of Daniel and in the opening festivities in the Book of Esther?


TEXTS

Ex 12:35-36
The Israelites had done Moses’ bidding and borrowed from the Egyptians objects of silver and gold, and clothing.
וּבְנֵי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֥ל עָשׂ֖וּ כִּדְבַ֣ר מֹשֶׁ֑ה וַֽיִּשְׁאֲלוּ֙ מִמִּצְרַ֔יִם כְּלֵי־כֶ֛סֶף וּכְלֵ֥י זָהָ֖ב וּשְׂמָלֹֽת׃
And the LORD had disposed the Egyptians favorably toward the people, and they let them have their request; thus they stripped the Egyptians.
וַֽיהוָ֞ה נָתַ֨ן אֶת־חֵ֥ן הָעָ֛ם בְּעֵינֵ֥י מִצְרַ֖יִם וַיַּשְׁאִל֑וּם וַֽיְנַצְּל֖וּ אֶת־מִצְרָֽיִם׃
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Gen 41:56-57
Accordingly, when the famine became severe in the land of Egypt, Joseph laid open all that was within, and rationed out grain to the Egyptians. The famine, however, spread over the whole world.
וְהָרָעָ֣ב הָיָ֔ה עַ֖ל כָּל־פְּנֵ֣י הָאָ֑רֶץ וַיִּפְתַּ֨ח יוֹסֵ֜ף אֶֽת־כָּל־אֲשֶׁ֤ר בָּהֶם֙ וַיִּשְׁבֹּ֣ר לְמִצְרַ֔יִם וַיֶּחֱזַ֥ק הָֽרָעָ֖ב בְּאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרָֽיִם׃
So all the world came to Joseph in Egypt to procure rations, for the famine had become severe throughout the world.
וְכָל־הָאָ֙רֶץ֙ בָּ֣אוּ מִצְרַ֔יְמָה לִשְׁבֹּ֖ר אֶל־יוֹסֵ֑ף כִּֽי־חָזַ֥ק הָרָעָ֖ב בְּכָל־הָאָֽרֶץ׃

Gen 47:14
Joseph gathered in all the money that was to be found in the land of Egypt and in the land of Canaan, as payment for the rations that were being procured, and Joseph brought the money into Pharaoh’s palace.
וַיְלַקֵּ֣ט יוֹסֵ֗ף אֶת־כָּל־הַכֶּ֙סֶף֙ הַנִּמְצָ֤א בְאֶֽרֶץ־מִצְרַ֙יִם֙ וּבְאֶ֣רֶץ כְּנַ֔עַן בַּשֶּׁ֖בֶר אֲשֶׁר־הֵ֣ם שֹׁבְרִ֑ים וַיָּבֵ֥א יוֹסֵ֛ף אֶת־הַכֶּ֖סֶף בֵּ֥יתָה פַרְעֹֽה׃
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Babylon and New Beginnings

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Exploring Babylon Chapter 14

The Joseph Cycle, which closes out the Book of Genesis, has it all, in terms of story-telling: politics, sex, family drama, passages that touch on religious and cultural practices, plus a few dream sequences. The Book of Exodus is quite the drama as well, but it shifts focus to national struggle, while still providing individual stories that keep the scale personal as well as epic. Both books offer ample opportunity to consider themes relevant to #ExploringBabylon. Both the Joseph story and the opening of Exodus, in particular, prompt us to consider the various experiences of enslavement and captivity — with members of the family that becomes Yisrael as both victims and perpetrators.

We are also prompted to compare the Exodus story with that of the Babylonian Captivity — and, of course, with historical experiences of Jewish and non-Jews.

In his book, Song of Exile, David W. Stowe offers some apropos comments. I think his words worth repeating, as the Exodus tale unfolds in the Torah reading cycle and in advance of Passover, so quote here:

We can readily see how the Exodus lends itself to popular culture – Hollywood, for example—in ways that the Exile doesn’t. The Exodus has a strong central character, Moses, who though not without flaws is undeniably cut from heroic cloth. By contrast the Exile features a shifting cast of characters, none of whom seem quite heroic. There are two malcontents, Jeremiah and Ezekiel, who alienate nearly everyone around them and die on what seems the losing side of history. Daniel rises far in Babylon but doesn’t himself lead the Judeans to the promised land. There is no triumphant entry into the Promised Land in the Exile; some of the Judeans slowing drift back to Judah after Babylonia is conquered by the Persians, and eventually the Temple is rebuilt.
— Stowe, p.100

In addition, Stowe points out, the Exile does not have the same “sense of triumphant destiny” as the Exodus story. While this does not make the Exile a Hollywood favorite, he argues, it does make the story a better fit for the complex “diasporic sensibility of so many ethnic and racial communities in North America,” some of whom thought of “North America as a Promised Land or New Jerusalem,” while “many others imagined themselves as temporary sojourners, never forgetting the links that bound the to a homeland” (Stowe, p.103).

There is so much to unpack in considering the United States as “New Jerusalem,” temporary homeland, and “Babylon.” We’ll try to make some inroads as the reading of Exodus progresses and we launch some new directions in #ExploringBabylon.

To Complexity

Meanwhile, just in testament to the amazing complexity ahead, some related words and images from the 1988 movie “Working Girl,” written and set, of course, long before the Twin Towers became central to another aspect of the story.

“Let the River Run” Lyrics by Carly Simon (1988)



NOTE:
Stowe, David W. Song of Exile: The Enduring Mystery of Psalm 137 (NY: Oxford University Press, 2016). Additional information.
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Foreign Languages and Imagination

The brand new Koren Rav Kook Siddur presents commentary, not previously published in English, from Abraham Isaac Hakohen Kook (1865-1935), first Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi of pre-state Israel and a visionary Jewish thinker — including this note which sheds some light for #ExploringBabylon. (See below for book and launch info.)

Exploring Babylon Chapter 12

This commentary on Psalm 81:6-7 weaves three talmudic tales and two odd spellings toward a surprising conclusion.

When Pharaoh appointed Joseph as Viceroy of Egypt (Gen 39), Talmudic legend says, Pharoah’s advisors challenged the appointment, demanding that someone worthy of the post know “the seventy languages.” So, the angel Gabriel came to teach Joseph and, when he didn’t master all the languages at first, “added to his name a letter from the Name of the Holy One, blessed be He, and he learnt [the languages] as it is said: He appointed it in Joseph for a testimony, when he went out over the land of Egypt, where I heard a language that I knew not” (B. Sotah 36b; Ps. 81:6).

Joseph’s name is spelled with an extra “hey” in Ps. 81:6: בִּיהוֹסֵף. Joshua’s name, on the other hand, is missing its “hey” in Nehemiah 8:17: יֵשׁוּעַ. The Talmud’s explanation for Joshua’s diminished named is that the Bible is chastising him for failing to remove the “passion for idolatry [yitsra de-‘avodah zarah” from the country (B. Arachin 32b). But Rav Kook defends Joshua and asserts the power of imagination. He goes on to insist, alluding to a third talmudic story, that trying to shut off imagination can be disastrous for individual and collective spiritual life:

The reason that Joshua did not abolish the hankering for idolatry, which is a function of the imaginative faculty, is because Joshua as a descendant of Joseph, was of the firm conviction that the power of imagination — crucial for prophetic ability — need not be abolished….

Eventually, in the days of Ezra, the Men of the Great Assembly would stop up the yitsra de-‘avodah zarah in a “lead pot” (duda de-avara), and quite predictably, that would in turn bring about the cessation of prophecy in Israel. But in Rav Kook’s reverie, “kapav mi-dud ta’avornah,” “his palms will be set free from the pot.”
Koren Rav Kook Siddur, p.258-260


Pots and Palms

B. Sanhedrin 64a tells of leaders trapping the “passion for idolatry” in a lead pot. The result is that no eggs are produced anywhere in the Land, for the three days it is captive. The Talmud and Rav Kook take this story in different directions.

The Talmudic discussion is concerned with people “engaged in idolatry only that they might openly satisfy their incestuous lusts.” After considering their options, the leaders blind their captive and then let it go. (“This was so far effective that one does not lust for his forbidden relations”). Rav Kook looks beyond the incestuous lust of the Sanhedrin discussion, instead focusing on the underlying issue of converting the “passion for idolatry” to “holy light.”

When Ps. 81:7 says “his palms will be set free from the pot” —

כַּפָּיו, מִדּוּד תַּעֲבֹרְנָה.
kapav mi-dud ta’avornah

Rav Kook reads “kapav” [his palms] as related to prophetic inspiration. (This is possibly related to Exodus 33:32-33, in which God holds puts Moses in the rock cleft and promises, “I will cover you with my palm until I have passed by.” Other links between “palm” and “prophecy” are suggested as well.) He concludes that, once palms are freed from the pot, “Imagination will be liberated and prophecy restored” (Kook Siddur, p. 260).

The “hey” which Gabriel adds to Joseph’s name to help him master the languages “is absorbed into Joshua’s being and empowers him to clarify the imagination, which takes in the entire esthetic dimension” (Kook Siddur, p. 258).

Exploring “the entire esthetic dimension” seems like a large project. But the idea that foreign languages and imagination and prophetic inspiration are somehow linked together seems worth pursuing at some point….

…Meanwhile, I suppose it’s time to move into a situation which “doesn’t know Joseph.”




The siddur text is the Koren Sacks (2009) bilingual edition, and Rav Kook’s teachings are prepared by Rabbi Bezalel Naor, who translated Kook’s 1920 Orot.

For information on the siddur itself visit Koren.

For those in/around NYC, here is a book launch on 1/7/18 at Lincoln Square Synagogue.
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Psalms 81:6-7
עֵדוּת, בִּיהוֹסֵף שָׂמוֹ
בְּצֵאתוֹ, עַל-אֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם;
שְׂפַת לֹא-יָדַעְתִּי אֶשְׁמָע
He appointed it in Joseph for a testimony,
when He went forth against the land of Egypt.
The speech of one that I knew not did I hear:
הֲסִירוֹתִי מִסֵּבֶל שִׁכְמוֹ;
כַּפָּיו, מִדּוּד תַּעֲבֹרְנָה.
kapav mi-dud ta’avornah
‘I removed his shoulder from the burden;
his hands were freed from the basket.
— JPS 1917 translation, from Mechon-Mamre
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The Five Powers, part 3

Exploring Babylon Chapter 11.2

A few notes on Rome, the last of the five foreign powers associated with Chanukah, to round out the discussion of “Ma’oz Tzur [Rock of Refuge].”

Chapter 11.1 outlined the structure of the 13th Century piyyut:

  • an opening stanza calling for future restoration of the Temple and for God to prepare the “slaughter​ of the blasphemi​ng foe”;
  • four stanzas recalling past-tense rescues (Chanukah, Purim, Egypt, Babylon); and
  • and a final, present/future-oriented stanza asking God to “Aveng​e the blood of your servants from the evil nation” and “Push Edom into the shadows and bring the seven shepherds.”

This structure follows a regular, ancient pattern which recalls previous rescue from foreign powers while calling on God for help now, from the ever-present power of “Rome” in its many forms over the centuries. And this piyyut’s history illustrates another pattern associated with “Rome.”

See below for a note on the “seven shepherds” (hint: not average, peaceful flock ovine-tending folk).

The Persistence of “Rome”

When the Talmud and many early midrashim speak of “foreign powers,” rescue from Egypt and from Babylon, Persia, and the Seleucid empire is past tense, while the Roman Empire — often called “Edom” or “Esau,” sometimes “the evil nation” — remains a present danger. We saw this, for example, in midrashim on the Akedah, Jacob’s dream, and “in the beginning.” The same trope is repeated for centuries, with “Edom” or “the evil nation” standing in for the Catholic Church and non-Jewish political powers.

Meanwhile, the Roman Empire and its successors influenced various aspects of Jewish worship through official censorship by the authorities, intimidation and violence, and related self-censorship by Jewish communities. This dynamic is often cited to explain why the narrative of Chanukah shifted from the military-centered tale (Maccabees 1 and 2, usually dated 2nd Century BCE) to the story of one cruse of oil lasting eight days (B. Talmud Shabbat 21b, hundreds of years later, during Roman rule). This is also a key part of the story of how Ma’oz Tzur‘s presentation in various prayer books changed over the years.

For several hundred years, the harsh sixth stanza of the piyyut disappeared from prayerbooks, although the first stanza remained and garnered many musical settings. (See Notes 2 and 3 below.) The evil nation/Edom verses can be found today in Orthodox prayer books today, while non-Orthodox prayer books and musical collections continue to omit them — very often including even more abbreviated versions of Ma’oz Tzur or and/or substitution of the 19th Century song, “Rock of Ages.”

The sixth stanza’s disappearance is now thought to be the result of self- censorship by Jewish communities during periods when relations with “Rome” were troubled at best. Deciding whether and how to (re-)include the sixth stanza is part of the on-going development of relations between Jews and “Rome.”

Singing with Gusto?

A few years ago, the London-based Jewish Chronicle posted a discussion on including, or omitting, the sixth stanza.

Rabbi Naftali Brawer, from Borehamwood and Elstree (Modern Orthodx) United Synagogue, argued for using the existence of harsher prayers, like Ma’oz Tzur, as teaching moments:

As a responsible teacher you cannot hide this fact from your students. Instead, use these prayers as a springboard to discuss the turbulent nature of Jewish history. These are not speeches calling on faithful Jews to commit violence. They are desperate prayers to God asking Him to remove the threat of danger that hangs over our people.

Rabbi Jonathan Romain from Maidenhead (Reform) Synagogue argued to the contrary, noting that “we ask others to remove passages that offend us — such as sections of Christian liturgy that insult Jews,” and declaring that the sixth stanza of Ma’oz Tzur “hardly reflects our understanding of the festival or the positive message of Jewish identity that we derive from it.”

Romain concludes:

The prayer book is the manifesto of Judaism. It is said that the Bible is God’s gift to the Jewish people, and the prayer book is our gift back. It reflects what we believe and stand for. If we are to pray it, then we should mean it.

We should be able to sing Ma’oz Tzur with gusto and without grimacing at the end. Religious values means ditching verse six.

…The two teachers were asked only about the sixth stanza, not about the “slaughter​ of the blasphemi​ng foe” line in the opening stanza. Many progressive congregations do cheerfully belt out the first stanza in Hebrew, with or without a literal English translation nearby; I don’t know what is included in British Reform Jewish siddirum…

Brawer’s position is quite different:

Ma’oz Tzur in particular demonstrates that persecution is unfortunately a recurring theme in our history. Jews must never gloat when an enemy falls and vengeance for vengeance’s sake is distinctly un-Jewish. However, that does not mean we must shy away from asking God to eliminate our enemies. Nor for that matter should we hesitate to celebrate when that happens. That is, after all, the whole story of Chanucah.

But this brings us back to the topic of Chanukah and the ways we tell the story: the Maccabees’ might? Zechariah’s “but by spirit”? The Talmud’s story of lights? And this has always depended, at least in part, on who else might be listening.

Epilogue

This, finally, is the last of three originally-planned posts on Chanukah and the “five powers.” (Apologies for delay and any confusion occasioned by it.) The holiday has been over for awhile now, most likely the wax and wicks finally cleared away as well. But the real point of the holiday — as Gila Sacks writes here — is what we take forward from it:

The lighting of the menorah stands in direct contrast to the dramas of war…..it emphasizes the power of the regular, consistent practice of ritual and law to bring meaning into our lives— rather than waiting for miracles, waiting for enlightenment to find us.

Mai Hannukah? [What is (the reason for) Chanukah?] We focus on the lighting of the menorah, rather than the war that preceded it, to remind us that the real miracles came afterward—in our ability then, and our challenge now, to create an emanating light through small, simple, regular acts of service.
— Gila Sacks, “Creating Light Each Day”
Shema Bekolah: Hear Her Voice




NOTES

NOTE 1: Seven Shepherds
The Book of Micah — dated to the last part of the 8th and first part of the 7th Century BCE — focuses on a the time period around the fall of the Northern Kingdom to Assyria. This prophet is read only once in the liturgical year, as haftarah (5:6-6:8) for the Torah portion Balak (Numbers 22:2 – 25:9). The haftarah includes the famous line (6:8), “You have been told, O man, what is good, and what the LORD requires of thee: only to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.”

The haftarah begins with a positive-sounding message: “And the remnant of Jacob shall be in the midst of many peoples, as dew from the LORD, as showers upon the grass…” (5:6) but goes on to speak of violent retribution, wrecking chariots and destroying idols, fortresses and cities (5-8-14). And just preceding the haftarah are more sword-centered, messianic visions:

“And you, O Bethlehem of Ephrath, Least among the clans of Judah, From you one shall come forth To rule Israel for Me— One whose origin is from of old, From ancient times.
“Truly, He will leave them [helpless] Until she who is to bear has borne; Then the rest of his countrymen Shall return to the children of Israel.
“He shall stand and shepherd By the might of the LORD, By the power of the name Of the LORD his God, And they shall dwell [secure]. For lo, he shall wax great To the ends of the earth;
“And that shall afford safety. Should Assyria invade our land And tread upon our fortresses, We will set up over it seven shepherds, Eight princes of men,
“Who will shepherd Assyria’s land with swords, The land of Nimrod in its gates. Thus he will deliver [us] From Assyria, should it invade our land, And should it trample our country.”
— Micah 5:1-5 (1985 JPS, posted by Sefaria)

Rabbi Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz discusses the “seven shepherds” in the context of Sukkot’s ushpizin [mystical visitors to festival booths]. Micah’s messianic verses are much more popular among Christians. In fact, FWIW, the My Jewish Learning article comes from a Christian press.

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NOTE 2:

Cantor David Berger, of KAM Isaiah Israel in Chicago, gave a 2010 presentation for the Union for Reform Judaism which presents many musical settings and includes history and commentary. His presentation to the URJ used an orthodox source (Koren Sacks siddur) for the six stanzas of Ma’oz Tzur, as well as Reform and other sources for the 19th Century song, “Rock of Ages.” (More on this in the previous chapter of #ExploringBabylon.)

NOTE 3:
Although some scholars suggest that the harsh sixth stanza was a later addition, it seems of a piece with the first stanza’s call for God to prepare the “slaughter​ of the blasphemi​ng foe,” as well as with the “You saved us before, get us out of Edom” trope described above. Berger (in above cited webinar) reports that scholars now believe the sixth stanza original and self-censored.

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The Five Powers, part 2

1

Exploring Babylon 11.1

Episode 10 of #ExploringBabylon began discussing foreign powers associated with Chanukah — Egypt, Seleucid (Syrian-Greek) Empire, Babylon, Persia, and Rome — looking briefly at three of the five. Before the holiday is too distant a memory, let’s look at the remaining powers, Persia and Rome, and the holiday piyyut [liturgical poem] that includes them all.

Ma’oz Tzur [Rock of Refuge]” includes a stanza about restoration and re-dedication of the Temple followed by stanzas reflecting on rescue from each of the five foreign powers. It was composed in Hebrew in 13th Century Germany and credited to “Moredechai,” based on his acrostic “signature.”

The 19th Century song “Rock of Ages” — often confusingly called a “translation” of “Ma’oz Tzur” — adapts the piyyut’s themes of kindling lights and rescue while focusing only on the Chanukah story. The English is credited to two European-born, U.S. rabbis important in the Reform movement, based on an earlier German piece.

For the purposes of #ExploringBabylon, it’s important to note differences between the 13th and 19th Century lyrics in terms of agency, tense, and ultimate aim.

Rock of Refuge, Ages

“Rock of Ages” omits any call for restoration of the Temple, of course, and there is no sense that Jews (some of whom may be “fettered”) are more in need of rescue than any other people. The 19th Century Reform song thanks God for “saving power” (past tense) and then calls on Jews (present, future) to wake and sound their message of universal freedom and an end to tyranny:

“Rock of Ages, let our song, praise Thy saving power;
Thou, amidst the raging foes, wast our sheltering tower.
Furious they assailed us, but Thine arm availed us,
And Thy Word broke their sword, when our own strength failed us.
And Thy Word broke their sword, when our own strength failed us.

“Kindling new the holy lamps, priests, approved in suffering,
Purified the nation’s shrine, brought to God their offering…

“Children of the martyr race, whether free or fettered,
Wake the echoes of the songs where ye may be scattered.
Yours the message cheering that the time is nearing
Which will see, all men free, tyrants disappearing.
Which will see, all men free, tyrants disappearing.”
— Marcus Jastrow & Gustav Gottheil

The 13th Century lyrics, on the other hand, use past tense for stanzas about Egypt, Babylon, Chanukah, and Purim, but open and close with the need for God’s future rescue. The poet ascribes deliverance, past and future, to God alone and continues to beg for help for the beleaguered Jewish community:

Ma’oz tzur yeshu’ati
O Fortress,​ Rock of my salvation​​,
lecha na’eh leshabei’ach,

unto thee it is becoming to give praise:
Tikon beit tefilati
let my house of prayer be restored,​
vesham todah nezabei’ach
and I will there offer thee thanksgiv​ings
Le’eit tachin matbei’ach
when thou shalt have prepared a slaughter​
mitzar hamenabei’ach,
of the blasphemi​ng foe,
Az egmor beshir mizmor
I will complete with song and psalm
chanukat hamizbei’ach
the dedicatio​n of the altar.*

Chasof zero’a kadshecha
vekareiv keitz hayeshu’ah,

Expos​e your holy arm
and bring the end of the redemptio​n.

Nekom nikmat dam avadecha
mei’uma haresha’ah,

Aveng​e the blood of your servants
from the evil nation.

Ki archa lanu hayeshu’ah
ve’ein kaitz leyimei hara’ah,

Becau​se the salvation​​ has been a long time coming
and there is no end to the days of evil.

Dechei admon betzeil tzalmmon
hakeim lanu ro’im shiv’ah.

Push Edom into the shadows
(Others: Thrust the enemy into the darkness of death)
and bring the seven shepherds.”***
Zemirot Database
*translation from Authorize​​​d Daily Prayer Book (1890)
***Zemirot Database contributor translation

NOTE: “seven shepherds” from Micah 5:4 (more, eventually, on this verse)

Zemirot Database provides Hebrew and a public domain translation of all six stanzas of “Ma’oz Tzur.” The Milken Archives offers lyrics, without the last stanza, and a little history. Wikipedia presents lots of useful background plus Hebrew and English for both “Ma’oz Tzur” and “Rock of Ages,” and — serious kudos for this important clarification — identifies the latter as a “non-literal” translation of the former….

Rescue from the Powers

Stanzas 2-5 of “Ma’oz Tzur” thank God for rescue (past tense):

  • God “brought forth the treasured people” and Pharaoh’s army “sunk like a stone”
  • The oppressor “came and led me captive” but “through Zerubbabel I was saved after seventy years”
  • “The head of the Benjamite​ thou didst exalt, but the enemy’s name thou Midst blot out”
  • “The Grecians were gathered against me in the days of the Hasmoneans,” towers were broken and oil defiled, “but from one of the last remaining​ flasks a miracle was wrought for thy beloved”

The final verse, quoted above, returns to the present tense; we’ll leave its call for relief from Edom (Rome) — which was missing from prayerbooks for hundreds of years and is still omitted from many versions — for another day.

We’ve previously touched on other powers described above, but we’ve yet to focus in on Persia.

Persia, Purim, and the Temple

As is common in re-tellings of the Purim story, the stress in “Ma’oz Tzur” is on the evil that Haman intended toward the Jews and the violent end he and his sons met instead; the carnage in the final chapters of Esther, when “Jews smote their enemies” (9:5), is not mentioned. And, as in other stanzas of the piyyut, the only real actor in the Purim stanza is God.

The Purim story is set sometime after the far the Persian conquest of Babylon (539 BCE), when Judeans who had been exiled were allowed to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the Temple. Many Jews remained behind in what had been Babylonia, however. And, meanwhile, according to Ezra 4:6ff, permission to re-construct the Temple was rescinded “in the reign of Ahasuerus.”

Rebuilding had stalled during Zechariah’s prophesy. We left off our previous discussion, with the haftarah for Chanukah (Zech 2:14-4:7), as the twin leadership of Zerubbabel — also mentioned in the Babylonian stanza of “Ma’oz Tzur” above — and Joshua ben Jehozadak attempted to rally support for the restoration. Zechariah’s prophesy is specifically dated to 520-518 BCE; it is less clear how we are to understand “in the days of Ahasuerus” (Esther 1:1).

The Book of Esther is set far from Jerusalem, and the text does not mention the Temple. Midrash does, however. For example: Mordechai had been part of a delegation asking the king to allow rebuilding (Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer). Ahasuerus rejoices at the Temple’s delay, according to Midrash Rabbah. The king calculated that the Judeans’ exile was exceeding the period prophesied by Jeremiah, and so “brought vessels of the Temple and used them” (BT Megillah 11b).

Persia and Babylon

The vessels used in the king’s feast (1:5) and Queen Vashti’s (1:9) link these festivities to earlier revelry in Babylon, when Belshazzar used the vessels the night of the “writing on the wall” (Dan 5). In this and many other ways, Midrash Rabbah accuses Ahasuerus of prolonging, and sometimes enjoying, Jews’ separation from the Temple begun with Babylonian Captivity. However, the ancient rabbis’ understanding of Babylon as God’s instrument extends to Persia.

Throughout Midrash Rabbah, God is a regular, explicit actor in the Purim story, even though God is not mentioned — except, perhaps, for Mordechai’s comment about help coming “from another place [מִמָּקוֹם אַחֵר]” — in the actual text of Megillat Esther.

Early on in Midrash Rabbah, for example, the apparently superfluous “in those days” of Esther 1:2 is explained by an exchange between God and the angels. The angels complain to God, “Master of the universe! The Temple is destroyed, and this wicked person sits and engages in revelry?!” God responds by saying Redemption had been delayed due to Judeans’ failure to observe the Sabbath:

“Place days opposite days,” thus it is written: In those days I observed in Judah [people] treading on winepresses on the Sabbath (Neh 13:15)
— Esther Rabbah 1:10 (Artscroll, 2011)

Jewish thought over the centuries includes many other views of exile and oppression, but the concept of Redemption coming when God determined it was deserved, so apparent in Midrash Rabbah for Esther, seems to be shared by the writer of “Ma’oz Tzur.” This yields a further blurring of “foreign powers” — beyond Babylon, and its successor, Persia — into a sort of non-specific enemy to be defeated in God’s time. And, while “Rock of Ages” does not hint at oppression as deserved (or list as many previous oppressors), it ultimately points to a similar non-specific tyranny as enemy.

…and that leads, eventually, to the concept of “empire” in Christian commentary. (To take just one example, see Come Out My People! God’s Call Out of Empire in the Bible and Beyond, by Wes Howard-Brook. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2010). More on this, with some Christian and interfaith input, to come….

But there is still “Rome” and far more work, just in clearing up the last bits of Chanukah’s wax, for #ExploringBabylon.


NOTE 1:
A number of sources, including the Reform siddur, Mishkan T’filah (2007), and the Reconstructionist Kol Haneshamah (1994), publish the 13th Century Hebrew side-by-side with the “Rock of Ages” text, calling it a “translation.” It is unsurprising, therefore, that many other educational and music sites follow suit. See, e.g., Teaching Songs, Hebrew Songs), and sadly: My Jewish Learning. “Rock of Ages” is based on an earlier German version and so, in that sense, a translation — just not of the Hebrew.

Some sources, obviously copying Wikipedia — which has enough contributors monitoring Jewish learning pages to pick at any sloppiness — now call “Rock of Ages” a “non-literal translation” of the Hebrew piyyut. A 2010 Reform presentation uses quotation marks: “an English ‘translation.'”

EDITORIALIZING NOTE: Wikipedia is very useful and, as this example indicates, very influential. Many of us make use of it without giving it much consideration, though. ‘Tis the season, however, so please consider saving on 2018 taxes by donating now to this and the other internet resources, Jewish and more general, on which we all rely.
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NOTE 2:
This reflects closely the discussion in B. Talmud Shabbat 21b, which begins with “What is Chanukah?” and goes on to discuss order of candle-lighting and reciting of Hallel, with the briefest mention of the Temple being defiled. In contrast with Books 1 and 2 of Maccabees, which discuss the stories, including military views, of the conflict with the Hasmoneans.
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NOTE 3:
Some contemporary scholars call the Book of Esther a “novella” not linked with specific historical figures; others identify Ahasuerus with Persia’s Xerxes I and its setting to 483-473 BCE (Cf My Jewish Learning) and Jewish Encyclopedia). For the purposes of this discussion, the book’s historicity is not of prime importance.
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