Devarim and Eichah

Here are some background materials relating to the Torah portion Devarim, the Grateful Dead, and Shabbat Hazon. Also included are a selection from Marge Piercy’s “Nishmat” and an excerpt from Fanny Neuda’s Hours of Devotion to be included in the Shabbat morning service, August 10 at Temple Micah. Handout for August 10.

Here are the full articles excerpted in the handout:

“What the Grateful Dead Can Teach Us About Tisha B’av” (Times of Israel June 2017) by Rabbi Simeon Cohen
“Tuning In Together” by Granville Ganter (1999 article)

Also attached are some notes and quotes from Yoram Hazony’s book, The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture (Cambridge University Press, 2012) from the chapter, “Truth and Being in the Hebrew Bible.” He discusses a number of verses from the book of Devarim, several from the opening portion, in the process of outlining his ideas about words, objects and dualism (or, he argues, lack thereof) in the Tanakh. I prepared this PDF for discussion of this Torah portion but then decided to talk about something entirely different this week. Perhaps eventually I’ll write up the notes for the drash I decided not to give; meanwhile, here’s the PDF: “Davar and Devarim: What is a davar and when is it true or false?

Resources on Psalms

I’ve been collecting resources on individual psalms for study on a monthly basis. (Local to DC? Check out Temple Micah, third Tuesdays of the month, 1:30 – 3 p.m.) Here are the materials so far (last updated 7/17/19 — here is the stable page where more will be added.)

Psalm 1 Resources (PDF)

Psalm 92 Resources (PDF)

Psalm 8 Resources(PDF)

Psalm 22 Resources (PDF)

Coming soon, a few notes, by request, on Ugaritic and the Psalms, and more resources related to individual psalms as they are gathered.

Found through Alter’s Translation

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Last week, URJ president Rabbi Rick Jacobs offered a podcast focusing on Robert Alter’s newly published bible translation. In response, I argued that Jacobs praised what isn’t new in Robert Alter’s bible translation while missing what is. My previous post focused on verses — highlighted by Jacobs in the podcast — wherein Alter’s translation was nearly identical to much older versions. Here, I share just a few of the verses in the same chapter of Exodus which do strike me as different and noteworthy.

I Myself Toyed

Exodus 10:1
…כִּי-אֲנִי הִכְבַּדְתִּי אֶת-לִבּוֹ…
…for I have hardened his heart,… — “Old JPS” (1917) and “New JPS” (1985)
…for I Myself have hardened his heart,… — Alter 2004

Exodus 10:2
…אֵת אֲשֶׁר הִתְעַלַּלְתִּי בְּמִצְרַיִם…
…what I have wrought upon Egypt… — Old JPS
…how I made a mockery of the Egyptians… — New JPS
…how I toyed with them… — Alter 2004

Alter’s “I Myself” reflects the Hebrew’s use of “ani” along with the first-person singular verb. And his choice of “toyed with” for “hit’alalti [הִתְעַלַּלְתִּי]” captures much earlier commentary on this expression in God’s speech:

I made a mockery. The Torah is speaking in human idiom, as if Hashem were a human being toying with another for revenge. — Ibn Ezra (via Sefaria.org)

Alter’s translation and commentary work together to form a powerful opening to this crucial chapter in the Exodus story:

And the LORD said to Moses, “Come unto Pharaoh, for I Myself have hardened his heart and the heart of his servants, so that I may set these signs of Mine in his midst, and so that you may tell in the hearing of your son and your son’s son how I toyed with Egypt, and My signs that I set upon them, and you shall know that I am the LORD.”

for I Myself have hardened…This is the first time that God informs Moses before his audience with Pharaoh that He has hardened (one again, the literal sense is “made heavy”) the heart of the Egyptian monarch. This is a signal that the elaborate “toying” (verse 2) with Egypt is approaching endgame. Pharaoh is showing himself ever more fiercely recalcitrant, and the plagues are becoming more fearful as we draw near the last plague that will break Pharaoh’s will.
— Exodus 10:1-2 and commentary
Alter, The Five Books of Moses (Norton, 2004), p.365

 

The Men

Exodus 10:11
…לֹא כֵן, לְכוּ-נָא הַגְּבָרִים וְעִבְדוּ אֶת-יְהוָה…
…Not so; go now ye that are men, and serve the LORD… — Old JPS
…No! You menfolk go and worship the LORD… — New JPS
…Not so. Go, pray, the men, and worship the LORD…. — Alter 2004

Alter’s commentary explains his choice and why it matters in the context:

the men. The word used here, gevarim, is a different one from ‘anashim, the one used by the courtiers in verse 7. It has a stronger connotation of maleness (‘anashim can also mean “people”), but “males” will not do as an English equivalent because the Hebrew term means adult males, definitely excluding the “little ones.”

I personally favor “menfolk,” as an expression that had, in my youth, the exact understanding of “gevarim” that Alter is trying to convey, while “ye that are men” has its own sort of “maleness” ring if read with the right intonation (with echoes, for better or worse, of the 1978 “Are we not men? We are Devo.”) And, for the record, Rashi tells us that “gevarim” means “adult males.” But it’s Alter’s translation that prompted me to notice this particular stage of the pseudo-negotiations between Moses and Pharaoh.

Hard, Stiff, and Tough

Exodus 10:20
…וַיְחַזֵּק יְהוָה, אֶת-לֵב פַּרְעֹה…
…But the LORD hardened Pharaoh’s heart… — Old JPS
…But the LORD stiffened Pharaoh’s heart… — New JPS
…And the LORD toughened Pharaoh’s heart…. — Alter 2004

The Old JPS uses the same English word for both “hikhbadeti [הִכְבַּ֤דְתִּי]” in 10:1 and “vayechazek [וַיְחַזֵּק]” here, while the New JPS has “hardened” and “stiffened,” respectively.

When the verb “vayechazek [וַיְחַזֵּק]” was used in Exodus 9:12, Alter added this comment:

And the LORD toughened Pharaoh’s heart. For the first time, it is not Pharaoh, or his heart, that is the subject of the verb of obduracy but God. However, in the biblical perspective this may amount to the same thing because God is presumed to be the ultimate cause of human actions, and Pharaoh’s stubborn arrogance can still be understood as the efficient cause. It is striking that Pharaoh persists in his resistance even as his afflicted soothsayers, the experts up whom he has been depending, flee the scene.

This comment is just one example of how Alter’s careful attention to the text’s entwined literary and theological characteristics makes his translation both extremely useful and a delight to read.

Verb of Obduracy

The phrase “verb of obduracy” above is just one of the many reasons that I whole-heartedly agree with Rabbi Rick Jacobs when he says, “You hear in the comment that this is a literary genius at work….” (Here’s the podcast link again.)

I’ll return to my own obduracy, however, and repeat a few of points I wish Jacobs and others would acknowledge for the sake of clarity and sensible comparison:

  • The three-book set of Alter’s bible translation, just issued by W.W. Norton, includes his 2004 The Five Books of Moses without change. Many of us have been using this volume for 15 years. If someone is just seeing his work for the first time, that’s wonderful; but it doesn’t make it fresh in late 2018.
  • That means, through simple arithmetic, BTW, that Robert Alter (b. 1935) was not yet 70 when he published The Five Books of Moses. Yes, he is vigorously translating in his 80s, and the complete bible translation — the first by a single individual — is a truly remarkable accomplishment. That doesn’t alter (no pun) the fact that his Torah translation came out in 2004 — and the Book of Genesis before that.
  • Alter’s work is full of amazing insights and extraordinarily powerful and beautiful language. But his work is not the first new translation since the 1611 King James Version. Compare the two if you think that’s useful, but don’t neglect to mention that there were many other translations in the 400 years between KJV and Alter.
  • Please, please — especially if you’re the head of the Union for Reform Judaism — be sure to compare Alter’s work with more recent Jewish translations, including those published by the URJ! There is so much that is new and insightful in Alter’s work; don’t dilute that by ignoring spots where his translation is identical to other, older ones.

Exodus Chapter 10 concludes with Moses and Pharaoh declaring that they will never see one another again (10:28-29). Alter calls this the “final squaring-off between the adversaries.” Together with his opening comment on “the elaborate ‘toying’…with Egypt,” these are fitting and powerful bookends for the chapter. Alter’s commentary on this chapter is a work of art, on its own, even as it serves to illuminate the work of literature that is Exodus. His commentary and translation of the Exodus hasn’t changed in 15 years, but perhaps the re-release in the new set will recapture the attention of some readers and bring it to a new audience.

Psalms Near 30

The last post discussed various divisions of the Book of Psalms, for study and recitation, as well as arrangement by “juxtaposition.”

Book One
In his introduction to The Jerusalem Commentary on Psalms, Amos Hakham writes:

The question about the order of the psalms was attributed in the Talmud to a heretic….But the conclusion stands regarding the system behind the arrangement of the psalms and it shows us the right way to examine the relationships between them” (p.XXXIV; see also previous post)

Juxtaposed Expressions
Hakham notes that “many psalms were juxtaposed because they contain similar expressions,” offering an example of the shared expressions — עֹז or מָעוֹז of strength, refuge, or stronghold — in Psalms 27-31:

  • Psalm 27:1 — יְהוָה מָעוֹז-חַיַּי
    The Lord is the refuge of my life
  • Psalm 28:8 — יְהוָה עֹז-לָמוֹ; וּמָעוֹז
    The Lord is their strength and refuge…
  • 29:11 — יְהוָה–עֹז, לְעַמּוֹ יִתֵּן
    The Lord will give strength to His people
  • 30:8 — בִּרְצוֹנְךָ, הֶעֱמַדְתָּה לְהַרְרִי-עֹז
    O Lord, by Your favor You made my mountain stand strong
  • 31:3 — הֱיֵה לִי, לְצוּר-מָעוֹז
    Be for me a fortified rock
  • 31:5 — כִּי-אַתָּה, מָעוּזִּי
    …For You are my stronghold
    The Jerusalem Commentary, p.XXXIV

Moreover, Hakham says, “Three consecutive psalms may be connected to each other in a ring (a-b, b-c, c-a).” In that spirit….

Ring of Connection

A>>B
Psalm 28 opens with a plea and a worry:

אַל-תֶּחֱרַשׁ מִמֶּנִּי
פֶּן-תֶּחֱשֶׁה מִמֶּנִּי

  1. be not Thou deaf unto me; lest if Thou be silent unto me
  2. do not disregard me, for if You hold aloof from me
  3. be not deaf to me, lest You remain idle regarding me
    — respectively: JPS 1917, JPS 1985, Jerusalem Commentary

Then criticizes those who

  1. give no heed to the works of the LORD, nor to the operation of His hands do not
  2. consider the LORD’s deeds, the work of His hands
  3. do not pay heed to the deeds of the Lord and to the work of His hands
    — respectively: JPS 1917, JPS 1985, Jerusalem Commentary

Psalm 28:6 uses the expression “שְׁמַע קוֹל תַּחֲנוּנַי — Hear the voice of my supplications.” Then, as if in response to fears of God’s silence or idleness, Psalm 29 extols God’s voice [קוֹל] seven times: upon the waters, powerful; majestic; breaking cedars; hewing flames of fire; shaking the wilderness; causing hinds to tremble and stripping forests bare.

None of this is a direct answer to the psalmist’s personal plea, of course. In fact, it is powerfully reminiscent of God’s outsize response to Job. But Psalm 29 is the antithesis of silence, surely, as well as a proclamation of the work of God’s hands.

B>>C
As Psalm 29 concludes, the scene is “His Temple” (v.9) — with images of God on the throne, giving “strength to His people” and blessing them with peace (vv.10-11) — while Psalm 30 is associated with the bringing of First Fruits.

The term “כָּבוֹד [glory]” appears four times in Psalm 29: “Ascribe to the Lord the glory and strength” (v.1), “Ascribe to the Lord the glory of His name” (v.2), “The God of glory thunders” (v.3), and “…His Temple all say: Glory.” (v.9). Psalm 30 concludes with “כָּבוֹד [glory]” singing praise to God. In addition

C>>A
Images in Psalm 30 draw back toward Psalm 28: God as strength and help, crying out to God, and “those who go down into the pit” (30:4 and 28:1).

Moreover, Psalm 30:9 uses the expression “אֶתְחַנָּן — I made supplication,” while, as noted above, Psalm 28:6 uses the expression “שְׁמַע קוֹל תַּחֲנוּנַי — Hear the voice of my supplications.”

Thus, it seems to me, Psalms 28-30 form the kind of ring — A>>B>>C>>A — Hakham describes. I think perhaps the loop is also more complex, leading us to weave in other texts…. (more to come).


26 of 30 on Psalm 30
No Longer National Novel Writing Month, but continuing the focus on Psalm 30 (“Thirty on Psalm 30”) begun as a NaNoWriMo-Rebel project. Whole series (so far).

NOTE:
Five Books:
1-41, 42-72, 73-89, 90-106, and 107-150.
Weekly Recitation:
Sunday: 1-29; Monday: 30-50; Tuesday: 51-72; Wednesday: 73-89; Thursday: 90-106; Friday: 107-119; Saturday: 120-150.
Monthly Recitation:
…Day 4 of 30: 23-28; Day 5: 29-34….
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Locating Psalm 30

The Book of Psalms is divided in several different ways: into five books, into seven and thirty sets for recitation over the course of a week or a month, and by attribution and other identifiers for the purpose of study. Using these divisions, Psalm 30 has a number of locations.

Book One
Psalm 30 is in the first of the five books — counted as one, not five, of the 24 bible books. Thematically, notes Amos Hakham in The Jerusalem Commentary:

    • “psalms in the first book relate to the kingdom of the house of David at its height,”
    • those in second reflect “times of trouble and defeat,”
    • in the third, a period of humbling of the kingdom, and
    • in the fourth and fifth, exile and rebuilding.
      — p.XXXV-VI

This does not necessarily imply that Psalm 30 and others in the first book are of earlier composition. With the exception of Psalm 137 — which mentions Babylonian Exile — there are no references to extra-biblical events to help in dating; scholars disagree as to whether Psalm 137 itself should be assigned to the period in Babylon, post-Exile — with some choosing to assign it, prophetically, to King David. Generally, scholars date the Book of Psalms, overall, from somewhere between David’s reign in 10th Century BCE and post-Exile, with collection as late as 4th Century BCE.

Some contemporary scholars seek dates based on linguistic aspects, specific biblical connections, or theological ideas. Previous posts in this series have discussed attempts to assign Psalm 30 to the Hasmonean or Levitical periods, based on its superscription. Encounters with the psalm today, however, for individual and communal prayer, can incorporate ideas around Temple service, re-dedication at Chanukah, and other historical associations without dating the psalm to a specific period.


Chronology
The Rabbis discuss chronology in the Book of Psalms when asked why Psalm 3, “when David fled from before Absalom his son” (see 2 Sam 15), appears before Psalm 57, “when he fled from Saul in the cave” (see 1 Sam 22), an event which happened earlier in David’s life:

for us who do derive interpretations from juxtaposition there is no difficulty. For R. Johanan said: How do we know from the Torah that juxtaposition counts? Because it says, [The works of God’s hands] are established [סְמוּכִים] for ever and ever, they are done in truth and uprightness (Ps. 111:8).
— (B. Berakhot 10a)

“סְמוּכִים,” translated in Psalm 118 as “established” (JPS 1917) or “well-founded” (JPS 1985), can also mean “nearby,” as in “adjacent (in space)” or “around (in time).”

The passage from Berakhot continues:

Why is the chapter of Absalom (Ps. 3) juxtaposed to the chapter of Gog and Magog (Ps. 2)? So that if one should say to you, is it possible that a slave should rebel (“nations shout, people plan in vain”) against his master, you can reply to him: Is it possible that a son should rebel against his father? Yet this happened; and so this too.

Hakham calls this a “polemical answer,” adding: “But the conclusion stands regarding the system behind the arrangement of the psalms and it shows us the right way to examine the relationships between them” (p.XXXIV).

Stay tuned for some juxtapositions around Psalm 30 — as this series winds down.


25 of 30 on Psalm 30
No Longer National Novel Writing Month, but continuing the focus on Psalm 30 (“Thirty on Psalm 30”) begun as a NaNoWriMo-Rebel project. Whole series (so far).

NOTE:
Five Books:
1-41, 42-72, 73-89, 90-106, and 107-150.
Weekly Recitation:
Sunday: 1-29; Monday: 30-50; Tuesday: 51-72; Wednesday: 73-89; Thursday: 90-106; Friday: 107-119; Saturday: 120-150.
Monthly Recitation:
…Day 4 of 30: 23-28; Day 5: 29-34….
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Adulting through Chanukah, part 1

In “Hanukkah for Grown-Ups,” Marianne Novak describes differences between Purim — another holiday that is not commanded in the bible but delineated later by the Rabbinic tradition — and Hanukkah (I’ll uses JOFA’s spelling here for simplicity):

With Hanukkah, Antiochus enforced severe decrees but didn’t chose a specific doomsday for the Jewish people, as Haman does in Megillat Esther [the Purim story]. The Jews in the Persian Empire had no choice to but act. It was do or die. but with Hanukkah, it took the understanding of a small section of the Jewish community to see that the situation was indeed dire. They had to make the decision alone: There was no clear voice from God…It took adult initiative to comprehend why rebellion was the only viable option for the future of the Jewish people.
— “Shema Bekolah: Hear Her Voice series
from The Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance

This reminds me of Psalm 30, verses 7-8, in which the psalmist describes terror when God’s face is hidden:

וַ֭אֲנִי אָמַ֣רְתִּי בְשַׁלְוִ֑י בַּל־אֶמּ֥וֹט לְעוֹלָֽם׃

When I was untroubled, I thought, “I shall never be shaken,”

יְֽהוָ֗ה בִּרְצוֹנְךָ֮ הֶעֱמַ֪דְתָּה לְֽהַרְרִ֫י עֹ֥ז הִסְתַּ֥רְתָּ פָנֶ֗יךָ הָיִ֥יתִי נִבְהָֽל׃

for You, O Lord, when You were pleased, made [me] firm as a mighty mountain. When You hid Your face, I was terrified.

The expression is sometimes employed to mean that God is not apparent to the individual due to their own or the community’s sin. In the Purim story and some other narratives, common readings see God’s hand throughout, however lost and frightened the actors within the story may be. In the Joseph story, as well, Jacob and his sons take many actions — including selling Joseph into slavery — without narrative direction from God. But eventually Joseph declares that it was all God’s doing: “God has sent me ahead of you to ensure your survival on earth, and to save your lives in an extraordinary deliverance” (Genesis 45:7).

In her piece on Hanukkah, Novak concludes:

…It was truly a miracle that a small group of Jews from within a Jewish community was able to rededicate Israel to Judaism. When we publicize the miracles of Hanukkah, we not only note God’s hand in the story but also remind ourselves that we can take responsibility for the survival of our people. By being conscientious and thoughtful Jewish adults, we also have faith that God will then come and help us.

This is a powerful, troubling conclusion. In the times of Antiochus and the Maccabean revolt, as at most other times in Jewish history, I suspect, there are a number of small groups seeking to rededicate Israel to Judaism. Yes, we must take responsibility for the survival of our people, but — without direct command from God — we must tread very carefully as none of us know WHICH of our many small groups has chosen the direction that will succeed or how any damage we do to one another on the way may not be repaired.

23 of 30 on Psalm 30
No Longer National Novel Writing Month, but continuing the focus on Psalm 30 (“Thirty on Psalm 30”) begun as a NaNoWriMo-Rebel project. Whole series (so far).



NOTE: This new piece — which arrived through snail mail! — was not yet posted on their website, as of Dec. 7, although there are plenty of other fine teachings on this holiday and many other topics. I suspect this piece will be posted soon. And anyone interested can join their snail-mail list.
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The Pits and the Lights

There are several parallels between Psalm 30 and the Joseph story, including their pits.

Psalm 30 praises God for having “preserved me from going down into the Pit [bor, בֽוֹר]”:

יְֽהוָ֗ה הֶֽעֱלִ֣יתָ מִן־שְׁא֣וֹל נַפְשִׁ֑י חִ֝יִּיתַ֗נִי מיורדי־[מִיָּֽרְדִי־] בֽוֹר׃
O LORD, You brought me up from Sheol, preserved me from going down into the Pit.

In this week’s Torah portion (Mikeitz, Gen 41:1-44:17), Joseph is finally brought up from the dungeon [min-habor, מִן־הַבּ֑וֹר] (Gen 41:14), while Joseph is earlier thrown into a pit by his brothers (Gen 37: 23-24).

During the earlier incident, Judah says, “What profit is it if we slay our brother and conceal his blood?” (Gen 37:26) — language that is similar to Ps 30:10: “What profit is there in my blood, when I go down to the pit?” And then Jacob, upon learning of his son’s apparent demise, says he will go down to Sheol in mourning (37:35), like the psalmist in verse 4.

In addition to these language echoes, Psalm 30 and the Joseph story share basic themes of extreme reversals from despair to joy, from strength to terror and back again. Many teachers have noticed the parallels, although no favorite dvrei torah on the subject come to mind. (Please share any that you find helpful.) Moreover, the context of Chanukah brings additional light-and-darkness focus to Psalm 30.

Does Psalm 30 sound different while we’re reading the Joseph story? During these festival days?

22 of 30 on Psalm 30
No Longer National Novel Writing Month, but continuing the focus on Psalm 30 (“Thirty on Psalm 30”) begun as a NaNoWriMo-Rebel project. Whole series (so far).