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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Dick Gregory and Rabbis Under Rome

Exploring Babylon Chapter 9.2

Dick Gregory’s Bible Tales with Commentary offers insights on the Joseph Story, begun in last week’s Torah portion, Vayeishev (Gen 37:1 – 40:23).

His remarks begin with notes on dreamers and dreaming:

Joseph found out it’s dangerous to be a dreamer. Just like Joseph’s brothers, society today has three ways of dealing with dreamers. Kill the dreamer. Throw the dreamer in jail (the contemporary “cisterns” in our society). Or sell the dreamer into slavery; purchase the dream with foundation grants or government deals, until the dreamer becomes enslaved to controlling financial or governmental interests. Society tries to buy off the dream and lull the dreamer to sleep. It’s called a “lull-a-buy.”
Dick Gregory’s Bible Tales, p.70 (full citation below)

Gregory (1932-2017) goes on to say, in his 1974 publication, that this country used all three tactics on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., adding: “Dreamers can be killed. Dreams live on.”

Gregory then suggests: “Maybe Joseph was a Black cat. That would certainly explain his taste in clothes and the wild colors he wore.” He relates Joseph’s experience with Potiphar’s wife (Gen 39) to the many Black men in this country “falsely accused of making advances to white women” (Bible Tales, p.72).

Regarding the final story in Vayeishev, Joseph’s incarceration and interpretation of dreams for fellow inmates (Gen 40), Gregory writes:

The butler in the Joseph story symbolizes America’s treatment of Black folks. The butler used Joseph’s talent as an interpret of dreams and he promised to tell Pharaoh about Joseph. As soon as the butler got himself comfortably back in Pharaoh’s palace, he forgot about his word to Joseph.

America was built on the sweat, toil, and talent of Black folks. But when the work was done and the talent utilized, America quickly forgot its debt to Blacks. Black folks helped lay down the railroad tracks, but they could only work as porters after the trains started running. Black slaves picked the cotton, but the garment industry belonged to white folks.
Bible Tales, p.73

Gregory’s commentary struck me as very like the commentary of the Rabbis under Roman rule. One famous example is this teaching of Gamaliel, son of Judah (Gamaliel III):

Be wary in your dealings with the ruling power, for they only befriend a man when it serves their needs. When it is to their advantage, they appear as friends, but they do not stand by a person in his hour of need.
Pirkei Avot 2:3

 

Torah of Exile, Again

The previous episode discussed the “Torah of Exile” and the Academy of Shem and Eber, offering lessons on keeping the faith when the surrounding culture seems alien, even hostile. The above-quoted passages from Gregory’s Bible Tales fit this curriculum in two importantly different ways.

First, dreams and dreamers. People from many communities — in 1974 and today — can relate to Gregory’s characterization of a system that tries to buy dreams in order to squash them. So, his comments on this comprise one kind of “Torah of Exile,” comfort and instruction for exiles.

…Let’s note, before continuing, that an individual might feel exiled around one aspect of life (gender or sexual orientation, for example) while feeling integrated into the surrounding community in other ways….

Second, the butler who “symbolizes America’s treatment of Black folks.” Gregory’s notes on the butler story are more specific to a particular form of exile. It’s not that people outside the Black community cannot relate to being used. But those of us who don’t directly experience what he is describing must pause and be sure to really hear what is said about an experience we don’t share. This is a second kind of “The Torah of Exile”: discomfort and instruction for those who are in relative safety with regard to a particular form of exile.

We should all, of course, seek to learn from many sources. We need all the ancient and contemporary wisdom we can find, and all that’s in between, to help us understand our own exilic circumstances and those of our neighbors. It’s essential, though, that we stay clear on the two kinds of Torah of Exile and be careful to learn about others’ suffering without mistaking it for our own.




Gregory_BibleTales
Dick Gregory’s Bible Tales with Commentary, James R. McGraw, ed.
NY: Stein and Day, 1974

This volume, by the way, is very funny and oddly current.
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Investigation and Surmise

In next week’s Torah portion, Jacob is brought the many-colored coat he’d given his favorite son, Joseph. The coat has been dipped in goat’s blood to trick Jacob into believing Joseph was torn by a wild animal, rather than that his own brothers sold him into slavery (Genesis 37:23-36).

“We found this; identify, if you please: Is it your son’s tunic or not?” (verse 32; using Stone/Artscroll translation here and below)

Jacob responds: “My son’s tunic! A savage beast devoured him! Joseph has surely been torn to bits! [tarof toraf yosef]” (verse 33)

Jacob initiates no investigation. Obviously there was no forensic unit in the area to test the blood or ferret out other clues. Still, Jacob doesn’t even ask a question, as far as we know. The sons never even have to lie outright. Jacob simply jumps to a conclusion and then begins to mourn.

Later in the same portion, Joseph’s older brother Judah fails to look carefully at matters pertaining to his daughter-in-law Tamar, and she is nearly put to death by the court before he realizes his mistake(s) (Genesis 38).

Judah, too is asked: “identify, if you please [evidence in the case].” (Gen. 38:25)
Continue Reading

Vayechi: A Path to Follow

In one of her studies of Vayechi, “Jacob’s Testament,” Nechama Leibowitz* discusses Joseph’s reluctance to swear to Jacob’s burial wish:

The Midrash aptly explains the difference between Joseph’s behavior and that of Abraham’s servant [when asked to swear, regarding finding a wife for Isaac]:

Said Rabbi Isaac: The servant acted servilely and the freeman as a free agent. The servant acted servilely, as it is said: “And the servant put his hand…” Whilst the freeman acted as a free agent: “And he said, I will do as thou hast said.” (Bereshit Rabbah* 96)

A servant has to do the behest of others….A free agent however is only bound by his conscience, and chooses his own actions in accordance with his own freely arrived-at decisions.

Malbim** makes a similar distinction…It was better for him to do it out of his own free will, rather than be bound by oath. In the latter instance, he could not take the credit for fulfilling his obligations freely.

This explanation may help us understand Biblical and Rabbinic disapproval of vows. Man should rather conduct himself as a free agent rather than be bound by external bonds…

The topic of vows is a complex one in Judaism and offers an interesting path to follow. Here are two basic articles on vows, vowing and oaths: one from R. Louis Jacobs at My Jewish Learning and one from the Encyclopedia of Judaism.
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Vayechi: Language and Translation

Genesis/Breishit 50:24:

Joseph said to his brothers, “I am about to die, but God will surely remember [pakod yifkod] you and bring you up out of this land to the land that He swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.” — Stone* translation

Joseph then said to his kin, “I am dying, but God will surely take care of you [pakod yifkod] and bring you up out of this land to the land that [God] promised to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.” — JPS/Stein* translation

Yosef said to his brothers:
I am dying,
but God will take account, yes, account of you, [pakod yifkod]
he will bring you up from this land
to the land about which he swore
to Avraham, to Yitzhak, and to Yaakov. — Fox* translation

And Joseph said to his brothers “I am about to die, and God will surely single you out [pakod yifkod] and take you up from this land to the land He promised to Isaac and to Jacob.” [Abraham inexplicably missing here]
— Alter* translationContinue Reading

Mikeitz: Language and Translation

Two sons were born to Joseph before the years of famine arrived, born to him by Asenath daughter of Potiphera, priest of On. Joseph named the first-born son Manasseh [mem-nun-shin-heh], “For God has made me forget [ki-nashani] all the troubles I endured in my father’s house.” And he named the second one Ephraim [aleph-peh-reish-yod-mem], “For God has made me fruitful [ki-hifrani] in the land of my affliction.” Continue Reading