Exploring Babylon Chapter 18-1/2
The previous chapter, “Exile, Passover, and Melting Pot,” looked at nine bible verses using the word “kur,” usually translated as “crucible” or “furnace.” This addendum shares the odd midrash on one such verse, mentioned in the earlier post, which suggests some ideas about Passover, exile, and learning.
Each appearance of “kur” involves “great trouble and misery” (1906 Jewish Encyclopedia) and all relate suffering to sin. The phrase, kur ha-barzel — “iron blast furnace” or “iron crucible” — appears three times as a reference to Egypt, from which the people were rescued to become “God’s own.”
Isaiah employs a similar metaphor, the phrase “kur oni,” in reference to the Babylonian exile:
הִנֵּה צְרַפְתִּיךָ, וְלֹא בְכָסֶף; בְּחַרְתִּיךָ,
Behold, I have refined thee, but not as silver; I have tried thee
in the furnace of affliction [or poverty].
— Isaiah 48:10
(more of this passage below)
A midrash, retold in Sefer Ha-Aggadah, discusses the meaning of Isaiah’s “furnace”verse:
[The prophet] Elijah said to Ben He He (some say to R. Eleazar): The verse “Behold, I refine you, but not as silver; I test you in the furnace of poverty” (Isa. 48:10) implies that, among all the good states of being that the Holy One scrutinized to give to Israel, He found none better than poverty.
— Sefer Ha-Aggadah, Bialik & Ravnitsky, 341:57
The Talmud passage, on which this is based, adds a “folk saying” meant to further elucidate the point:
א”ל אליהו לבר הי הי וא”ל לר’ אלעזר מאי דכתיב (ישעיהו מח, י) הנה צרפתיך ולא בכסף בחרתיך בכור עוני מלמד שחזר הקב”ה על כל מדות טובות ליתן לישראל ולא מצא אלא עניות אמר שמואל ואיתימא רב יוסף היינו דאמרי אינשי יאה עניותא ליהודאי כי ברזא סומקא לסוסיא חיורא:
Elijah the Prophet said to bar Hei Hei, and some say that he said this to Rabbi Elazar: What is the meaning of that which is written: “Behold, I have refined you, but not as silver; I have tried you in the furnace of affliction [oni]” (Isaiah 48:10)?
This teaches that the Holy One, Blessed be He, sought after all good character traits to impart them to the Jewish people, and He found only poverty [aniyut] capable of preventing them from sin.
Shmuel said, and some say it was Rav Yosef: This explains the folk saying that people say: Poverty is good for the Jewish people like a red bridle [barza] for a white horse. Just as a red bridle accentuates the white color of the horse, so the challenge of poverty draws out the purity of the Jewish people.
— B. Chagigah 9b
Wm Davidson Talmud, via Sefaria.org
line breaks added for ease of reading
Hershey H. Friedman discusses the red strap midrash within the context of economics and Jewish history:
The enigmatic statement quoted in the Talmud (Babylonian Talmud, Chagiga 9b), “Poverty is so fitting for the Jew, like a red strap (or saddle) on a white horse,” is interpreted by Rabbi Elijah, Gaon of Vilna, in the following manner. A horse is saddled up when it goes out; in the stable everything is removed. So too, the Jewish people should wear their poverty when they go out in order not to arouse the envy of the gentiles. Within the privacy of one’s house, however, wealth is good (Kreuser, p. 171*).
— “The Simple Life: The Case Against Ostentation in Jewish Law”
*Kreuser, Yissachar Dov. Genuzas Ha’GRA. Jerusalem: self-published (in Hebrew), 2000.
Friedman concludes on the ethics of ostentation and wealth:
The sages recognized that very little good can result from a splashy, gaudy lifestyle. On the contrary, it produces envy, suffering, arrogance, dishonesty, and shaming of the impecunious. The Torah teaches us that ostentation is not the true purpose of wealth, helping others is.
CooCoo for Coco argues differently from a fashion perspective and use of red in ancient Jewish ritual:
Similarly, poverty is neither romantic nor exotic nor aesthetic….Nonetheless, often the most challenging situation, that which pumps blood and flushes faces, is that which accentuates inherent virtues, allowing the best in us to take a well awaited strut down the runway….Evidently, poverty and predicaments in general, draw out the best in man, like a scarlet strap on a white horse….
Thus, the pages of Hagiga advise not an abstention from all fiery passions but, in fact incorporation of these powers in appropriate amounts in order to enhance one’s unadulterated virtues; the secret to salvation lies in complementary accessories accentuating natural qualities. White purity is all the more noticeable when countered by a tempered amount of florid flush…
–“Horsing Around the Right Way: Fashion Lessons from the Talmud”
Isaiah’s phrase “kur oni,” a furnace of affliction or poverty, resonates in the Passover seder, when we eat “lechem oni,” bread of affliction or poverty. Isaiah’s prophecy suggests that God is teaching the People through exile, a common understanding of the Exodus as well (the “iron furnace”). Moreover, the passage from Isaiah seems to say that the People could not, or at least did not, learn from prior experiences.
Some questions this raises:
- Are there lessons from Exodus and Exile that are uniquely learned from those experiences?
- What was NOT learned in the Exodus that was to be learned in Exile?
- What about poverty: does it teach specific lessons? or is that romanticizing a difficult state of being?
- Do we need some kind of “affliction” to learn?
- How do we use the seder to (re)create experiences that bring important learning?
“You have heard all this; look, must you not acknowledge it? As of now, I announce to you new things, Well-guarded secrets you did not know.
Only now are they created, and not of old; Before today you had not heard them; You cannot say, “I knew them already.”
You had never heard, you had never known, Your ears were not opened of old. Though I know that you are treacherous, That you were called a rebel from birth,
For the sake of My name I control My wrath; To My own glory, I am patient with you, And I will not destroy you.
See, I refine you, but not as silver; I test you in the furnace of affliction.
For My sake, My own sake, do I act— Lest [My name] be dishonored! I will not give My glory to another.”
More at Sefaria or Mechon-Mamre