What Needs Prooftext? Daf Yomi #5

In their essay on today’s reading, Berakhot 6a-6b, Laynie Solomon of SVARA outlines the radical nature of prooftexts, the ancient rabbinic practice of creatively interpreting sacred text so that it speaks to post-biblical conditions. In this case the situation involves participating in synagogue services:

…the assumption that the answer will be positive is baked into the question: Where in the Torah is it shown that God is found in the synagogue?

…The rabbis, through the creative and sacred word-play and interpretation of midrash, imagine a theology in which God is fully present with them — and therefore also with us. What if we felt this same invitation? What practices would you seek to find prooftexts for?
— the whole essay on My Jewish Learning’s Daf Yomi archive

In partial response, I suggest seeking out prooftexts for deepening equity, inclusion, and coalition:

How do we know that we must seriously heed when told a course of action of speech is hurtful or dangerous to others?

“’I erred because I did not know that you were standing in my way. If you still disapprove, I will turn back.’ [חָטָ֔אתִי כִּ֚י לֹ֣א יָדַ֔עְתִּי כִּ֥י אַתָּ֛ה נִצָּ֥ב לִקְרָאתִ֖י בַּדָּ֑רֶךְ וְעַתָּ֛ה אִם־רַ֥ע בְּעֵינֶ֖יךָ אָשׁ֥וּבָה לִּֽי׃]”
(Numbers 22:34).

How do we know that our coalitions must be more inclusive?

It is written: “Present in the city was a poor wise man who might have saved it with his wisdom, but nobody thought of that poor man. [וּמָ֣צָא בָ֗הּ אִ֤ישׁ מִסְכֵּן֙ חָכָ֔ם וּמִלַּט־ה֥וּא אֶת־הָעִ֖יר בְּחָכְמָת֑וֹ וְאָדָם֙ לֹ֣א זָכַ֔ר אֶת־הָאִ֥ישׁ הַמִּסְכֵּ֖ן הַהּֽוּא׃ ]” (Ecclesiastes 9:15).

Where do we learn to take trusted outsider’s advice?

As Jethro told Moses: “Now listen to me. I will give you counsel, and God be with you [עַתָּ֞ה שְׁמַ֤ע בְּקֹלִי֙ אִיעָ֣צְךָ֔ וִיהִ֥י אֱלֹהִ֖ים עִמָּ֑ךְ]” (Exodus 18:19).

Where do we learn to walk difficult paths with others?

From “And the two went on [וַתֵּלַ֣כְנָה שְׁתֵּיהֶ֔ם]” (Ruth 1:19).

And how do we know that not all journeys are shared? 

“And Jethro said to Moses, ‘Go in peace.’ [ וַיֹּ֧אמֶר יִתְר֛וֹ לְמֹשֶׁ֖ה לֵ֥ךְ לְשָׁלֽוֹם]” (Exodus 4:18).

More on Daf Yomi

Unlikely Answers: At the Burning Bush with Durante, Mamie Smith, and Sherman Alexie


“Without impossible questions and unlikely answers, faith is only dust,” Sherman Alexie writes in a poem that finds Moses at the Burning Bush. Alexie reaches this mountaintop via a circuitous path that touches on roller coasters, obsessive worry about failing to turn off the stove, Jimmy Durante, Dante Alighieri, and another poet‘s obsession with the fact that “Dante” is, in reality, short for “Durante.” (More on Dante/Durante)

Do you think, after Moses talked to the Burning Bush, that he couldn’t stop himself from thinking that the bush was still burning, and presented a clear and present danger? Do you think Moses hiked back up the mountain to make sure? If I claim that, in Hebrew, Moses is spelled Mos Eisley, will you look it up? Of course, you must. Without impossible questions and unlikely answers, faith is only dust.
— “Hell,” IN What I’ve Stolen, What I’ve Earned
(Brooklyn, NY: Hanging Loose Press, 2014), p.51

Of course, I looked it up.

'Star Wars' image (property of LucasFilms)

“Star Wars” image: Mos Eisley Cantina musicians (property of LucasFilms)

Wookieepedia explains that Mos Eisley (pronounced “Moss Ize-lee”) is an important location in the Star Wars universe: a “wretched hive of scum and villainy” where wise visitors are cautious, it’s the site of the cantina (right) where Luke Skywalker first meets Han Solo and Chewbacca….Not, as this ignorant Star Trek fan guessed, some odd conflation of Mos Def and the Isley Brothers.

Perhaps Alexie is hinting at some kind of parallel between Luke Skywalker and Moses (spelled “מֹשֶׁה” [Moe-SHEH] in Hebrew, BTW, and thought to come from a verb meaning “to draw out”). If so, I know too little about Star Wars to catch it. Instead, my minimal wiki-knowledge sets me on a different path.

Jimmy Durante's Jazz Band (image: RedHotJazz.com)

Jimmy Durante’s Jazz Band (RedHotJazz.com)

ABC-TV 1964 (Wikicommons)

ABC-TV 1964 (Wikicommons)

I imagine Durante, in his jazz years and his later comic persona, with gigs at that alien cantina. Could Alexie have had this in mind, I wonder, when he came up with the inventive spelling for Moses?
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Community, Leadership, and Listening

Leadership and community are key elements in the early chapters of Exodus. We see a variety of strong actions and interactions:

1) Moses sees an Egyptian man striking a Hebrew; he responds by killing the Egyptian and then hides the deceased in the sand.

2) Moses sees two Hebrew men fighting and tries to stop the aggressor.

3) The Hebrew fighter replies: “Who made you judge over us? And do you propose to murder me as you did the Egyptian?”

4) Pharaoh learns of Moses’ crime and sets out to kill him. Moses flees from Egypt.

5) Moses witnesses what appears to be an injustice as Jethro’s daughter attempt to water their flocks and intervenes, immediately and physically. (Exodus 2:11-17)

We don’t know, from the text itself, if Moses’ upbringing included grooming in Egyptian leadership skills or if he was taught Israelite ideas and practices through a continuing relationship with his birth parents. Commentators over the centuries have understood his early years in both ways.

We do know that Moses “went out unto his brethren and looked on their burdens [וַיֵּצֵא אֶל-אֶחָיו, וַיַּרְא, בְּסִבְלֹתָם]” (Exodus 2:11). What is not reported is any interaction between Moses and his brethren — or between Moses and the Midianite women at the well — that would help him understand community perspectives and concerns. He seems to have some sort of innate sense of justice, but he isn’t able to turn that inner sense into action that is helpful when faced with real world circumstances.

Like Moses, many attempting to understand and join the #BlackLivesMatter struggle don’t know how to translate a desire for justice into action that is helpful. The first step, the one Moses seems to have missed initially, is to LISTEN. Here, for those interested in taking this step, are video clips from Jews United for Justice’s “Black Lives Matter, Chanukah Action” program.

Hear directly from black activists about their experiences and their advice for white allies. More on the event and full list of speakers.

DearWhiteFor those in the DC area, consider joining “Dear White Allies: A Training by #BlackLivesMatterDMV” or one of the many other local opportunities to listen and learn.

Dear White Allies:
Sunday, Jan 18
1-5 p.m.
Impact Hub, 419 4th Street NW

For those beyond DC, look for local anti-racism and white ally training in your area.

Sibling Prophets Together Before God

This post originally appeared on Clergy Beyond Borders’ News/Views blog, June 9, 2011.


Sibling prophets argue but find a way to remain together in the third Bible portion in our “wilderness” series. The reading — Numbers 8:1-12:16 — includes a dramatic, rather cryptic, passage* involving the prophet Miriam, sister of Moses, covered in “scales, white like snow” [tzaraat ka-sheleg, in Hebrew] (Numbers 12:10).

The same snowy scales appear on Moses’ arm at the Burning Bush (Exodus 4:5). In the Qur’an (7:108, 20:22), Moses’ arm becomes “[shiny] white without blemish” or “luminous.” In both Islamic and Jewish tradition, the white/shining skin is a sign of prophecy.

In Jewish and Christian tradition, tzaraat — which is often translated as “leprosy” in English bibles — is also associated with gossip and other sins of the tongue. In the passage here, Miriam and Aaron “speak against” their brother. Related commentaries include background tales of conversations involving Moses’ wife and Miriam.

Still, the “speaking against” Moses in the text and the family issues in the commentary center around prophecy. Three prophets in one family — and Moses’ wife Zipporah has her own encounter with the divine (Exodus 4:23-26) — seems to have its challenges.

God chastises the speakers, saying: “How then did you not shrink from speaking against My servant Moses!” However, the prophetic siblings stand up for one another before God and remain together throughout the episode. In fact, Numbers 12 is the only passage in the Torah which mentions Aaron, Miriam and Moses together.

In the Qur’an (2:136), we read:

Say: “We believe in God, and in that which has been bestowed from on high upon us, and that which has been bestowed upon Abraham and Ishmael and Isaac and Jacob and their descendants [literally: “grandchildren”], and that which has been vouchsafed to Moses and Jesus; and that which has been vouchsafed to all the [other] prophets by their Sustainer: we make no distinction between any of them. And it is unto Him that we surrender ourselves.”

Miriam’s episode of tzaraat may be a sign of prophecy or of divisive speech, or both. But the episode is limited by God so that a joint future — with all three siblings traveling together — is possible.

This week’s “wilderness” reading is called in Hebrew “Beha’alotekha” ([“in your lighting (of the lamps)”]. One message we can glean from it is the danger of believing that ours is the only light.
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Praying to Pray: Va-Et’chanan Prayer Links

The earliest prayer links in Va-etchanan come in the first verse, long before what is probably the portion’s most famous passage: the first paragraph of the Shema (Deut. 6:4-9). In fact, there are prayer links galore in the portion’s first word: “va-etchanan” [I pleaded, implored]. Some commentaries examine details of the communication between Moses and God as the portion opens. Some focus, more generally, on what prayer can (or should) mean to regular folks.

**Speaking of communication, please see the query below about sources and editing. Thoughts most welcome.**
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Emor: A Path to Follow

The story [of the blasphemer, Leviticus/Vayikra 24:10-23] is noteworthy in that it is one of only four incidents in the Torah in which Moses is shown asking God how to decide an issue (the others are Numbers 9:6ff, 15:32ff, and 27:1ff). Moses sought God’s judgment because the punishment for blasphemy had not yet been detailed. More significant, however, is the placement of this story. It is, in effect, a cautionary tale, coming as it does on the heels of the sections demanding holiness and morality from the Israelites. Continue Reading

Acharei Mot: Something to Notice

Acharei mot [after the death].”

This expression refers to the deaths of Nadav and Abihu after they “came near” (elsewhere: “brought strange fire”) before the Lord (see parashat Shemini). For some readers, I imagine, it’s a relatively simple chronology-determining statement: this happened after that. For people who have experienced a cataclysmic loss — the early death of a parent/care-giver, e.g., or the untimely loss of a partner — at some point in their lives, however, “after the death” can be a more powerful divisor: there’s pre-loss life, and then there’s life acharei mot: no simple ordering of narrative events; there’s a fundamental change in the person’s universe “after the death.”

For a long time, I believed that my own father’s death, when I was 16, was simply one of many elements that shaped my life. As I get older, however, I am more and more aware that I have experienced life in two distinct portions: the first 16 years of life in a family with my father, and acharei mot…. So, the title words of this week’s portion usually stop me cold.

This year, untimely loss in a friend’s family laid an even stronger focus on those words, as I watched another family struggle with figuring out how to manage life “acharei mot.” But this year I also noticed some interesting things about the other words that open this portion.

Va-yedaber YHVH el-Moshe acharei mot shnei bnei aharon…dabeir el-aharon achicha…

The LORD spoke to Moses after the death of the two sons of Aaron who died when they drew too close to the presence of the LORD. The LORD said to Moses: Tell your brother

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Shemini: Something to Notice

“Now about the hairy-goat of hattat,* Moses inquired, yes, **
inquired [darosh ** darash]…” (Vayikra/Leviticus 10:16).

*Fox leaves this untranslated; usually rendered “sin offering.”

** According to those who count such things — the Masoretes, for example — the word “darosh” appears in the first half of the Torah, word-wise, and “darash” appears in the second half. I.e., the words “darosh darash” are at the center of the Torah.

Other translations use “investigated carefully” (Onkelos), “inquired about” (JPS), and “insistently sought” (Alter) for this phrase. Only Fox preserves the repetitious nature of the emphatic Hebrew construction.***

Why is Moses inquiring about the goat? What is this particular verse/phrase doing at the center of the Torah? Why mark half and not, e.g., thirds? Those questions are beyond “Something to Notice” (which is not, please notice, “Something Fully Explained.”)

Other Centers

Verse 11:42 “Anything going about on its belly [al-gachon]…” contains the middle letter, by the way, and the vav is written larger for this reason: gimmel-chet-VAV-nun.

There is some disagreement about where the middle verse is to be found: “then he should shave around the bald spot…” (13:33) is listed as the middle verse in Babylonia Talmud Kiddushin 30a.*** The Masoretes list “He placed the breastpiece on him…” (8:8) as the middle verse.
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One Woman’s Conclusion (Ex. 24)

One Woman’s Conclusion (a Haftorah)
for Exodus 24:1-11

I’m sure I’ve mentioned before how glad I often was that I was not destined to fully join my husband’s prophetic family. I, for one, was perfectly content as one of the ones who stayed far off [1]. I already knew I couldn’t — and wouldn’t care to — go a step closer.

But, there I was, among the seventy [2]. For the record, which is not always clear, there were five women among the atzelai[3]: Shifra and Puah by virtue of their standing in the community [4]; Miriam, because she usually managed to be everywhere that concerned her brother [5]; Serakh, because of her status as an elder — yes, I agree that “elder” is something of an understatement for the daughter of Asher ben Jacob [6], but that’s another story — and, you’re right, even 500 years weren’t enough for her to be considered an “Elder” with a capitol `E,’ but we’d better leave that for another day, too. And me? I don’t know exactly how I ended up there.

Anyway, there we were, the seventy of us plus Moses, sharing an experience… Or, at least we agreed about the bricks. Well, maybe `agree’ isn’t quite the word:

Abihu saw a pattern of complex crystals [7]; Nadav, fired brick [8]. Aaron saw the foundation stones of the Covenant [9]. Someone said the pyramid bricks had been transformed into gemstones [10]. Shifra saw glistening birthing stones and even wondered aloud if we’d be inundated when the waters really broke [11]. Puah said no, labor must be further along, given all the quaking and thunder [12]. The rest of us knew better than to get into that one.

And, there was never much hope of agreement on the color. Some had clearly seen blue [13]; others insisted on white [14]. A few suggested that the surface merely reflected what was above it [15].

All told, there must be more than 70 different accounts, and each one will no doubt become the basis for many more tales [16]. So, let me stick to mine.

When we first arrived at the place, we were engulfed in ground-fog. Nadav and Abihu were already trying to climb higher, but Miriam reached out to pull them back. In the end, she had no more success with her nephews [17] than I had with her brother, but that morning, the young men followed her lead.

Miriam began a dance. Abihu, Nadav, and the rest of us fell right into step with her, all of us whirling through the mist, around those bricks and their many meanings, immersed in the dance and the Presence. Maybe it was the natural way Miriam responded, or the community gathered around us. I’m not sure. But I do know that this couldn’t have been more different from that night at the lodging place [18]…

Later, when the sun’s rays were just beginning to find us, the veil of morning mist was suddenly torn from the mountain [18] bathing us in a light so bright and so blue that it took my breath away [19, 20].

“It’s not true, you know,” Serakh began, “that we can’t see God” [21]. There were a lot of worried looks then, but she continued in her calm, storyteller’s voice. “My great-great-grandfather’s second wife was forced to leave the family [22], but before she left, Hagar touched us in many ways and shared with us her name for God: God of Vision, God of my seeing, who sees me” [23]. I looked out at the faces around the circle, at Serakh’s ancient, furrowed brow; at Abihu’s eager, young eyes; at Aaron’s peacemaking smile and Puah’s determined chin. Serakh was right, of course. We can see God and live to tell of it. We do it all the time [24].

A twig snapped somewhere, and the moment was gone. Suddenly, as if we’d planned it — or all realized our hunger at once — we all began scurrying for our provisions. Aaron suggested looking for Moses, who’d disappeared by then [25], but Miriam and I agreed — a rare event in our acquaintance…and about something concerning her brother, at that! — to let Moses pursue his experience as we pursued ours. So, we saw God, and we ate and drank [26, 27].

And what happened to Moses? Well, I long ago gave up trying to explain what it was like being co-wife to the Shekhinah [28], and I never tried to interpret Moses’ experiences. But, I will tell you this: Everyone else will tell you that Moses had already disappeared by the time we started to dance that morning at the bricks. But I know what I know, and I know that Moses and I were joined for a few moments in that dance, not as husband and wife, but as two within the Presence. The weight he’d been carrying seemed to have become pure energy; he was light and free and burning again with the bush’s fire. And when we danced, Moses handed me a gift I’ve needed many times in these last 40 years — the certainty that the Presence would never crush him and that, because of the weight he willing bore, we all dance on firmer ground.

End notes:
1. “Atzelai,” Ex 24:11. At Ex 24:1, Ex 24:9, and elsewhere, ziknei, elders, are summoned. Here, the term often translated as “elders,” “great men,” or “nobles” is a different, rarely used expression: atzelai. In Clark’s Etymological Dictionary of Biblical Hebrew (based on Samuel Raphael Hirsch’s etymology), atzelai is translated as the “ones who stayed at far off.”

2. See Exodus/Shemot 24:1.

3. Buber says the term “Atzelai,” means either “corner pillars” or “joints” (Moses: Revelation and the Covenant, p.118). Another reading (Ramban) is based on the verb “to emanate,” because “the spirit of G-d emanated upon them. Similarly, `I have called thee mei-atzilehah‘ from those upon whom his spirit has emanated (Isaiah 41:9).”

4. See Exodus/Shemot 1:21, “And it was because the midwives feared God that He made them houses.”

5. Miriam is closely connected with her brother’s life, even before it begins: In midrash, she is responsible for insisting, at age 6, that the Hebrew couples (including her parents) who had separated during Pharaoh’s decree, remarry and produce childrenamong whom is Moses (Sotah 12a). She follows her brother’s passage down the Nile, is there to offer a wet-nurse to Pharaoh’s daughter (Ex 2:4-7)….

6. See Numbers/Bamidbar 26:40 and associated midrash. Serakh bat Asher ben Jacob, who would have been born five centuries before the Exodus, is listed when the census is taken in Numbers; midrash links this apparent longevity to the grandchild’s role in announcing Joseph’s whereabouts to Jacob. See, e.g., p.85 in Frankel’s The Five Books of Miriam.*

7. Ex 24:10: “Ha-sappir.” See p.175 in Clark’s Etymological Dictionary of Biblical Hebrew, “precious stone composed of many crystals.”

8. Ex 24:10: “Livnat.” Fired brick.

9. Hertz Soncino on Ex 24:10.

10. Rashi on Ex 24:10.

11. Based very loosely on a remark in Lifecycles,* vol. 1, p.8 about “a feminized Baruch She’amar” yielding “Blessed is the One who wombs (whose waters break over) the world.”

12. Alicia Ostriker* (Nakedness of the Fathers, p.127) refers to Revelation as God breaking through “heaven’s membrane, from being beyond time to being within time.”

I’m pretty sure I’ve read a midrash more directly making Sinai a birth-event, but I can’t remember where: If you know of such a text, please tell me; if not, you read it here first!

13. Another reading of ha-sappir is “sapphire,” though not apparently the corundum-based gem but lapis lazuli which was known to the ancient Near East (heavily featured, for example, in items from the Tombs of Ur, recently [recently in 2000, when this was written] on exhibit at the Sackler Gallery).

There is also a tradition that the tablets given to Moses were made of this blue stone (my daughter, Tracy Spatz O’Brien [then age 9], found this in her The Little Midrash Says for Shemot, with sources listed as Zohar 37a and Sifsai Kohen.) So, maybe what the atzelai saw were the bits chipped off as God carved the first tablets.

14. Clark’s Etymological Dictionary links livnat with “white,” “purifying” and “bright moon” as well as with “fired brick.”

15. Rabbi Meir’s teaching about the deeply blue dye tekhelet used for tzitzit (Talmud Menachoth 23b), links tekhelet with the color of the sea, the color of the sky, and the Throne of Glory. But, thanks to a drash of [former] Fabrangen member [now active at Adas Israel and with the Jewish Study Center] Sheldon Kimmel (personal communication), we also know that the substance which produces tekhelet is colorless until exposed to light; similarly, water is only blue in reflecting the sky, while the sky is not really blue either, but the way we perceive its light.

16. See notes on Psalm 19 (p.184-187 in Kol Haneshamah). Ha-sappir is related in Clark’s etymology to: `telling, reciting past event’ (Genesis 40:9), `declaring’ (Ps 22:23), `scribe’ (Jr 36:32), `book, collection of ideas’ (Genesis 5:1); and to the concept of “unifying.”

Marc-Alain Ouaknin argues, in Mysteries of the Alphabet, that Sinai was the birth of the alphabet, freeing written symbols from concrete symbolism perhaps even explaining why the Israelites “saw voices.” See also Yitro: Something to Notice.

17. Nadab and Abihu die “offering alien fire” before the Lord (Lev 10:1ff).

18. Exodus 4:24-26: On the journey from Midian to Egypt, Moses is attacked by God, and Zipporah saves him by circumcising their son (or possibly Moses himself, in variant readings). See also my midrash, “Drawing Back: Zipporah’s View.”

19. God tells Moses, “Come up to the mountain, and be there.” Buber says this shows we have to “be there” before the text, i.e., ready to receive it.

If you’re one of those for whom the phrase “be here now” immediately calls to mind Baba Ram Dass, suppose for a moment that after he turned on, instead of traveling to India, Richard Alpert had visited a shul on Shabbat Mishpatim: What kind of book would Rabbi Alpert (Rabbi Ram Dass?) have written?

20. Buber, Moses, pp.117: “…the representatives of Israel come to see Him on the heights of Sinai. They have presumably wandered through clinging, hanging mist before dawn; and at the very moment they reach their goal, the swaying darkness tears asunder (as I myself happened to witness once) and dissolves except for one cloud already transparent with the hue of the still unrisen sun. The sapphire proximity of the heavens overwhelms the aged shepherds of the Delta, who have never before tasted, who have never been given the slightest idea, of what is shown in the play of early light over the summits of the mountains. And this precisely is perceived by the representatives of the liberated tribes as that which lies under the feet of their enthroned Melek.”

21. Compare, e.g., Exodus 33:20.

22. Genesis 21:9-21. Hagar and Ishmael are sent into the desert by Sarah and Abraham.

23. Genesis 16:13. Hagar, pregnant with Ishmael, runs way from Sarah’s cruelty, meets an angel in the desert, and names God.

24. Consider, for example: Although the portion ends with ha-elohim meaning “God” — under whose feet the Israelites see bricks, blue, and one another — ha-elohim in the opening of this portion (Ex 21:6) means “judges,” earthly representatives of God.

25. Ex 24:11.

26. Set these ordinances before the people — as a table laid for a meal (Rashi).

27. For those who know that all the really good stuff is in the footnotes anyway: if there are tiles under God’s feet and blue above, maybe the atzelai were invited to join God in the mikveh (the gathering of waters designed to immerse us wholly in a moment, between past and future) or to join God as mikveh (“Hope of Israel,” past, present and future). Thus, the three immersions (fog, movement, and light). And/or, if the bricks are made from the same substance as the Torah (see notes 13 and 16 above), maybe the atzelai are immersed in Torah. And/or…

28. Moses enjoyed an unprecedented, face-to-face relationship with God. Moses is sometimes said to have wed the Shekhinah, the presence of God amongst the people, one of the feminine aspects of God, according to mystical (kabbalistic) teachings.

* Complete citations and further details can be found in Source Materials

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One Woman’s Conclusion (a Haftorah) for Exodus 24:1-11 by Virginia A. Spatz is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.