Ki Tisa: Something to Notice

Sections of this week’s portion figure prominently in Arguing with God: A Jewish Tradition, by Anson Laytner (Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson, 1990).

Anson explores rabbinic use of Moses’ arguments (p.49ff). He describes liturgical use of verse 32:12 — “turn from Your fierce wrath, and repent the evil against Your people” — in an 11th Century CE piyut (liturgical poem) recited on Mondays and Thursdays as part of Tachanun [supplication] (p.122ff). In addition, he outlines the “complete law-court argument prayer” which Moses offers immediately after the Golden Calf incident, Exodus/Shemot 32:9-14:

Here is manifest an example of complete law-court argument prayer: an opening address (verse 11), a defense argument (verses 12a, 13), a plea (or petition) (verse 12b), and a divine response (indirect) (verse 14). But the threat of destruction is not ended. Although God relents of His plan (verse 14), He still requires further appeasement…(Exodus 32:30-35)

The second argument should be considered as a continuation of the first, although structurally each can stand alone. First of all, it pursues the same line of argumentation as does the first. Second, it provides the real conclusion to the story (that is God’s actual sentence and its execution [verses 33-35]). Third, Moses’ ultimatum, “erase me,” seems to be a direct response to God’s offer in verse 10 to make of Moses a great nation. Fourth, Moses’ recounting of the event, in Deuteronomy 9:26-29, blends the two arguments of the Exodus story into a single unit. Finally, both arguments are needed to save the people fully.

— Anson, p.10-11

Continue reading Ki Tisa: Something to Notice

Tetzaveh: Something to Notice

Outside the Curtain

“You shall further instruct the Israelites to bring you clear oil of beaten olives for lighting, for kindling lamps regularly [ner tamid]. Aaron and his sons shall set them up in the Tent of Meeting, outside the curtain which is over the Pact, [to burn] from evening to morning before the LORD. It shall be a due from the Israelites for all time, throughout the ages.”
— Exodus/Shemot 27:20-21, JPS/Plaut*
[English bracketed words in the original]

Continue reading Tetzaveh: Something to Notice

Mishpatim: Something to Notice

People of holiness shall you be to Me: you shall not eat flesh of an animal that was torn in the field [t’reifah]; to the dog shall you throw it. — Exodus/Shemot 22:30

The Hebrew “treif” — Yiddish, “trayf” — comes from the verb taraf (tav-reish-feh), “to prey, devour,” and came to mean, more generally, “unfit to eat” or unkosher.

The “Opening the Book” series was originally presented in cooperation with the independent, cross-community Jewish Study Center and with Kol Isha, an open group that for many years pursued spirituality from a woman’s perspective at Temple Micah (Reform). “A Song Every Day” is an independent blog, however, and all views, mistakes, etc. are the author’s.

Yitro: Something to Notice

“All the people witnessed the thunder [roim et ha-kolot ]…” (Exodus/Shemot 20:15)

The odd phrasing, that the people “roim et ha-kolot” — “saw the voices,” has been noted by many commentators through the centuries. Here’s some traditional commentary and visual midrash on this verse.

Marc-Alain Ouaknin has written about this verse in two of his books, which I recommend — although not as Torah commentary in the usual sense of the term. He notes in The Burnt Book that Hebrew, using an alphabet, rather than pictograms as other ancient cultures did, meant that people who saw alphabetic writing, representing sound instead of ideas/concepts, “saw the voices.”

The following is from Mysteries of the Alphabet:

The transformation of proto-Sinaitic into proto-Hebraic… is the result of several complex factors, one of which is particularly important. The discovery of monotheism, and the revelation and the giving of the law on Mount Sinai, introduced a new and important psychological element that may have produced a profound cultural change.

The second of the Ten Commandments states: “Thou shalt have no other gods before Me. Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in the heavens or above or that it is in the earth beneath…” This prohibition on the image forced the Semites, who still wrote their language in a pictographic writing, to rid themselves of images. The birth of the modern alphabet created from abstract characters is linked to the revelation and the giving of the law. In his book Naissance et renaissance de l’ecriture (Birth and rebirth of writing), Gerard Pommier wrote: “To make the jump from the hieroglyphic to the consonant, from polytheism to monotheism, a frontier had to be crossed. An Exodus was necessary…

The Hebrews left Egypt and received the tablets of the law in Sinai, the law that enabled them to create a social structure, the law of which one of the consequences was the birth of a nonpictographic alphabet….

–Marc-Alain Ouaknin, Mysteries of the Alphabet: the Origins of Writing. Ouaknin, Marc-Alain. Translated from the French by Josephine Bacon. NY: Abbeville, 1999. p.46-47.

The “Opening the Book” series was originally presented in cooperation with the independent, cross-community Jewish Study Center and with Kol Isha, an open group that for many years pursued spirituality from a woman’s perspective at Temple Micah (Reform). “A Song Every Day” is an independent blog, however, and all views, mistakes, etc. are the author’s.

Bo: Something to Notice

There are many things of import to notice in this portion: this is the 15th portion in the Torah but the first to focus on commandments; the first of many commandments in this portion centers around time-keeping (the new month); three of the “four children” at the seder appear; etc. So, it’s easy to overlook minor but fruitful points of interest.

The LORD disposed the Egyptians favorably toward the people. Moreover, Moses himself [ha-ish moshe] was much esteemed in the land of Egypt, among Pharaoh’s courtiers and among the people. — Exodus/Shemot 11:3

Now Moses [ha-ish moshe] was a very humble man, more so than any other man on earth. — Numbers/Bamidbar 12:3 (JPS)

Plaut’s commentary* notes that these are the “two personal assessments of Moses in the Torah” and that “both times the expression is used [ha-ish moshe], literally, ‘the man Moses.'”

What does it mean that, of all the virtues that might be ascribed to the central character of four of the five books of the Torah, “humility” is the only one explicitly applied to Moses? Why is Moses described is “much esteemed” by others — but presumably not himself?
Continue reading Bo: Something to Notice

Shemot: Something to Notice

These are the names (v’eileh shemot) of the sons of Israel (bnei yisrael) who came to Egypt with Jacob, each coming with his household. (Exodus 1:1)

These opening words elegantly make a transition from Genesis into the second book of the Torah. Ve’eileh, “And these…,” Exodus begins, indicating that this is in fact not an absolute beginning but a continuation.

A wordplay on the phrase [bnei yisrael] highlights the thematic and historical transition we make when we begin the second book of the Torah. We move from Genesis, where the focus is on individuals and their families in the stories of our matriarchs and patriarchs, to a focus in Exodus on the development of the Israelites as a people. The term bnei yisrael is translated in Exodus 1:1 as “sons of Israel.” Here bnei yisrael refers to the individual sons of Jacob/Israel, the eleven brothers who came to Egypt and joined Joseph, who was already there (Exodus 1:3). Only six verses later, the same phrase, bnei yisrael, will mean something different — “the children of Israel” — for it will refer to the Israelites as a people (Exodus 1:7). We will have moved from a family of twelve sons to a clan of tribes bearing their names — the Israelite people. Continue reading Shemot: Something to Notice