Measles, and the Book of Job

One of the strangest books in the Bible is the Book of Job.

The book begins with God and Satan (“The Adversary” for Jews) having a little bet. God points out to Satan that Job is a really good guy. Satan retorts that Job is only good because God protects him.

“Stop protecting him,” taunts Satan, “And he’ll curse your Name.”

God says to Satan, “Do what you like! Just don’t kill him.”

So Satan showers troubles upon Job. He takes away Job’s wealth, kills his children, and destroys his health. But throughout it all, Job never curses God. Friends come to Job saying that he must have sinned and he must repent, but Job keeps insisting that he has done nothing wrong. Finally God appears in a whirlwind, declares them all fools, and Job collapses, declaring himself “dust and ashes.” (Job 42:6)

There’s a bit at the end of the book in which God gives Job new wealth, a nice new house, new children, and everything seems super. Most scholars agree that it seems to be a very late addition, as if someone later insisted on a Hollywood ending. Anyway, any parent will tell you that you cannot simply replace dead children and make it all better.

Job admits to us that sometimes life really, really stinks despite everything we do.

That is exactly why I think the book of Job ought to be read more often, and with greater attention. Tsuris (Yiddish for trouble) finds many people who don’t deserve it. This is a terrifying fact of life.

In our terror that tsuris will find us, we attempt to find reasons for bad luck. We ask the cancer patient if he smoked, we drive only “safe” cars, we explain every ill in terms of something that someone did wrong. But there is no vitamin, no regimen, no diet, no car, no product, no magic talisman that will keep all bad things from happening to us. We are human, and we are prone to trouble. (Job 5:7)

I am all for medicine, and science, and research, and doing what we can with our brains to make life easier, better, and longer. I wear my seatbelt, and I go for regular checkups. Certainly science has given us wonderful tools to reduce human misery. But it is arrogant foolishness to look at a suffering person and say, “I would not have made her mistakes” with its corollary “…so that will never happen to me.” It is arrogant foolishness and it is cruel.

The book of Job is an extraordinary admission in a book that often seems to say “Be good and you are guaranteed only good things.” Job admits that sometimes life stinks, no matter what we do.

The true comfort in Job is hidden in plain view. Job’s wife suffers all the same losses that Job did. She loses ten children to death. She, too, is reduced to poverty. She becomes the caretaker for a sick husband. And yet only once, early on, does she speak, and for that commentators have vilified her ever since:

“Do you still hang on to your integrity? Curse God and die!” – Job 2:9

She is standing by him, caring for him, watching him suffer, suffering herself, and her rage and pain erupt. Then we don’t hear another word from her. But at the end of the book, there she is, ready to bear ten more children. She loved him, and she stuck by him. Their covenant held solid. Archibald MacLeish got it right in the play J.B.: the answer to human misery is love.

We can’t avoid all tsuris in this life, but we can stand by one another in times of trouble. We can do that individually and we can do it communally. When I hear a parent worrying about vaccines and autism, one of the things I hear is a person who is terrified of parenting a challenged child in a society that doesn’t give a damn. Does that make it right to withhold vaccines? Of course not. But isn’t it understandable, once the seed of doubt is planted?

My children received every shot the doc prescribed. I have begged young parents not to be fooled by the anti-vaccine nonsense. But I think this terrible measles outbreak points to something we need to consider as a society: when people have troubles, we often abandon them. We assure ourselves that it must be their fault. We worry about freeloaders. We worry about frauds and fakers. And people with genuine trouble, people who have been given steep challenges are left to become homeless, to starve, to struggle with impossible scenarios.

Mention “disability” and someone will pipe up about fakers. Mention “food stamps” and someone will tell you about frauds. Mention “homelessness” and some helpful soul will tell you it’s really about moral degeneracy, and drugs, and mental illness – and mention “mental illness” and someone will say that poor parenting is to blame.

Real people sometimes have real troubles and need help. We have to find our way out of the morass of fear, selfishness and arrogance and deal with that fact.  May that day come soon.

May we all have mercy on one another.

For chapter and verse on what Jewish tradition has to say about vaccination, I recommend an article in Tablet: If Jenny McCarthy Were Jewish by Rebecca Einstein Schorr.  Rabbi Schorr is a colleague and friend with her feet firmly planted in Jewish tradition and a poignant stake in the discussion.

 

Chapter, Verse, Word & Letter

The beginning of Parashat Mishpatim (Exodus 21:2 – 22:16) is interesting on a couple of counts.

First, the parashah begins on verse 2 of chapter 21 of Exodus. Students sometimes ask, “Why does it begin on the second verse?”

If you look at a Torah scroll, there are no divisions into chapters. There are also no vowel markings, and nothing to serve as punctuation. Anyone preparing to chant Torah has to use a book called a tikkun to memorize these things beforehand.

This is script from the Torah scroll.
This is script from Genesis, in the Torah scroll.

Jews divide the text into verses, the length of which were handed down to us from the Masoretes, rabbis who specialized in the text from the 6th to the 13th centuries. They transmitted the knowledge of where the verses end and begin.

The books of the Torah are also divided into parshiyot [portions]. These are rather like chapters, but they are not the chapters in modern Bibles. They are marked by gaps in the Torah text, and we see those gaps very early, even in the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Modern-day chapters of books were not a Jewish innovation. Rather, an Archbishop of Canterbury named Stephen Langton set chapter divisions for the books in 1227. Wycliff’s English Bible translation (1382) was the first Bible to appear with the chapters, which quickly became standard in all Bibles.  Since neither Stephen Langton nor John Wycliffe were interested in Jewish opinions about the text, their chapters do not always match up with our parshiyot. Mishpatim is just such a parashah, which begins on verse 2 of chapter 21 of Exodus.

The second interesting item in the beginning of this parashah is its first letter. Here is the full first verse:

וְאֵ֙לֶּה֙ הַמִּשְׁפָּטִ֔ים אֲשֶׁ֥ר תָּשִׂ֖ים לִפְנֵיהֶֽם׃

It may be translated: “And these are the rules you shall put before them.”

Look at the far right end of the line, at the little vertical line with two dots below it. That’s the Hebrew letter “vav,” which can be translated in many ways but here is best read “and.” Such a tiny word – only a letter! And with the rest of the word to which it is attached, “V’ehleh,” it means “And these are.”

We are taught (by Rashi and others) that this word “v’ehleh” in Biblical Hebrew tells us there is continuity between what went before and what follows. That is, the rules that follow are of one piece with the rules that came before this word. What came before? The Ten Commandments. So with one little word, the writer is letting us know that not only were the Ten Commandments given at Sinai; so were the other laws [mishpatim] that follow.

Every tiny detail of the Torah is significant. This is why one of our earliest sages, Joshua ben Perachyah said: “Get yourself a teacher and find yourself a friend” with whom to study. (Avot 1.6) For those who must study by themselves, a good commentary can be a help: through the commentaries we hear the voices of many teachers.

Do you study with a teacher or a friend? Is there a commentary with which you particularly like to learn?

Yitro: A Tantalizing Gap

Open_Torah_and_pointerThere’s a tantalizing little gap at the beginning of Parashat Yitro:

Yitro, Moses’ father-in-law, took Zipporah, Moses’ wife, after she had been sent home, and her two sons … Gershom… and Eliezer… Yitro, Moses’ father-in-law, brought Moses’ sons and wife to him in the wilderness where he was camped at the mountain of God. – Exodus 18:2-5

What? I remember the first time I read this, flipping back to see when it was that Zipporah and the boys had been sent back to Midian. I could not find the story, because the story wasn’t there. Looking closely at the Hebrew, I noticed that the verb usually translated as “sent home” is shillach, which is more commonly translated as “sent away” or “divorced.” And yet this text emphasizes the marriage: over and over, Yitro is designated “father-in-law” and Zipporah is “Moses’ wife.”

No doubt about it: a piece of the story is missing. Moses and Zipporah had some kind of separation. She went home to her father’s house, and he went to lead the Hebrews out of Egypt. Was he simply off on a “business trip” while the family remained safely in Midian? Or was there an estrangement between Moses and Zipporah? The text doesn’t say. All it tells us is that Yitro brought Zipporah and the boys to Moses, after he heard how Israel had made a successful exodus from Egypt.

Yitro is a wise man and a capable leader, and he is also a role model for in-laws everywhere. Whatever had caused the separation, he supported the couple in their reunion. He brought them safely back together.

It is tempting to pick sides when there is discord in a family. It is tempting to listen sympathetically to grievances. The ego expands when one’s child comes home, asking for a shoulder or for help. But a couple cannot work out their troubles when each can “run home to mama” to complain: it is better to say, “Go back, work it out, talk to each other, not to me.”

Obviously there are limitations. Domestic abuse is a serious matter, for instance. But even in such a case, the job of a parent – an in-law – is to support their adult child in working towards a resolution, whatever that may be.

In a marriage, as in any other human relationship, working things out requires the couple to interact directly. Talking to third parties is rarely helpful unless it leads to talking to one another. Those of us who want to be good parents and good in-laws or even good friends to a married couple can take a lesson from Yitro.

 

Beshalach: The Road Not Taken

ShoreRoad
The red line is the shore route through Philistine lands. The Israelites took either the blue or green routes instead.

 

When Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them on the road through the Philistine country, though that was near. For God said, “If they face war, they might change their minds and return to Egypt.” – Exodus 13:17

Who were the Philistines? Theories vary, but most scholars believe that they were originally from Greece and/or Crete, since their pottery looks very much like that of Mycenae. They were a non-Semitic people, city dwellers who lived in five cities along the coast: Gaza, Ashkelon, Ashdod, Gath, and Ekron.

They were known as iron-workers, and if they were the descendants of Mycenae they were the heirs of Agamemnon, the victor-king in the Trojan War story. They would have been scary opponents for a gaggle of runaway slaves traveling with elders and children.

The Exodus writer tells us that the Israelites were not ready to face such formidable opponents, so instead God sent them home by an indirect route. Midrash suggests the Israelites needed time in the wilderness to toughen up before they faced their ultimate challenges in the land of their ancestors. Another midrash suggests that without Torah, they would have been unequipped to live in the Promised Land, so the apparent “detour” was actually the best route.

Somewhere around middle age, many of us look back over our lives and wonder what we were thinking as young people. Why the youthful marriage that was doomed from day one? Why the unfinished education? Why the “wasted time” and the “false starts?”

Maybe we weren’t ready. Maybe there were lessons to learn without which we could not become our best selves. Maybe something we did along that circuitous route was very important, as it was important for the Israelites to visit Sinai and accept the Torah.

Perhaps, as the poet Robert Frost wrote. the road we took “has made all the difference.”  I would not be the person I am today without the twisting path of my life. You would not be the same person had you made different choices in your youth.

We can’t redo the past and take a different route, and who is to say that it would truly have been better?

What we have is today. What we have is the person we have become. The question is, what are we going to do now?

 

Va’era: It’s Not About Us

Open_Torah_and_pointerTo modern ears, there’s an odd digression in Chapter 6 of Exodus. Just as we become engrossed in the narrative of the struggle between God and Pharaoh over the Israelites, everything stops for a genealogy of Moses and Aaron in verses 14 – 29.

Why the digression?

Notice that the digression is bracketed by Moses’ plaintive cry, “See, my lips are uncircumcised! How is Pharaoh going to listen to me?” There are at least three ways to understand that repetition. The first is that Moses is truly desperate. Whatever he means by “uncircumcised lips,” he is frantic that he does not feel like the right man for a very important job. He’s not going to be side-tracked or ignored. And yet that’s what God seems to do as the text meanders off into a genealogical treatise on the line of Aaron.

The second possibility is that the digression is evidence that this story started out as oral history. In Sarna’s commentary on Exodus, he suggests that this digression is a literary device to separate the first part of the story from the next. He points out that this interruption comes at a low point in the story: the Israelites are suffering and so far, divine intervention has only made matters worse. Moses’ repeated line is the storyteller’s signal that we are getting back to the story now after the break.

There’s a third possibility: both times, God seems to ignore Moses’ objection. The genealogy seems to say, “Look, you are from a long line of people with the Right Stuff. Buck up!” The second time Moses’ says it, God pushes him aside:

See, I give you as God to Pharaoh,  and Aaron your brother will be your prophet!” – Exodus 7:1

or in a more vernacular form: “Lookit, Moshe, this is not about you!”

So often we get distracted from an important mitzvah by our own insecurities:

  • I can’t make a shiva call because I don’t have the right clothes.
  • I can’t speak up against a racial slur; no one listens to me.
  • I can’t chant Torah – my voice isn’t pretty.
  • I can’t give tzedakah – what I have to give will not make a difference.

Moses felt he couldn’t speak clearly and be heard. Because of that, he wanted God to call someone else, anyone else. But in this story, God wouldn’t take “no” for an answer.

God says “I give you as God to Pharaoh.” It’s a curious phrase. Who can “be” God? And yet that is exactly what we are each called to be dozens of times a day, every time there is a mitzvah to be done. We are the hands of God in the world. We are the comforters at the shiva house, the ones who can speak up against slurs, the ones who give tzedakah to relieve suffering.

No matter whether we believe in a personal God or in a God beyond human understanding, most of the work we attribute to “God” in the world must be done by human hands. None of us are up to the job, the boundless needs of a suffering world. None of us will complete the task. And that’s OK – it’s not about us.

Rabbi Tarfon used to say: “The day is short, the work is much, the workers are lazy, the reward is great, and the Master is pressing.”

He also used to say: “It is not incumbent upon you to finish the task, but neither are you free to absolve yourself from it. If you have learned much Torah, you will be greatly rewarded, and your employer is trustworthy to pay you the reward of your labors. And know, that the reward of the righteous is in the World to Come.” – Pirkei Avot 2:15-16.

Why Couldn’t Moses Speak?

There's an Easy Way?
There’s an Easy Way?

What was Moses’ problem?

And Moses said to the Eternal: “Oh Lord, I am not a man of words, neither in the past, nor since you have spoken to your servant; for I am heavy of mouth, and heavy of tongue.” – Exodus 4:10

And Moses spoke before the Eternal, saying: “Look, the children of Israel have not heard me; how then will Pharaoh hear me, I who have uncircumcised lips?’ – Exodus 6:12

And Moses said before the LORD: ‘Look, I have uncircumcised lips, and how will Pharaoh hear me?’ – Exodus 6:30

I have deliberately translated the Hebrew in these verses as literally as I can, so that we can look at them closely. What on earth are “heavy of mouth and heavy of tongue” and “uncircumcised lips?”

The medieval commentators disagreed. Rashi was sure that Moses had a stutter.  Rashbam, his grandson, was equally certain that Moses was saying that he wasn’t fluent in Egyptian. Ibn Ezra, writing in 10th century Spain, suggested that it meant that Moses was not a smooth talker. In a modern translation by Nahum Sarna, he echoes the verdict of Rashi on the phrase “uncircumcised lips,” that it indicates some kind of obstruction, and he points out that elsewhere the Bible refers to uncircumcised hearts and ears in a seemingly metaphorical way.

Whatever the trouble, Moses was bothered enough that he kept bringing it up. God appeared to take it seriously in Exodus 4, and suggested a aide for Moses, his brother Aaron. Then, after a disastrous meeting with Pharaoh in which he managed to get the Israelites work increased, and an equally disastrous meeting with the Israelites over the matter, Moses brings it up again. This time, God changes the subject to genealogy, and after that discussion, Moses repeats his line about “uncircumcised lips.” What is going on here?

First, notice that God suggests Aaron as an aide. Aaron is unlikely to be fluent in court Egyptian, the language Moses spoke most of his life. However, Aaron is fluent in Hebrew, the language Moses spoke at most during the years his mother was his wet-nurse, perhaps through age 5.

Second, after things have gone so badly with both Pharaoh and the Hebrews, Moses begins talking about “uncircumcised lips.” This phrase did not appear in the first discussion. What is different? Now the Hebrews are mad at Moses, and they’ve rejected him.

I think that Rashbam was almost right: I think Moses was worried that he didn’t speak Hebrew fluently. His lips were uncircumcised because his language doesn’t sound Jewish (well, Hebraic.) Pharaoh would be unable to hear him because he had no credibility: how could he represent the Hebrews before Pharaoh if they repudiated him?

Notice that in later years, in the desert, Moses’ speech problems were never mentioned. The Hebrews got mad at him fairly regularly, but we never again read about uncircumcised lips or a heavy mouth. I suggest that with practice, Moses became more fluent, and the problem went away.

I find this interpretation encouraging. First, for those of us who learn Hebrew later in life, it is comforting to hear that perhaps even Moshe Rabbenu (Moses our teacher) also felt insecure about his accent, but that it improved with practice.

It is a small thing in chapters with many more important points, but just in case someone reads this who is struggling with Hebrew, know that you are definitely not alone! With enough practice, we all improve.

 

Parashat Shemot: Names & Deeds

Julie Arnold, Congregation Ner Tamid, Las Vegas“These are the names of the sons of Israel…” (Exodus 1:1)

Sure enough, it’s a list of men’s names. There is not a single woman’s name in the list that opens Parashat Shemot. One might get the impression that Judaism really has no place for women. But that’s too shallow a reading: after the list of men’s names, the portion is filled with the daring actions of women, actions without which there would have been no Judaism today.

In Chapter 1, we learn the story of Shifrah and Puah, two midwives who refused to murder Hebrew babies.  In doing so, they defied the most powerful man in the world to his face. Pharaoh understood that they weren’t cooperating, even if he could not catch them at it, and he moved on to another plan. But the fact remains: Hebrew children survived because two women looked the King of the World in the eye and defied him.

In Chapter 2, we learn the story of the mother of Moses, a Levite woman who hid her son from the king’s minions for three months. Again, a woman defies Pharaoh! When she could hide him no longer, she put the infant in a basket and set it afloat in the Nile, a desperate act indeed, considering that the river was notorious for its ravenous crocodiles.

Miriam followed along on the bank watching over the baby boy. Midrash tells us that Moses’ sister had the gift of prophecy, that she knew her little brother would grow up to be someone remarkable. Nevertheless, imagine the nerve it took to follow along in the reeds, watching over that basket! There were dangers on the bank, too: crocodiles, snakes, and Pharaoh’s soldiers, yet young Miriam never abandoned her brother.

In Chapter 4, the young wife of Moses, Zipporah, watched her husband have a near-fatal encounter with God. She deduced that it had something to do with Moses’ failure to circumcise their son, so she took a knife and performed the circumcision herself. The story is very mysterious, but one thing is sure: Zipporah’s name may mean “little bird” but she herself was no shrinking violet.

So yes, Exodus may begin with the names of men, but it is the deeds of women that set this great saga in motion.