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Friday, March 22, 2013

Magical migrations: the power of fantasy


I mentioned in my previous posting that the Rabbis of the Yerushalmi spare no feelings when it comes to describing graphically the events of 70 C.E. A fuller picture is that while they soundly condemn Bar Kochba as cruel, irresponsible, and abhorrent, and don’t hesitate to tick off sins committed by Israel that account for the brutality she endured at the hands of the Romans, the Rabbis also speak of God’s loving mercy. It appears that the Rabbis’ ideas and emotions are all over the board: God is punishing, but also loving. God ordains Israel’s suffering, but God also seeks to alleviate their suffering. Raw and painful emotions come through loud and clear. But so, too, we find glimpses of hope.

Amidst these passages, wedged in between one horror and another, is a fantasy that made me smile and even laugh.

R. Chanina said: Forty years before the Israelites went into exile to Babylonia, they planted date palms in Babylonia since they wanted to have something sweet to prepare the tongue to study Torah.

R. Chanina b. R. Abbahu said: 700 kinds of clean [i.e. kosher] fish, 800 kinds of ritually clean locusts, and fowl too numerous to count, all went into exile with the Israelites to Babylonia. And when [the Israelites] returned, all [the animals] returned with them, except for the fish called shibuta.

God has providentially seen to the people’s basic nutritional needs. Date palms planted more than five decades earlier would be mature and produce abundant fruit by the time the Israelites arrive in exile. Why date palms? So they can do what will sustain their spirits and traditions: study Torah. Date palms nourish their souls.

Dates were not the only sustenance God provided in exile. A myriads species of fish, locusts, and fowl (all kosher for eating) migrated with the Israelites. This fantastical idea speaks to God’s loving guardianship of Israel.

While we can go along with the fantasy and imagine locusts springing and vaulting their way from the Land of Israel 1000 miles to Babylonia, and birds winging their way to join the Israelites in exile, how could fish possible make the trip? There is no water route from the Land of Israel to Babylonia. Just to make this clear, here’s a map.


Israel is on the west coast of the Mediterranean Sea. The Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, which carve out ancient Babylonia, can be seen flowing southeast into the Persian Gulf. How did the fish get to Babylonia?!

R. Huna b. Yosef said: They went into exile through the t’hom (the primordial deep), and they returned through the t’hom.

Two uses of this unusual term — t’hom — jump out at me, each associated with a very different image and message, but taken together, speak to the present situation and the longed-for future.

We first encounter the term t’hom in the second verse of the Torah:

When God began to create haven and earth — the earth being unformed and void, with darkness over the face of the deep and a wind from God sweeping over the water — (Genesis 1:1-2)

The t’hom is the great watery primordial deep. It precedes everything. It is the raw stuff of which God shapes the world. It is beneath the land, beneath the sea, and metaphysically beyond our world. It harkens back to the original creation.

The Flood arose from the primordial deep:

In the six hundredth year of Noah’s life, in the second month, on the seventeenth day of the month, on that day all the fountains of the deep burst apart, and the floodgates of the sky broke open. (Genesis 7:11)

Mentioning t’hom not only solves the fantasy’s logical problem of how the fish could reach Babylonia, it evokes the primordial chaos before creation. The events of 70 C.E. are so great a cataclysm it is as if everything has returned to primordial chaos. How can there ever be order again?

We find the term t’hom in the book of Isaiah, as well. The prophet Isaiah lived in the 8th century B.C.E., long before the Destruction of either the First or Second Temple. Scholars consider chapters 40-55, however, to be the work of another author who lived through the Destruction of the First Temple in 586 B.C.E. This section (chapters 40-55) is attributed to an anonymous prophet scholars have dubbed Deutero-Isaiah, who prophesied the redemption of Israel from Exile in Babylonia, restoration to the Land of Israel eternally promised to them by God, and the unbreakable and permanent quality of their covenant with God. In this context, the Deutero-Isaiah uses the term t’hom with a strikingly different valence:

Awake, awake, clothe yourself with splendor,
O arm of the Lord!
Awake as in days of old,
As in former ages!
It was you who hacked Rahab to pieces,
That pierced the Dragon.
It was you that dried up the sea,
The waters of the great deep;
That made the abysses of the Sea
A road the redeemed might walk.
So let the ransomed of the Lord return,
And come with shouting to Zion,
Crowned with joy everlasting.
Let them attain joy and gladness,
While sorrow and sighing flee.
(Isaiah 51:9-11)  

Deutero-Isaiah evokes the primordial chaotic deep. Rahab and the Dragon are primeval monsters whom God tames, bring order to chaos — an integral part of the Creation of the world. In the passage from Isaiah chapter 51, the prophet speaks optimistically: the chaos of the destruction and exile in the 6th century B.C.E. is not forever. God will return the world to its former state of order, just as long ago God overpowered Rahab and the Dragon. God does not open the “fountains of the deep” as in Genesis 7:11 to unleash death and destruction, but quite the opposite: God dries up the deep to create a safe passage for the Israelites to return to Zion.

This is a powerful image of redemption that evokes the paradigmatic redemption from Egypt. It’s impossible to read about God drying up waters to make “a road the redeemed might walk” and not think of the Exodus from Egypt through the Reed Sea. The Rabbis descend from the Jews who experienced the trauma of destruction and chaos.  It is clear from the Yerushalmi’s account that their descendants also feel traumatized, even generations later. (We should not be surprised, given all we know about the children of Holocaust survivors.) In their fantasy of God’s providential care of Israel in Exile, the Rabbis’ use the evocative term t’hom, which both acknowledges the present reality but also points to a redemptive future. Order will be restored. Even more, Israel will be created anew.

Pesach is around the corner. The message of hope and the possibility of redemption never gets old. In our lives and in the lives of those we love, in the life of the State of Israel we cherish and in the life of the world and all its inhabitants, we need to keep hope and the possibility of redemption front and center, a guidepost to direct our lives.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

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