Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Amazing Nile Woman / Sotah 12a, b

The women mentioned in the opening chapters of Exodus are extraordinary by any measure. Even a cursory reading of the first two chapters of Exodus reveals that Shifra and Puah (the midwives), Yocheved (Moses’ mother), and Miriam (his sister) are endowed with wisdom, courage, insight, and fortitude in abundance. They collude to undermine Pharaoh, possessed of the quintessential “Us-versus-Them” mentality.

Our Rabbis concur in this assessment and enlarge the view. They tell us that when Pharaoh decreed the death of all Israelite baby boys, Amram (Moses’ father) divorced his wife to prevent births that would give way to deaths:
And there went a man of the house of Levi (Exodus 2:1). Where did he go? R.Yehudah b. Zevina said that he followed the advice of his daughter. A Tanna taught: Amram was the greatest man of his generation; when he saw that the wicked Pharaoh had decreed, Every son that is born you shall cast into the river, he said: “In vain do we labor.” He arose and divorced his wife. All [the Israelites] thereupon arose and divorced their wives.

His daughter [Miriam] said to him, “Father, your decree is more severe than Pharaoh's because Pharaoh decreed only against the males whereas you have decreed against the males and females. Pharaoh decreed only concerning this world, whereas you have decreed concerning this world and the world-to-come [the babies drowned in the Nile will receive a portion in the world-to-come, but those who are never born will not]. In the case of the wicked Pharaoh there is a doubt whether his decree will be fulfilled or not, whereas in your case, because you are righteous, it is certain that your decree will be fulfilled, as it is said, You shall also decree a thing, and it shall be established for you (Job 22:28). He arose and took his wife back [in marriage]; and they all arose and took their wives back. (12a)
The Rabbis attribute to adolescent Miriam the insight, courage, and wisdom her father lacks. She is responsible for the continuation of Jewish life in Egypt.

On the daughter of Pharaoh, the Rabbis lavish equal praise, or perhaps even higher praise. She alone in the royal house of Egypt – indeed, in the entire country – rejects her father’s idolatry and separates herself from his genocidal plans.
And the daughter of Pharaoh came down to bathe at the river (Exodus 2:5). R. Yochanan said in the name of R. Shimon b. Yochai: It teaches that she went down there to cleanse herself of her father's idols; and thus it says: When the Lord shall have washed away the filth of the daughters of Zion… (Isaiah 4:4). (12b)
They hint that her immersion in the river was a conversion, the river serving as her mikveh.

We are not surprised that the daughter of Pharaoh – whom the Rabbis will honor with the name Batya (“daughter of God”) – not only saves Moses, but insists upon doing it with her own hands, rather than through the agency of her servants. The discussion revolves around the possibly ways to parse amatah: it could be understood as “female servant” or “her amah” where an amah (cubit) connotes the arm, which is its basis of length.
And [Pharaoh’s daughter] sent her handmaid to fetch it (Exodus 2:5). R. Yehudah and R. Nechemiah [disagree in their interpretation of amatah]: one said that the word amatah means “her hand” and the other said that it means “her handmaid.”

The one who said that it means “her hand” said this because it is written amatah. The one who said that it means “her handmaid” said this because the text does not say yadah [literally: “her hand”].

But according to the one who said that it means “her handmaid,” it has just been stated that Gabriel came and beat them to the ground! [Just above this passage, we were told that the angel Gabriel beat the servants of Pharaoh’s daughter into the ground because they criticized the princess for opposing her father’s genocidal policy toward the male babies of the Israelites.] He [Gabriel] left her one [servant], because it is not appropriate for a king's daughter to be unattended.

But according to the one who said that it means “her hand,” the text should have been yadah (literally: “her hand”). It teaches us that [her arm] became lengthened; for a master has said: You find it so with the arm of Pharaoh's daughter and similarly with the teeth of the wicked, as it is written: You have broken [shibbarta] the teeth of the wicked (Psalm 3:8), and Resh Lakish said: Do not read shibbarta but rather shirbabta [you have lengthened, or stretched].
R. Yehudah and R. Nechemiah disagree about how to understand the term amatah. We don’t know which sage offers which viewpoint, but one clearly wants us to understand that the daughter of Pharaoh does not relegate the task of saving the child in the Nile to her servant. She boldly reaches into the water and scoops him out herself. What is more, God assists her effort by making her Elastigirl (you did see “The Incredibles,” right?) so that she could maintain her dignity by standing on the shore and reaching into the Nile to retrieve the basket containing Moses. The sage who offers this interpretation relies on a gezeirah shava, comparing Exodus 2:5 to Psalm 3:8 and also reformulating a term in the latter verse to read “lengthen” or “stretch” rather than “broke,” and applying this rereading to Pharaoh’s daughter’s situation at the shore of the Nile.

And if this isn’t high enough praise, the Rabbis continue, questioning the seemingly awkward Hebrew vatireihu et ha-yeled in Exodus 2:6:
She (Pharaoh’s daughter) opened it [the basket] and saw the child (Exodus 2:6). It should have said “and saw.” R. Yose b. R. Chanina said: She saw the Shechinah with him.
R. Yose reads vatireihu et ha-yeled as “she saw him with him.” The extra “him” who was present was the Shechinah, God’s indwelling presence in the world. So add this to the attributes of the daughter of Pharaoh: she is keenly attuned to the Shechinah.

These are beautiful passages about the power of courage and insight to bring redemption.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Monday, December 14, 2009

Which Organ Rules? / Sotah 8b - 9b

The Rabbis of the Mishnah articulate a general rule in Sotah 8b:
According to the measure by which one measures, they measure it out for him.
In other words: Heaven (“they”) exacts retribution for evil in a manner that both identifies and reflects the sin committed. The subsequent Mishnah, on daf 9b, spells this out with examples that reinforce the notion of measure-for-measure retribution. Here’s the mishnah on 9b:
Samson went after his eyes; therefore the Philistines put out his eyes, as it is said, The Philistines laid hold of him and put out his eyes (Judges 16:21). Absalom gloried in his hair; therefore he was hanged by his hair. And because he cohabited with the ten concubines of his father, he was stabbed with ten lances, as it is said, Ten young men that bore Yoav’s armor encompassed him (II Samuel 18:15). Because he stole three hearts – the heart of his father, the heart of the court of justice, and the heart of Israel, as it is said, So Absalom stole the hearts of the men of Israel (II Samuel 15:6) – therefore three darts were thrust through him, as it is said, He took three darts in his hand and thrust them through the heart of Absalom (II Samuel 18:14). [This principle] is the same in connection with the good. Miriam waited a short time for Moses, as it is said, And his sister stood afar off (Exodus 2:4); therefore Israel waited for her seven days in the wilderness, as it is said, The people did not journey onward until Miriam was brought in again (Numbers 12:15). Joseph earned merit by burying his father and there was none among his brothers greater than he, as it is said, Joseph went up to bury his father… and there went up with him both chariots and horsemen (Genesis 50:7-9). Who is greater than Joseph? No less than Moses, who occupied himself with [Joseph’s] burial. Moses earned merit through the bones of Joseph and there was none in Israel greater than he, as it is said, Moses took the bones of Joseph with him (Exodus 13:19). Who is greater than Moses? No less than the Omnipresent was occupied [with his burial], as it is said, He buried him in the valley (Deuteronomy 34:6). Not only concerning Moses did they said this, but concerning all the righteous, as it is said, Your righteousness shall go before you, the glory of the Lord shall be your reward (Isaiah 58:8).
The examples offered us on the negative side of the ledger are Samson (who went after his eyes) and Absalom (who gloried in his beautiful mane). On the positive side of the ledger stand Miriam (who patiently waited to see that her brother would be saved by the daughter of Pharaoh) and Joseph (who buried his father, Jacob). Evil is requited with evil; goodness is repaid with goodness.

All four examples affirm that our mind – our consciousness –is our dominant organ. Samson’s eyes may have led him astray, but his mind was in complete collusion. Absalom was enamored of his gorgeous locks because he indulged in vainglorious thinking. Miriam and Joseph kept their priorities clear – their minds were locked onto appropriate targets and hence their actions were meritorious.

The Rabbis speak often of the Yetzer Ra (inclination to do evil) and the Yetzer Tov (inclination to do good). No one would deny the power of our physical desires in our lives. The Rabbis seem to be suggesting, however, that our minds are both the mitigating factor and the final arbiter. We see, hear, smell, taste, and touch what is in the world, but it is our minds that construct a narrative that determines how we will respond. In other words, physical experiences are powerful, but the mind can overpower them and rule the roost – both for good and for evil.

While there are many strains of Buddhism today, all subscribe to the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama (~563 – 483 B.C.E.), the Buddha who taught that the mind – human consciousness – is the most powerful organ of all, and that when our minds completely overpower our bodies we can access ultimate reality. For Buddhists, detachment from the physical world is an essential skill for achieving nirvana. Detachment means that physical experiences are denied the power to control our lives.

Judaism generally favors full engagement with the physical world and sees the capacity for physical sensation as a blessing from God, even if it can lead us in the wrong direction. The Rabbis even tell us that if we don’t enjoy the pleasures of life, we will be held to account in olam haba, the world-to-come, for foregoing God’s gifts. Moreover, Yoma 69b records that once the Rabbis captured the Yetzer Ra and imprisoned it in a barrel for three days. During that time, no one worked and even chickens stopped laying eggs. The Rabbis conclude that without the impetus of the Yetzer Ra, “no man would build a house or marry a wife” and no constructive work would be done.

Yet our minds are meant to be mediators and gatekeepers in control of our bodies’ responses to the physical world. When we need strength, we can draw on God through prayer, study, and meditation. But whence the God we draw on, but deep within ourselves, the divine spark burning in our souls, at the core of our minds?

For Buddhists, the goal is to detach from the physical universe and sever its control over us, to overcome desire and achieve release from the narrow confine of self-interest that torments us endlessly. For Jews, in contrast, the goal is to channel desire constructively and achieve righteousness in this physical world, whose value we affirm and whose beauty we celebrate. Samson and Absalom failed, but Miriam and Joseph succeeded gloriously.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Tuesday, December 8, 2009


The sages have a problem. Samson, the classic bad boy, is on a Divine mission. How can they reconcile his bad behavior with his holy work?

Even before he is conceived the Tanakh informs us that Samson will “be the first to deliver Israel from the Philistines.” (Judges 13:5) Throughout his life he receives guidance from God. As a youth “the spirit of the Lord began to move him in the camp of Dan.” (Judges 13:25) When he goes down to Timneh and sees a certain Philistine woman, who he asks his father to get for him as a wife, that too comes from God, as we are told, “His father and mother did not realize that this was the Lord’s doing.” (Judges 14:4) Even later in his career, after he slaughters 1,000 Philistines with the jawbone of an ass, Samson calls upon God to give him water, and God responds. (Judges 15:19) For 20 years Samson served as a judge, and it seems he had clear a divine endorsement.

The chronicles of Samson are recorded in Judges 13-16. They begin with a lovely, mystical oracle – an angel coming to tell Manoach and his wife that they will finally bear a child, although all earlier attempts failed. But very quickly we see Samson emerge as the proverbial wild child. Among his exploits:

  • He takes a Philistine wife, as a pretext for attacking the Philistines;
  • He tears a lion to pieces;
  • He takes several other Philistine women;
  • He eats the honey that bees have collected directly from the corpse of the lion;
  • He kills thirty men in Ashkelon;
  • He takes 300 foxes, ties their tails together and sets themon fire, sending the out to destroy the surrounding fields and vineyards;
  • and more.

Yes, his task is to redeem the Israelites from the Philistines, but his methods are particularly brutal. He is just gross in so many ways.

While the Tanakh endorses Samson, the Mishnah condemns him. Mishnah 1:7 teaches that God matches one’s behavior with appropriate response: “With whatever measure one treats others, so it is done to him.” The following mishnah (1:8) offers positive and negative examples of this principle, with Samson being the first negative example. “Samson followed the desire of his eyes, so the Philistines put out his eyes.”

What is a sage to do? The Tanakh cannot be wrong – it repeatedly says that God endorses Samson’s behavior. The Mishnah cannot be wrong, and it unequivocally condemns him.

The gemara to this mishnah, Sotah 1:8, found on 9b, tries to thread a very narrow needle. They cannot condemn what the Tanakh endorses, but they are also unwilling to set Samson up as an exemplar. So they go through a careful, extended, confusing at times, analysis of Samson’s behavior. Where they can they offer justification of Samson’s behavior. Where they can they illustrate where he strays. Because the passage is long, I offer only two brief examples.

In response to the assertion that even in pursuing the Philistine women he is doing the will of God, the sages respond, “When he went, he went after his own arbitrary will [not the will of God],” and so he was liable to a punishment. If only he had not pursued the Philistine women with such passion…. But let’s not go down that objectionable path.

On the other side of the coin Rabbi Isaac, a member of the house of Rabbi Ammi, explains the closing words of the oracle that announce Samson’s birth, “And the spirit of the Lord began to move him in the camp of Dan,” (Judges 13: 25). He teaches that the Presence of God was striking like a bell before him.” (Sotah 9b)

And so it goes. Where they must justify his behavior, they do; where they can condemn him, they do.

Here is the problem. Samson is charged from conception with saving the Jews from the oppression of the Philistines, and he succeeds. By any measure that is a good thing. At the same time, Samson behaves horribly. His actions are abominable, beyond what any ethical teacher can endorse. How can those two realities exist side by side?

I am reminded of Oskar Schindler. He was, according to all accounts, a miserable person most of his life. But for one brief and crucial period of his life he was a tzadik among tzadikim. No one looking at the record of his life pre-war could have predicted that he would act to save innocent Jews as he did. No one assessing him during the war would have bet that he would so totally undermine the system that was supporting him. But he did! So with one hand we praise him and with one hand we don’t.

This is again a reminder that we humans are complicated creatures. The Mishnah tries to present a one-dimensional portrait of Samson, the bad boy who lusts after what his eyes see and is done in by his passions. But the sages tasked with explaining this teaching cannot ignore Samson’s divinely endorsed mission. He is deeply flawed even while he accomplishes significant good.

We prefer our heroes unblemished. It is best if their motivation is clear, their hearts pure, and their actions beyond reproach. Such a person rarely ever appears in our world – perhaps not in any world. Often, they are generally good people with whom we can identify. But sometimes we are forced to admit that they are, like Samson, tzadikim behaving badly.

© Rabbi Louis Rieser

Friday, December 4, 2009

Measure for Measure? (Sotah 8b - 9b)

In Measure for Measure, Shakespeare asserts, “Some rise by sin, and some by virtue fall” (Act II, Scene 1). In an ideal world goodness is rewarded, but sin is not.

In contrast, the Mishnah on Sotah 8b claims that not only is sin severely punished by God, but punishment is meted out precisely measure for measure; that is, according to each aspect of one’s sin, one is punished:
According to the measure with which one measures [out one’s actions], it is measured out to him. She [the sotah] adorned herself with sin; the Holy One blessed be God made her repulsive. She exposed herself to sin; the Holy One blessed be God held her up for exposure. She began the sin with the thigh and afterward with the belly; therefore she is punished first in the thigh and afterward in the belly – and the rest of the body does not escape.
The Gemara on 9b supplies an example of measure-for-measure punishment in a remarkable midrash on the story of the serpent in the Garden of Eden:
We thus find with the primeval serpent [in the Garden of Eden] that set its eyes on that which was not proper for it: what it sought was not granted to it and what it possessed was taken from it. The Holy One, blessed be God, said: “I declared: Let it be king over every animal and beast; but now, Cursed are you beyond all cattle and beyond every beast of the field (Genesis 3:14). I declared, let it walk erect; but now it shall crawl on its belly. I declared: Let its food be the same as that of humans; but now it shall eat dust. It said: I will kill Adam and marry Eve; but now, I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed (Genesis 3:15).” (Sotah 9b)
We already know from the Torah’s telling that the serpent was cursed for enticing Eve to eat the forbidden fruit from the Tree of Knowledge. The Rabbis here suggest that its punishment is not in the least arbitrary: it is a one-for-one reflection of his overstepping proper boundaries. In each manner that the serpent seeks and takes too much, he correspondingly loses something.

My chevruta, Rabbi Rieser, pointed out that this midrash supplies motivation for the serpent to entice Eve that is absent from Torah’s account: the serpent desires Eve as his sexual partner. Rabbi Rieser’s point is well made, but I would add that as Torah tells the tale, the serpent’s motivation is his desire to manipulate and control, an attribute we all possess to one degree or another and which can lead us down dangerous paths. (We might compare the serpent to Anansi the Spider of West African and Caribbean folklore: he is a trickster endowed with a certain degree of wisdom and the power of speech; similarly, Coyote in Native American tales.) The power to influence the behavior of others is real power that inflates the ego; this is sufficient motivation.

Returning to the Gemara’s claim about divine punishment, I find three aspects troubling.

1. The first is the claim itself, which stands in stark contrast to the reality we experience. Yet we find it so ingrained in rabbinic thinking that we even find a passage in Ta’anit 21a in which Nachum Ish Gamzu explains to this students that the horrors and sufferings that have befallen him were not only deserved, but he actually requested them and God confirmed them as just (Nachum could hardly have brought these punishments on himself; God must have approved and acted in accord with his wish):
It is related of Nachum of Gamzu that he was blind in both his eyes, his two hands and legs were amputated, and his whole body was covered with boils… his disciples said to him, “Master, since you are wholly righteous, why has all this befallen you?” And he replied, “I have brought it all upon myself. Once I was journeying on the road and was making for the house of my father-in-law and I had with me three donkeys, one laden with food, one with drink, and one with all kinds of dainties, when a poor man met me and stopped me on the road and said to me, ‘Master, give me something to eat.’ I replied to him, ‘Wait until I have unloaded something from the donkey.’ I had hardly managed to unload something from the donkey when the man died [from hunger]. I then went and laid myself on him and exclaimed, ‘May my eyes which had no pity upon your eyes and become blind, may my hands which had no pity upon my hands be cut off, may my legs which had no pity upon your legs be amputated,’ and my mind was not at rest until I added, ‘May my whole body be covered with boils.‘” Thereupon his pupils exclaimed, “Alas! That we see you in such a sore plight.” To this he replied, “Woe would it be to me did you not see me in such a sore plight.” (Ta’anit 21a)
2. The second troubling aspect is that throughout Sotah we find the pervading presumption that the suspected adulteress is guilty. We know that the bitter waters can exonerate her, but the humiliation she is subjected to (daf 8 spells it out in graphic and disturbing detail) seems to presume that she is guilty until proven innocent to a far greater degree than Numbers chapter 5 suggests.

3. Should we truly aspire to seeing the guilty punished severely? I can understand the desire that those who grotesquely overstep boundaries lose accordingly – the Kenneth Lays and Bernie Madoffs, not to mention the Hitlers, Pol Pots, and Stalins – because it is a human response. In a truly ideal world, we would follow the teaching of Beruriah, the daughter of R. Tarfon and the wife of R. Meir:
There were once some robbers in the neighborhood of R. Meir who caused him a great deal of trouble. R. Meir accordingly prayed that they should die. His wife Beruriah said to him: How do you justify [that such a prayer should be permitted]? Is it because it is written (Psalm 104:35) Let chatta'im cease? Is it written “sinners”? It is written chot'imchatta'im “sins”! Further, look at the end of the verse: and let the wicked be no more. Since the sins will cease, there will be no more wicked people! Rather pray for them that they should repent, and there will be no more wicked. He did pray for them, and they repented. (Berakhot 10a)
While many who perpetrate evil are not open to repentance and rehabilitation, others are. Hopefully, we can aim higher than human revenge and divine retribution.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Friday, November 27, 2009


The sotah ritual determining the guilt or innocence of a suspected adulteress (see Numbers 5:11-31) took place at the Temple in Jerusalem before the great Sanhedrin of 71 judges. If, after questioning by the court, the accused woman maintained her innocence and said, “I am clean”, they brought her to Nicanor’s Gate to administer the bitter waters required by the ritual. The Mishnah (Sotah 1:5) notes that this is also the place where women would come to be purified after childbirth and where lepers would come to be purified.

Nicanor’s Gate was a central site in the Jerusalem Temple. There is a great deal written about this gate into the Temple. In part it has to do with how these doors came to be and, in part, with where they were located in the Temple itself. The location of this gate made it the prime site for many rituals.

In M. Yoma 4:10 we learn that “As to Nicanor, miracles were associated with his doors. And they remembered him with honor.” The mishnah only tells us that miracles were associated with these gates. That same mishnah tells of about various donations that were made to the Temple: by Ben Qatin, King Munbaz, Queen Helene, and Nicanor. The mishnah offers some details about the other gifts, but of the doors of Nicanor we learn only that miracles happened there and that he was honored.

The full story of these doors is found at B. Yoma 38a (a slightly different version is found at T. Yoma 2:4).
When Nicanor was bringing the doors from Alexandria, Egypt, a storm blew up and threatened to capsize the boat. They took one of the doors and threw it overboard, but the seas did not calm down. They wanted to throw the 2nd door over as well, but he grabbed hold of it and said, “Throw me overboard with it.” The seas clamed down. He remained distressed over the lost door. When they arrived at the port of Acco the other door bubbled up and came out from under the boat. And there are those who say that a sea monster swallowed it and then regurgitated it onto the shore.

Very special doors, indeed. And they were treated with extra respect. At some point the doors of the Temple were all changed to be covered with gold, with the exception of Nikanor’s gate, because of the miracle associated with them. Others say that it was because their bronze shone like gold. (B. Yoma 38a)

According to M. Middot 1:4 there were seven gates to the courtyard….on the west was Nicanor’s gate. The doors stood between the Court of the women and the court of the Israelites. It must have been a magnificent place. M. Middot 1:5 says fifteen steps led to the court of the Israelites, corresponding to the fifteen PsalmsText Color, the Songs of Ascent, and the Levites would sing on those steps. One source suggests the doors were so large it took 20 priests to open them each morning.
Tosefta Kelim 1:12 places this all into a mythical geography. Just as there were three camps in the wilderness: the camp of the Shekhina, the camp of the Levites and the camp of the Israelites, so to in Jerusalem. From the entrance to Jerusalem to the entrance to the Temple Mount paralleled the camp of the Israelites. From the entrance of the Temple Mount to Nicanor’s gate paralleled the camp of the Levites. From Nicanor’s Gate inward represented the camp of the Shekhina.

Nicanor’s gate marked liminal space. It stood between the outer and inner court. It was the dividing line between the area that was open to all and the area that required ritual purity. The opening at Nicanor’s gate offered a space that stood between the holy and the profane. The Mishnah notes that the sotah is brought to Nicanor’s gate for the ordeal and that the leper and the woman following childbirth bring their offerings to that same gate. In each case the reason is the same – they need a place that was neither holy nor profane from which to present their offering, see it offered, but not threaten the ritual status of the inner courtyard.

These rituals share one other common element. After a birth there is a period of purification. At the end of that period the woman brings an offering to the priest “at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting.” (Leviticus 12:6) When the leper completes his period of isolation he presents an offering “at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting.” (Leviticus 14:11) The sotah also brings an offering which “the priest shall present before the Lord” (Numbers 5:16). In the mythic geography of the Temple, Nicanor’s Gate parallels the door of the Tent of Meeting.

As I said in a previous post, the sotah ritual is most unusual; the only instance in which God is asked to come judge a person directly, as Nachmanides explains in his comment on Numbers 5:20-21, “There is no other matter among all the laws of Torah that hangs on a miracle except for this one.” No human court can decide her guilt or innocence, her fate is literally in God’s hands. Nicanor’s Gate places her at just the right spot, perhaps the only spot on earth, where God can judge her guilt of innocence.

© Rabbi Louis Rieser

Monday, November 23, 2009

Expecting the worst usually results in fulfilled expectations (Sotah 7a)

So often what you expect is what you get. Do we expect people to be at their best, or do we assume that they’ll behave immorally and get away with as much as possible? And how do our expectations influence their choices?

The Torah’s account of the Sotah ritual is confusing. It’s difficult to imagine how it would take place, what it would look like. The Rabbis wonder too. In the Mishnah on daf 7a they present a disagreement: The Rabbis assign two escorts to accompany the man and his wife to Jerusalem; R. Yehudah says this is not the case.
How does [the husband] deal with her? He brings her to the court where he lives and they assign him two disciples of the Sages [to accompany him and his wife to Jerusalem] lest he cohabit with her along the way. R. Yehudah says: her husband is trusted with her.
Torah says nothing about chaperones. Numbers 5:11-15 tells us only that if a man is overcome by a fit of jealousy and believes his wife to be unfaithful, but there are no witnesses to support his suspicion, the man shall bring his wife to the priest (verse 15).

How, then, does the Gemara explain Mishnah’s assertion that escorts are required? Gemara quotes R. Yehudah in the name of Rav as teaching that escorts are assigned only if the husband does not live in Jerusalem and must travel a distance to the Temple with his wife.

But what is the purpose of the escorts? Two suggestions are offered:
… on a journey there must be three, in case one of them should have need to relieve himself and consequently one of them will be left alone with [the possibility of] immorality! No. Here the reason is that they should be witnesses against him.
The Gemara first suggests that two disciples of the Sages accompany the man and his wife so that there will be two men in her presence at all times, because were there one escort, when the husband excused himself, the single escort might engage in inappropriate sexual activity with the wife. The Gemara next suggests that the escorts are there to supervise the husband, so he will not cohabit with his wife. But in the first case, two men alone with a woman is no guarantee against sexual activity – even ten escorts is no guarantee – and the Rabbis realize this. Therefore the escorts are there to patrol the husband.
[The Rabbis] did not teach [that a woman may be in the company of two men] except in the case of pure men. In the case of dissolute men not even with ten. It once happened that ten men carried a [live] woman [out of the city] in on a bed [to violate her]. No. Here the reason is that they will know to warn him.
The circle of high level of suspicion surrounding sexual behavior has broadened to encompass the husband himself. It’s a curious thing to imagine that this husband, who has accused his wife of adultery and is about to impose on her a humiliating ordeal, would be interested in intimacy. We might imagine his sexual intentions rather more dangerous than intimate, thought the Rabbis do not voice this concern.

The Rabbis next turn to the claim that R. Yehudah makes in the Mishnah that escorts are unnecessary because the husband can be trusted not to cohabit with his wife – who is in a state of tum’ah (ritual impurity) – on the way to Jerusalem. What follows is a fascinating back-and-forth concerning a kal va’chomer (a fortiori) argument offered by R. Yehudah to prove that the husband can be trusted to bring his wife to the Temple without escorts. The discussion that ensues both establishes the inherent weakness of many kal va’chomer arguments – they can be argued as effectively backward as forward – and the fact that the entire matter rests on a foundation of presumptions concerning the psychology of the husband.
R. Yehudah says: By kal va’chomer (from minor to major, a fortiori) reasoning [we deduce] that a husband is trusted. If a husband is trusted in the matter of his wife during menstruation where the penalty [for sexual contact] is karet (excision, which the Rabbis generally understand as an early and untimely death brought about by heaven), how much more so in the matter of his wife under suspicion in connection with which there is merely a prohibition [but no penalty].

[How do] the Rabbis [respond]? The same reasoning establishes [their viewpoint, which is that the husband is not to be trusted to be alone with his wife on the trip to Jerusalem]: in the case of a wife during menstruation where the penalty is karet (excision), since it is so severe, the husband is trusted; but in the case of a wife under suspicion where [cohabitation] is a mere prohibition, since there is no severe [penalty] for him, he is not trusted.
Having turned R. Yehudah’s kal va’chomer around, they now offer an entirely different justification from R. Yehudah: in fact, they tell us, he bases it on Scripture (Numbers 5:15) which makes no mention of escorts, and the Rabbis simply declare on their authority that chaperones are assigned.

Gemara offers another round of kal va’chomer arguments. The first is attributed to R. Yosi and as we shall see, it is identical to R. Yehudah’s kal va’chomer. However, when the Rabbis unravel it, they reverse it in a new and inventive manner.
R. Yosi says: By kal va’chomer (a fortiori) reasoning [we deduce] that a husband is trusted with her. If a husband is trusted in the matter of his wife during menstruation where the penalty is karet (excision), how much more so in the matter of his wife while under suspicion in connection with which there is a mere prohibition.

[The Sages] replied to him: No. If you argue [that the husband is trusted] in the case of his wife during menstruation who will be permitted [to him when she is no longer a menstruant], will you argue so in the case of his wife under suspicion when he might never have a right to her! It further states: Stolen waters are sweet, etc. (Proverbs 9:17).
The proof text cited by the Rabbis deserves to be quoted in its entirety and its context considered. Chapter 9 of Proverbs speaks of Wisdom personified as a woman inviting wayfarers to a grand feast of understanding and insight, the first course of which is yirat Adonai (awe or fear of God – verse 10). The author of Proverbs (presumptively King Solomon) then compares her with a stupid woman who sits in her doorway beckoning to travelers and saying, “Stolen waters are sweet, and bread eaten furtively is tasty.” The Rabbis, in assuming that the husband will cohabit with his wife on the way to Jerusalem, presume he will sip stolen waters and eat bread furtively.

The Rabbis often seem to presume the worst in human behavior. The Sotah is treated as guilty until proven innocent. The husband cannot be trusted to escort her to Jerusalem alone. There is a presumption that only fear of punishment motivates self-control. Parents who expect the worst from their children make poor choices and bad behavior a self-fulfilling prophecy. I always found that expecting the best from my children worked beautifully and powerfully to elicit good behavior and appropriate choices. Would it not work with adults, with ourselves? I wonder if focus on presumption of bad behavior doesn’t miss an opportunity to encourage people to look for the best within themselves.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Thursday, November 19, 2009


An American proverb teaches, “Arrogance is a kingdom without a crown.” We all know the type. They come with an attitude of superiority and an air of haughtiness. They are overbearing and filled with pride. In their own eyes, they can do no wrong. The order of the world is up-ended; as George Eliot wrote, “He was like a cock who thought the sun had risen to hear him crow.”

The Hebrew term for such arrogance is gasut ruach, someone with an inflated spirit. Beginning on B. Sotah 4a ff. we find the Talmudic catalog on arrogance. It is not a pretty picture.

The catalog begins with this statement. R. Hiyya bar Abba in the name of R. Yohanan teaches, “Whoever is arrogant will eventually stumble by committing adultery with a married woman.” (Sotah 4b) Note that it is not adultery that leads to his arrogance. Long before he approached the woman, this man believed he could seduce her and get away with it. It all begins with his attitude, and this is only the first step down a slippery slope.

This Talmudic presentation moves through several different stages. The first stage details where the attitude of arrogance will lead. The second considers the consequences. A third reflects on the inner psychology of the arrogant person. A fourth flips the scales to suggest that students may require a small touch of arrogance to succeed. In presenting the breadth of this catalog I have skipped most proof-texts and some other material that accompanies these brief descriptions. Nonetheless, this review gives the flavor of the section.

Rabbi Yohanan first says in the name of Rabbi Shimon b. Yohai, "Whoever is arrogant is as if he worships idolatry." He then speaks in his own name to add that it is as if "he denied the core principle [of the world]." And Ulla extends that to say “It is as if he built a high place.”

Where is the boundary of arrogance? If you can lord it over your neighbor's wife, can't you also lord it over other people? If you can break the rules in one realm, why not another? Where will it end? Rabbi Yohanan suggests that it won't end until you deny the very foundations of the universe. Ulla goes further; you won't stop until you make the world over in your own image. Beyond worshiping idols, you will become one yourself.

In a sense Rabbi Eleazar’s teaching follows smoothly on the heels of Rabbi Yohanan and Ulla. He focuses on what will happen to one who is so full of themselves. He teaches on B. Sotah 5a, “Whoever is arrogant is worthy of being cut down like an asherah [a tree that is worshiped].” Arrogance has consequences. One who believes he is a god deserves to be treated as an idol and cut down.

Rabbi Eleazar teaches that the effects reach beyond one’s death. “Whoever is arrogant — his dust will not be stirred up [when the dead are resurrected],” meaning that they will not be resurrected in the time-to-come and no dust will stir over their grave-site. The arrogant person forfeits their place in the world-to-come. As a result he notes that “the Shekhina laments for whoever is arrogant.” While every soul is precious, not every soul merits life in the world-to-come, and the Shekhina grieves for every lost soul.

Rabbi Alexandri shifts the focus to consider the inner psychology of the arrogant person. “Whoever is arrogant — even the slightest breeze shakes him, “as it is said, ‘But the wicked are like the troubled sea [which cannot rest, whose waters toss up mire and mud. There is no safety, said my God, for the wicked]’ (Isaiah 57:20-21).” They may appear as over-bearing brutes, but on the inside they are quite insecure – even the slightest breeze shakes them. Rabbi Alexandri offers a striking image. The sea is huge and powerful, but let a wind blow across the surface of the water and you see the water quiver. The strength of the sea is an illusion. The same is true of the arrogant. They may seem strong, but ultimately they cannot stand up in the face of a breeze. Their insecurity shows through.

Rabbi Hiyya bar Ashi, citing Rab offers a surprising reflection. “A disciple of a sage should have one eighth of an eighth [of pride].” Said Rabbi Huna son of Rabbi Joshua, “And it serves as his crown, like the fan of a grain.” An eighth of an eighth, one sixty-fourth, is a very small measure. Perhaps it is just enough to stir a reluctant student to offer a new insight, to take pride in his work or to challenge his fellow students to dig deeper into the meaning of the text. But it is a delicate and precarious balance. Said Raba, “He is subject to excommunication if there is [arrogance] in him, and he is subject to excommunication if there is no [arrogance] in him.” It reminds me of homeopathic cures; small doses of substances, often poisons, that induce effects similar to the symptoms one suffers as a way to counteract disease. A little arrogance may stimulate the student while inoculating him against greater arrogance in the future.

The last word goes to Rabbi Nahman bar Isaac who disagrees strongly with those who find even an iota of redeeming virtue in arrogance. He teaches “[A student should have] no part of it [arrogance], nor even of part of part of it. Is it a small thing that it is written in connection [with arrogance], ‘Every haughty person is an abomination to the Lord [assuredly he will not go unpunished]’ (Proverbs 16: 5)?” His proof text asserts that there is no measure small enough to be safe or helpful. He points back to the opening teachings by Rabbi Yohanan and Ulla – arrogance is a slippery slope that will inevitably lead one astray.

In all the Talmud this is the longest discussion of the concept of gasut ruach, arrogance. I believe our ancient sages could easily agree with our American proverb: “Arrogance is a kingdom without a crown.”

© Rabbi Louis Rieser, 2009

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Inflation: when it hits souls, not shekels (Sotah 4b)

The Talmud’s discussion of the Sotah and adultery in marriage, has thus far assumed that blame for a failed marriage lies primarily with the wife. While the Rabbis acknowledge that, at least in theory, it’s as difficult to make a good match as it is to part the Reed Sea (Sotah 2a), the prevailing assumption on the first two dapim is that women are responsible for the quality of the marriage. The turning point comes on 4b where the Sages explore the meaning of a verse from Proverbs:
What is the meaning of the verse, and a married woman ensnares a precious soul (nefesh y’karah) (Proverbs 6:26)? R. Chiyya bar Abba said in the name of R. Yochanan: Any person who possesses a haughty spirit in the end will stumble [into the sin of committing adultery with] a married woman, as it is said, and a married woman ensnares a nefesh y’karah (Proverbs 6:26).
R. Chiyya conveys R. Yochanan’s teaching that the “precious soul” of the lover that is ensnared by a married woman may be understood as the “haughty soul” of the lover that ensnares him, and as a result he becomes involved with a married woman. In reading nefesh yekarah as “haughty soul” rather than “precious soul” he opens the door to recognizing that the lover shares responsibility. Rava makes this point more explicitly:
Rava said: [but it reads] nefesh y’karah (“precious soul”); it should have said nefesh g’voha (“haughty soul, or spirit”); and also it should have said “it ensnares” [rather than “ensnares [the married woman]”]. Rather, Rava said, anyone who has sexual intercourse with a married woman, even if he has studied Torah, about which it is written, it is more precious than pearls (peninim) (Proverbs 3:5) – [that is] more precious than the Kohen Gadol who enters the innermost sanctum (lifnai v’livnim) – she ensnares him into the judgment of Gehinnom (purgatory).
Rava holds that it is the lover’s own arrogance (his haughty soul) that ensnares him, not the woman. The “she” in Proverbs 6:26 is understood by Rava as the nefesh gevoha (haughty soul).

Jungian psychologist James Hollis, in his book Why Good People Do Bad Things: Understanding Our Darker Selves asks: why do otherwise good, decent people, do unexpected bad things? Drawing on Jung’s concept of the Shadow, Hollis points out that we think our egos reign over our psyches, but in fact our psyches are driven by discrete energies and an agenda we are barely aware of, and need to bring out into the open, into the light of day, so we can deal with the pain fueling them.

In a sense, the gemara says something similar when the passage continues, comparing arrogance to idolatry:
R. Yochanan said in the name of R. Shimon b. Yochai: Any person who possesses a haughty spirit is like an idol worshiper, because here it is written, Every haughty person is an abomination to the Lord… (Proverbs 16:5) and there it is written, And you shall not bring an abomination to your house (Deuteronomy 7:26).

R. Yochanan himself said: It is as if he denied God’s existence altogether, as it is written, And your heart will become haughty and you will forget Adonai your God… (Deuteronomy 8:14).
Robert L. Moore (author of Facing the Dragon: Confronting Personal and Spiritual Grandiosity) argues that the deep structures of our minds harbor narcissism and spiritual grandiosity that can erupt to cause havoc and wreak destruction. Moore writes, “There is a healthy narcissism that results in self-esteem and a healthy exhibitionism, in contrast to pathological narcissism, which results in an oscillation between arrogance and terrible self-hate” (p. 100). Destructive narcissism is arrogance on steroids. For the Rabbis, as in Torah, idolatry is uniquely dangerous and always destructive of human life – spiritually and physically. Moore, who promotes a healthy spirituality and recognition that we are not God, would agree.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Wednesday, November 4, 2009


If you have ever read Jack Kerouac’s On the Road you can appreciate the power of the editor. Kerouac wrote on a continuous strip of paper, 120 feet long, with no chapter or paragraph breaks. His work was rejected by several publishers until one brave editor took on the task. We enjoy what the editor culled from the mass of writing.

In our passage we see the power of the editor in a different way. I believe, as I will detail below, that the editor added one line to the teaching of Rabbi Hisda and turned the meaning of that teaching on head. While Rabbi Hisda intended to teach that both men and women bear responsibility in the relationship, the editor added one line that permanently exonerates the husband.

Sotah 3a offers a teaching by Rabbi Hisda, a student of Rav who later became the head of the academy at Sura in Babylonia until his death in 620. He is a powerful teacher and leader. His teaching here consists of three statements and argues that the husband and the wife may share blame when the situation in the house deteriorates and the charge of sotah is brought forward. There is a fourth line in the passage, in my view added by the editor, which subverts Rabbi Hisda’s understanding.

Rabbi Hisda uses a graphic image to suggest that both husband and wife may be suspect. R’ Hisda said: Unfaithfulness in the house is like a worm in a sesame plant. R’ Hisda said: Anger in the house is like a worm in a sesame plant. These seem to be paired statements. The destruction of the household may come as a result of her unfaithfulness or of his anger. It seems a reasonable argument since both unfaithfulness and anger can lead to or result from alienation in the relationship. Like a worm eating at the stalk of a plant, these behaviors destabilize the infrastructure of the relationship until it cannot stand on its own.

The next line, unattributed and so in my mind the work of the editor, places the blame unilaterally and completely on the woman: Each of these applies to a woman, but in a man there is no objection. For the moment I am not going to comment further on this line. It is important to read Rabbi Hisda’s third statement before returning to comment on the effect of this unattributed line.

Rabbi Hisda final statement teaches: In the beginning, before Israel sinned, the Divine Presence rested on every one of them, as it says, (Deuteronomy 23:15) For the Lord your God walks with you within the camp… Once they sinned, the Divine Presence separated from them, as it says, (Deuteronomy 23:15) Lest He see some unseemly thing in you and turn away from you. The key words are that the Divine Presence rested on every one of them – not on males alone, not on females alone, on every one of them. The Hebrew reads, kol echad v’echad, each and every one.

Take out the middle line – the one I disagree with – and the passage reads smoothly:
  • unfaithfulness brings on destruction of the marriage,
  • anger brings on destruction of the marriage,
  • once upon a time every single person was blessed by the Divine Presence,
  • sin caused the Divine Presence to depart from every one.
This is a complete teaching that expresses balance throughout. He can cause disruption in the marriage and she can cause disruption in the marriage. Once the Divine Presence rested on everyone – male and female – and since we sinned the Divine Presence departed from everyone – male and female. Rabbi Hisda recognizes that the sotah holds an indeterminate status – neither guilty nor innocent – that can only be resolved by undergoing an ordeal. Adding the anonymous line skews the balance. I don’t believe it fits.

We know that the editors of the Talmud worked to smooth out the arguments found in the gemara. We hear their unattributed voice in a variety of places. Sometimes it closes an argument by declaring that halakhah, Jewish practice, follows a particular position. Sometimes they insert material to reconcile conflicting positions by declaring that the two statements refer to different situations and therefore they are both right. I believe the editors insert this intermediate statement as a way of spinning Rabbi Hisda’s statement to match their own point of view.

What does that additional line do? By inserting the line, Each of these applies to a woman, but in a man there is no objection, the editor changes the story. The burden now rests solely on the shoulders of the wife. This change replaces uncertainty with certainty. Even if the woman is not guilty of adultery, she remains guilty of provoking anger or other behaviors that undermine the marriage. The editor exonerates the husband before the process has even begun. Worse still, this change allows the husband to act out with impunity – since neither his philandering nor his anger are objectionable – while she bears all the responsibility.

The editor subverts Rabbi Hisda’s teaching, but also skews our understanding of the precarious moment in which the husband and wife find themselves. Neither of them stands on solid ground. The sotah ritual is most unusual; the only instance in which God is asked to come judge a person directly, as Nachmanides explains in his comment on Numbers 5:20-21, “There is no other matter among all the laws of Torah that hangs on a miracle except for this one.” No human court can decide her guilt or innocence, so how can our editor declare that only the woman can be held liable and the man’s deeds are unobjectionable.

I always appreciate the advice of a good editor. In this instance I wish the editor had let Rabbi Hisda speak for himself.

© Rabbi Louis Rieser

Thursday, October 29, 2009

The "spirit" of jealousy (Sotah 3b)

Rabbi Rieser wrote, “The very idea of the Sotah ritual is repugnant.” In this posting, I want to address the Sotah ritual itself and a passage in the gemara that questions what kind of “spirit” inspires a husband to feel the sort of jealousy that sets this all in motion.

The ninth commandment forbids coveting. It’s unusual for Torah to command or prohibit an emotion (how is it even possible?) yet jealousy is so insidious that Torah makes the effort. How do we dissipate a toxic emotion when there is a risk it can boil over into violence?

People in the ancient world did not enjoy the benefits of police, an extensive court system, legal restraining orders, locking doors, and home alarm systems. If a man became overcome with jealousy and believed his wife to be involved in an illicit affair, he could be a real danger to her. I googled “jealous husband kills wife” and found an alarming number of articles chronicling horrific examples – and in some cases there were restraining orders. Anger given over to rage is perilous, and the anger of presumed betrayal in an intimate relationship can explode and become homicidal.

What does one do with a man whose jealousy is boiling over yet there is no evidence that his suspicions are valid? I would contend that the ritual of the Sotah is a valve for releasing pent-up jealous rage, hopefully before violence ensues.
…If any man’s wife has gone astray and broken faith with him in that a man has had carnal relations with her unbeknown to her husband, and she keeps secret the fact that she has defiled herself without being forced, and there is no witness against her – but a fit of jealousy comes over him and he is wrought up about the wife who has defiled herself; or if a fit of jealousy comes over one and he is wrought up about his wife although she has not defiled herself – the man shall bring his wife to the priest… (Numbers 5:11-15)
The ordeal of the Sotah involves elements that are unquestionably demeaning to the woman: her dress, her hair, the concoction she must drink, the whole manner of the ritual. With a defined course of action and priests overseeing the entire ritual, which is held in the Mishkan (Tabernacle) or Mikdash (Temple), there are several layers of control in place so that the jealous husband is less likely to attack his wife.

Most importantly, the “decision” is out of all human hands; it is in God’s hands alone and thus cannot be questioned once rendered. The woman drinks a potion containing a bit of ink, some dust, and water. Perhaps not nutritious, but unlikely to cause serious harm. (Have you heard the saying, “You have to eat a peck of dirt in your life”?) The horrific consequence of drinking the potion if guilty of adultery – that her genitals will fall out – is unlikely to occur. Rather, the ritual would most likely exonerate the woman. Moreover, if she had indeed been engaged in an adulterous affair, and if she were pregnant by her lover, the ritual covered that exigency, too. The Sotah who underwent the ritual and survived was rewarded with fertility – a special gift of recompense from God. This child would be considered her husband’s – no question of paternity. This precludes branding an innocent child a mamzer.

The entire ordeal is public, and this too is important. Everyone now knows that the husband’s jealousy overcame him and that he put his innocent wife through a horrendous ordeal. This alone could serve as a check on future emotional outbursts and behavior. I would imagine that a husband who put his wife through such an ordeal only to see her both exonerated and pregnant would be a man with a fair stock of guilt to work off and a long road to walk to make up to his wife what he had put her through. Perhaps this was the best-case scenario in a world without police, locks, and marriage counselors, for promoting reconciliation. Far from perfect, but possibly effective.

The Rabbi, interpret kin’a as “warning” rather than the pshat, “jealous fit.” Jealousy can lead to chaos and violence; a warning might lead to repentance and reconciliation. But on what basis is a warning issued? Somebody must have seen something; there must be a witness. Yet Torah says that there were no witnesses. While the simple meaning of the text is inescapable, picturing the reality of the situation is far more difficult for the Rabbis as it is for us.

The Rabbis wonder about the “spirit of jealousy” that overcomes the husband. The word ruach generally has positive connotations, but not always:
A tanna of the academy of R. Yishmael taught: A man does not warn his wife unless a spirit enters him, as it is said: And the spirit of jealousy came upon him and he became jealous of his wife. What is the meaning [of the word] “spirit?” The Rabbis identify it as a spirit of impurity, but R. Ashi says it is a spirit of purity. It is logical accordingly to the view of the one who declares that it is a spirit of purity, because it was taught (in a baraita): and he became jealous of his wife lends the husband permission. These are the words of R. Ishmael. But R. Akiba says it is an obligation. It is well if you say that it means a spirit of purity, then everything is right; but if you say that it means a spirit of impurity, [can there be] permission or an obligation for a man to bring a spirit of impurity into himself?
Rashi tells us that the source of the “spirit of impurity” is satan who incites the husband to accuse his wife. The spirit of purity inspires a similar warning, but with the intent of insuring her decency. Did the Rabbis see these “spirits” as from without (good angels and satan) or from within (the yetzer tov/good inclination and the yetzer ra/evil inclination)?

R. Ashi of the academy of R. Yishmael, holding that it is a good spirit that inspires the husband, tells us that the husband thereby has permission to warn his wife, but not an obligation. R. Akiba, however, holds that the husband is obligated to warn the wife. The Rabbis point out that if the impetus could come from an impure spirit, then the man ought not have permission, let alone be obligated by it. R. Akiba, for whom no word is extraneous, will eventually argue (on 3b) that the double use of the root kuf-nun-aleph in Num. 5:14 makes the act of warning an imperative.

It appears that the Rabbis would like to ascribe to the man good motives, but leave open the possibility that he was truly overcome by a “fit of jealousy.” Yet, having defined kin’a as “warning” in order to place a layer of control (safety) on the process, they feel constrained to presume it was a spirit of purity. The hole dug by jealousy and even sincere attempts to curtail its consequences grows deeper and deeper, messier and messier. No wonder we have the ninth commandment!

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Sunday, October 25, 2009


Let’s admit it from the outset. The very idea of the Sotah ritual is repugnant. Here is the summary from The JPS Torah Commentary: Numbers, commentary by Jacob Milgrom, 2004:
An irate husband suspects that his wife has been unfaithful. Having no proof, his only recourse is to bring her to the sanctuary where she undergoes an ordeal. The priest makes her drink a potion consisting of sacred water to which dust from the sanctuary floor and a parchment containing a curse have been added. The curse spells out the consequences. If she is guilty, her genital area will distend and she will no longer be able to conceive. If, however, the water has no effect on her, she is declared innocent and she will be blessed with seed.
The Torah text (Numbers 5:11-31) is yet more graphic. I cannot imagine it.

It is hard for me to envision the moment when the Sotah ritual is invoked. The couple has a married life together. The husband could simply ask for a divorce – the laws of divorce are reasonably simple. But this husband is caught between a desire to preserve the marriage (presumably) and a fear or suspicion that his wife has been unfaithful. What must he be feeling toward her to make her drink these “bitter waters” that will cause her genitals to fall out if she is guilty? What must she think of him, especially if she is innocent? How could they possibly reconcile? But I am getting ahead of myself.

As we begin our study of this tractate I am aware that the sages had choices in how to present this material. In the next tractate – Gittin, on divorce – the sages jump right in to the details. The opening mishnah is concerned with a Get (bill of divorce) brought from overseas and the discussion immediately asks what makes such a document valid or invalid. When the Jerusalem Talmud opens our tractate they set the stage from the first words:
One should not make such accusations of jealousy toward her jokingly, or casually, or in a light moment, or in the midst of harsh arguments, but with solemn conversation. (Y. Sotah 1:1)
The sages who compiled the Yerushalmi understood that the issue is serious and they set the tone for the subsequent discussions from the first. That is exactly what I would have expected, but in the Babylonian Talmud the sages choose a different approach.

About half way down the first page of the tractate we find a discourse on marriage. The sages acknowledge that marriage is a mysterious and difficult proposition, perhaps best left to One with Divine powers. Rabbi Bar Bar Hannah said in the name of Rabbi Yohanan: Making matches is as difficult as splitting the Red Sea. Finding the right match, he suggests, is miraculous. It is no surprise that marriage requires constant work to keep the two partners in balance. A different approach is offered: Rabbi Judah said in the name of Rav: Forty days before the creation of a fetus a Divine Voice goes forth and declares that this child is designated for that one. Truly, these marriages are made in heaven. The Gemara places this teaching in opposition to the statement of Rabbi Bar Bar Hannah, as if to say marriages aren’t so hard since they are Divinely decreed even before birth. Hah! No one I know pretends that it comes so easily. I believe it adds to the mystery. Whether it is God splitting the Red Sea or making Divine decrees before we are conscious, finding your bashert (intended) is hard.

In the wedding blessings we affirm that this couple is indeed unique in all the world. We ask the Holy Blessing One to “grant perfect joy to these loving companions” as if they were the first humans in the Garden of Eden. The wedding blessings depict an idyllic scene; just these two lovers enthralled in a moment of perfection. Implicitly the wedding ceremony suggests that God brought this man and woman together, just as Adam and Eve were Divinely paired.

But why should the sages be reminding us of the good times now, at this moment, when the suspicious husband is about to go public with his accusations? This moment seems to be as far from Eden as one could be.

I believe the sages take note of the husband’s decision not to pursue divorce. It could be that he doesn’t pursue divorce out of anger. He is so sure of his claim that he wants to exact a terrible price from his wife by making her undergo this cruel ordeal and suffer the consequences. But it could also be that the husband is truly unsure. Caught between his desire for his wife and his desire for certainty regarding her behavior, he opts for this middle ground. The sages seem to view the glass as half full – his desire for her offers some hope of preserving their marriage.

The sages recognize we are at a fragile crossroads. The couple who once stood under a huppa, marriage canopy, as if they were the blessed couple in the heart of Eden now stands at the brink of disaster. Before entering into the sad, but necessary deliberation about the legal processes of the Sotah ritual they pause to remind themselves and us of the holy bond with which we are tampering.

What do the sages gain by this approach? It is, I believe, too easy to become a technocrat, caught up in the details. One could follow all of the procedures – cross all the t’s and dot all the I’s -- and forget about the two people at the heart of matter. A marriage hangs in the balance, and if you do not honor the holy bond that once drew this man and this woman together it will snap. The sages focus first on the holiness of the marriage as a counterweight to the technical details. As long as you recall the love that once drew these two together you will not act too rashly to at this tense moment. Perhaps love might stir once again.

© Rabbi Louis Rieser

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Oh the web that jealousy weaves! (Sotah 2b)

We have begun studying masechet Sotah, which concerns the ordeal imposed by a husband on his wife when he suspects her of having committed adultery but lacks evidence or witnesses. It is described in graphic detail in Numbers 5:11-31. (You may find this article on the subject interesting and helpful.)

This is uncomfortable material for a great many people. Our Rabbis are uncomfortable with it, as well, but seemingly for different reasons than we might have.

For me, a preliminary question is: how did we get to this dangerous juncture in the marital relationship? Torah is explicit: there are no witnesses to testify that the wife has committed adultery but nonetheless the husband is overcome by a fit of jealousy and accuses her of unfaithfulness. Jealousy is both a deeply human emotion (I cannot imagine any other species experiencing jealousy) and also a highly dangerous and destructive emotion.

In the opening misnah, the Rabbis attempt to impose a legal structure on the situation to place limits on the husband’s behavior and perhaps contain the potential volcanic eruption of his emotions. Torah tells us that if the man has a fit of jealous rage (ruach kin’ah v’kinei et ishto – Num. 5:14) he brings her to a priest to undergo the ordeal. The Rabbis immediately read kin’ah v’kinei to mean that he issues her a formal warning, and they proceed to discuss how many witnesses are required to be present to attest to the warning.
If one warns his wife [not to associate with a particular man]. R. Eliezer says: he warns her on the testimony of two witnesses, and he makes her drink [the bitter waters] on the testimony of one witness or his own personal testimony. R. Yehoshua says: he warns her on the testimony of two witnesses and makes her drink on the testimony of two.
In this way, the Rabbis attempt to impose order in a potentially dangerous situation, lest it get out of control. In requiring witnesses, there is at least a modicum of assurance that the husband’s anger will not boil over into physical violence. The witnesses can either mitigate the intensity of his emotion or, if need be, physically restrain him, should he become overwrought and attack his wife. Reigning in strong emotions is not small feat.

Yet the gemara immediately becomes entangled in the complexity of trying to legislate behavior when the root cause is jealousy, suspicion, and anger, rather than evidence.
IF ONE WARNS HIS WIFE. Only after the fact, but not in the first place. Hence our tanna holds that it is forbidden to warn [her that she may not seclude herself with another man].
The gemara will eventually conclude that the husband may warn his wife only after he has witnesses to her seclusion. But prior to that, it is inappropriate to warn her because after all, what is he warning about? There is no foundation to his suspicion.

This inspires mention of a teaching attributed to Resh Lakish that addresses my preliminary question concerning how the relationship reached this volatile juncture:
R. Shmuel b. R. Yitzhak said: When Resh Lakish began to expound on the Sotah, he said: They only pair a woman with a man according to his deeds, as it is said: For the scepter of wickedness shall not rest upon the lot of the righteous (Psalm 125:3). Rabbah b. bar Hanah said in the name of R. Yochanan: It is as difficult to pair [a husband and a wife] as was dividing the Reed Sea; as it is said: God sets the solitary in families: God brings out the prisoners into prosperity (Psalm 68:7). But it is not so, for Rav Yehudah said in the name of Rab: Forty days before the creation of a child, a Bath Kol (heavenly voice) issues forth and proclaims: the daughter of So-and-So is intended for So-and-So; the house of So-and-So is for So-and-So; the field of So-and-So is for So-and-So! There is no contradiction; the latter point refers to a first marriage, and the former to a second marriage.
Three comments are offered. First, Resh Lakish suggests that a man whose deeds are worthy is rewarded with a faithful wife. (Confession: the image that comes to mind is, “Good, Fido. Sit, Fido.”) Is this to say that a man who is unrighteous deserves a wife who is unfaithful? or that a man who is unrighteous drives his wife to adultery by his deeds? This is a claim riddled with moral problems and questions about Resh Lakish’s understanding of human free will.

Second, we are introduced to a teaching of R. Yochanan: making a good match is an exceptionally difficult achievement. It can be a key to the riches of life and a source of personal redemption. Is all the effort on God’s part, or ours?

Rav Yehudah answer that question. God stands behind the chupah, having planned the match prior to conception. Given how much hard work and effort go into a successful marriage, and further that even good people who make sincere efforts often see their marriages end, we might wonder: does this mean that a successful marriage is not dependent upon human behavior? How could that possibly be?

The Rabbis seem aware that whatever theory they proffer, they’re boxing themselves in. So they conclude that God pre-ordains first marriages, but the second time round, we’re on our own. (I cannot help but wonder if, since many of the Rabbis at this time were probably arranging matches for their own children – which their children had to affirm or could negate – if they were putting God’s imprimatur on their own choices.)

How did we get to this dangerous juncture in the marital relationship? It seems to me that the answer is not found in the opinions of Resh Lakish or Rav Yehudah, but rather embedded in the words of R. Yochanan: It is as difficult to pair [a husband and a wife] as was dividing the Reed Sea. Both the husband and wife must make the effort, and if they allow God into their marriage, so much the better, but no extraordinarily difficult task is guaranteed success.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Thursday, October 15, 2009


I love the Talmud. I believe it forms the foundation of Jewish life since the time of its composition, even if not all Jews agree on its meaning. Nonetheless I acknowledge that the Talmud has a well-earned reputation for drawn out logical examinations of many subjects. True there are many folktales, anecdotes and other material included in the Talmud, but logic is what made its reputation.

So I was tickled to read of a classic sleight of hand technique used to resolve a dispute. In order to appreciate the story it is helpful to know the characters.

The B’nei Bathrya have deep roots in the Talmud. They are mentioned as interim leaders of the community in the time following the death of Shemayah and Avtalion in the late 1st century B.C.E. Our episode occurs about a century later, so the people mentioned in our passage would have to be their descendants. In our story they exert a conservative influence and that is consistent with their historic role as interim keepers of the tradition in the time of Hillel.

Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai is the central character in reshaping Judaism after the fall of Jerusalem. He was secreted out of Jerusalem by his students, petitioned Vespasian to establish a new center at Yavneh and was granted his wish when Vespasian was appointed Caesar in accord with Yohanan’s prophecy. (B. Gittin 56a-b) The extended passage that continues after our story details nine innovations that ben Zakkai instituted at his new center in Yavneh. No surprise that his changes provoked a response from the more conservative forces.

Our story comes from B. Rosh Hashanah 29b.
When the Temple was destroyed, Rabban Yohanan b. Zakkai arranged that the shofar would be sounded wherever there was a court.
According to a Baraita: Rosh HaShannah once fell on Shabbat and [the people of] all the cities came together [in Yavneh, to hear the shofar].
Rabban Yohanan b. Zakkai said to the B’nei Bathyra, “Sound the shofar!”
They said to him, “Let us discuss [the issue].”
[Yohanan] said to them, “Sound the shofar and then we’ll discuss.”
After they had blown [the shofar] they said to him, “[Now] let’s discuss [the matter]!”
[Yohanan] said to them, “The horn already has been heard in Yavneh, and, after the fact, one does not reconsider.”

Once the B'nei Bathyra acquiesced, they had lost the argument. The deed was done and it was too late to take it back. Yohanan’s dismissive response, “The horn has already been heard…,” seems almost a joke. Can you hear him thinking, “I can’t believe they fell for that?”

There is more here than meets the eye. The B’nei Bathyra seek ways to preserve the old traditions, and they wish to hold a discussion to find the most congenial match. Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai knows that the most important thing is to do it. For the health and the growth of the community it is essential that the shofar is sounded in a timely manner. The tension here between conservative and progressive voices has a contemporary feel to it.

To give the B’nei Bathyra their due, it is reasonable that interim leaders would be conservatives. Even today when a church or a synagogue employs an interim minister or rabbi the prime directive is to maintain a steady course. They are not the ones who have led the community to its present place nor will they be the ones to chart the course going forward. Their main goal is to stabilize a community in transition and to prepare them so they will be ready to move forward under new leadership. According to the Talmud, here and elsewhere, the B’nei Bathyra were the interim leaders, so of course they seek to restrain Yohanan ben Zakkai.

The question on the table is how to apply a set tradition in radically new circumstances. It could have taken a long time to clarify the rules that apply to the sounding of the shofar, meshing them with the limitations of Shabbat, and coming to an acceptable conclusion. While a conservative voice may have wanted to make sure it was all done according to the rules, Yohanan ben Zakkai did not have that time.

Remember that ben Zakkai was a man on a mission. He understood that the practice of the Temple could no longer hold; the Temple was destroyed and we had to transform the practices so they could fit our new circumstances. He could not afford to be conservative. The fate of the Jewish people depended on finding a compelling way to make Judaism accessible wherever the Jews were. Of course he would say, sound the shofar now.

This is where the story of an ancient sleight of hand trick meets our own day. Change is happening all around us. Every year the Forward names its 50 most influential Jews. Look at the rabbis on that list are creating new pathways for modern Jews. Check out the independent minyanim being formed by young activist Jews in major metropolitan centers from New York, to Chicago, to DC, to LA. Review the list of organizations at the Slingshot Fund, groups they consider to be among the most creative and effective Jewish organizations current today. There are dozens of new initiatives growing up on the edges of the Jewish community, creating new ways for disaffected Jews to return to the fold. They are blending our inherited traditions with new approaches to strengthen the community.

For many years the response to our fading numbers has been to discuss. The plethora of “continuity” programs asked if your grandchildren would be Jewish, but that was the wrong question. The young Jews establishing these new pathways are much more direct – how can I be Jewish. The blend of modern sensibilities and traditional practices is invigorating a new generation. Like Yohanan ben Zakkai they are not waiting for the discussion to come to a conclusion. They are seeking their own funding, advertising in secular media and over the web and doing it now.

I applaud their initiative and want them to know that they stand in a proud tradition that reaches back to Yohanan ben Zakkai and the founding of Yavneh.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Built-in Flexibility and Creativity (Rosh Hashanah 32a)

For those who feel Judaism is excessively rigid and rituals are overly prescribed, the passage on Rosh Hashanah 32a might just be a breath of fresh air. Here the Rabbis discuss the liturgy of the shofar service that is part of Rosh Hashanah Musaf. They enumerate several possibilities for the liturgy, as well as suggest numerous ways to think about meaning of the shofar blasts. In the end, they do not prescribe, leaving wonderful wiggle room and an open door for us to enter into their world of possibilities and innovate our own. What could more in keeping with the theme of a new year than to contemplate new possibilties of meaning?

The Shofar service of Musaf features three themes:
  1. Malkhuyot (God’s sovereignty)
  2. Zichronot (Remembrances)
  3. Shofarot (Revelation)
The Mishnah on Rosh Hashanah 32a informs us that we should recite no fewer than 10 verses of Scripture in connection with each of the three themes. However, R. Yochanan b. Nuri says that if one recites only three verses in connection with each theme, that person has fulfilled his/her obligation.

As the conversation in the gemara unfolds, however, there are more considerations and several options. Perhaps the background here is that Jewish tradition around the shofar service liturgy has not yet gelled. Perhaps this is an arena where gemara builds flexibility into tradition.

The gemara first asks why we recite 10 verses. R. Levi says they correspond to 10 expressions of praise in Psalm 150. Rav Yosef claims they correspond to the Ten Commandments. R. Yochanan suggests they correspond to the 10 utterances with which the world was created (Genesis, chapter 1). These rationales – praising God, obligations toward God, and Creation – correspond to the three themes themselves. Rosh Hashanah is an annual celebration of God’s coronation and hence praise is utterly fitting for the sovereign of the universe -- Malkhuyot. Zichronot recalls when shofarot were blown at the revelation at Mt. Sinai and verses recalling the Ten Commandments and our obligations to God as expressed in Torah are fitting. Shofarot harkens to a future time when the shofar of redemption will sound to herald a new Creation.

Gemara next explores the difference between the Mishnah’s opinion, and that of R. Yochanan b. Nuri. Perhaps R. Yochanan b. Nuri means three verses each from Torah, Nevi’im (Prophets), and Ketuvim (Writings) for each of the three themes? If so, his total comes to nine, only one less than the tanna kamma (Mishnah’s original opinion). But if R. Yochanan b. Nuri intended a total of three verses – one each from Torah, Nevi’im, and Ketuvim – then the difference between the two opinions is considerably greater.

Gemara attempts to resolve this by saying that while a minimum of 10 verses for each theme is required, one who recited seven verses for each has fulfilled his/her obligation, because seven corresponds to the seven heavens, and cites no less than R. Yochanan b. Nuri as the source for saying, one who minimizes should recite no fewer than seven verses, but if one recited only three verses for each [theme], corresponding to the Torah, Prophets, and Writings – and some say corresponding to the Kohanim (priests), Levites, and Israelites.

It seems clear that the precise number of verses is not yet fixed as this text is written, and the Rabbis are looking for a rationale for setting the number. To summarize, they offer explanations for 10, 7, and 3 verses:

10 –
expressions of praise in Psalm 150
10 Commandments
10 utterances of creation
seven heavens

Torah, Prophets, Writings
Kohanim, Levites, Israelites
These rationales invite us to consider the sound of the shofar in many religious contexts:
  • among a community of worshipers that places a premium on the peoplehood or nation of Israel (Kohanim, Levi’im, Ketuvim) who are united around sacred texts (Torah, Prophets, and Writings) and the traditions and obligations that arise from them;
  • among a community of worshipers acknowledging God’s sovereignty in their personal and communal life;
  • among a community of worshipers acknowledging God as the Creator of the universe, the author of life and health who has brought us as far as this new year and hopefully will keep us alive to see the next new year;
  • among a community of worshipers acknowledging God as the God of the cosmos who abides not only in our presence but in the Seventh Heaven, the God who’s oneness unifies all.
This passage has the effect of encouraging us to explore many options for finding meaning in the sound of the shofar and for structuring a service – which can change from year to year – to express that meaning.

Monday, October 5, 2009


Two journeys are mapped out in the closing chapter of B. Rosh HaShannah, both related to the destruction of Jerusalem. The first describes the journey of the Shekhina, God’s Presence, in advance of the Babylonian destruction of the Temple in 586 BCE. The second details the wandering of the Sanhedrin, the Great Court, following the devastation of Jerusalem by Rome in 70 CE. The two journeys tell related stories.

The context is important. The chapter opens by contrasting the traditions that prevailed in Jerusalem before the Roman destruction with those later established by Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai in Yavneh, where he re-established the Sanhedrin following the war. The contrasting traditions dealt with iconic moments in Jewish life: the sounding of the shofar on Shabbat Rosh HaShannah, the waving of the lulav, the declaration of the new moon. According to ben Zakkai, what had once been restricted to the Temple could now be done in the provinces. These modifications allowed the community to continue ancient practices.

Just before the text moves on to detail other traditions established by Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai the Gemara on 31a notes that the Shekhina, God’s Presence, and the Sanhedrin, the Great Court, took parallel journeys:
Rabbi Yehuda bar Idi said in the name of Rabbi Yohanan: The Shekhina [left Israel prior to the destruction by the Babylonians] by ten steps as recorded in Scripture corresponding to ten exiles taken by the Sanhedrin [after the Roman destruction], as recorded in Gemara.
While the Mishnah told us that the innovations of Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai occurred following the destruction of the Temple, the comment of Rabbi Yehuda bar Idi gives us a better feel for the extent of the disaster. The Shekhina and the Sanhedrin were both in exile, though in different ways. The survival of the Jewish people was at stake.

The Shekhina left Israel by ten steps in advance of the Babylonian exile.
The Shekhina [left Israel]. From Scripture we know that it went from the ark-cover to the Cherub, from the Cherub to the threshold, from the threshold to the courtyard, from the courtyard to the altar, from the altar to roof, from the roof to wall, from the wall to the city, from the city to the mountain, from the mountain to the wilderness, and from the wilderness it ascended and dwelled in its Place.

The text cites the Scriptural source of each step along this journey. Ezekiel witnessed the Presence of the Lord in the courtyard, and Amos at the altar. Micah sees God in the city and Hosea confirms the ascent of the Shekhina from the wilderness to heaven: as it is said [Hosea 5:15]: “I will return again to my Place, [until they acknowledge their guilt and seek my face].” Hosea, the prophet of faithfulness, offers an explanation. Our sins led to the exile of the Shekhina from the city, from the land, from the covenant people. The destruction that follows can hardly be a surprise.

The Shekhina's departure reverses the path that first led to Jerusalem. The ancient journey that began at Mt. Sinai, a place in the wilderness, moved through the desert to the land of Israel, to Jerusalem, and finally to the Temple Mount. In leaving, the Shekhina once again retreats from the Temple, to the country side and to the desert before ascending back to heaven. Nonetheless, Hosea holds out a bit of hope. When we acknowledge our guilt and seek God's face, return will be possible. And it must have worked, because the people did return and the Temple was rebuilt.

Following the Roman destruction of Jerusalem Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai requested permission to establish a court at Yavneh. Though permission was granted the Sanhedrin wandered from place to place. Our Gemara asserts that these wanderings paralleled the exile of the Shekhina centuries earlier.
Correspondingly there were ten exiles of the Sanhedrin, as recorded in Gemara: from the Chamber of Hewn Stone to the market, from the market to Jerusalem, from Jerusalem to Yavneh, from Yavneh to Usha, from Usha to Yavneh, from Yavneh to Usha, from Usha to Shefaram, from Shefaram to Beth Shearim, from Beth Shearim to Sepphoris, and from Sepphoris to Tiberias. And Tiberias is the lowest of them all.

Again each step in the journey is recorded, even the back and forth movement between Yavneh and Usha. When this route is drawn on the map of Israel it seems to wobble back and forth. It reminds me of Cain’s fate as a wanderer on the land and his cry to God in Genesis 4:14 – Here, you drive me away today from the face of the soil, and from your face must I conceal myself, I must be wavering and wandering on earth… (From: The Five Books of Moses, Trans. Everett Fox, Schocken Books, 1995, pg. 27). Step by step the journey proceeds, falling from the mountain heights of Jerusalem to Tiberias on the shore of the Galilee.

If the wanderings of the Sanhedrin mirror those of the Shekhina, is that good or bad? Does it signal our demise? It describes our fall from grace, ending below sea level. Can we go any lower? If you attend a 12-Step meeting you will hear each person tell of how they fell until they hit rock bottom. Aware they could no longer rely on their own resources, they put their lives in the hand of their Higher Power and began the long road to recovery. Is that why we sank down to Tiberias?

Not all was lost. Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai must have known our recovery was possible. There would have been no other reason to recreate our traditions. His innovations and modifications, which begin this chapter, are not nostalgic, but restorative. Citing Isaiah 52:2 he declares - ‘Shake yourself from the dust; arise!’ With determination he asserts that our own actions can reverse the journey.

As his heirs we need to listen to ben Zakkai’s message. Nostalgia will not suffice. We survived because he was willing to say that what once was had to change. Ancient practices were reshaped and reinterpreted. He took the tradition into his own hands so that it might serve in new circumstances to praise the Holy Blessing One. Today we continue to reshape traditions and to create new ones. Like ben Zakkai we too have taken the tradition into our own hands. May the Holy Blessing One “prosper the work of our hands.” (Psalm 90:17)

© Rabbi Louis Rieser

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Are we going backward or forward? (Rosh Hashanah 31a)

If you’ve ever wondered where the psalms recited at the close of the morning prayers – one for each day of the week – come from and why they were chosen, it’s explained in Rosh Hashanah 31a. R. Yehudah in the name of R. Akiba tell us that each of the psalms – Sunday Psalm 24; Monday Psalm 38; Tuesday Psalm 82; Wednesday Psalm 94; Thursday Psalm 81; Friday Psalm 93; and Shabbat Psalm 92 – mirrors the essential creative act of the corresponding day during the first week. Shabbat, however, is different because it is a yom she-kulo shabbat: Psalm 92 speaks to the future messianic time which will be one long shabbat.

A dissenting opinion is offered: R. Nechemiah holds that Psalm 92 also reflects the first week of creation, and recalls God’s rest on the seventh day. All the morning psalms are a rehearsal of the first week of creation. In that sense, all our days hearken back to the first days of creation.

Who is correct? R. Yehudah (in the name of R. Akiba) or R. Nechemiah? Is shabbat about the past or the future? When we keep shabbat, are we looking backward to a past paradise or forward to future redemption?

The Gemara seems to change the subject at this point, but perhaps that’s not at all the case.
With the musaf offerings on shabbat, what would [the Levites] recite? Rav Anan bar Rava sid in the name of Rav: HaZYV LaCH. Rav Chanan bar Rava said in the name of Rav: In the manner that it is divided here, so are they divided in the synagogue.
“HaZYV LaCH” is an acronym for Shirat-Moshe (the Song of Moses) in Parshat Ha’azinu, which we read this week, divided into six sections. Gemara tells us it was divided up in the same manner it was divided for aliyot for reading in synagogue and read at the time of the musaf sacrifice (the additional sacrifice made on shabbat) during the Second Temple period. Why Ha’azinu? We are not told.

Ha’azinu recalls in poetic terms Israel’s unfaithfulness to God throughout the years of the wilderness wandering. God guided them, but they went astray, following after idols. God saw and was vexed and spurned his sons and his daughters (Dt. 32:19). Really? Despite their misdeeds and disloyalty, the Lord will vindicate his people and take revenge for his servants when God sees that their might is gone and neither bond nor free is left (Dt. 32:36). The shirah ends on this note:
O nations, acclaim God’s people!
For God will avenge the blood of God’s servants,
Wreak vengeance on God’s foes,
And cleanse the land of God’s people.
The message we are left with is that when all is said and done – even after Israel’s perfidy and betrayal – God will vindicate, defend, and avenge Israel against her enemies. God is wholly on Israel’s side, and redemption is ultimately assured.

Gemara continues:
At minchah on shabbat, what did [the Levites] recite? R. Yochanan said: Az yashir [Exodus 15:1-10] and Mi chamocha [Exodus 15:11-18] and Az yashir [Numbers 21:17-20].
When the afternoon offering is made, the first two of the three accompanying passages are the first and second halves of Shirat HaYam, the song of redemption realized that the Israelites sang at the shores of the Reed Sea. The third is a short passage from the Book of Numbers. The Israelites have been suffering from thirst and God provides a well in the wilderness.

Musaf, then, is accompanied by Ha’azinu’s promise of God’s vindication. Minchah, which closes out shabbat, is accompanied by passages that evoke a memory of redemption realized. We look back in order to see the way forward.

I have often pondered Jews whose only connection to Judaism is the past or the future. There are those who come to shul only on the High Holy Days and perhaps attend a Pesach seder, but no more, and they say they check in twice yearly because of a parent or grandparent, or Jewish history, or the Holocaust. It’s all about the past. There are also those whose connection to Judaism is solely in terms of social justice: their brand of being Jewish is to work toward causes they feel mirror Jewish values. I respect both reasons, but neither alone bespeak a full Jewish life to me. Jewish life is lived in the present – in the here and now, day in and day out, with other Jews, with Torah, with God. I think Gemara is pointing us in the right direction: shabbat is not wholly about the past (God’s rest on the seventh day) nor wholly about the future (yom she-kulo shabbat) – but both are crucially necessary to live a full Jewish life in the present. We look back in order to see the way forward and thereby follow the path now.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman 2009