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