Silences: Responses to Personal Loss

My Silences in Response to Personal Loss

by

Howard Adelman

God slew Aaron’s two oldest sons for an infraction they made in carrying out a sacrifice in the holy of holies. Moses responded by reinforcing the importance of following God’s commandments precisely. Aaron responded in silence.

That silence is interpreted in many ways, with interpretations reinforced by linguistic analysis, literary textual probing, authoritative statements by eminent rabbinic scholars to name but a few of the hermeneutic techniques. However, the meaning and relevance of Aaron’s silence in response to the loss of a loved one – in this case, two – is but one part of the inquiry. The other and perhaps more important part is the assessment of the appropriateness of silence by a mourner and to a mourner. While I regard all the above methods of analysis as important, I also refer to my own life experience to get some insight into the appropriateness of silence as a response to death.

About sixty years ago, my mother’s oldest sibling, my Uncle Irv, died of cancer. He was a relatively young man, still in his forties. I used to spend almost every weekend sleeping over at his family’s house on Rostrevor Rd. in Toronto just south of Eglington Ave. W. and just two blocks west of Bathurst St. I babysat his three children, then four when my cousins’ youngest sister was born. Sometimes on Sundays, my uncle would take me to the toy factory that he managed to help him or to just give me some rejected toys from the assembly line.

At other times, I would go with him to pick up my Uncle Jack who was blind and crippled and had been institutionalized his whole life; Jack would have a reprieve from the “hospital” where he lived and spend the day at my uncle and aunt’s house. At still other times, Uncle Irv would take me to the food terminal where he would buy cases of fruit and other produce and send me home with some to share with my mother. I regarded him as a surrogate father as my own father had left our home. On Sunday mornings at breakfast, my aunt and uncle would tell me about the play they had seen, the concert they had heard or the movie they had watched the evening before. For me, they were a romantic couple.

When my uncle died, I was devastated. I attended his shiva. Rabbi David Monson, who only died about ten years ago, had given the eulogy at Beth Shalom Synagogue of which he was the founding rabbi. He had been a chaplain in the army during the war. I had wished his talk had been more personal since he was famous for knowing his congregants’ intimate lives. His sermon had certainly been filled with adjectives of praise. Monson was highly regarded as a pulpit orator and the family generally heaped praise upon him. They thought he had a great heart.

When we returned to my aunt’s house for the shiva, for some reason, as I recall, I either did not seek out anyone or could not find anyone to speak about my feelings for my uncle in what was a large extended family gathering on both sides. In fact, this account is the first time I have written about my uncle’s death.

Rabbi Monson arrived. He began to talk to the men gathered after Kiddush and everyone was eating their food. I loved bagels, but I distinctly remember that I could not eat anything. Then, I overheard Rabbi Monson talking to some of the men about how he had scored on the stock market and was fishing for more tips from these businessmen.

I wanted to strangle him. I was burning with an inner rage that has never left me. It is not that Monson was scurrilous or said anything defamatory about my uncle. Quite the contrary. The rabbi clearly highly respected him. But I found his talking about making money at my uncle’s shiva, especially since he was a rabbi, scandalous, insulting and deeply offensive. I thought that he should have been silent or discussed another topic, something more relevant to the death of my uncle and the devastation to his wife and four children. I was very self-righteous and judgmental. I never took the time to see him and express my feelings.

I thought his silence would have been more appropriate than his loquaciousness. But I said nothing. I suffered in silence. It was the silence of resentment.

Resentment is destructive. It is the source of hatred. Monson’s words rankled in me for years and I generalized to a suspicion of most rabbis. The mixture of bitterness and rage, disappointment and high and mighty moral judgement as well as disappointment and deep disgust infected my young life and could be correlated with my suspicion of individuals who occupied any high and respected office.  The silence of resentment is itself a cancer.

But there is also a silence of confusion. About twenty years later, my own father died. He was not old – only 62. There was no burial; he had donated his body to science. There was no shiva. My older and younger brother immediately after his death left for a canoe trip after my brother, then a doctor, at my father’s request, facilitated his death by cutting him off from the machines providing life support. I was left to arrange for the body to be transferred to the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Toronto. I could not stand the idea of medical students treating my father’s body the way I had treated the cadaver I worked on when I was a first-year medical student.

But why should I have cared? I had been estranged from my father for years. I had not seen him for four or five years before his death. The last time he had dropped in to visit my family and our four children, he, as usual, brought a dozen bagels and some cream cheese. It had been at least a year since his last visit. He really came to ask to borrow $350. He needed to repair his car. I informed him that this time I would loan him the money. He could have the funds, not just for a month that he requested as he solemnly promised to pay the monies back and with interest. I gave him up to three months to repay the loan. It would be interest free. But if he did not repay it within that time, I did not want to see him ever again.

I never did see him again. I did not visit him when he was in the hospital after suffering a heart attack and renal failure. It was not the longest time that I had not seen him. When I was twelve, I remember packing his bags with all his belongings when he dropped in to see us after an absence of three weeks. I put the suitcases on the porch. He had not brought my mother a cent. For the previous four to five years he was increasingly absent for extended periods. I was by then contributing more to the family from my casual work than he was.

The next time I saw him, I was in university. I was walking along Bloor St. on the south side just east of Brunswick Avenue. I passed a man that looked strikingly like my father. But my father had not been going bald. He had a full head of dark not grey hair and was generally regarded as a handsome man. But now he was paunchy. I ran back to check. I confronted him and said, “Dad.” He did not recognize me. I had been about five feet tall when I had last seen him. I was then 6’3”, a skinny tall beanpole.

He gave me his phone number and address. He was living in an apartment above a bar on Yonge St. I visited him once, but my older brother kept somewhat in touch. I tended to avoid him. When he came to look me up, ostensibly to see his grandchildren, it was always the same – a gift of bagels and a request for a loan, which I persistently refused, but this never deterred him from dropping by a year or so later to make the same request.

When he died, I had no reason to cry or mourn for my father. Yet, after I had made the arrangements for the transfer of his body, I walked the streets of Toronto until dawn. I was devastated, even more devastated than when my uncle died. And I could not fathom why. Only in retrospect do I know that I was triply mourning. I was mourning the death of my father, for however irresponsible he had been, he was still my father. Second, I was mourning for the father I never had. Third, I was mourning because I had no opportunity to mourn. There was no funeral. There was no burial. There was no shiva. But then I mourned with the solipsistic silence of confusion.

Less than ten years or so later, I greeted the death of a friend in his early forties once again in silence. It was not the silence of resentment. It was not the silence of inner turmoil and confusion. It was the silence of shock, frustration and anger at the injustice of life and death. David Berger was then a psychiatrist who had studied at the famous Menninger Clinic.

He had sat in the same row as I throughout high school with one seat separating us because another student named Gerry Bain, who also became a doctor, sat between us. We had been arranged to sit in alphabetical order. We belonged to the same Y basketball club, but he was a much better athlete. He was also a powerful swimmer. When we were in medical school together, he was a champion water polo player. He had also been brought up in a labour bundist (secular Jewish and social democratic) family and knew a lot about politics. He was also more brilliant that I was even though I earned higher marks in the grade thirteen province-wide exams.

I left medical school in my fourth year at university in second year meds. A year later, David followed my example and we would hang out reading books in Hart House. During the six weeks he was absent from classes, I convinced him to return. He had decided that he wanted to teach. I investigated and showed him that if he wanted to teach high school, he would have to go back and complete an Arts degree and then do a year of teacher training. If he went back to medical school, he could earn a degree in just another year and, as a doctor, would much more easily get any teaching job he wanted.

He returned to medical school, but had to do some catch up work in the summer. He passed with reasonable marks even though he had missed six weeks of classes and clinic experience. He would only practice for about twenty years when he died in the shower at the Y of a massive heart attack following his usual heavy regimen of swimming which he had always kept up.

The burial was in Mount Pleasant cemetery rather than in a Jewish one. His estranged wife, who was not Jewish, arranged the funeral. The speeches by friends and his son at the funeral were heartwarming. But there was a missing gravitas. The funeral procession ended up in disarray as most cars became detached and lost in the ride from the funeral parlour on Steeles Avenue to the cemetery seventeen kilometres away on Mount Pleasant Blvd. just north of St. Clair. When the stragglers arrived at the cemetery, they could not find the burial site, for Mt. Pleasant cemetery is huge. In any case, the burial was quickly over and observed by only a small group.

We went to his ex-wife’s apartment afterwards for tea and some sandwiches. There was no shiva. I do not even remember offering his sister or his ex-wife or especially his son my condolences. Perhaps I did, but I most remember my silent frustration with the inability to mourn with others who had shared in David Berger’s life.

Dealing with these and other deaths did not prepare me in any way for the death of my brother, Al, on 11 May 1999. He was fifteen months older than I. He was only 62 when he died. We had been in the same year of school since grade eight and sometimes in the same classroom. We had been in the newspaper delivery business together, shared the excitement of scalping tickets at football and hockey games and ran a very successful ribbon selling operation before professional and university football games. By the time I was sixteen, with our savings, we were finally able to buy my mother a house on Ranee Avenue.

I filled out his application for medical school, even though he wanted to be an engineer. I convinced him to sign. I wanted to be in the same university class together. But although we always remained very close, he took a very different path in financing his way through university. He became a sub-lieutenant in the Canadian naval reserves and the government paid his way through college.

When we were in the same clinical group in the hospital, it became obvious that he would be the far better doctor than I, even though I always had higher marks. I would try to arrive at a diagnosis strictly through logic and that left too many options. He would quickly arrive at one and, in every case, it would be proven to be correct. He went on to become a well-known cardiologist, one who introduced angioplasty as a technique for cleaning out arteries into Canadian medical practice. He always insisted that he was just a sophisticated plumber, but he was appropriately revered by his patients.

He was a researcher and professor as well. We actually collaborated on the publication of two scholarly papers on the logic of discovery published in two different philosophical journals on medicine. When I organized Operation Lifeline for the Indochinese refugees in 1979, Al organized a volunteer cohort of doctors to provide health services for the new arrivals to Toronto.

It was his research and his practice that ostensibly killed him. As we were later told, the machines that they were using in performing the angioplasties had not been replaced during the 1989-1994 deep recession in Canada. They were evidently leaking radiation. He, another doctor and a nurse who used those machines all died of blastoma, a fatal cancer that attacked precursor cells and usually mostly attacks children.

I had spent a month with him in Arizona where he had gone to participate in a medical trial to treat his condition. Needless to say, the treatment was an utter failure. His death was excruciatingly painful and prolonged as he gradually lost his mental faculties and then his physical ones. I think he must have been in a coma for 4-5 months before he died. His second wife kept him alive on a hospital bed in her converted dining room in Wychwood Park.

She would allow my mother to visit him occasionally, but I stopped going over. I found the situation too macabre. Al had four children with his first wife and none with his second. At the funeral service, his oldest son, now a law professor in Austin Texas and as sweet an individual as one could ever wish to meet, literally got on bended knee and begged Al’s second wife for permission to say a few words. She refused.

We had a separate shiva at our home. But I never confronted his second wife for the treatment of my mother, the insensitivity to my nephews and nieces and her exploitation of her dying husband. When he was very sick, she managed to have the will changed so that his children were cut out and she was the sole beneficiary.

That was truly, for me, the suffering of silence. Sometimes silence is appropriate following the death of a loved one. But my silences in their various forms still haunt me and I consider that in each case the silence was inappropriate. However, I suspect the noises that I might have made at the time would likely have been even more inappropriate.

The appropriateness of silence as a response to the death of a loved one depends on the context and the person. It is a case of situational ethics and etiquette. No generalization is adequate.

Some Responses to Suffering in Silence

 

 

Some Responses to Suffering in Silence

by

Howard Adelman

This is the third of four installments in a series of blogs dealing with “Appropriate Ways to Mourn” and, in particular, the role of silence as a response to the death of a loved one or to someone who is mourning the loss of a loved one. The first blog in the series, which used the title above, offered an introductory exegesis of the many ways Jewish thinkers dealt with the depiction in Leviticus (10:1-3) of the High Priest Aaron’s loss of his two eldest sons at the hands of God when they failed to fulfill the ritual of a specific sacrifice in the exact manner instructed by God.

The second blog in the series was called, “The Silence of Smell” and it dealt with the ways in which silence was and remains an appropriate and/or inappropriate way to respond to mass atrocities, specifically to the Holocaust, for last evening, the memorial to those who were lost or responded with heroism to that specific genocide commenced. Today, Yom HaShoah ends. And it was the immanence of that day of remembrance that gave rise to the selection of the three verses of Leviticus for our Torah study group. However, as I wrote, the almost unanimous response of the members of that group was not about the response to a catastrophic collective loss, but the role of silence in response to personal loss or to a mourner who lost a loved one. The latter is the topic for today.

In response to the first blog, a reader wrote:

I’m struck by the “held his peace” phrase (assuming that is a reasonably adequate translation of the Hebrew which is beyond me to tell)…the phrase is equated with “held his tongue” in Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. To my mind, it implies internal conflict and the need to restrain a verbal outburst against an outrageous power play by God. Not inner bliss and not deadness, but a shrewd political reckoning that, in the face of overwhelming abusive power, one best bide one’s time until it is safe to mourn expressively.

I agree to some degree. The rabbis who explain the silence as the correct response of an obedient servant of God in various ways are often apologists for an outrageous action. Those who see the response as a reflection of a soul that has died offer a window of light. Those who justify Aaron’s response as a way of expressing outrage at what just happened come closer, but the moral categories are inadequate. I am convinced that Aaron was conflicted, as my reader wrote, but the matter is more complicated than suggested. The need to restrain a verbal outburst against an outrageous power play by God as a pragmatic response to an overwhelmingly powerful figure – hold your tongue and bide your time – is certainly one possible way of assessing Aaron’s response. In the face of overwhelming abusive power, silence can be a way to “best bide one’s time until it is safe to mourn expressively.”

However, I think the matter is more complicated. Aaron’s silence not only likely reflected his own conflicted response to God’s outrageous and utterly disproportionate response, but it was likely a sign of a deeper and inner conflict between his utter trust in God and his inner emotional rage. It was not simply a practical and tactical move. Aaron was struck silent. He did not know how to respond otherwise. This was reinforced when his younger brother, Moses, the leader of the Jewish people who had led the Israelites into the wilderness of Sinai in the escape from Egypt, reminded him that the only response to God that was appropriate was sanctification and glorification. Moses was endorsing God as a super Kim Jong-un. “Suffer in silence,” was Moses’ message. Hence, the possible account for Aaron’s outward silence indicating his inner rage in contention with his faith in both God and his brother’s leadership.

Silence did not represent simply a tactical retreat nor the limits of language in response to a terrible catastrophe. More importantly, the issue was not the “appropriate” way to respond to a great personal loss.

Another reader wrote, “I think there is none. This I say, fully aware of the fact that there are countless rituals, traditions, and general societal and cultural expectations as to how to mourn ‘appropriately.’ But these again, are the expectations of others, rather than what honestly works or does not work for a given individual in such a vulnerable situation. If a mourning individual finds true solace in going through the prescribed steps, then they should of course do so: it may help avoiding the raw and painful feelings to focus instead on the proper behavior (somewhat akin to switching to automatic gear – not having to focus on the feeling of loss).”

The reader went on: “if someone can cope better by letting his/her pain/denial/anger/shock free reign (or alternatively, remain silent about it) and does not do the ‘proper’ things, that is also OK and a truly compassionate environment should not judge them for not going through the ‘correct’ steps.  Loss is an absolutely private emotion and not a show for the dearly gathered. One should be able to react to it as one truly, authentically feels like.  Having to pretend certain behaviors that one cannot identify with just to please an audience is phony, and during such extremely stressful times one should not be burdened with added expectations re: proper etiquette.”

Though I agree fully that the issue posed at the beginning of the study session – whether silence was the ‘appropriate’ response to what befell Aaron – was misleading in clearly implying that one can “legislate” or “prescribe” a general ethical, normative or even rule of etiquette as a response of a mourner or a sympathizer with a mourner, the problems I found with this reaction are as follows:

  • The discussion of whether a response is appropriate or inappropriate is not just a matter of imposing social expectations on a mourner;
  • Further, mourning is not just a private matter, but an expression of social values and priorities so that the criterion of a utilitarian calculus of whether silence “works” for the individual is inadequate; the category of utility is itself a contemporary dominant trope, for assessing any action; there is no more an absolute atemporal assessment of what honestly works than there is a moral assessment in terms of a divine imperative;
  • Prescribed rituals in dealing with death are not just convenient or useful tools to allow an individual to find true solace, for that just begs the question of what true solace is; if the steps help you in the mourning process, use them; if not, discard them. This individualistic utilitarian calculus is as much a moral imposition as whether an activity pleases God or fails to do so.

The first reader I cited offered a psychological explanation of Aaron’s silence as an appropriate and calculated response to a threatening and oppressive situation. The second reader cited reversed priorities and offered individual utility as a measure to determine what is psychologically appropriate and, thereby, dismissed the relevance of social guidelines other than as helpful personal hints. People ought to be allowed to do their own thing, respond to death in the way they “feel” best. On the other hand, my second reader opened the door to allow for the introduction though not imposition of social norms. “There is a fine and fragile balance between feeling free as an individual and being considerate to the feelings of others. This must be a two-way street, rather than an individual completely dissolving his/her own face, needs, and reactions and fully merge with the community.” However, in the end, the criterion remained individual utility.

A third reader eschewed any attempt to offer a universal guideline to what is or is not appropriate while finding some utility in Jewish ritualistic practices, even though he is not Jewish. “A good friend of mine is losing his battle with cancer.  He is dying but he is not dead.  I am supposed to be light and constructively positive during his dying time but, instead, I am grieving. I am sad and angry at what feels like injustice. Because he is still alive, I do not cry.  When he dies, I can openly mourn and show grief but, as a modern white male, I am unlikely to cry even then.  As a modern white male without traditions or real culture, I will simply carry on. No shiva. No candles. No prayers-in-groups. I may say a few words at his funeral and then eat some bad food that he posthumously pays for. It’s not right. I know that. But I have attended every kind of death ritual and none of them seem right. Judaism seems closest, but still not right. Maybe not feeling right is the right feeling?”

This is a backhanded way of endorsing silence as an appropriate normative response, but with even more disquiet than my first responder offered as an explanation for Aaron’s plight. Tomorrow, in my final installment in this series on silence as a response to catastrophic death of a loved one, I will write on, “My Silences in Response to Personal Loss.” It will carry forth the general theme that also embraced many of those in my Torah study group of rejecting even the search of a normative guide to defining appropriate behaviour to personal loss. It will also suggest the implication of all three selected responders cited above – and others, for discussions of appropriate ways of dealing with death seems to stir up a cauldron of feelings and responses – that the assessment of the appropriateness of a response depends first and foremost on understanding the person who died, the person mourning and the context. A search for general guidelines for appropriateness is a chimera.

However, a search for defining guidelines that determine which reactions are socially inappropriate and personally inadequate is not a quixotic effort. It is an exercise in knowing oneself and attempting to understand one’s society. Whether one deals with chivalry as an appropriate or inappropriate response to challenges one encounters or with silence in response to death of a loved one, the examination is critical in understanding oneself, comprehending one’s society and, thereby, defining when and why silence is inadequate and inappropriate while leaving open the question of what behaviour is appropriate or adequate.

One final word. The responses to the first installment of this series, and the original discussion that gave rise to it, indicate how close and important the issue of mourning is to everyone. Silence is one such response. In tomorrow’s blog, I will explore why I found silence to be both personally inadequate and socially inappropriate to personal loss.

 

With the help of Alex Zisman

Appropriate Ways to Mourn

Appropriate Ways to Mourn

by

Howard Adelman

From now on, when I want to go on a real holiday and escape my regular routine, I will take my laptop with me, as I always do, but take the wrong cord so that I cannot recharge the laptop. That way, I do not feel guilty because I intended to work, but do not work because I cannot – or so I tell myself. Leisure without guilt is heavenly bliss. This was my most important delusionary discovery of my trip to Ithaca, New York; Boston, Mass.; Princeton, New Jersey; and Savannah, Georgia from which I returned on Friday.

I had planned to write blogs about the trip, and still may. But I did not. After all, I told myself, I could not. Of course, I could have purchased a new cord on the trip or bought one of those new recharging devices that I had read about. But I did not. I was content to enjoy myself without feeling guilty, comforted by the convenient lie that I had made a mistake – not my fault – and, therefore, I could just enjoy the trip without indulging in my personal obsession of writing about it.

As everyone knows, when you go on a trip, no matter how excellent the experience, the greatest reward is often the return. “Home is where the heart is,” and all those clichés. I returned in time to attend Torah study yesterday morning. I was surprised at how much I missed it. As it happened, yesterday’s study of Torah was the most contentious and the most emotionally arousing of any I had ever attended – not only for me, but for many of the participants.

This evening, Yom HaShoah begins – the day for remembering and mourning the six million Jews who were murdered in the Holocaust. That was the ostensible reason for focusing on the small section of the Torah that was chosen for study. More formally, the day of remembering and mourning is called: Yom Hazikaron laShoah ve-laG’vurah (יום הזיכרון לשואה ולגבורה; “Holocaust and Heroism Remembrance Day”).

But I, and I suspect many other Jews, tend to forget it is about remembering heroism and not just the huge number of tragic deaths. Further, I remember my deliberate or insensitive obliviousness to the Holocaust altogether when I was a callow youth. Not so young that I should not beat my breast for my ignorance. I was then married with one child and was in graduate school studying philosophy. I also was a tenant of a house at 586 Spadina Avenue that I had rented from a Holocaust survivor who had moved to Montreal. He had told me about The Black Book he had compiled and self-published on the murder of Hungarian Jews in the last year of the war.  He not only could not sell the copies, but he could not even give them away. They were piled up in boxes in the basement. He asked modestly that if I had a chance, I should find places and people to give the book.

I went down the basement and retrieved one copy. It sat on my shelf for a year. I never even cracked the binding to skim it. Yet I remained convinced after reading Hannah Arendt that Jews had not resisted and had been complicit in their own death. When I had a chance to check directly with a survivor and with his account to confirm or falsify Arendt’s account, I failed to do so. In my many moves, I even lost track of the copy of The Black Book that I had. On Yom HaShoah, I remember not only the Holocaust, but my own ignorance and indifference to the resistance of the Jews. I remember my silence.

I mourn my mindblindness. I did not know that the date of remembrance originally chosen was the 14th of Nisan to commemorate the Warsaw ghetto uprising and would only learn of this when I and my family visited the Warsaw Ghetto Museum on a kibbutz in Israel a dozen years later and two decades after the holy day had been declared. However, the day originally chosen fell immediately before Passover, so the final date for the holy day was almost two weeks later, the 27th of Nisan, eight days before Israel Independence Day. Tomorrow, I will attend a memorial service.

However, other than Aaron’s silence, it is difficult to make a connection between the passage of Torah chosen for study and Holocaust Remembrance Day. The focus of discussion was virtually entirely about mourning personal loss and the appropriate way to do so and not about a horrendous collective loss. The passage goes as follows:

Leviticus Chapter 10 וַיִּקְרָא

א  וַיִּקְחוּ בְנֵי-אַהֲרֹן נָדָב וַאֲבִיהוּא אִישׁ מַחְתָּתוֹ, וַיִּתְּנוּ בָהֵן אֵשׁ, וַיָּשִׂימוּ עָלֶיהָ, קְטֹרֶת; וַיַּקְרִיבוּ לִפְנֵי יְהוָה, אֵשׁ זָרָה–אֲשֶׁר לֹא צִוָּה, אֹתָם. 1 And Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, took each of them his censer, and put fire therein, and laid incense thereon, and offered strange fire before the LORD, which He had not commanded them.
ב  וַתֵּצֵא אֵשׁ מִלִּפְנֵי יְהוָה, וַתֹּאכַל אוֹתָם; וַיָּמֻתוּ, לִפְנֵי יְהוָה. 2 And there came forth fire from before the LORD, and devoured them, and they died before the LORD.
ג  וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה אֶל-אַהֲרֹן, הוּא אֲשֶׁר-דִּבֶּר יְהוָה לֵאמֹר בִּקְרֹבַי אֶקָּדֵשׁ, וְעַל-פְּנֵי כָל-הָעָם, אֶכָּבֵד; וַיִּדֹּם, אַהֲרֹן. 3 Then Moses said unto Aaron: ‘This is it that the LORD spoke, saying: Through them that are nigh unto Me I will be sanctified, and before all the people I will be glorified.’ And Aaron held his peace.

God just killed the two eldest sons of Aaron, the High Priest, and Aaron stood in silence:וַיִּדֹּם, אַהֲרֹן.

Moses, instead of wailing at the death of his two nephews and instead of commiserating with Aaron at his terrible loss, merely used the occasion to reprimand Aaron and remind him that the way God reveals his holiness (and his power) is by insisting that people, and, more precisely, the priests, do exactly what God tells them. God’s instructions were to be followed to a “T”.  Neither Aaron nor Moses remonstrated God for His utterly disproportionate response to the failure of Nadab and Abihu to follow God’s precise instructions. The two had sinned for using incense in the fire pans to start the fire. God insisted that He and He alone would light the sacrificial fire. Further, only the incense from the sacred bronze altar was to be utilized. They had offered before the Lord alien fire. They had sinned for not following God’s protocol. God smote Nadab and Abihu. Moses chastised Aaron. Aaron stood in silence.

It gets worse. Moses ordered that the two be buried outside the camp. Eleazar and Ithamar took the places of their two older brothers. Moses told them and their father, Aaron, “Do not bare your heads and do not rend your clothes, lest you die and anger strike the whole community.” (Leviticus 10:6) When the sister of Aaron and Moses – Miriam – died (Numbers 20:1), there is no account of mourning as there was when Sarah, Abraham’s wife, died (Genesis 23:2) or when Aaron himself subsequently died as reported in the same Parsha Chukas that recorded Miriam’s death. Abraham wailed at Sarah’s death. The whole Israelite community wailed at the death of Aaron. The Torah records Miriam’s death with silence.

But, at least, there was no prohibition against mourning and warnings of dire consequences if one did not follow God’s instructions. Mourn not. Bewail the alien fire not the death of Aaron’s two sons. Failure to do so would have stark consequences, not only for the leaders of the Israelites, but for the entire community. Was the silence “appropriate”?

Rashi said it was. In fact, God rewarded Aaron for his silence by subsequently addressing him and not Moses to pass on the commandment not to engage in sacrifices if drunk. The implication is that Nadab and Abihu were drunk when they employed the “alien fire.”

On the other hand, in contrast to Rashi, Isaac ben Judah Abravanel (1437-1508) condemned Aaron’s callousness. Aaron’s heart had turned to stone when he did not weep or mourn as a grieving father usually does. Because he had lost his soul, he was speechless. Was silence a sign of deadness, of a loss of soul, or did the silence connote “inner peace and calm”? (R. Eliezer Lipman Lichtenstein)? Was the silence and forbearance a sign of Aaron’s holiness because he refused to chastise God for his own personal great loss?

Was Aaron shocked into silence or did he retreat into an inner blissful state of being? Baruch Levine argues that Aaron both mourned and did so in silence. He was not in shock forיִּדֹּם  means to moan and mourn, as well as to do so in silence. Aaron mourned inwardly while the community wailed outwardly lest Aaron as high priest be defiled by participating in the normal way in a grieving session. In Braakhot 6b, Rab Pappa went further and insisted that maintaining silence in a house of mourning is precisely the appropriate response. In Job 2:13, silence is perceived as the proper and respectful response to horrendous grief. Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite and Zophar the Naamathite “sat down with him (Job) upon the ground seven days and seven nights, and none spoke a word unto him; for they saw that his grief was very great.” (Job 2:13) Rab Yohanan (Moed Katan 28b) taught that “comforters are not permitted to say a word until the mourners open a conversation.”

Is silence the appropriate response to horrendous loss? What is appropriate for a mourner to do who suffers a great loss? What is the appropriate sentiment of a friend or a relative to be expressed to one who suffers such a great loss? Is silence the right thing to do? I have my own experiences to guide me.

Rituals of Preservation and Elimination

Rituals of Preservation and Elimination: Vayikra Leviticus 1:1-5:26

by

Howard Adelman

There is almost an overwhelming consensus that the Book of Leviticus is the volume most remote from modern sensibilities. After all, it is about sacrifices, priestly garments and rites, ancient medical practices dealing with conditions such as leprosy, all apparently alien experiences. Leviticus seems so “primitive.” The volume focuses on all the distinctions among the tribes rather than the unity of Judaism. Some have dubbed it a spiritual challenge while others have been more forthright and called the Book of Leviticus a spiritual wasteland.

For Reform Jews, this section of the Torah is particularly formidable since Reform Judaism from the start repudiated a dynastic priesthood and the practice of sacrifice. Of special relevance is Reform Judaism’s explicit rejection of attempting to rebuild and restore the Temple. Calling Holy Blossom a temple instead of a synagogue was an overt and blatant exemplification of that rejection.

Rejection went along with substitution – the people, all the people, were priestly. Their mission was not to rebuild the Temple, but to be a light unto the world as they spread through the diaspora. Whether this meant upholding monotheism and the God of the Hebrews as the one true God or simply standing up for lofty ethical values of justice and peace were still matters that needed resolution, though the Reform movement has developed in the latter much more than the former direction. Sanctification was moral, not cultic. Sincerity of devotion replaced ritualistic practices as the highest ideal.

What do we do with one of the five books that is almost completely devoted to cultic practices? Do were merely focus on a few sections of the text that deal with mitzvot and the covenantal relationship to God requiring following God’s ethical and spiritual commandments? Does the purported spiritual bliss that should follow have nothing to do with the cultic practices? What do rituals, especially ones that seem both foreign and alien, have to do with spiritual enrichment? If alien, how can the passages in Vayikra be used to guide life and increase holiness in the world?

What happened to the sense of “purity”? What happened to the stress on a specific diet? What happened to the emphasis, not simply on being well-dressed, but on dressing in a special costume? Is Leviticus to be relegated to the dustbin of history, a relic of the past no longer relevant to our contemporary life? Is Leviticus a dated fossil of a species or religion that has become extinct? Alternatively, are the passages to be treated as metaphors upon which can be erected transformed practices with very different ideals wherein a burnt sacrifice becomes merely a literary tool to explore a deeper form of spiritual being?

I want to suggest that the dismissal of Leviticus may have been a mistake and that Leviticus has more to teach us that we need to recognize. This is because the prophetic voice is not the only source of authenticity. We need judges and lawyers, administrators and accountants, doctors and dentists as well as all the tradesmen, skilled artisans, labourers and suppliers of materials who helped build the mishkan in the last chapters of Exodus. We need practitioners of rituals and not just shit-disturbers who challenge those in power. I write as someone who has always revered the prophetic voice. However, we need people to do what is right and not just preachers calling for righteousness. Leviticus is a text for the practices of a spiritual community rather than about its goals, though the latter are not entirely neglected.

The mishkan was described in great detail in Exodus. It was where the holy tablets were kept, where God, when in residence as a cloud, filled the place. A tent of meeting preceded the construction of the mishkan. It was a portable place where Moses met with God. A tent of meeting is not a place for a political rally or a town hall, but a place where humans encounter God in his dwelling place. Vayikrah does not open with God occupying the holy of holies within the mishkan. Vayikrah does not open with God speaking through the priesthood. Vayikrah begins with God calling Moses, not Aaron, out of the tent of meeting. (I:1) God offers detailed instructions about the purity of the animals to be sacrificed by the people. If a burnt offering, it had to be brought before the tent of meeting as a request for atonement, as a request for expiation. Leviticus is primarily about the politics and administration of the Jewish religion to remove a blood-stain from the body politic, to clean the air of pollution.

In Christianity, Jesus personally replaced the sacrifice of animals. The blood of Jesus was offered as a sacrifice to atone for the sins of humans. Jesus body was the “more perfect tent of meeting,” for it was through the body of Christ that humans could meet with God. Jesus as the Lamb of God would forgive sins, not just specific ones, but all sins. And do so for eternal redemption. Thus, Christianity preserved, transformed and raised to a higher level the bones and blood of the Leviticus story.

Hebrews 9:11 literally depicts Jesus as personally the replacement for the high priest, himself the more perfect and greater tent offering, his own body as a sacrifice so that the God of wrath would be transformed completely into the God of love forever. Instead of a pure animal without physical blemish being sacrificed on the altar, the pure blood of Christ without a spiritual blemish would be sacrificed on a cross, not so humans could atone for specific sins, but as an atonement for all sin. Through ingesting the body of Christ into one’s own body, through surrendering oneself totally to the spirit of Christ, the Lamb of God would cleanse everyone of their sins, provided, of course, that one accepted Jesus as one’s saviour and redeemer.

However, Judaism is not about personal redemption as the ultimate goal. Individuals do have to atone for their personal sins through a guilt-offering and atonement through compensation. And the form of atonement depends on their station in the religious hierarchy – high priest, tribal chief or an ordinary individual. However, atonement is also needed to preserve the community; atonement for sins of the whole community is a distinct act itself. Judaism is about the eternal nation, עַם הַנֶּצַח (ahm hah-NEH-tsahkh). Eternal is not about that which remains unchanged forever, that which is above and beyond change.

Judaism is about a nation that will not and cannot be allowed to die and must change in order to live. The Jewish nation is timeless, is immortal, is everlasting – not in the sense of having a transcendent existence, but as being an everlasting and perpetual cause. Israel, Judaism, is the eternal nation, the body politic that must be preserved in perpetuity. Israel is about creating נִצְחִי (neets-KHEE) that nation. The study of Torah is the means to reconcile the God of history with the current historical moment. The ritual of Torah has to do with discriminating between that which must be expiated and eliminated or wiped and hidden away, on the one hand, and that which must be preserved, raised up and put on high on the other hand.

God is referred to as עוֹלָם (olam), as existing always and forever, permanently and perpetually. God is everlasting and lives continually for and in all time. God is not transcendent, living beyond time. God is a creative spirit who lives in time, in history, and even occupies space, though God is not embodied. The Jewish people as a collectivity have the responsibility for embodying the spirit of God.

Adam and Eve could not eat of the Tree of Life, could not live for eternity, lest they live forever וְאָכַ֖ל וָחַ֥י לְעֹלָֽם. (Genesis 3:22). Contrary to Christianity, God and man would not be together in spirit forever, וּחִ֤י בָֽאָדָם֙ לְעֹלָ֔ם בְּשַׁגַּ֖ם ה֣וּא (Genesis 6:3) God has a reputation, has renown, that lasts forever. And the goal of the Jewish people was to become a mighty nation with a reputation and renown that would live forever. רוּחִ֤י בָֽאָדָם֙ לְעֹלָ֔ם בְּשַׁגַּ֖ם ה֣וּא (Genesis 6:4) The message is not about one’s soul living forever outside of time and space in some transcendent heaven, but about humans living in this world as embodied creatures trying to earn renown for the people as a whole. Any nation can be a holy nation. Israel must be a holy nation.

That is why the Torah is a tale that runs from generation to generation (Genesis 9:12) so that we may pass on such ideals from parents to children and convey the mission of themselves as individuals to serve one’s people and thereby to serve God. Eternity is about succession and not about transcendence. That is why Jews are bound by an everlasting covenant and why Canaan for committed Jews must be an everlasting possession.

That does not mean that other people cannot live in Canaan. That does not mean that Canaan cannot be a national home for another people. In fact, if Canaan is to be an everlasting home for Jews, it must become a home not only for the Jewish nation, but can be a home for the Palestinian nation. Not their exclusive home. And not the exclusive home of Jews. But a home where Jews can dedicate themselves to a body politic that will glorify God’s name forever.  (Genesis 48:4) Jews must not only be embodied, but their national being must also have a body. But a body dedicated to the service of God’s name, for God is forever. God’s name is forever. God’s name is לְעֹלָ֔ם. (Exodus 3:15)

Jews are commanded to celebrate God’s name as a permanent ordinance, as a permanent covenant between God and his chosen people. Not His superior people, but a people chosen to carry the burden of the covenant. It is that which must be remembered. It is that which must be celebrated. And Leviticus is about that celebration. That celebration involves statutes that are passed on from generation to generation. That celebration is about a nation that lives under the rule of law and for the sake of justice. And that is why the nation requires the equivalent of a priesthood as a group dedicated to the perpetuity of the covenant, of the statute, of the law (כְּהֻנָּ֖ה לְחֻקַּ֣ת עוֹלָ֑ם וּמִלֵּאתָ֥ יַֽד־ Exodus 29:28) in addition to the responsibility of individuals to perform mitzvot.

Leviticus is about putting that obligation into practice. It is about administrative justice. Why start off with a sacrifice on the altar in front of the tent of meeting? Why only a male animal for a blood sacrifice, and one without blemish?  Because sacrifice must be about our works – about the best of our flocks and the best of our agriculture. It is not about the sacrifice of humans, any human, and not about the sacrifice of Jesus. The sacrifice of a male animal without blemish means that the best of what we can make or do must be in service of perpetuating God’s name.

Why a male? Why not an ewe? After all, female goats without blemish can be sacrificed for a guilt offering, for a sin committed by an individual against another. (Leviticus 4:27) However, males in general need to be reminded that though they, like women, are created in the image of God and must serve God in the activity of creation, they are embodied. Adam was a geek who thought he was there simply to be a scientist, to offer at its most basic a taxonomy for the world. He had to learn that he was an embodied creature with sex drives and an obligation to reproduce and raise children and to raise them to serve God. That is why one sacrifices a male animal’s body without blemish as a burnt offering to atone for being oblivious of what a male’s obligation is and remains. Eve knew it in her body. Adam did not. Lest we forget, sacrifice of a male animal without blemish is intended to atone for forgetting.

However, preservation, putting away and raising up are not the only functions. Sins must also be expiated, eliminated or removed. They must be wiped away (Akkadian kuppuru) and covered (Arabic kafara) rather than raised up. In Macbeth, as much as the Lady cries out, “Out, out damn spot,” the blood stain remains unless there is expiation.

Man in the form of Jesus is not a substitute for an animal sacrifice. Rather, an animal sacrifice is a substitute for human sacrifice which reminds man what he must give his life for – an embodied existence, a life that commemorates the renown of God and raises up the nation of Israel as a memorial to God. We give of our blood and sweat to make a better world and do not rely on the blood of a God-man to escape this world for eternal salvation. For what must be saved is the here and now, the moment that must serve all time. There is NO eternal redemption, only the task of continual, of perpetual redemption.

There is eternal damnation, not by being sent to purgatory, but by being put to “death,” destroyed spiritually as a Jew, by being cut off from one’s people. Execution means exile from the community, most generally, self-inflicted.  Why is idolatry the greatest sin? Because idolatry is the worship of a material artifact as divine rather than the human collectivity in a divine relationship. What is a sin offering (hattat)? In Yitz Greenberg’s words, it is “a purification rite brought for sins committed by people which generated impurity in society.” (my italics) Moral impiety becomes a sin and not just a state of guilt because society is polluted. The public is therefore ultimately responsible for moral pollution. Humanity, handed the gift of freedom by God, has the responsibility of tilting the balance of creative versus destructive forces in favour of creativity.

As individualism was stressed more and more, Jews became even more removed from cultic practices precisely at a time when rituals were more important than ever for preserving the cohesion of the community. Reform Jews have emphasized and extolled non-cultic piety at the expense of ritual piety, stressing the importance of the individual Jew rather than the preservation of the community. Reform rabbis argued that this was the way Jews survived the destruction of the Temple. However, one could argue that the reverse was true, that the preservation, transformation and raising up of cultic piety and the practices of expiation as removal, as wiping away rather than covering up sin, preserved the people; the over-emphasis on the individual simply leads to the creation of ethical humanistic Judaism and the gradual erosion of Jews as a people. This argument suggests that performing other-oriented mitzvot is insufficient for preserving cohesion among the people.

Like Christianity, Judaism must preserve, transform and raise to a higher level the bones and blood of the Leviticus story, but in a very opposite way to the Christian path, through service to God via service to God’s people, to God’s nation, to making that nation an exemplification of the preservation of the covenant. We have not discarded the Kohanim on the dustbin of history. These patrilineal descendants of the Aaronite priesthood are given special privileges and duties in the rituals of worship in a synagogue. Reform in rejecting the priesthood took away those privileges. They should be restored for that is how memory is preserved from generation to generation, by preserving, by raising up and putting a traditional political practice onto a bima of ritual. That is a function of ritual – to preserve, to transform and to raise up on a more formal plane what was once a core embodiment of the nation’s spiritual richness and to remove and wipe away the blood stains of its historical sins.

Should a blood inheritance be the instrument of such preservation? Or should the inheritance of the spirit of special dedication allow anyone to become spiritually a Koan? Or can we do both? Should each synagogue collectively recognize a dedicated group who are assigned the responsibility of maintaining the schedule of synagogue service on a rotating basis? We already do so without designating the group as priests. Volunteers come forth and serve that function. They should be esteemed and given recognition in what they wear and in the deeds they perform in the service.

We could consider resurrecting the Davidic practice of giving over to six families the responsibilities for two of the fifty-two weeks of the services, with one family performing those roles for each day of the week that their collectivity carries that responsibility. That means 26 x 6 = 136 families assuming very systemic and recognized roles in the life of synagogue worship.

The ritualistic practices of old can be preserved, can be transformed and, in being transformed, raised up so that the Jewish people can perpetuate itself as a people in a covenantal relationship to God.  At the same time, this restoration also requires elimination, rituals of wiping out and covering up sins by unveiling them, by eviscerating the body politic and exposing the blood stains that pollute and make impure our political life.

Politics and the Administration of Justice

Politics and the Administration of Justice: Yitro: Exodus 18:1 – 20:23

by

Howard Adelman

My commentary is restricted to Chapter 18.

The Israelites, or, at least Moses, had been taught the basics of diplomacy and how to deal with an irrational and vengeful tyrant. The Israelites were then taught some core lessons in the art of war. Diplomacy and military skills may be necessary for a people to be secure. But the key will be politics, the ability of a people to govern themselves.

“But I thought that the Israelites were governed by God!” That is a misconception. Parshat Yitro illustrates that this conception is erroneous. The Israelites had fought and won a glorious and impossible victory. Last shabat was shabat shira, the shabat of song and rejoicing when Miriam with song and timbrel against the backdrop of the sea led the Israelites and danced and sang the night away. The God of tradition, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the god of diplomacy and wrath who subsequently revealed Himself as a warrior God, a God of war, has now made room for pleasure and joy, for happiness and delight. God talks but He does not sing. It is we who sing in praise of God – and other things. Does God now reveal Himself to His people, to all his people, as a god who can teach the people the arts of government and not just the arts of war?

Water was scarce. The principles of change had been transformed into the principles of security and resistance against change. Food too had been scarce. Neither the earth nor the heavens opened up to feed the people. Their souls were starving even more than their bodies. Little did they know that the exhilaration of victory would be followed by the long and dark tunnel of struggle, of resentment. Appreciation for what they had and for what they had accomplished had been replaced by resentment and self-pity. The water they drank had become bitter.

The water is made sweet. The heavens and the earth yield, if not their bounty, sufficient amounts to survive. And the military tradition becomes professionalized as Joshua defeats Amalek, with Aaron and Hur each holding one arm of Moses on the hill overseeing the battle.

Against this backdrop, Jethro (Yitro), Moses’ father-in-law, appears on the scene to reunite Moses with his wife, Zipporah, and his two sons, Gershom (stranger in a foreign land) and Eliezer (God is my help). Moses will have to introduce his people to a land that will not be foreign, but will be their own land. Moses will also have to help his people learn self-reliance and not be so dependent on God’s help and assistance. But Moses, himself, in keeping his family safe while everyone else risked their own families, demonstrated that he was not fully of the people. The other Israelites had their families, their wives and children with them. Further, Moses himself was still far too reliant on God.

Why were Zipporah, Gershom and Eliezer left in the safety of the home of Jethro while Moses took on the Egyptians in an epic diplomatic and military battle? The question is not only not answered, it is not even asked. Instead, Moses updated his father-in-law, not an Israelite but a Midianite priest. The next day, Jethro watched Moses serve as the magistrate of his people resolving disputes among them.

The scene reminded me of one when I was first introduced to Arafat. We were in Gaza. It was about 10:00 p.m. in the evening. We were ushered into a large room with chairs all around the perimeter of the room. There were perhaps 16-18 people occupying those chairs. Recall, it was 10:00 p.m. in the evening. We were escorted past those waiting supplicants into a smaller reception area where four others were waiting. We did not sit but stood. Soon, two individuals emerged from another adjacent room. One brushed past us and the other invited us to follow him in.

Arafat came out from behind his desk, grasped each of our hands with both of his and greeted us warmly. We were individually introduced, all four of us, and Arafat nodded at the introduction. There was no translation into Arabic and it was not clear to me whether Arafat followed the introductions. Pleasantries were exchanged and then we were invited by our escort to follow him out of the room, but not before there was some more grasping of hands and smiling nods.

When we left and were once again outside, I asked the leader of our group, a very experienced diplomat, what that was all about. He said it was a courtesy introduction before we could continue our discussions in Gaza. My question, however, was not about the perfunctory introduction, since it was clear that it had just been a formality. I wanted to know what Arafat was doing seeing people in the late evening with twenty or so waiting to talk to him.

I was told that this is what Arafat did and often until three in the morning. He saw Palestinians who wanted a favour, a disposition, an intervention in a domestic or business dispute, or on any other matter under the sun. It might be a request to adjudicate a dispute with a next door neighbour over a fence line. Arafat had never been educated by Jethro. He lacked a father-in-law to serve as a mentor. Arafat was performing as Moses did before Jethro arrived on the scene in Sinai.

13. It came about on the next day that Moses sat down to judge the people, and the people stood before Moses from the morning until the evening. יגוַֽיְהִי֙ מִמָּ֣חֳרָ֔ת וַיֵּ֥שֶׁב משֶׁ֖ה לִשְׁפֹּ֣ט אֶת־הָעָ֑ם וַיַּֽעֲמֹ֤ד הָעָם֙ עַל־משֶׁ֔ה מִן־הַבֹּ֖קֶר עַד־הָעָֽרֶ

Unlike the Palestinians in Gaza waiting to see Arafat who had seats, the Israelites waiting to see Moses had to stand for hours.

14. When Moses’ father in law saw what he was doing to the people, he said, “What is this thing that you are doing to the people? Why do you sit by yourself, while all the people stand before you from morning till evening?” ידוַיַּרְא֙ חֹתֵ֣ן משֶׁ֔ה אֵ֛ת כָּל־אֲשֶׁר־ה֥וּא עֹשֶׂ֖ה לָעָ֑ם וַיֹּ֗אמֶר מָֽה־הַדָּבָ֤ר הַזֶּה֙ אֲשֶׁ֨ר אַתָּ֤ה עֹשֶׂה֙ לָעָ֔ם מַדּ֗וּעַ אַתָּ֤ה יוֹשֵׁב֙ לְבַדֶּ֔ךָ וְכָל־הָעָ֛ם נִצָּ֥ב עָלֶ֖יךָ מִן־בֹּ֥קֶר עַד־עָֽרֶב:

Jethro remonstrated Moses. Moses had made the Israelites stand for a long time and did not respect the dignity he owed each of his people. He was akin to the physician who has all his patients come early and accumulate lest the doctor lose time waiting. For hours, the Israelites stood while he, Moses, sat. Secondly, Moses handled all the adjudication personally. Moses replied to Jethro in a defensive way. “I did not ask them to come. They sought me out. Secondly, they came to see me not just to seek a resolution of a relatively petty problem, but to seek God’s ruling on such matters. They come to seek God. In other words, as God’s stand-in, I, Moses, am only a conduit for God’s word.” We are presented with a case of government which is neither responsible nor responsive, neither representative nor respectful,

15Moses said to his father in law, “For the people come to me to seek God. טווַיֹּ֥אמֶר משֶׁ֖ה לְחֹֽתְנ֑וֹ כִּֽי־יָבֹ֥א אֵלַ֛י הָעָ֖ם לִדְר֥שׁ אֱלֹהִֽים:

As far as Jethro was concerned, that was no answer at all. For at least two consequentialist reasons. The process would wear out Moses and would also make the people weary – all that waiting, and in terrible circumstances just at a time when they needed relief, not a further weighty burden.

17. Moses’ father in law said to him, “The thing you are doing is not good. יזוַיֹּ֛אמֶר חֹתֵ֥ן משֶׁ֖ה אֵלָ֑יו לֹא־טוֹב֙ הַדָּבָ֔ר אֲשֶׁ֥ר אַתָּ֖ה עֹשֶֽׂה:
18. You will surely wear yourself out both you and these people who are with you for the matter is too heavy for you; you cannot do it alone. יחנָבֹ֣ל תִּבֹּ֔ל גַּם־אַתָּ֕ה גַּם־הָעָ֥ם הַזֶּ֖ה אֲשֶׁ֣ר עִמָּ֑ךְ כִּֽי־כָבֵ֤ד מִמְּךָ֙ הַדָּבָ֔ר לֹֽא־תוּכַ֥ל עֲשׂ֖הוּ לְבַדֶּֽךָ:
19. Now listen to me. I will advise you, and may the Lord be with you. [You] represent the people before God, and you shall bring the matters to God. יטעַתָּ֞ה שְׁמַ֤ע בְּקֹלִי֙ אִיעָ֣צְךָ֔ וִיהִ֥י אֱלֹהִ֖ים עִמָּ֑ךְ הֱיֵ֧ה אַתָּ֣ה לָעָ֗ם מ֚וּל הָֽאֱלֹהִ֔ים וְהֵֽבֵאתָ֥ אַתָּ֛ה אֶת־הַדְּבָרִ֖ים אֶל־הָֽאֱלֹהִֽים:
20. And you shall admonish them concerning the statutes and the teachings, and you shall make known to them the way they shall go and the deed[s] they shall do. כוְהִזְהַרְתָּ֣ה אֶתְהֶ֔ם אֶת־הַֽחֻקִּ֖ים וְאֶת־הַתּוֹרֹ֑ת וְהֽוֹדַעְתָּ֣ לָהֶ֗ם אֶת־הַדֶּ֨רֶךְ֙ יֵ֣לְכוּ בָ֔הּ וְאֶת־הַמַּֽעֲשֶׂ֖ה אֲשֶׁ֥ר יַֽעֲשֽׂוּן:
21. But you shall choose out of the entire nation men of substance, God fearers, men of truth, who hate monetary gain, and you shall appoint over them [Israel] leaders over thousands, leaders over hundreds, leaders over fifties, and leaders over tens. כאוְאַתָּ֣ה תֶֽחֱזֶ֣ה מִכָּל־הָ֠עָ֠ם אַנְשֵׁי־חַ֜יִל יִרְאֵ֧י אֱלֹהִ֛ים אַנְשֵׁ֥י אֱמֶ֖ת שׂ֣נְאֵי בָ֑צַע וְשַׂמְתָּ֣ עֲלֵהֶ֗ם שָׂרֵ֤י אֲלָפִים֙ שָׂרֵ֣י מֵא֔וֹת שָׂרֵ֥י חֲמִשִּׁ֖ים וְשָׂרֵ֥י עֲשָׂרֹֽת

Simply put – delegate. Give the lesser matters to others and only involve yourself in the very major disputes. Note, there is no separation of powers between executive and judicial functions. The judiciary are still named and appointed by Moses and are only permitted to rule on relatively minor matters. Further, they also serve as political leaders to apply the laws handed down from Moses.

But they are chosen based on their rectitude, their unconcern with using their positions to advance their monetary interests for they are already men of substance, men of chayil (חַ֜֜יִל) in the material sense and in a sense that they carry with them gravitas. For chayil refers not only to wealth, but to strength of character, a man of moral worth, hence, a man of substance. They are serious men. They must also be both honest and God-fearing in order to carry out their responsibilities. It is as if they put their property in a blind trust. After all, the Talmud, as Rashi cites it, says, “Any judge from whom money is exacted through litigation is not [fit to be] a judge.” [based on Mechilta and B.B. 58b] They must use their positions only to judge honestly and impartially.

This is not a lesson in self-government. It is still a top-down system. There is still no differentiation between the executive branch, the judicial branch and the legislative arms of government. God legislates. Moses serves as the magistrate and organizes the implementation of both the legislative and judicial functions.

The second lesson offers the criteria for choosing leaders who are also judicial officers. They must be men of wealth. They must be honest men whose gains are not ill-gotten. They must be trustworthy that they will implement what they decide. They must also be God-fearing.

There is a third lesson hidden among all the other recommendations. It is a statement in verse 19. “You represent the people before God.” Moses has his position, not as the undisputed leader of or over the Israelites, but as the representative of the Israelites before God. His primary job is not top-down, even though he performs that function; it is bottom-up – to represent the people. Thus, we get the first glimmerings of democracy as well as the first steps towards efficient government and the requirement that the men who make up that government be chosen on the basis of a very lofty set of values.

Note the following. The values are eternal and unchanging and are delivered from on high, from above. The lesson about efficiency comes from the side, from a foreigner. Though he came to respect the power of the Israeli god, there is nothing said about his conversion as Rashi implied. The Israelites had to remain open to others, non-Israelite lights.

If authority in values come from above, ideas on how to organize the system of authority came from the outside and by means of a non-Israelite agent. The Israelis had to remain open to outside influences. Third, interests flowed from below and Moses’ prime job was to represent the people as a whole to God. Not special interests. But everyone’s interests. The nation’s interest.

We now have the basic skeleton for a polity.

 

With the help of Alex Zisman

The Right to Leave – Exodus 9:13 – 11:10

The Right to Leave – Exodus 9:13 – 11:10

by

Howard Adelman

There are four plagues more, the three cosmological plagues (hail, locusts and darkness) and then the plague of the first born. The last three follow the rhythmic pattern of the first six in a 2:1 ratio – two plagues with warnings and a third without any prior announcement. And what plagues! What drama! For the battle now centres so much more clearly on a determined God with an outstretched arm and a powerful hand versus a stubborn Pharaoh unwilling to give way to God’s will, even if, by then, it is clear that he and the gods behind him are no match for YHWH. Resistance now becomes clearly an act of self-destruction.

Recall what this and the past parshah are all about. They are about the right to leave – not to stay, not to return, but to leave. The right to stay is about security. The right to return is about identity. But the right to leave is truly about freedom. The battle between the God of the Israelites and the gods of Egypt had now become a cosmic battle for the whole world to observe, the battle for freedom, the battle over the right to leave, the battle to leave one sovereign realm and live under another. The fight is over the right to emigrate.

I quoted the first verse of the American Black spiritual last time. I begin with the second verse this time.

“Thus spake the Lord,” bold Moses said:

Let my people go.

If not I’ll smite your first-born dead,

Let my people go.

Go down, Moses,

Way down to Egypt land,

Tell ole Pharaoh to let my people go.

O let my people go.”

If the issue was the freedom to leave, why was it cast as a “request”? Why did the Israelites need Pharaoh’s permission? Or was this not about Pharaoh’s permission at all, but about Pharaoh’s action. “Get out of my way,” saith the Lord. “Get out of our way.” Stop intervening. It was “let,” not in the sense of permission, but in the sense of stop being an obstacle. Further, it was not about gaining freedom after one left. For the point of God insisting that the Israelites be let go, was so that they could worship God (9:13) It was exchanging one form of bondage to the Pharaoh to a new form of bondage to God. How can bondage in one sphere be slavery but in another sphere be freedom?

God says to Pharaoh, I could have committed genocide. I could have wiped all the Egyptians off the face of the earth with a disease. (9:15) But if you are eliminated, you would not be around to extoll my name, to extoll me as the One, the most powerful God. It was not enough to have the Israelites bound to me by a covenant, but I need the Egyptians to give me recognition though not obeisance, “so my fame can resound throughout the world.” ((9:16) And God warns Pharaoh. Get everyone inside, all your people and all your animals. For if they remain outside, they will surely die from the worst hailstorm that has ever fallen upon Egypt.

So a distinction was made between those Egyptians who feared God and went inside and took their animals with them and those who scoffed at and ignored the threat only to die in a hail of hail the next day along with thunder and lightning. One cannot read the words but imagine how spectacular a storm it had to have been. This was a battle between the god of thunder of the Egyptians, the god that symbolized force of arms and the ability to exercise that coercive power. God was taking on the equivalent of Indras (Hinduism), Zeus in Greek mythology, Jupiter in Rome, Perun in Eastern Europe, the son of Odin among the Norse of the north. The god this time was the head of all the armed forces, the commander-in-chief of the might of a nation. This was the god of weather, the god of storms.

In Egypt, God was now challenging Montu (mntw), the Egyptian war-god, the falcon-headed being with a human body but also with a head of a bull as well as of a falcon, for Montu was headstrong and bullheaded. Montu did not strategize. Montu simply plunged forth when a red flag was waved before him. He charged before he thought. Montu knew nothing about strategic thinking let alone diplomacy. When Montu was falcon-headed topped by a sun disc, tall abstract plumes of gold rose straight up from above the disc. This was not a symbol of thought or reflection, but of a burning sun and the rays given off. This was a symbol of certainty, of conviction. But when Montu was a bull, his face was black rather than red with rage even though he had a white body. He was indeed, as Egyptian generals were known, a Mighty Bull, something even more ominous than a mad-dog.

This was a battle of true titans for all peoples to record and hear and witness. How does Pharaoh react after the hailstorm? He pleads guilty. He confesses he has been in the wrong. ((9:27) I and my people have been in the wrong. So Moses replied that he would stop the hail storm, stop the thunder and the lightning and clearly establish that Montu was all temporary flash but was now impotent. Moses also said that he would do this even though he knew full well that deep in his heart Pharaoh still did not stand in fear of the Lord, that his courtiers too did not accept God’s awesome power. “So Pharaoh’s heart stiffened and he would not let the Israelites go, just as God had foretold through Moses.” (9:35) Both God and Moses knew that Pharaoh was acting in bad faith.

Moses once again went to Pharaoh and conveyed God’s message: “Let my people go so that they might worship Me,” (10:3) and he could have added, and, “not you and your gods.” This was a battle not simply for survival, but for recognition. It is not enough that God remove you as an obstacle, but you, Pharaoh, must remove yourself; you must recognize the Lord as the most powerful God.

The eighth plague sent was of locusts –  – in Egyptian hieroglyphics. These were not the lice or sandflies, symbols of tenacity and courage sent in the first set of plagues. Locusts filled the sky, and, unlike the hail, invaded all the houses, got into the clothing of all the Egyptians, quite aside from destroying all the crops that remained. Locusts took over heaven and earth. Ramses II depicted the armies of Hittites as locusts, for they “covered the mountains and valleys and were like locusts in their multitude.” Locusts were the only insects using the power of numbers that could block the all-powerful sun. “Someone flies up, I fly up from you, O! men; I am not for the earth, I am for the sky. O! you local god of mine, my double is beside you, for I have soared to the sky as a heron, I have kissed the sky as a falcon, I have reached the sky as a locust which hides the sun.” (Ancient Pyramid Text) The falcon, Montu, could reach the sky, but locusts could block the sun.

You, Pharaoh, are blocking the way of my people, are preventing the Israelites from going forth and worshipping Me. Montu was represented as a nomad. The full story of Exodus was being adumbrated. For though the Israelites would spend forty years in the wilderness as nomads, that was not their destiny. They would build cities and become the centre of a civilization. Divine power would rule on earth and not just shine forth from heaven above.

The Pharaoh’s courtiers had now become convinced. But not Pharaoh. He would concede to let some go. Moses and Aaron were asked to choose. (10:8) But Moses replied, “We will all go.” We all must go to worship out Lord. The action of the entire community was a precondition of exit. But once again Pharaoh grew stubborn. The men could go, all the men, but the women and children must remain. Without warning came the ninth plague, no longer just hail accompanied by thunder and lightning, no longer locusts that would block the sun while invading every crevice on earth, The ninth plague was darkness, not simply blocking the sun, but total blackness, God had taken the Egyptians back to Genesis when darkness covered the face of the earth, before God said, “Let there be light.” For there was no light, no light at all, not the sun nor the moon nor the stars. Only all-encompassing blackness, a darkness so black it could not be seen but only felt and touched. “But the Israelites enjoyed light in their dwellings.” (10:23)

How was this possible? Why was the light that shone in Goshen not reflected even faintly in the night sky as when we look towards a city in the far distance and see how it has somewhat lightened the heavens to a small degree? Pharaoh in the face of this darkness once again conceded. He would not simply let some of the men go. He would not simply let all of the men go. He would let all the people go, but not their flocks and their herds. The domestic animals of the Israelites had to be left behind. Pharaoh still had not learned his lesson. Pharaoh still wanted to bargain, still wanted to make a deal, when the whole issue was that God had made a covenant with the Israelites and that is the only covenant that counted. Pharaoh, enraged when Moses would not negotiate, took the part of God. “Take care not to see me again, for the moment you look upon my face you shall die.” (10:28)

Pharaoh was not the Lord. Moses did not die. But Moses never saw Pharaoh again. The all powerful war over recognition was about to be won. Only God would be recognized as the supreme ruler over the Israelites. The Israelites would freely choose to be in bondage to God and grant no ultimate and absolute fealty to any sovereign on earth, would grant fealty, but only when the covenant that the Israelites had with their God was recognized. Israelites would always live in the diaspora with a dual loyalty.

God had one more plague up his sleeve, a plague that would convert the Egyptians, temporarily at least, from an obstacle blocking the right to leave into a driving force of ethnic cleansing to expunge the Israelites from Egypt’s land. The very instrument of stoppage would become the means of setting forth the Israelites as a flood heading into the desert. Not only will you leave with your herds and your flocks, but each Israelite will be instructed to maximize their credit limits, to borrow all the silver and gold they could but renege on any responsibility to repay. The Egyptians would be left bankrupt.

Pharaoh’s order to kill the first-born of every Israelite had been thwarted, had been sabotaged by two of his own, by two midwives who subverted his orders. Now that order would come full circle and the first-born of the Egyptians would be the target. It was not sufficient that the Israelites escaped. Pharaoh had to pursue them in their escape, to at least recover the wealth that the Israelites took with them, and be drowned in the effort to recover that wealth.

But that is for another parshah. This parshah is ultimately about the defeat and death of primogeniture among the Israelites. The tales of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob had been about second-born sons winning over first-borns. This defeat marked the death of the principle of primogeniture altogether. For henceforth, merit and aptitude would count in leadership and not the order of birth. And in doing so, the Israelites would inherit the double portion, the wealth of the Egyptians as well as their own wealth. Jacob’s tricking Esau out of his birthright was but a sign of what was to come. Thus, an upstart nation would henceforth steal the birthright of a civilization that had already lasted several millennia. Israel, God’s later-born, would take the place as God’s firstborn. And the Israelites would move from bondage to a human-god to a God who would gradually become humanized, a God of wrath and coercive power who would become a God of mercy and influence.

To live under the sovereignty of influence rather than coercive power would be the route to full freedom for the Israelites and for all of humanity. And it is a route that is not established between one individual dedicated to service to the authority of influence rather than coercion, but of a whole community, a whole society. For without that collective commitment to this process of revelation, there is no individual freedom. I cannot be free, you cannot be free, we cannot be free unless we worship the same God, a God that in the days of the Israelites in Egypt who was a God of coercive power but over time revealed Himself to be a God of influence, a God of dialogue and discourse rather than commandments from on high.

But it was through coercion that the community came to be in the first place. The freedom of the individual, the freedom to think and choose and believe and express oneself, are all dependent and conditional upon the prior existence of such a collective covenant. The freedom of the autonomous self is not a condition of democracy, of the modern enlightenment world. Rather the modern enlightenment world, the world of a nation-state that grants freedom to the individual, is the primary precondition.

The Magic of Names

The Magic of Names

by

Howard Adelman

Shemot or Sh’mot at the beginning of Exodus (I.1-6.1) is probably the best-known part of the Torah, even better known than the Garden of Eden story. It tells the tale of the descent into oppression of the Hebrews in Egypt under a Pharaoh “who knew not Joseph,” Pharaoh’s fear of the demographic threat of these “foreigners” and his extreme orders to kill the first-born male children of Hebrew mothers. This is said without getting into the logical paradox of no terminus for such an order, for as you kill the first-born when they are born, then the next-born becomes the eldest and, in some interpretations, eligible to be killed.

The core of the story revolves around the salvation of Moses from this edict as he is floated down the Nile River in his wicker basket made waterproof with bitumen, his being adopted by a princess of the realm and included in the royal household as an adult. As my colleague, Carl Ehrlich, sums up the tale, “A baby boy is born. Owing to a threat to his life, his parents must hide him. Providentially, the baby is rescued and grows to adulthood, when he will perform great deeds and lead his people to glory.”

The narrative shares an uncanny similarity with legends in other cultures, Sargon of Akkad, Oedipus of Thebes, Cyrus of Persia and, the best known of all, Jesus of Nazareth. Given the extreme sparsity of any evidence supporting the historicity of the tale, it seems more akin to a heroic tale of the birth of a nation than a historical chronicle. But that may be its magic, its power, rather than a weakness, rooted in cultural history, in what Ehrlich calls mnemohistory, the way history is constructed and remembered versus what actually took place in the past. The meanings given to names are crucial to these constructions.

Moses kills a particularly vicious taskmaster who was whipping a Hebrew slave-worker, flees, intermarries with the daughter Zipporah, of a Midian priest, Jethro, who will later become his consigliere. Moses is then ordered by God to return to Egypt and preach the message to Pharaoh, “Let My People Go.” In the Black Gospel spiritual, the task is best captured and summarized in in the first two of four verses of the song, “Go Down Moses.”

When Israel was in Egypt’s land
Let my people go
Oppressed so hard they could not stand
Let my people go

Go down Moses
Way down in Egypt land
Tell old Pharaoh
“Let my people go.”

There is a lesser known sub-plot within the larger narrative, the story of Shiphrah and Puah, two midwives ordered by Pharaoh to kill the male children of Hebrew mothers. The section (Exodus 1:15-21) is relatively short and succinct.

וַיֹּ֙אמֶר֙ מֶ֣לֶךְ מִצְרַ֔יִם לַֽמְיַלְּדֹ֖ת הָֽעִבְרִיֹּ֑ת אֲשֶׁ֨ר שֵׁ֤ם הָֽאַחַת֙ שִׁפְרָ֔ה וְשֵׁ֥ם הַשֵּׁנִ֖ית פּוּעָֽה׃

The king of Egypt spoke to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shiphrah and the other Puah, (15)

וַיֹּ֗אמֶר בְּיַלֶּדְכֶן֙ אֶת־הָֽעִבְרִיּ֔וֹת וּרְאִיתֶ֖ן עַל־הָאָבְנָ֑יִם אִם־בֵּ֥ן הוּא֙ וַהֲמִתֶּ֣ן אֹת֔וֹ וְאִם־בַּ֥ת הִ֖יא וָחָֽיָה׃

. .saying, “When you deliver the Hebrew women, look at the birthstool: if it is a boy, kill him; if it is a girl, let her live.” (16)

וַתִּירֶ֤אןָ הַֽמְיַלְּדֹת֙ אֶת־הָ֣אֱלֹהִ֔ים וְלֹ֣א עָשׂ֔וּ כַּאֲשֶׁ֛ר דִּבֶּ֥ר אֲלֵיהֶ֖ן מֶ֣לֶךְ מִצְרָ֑יִם וַתְּחַיֶּ֖יןָ אֶת־הַיְלָדִֽים׃

The midwives, fearing God, did not do as the king of Egypt had told them; they let the boys live. (17)

וַיִּקְרָ֤א מֶֽלֶךְ־מִצְרַ֙יִם֙ לַֽמְיַלְּדֹ֔ת וַיֹּ֣אמֶר לָהֶ֔ן מַדּ֥וּעַ עֲשִׂיתֶ֖ן הַדָּבָ֣ר הַזֶּ֑ה וַתְּחַיֶּ֖יןָ אֶת־הַיְלָדִֽים׃

So the king of Egypt summoned the midwives and said to them, “Why have you done this thing, letting the boys live?” (18)This raises all sorts of questions.

וַתֹּאמַ֤רְןָ הַֽמְיַלְּדֹת֙ אֶל־פַּרְעֹ֔ה כִּ֣י לֹ֧א כַנָּשִׁ֛ים הַמִּצְרִיֹּ֖ת הָֽעִבְרִיֹּ֑ת כִּֽי־חָי֣וֹת הֵ֔נָּה בְּטֶ֨רֶם תָּב֧וֹא אֲלֵהֶ֛ן הַמְיַלֶּ֖דֶת וְיָלָֽדוּ׃

The midwives said to Pharaoh, “Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women: they are vigorous. Before the midwife can come to them, they have given birth.” (19)

וַיֵּ֥יטֶב אֱלֹהִ֖ים לַֽמְיַלְּדֹ֑ת וַיִּ֧רֶב הָעָ֛ם וַיַּֽעַצְמ֖וּ מְאֹֽד׃

And God dealt well with the midwives; and the people multiplied and increased greatly. (20)

וַיְהִ֕י כִּֽי־יָֽרְא֥וּ הַֽמְיַלְּדֹ֖ת אֶת־הָאֱלֹהִ֑ים וַיַּ֥עַשׂ לָהֶ֖ם בָּתִּֽים׃

And because the midwives feared God, He established households for them. (21)

The traditional Talmudic interpretation, reflected in the English translation of לַֽמְיַלְּדֹ֖ת הָֽעִבְרִיֹּ֑ת, is that these two midwives were themselves Hebrews. The phrase could be translated as “midwives to the Hebrews,” but is generally not. As Ana Bonnheim suggested in her commentary, the text could read lam’yal’dot ha-iv’riyot, “[to the] Hebrew midwives,” but as li-m’yal’dot ha-iv’riyot, “the midwives to the Hebrews.” The Masoretic text in adding the vowels could have shifted the meaning of the tale.

This raises all sorts of related questions. Why would Pharaoh order Hebrew women to kill Hebrew babies? Why would there be Hebrew midwives at all? After all, Egypt was famous for its advances in medicine while, of the professions assigned to the twelve tribes of Hebrew, and contrary to the dictum that every Jewish mother wants her son to grow up to be a doctor, not one tribe is assigned the task of health care. In ancient Israel, health care was probably not as popular a vocation as it became in our contemporary period. Further, in ancient Egyptian depictions of midwives, they worked in pairs. In Hebrew tales of midwifery (Genesis 35:17; 38:28), they were sole professionals, as when Rachel is depicted in giving birth to Benjamin and even when twins were born – Pharez and Zarah.

But if the midwives were Egyptians, why would they defy Pharaoh? The text suggests they were motivated by fear of God. (1:17) In any case, why would Pharaoh even order the Hebrew boys to be killed. If you want a case of cutting off your nose to spite your face, this would be it. For the Hebrews were the physical labourers for the Egyptians. Why sever the source of your labour supply, especially since the fear was an anticipated one rather than a response to any actual revolt?

Some believe it does not matter whether the midwives were Egyptian or Hebrew. It is a great tale of civil disobedience, of telling a lie (the Hebrew mothers are vigorous and give birth before we can arrive to attend to them), even an improbable “big fish” story to explain their failure. They tell the “lie” in service of a higher cause of natural justice. If the two midwives were Egyptian, they would qualify for early rewards as “righteous gentiles.” But the last two millennia of Biblical interpretations have not only preponderantly insisted that the two were Hebrews, in Rashi and other accounts, they are just two alternative names for Miriam (meaning bitterness after the sense of the period) and her mother, even though Miriam saved her brother when she was evidently only five-years-old and that story of the salvation of Moses comes after this one. Talk about ethno-centric revisionism!

There is an older tradition that said the two were Egyptians. Josephus overtly said they were. Other dissidents from the medieval view asked why Pharaoh would trust Hebrew women with the task, and, if he did, surely their behaviour would be something expected rather than a case of heroic behaviour worthy of recording in a sacred text. Bonnheim points to “an incredible fragment of a text from the Cairo Geniza (a collection of manuscripts found in a Cairo synagogue, some dating back as far as 870 C.E.) that recognizes Shiphrah and Puah as Egyptians” among a list of righteous gentiles. And we do know that among commentators, such as Rashi who experienced pogroms, there existed a strong propensity to circle the wagons. Suspecting rather than acknowledging gentiles, excluding rather than including them, became de rigueur, so how could such heroic women be Egyptian?

But the Torah is replete with heroic women, with women of valour, who join the tribes of Israelites, women who were not originally Hebrews – Ruth comes to the fore, but she is not the only one. The Egyptian princess in this story is another one, daring to defy the Pharaoh for she knew Moses was a Hebrew child. Further, an underlying, but fairly explicit motif of the whole text, is that it is really women who are the foundation for forging the Jewish nation. Prior to the compact between Leah and her sister Rachel, Jewish brothers had a propensity to fall out and separate. It is the women that were responsible, not only for the birth of Hebrew children, but for the birth of the nation. And this is a predominant theme in this story – the extraordinary role of women, and women who were both Hebrews and non-Hebrews, who came to love the Hebrew God with whom they were in awe. Further, medieval commentators betray not only an extreme suspicion of non-Jews, but they are paragons of male chauvinism who reinforce an emphasis on the role of male, as well as excluding gentiles from the class of the virtuous.

Once we begin to suspect the bias of traditional interpretation, especially of taking Shiphrah to be Miriam and Puah to be an alternative name for Jochebed, a myriad of other questions arise. Why would Pharaoh say to those midwives “when you deliver Hebrew women” if the midwives were not Egyptian. The sense of the text clearly implies they were. If they were Hebrews, who else in this tyrannical age would be helping in Hebrew childbirth? Hebrew women would be expected to be in awe of God, but, in the case of Egyptian women, this would be well worth mentioning and emphasizing.

What about their names? Do not their names pose an insurmountable problem for saying the women were Hebrews? For Rashi, the root source for Shiphrah in Hebrew means “the capacity to make something better, or to improve its quality.” The root source of Puah is a gift of speech, from which Rashi derives the idea that Puah meant a capacity to soothe babies with her words and voice. When the capacity for amelioration is combined with a skill in keeping babies quiet and not revealing their presence, we find the source motif for why Hebrew male children were saved.  One cannot help but admire Rashi’s inventiveness and ingenuity when he characterizes them as good-hearted equivalents to Judah, able to master the mechanisms of survival. His acolytes even expanded on the tale and insisted that the two were so ingenious that they convinced Pharaoh to allow them to continue their work otherwise, if they killed the babies after they were born rather than allowing the infants to die in childbirth, the mothers would no longer tell them their due dates so they would never ever be able to be present during childbirth.

Is this not the definitive argument that the two midwives were Hebrews and not Egyptians because their names were Hebrew? After all, Jews do not assign Hebrew names to gentiles when referencing them. Take a closer look at the names and their meanings. We already have Rashi’s – Shiphrah, the do-gooder, and Puah, the instrument for succeeding in those good works by keeping the babies quiet. There are a plethora of other meanings given to their names.

Shiphrah: brightness (Jeremiah 43:10); beautiful (Genesis 49:21 and Psalm 16:16); fairness (Job 26:13); pleasing (Jeremiah from the root שפר shapar), meaning to be pleasing and related to the shofar, the horn blown on Yom Kippur; from the Indian, Sifra, daughter of God as used in Christianity; Shiphrah can be said to mean the horn blown at childbirth by a midwife who brings clarity as well as charity, calm and care at a very stressful time.  Shiphrah is also represented as an anagram pulling together all the qualities needed for a calm and relaxing childbirth:

S   serene

H  heavenly

I    idealistic

P   patient

H  hospitable

R   radiant

A   amenable or easy-going

Puah:     splendid; gift of speech; a human equivalent to a horse whisperer; mouth, but used as a name for a male as in the father of Tula תּוֹלָע בֶּן-פּוּאָה from the tribe of and the second son of Isssachar, a judge (Genesis 46:13; Numbers 26:23; Judges 10:1; Chronicles 7:1)

The name of a person is intended to express the quality of the being represented by and identified with the name, to reflect an individual’s personality and to offer a pointer to what that person should become. Names are not then simply conventions for designation, an arbitrary sign, but have an intrinsic connection with the character, especially one who will become an agent in history. Or, at least in mnemohistory, the history that has the power to direct and guide a nation through millennia.

And that, of course, is why they must have Hebrew names even if they happened to be Egyptian. For they became Israelites; they learned to live in awe of God. Their names conveyed the power and mode of salvation.

There are three other names of individuals in this specific narrative whose name gives them magical qualities even more than their deeds. Pharaoh’s daughter gives “Moshe” an Egyptian name, explaining, as she does, “I drew him out of the water,” (Exodus 2:10) – water, the symbol of change, of transformation, of the conversion of a people with a slave mentality to a nation that carried the torch of freedom. When Moses first encountered God, he hid his face “for he was afraid to look at God.” The princess knew that Moses would become a famous transformative agent.

Moses, when he married Zipporah, had a son whom he named Gershom for, he said, “I have been a stranger in a foreign land,” (Exodus 1:22), a sojourner, one who does not belong in that place but in another, an adumbration that even Egypt was not a “natural” place for Moses.” Ironically, if Moses is the name for his future and his son’s name is the term characterizing a past he must escape, the third name is about a presence, an ever presence, and, therefore, is not about a man at all, but about God.

וַיֹּ֤אמֶר אֱלֹהִים֙ אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֔ה אֶֽהְיֶ֖ה אֲשֶׁ֣ר אֶֽהְיֶ֑ה וַיֹּ֗אמֶר כֹּ֤ה תֹאמַר֙ לִבְנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל אֶֽהְיֶ֖ה שְׁלָחַ֥נִי אֲלֵיכֶֽם׃

And God said to Moses, “Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh.” He continued, “Thus shall you say to the Israelites, ‘Ehyeh sent me to you.’”

וַיֹּאמֶר֩ ע֨וֹד אֱלֹהִ֜ים אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֗ה כֹּֽה־תֹאמַר֮ אֶל־בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵל֒ יְהוָ֞ה אֱלֹהֵ֣י אֲבֹתֵיכֶ֗ם אֱלֹהֵ֨י אַבְרָהָ֜ם אֱלֹהֵ֥י יִצְחָ֛ק וֵאלֹהֵ֥י יַעֲקֹ֖ב שְׁלָחַ֣נִי אֲלֵיכֶ֑ם זֶה־שְּׁמִ֣י לְעֹלָ֔ם וְזֶ֥ה זִכְרִ֖י לְדֹ֥ר דֹּֽר׃

And God said further to Moses, “Thus shall you speak to the Israelites: The LORD, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you: This shall be My name forever, This My appellation for all eternity. (Exodus 2:14-15)

First, God now has an all-encompassing name that goes beyond all the names that attribute personal characteristics to God.  He also has a very personal, not a generic, name – YHWH. That name is considered so powerful that the person who invokes it, acquires tremendous power, That is why it is taboo to use it; it is too dangerous. (For a much longer, more scholarly and nuanced analysis, see Rabbi Farber’s commentary: TheTorah.com <TheTorah.com@mail.vresp.com> This is the reason that the stranger/God wrestling with Jacob would not reveal His name to Jacob. But Jacob himself received a new name and became the father of the nation of Israel.

It is not unreasonable to speculate that two Egyptian midwives were given Hebrew names when they expressed their unity with the Israelites, their awe for the God of the Hebrews and, in their personalities, demonstrated the very characteristics those names embodied.

With the help of Alex Zisman