Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Two Close for Comfort

We were studying the second chapter of B'midbar in class, combing the repetitive text for any unusual features, the kind which prod the mind to deeper comprehension. But what can one expect to find in a passage that merely describes the manner in which the tribes of Israel were arrayed around the Mishkan? Four indentical descriptions, one for each of the formations corresponding to the four points of the compass, each formation named for its lead tribe, with two flanking tribes...

"Look carefully," urged Morah Nechamah. "For instance, can you explain why in each case, after the lead tribe of the formation is identified, its leader named and its census figures given, the text continues, "and those who camped next to them...", followed by the name of the first of the two flanking tribes, except in the case of the third formation, the formation led by the tribe of Ephraim, where the phrase reads, "and next to them..."? Why in this case has the word vhachonim ("and those who camped") been elided?

I was about to dismiss the suggestion to focus on this seemingly insignificant textual difference, when suddenly, it came to me, my hand shot up, and, acknowledged, it all came spilling out:

"Who are the four tribes chosen to head up the formations?" I asked rhetorically. "Are they not all, in some sense, first-borns? Reuven, the head of the second formation, is literally Ya'acov's first-born, son of Leah, his first wife. Yehudah, 4th son of Leah and the head of the first formation, is the functional first-born, have stepped into the leadership role for both the bad and the good when Reuven's leadership was ineffectual. Dan is the first-born of of the hand-maiden's sons and he heads up the last formation. And who is the head of the third formation, the one with the varient text connecting its leader with the subordinate tribes? Ephraim, the first-born of Rachel."

Everyone was shocked by my blatant error, so I quickly explained:
"Yes, of course, Yosef was Rachel's first-born son, and in fact, Ya'acov treated him in many ways as an entitled first-born, so much so that, when Menashe and Ephraim, Yosef's two sons, were brought to an aging Ya'acov for blessing, Ya'acov adopted them both, effectively doubling Yosef's portion in his heritage, a fitting gesture for the first born of the women who "should" have been Ya'acov first wife".

The confusion hadn't yet cleared, so I went on:
"True, Menashe was the first-born of Yosef, but when they were brought before Ya'acov for blessing, Ya'acov crossed his hands and blessing Ephraim with his right hand, making him the officially sanctioned first-born of Yosef.

"Ya'acov could have known better than to foment strife... after all, from the beginning of the world, Bereshit opens with the disastrous contention between two brothers jockeying for position, the one born to priviledge, with no concept of the possibility of a challege to WHAT HE IS, the other born into subordinance, with no concept that he might rise to a position of supremacy. Hashem throws everything into disarray by showing favor to the younger, and murder and exile follow. Such is the pattern over and over again throughout Bereshit: Avraham and Lot (son/heir of Avraham's prematurely deceased brother, Haran), Yitzchak and Yishmael, Ya'acov and Esav. Ya'acov has even already played his part in maintaining this tradition by promoting Yosef over his brothers, so why, oh why would he do so again with his own grandsons?

"Perhaps because of the following idea: Ramchal tells us that the revelation of the Oneness of the Divine can only come about when a perceived multiplicity is overcome. Physicality is inherantly generative of multiplicity, for there is extent over time and space. There is the possibility of two. Endow more than one being with G-d-like SELF-awareness, and you've already got the blueprint for the internecine chaos that characterizes human history. It's THAT which must be overcome. When the places of the first and the last are switched, SELF-identity MUST expand to encompassed the new reality, or die fighting it. Brothers should be one, yet nothing is so vicious as when they turn on each other.

"G-d's challenge to brothers whose personalities and characters, so carefully laid down experience by experience, are torn asunder by spinning the wheel of hierarchy: GROW! Become more, and, simultaneously yet ironically, become one. The oldest must learn subordinance, an impossibly difficult challenge for one raised with no concept of another; the yougest must learn to fully assert himself without fear of the specter of another who will push him down.

"Kayin and Hevel failed horrendously; each subsequent pair less so. Exile and estrangement, but no murder, and then even no exile, merely estrangement, and then, reconcilication, but remaining at a distance... until Ephraim and Menashe. They were able to move into new self-concepts not only without pushing off the other, but actually by drawing the other ever closer. Ya'acov sets the template for all subsequent blessings with their names: Y'simcha E-lokim k'Eprhaim u'Menashe. And when they are mentioned later, they are mentioned together. When each tribe has a leader introduced who will represent it in the census at the beginning of B'midbar, each tribe is alloted its own verse... except for "Bnei Yosef, Ephraim...u'Menashe". In Sefer Yehoshua (chapter 16-17), the territory is allotted to "Bnei Yosef", the complaint they issue is issued jointly, and Yehoshua responds to them jointly. The brothers have become well-nigh inseparable.

" 'And those who were camped" is used wherever proximity is offset by the perceived need for expression of distinction. Each formation in the desert was comprised of three distinct tribes, each zealously protective of its developing traditions and identities. Each is willing to be allied with another group, yet this must not be confused with a merger. No larger corporated entity is being created here, there will be no effacing of boundaries, no revelation of the One.

"Except for Ephraim and Menashe. There, they are too close to one another for such an expression of complete distinction. Menashe are not (separately) encamped next to Ephraim, they are just "next to", truly juxtaposed, ready to reveal the ultimate transcendant One.

"And note," I concluded, "that Degel Machaneh Ephraim is situated in the west, adjoining that part of the Mishkan which is the Holy of Holies, home to the indwelling presence of Hashem.

"When there is nothing between us, there is Hashem between us..."

I looked up at my students, and they had been with me all the way...

My students? Hadn't I been the student in Morah Nechama's class? Wasn't this an account of what came to me there?

No. I never had the priviledge of studying with Nechamah Leibowitz, but an older colleague had graciously given me years ago his copies of her "Gilyonot" from when he had been her avid student. And yesterday, when she came off the pages of her Gilyonot to prod me to think deeper, I sat in her virtual classroom for an eyeblink that was an eternity before I gave over what she had given to me.

{Note: the insight regarding the bechor status of the four leading tribes is a woefully inadequate rendering of a major thrust of a wonderful shiur by Rav Menachem Leibtag, which can be found here. I've also only virtually learned from him. The rest I don't recall seeing elsewhere - I'd love to be disabused of this conceit and recite, "Baruch shekivnani l'da'at hagedolim"}

Monday, September 04, 2006


We were taking our leave after one of our all too occassional walks. "Next week, same time?" he suggested, then remembered he'd be in L.A. "No problem", I joked, "we'll meet in Griffith Park!" Laughing, he said, "isn't that where they have the absorbatory?"

Instantly, my punning, wordplay-loving-mind kicked into overdrive, with its pal, the hunter for hidden profundity riding shotgun in the sidecar, as I brought up memories. It was many years ago and I don't remember who I was with, or what I was on (Griffith Park was a favorite for that) - but we were at the planetarium show. The Griffith Park Observatory, perched on a favored hill with a classic view of L.A., was once an active observatory, but for most Angelenos, it functioned much more as a destination for daytrips with the kids to watch the show, as well as nighttrips for the "kids" to watch the show! We leaned our heads back on the headrest, forgot about the oddly shaped Zeiss planetarium projector in the middle of the circular auditorium. The lights dimmed, the dome darkened, and darkened, and darkened some more. The stars began to appear on the dome, and as the room grew pitch dark, the stars glowed brilliantly in the "sky". But our reverie was not to last long this time, for a women sitting behind us commented, derisively, to her companion, "Oh, come on, that's not how the stars look!"

The comment was as deflating as it was wrong-headed. It could have been uttered only by a long-time denizen of light-polluted greater L.A. who perhaps had never been out in nature, far from the madding crowd, when the heavens put on their nightly show. The irony was that, a few hundred meters from the Hollywood sign, here was this person, standing reality on its head by her dismissive ignorance.

But it was deflating as well, since I had come there to recapture the bliss I had known on many an outing from my years in Boy Scouts on. And while I had never managed to identify the constellations, I, like most human beings throughout history, could lose myself stargazing.

So much has been written about the vast expanses dotted with countless brilliant galaxies, each one in turn bigger and more varied than we can possibly imagine. Yet imagine we do, and as we do, the observer becomes absorbed in the glory of being. For a few moments he escapes the confines of his own biography and its attendant reminders of duty and mortality.

Once, in 1976, I took a trip to the Sinai desert. We travelled in the standard transport vehicle of those days for youth tours - a large, flatbed truck chassis with a bus body bolted to its back. Not too comfortable, to be sure, but able to handle pretty much anything the Sinai terrain could throw at it. We were on that "truss" for some 10 hours, from Jerusalem all the way down the Arava through Eilat and along the Red Sea coast till we pulled over near Nuiba, then a few shacks on the beach. Miles from nowhere (great image, Cat!), we stepped out of the "buck" for the first time since we had boarded in the blazing Jerusalem morning.

The sky blew us away. So ink-black, yet so blazing with light, so powerfully beckoning. I was an L.A. boy, with a few trips to the Sierras, what did I know? I gazed so achingly, I think I cried. I was lost in a sea of glistening question-marks, each asked me "who?", and I wanted to respond, "yes!", but I...

So here she was, Mrs. (in those days that was still a safe guess and a safe mode of address) Cynic DeVille, puncturing a balloon I had carefully contrived to inflate. We watched the show, it did it's magic, but the bitter irony of an injection of stagelit "reality" has lingered within me since. The years have passed, and while they have been good years, blessed years, yet , though I have been absorbed in many things, I have observed in depth all too little, and the confluence of the two has come back seldom.

It was two years ago - we took a trip to the north. After we had spend a day or two revisiting our old haunts in Tzfat, I left the rest of of family in Tzfat and took Yinon, then a year shy of his Bar Mitzvah, to to Golan for a couple of days of father and son bonding. We heeded the suggestions of former colleague, long-time friend, and Land of Israel educator extrordinaire, Michael Evven-Esh, and found the ideal spot for camping and hiking. At the end of our first day, Yinon and I trudged into our homebase campsite exhausted but flushed with a feeling of accomplishment and adventure. We cooked up our meal, shared a brief campfire with a young family, and then I motioned to Yinon. We walk back to our car, parked a few dozen meters from the sparsely-peopled campsite, climbed up on the roof and laid there on our backs for a long time, looking at the sky.

I was with my son there. Yinon had never seen the sky like that. Neither had I.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Prime Lip

Today was the first day back at school, and I was debriefing Ayelet, our younger daughter, about the day's experience.

"Abba, the rav said that the gemara says something that, if the chachamim hadn't said it, no one else could have said it"
"What was that, Ayelet?" I wondered.
"They said that, 'because of the sin of profanity, choice young men die!'"

Ayelet was very upset because, well, she's Ayelet, a very sensitive young lady, whose brother happens to be one of those choice young serving in the IDF right now. She was shocked, she said, but now she wanted to make a sign of that teaching and hang it over her bed.

"But you don't have a problem with that, Ayelet", I reminder her.
"Sometimes, Abba, I call someone "m'fager" (= "REtard" of my youth)
"Well, I think it's a good idea to put up a blank poster on which you can hang a saying and then take it down after a while and a put a new one up". Quick thinking saves what's left of the paintjob and avoids the feeling of being peered down upon by a moralizing brow every time I'd walk into that room.

We looked up the saying together to locate its source (Shabbat 33a), and indeed, that's much of what it says there - the rest isn't any less choice. But it got me thinking about the notion of profanity itself. The English word comes from a Greek root meaning, "before [i.e., outside] the temple". In other words, beyond the sphere of religious ritual. Indeed, the word profane used to function no much differently than the word "secular" does today. Profane, then, is "that which is not relgious", not far from "vulgar", which originally meant "common".

The Hebrew term, however, used in the quote Ayelet brought home and ever since is, with slight variations, "nibul hapeh", which translates into English as the cumbersome, "making a carcass out of the mouth". Now this intrigues me for several reasons:

  • When the Torah describes the making of the first human being in Bershit [Genesis] 2:7, it states, "and He blew into his nostrils the soul-breath of life, and the man became a living being. Those Hebrew words, "nefesh chayah", are rendered by Onkylos as "ruach memalela", speaking wind/spirit. Note this definitive characterization of the human enterprise: living being = speaking wind/spirit. The mouth, then, engaged in the act of communication, is the instrument of life, moderating it's flow, shaping the raw potential of sound waves into the realized life-expression of speech in an act which, at once, conveys and evokes response: life calls forth life.
  • N'velah, or carcass, is a term not reserves primarily for the dead body of an animal found in the field. Rather, in its classical Halachic usage, it refers to the result of improper slaughter. A perfectly good, potentially Kosher and consumable animal can be rendered n'velah, or carcass, by the slip of a knife: its meat forbidden, it conveys impurity.
I've never had much of a taste for profanity. Even before embarking on a spiritual voyage that has taken me into the heart of my tradition (Baruch Hashem!), I didn't "cuss" much, and something about standing in the presence of profane expression, whether intensely expressed or casually tossed off, set me on edge in a jarring way.

Profanity means to be shocking, to be violent, to stop the action. In the flow of life that is human interaction, it is an attempt not only to capture the moment, but to take it captive, to rule over the situation, to mount it trophylike on the wall of one's pride. Profanity kills speech.

There is something that would be amusing if it weren't so upsetting about profanity: it claims its place as the ultimately powerful expressive act of speech, when, in fact, it actually SAYS NOTHING! There is no content, no real communication, only violence, insult, dehumanization, degradation. The process of creating the human has been reversed, and the divine breath withdrawn. The mouth has rendered itself a carcass!!

Ironically, the stark, overstated violence of the warning issued by the Talmudic statement, "because of the sin of profanity, choice young men die", borders on the profane itself, and Ayelet's rav recognized this implicitly by saying, "if the chachamim had not said this themselves, no one else could have said it". Could it be that the chachamim couched the warning about the spiritually deadly consequences of engaging in profanity in a manner all too embodying of that warning, to drive the point home viscerally? Ayelet's recoiling from the teaching certainly indicates this, and I would be a "m'fager" if I didn't agree...