Thursday, November 30, 2006

Extempore Effusions on the Completion of Masechet Sukkah

If you've fallen asleep in the nude
But have not said Shma, don't be lewd.
Just poke out your head
From your canopy bed
(This sugya is not for the prude.)

A student of Hillel of fame:
Yonatan ben Uzziel was his name.
When he learned, when he read
Any bird overhead
Would spontaneously burst into flame.

Said the flesh-and-blood king's servants: "See,
At the customs house, don't pay the fee
For you are the king
You will get everything!"
Said the king: "They'll learn morals from me."

"The exilarch stole my sukkah," she screams,
Says Rav Nachman, "that's just how it seems
Put your head in a bag
You crazy old hag
You'll get recompensed just in your dreams."

"Hadar" – what does it mean again?
"It's HaDIR," Rabi said, "a sheep pen!"
As a pen has much sheep
So Hadar, in its keep,
Has big / small / blemished women and men.

This sugya's about "number two"
For what is a person to do
When he goes on Shabbat
Can he carry, or not?
Just three stones may be brought to the loo.

Rav Kahana liked often to roam
On Friday, while mi b'od yom
"Surely they'll save me a dish
Of leftover fried fish."
But not so! What's the moral? Stay home!

(45a -- Tosafot)
How to rejoice with the groom?
Ride in on a horse to the room
And start a big fight
With the friend to your right
'Til he topples head-first to his doom.

Can it be that a woman and man
Walk together with no caravan?
Is he only her friend?
Is she chaste to the end?
Said Abayey: "I don't understand!"

Woe to the goyim, it's true
For what are the goyim to do?
With no temple, no altar
For penance, they'll falter --
Thank goodness God made me a Jew.

When a king makes a feast for a few
He cooks many big pots of stew
But he says, "Just one dish
For my love, for I wish
To think not of the food but of you!"

I hope I managed not to wreck it
It is quite a lovely masechet
So I'll say the Hadran
And with pleasure move on
To go learn about Tiltul and Leket.

The Conception of Dina

I've fallen asleep on your hard place
My body stretched out like a ladder
Your two hands, like angels, climb up me and down me
And pummel my insides to fine grains of sand
Too many to count, to tell one from another
(For I was in her place – and you did not know it)
Of all that you've given me, this one's for you.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Divrei Noach

Parshat Noach usually falls out at the start of the rainy season in Israel, which tends to be quite a dramatic event. Often there is no warning: The sky is no more overcast than usual; the forecast is the same as the day before and the day before that; no one thinks to carry an umbrella. And then suddenly, unexpectedly, the skies heave. It is as if, as the Torah describes in Parshat Noach, arubot hashamayim niftachu – the floodgates of the heavens open. Within moments, the streets are flooded and the sidewalks are dotted with muddy brown puddles. Bus drivers try to remember where the switch for the windshield wipers is located on the dashboard; pedestrians duck under the awning of the local grocery for cover; students rummage through their backpacks for a plastic bag to put over their heads. Everyone remembers where they were at the moment the rainy season began – it is an event worthy even of its own name, Biblical in origin: the Yoreh.

It would be hard to imagine forty days and forty nights of the type of rain that falls in Israel, even if we all had our own private arks in which to retreat. But it is not hard to appreciate that rainfall is a sure sign of the hand of God in the world. The rain is a reminder that although God may not lead us through life in a pillar of cloud, there is nonetheless a divinity that shapes our ends. In his commentary on the Eyn Yaakov to Masechet Taanit, Abraham ben Judah Leib, a nineteenth-century Russian commentator known as the Ahavat Eytan, compares the onset of rain to the creation of the world: "A day of rain is as momentous as the day when the heavens and earth were created. Why? For the creation of the world testifies to the existence of God; and the rain testifies to His providence." We see the world around us and say there must be a Creator; we see the rain, and we say He must have a hand in this world.

It is difficult for us, who live in a world of computers and satellites and self-cleaning ovens, to accept that our lives are not entirely in our control. We think that our technological prowess has rendered God obsolete. Not so, reminds Parshat Noach, with the cautionary tale of Babel. The Talmud teaches (Sanhedrin 109a) that those who built the tower of Babel have no share in the world to come. "What did they do [wrong]? The school of Rabbi Sheyla explains: They said, 'Let us build a tower and climb up to the heavens, and hack at the skies with pickaxes to make the water flow forth.'" The Babel builders, traumatized by the flood stories their grandparents told them, wanted to prevent any unexpected meteorological disasters. The wanted to put the rain on an automatic timer – to be in control of just how much rain would fall, and when. But the One Who causes the winds to blow and the rains to fall destroyed their great weather vane and scattered them to the four winds.

Rain is emblematic of the part of our lives that is in God's hands. As such, it is a central locus of prayer. According to the Talmud (Yoma 52b), the only prayer recited by the High Priest in the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur was about rain: "The High Priest would kindle the incense on the flames until the Holy of Holies was full of smoke. He would go out in the way he had come, reciting a very short prayer. What would he pray? Raba bar Rav Ada and Rabin bar Rav Ada both say in the name of Rav that he would say, 'May it be Your will O Lord our God that this year should be rainy and warm.'" The Talmud goes on to explain that the High Priest would keep his prayer short so as not to terrify Israel – were he to stay in the Holy of Holies for too long, they would panic that he had died of shock and awe. In the holiest place at the holiest time, the emissary of the people to the Holy One devoted his few precious seconds of prayer to the matter of precipitation.

We pray for rain because we cannot control it – we accept that it is out of our hands. And yet the modern Hebrew word used for "to actualize" or "to make real" is l'hagshim, which comes from the same root as geshem, rain. If a day of rain is as great as the day of creation, perhaps it is because rain is a physical link between heaven and earth, and, as such, a reminder of our power to imitate the Divine in Whose image we were created. Let us scale the heights towards which we strive, not to challenge the providence of God, but to open the floodgates of our own imaginations.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Poetics of the Akedah

Isaac Went Swimming and Sarah Got a New Fur Coat: Poetics of the Akedah
(Shiur Taught at the CY 9 November 2006)


More than any other Biblical story, the Akedah has lent itself to a great multitude of poetic interpretations. Countless poets have reinterpreted and re-examined the Akedah in their work. But what is it about the Akedah that lends itself so well to poetry?

In an effort to answer this question, we will consider three poems about the Akedah, each written by a modern Israeli poet of the last century. In your chevrutot, I encourage you to first read through the story of the Akedah (Genesis 22:1-19) and then to consider these poems and the subsequent discussion questions. You may read in Hebrew or English, but be sure to read the Biblical account in the same language that you read the poems.

Don't worry if you don't get through all the poems -- it is most important, for the purposes of the shiur that will follow, that you use them as a means of understanding, more generally, the relationship between poetry and the Akedah. In other words, when you are in chevruta, your focus should be on the poems; but when we reconvene, our focus will be on poetics.

II. BREAK FOR ANALYSIS OF 3 POEMS IN CHEVRUTA (poems printed in previous post)


How do these poems enhance our understanding of the Akedah? Well, for one, they function in many ways like midrash – they fill in the missing details of the story. How did Abraham relate to his wife after the Akedah? How was the ram regarded? None of these details are supplied in the Torah. If the Biblical account is the set of natural numbers (i.e. 1,2,3,4,5…), then poetry, like midrash, is an attempt to supply some of the real numbers as well (i.e. 1.1, 1.2, 1.23. 1.233….) The set of real numbers, as we know, is infinitely dense: between any two real numbers, there is another real number. The same, I would argue, is true of Torah: You can turn it and turn it, and you will always find more in it.

But poetry is about more than just filling in the missing details. The chief characteristic of poetry is metaphor -- the literary device of saying that something is something else. The moon was a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas. The moon is not a galleon -- it's the moon! But by comparing it to a galleon, we refine our image of the moon, at least as it appeared to Noyes' highwayman. Metaphor is thus a counterfactual that sheds light on the actual. It shows us how something is what it is, by telling us that it is what it is not. Wieseltier tells us that Abraham loved only God – and yet we know from the Bible that Isaac was his son, his only son, whom he loved. T. Carmi tells us that Abraham and God parted ways -- but the Bible tells us that after the Akedah, God praised Abraham and renewed His blessing of promise.

And yet out of these counterfactuals emerges an enhanced understanding of the actual. We have a deeper, more nuanced understanding of the Biblical Abraham after we have encountered the Abraham in these poems -- what might it have been like IF Abraham had felt so guilty and remorseful after the Akedah that he felt he had to spend his whole life making up for it? What IF the ram posed for a fashion magazine?

To ask "what if" is to substitute other details. It is to exchange the reality we know for something else. It is to see Isaac laid out on the altar, and to imagine that it could be otherwise -- to alter the altar, as it were. It is to recognize (to paraphrase Wieseltier's crucial parenthetical) that "if there is a Bible, there is also midrash." And there is also poetry.

It is no coincidence, I think, that the Akedah lends itself so well to poetic reinterpretations. Why? Because the Akedah is the paradigmatic story of metaphorical substitution in the Bible. The Akedah is about the very question, "What if things had been otherwise?" What if Isaac had been on the altar instead of the ram? And what if the ram had been on the altar instead of Isaac?

Abraham is the hero of the Akedah because he acted AS IF he would have been willing to give up his beloved son for God: Ki lo chasachta et bincha. Of course, he ultimately DID withhold his son from God: the angel intervened, and things were otherwise. The Akedah lends itself to poetry, then, because it is itself a metaphor for the act of substitution that constitutes metaphor, which in turn constitutes poetry.

And so I have now answered my motivating question: Why so much poetry about the Akedah? And now a second question: So what? What do we, as students in this yeshiva, take home with us from this analysis of the poetics of the Akedah? I want to close with two take-home messages, one about tefillah and one about tikun olam.

First, tefillah: Historically, we have witnessed another substitution in the development of Judaism over time. If the first metaphorical leap was from Isaac to the ram, then the second leap –hundreds of years later– was from the ram to prayer. The sacrifical animal replaced Isaac, and then tefillah replaced sacrifice. And so we have to remember, when we daven, that we need to offer our tefillot to God AS IF we were offering that which is most precious to us. When we daven, it must be AS IF we were putting our sons on the altar. This is why, I think, we recite the Akedah early in the morning every day. In traditional siddurim, it appears right in the beginning of the morning service, after birkot ha-shachar. The recitation of the Akedah reminds us what prayer is really about, i.e. the expression of our whole-hearted devotion to God. I could go on here about how it has helped me, given my discomfort with many tefilot, to remind myself that prayer is metaphor – but I promised another take-home message.

And so second, tikun olam: The Akedah lends itself to poetry because it is a story about metaphor. As such, it reminds us that the world always can be otherwise. This notion is also the motivation for tikun olam. If we did not harbor a dream that the world could be better, we would not bother to try to improve it. We human beings have the ability to substitute truth for falsehood and peace for war and goodness for evil; and the belief in our ability to make such substitutions is an expression of faith in God.

God tested Abraham, and I think that test goes on -- both when we try to connect to God through prayer, and when we work to repair God's world. These are quite daunting tasks, and I can only hope, like Abraham, that we are up for the challenge.

Poetry of the Akedah

(Translations by me)

The True Hero of the Akedah
Yehuda Amichai

The true hero of the Akedah was the ram
Who did not know about the pact among the others.
It was as if he volunteered to die in place of Isaac.
I want to sing, for him, a memorial song,
About the curly wool and the mortal eyes
About the horns that stood silent on its living head.
After the slaughter, they were made into shofars
To sound the blast of their wars
And to sound the blast of their base celebrations.

I want to remember that final image –
Like a pretty photograph in a fancy fashion magazine:
The tanned, pampered youth in his finest of frocks
And by his side, the angel, dressed in a long silk gown
As if for a festive reception.
And the two of them, with desolate eyes,
Looking out to two distant desolate places.

And behind them, as a colorful background, the ram
Entangled in the thicket before slaughter--
The thicket, his final friend.

The angel departed homewards
Issac departed homewards
And Abraham and God had parted ways a while back.

But the true hero of the Akedah
Was the ram.

* * *

The Actions of the Fathers
T. Carmi

And after the Akedah?
Then the most difficult test began.

Abraham took his son to the camel races
Hiked with him from the Euphrates to the Nile,
Swam by his side, watching him like a hawk
In the waters of Eilat. And when they returned home,
He slaughtered flocks and herds aplenty,
All tender and good,
Sweet scent of songs and of muscle and meat
And guests in good graces come in from afar.
Isaac ate and ate, ate –
And was silent.

Abraham bought his wife a fur coat
And golden jewelry
He installed emergency lighting in their tent
He brought her boots in style from a shop on the Nile
Hashish from Tarshish,
Cinnamon from Lebanon.
Sarah, who grew old overnight,
Never took off her mourning clothes.

Abraham prayed to his God morning and evening,
He hung tzedakah boxes on all the tamarisk trees,
Studied his Torah night and day,
And gave room and board to angels for almost no fee.
The voice from on high disappeared.

And the voice within him
(The only one left)
Said: Yes, you went
From your land, from your homeland, the land of your father,
And now, in the end, from yourself.

* * *

Meir Wieseltier

The only thing in the world that Abraham loved was God.
He did not love the gods of other men,
Which were made of wood or clay and of polished vermilion,
Which were created by men who came home each evening to their wives
to guzzle meat and wine,
Which were sold in the city market like onions to the highest bidder:
He invented his own God, and made himself His chosen one.

And of everything that existed in the world, he loved only Him – God.
He did not bow down to other gods; he said to them: If you go right,
I'll go left; If you go left, I'll go right
He said: Lest they say, I made him wealthy.
He refused to take anything from anyone or to give anyone anything,
Except God. Him, all He had to do was ask,
And He would receive. Everything. Even Isaac, the only one, the tender inheritor.
(But if there is a God, there is also an angel.)

He did not appreciate anything in the world, only God.
He never sinned to Him; there was no difference between them.
Not like Isaac, who loved his coarse-minded son; not like Jacob
Who slaved away for women, who limped from the blows that God gave him at night,
Who saw angelic ladders only in dreams.
Not so Abraham, who loved God, and whom God loved,
And together they counted the righteous of the city before they wiped it out.