Monday, January 26, 2009


Hashem said to Moshe, "Come to Par'oh,
for I have made his heart and the heart of his servants stubborn
so that I shall place these signs of mine in his midst.
And so that you may relate in the ears of your son
and your son's son that I have amused myself with Egypt,
and my signs that I placed among them -
that you may know that I am Hashem.
Shmot 10:1-2 (Opening lines of Parshat Bo.)
These lines are the introduction to Arbeh, the plague of locusts. This is the last plague that hit the landscape of Egypt. After this calamity Paroh's question, "Who is Hashem that I should listen to His voice?” was definitively answered. In the aftermath of this devastation the locusts retreated on their own volition, because there wasn't anything left for them to ravage. Paroh, left with nothing and unable to feign strength confesses, "I have sinned to Hashem."
Rav Simcha Zissel Broide noted that the point of the decimation was not merely to get Par'oh to acquiesce and release the Jews. The goal was to show Paroh who G-d is. Right before Arbeh Hashem states that part of the agenda is to pass on to future generations the story of what G-d did to Egypt, so that they will know who He is.
Rav Yaakov Weinberg takes the reference to ears as a metaphor for speech that is heard only superficially by ears but does not reach the heart. In other words, we should tell young children about these miracles despite the fact that they can't really comprehend. This is why we teach kids the fundamental statements "Torah tziva lanu Moshe…" and "Shma Yisrael". Words that enter ears but not hearts still make an impression. And there remains the possibility that greater understanding will follow at a later time.
This relates to the Kotzker Rebbe's comment on a line that we recite daily in Shma. Words of Torah are described as placed upon our hearts. The Kotzker Rebbe explained that words aren't always taken inside a person's heart. Once stated, words rest atop the heart and when the heart opens they will be there to go in. This is why children were taken to the Beit HaMikdash for the Torah reading of Hakhel. This also explains why a day school education is so important even if it seems ineffective.
This approach may help with my childhood friend Scott's haunting lament that Yeshiva taught him Gemora and Chumash and Tefila but not love of Torah. Perhaps the answer is that the best anyone can do for anyone else is put words in ears or on hearts. The absorption of the truth and goodness of Torah is a private process and a personal responsibility.
Rav Yaakov noticed that the pasuk ends by stating that the result of teaching our children is that we, not they, will know what we taught. As Rav Yisrael Salanter said, "It's worth speaking the truth even if only one person gets the message, and even if that one person is the speaker."

Monday, January 19, 2009

Teaching Shmot

This is from one year ago, when I was teaching Shmot. This year we spent a month on Vayikra and mostly are doing BaMidbar. Every year the whole school does the same Chumash. It used to be that we spent 2 years on Beishit, then 2 years on Shmot, then one year o each of the other books. Now, it's being switched to do all four books in four years.
Teaching In class today we discussed the questions on the previous post: Amram was a man of action - going back and taking his wife again, standing up against the decree of Paroh. He did this based on his young daughter's advice. Imagine how great she felt years later knowing the redemption was a result of her childhood activism! activism runs in the family for Levi, as we see from they way they take down Shechem in defense of Dina. He was a grandson, she was an actual daughter of Levi, both sharing Levi's inclination toward spiritual activism. Some note that the description of this baby matches the description of the original man. Just as Adam was born perfect, which means there was no need for circumcision, so too Moshe was born circumcised. The Ohr HaChayim says though that the real pshat in her seeing that he was good is that she saw that he was healthy (having feared that he would die at birth due to being premature). She his him when she realized he was a healthy baby and not a miscarriage. This type of תיבה is only described twice in all Tanach. It's a clear call back to Noach. Both of these men oversaw the recreation of the world (the ten plagues undid the world created with ten statements - the greatest civilization at the time, and led to a recreation via the Jewish People's birth. It's unclear if the baby was placed on the edge of the water on the shore, or on the edge of the water in the water itself. As one of my students asked - wouldn't a river be a dumb and unsafe place to put an infant? But another kid chimed in that maybe they chose to put him in the water as some kind of in your face to Paroh. There are sources to back this up - that they put him in the water because that was supposed to bring his end, but they had faith that he'd live. One might imagine that the Nile (graphic image to follow) was filled with dead babies, as that's where they were all being thrown and killed. So maybe it was the smartest place to throw a baby in a cradle, as it would be assumed to be another deceased one. Also, the astrologers thought the baby would be killed by water so even if he was alive they'd get the vibe that he was half way there. On the other hand maybe the shore, within the reeds, makes more sense in terms of Miriam being able to watch/visit and in terms of general safety. One student said maybe the parents were "dumb." Another smartly countered that maybe they were filled with faith. I think this is behind the statement that Miriam was waiting to see what would happen to him. It doesn't say she was worried, it doesn't say she was standing guard. There's a serenity here; she was awaiting Providence. And when Paroh's daughter appeared and took hold of the child there was good reason to take it hard. But Miriam calmly works with it - offers to get a nurse... She was the little girl who knew miracles were possible and was just doing her best to help facilitate those miracles. This reminds me of how Yosef was experiencing extreme providence and was punished when he nervously tried to push it instead of waiting and watching in faith.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Shmot - Zornberg on VaYishretzu

The following is excerpted from Aviva Zorberg's The Particulars of Rapture: Reflections on Exodus.

These are the dead; listed to tell the reader that they are no more. In Jewish tradition the book is called The Book Of Names: The reference is clearly to the names of the children of Israel, those individuals who, in a moment of history went down to Egypt and died there, together with their brother Joseph, who had preceded them.
What follows, however, on this meticulous listing of the dead, is an explosion of life, an almost surrealistic description of the spawning of a nation. Nameless, faceless, these too are the children of Israel... "Even though Joseph and his brothers died, their G-d did not die, but the children of Israel were fruitful and multiplied." The Midrash (Shemot Rabba 1:7). The Midrash here wants to decipher the cascade of births not only as blessing, but as the "survival of G-d." The generation that connects with the meaningful past is all gone. But in some way that is not fully explained here, G-d expresses his undimmed vitality in the language of physical fertility.
An alternative reading of this passage, however, would take its cue from the ambiguous expression "vayishretzu" - "they swarmed" This can mean the blessing of extraordinary increase, but it connotes a reptilian fecundity, which introduces a bizarre note in a description of human fertility. In this second view, vayishretzu, is a repellent description for a family fallen from greatness."

Nameless, faceless, these too are "the children of Israel." How are we to read this description of theier anonymous fecundity? There are two possible understndings. On the one hand, this is a celebation of fullness, of life burgeoning and unontained. This reading would be a fulfilment of G-d's promise to Jacob: "Fear not to go down to Egypt, for I will make you there into a great nation" (Genesis 46:3). The redundant descriptions of fertitlity have been read as denoting multiple births, healthy developments, absence of fetal, infant, or adult mortality. In the midrashic readings, there is a miraculous, even a whimsical sense of the outrageous victory of life over death: these, for instance, take the six exprssions of fertility (they were fruitful, they swarmed, they multiplied, very, very much) to indicate that each woman gave birth to sextuplets ("six to a belly").