January 2009

Shabbat: Parsha Bo

Shabbat Shalom and welcome to Judeo Talk. The Torah portion for this week is parsha Bo, Exodus 10:1-13:16. Parsha Bo is one of the most important, pervasive segments of the Torah. The origins of some very important liturgy come from Bo, as do the first instructions for the holiday of Passover. But first, there are the concluding three of the ten plagues. They are locusts, darkness and the death of the first born. The plagues themselves seem almost arbitrary. They are a strange mix of natural disasters that don't seem to be related. Upon deeper reading, their connection becomes apparent. As we saw last week, these plagues are not intended as a punishment for Egypt or even to coax the pharaoh to release his slaves. Rather, they occurred as a demonstration, to make a point. Each of the ten plagues is a direct assault on one of the gods in the Egyptian pantheon through some symbol of their presence. For example, the turning of water into blood was the first plague, and rightfully so. Most of the water in Egypt would have come from the Nile river.

Wednesday Hebrew: Mitzvah

If there is one word that sums up the core of Jewish philosophy, it is Mitzvah. This is one of those very complex Hebrew words that just doesn't have an easy, direct translation into English, or any other language for that matter. In fact, the word Mitzvah is at the center of one of the most hotly contested mistranslations in all of monotheism: Commandment. The first use of the word Mitzvah comes in the biblical book of Exodus. After the Israelites leave Egypt, God leads them to Mt. Sinai (or Mt. Horeb, depending on who you talk to) and gives them the Ten... Commandments? Not exactly. The word in the Torah is Mitzvot, the plural of Mitzvah. That word doesn't even share a common root with the two different words in Hebrew that can mean "Command". One of those words is the verb L'shalot which basically just means, "To tell someone to do something" and the other is a verb from a different "family" of verbs, Pikodah.

Shabbat: Parsha Va'eira

Shabbat Shalom and welcome back to Judeo Talk. The Torah portion for this week is Va'eira, Exodus 6:2-9:35. In last week's parsha, the Israelites first became slaves in Egypt and God enlisted the prophet Moses to demand their freedom from the pharaoh. This week, Moses, his brother Aaron and both their families travel to the heart of Egypt to do just that. As God previously told Moses, the pharaoh rejects the demand. The result of his "hardened heart" is a series of miraculous plagues brought down upon Egypt. In Va'eira, we get to see seven of the infamous Ten Plagues. But before we get to that, there are two things that bear discussing. First, there is the episode with the rods turning into snakes. When Moses and Aaron approach the pharaoh, they demonstrate the power of God by casting Aaron's staff on the ground where it transforms into a snake, as God said it would. The pharaoh, unimpressed, calls in his own magicians who perform the same trick. However, the snake from Aaron's staff devours the others. This is an interesting moment.

Wednesday Hebrew: "Ivrit"

Last week's Hebrew lesson began our look into the history of the language and the people who spoke it. Today, we'll be exploring where the term "Hebrew" itself originates. When discussing the term "Hebrew" in reference to the language, there are actually three separate words we need to understand: Hebrew, Yihudit, and Ivrit. We'll begin with "Yihudit" because the other two terms are much more closely related. "Yihudit" is a word that means, "The language of Yihudah", while the term "Yihudah" refers to the kingdom of Judah. In the ancient territory that we know today as the modern State of Israel, there were actually two presiding kingdoms. In the north was the ancient kingdom of Israel, which had the kingdom of Judah at its southern border. When the Roman Empire came to dominate the region, they latinized the name of the territory into Judea. This is where the terms "Judaism" and "Jewish" come from.

Shabbat: Parsha Shemot

The Torah portion for this week is Shemot, Exodus 1:1-6:1. There are many very well-known stories in this parsha. It is the beginning of the book of Exodus, the story of how the Hebrew people left Egypt and received the Ten Mitzvot and the Torah. It is essentially the story of how a people not unlike most other peoples at the time came to be the first Jews. But before that happens, they have to endure a lot of hardship. Just like Joseph, the Israelites first go through a period of slavery and pain, then through great and difficult acts they become the people they were meant to be. In Shemot, we learn how the Israelites came to be slaves in Egypt in the first place. If you recall from last week's parsha, Joseph called his entire clan to come live in Goshen, a territory of Egypt. Because of Joseph's service, his people were welcome. Unfortunately, the king of Egypt from Joseph's time dies and the next king is far less kind. Because the Israelites become a numerous and prosperous people, the pharaoh worries that they would be a liability in times of war.

History of Hebrew

Whenever a curious non-Jew enters a synagogue for the first time, one of the most striking parts is the strangeness of Hebrew. It is read right to left and the letters are completely foreign. It looks more than just ancient, it looks arcane. Hebrew is full of sounds not found in American English and the chanted prayers come from a very different time and place. But Hebrew really isn't as strange, or as foreign, as it first seems. Let's break down some bits of history to show how Hebrew really isn't that far removed from the languages we know in the West. Hebrew didn't develop in isolation. In fact, it's one of most-traveled tongues in the world. It belongs to a linguistic super-family called the Afro-Asiatic languages. The vast majority of European languages come from a super-family known as Indo-European. The Hebrew we see in the Torah is Classical Hebrew, which itself is fairly close to Modern Hebrew. To put things in historical context, 2000 years ago the version of Hebrew spoken in Judea was called Aramaic, but Classical Hebrew had already come to be adopted for ritual purposes. The two languages are very close.

Shabbat: Parsha Vayechi

Shabbat Shalom, everyone, and an extra prayer for peace in Gaza. It is my hope and the hope of many in this world that this time next shabbat the conflict will have ended. The Torah portion for today is Vayechi, Genesis 47:28-50:26. In this parsha, we see the deaths of both Jacob and his son Joseph. In the sense of raw plot, not a lot happens in this parsha, but there is a great depth of symbolism in the little bit that does happen. The parsha opens with the aging and eventual ill health of Jacob, the last of the three patriarchs. As we saw last week, Joseph revealed himself to his family and gave them a home in Goshen, a territory within Egypt where he was a powerful political figure. As Jacob lay dying, he requests that his body be taken back to Canaan so he can be laid to rest in the same cave as his parents Isaac and Rebecca, his grandparents Abraham and Sarah, as well as his wives Leah and Rachel. But before that happens, there is a very interesting episode involving Joseph's sons, Manassah and Ephraim. At this point, Jacob is blind and infirm.

Wednesday Hebrew: Oseh Shalom

Shalom, everyone. I wish I could write this post in a less tragic time, but I also won't avoid the topic of the recent conflict in Gaza. It's difficult to watch and read the reports coming out of the region, not just as a Jew but as a human being. Regardless of one's affiliations, violence on such a scale is heartbreaking. Moreover, it is impossible for any truly spiritual person to justify. As it has been, seemingly since the beginning of human civilzation, the agenda of a radical few has resulted in the pain and loss of many peaceful people. While I strive to be a supporter of Israel, I cannot condone the scale of the Israeli military's response to the rocket attacks from Gaza. Of course, we also shouldn't ignore the intent of those rocket attacks. It is short-sighted and inhumane to approach this conflict or the many like it in the past with a binary attitude. How anyone can call one side of this war the "right" side and still call themselves a good Jew, or a good Muslim, is beyond me. Because of this conflict, today's Hebrew lesson will center around a prayer called Oseh Shalom, which literally means, "Make Peace".

Shabbat: Parsha Vayigash

Shabbat Shalom and Happy New Year. The parsha for this week is Vayigash, the story of how the House of Israel actually came to live in Egypt. This is a particularly interesting episode in the Torah because it is one of the most overtly literary moments in the Five Books. It is full of drama, symbolism and most of all foreshadowing. This parsha starts in the middle of a chapter. Judah entreats Joseph to reconsider his decision to take Benjamin, Joseph's youngest brother, as a bondsman after framing him for theft. Joseph chooses to finally end his ruse and reveal his true identity to his brothers. When they come before him to beg for the release of Benjamin, Joseph tells them who he is. He also tells them that he harbors them no ill will, saying that it was God who sent him to Egypt, not his brothers. Here we have an interesting opportunity for a philosophical discussion. This entire parsha sits at the fulcrum of many events, past and future, that indistinguishably mix the good with the bad.