Sunday, January 23, 2011

D'var Yitro 5771, Delivered at Beth Jacob Congregation 22 Jan 11

Dvar Yitro 5771

Rich Furman

Last week we read Parshat Beshallach, during which many wonderful things happen. The Israelites find themselves between a sea and an approaching army, and the sea splits, they become frightened because there is not water to drink, and water is provided. They are fearful from lack of food, and lo and behold, food falls out of the sky (the best we merit in Minnesota is snow). The Parsha, in addition to being called Beshallach, for its first word and Shirah for the song at the sea, is also known as Parshat HaMann - for the manna that fell from the skies to sustain the Israelites.

It has become customary in some communities to recite parshat hamon as a “segullah” for “parnassah.” These two terms are both somewhat problematic. In common, contemporary usage “segullah” has come to mean a charm for luck or fortune. “Parnassah” first appeared in Mishnaic Hebrew meaning sustenance(Sokoloff, 935), but these days may mean a bit more than just sustenance.

The Artscroll siddur gives us a small insight into the custom in its introduction to it:

The Commentators cite the Yerushalmi that one who recites this chapter every day is assured that his food will not be lacking. Levush explains that God provides each day's sustenance - just as He provided the manna each day in the Wilderness (Artscroll Interlinear Siddur, 253)

It appears that the custom, when it first emerged did so as a reminder that our sustenance comes from God and is not the work of our own hands, as is written:

וְזָֽכַרְתָּ אֶת־יְהוָֹה אֱלֹהֶיךָ כִּי הוּא הַנֹּתֵן לְךָ כֹּחַ לַֽעֲשׂוֹת חָיִל לְמַעַן הָקִים אֶת־בְּרִיתוֹ אֲשֶׁר־נִשְׁבַּע לַֽאֲבֹתֶיךָ כַּיּוֹם הַזֶּֽה:(דברים ח"יח)

You shall remember Adonai your God, that it is he who gives you strength to make wealth, in order to establish his covenant that he swore to your fathers as of this day. (Deuteronomy 8:18).

And yet, as people talk about this, they look forward to parshat Beshallach as a propitious time to entreat God for sustenance, or even wealth.

The drift from reminder to segullah, from mezuzah to amulet, from reading to incantation, is a drift in the relationship between a symbol and its meaning, it is a product of the fact that any symbol you might care to name is potentially multivalent in meaning. Torah is extremely cautious with this, and in Parshat Yitro we find both the perfect example of the problem, and a perhaps too idealistic outline of the solution.

The moment of the revelation at Sinai is a curious moment; It begins with our text telling us how God tells Moses to prepare the Israelites:

וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוָֹה אֶל־מֹשֶׁה לֵךְ אֶל־הָעָם וְקִדַּשְׁתָּם הַיּוֹם וּמָחָר וְכִבְּסוּ שִׂמְלֹתָֽם: וְהָיוּ נְכֹנִים לַיּוֹם הַשְּׁלִישִׁי כִּי | בַּיּוֹם הַשְּׁלִשִׁי יֵרֵד יְהוָֹה לְעֵינֵי כָל־הָעָם עַל־הַר סִינָֽי:(שמות י"ט: י"-י"א)

God said to Moses “Go to the people and sanctify them today and tomorrow; they shall wash their clothes. They shall be ready on the third day, for on the third day Adonai will descend before the eyes of all the whole nation upon Mount Sinai.”(Ex. 19:10-11)

The actual delivery of this message is rather different:

וַיֵּרֶד מֹשֶׁה מִן־הָהָר אֶל־הָעָם וַיְקַדֵּשׁ אֶת־הָעָם וַֽיְכַבְּסוּ שִׂמְלֹתָֽם: וַיֹּאמֶר אֶל־הָעָם הֱיוּ נְכֹנִים לִשְׁלשֶׁת יָמִים אַֽל־תִּגְּשׁוּ אֶל־אִשָּֽׁה:(שם, י"ד-ט"ו)

Moses descended from the mountain to the people. He sanctified the people and they washed their clothing. He said to the people “Be ready for three days, don’t go near a woman.”(Ibid, 14-19)

That Moses here is injecting a misogyny into the moment that God did not command is noted by Ellen Frankel in the Five Books of Miriam (117-118). Indeed, even the קול סתם, the narrative voice of Torah, tells us that Moses addresses “העםwhereas God told him to address "כל־העם", thus suggesting that Moses did not do all of what he was told. The injection of that misogyny, however, is not the main problem with this disparity, but rather that the change took place at all. This introduces the fundamental problem of mediated experience: the mediator necessarily changes the message.

So the third day arrives, and the people have prepared themselves according to Moses’ instructions. God sends Moses to fetch Aaron up the mountain, and to warn the Israelites not to come too close. After this, God speaks the ten utterances to the people, who, stunned, say to Moses:

דַּבֶּר־אַתָּה עִמָּנוּ וְנִשְׁמָעָה וְאַל־יְדַבֵּר עִמָּנוּ אֱלֹהִים פֶּן־נָמֽוּת:(שם, ט"ז)

YOU speak with us and we will listen, but don’t let God speak to us lest we die.(ibid: 16)

The Israelites at Sinai may not know it, but we know that Moses is not necessarily a reliable transmitter of divine intent, because we have just seen how he added “don’t go near a woman” to God’s instructions on their preparations. Moses’ editorial license will ultimately be his undoing when the act of striking a rock he was told to speak to becomes the reason God does not let him enter the land. But this particular moment, when all of the people have just had direct communication from God, and decided that they would prefer that Moses continue to mediate can, I think, be said to be where our troubles begin.

The first commandment is:

אָֽנֹכִי יְהוָֹה אֱלֹהֶיךָ אֲשֶׁר הֽוֹצֵאתִיךָ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם מִבֵּית עֲבָדִֽים:

I am Adonai your God, who led you out of the land of Egypt, out of the slave house.

This statement defines a relationship and specifies its basis. God puts forth an I-Thou sentiment in the first clause saying, in essence, I am yours. The people are afraid of that relationship.

Then we have the second commandment, beginning:

לֹא־יִֽהְיֶה לְךָ אֱלֹהִים אֲחֵרִים עַל־פָּנָֽי:

You will have no other gods before me.

This is an interesting statement. At first glance it is a demand for exclusivity, however, I would like to suggest that another possible meaning of this is that nothing else should be used as an intermediary with God. And yet we find that instead of accepting the face-to-face relationship with God that is offered, the people would rather have Moses between them and God.

Commenting on the phrase על פני which he understands to mean “with me,” Ibn Ezra notes that

Its meaning is: do not make forms that receive powers from above and think that you make them for My glory, in that they will serve as an intermediary between Me and you . . . The meaning of with me thus is: I have no need for intermediaries to be with me.(IE, 437)

With the first two commandments, God tries to implement a system where nothing stands between Himself and Israel, where there is no potential for miscommunication and no symbols whose meaning can drift, but at the end of the revelation, the Israelites want Moses for a intermediary. While God does not need an intermediary, the people, it seems, do.

The problem with an intermediary is that it becomes easy to mistake the intermediary for the power it represents. Thus when Moses, who has just ceased in the eyes of the people to be a human being, and has become instead an avatar for Adonai, appears to have died on Sinai, the people demand an idol.

Ibn Ezra argues that Aaron’s intent in making the golden calf was that it should be an avatar for the divine presence(IE 660-661). This is understandable, first the people put Moses between themselves and God, next they will use a statue. Aaron takes a great deal of care with this statue, that its purpose as an avatar for Adonai should remain at the forefront of everyone’s consciousness, declaring upon it completion that the next day would be a feast for Adonai. But nonetheless there are those among the Israelites who declare:

אֵלֶּה אֱלֹהֶיךָ יִשְׂרָאֵל אֲשֶׁר הֶֽעֱלוּךָ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרָֽיִם:

These are your gods, Israel. that brought you up from the land of Egypt.

The problem with an idol is that it has no intrinsic meaning. The prohibition on idol and image making that follows upon “you shall have no other gods before me” recognizes this fact and acknowledges that any symbol can have a meaning other than what its maker intends. It is in this way that Ibn Ezra can suppose that Aaron made the golden calf as a vessel for Adonai, while others may describe it as something else entirely.

One can see over the course of Israel’s story - first as a man, then as a people - an increasing abstraction of the relationship.

When Jacob survived his wrestling match, he declared: “I have seen God face to face and my soul endured.”

When the Israelites received direct revelation at Sinai, they were overwhelmed saying: “YOU speak with us and we will listen, but don’t let God speak to us lest we die.”

And at the end of Ki Tissa God appears to cede their point, telling Moses: “You cannot see my face, for mankind cannot see me and live.

With greater abstraction comes greater use of symbols, and so now we find ourselves entrusted with the care of a religion rich with symbol and ritual, from tefillin and mezuzot, to shabbat candles and chanukkah lights, to the symbols that adorn our seder table and our sukkot. It is important for us to remember that the symbols are not there to grant us wealth or protection, but rather to remind us of that moment when we stood face to face with the ineffable and heard “אנכי יהוה אלהיך אשר הוצאתיך מארץ מצרים מבית עבדים:;” may we be ever mindful of it.

Shabbat Shalom

Works Cited

Frankel, Ellen. The Five Books of Miriam. San Francisco: Harper SanFrancisco, 1998.

The Schottenstein Edition Siddur. Mesorah Publications Ltd, 2002

Sokoloff, Michael. A Dictionary of Jewish Babylonian Aramaic of the Talmudic and Geonic Periods. Ramat Gan: Bar Ilan University Press, 2002.

Strickman, H. Norman, Ibn Ezra's Commentary on the Pentateuch: Exodus. (IE) Menorah, 1997.


Anonymous said...

Well-done. One of the things I think is wonderful about Judaism is that we don't require intermediaries, but you make a good point that they are actively harmful and apparently not the original intent. Hmm.

Anonymous said...

Ahem. That was Monica, but I was once again thwarted by Blogger's ID options. :-(