Monday, July 31, 2017

Esau, Edom, Rome and the Jews

Esau, Edom, Rome and the Jews
In this week's Torah portion, Devarim, the Israelites are positioned to enter the Land of Israel.  But to do so they must pass through the land of the Edomites, south of the Dead Sea.  The Edomites are the descendants of Edom, who is also known as Esau, Jacob's "evil twin".  The Edomites refuse passage, so God tells the Israelites to leave the Edomites alone and bypass them:
And the Lord spoke to [Moses], saying…Command the people, saying: You are to pass through the border of your brothers, the children of Esau, who live in Seir.  They will be afraid of you.  Be very careful. You shall not provoke them, for I will not give you of their land, no, not so much as the breadth of a single foot, because I have given Mount Seir to Esau as an inheritance." [Deuteronomy 2:2-5]
Why is God being so protective of the Edomites?  Isn’t Esau a “bad guy”?  One answer is provided in the Torah:
You will not hate an Edomite, for he is your brother. [Deut. 23:8]
OK.  Brotherhood is worth something.  But that cannot be the whole story, because our tradition paints Esau as the very epitome of wickedness.  The Talmud says:
Rabbi Yochanan said: That wicked man [Esau] committed five sins [in a single] day. He dishonored a betrothed maiden, he committed a murder, he denied God, he denied the resurrection of the dead, and he spurned [his] birthright.
[Bava Batra 16b]
Moreover, our tradition tells us that the Edomites are the ancestors of the Romans, and indeed of all Europeans and the entire Christian world.  The Midrash says:
Two orphans were left to [Esau], namely Remus and Romulus, and You [God] gave permission to a she-wolf to suckle them, and afterwards they arose and built... Rome. [Esther R. 3:5]
Now, the Romans, and their successors the Byzantines, dominated the land of Israel for seven centuries: From 63 BCE, when Pompey conquered Jerusalem, to 638 CE, when the Muslim Caliph Omar Ibn al-Khattab conquered Jerusalem.  The Romans oppressed the Jews, destroyed their Temple, and exiled them from their land.  So why did God protect them and allow them to do this?
The Midrash and the Zohar offer another answer:  Esau merited land and power because he honored his father. The Midrash tells us:
Rabbi Shim'on ben Gamliel said: “All my life I attended to my father’s needs, yet I did not do for him one hundredth of what Esau did for his father. I used to attend to my father in soiled garments and go out in the street in clean ones, but when Esau attended to his father, he attended upon him in royal robes, for, he said, ‘Only royal robes befit my father's honor.’” [Genesis R. 65:16]
Commenting on our portion, Rabbi Yudan says in the Midrash:
When Israel came to wage war with [the children of Esau], the Holy One blessed be He showed Moses the [Cave of Machpelah] where the Patriarchs are buried and said to him: ‘Moses, say to Israel, you may not engage [Esau] in battle, because he still deserves reward for the honor he gave to [some of] those who are buried in this mountain [i.e., his parents]. [Deuteronomy R. 1:15]
The Zohar adds:
Rabbi Yesa said: It is written [in Malachi]:
A son honors his father, and a servant his master. [Mal. 1:6]
Such a son was Esau, for there was not a man in the world who showed as much honor to his father as he did, and it is thanks to this fact that he obtained dominion in this world [through his descendants the Romans].
[Zohar, Bereshit 1:146b]
Five centuries later, in King David's day, the Edomites attacked Israel many times.  Israel was, of course, allowed to defend itself, but God would not allow David to annihilate them or take their land. In the Midrash, God tells David:
I know you can [defeat Edom], but I wish to subdue My world through them [i.e., through Rome]... I need [Rome] for future generations [until the final Redemption]...  Moses, your teacher, already wished to engage [the Edomites] in battle, but I said no to him.  [Deuteronomy R. 1:16]
The Midrash adds:
Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said: “When the [Roman] enemies came to destroy Jerusalem, there were 600,000 destructive angels standing at the gate of the Temple ready to engage them in battle.  But when they saw the Divine Presence observing in silence ... they, too, made way [for the enemy to enter].”
Rabbi Yehudah bar Sima said: [God] saw [Esau] destroying His Temple and remained silent... [because Esau] still deserves reward for honoring his parents [and must not yet be defeated] ...  The Holy One, blessed be He, said: "I am paying [Esau his] dues." [Deuteronomy R. 1:17] ...Command the heads of [all future] generations to treat [Esau] with respect. [Deuteronomy R. 1:20]
This sure is a big reward for honoring your father and your mother! 
On the one hand, one can almost understand Rome being given power and influence as a reward.  But on the other hand, why should this reward include oppressing the Jews for seven centuries, destroying their Temple and stealing their land?  These are two different things.  Nowhere in Judaism does it say that part of your reward for anything will be to get away with murder.  Nowhere does it say that in civil law either.
Sometimes, in hindsight, we can recognize that God’s plan requires us to suffer.  Slavery in Egypt was a case in point.  We didn’t do anything wrong to deserve it.  God simply said to Abraham:
Know for certain that your offspring will be strangers in a strange land, and will be enslaved and afflicted for four hundred years. [Genesis 15:13]
No reason was given. Evidently God thought slavery was necessary.  But why?  Many answers come to mind:
-First, for our protection.  Jacob's clan in Israel was an easy target for neighbors.  In Egypt, a superpower protected us, albeit to exploit us.
-Second, to build up our numbers in safety, to build up our identity and community spirit, to minimize contact with the idolatrous outside world, and to eliminate the possibility of intermarriage (Egyptians wouldn't want to marry slaves).
-Third, to allow God to show the whole world who was in charge, by performing flashy miracles when He freed the Jews.
-Finally, the gratitude felt upon liberation, coupled with the acquired slave mentality, made it easier for us to accept the Torah.
Furthermore, our tradition says that all the bad things that evil perpetrators inflict on us are punishment for our lack of observance, but it also says that that God does not choose who those perpetrators are.  They choose themselves, of their own free will, and as a result for their bad choices they WILL be punished for their evil deeds.  That being so, how can the Midrash say that God allowed the Romans to almost destroy Judaism as a reward for their ancestor Esau’s good behavior towards his father?  There is a contradiction there.
It is all very difficult to understand.  I don't.  Do you?
Shabbat shalom.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

The Limits of Politeness

Get this widget!Sat 29 July 2017 – 6 Av 5777                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                         B”H
Dr Maurice M. Mizrahi                           
Congregation Adat Reyim
Torah discussion on Devarim
The Limits of Politeness
In this week’s Torah portion, Devarim, God tells Moses:
Do not be at enmity with Moab, and do not contend with them in battle. [Deuteronomy 2:9]
[I.e., don't go to war with Moab.]
Do not harass [the Ammonites], nor contend with them. [Deuteronomy 2:19]
[I.e., don't even harass Ammon.]
Why the difference? The Talmud answers:

[Background: Lot's two daughters, thinking they were the only survivors in the world after the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, sleep with their father to perpetuate the species, and have one son each: Moab and Ben-Ammi.]
Rabbi Hiyya bar Abba, citing Rabbi Yochanan, said: How do we know that the Holy One, blessed be He, [rewards even polite speech]?
The elder daughter [of Lot] called her son Moab ["of my father"] [Gen. 19:37] and so the All-Merciful One said [to Moses]:
Do not be at enmity with Moab, and do not contend with them in battle. [Deuteronomy 2:9]
Only war was forbidden, but they might be harassed.
The younger daughter, on the other hand, called [her son] Ben-Ammi ["son of my people", a more polite expression] [Genesis 19:38] and so [the Torah] says:
Do not harass [the Ammonites], nor contend with them. [Deuteronomy 2:19]
[The Ammonites] were not to be harassed at all.
[Nazir 23b]
God rewarded Ammon’s mother for giving her son a more polite name than Moab’s mother!
The Talmud says:
-Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said: One should not utter a gross expression with his mouth…  The School of Rabbi Ishmael taught: One should always express oneself in decent language. [Pes. 3a]
-[The Torah says:]
Vayikra el Moshe vaydabber Hashem elav -- And the Lord called Moses, and spoke to him. [Lev. 1:1]
Why does the Torah mention the call before the speech? To teach us good manners: A man should not address his neighbor without calling him first. [Yoma 4b]
Politeness in Judaism
Politeness is valued very highly in Jewish tradition, even to the point of changing the language of the Torah!  To wit, the Talmud says [Megillah 25b]:
Our Rabbis taught in a baraita: All [biblical] verses written in an indelicate manner must be read by substituting refined phrasing.  [Examples:]
-[Instead of reading] "You shall betroth a wife, and another man will rape her" [we read] "You shall betroth a wife, and another man will lie with her". [Deut. 28:30]
-[Instead of reading] "The Lord will strike you with... hemorrhoids" [we read] "The Lord will strike you with... abscesses". [Deut. 28:27]
(Abscesses can occur anywhere in the body, but hemorrhoids only in the anus.)  The Talmud continues with examples from the Book of Kings:
-[Instead of reading] "And there was a great famine in Samaria... and a quarter kav of doves' excrements [sold] for five pieces of silver."
[we read] "And there was a great famine in Samaria... and a quarter kav of what comes out of doves [sold] for five pieces of silver.". [2Kings 6:25]
[The Assyrian commander threatens Israel during the siege of Jerusalem:]
-[Instead of reading] “They will soon be eating their own feces and drinking their own urine.”
[we read] “They will soon be eating their own droppings and drinking the water of their feet [penises].”. [2Kings 18:27]
-[Instead of reading] “And they… broke down the house of Baal, and made it a feces-hole.”
[we read] “And they… broke down the house of Baal, and made it a latrine.”. [2Kings 10:27]
However, Rabbi Yehoshua ben Korha says that the actual word “feces-hole” [must be read] because it is a term of opprobrium for idolatry [and must not be modified].
When speaking of idolatry, the Talmud suspends the rule of politeness:
Rabbi Nachman said: All foul and obscene language is forbidden except when directed at idolatry, in which case it is permitted [because even the Bible uses such language], as it is written [in Isaiah]:
[The idol] Bel squats [without even using a toilet]. [The idol] Nebo splatters and soils himself. [Isa. 46:1]
[I.e., the idols relieve themselves disgustingly and without restraint.]
Rabbi Huna ben Manoah said in the name of Rabbi Aha the son of Rabbi Ika: A Jew is permitted to tell [an idolater], “Take your idol and stick it up your rear end.”
Rav Ashi said: It is permissible to abuse someone with the reputation of being an adulterer with the term "son of a harlot".
So you can leave politeness aside if you see someone doing something beyond the pale.
Euphemisms abound in the Bible
Instead of "to have sex with":
-To lie with [Lev. 20:18,20]
-To uncover the nakedness of [Lev. 18:7-17]
-To take [Lev. 20:21]
Instead of sex-related expressions:
-“The bread he eats" instead of "the woman with whom he has sexual relations[Gen. 39:6]
-“She eats and wipes her mouth” instead of “she has sex and cleans herself”:
This is the way of an adulterous woman: she eats, and wipes her mouth, and says: “I have done nothing wrong.” [Prov. 30:20]
Instead of "penis":
-Private parts (mevoshim) [Deuteronomy 25:11]
And when Boaz had eaten and drunk, and his heart was merry, he went to lie down at the end of the heap of grain; and [Ruth] came softly, and uncovered his feet, and laid herself down. [Ruth 3:7]
Instead of "to defecate":
-To cover one's legs. [Judg. 3:24; 1Sam. 24:3]
Instead of "to urinate":
-To cover one's feet. [Judges 3:24; 1Sam. 24:3]
Instead of "to menstruate":
-To be after the way of women. [Gen. 18:11]
Instead of "to die":
-Enoch walked with God, then he was no more, for God took him. [Gen. 5:24]
-I will go down to She'ol. [Gen. 37:35]
-I will lie with my fathers. [Gen. 47:30]
-I am about to go the way of all the earth. [I Kings 2:2]
-They shall sleep an everlasting sleep and not wake. [Jer. 51:39,57]
-I shall go the way from where I shall not return. [Job 16:22]
Instead of "cemetery":
-House of his world[Eccles. 12:5]
Instead of “cursing God":
-Blessing God. [1Kings 21:10,13; Job 1:5,11; 2:5,9]
Euphemisms abound in the Talmud
-"Sexual intercourse" is "usage of the bed". [Yoma 8:1, Ket. 65b]
-"Impotent" is "not conversant with the way of the world". [Git. 70a]
-"Anal intercourse" is "turning the table". [Nedarim 33b]
-"Oral intercourse" is "kissing that place". [Nedarim 33b]
-"Toilet" is "house of water" [Meg. 3:2] or "house of the chair". [Ber. 25a]
-"Defecation" is "having need of his apertures". [Git. 70a]
-"He died" is "he departed" [BB 16b], "his soul rested" [MK 25a-b, Ket. 104a], "he left the life for the living", or "he was uprooted from the world" [Suk. 45b]
-Tractate Semachot ("Happy occasions") discusses the laws of funerals and mourning.
-"Placed under cherem" (excommunicated) is “blessed".
-"Dever acher" ("something else") is for many things not mentioned openly:
-Leprosy [Pes. 76b, 112b; Shab. 129b; Giṭ. 57b, 70a]
-Pig [Ber. 43b; Pes. 76b; Shab. 129b]
-Sex [Ber. 8b; Beẓah 22a]
-Immorality [Ket. vii. 5, 71b, 72a]
-Idolatry [Men. xiii. 10, 109a; Shab. 17b]
What are the limits of politeness?
-Politeness is inappropriate in situations eliciting your strong disapproval.
-Talmud agrees (see above)
-Politeness can create ambiguity and uncertainty and lead to misunderstandings. 
-Did he mean exactly what he said or is he just being polite?
-Politeness can falsely reassure people when your intentions are malevolent.
-Polite does not mean good.  Culture and civility do not prove goodness.
-Nazis were (and Germans are) very polite and well-behaved.  Yet they committed the worst atrocities in history.
-Jewish sayings:
-Politeness if the art of saying “nice doggie” until you find a rock.
-Politeness if the art of telling someone to go to hell and make him feel happy to be on his way.
-When politeness is just a deceptive cover, is honesty better?
-Politeness may deter people from questioning or disagreeing.
-What is “polite” is not universal.  What is polite in one culture can be rude or eccentric in another.
-British custom of ignoring people around them unless they have been “properly introduced”; vs American custom of smiling to them, saying “hi” or making a neutral comment acknowledging their presence.
-Studies have shown that women are more likely to be polite than men.