Thursday, July 3, 2008

Miriam: The Voice of Wisdom

July 3, 2008

Parashat Chukat (Numbers 20:1-22:1)

Just like that, she was gone.

With no forewarning, Parashat Chukat tells us "Miriam died there and was buried there" (Numbers 20:1). "She died with a Divine kiss," the Talmud says, and with that one kiss, the sole female voice in the Israelite camp was gone.

Who was Miriam? She is the only woman in the Torah who bears the title "Neviah" -- prophetess. So who was she?

We first meet her anonymously, without any proper name. She is referred to as "his sister," that is, the older sister of a little boy whose mother hid him in a basket on the Nile River. Once the mother placed the baby in the basket, "His sister stationed herself at a distance, to learn what would befall him" (Exodus 2:4). When Pharaoh's daughter discovers the basket with the crying baby, "His sister said to Pharaoh's daughter: ' Shall I go and get you a Hebrew nurse to suckle the child for you?'" (Exodus 2:7) Miriam is first described as a loving and caring sister, who saw to it that her baby brother Moses was protected and cared for.

We next encounter Miriam on the banks of the Red Sea, following the Song at the Sea. It is there that we first learn her name and title: "Then Miriam the prophetess, Aaron's sister..." (Exodus 15:20). It is strange, the Talmud remarks, that she is referred to as "Aaron's sister": "Was she only the sister of Aaron and not the sister of Moses?" Through this question, the Talmud actually probes a deeper question: Why was Miriam accorded the spiritual title of "prophetess"? Rabbi Nachman taught in the name of Rav, that Miriam was referred to as "the prophetess, Aaron's sister," because at the moment in her life when she first experienced prophecy, Aaron was her only brother. This takes us back to the early period of the Israelite enslavement, when Miriam is said to have predicted: "My mother is destined to bear a son who will save Israel" (Seder Olam 3, Megilla 14a). When Moses was born, the Talmud says, the whole house was filled with light, a divine indication that Miriam's prediction was in fact a prophecy.

At the Red Sea, Miriam the prophetess organized the first spiritual gathering for Israelite women. Miriam "took a timbrel in her hand, and all of the women went out after her in dance with timbrels, and Miriam chanted for them: Sing to the Lord, for He has triumphed gloriously" (Exodus 15:20-21). Miriam's song and dance was, according to Rabbenu Bahya, a "direct address and praise to the Shekhina," the feminine side of God. Miriam the prophetess was the first feminine voice to directly address the God of Israel.

Miriam's next episode is more controversial. Miriam "spoke against Moses, because of the Cushite woman he had married" (Numbers 12:1). What happened to her younger brother that Miriam criticized him? He had now become Moses the devoted "Man of God," and it was on this that Miriam had a critique. In becoming a prophet and "Man of God," Rashi says, Moses first separated from and then ultimately divorced his wife, the "Cushite Woman" (understood by Rashi to be Zipporah). Miriam expressed disappointment at her younger brother's abandonment of his wife, with an underlying critique of the concept of holiness achieved at the expense of a normal family life. God punishes Miriam, afflicting her with leprosy. How did the Israelite camp feel about Miriam's words and her subsequently being "shut out of the camp for seven days"? The fact that the Torah tells us "the people did not march on until Miriam was readmitted" (Numbers 12:15) is a strong indication that the community understood the need for her powerful presence. Without her, they lacked the sensitive voice of a woman.

This brings us to Miriam's sudden death. The lone prophetess of Israel dies, and in the very next verse, "The community was without water" (Numbers 20:2). The Talmud teaches: "Water is likened to Torah." The impact of Miriam's death was the drying of Miriam's Well -- a Well of Torah that had drenched the community with what Proverbs calls "Torat Imekha -- "The Torah of your Mother." The Israelites lost the sensitive, feminine voice of Torah -- the voice that not only foresaw the birth of a savior but also instinctively protected him, the voice that sensually sang and danced to the Shekhina, and the voice that risked punishment by reminding the Israelites that spirituality is as much about family as it is about God.

Miriam did not speak often, but when she did, she mirrored the closing lines of the "Woman of Valor" poem, chanted every Erev Shabbat around the table: "She opens her mouth with wisdom, and the Torah of kindness is on her tongue."

Miriam reminded her brother Moses, and all of us, that "Torah" is a lot more than just a "Holy Scroll."

© Copyright 2008 The Jewish Journal and

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Agnon's Story of Torah (Book Review)

Book Review of "Present at Sinai: The Giving of the Law" by S.Y. Agnon, translated by Michael Swirsky (Jewish Publication Society, 1994). Originally published in Hebrew as "Atem Re'item" by Schocken Books, 1959

What will you study the night of Shavuot? How about immersing yourself in a collection of classic texts of rabbinic literature, creatively compiled and presented in one convenient volume by an iconic Nobel Prize-winning author?

S.Y. Agnon's "Present at Sinai: The Giving of the Law" is a rich anthology of biblical, talmudic, midrashic and mystical texts -- all on the subject of the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. In this unique volume, you will find texts that speak of the Torah's mystical origins in heaven prior to the creation of the world, the revelation of Torah from heaven by God at Mount Sinai, a section on the Ten Commandments and a post-Sinai reflection on the deeper meanings of Torah beyond Sinai.

In "Present at Sinai," Agnon is at once editor and author. As editor, he consulted hundreds of books of rabbinic literature and selected from them the texts to include. His talent as an author is expressed in the creative way that he arranged the texts. Rather than present them by textual chronology (Bible, Mishnah, Talmud, etc.), Agnon presents the sources by theme, creating a chronology from "Before Creation" to "The Giving of the Torah" and beyond. Each section contains selections from the full gamut of the rabbinic corpus, and with his storytelling genius, Agnon arranged these texts in a flowing narrative, with the sources doing the talking in their original language. In this book, you are not reading stories written by the author; instead, you are reading one grand epic "Story of Torah," as told in the language of the classical texts of Torah, woven together by Agnon.

What prompted Agnon, a master of original writing, to create an anthology of rabbinic texts relating to Shavuot? As an author with a deep connection to his religious roots, Agnon related to the experience of Shavuot, a celebration of the centrality of books in Judaism.

"In God's love for His people, He still gives us some of that same power which He gave us as we stood before Sinai and received the Torah and commandments," the narrator says in Agnon's story "The Sign."

Agnon was intrigued, I believe, by the divine origins of Judaism's very first book. Both "Torah From Heaven" and "Torah From Sinai" ascribe authoritative status to Judaism's "Original Book" and to the canon of sacred books that were written as commentaries on that "Original Book." This spoke deeply to Agnon, and is reflected in many of his writings.

In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech in 1966, Agnon said, "Who were my mentors in poetry and literature? First and foremost, there are the Sacred Scriptures, from which I learned how to combine letters. Then there are the Mishnah and the Talmud and the midrashim and Rashi's commentary on the Torah. After these come the poskim -- the later explicators of talmudic law -- and our sacred poets and the medieval sages, led by our Master Rabbi Moses, son of Maimon, known as Maimonides, of blessed memory."

Earlier in his life, in 1937, Agnon wrote the story "The Sense of Smell," where the narrator (who, in typical Agnonic fashion is a vehicle for Agnon's own voice) proclaims: "Since the Temple remains destroyed and we have no priests at service or Levites at song, instead I study Torah, the Prophets and the Writings, the Mishnah, the halachah and the haggadot, tosefta, dikdukei Torah, and dikdukei soferim."

In both instances, Agnon connects himself to the sacred texts of the Jewish tradition, the very texts that helped him shape his unique style of writing in modern Hebrew literature. The language of Agnon's novels and short stories is based on the Hebrew of rabbinic literature, whose many periods and genres Agnon brilliantly synthesized in a style all his own.

Agnon opens "Present at Sinai" with a midrash about the creation of the world, where the Torah declares, "I was the artistic tool [kli omanuto] of the Holy One, blessed be He." This midrash is as much about Agnon as it is about God. Much like the Torah served as God's artistic tool in creating the world, so, too, did the library of Torah serve as Agnon's artistic tool in creating his own world of literature.

Agnon's voice is deeply embedded in "Present at Sinai," the voice of a modern author who is in love with the texts and language of his ancient tradition. Use "Present at Sinai" on Shavuot, and you will delight in the story of Torah, as told in its own language, by an author who, in the words of literary critic Gershon Shaked, "is one of the few Hebrew writers besides those of scripture to gain international recognition." From "Torah at Sinai" to Stockholm, Agnon was in good company.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

The Trial of God

At the young age of fifteen, Elie Wiesel lived in a horrible place called Auschwitz. In his memoirs about this “hell on earth,” Wiesel tells a fascinating story about a Talmud teacher who befriended the young Elie, took him to his barracks, and told him that he would witness one of the greatest trials in all of world history: The Trial of God. Three rabbis, all prisoners in Auschwitz and witnesses to the daily death machine of the Nazis, decided that it was time to place God on trial.

They formed a rabbinic court (Bet Din), and conducted the trial completely in accordance with Halakha (Jewish Law). They gathered evidence against God, building a strong case against the “Holy One Blessed Be He.” The trial lasted several days, with the judges giving all those who wished a chance to speak their minds. Witnesses were heard, painful personal testimonies were given, and in the end, young Elie remarked in amazement how none of the witnesses even remotely defended God.

It was time to issue a ruling, and the rabbinic court pronounced a unanimous verdict: “The Lord God Almighty, Creator of Heaven and Earth – guilty of crimes against creation, against humanity and against His own Chosen People of Israel.” Soon after this painful judgment was pronounced, followed by a reaction from the people that Wiesel describes as an “infinity of silence,” the rabbi presiding over the rabbinic court looked up to the sky, saw that the sun had set, and that the darkness of night was upon the world. This rabbi, who had just indicted God and pronounced Him guilty of crimes, looked towards the silenced crowd and said “Come, my friends, we have a minyan – it is time to pray Maariv (the evening prayer service).” The other members of the rabbinic court, together with the witnesses and the onlookers, all gathered around the rabbi to join in their evening prayers to God. The fifteen-year-old Wiesel watched this perplexing scene with utter amazement.

For those who experienced the horrors of the Holocaust, the “Trial of God” continues. They continue to recount the traumas of daily humiliation, subjugation and annihilation, wondering, with good reason “Where was God?” For them, no verdict will ever resolve this painful religious question, even as they recite Kaddish – a praise and exaltation of God – for their families and loves ones.

As we observe Yom Ha-Shoah (Holocaust Memorial Day), lighting candles with memorial prayers and Kaddish on our lips, we continue to contemplate the “silence of God” during the Holocaust, tormented at the same time by the “silence of good” during those dark years. “Where was God” is indeed a deeply religious question, but no less religious is the question “Where was humanity?”

Thursday, March 6, 2008

My Father's War

My Father's War

By Daniel Bouskila

Nessim Bouskila, right, and his comrades in the Israel Defense Forces in 1948. Photo courtesy Daniel Bouskila.

It was Friday afternoon, May 14, 1948. Twenty Four-year-old Nessim Bouskila, a recent immigrant from Marrakech, was riding the Paris metro. Across the way sat a man reading a special afternoon edition of "France Soir." Nessim read the newspaper's headline: "L'etat d'Israel est ne" -- "The State of Israel is Born." Amazed and overjoyed, Nessim rushed off the metro at the next stop, hurrying to the nearest newsstand to buy the paper. Reading past the headline, Nessim's joy turned to anxiety as he learned of the Arab threat to invade the newly born Jewish state. He also read the Jewish Agency's plea calling on young Jews to come to Israel's defense.

"This is what we grew up praying for and dreaming of," my father told me in a recent conversation, "so I did not need to read any further." Nessim made his way to the headquarters of the Jewish Agency in Paris, where he found more than 400 young men and women already lined up, eagerly awaiting the "privilege," as Papa worded it, to help defend Israel.

Raised in Marrakech, Nessim's Jewish education was the same as that of his ancestors, with one major exception: Nessim also studied Bialik and Tchernichowsky.

"Our rabbis in Morocco never once condemned secular Zionism!" he exclaimed.

After initial medical exams in Paris, Nessim was sent to the Jewish Agency's "Arenas Camp" in Marseille, where, for one month, he and hundreds of others were given paramilitary training by members of the newly founded Israel Defense Forces. At 4 a.m. one day, they finally boarded a rickety boat at the port of Marseille.

The journey to Israel took longer than expected. The first truce had been declared, and the United Nations delayed the ship, questioning the necessity of Israel bringing in boatloads of young volunteers. For 12 tortuous days at sea, Nessim and the others barely saw daylight, living on sardines, crackers, jam and water.

The ship docked in Haifa, and the volunteers were detained for four days by the United Nations. "

We had no idea where we were," Papa told me. "These first days were hardly the Israel we dreamt of."

It was 1 a.m., and the confused new arrivals were awakened and hurried off to Beit Lid.

"This was the military induction center," Papa recalled. "We were photographed, given ID cards and uniforms."

The new recruits were then taken to Tel Mond, where they spent the next month in boot camp. One of the few already fluent in Hebrew, Nessim and two of his childhood friends were eventually separated from their French-speaking comrades. They were assigned to a Palmach Battalion in the Yiftach Brigade, where they received advanced training. In October 1948, Nessim and his friends participated in the famous Operation Yoav in the Negev, commanded by Yigal Allon. They saw heavy combat action, and Nessim returned from the battlefield having lost his two childhood friends.

"I now understood the heavy price of independence," he recounted, somewhat choked up.

I asked Papa if he had any contact with his parents back in Morocco: "I received a letter from them in our native Judeo-Arabic, transliterated into Hebrew characters."

This confused the military censor, who called Nessim in and had him swear over a Bible that the letter was not some secret code from Arab spies.

"The censor was Polish," Papa said with a smile.

An unexpected illness weakened Nessim, and he was transferred from the Palmach to the air force, where he was assigned the task of securing high-ranking officers and pilots. This job gave him a front-row seat to Israel's political scene. He accompanied officers to the Knesset in Tel Aviv, where he heard David Ben-Gurion address the parliament; the Hatikvah neighborhood, where he heard Menachem Begin speak in a public rally; and the Hadar Hotel, where he saw U.N. mediator Ralph Bunche. An assignment to Armon Ha-Natsiv in Talpiot gave Nessim his first trip to Jerusalem, where he caught his first glimpse -- albeit from a distance -- of Jerusalem's Old City.

In 1949, Nessim spent the first Passover of modern-day Israel in Jerusalem. He stayed with his mother's cousin, who had lived in Jerusalem's Old City until she was forced out just a few months earlier.

"I finally said 'This year in Jerusalem,'" he recalled with great emotion.

On his first flight out of Israel, Nessim sat on the same plane as Moshe Sharett, Israel's first foreign minister. Symbolic, perhaps, because growing up in Los Angeles, I saw my father as my own personal Israeli foreign diplomat.

Asked how he sees Israel today, he said "I am proud to see a strong and beautifully developed country whose brightest days are still ahead of her."

Papa couldn't resist sharing how proud he is that his granddaughter Shira was invited by the Israeli Consulate to sing "Hatikvah" at Los Angeles' recent "Live for Sderot" event. Sixty years later, this was Papa's ultimate personal reward for his service to Israel.