Asarah BeTevet – the Other Tragedy

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The fast day of the 10th of Tevet symbolises the first of a series of events which led to the destruction of the First Temple; that day marks the beginning of the siege of Jerusalem by the Persian King Nebuchadnezzar in 586 BCE.

‘Zedekiah rebelled against the king of Babylon. And in the ninth year of his reign, on the 10th day of the 10th month Nebuchadnezzar moved against Jerusalem with his whole army. He besieged it; and they built towers against it all around. The city continued in a state of siege until the 11th year of King Zedekiah.’ (Kings II, 25:1-2)

The prophet Yeheskel [Ezekiel] was instructed by God to turn this day into a day of memory:

‘O mortal, record this date, this exact day; for this very day the king of Babylon has laid siege to Jerusalem.’ (Yeheskel 24: 2)

Yet the date also marks an event for which the people of Israel fasted not one day but in fact three, namely the completion of the Torah’s translation into Greek, ordered by Ptolemy.

The resulting translation was considered a tragedy. If you are familiar with a foreign language and enjoy watching films or TV series in the original version, you will know that things get lost in translation. In addition Ptolemy wanted to Hellenise the Torah. He wanted it in his library along with the other classics of his time. Not a catastrophe you might object.

But by moving the Torah from the House of Study to the Greek Library, the whole process of reading and studying Torah the Jewish way was threatened. Reading Torah is not merely about perusing an ancient text. Reading Torah involves a confrontation with what others have written and still write about it and how it has shaped their lives, not just their intellect. It connects us to the Jews of the past and the Jews of today, to their lore, wisdom but also difficulties and struggles. When Torah study is carried out the Jewish way, the learner is challenged and might be led to change in the process.

In Pirkei Avot (1:6), the sages do not tell us to ‘find a teacher’ but urge us to ‘Make for yourself a teacher’. They incite us to connect actively to a tradition that began at Mount Sinai and is still vibrant today in the Houses of Study as well as in its more modern versions. They encourage us to seek relationship, not independence and intellectual neutrality.

What Is Your Chumash?

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As I am reading about Devarim and trying to prepare posts on each parshah, I find that my own Chumash is a bit too light and doesn’t quite provide as much insight into what I am reading as I’d like to.

Therefore I am considering getting a new one. Ideas are of course welcome. Otherwise why would I write this post?

Tell me what you like about the edition you use and whether you supplement it with other commentaries. I reckon all your suggestions and opinions will be useful to other people as well.

Things, Things

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אֵלֶּה הַדְּבָרִים, אֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר מֹשֶׁה אֶל-כָּל-יִשְׂרָאֵל, בְּעֵבֶר, הַיַּרְדֵּן

The title of this post is a reference to a comment by Leora when I asked last Thursday what Devarim evoked.

The fifth book of the Torah has several Hebrew names. The most commonly used is Seifer D’varim, short for Seifer v’eileh ha-d’varim, the Book of “these are the words”, taken from its opening line; these are the words (that Moshe addressed to all Israel on the other side of the Jordan).

In Hebrew, Devarim means words or things. The polysemy of the word davar suggests that when Moshe spoke he hoped that the people would hear words and then translate them into things, i.e. tangible actions. Judaism isn’t a creed that can be summed up in a few words, it is about being and doing.

Moses offers his words, words of Torah, as a legacy, a concrete way
to accompany the people in his absence but also as vade mecum for each of us.

Brainstorming: Devarim

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We will soon start reading Devarim, the fifth book of the Torah. So I want to try and challenge myself to post about each of its eleven portions. I also plan to write a few things to introduce it before July 25th – the Shabbat when we’ll read the first parshah of Devarim.

However beforehand, I’d like to ask you a question: what does Devarim evoke for you? Feel free to write whatever comes to mind, or even to ask questions. I don’t promise to answer them but another blogger might.

Shavuot Roundup

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Last year Leora and I studied Megillat Ruth, the Book of Ruth, and Shavuot together. If you haven’t read what we wrote at the time or if you wish to refresh your memory, here is the list of our posts.

On Leora’s blog:
Ruth and Public Domain Images
Ruth: Famine, Infertility and Ploni Almoni
Truth and Beauty
Ruth: Bitterness to Hope

On this blog:
Megillat Ruth
Getting Ready for Shavuot?
Shavuot for Today
Shavuot: an Algerian Custom
Shavuot: Afterthoughts

Tempting

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I moaned last week about being tired of teaching and of unenthusiastic students. I browsed the web and think I have found something I might like. Obviously I’ll need to improve my Hebrew before starting the course but the university offers this too.

It is the 3rd year of a university BA and is open to anyone who already has a BA in Hebrew, history or a foreign language. Here are the subjects taught as part of the curriculum.

Hebrew:
– classical Hebrew
– linguistics
– grammar
– modern Hebrew

Literature:
– classical Hebrew literature
– medieval Hebrew literature
– contemporary Hebrew literature

Modern Jewish Philosophy

Introduction to Mishna.

An optional subject – I am considering Yiddish.

What do you think?

Bereishit’s First Letter

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The first letter of the very first word of the Torah is the Hebrew letter bet (ב). Numerous commentators have written on this choice of a bet, rather than an alef ( א)- the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet.

One particularity of the letter bet is to be enclosed on three sides and open to the front. Our sages understood this as meaning that we shouldn’t speculate on the origins of God or on what may have existed before the act of Creation. (Genesis Rabbah 1:10)

This does not mean that we should not inquire into the origins of the universe but rather that we are not to try to prove the unprovable. Thus what matters is not the “before” but the “now”.

The bet indicates that we are not to look backward but forward. Thus we are told, right from the begining of the first scroll, that the Torah is not an ancient book with old tales but that God gave it to us to live with, in our time.

Studying the Parshah

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Blogging has encouraged me to study our tradition in a different way and also to share my findings. I have been greatly encouraged by the comments people have left as well as by Leora whith whom I studied the Book of Ruth, Pirkei Avot and Tehilim.

This time, we plan to study the weekly portion, otherwise known as Parshah, which is read in synagogues every week around the world. Because the Parshah is so important in Judaism and because I am amazed to see how there is always something that speaks to me one way or other, I’d like to try to post about it each week, starting next week when we start reading the first section of the Torah, Bereishit.

“Turn it and turn it again, for everything is in it.”(Pirkei Avot 5:27)

Where Are You?

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This simple innocuous query seems to have become one of the most asked questions since we have been using cell phones. Do we really need to know where our interlocutor is, what he/she is doing this very minute?

In his latest book Zeugma, rabbi Marc-Alain Ouaknin (associate professor at Bar-Ilan university) ponders on the two contemporary floods that are submerging us, namely the physical flood created by climate change and the psychological flood brought about by the the countless snippets of information we are bombarded with every day.

He stresses and questions our need to feel in contact all the time via short text messages, Facebook, our blogs – I could add Twitter. He also points out to the standardization of our culture; people read the same free papers on the tube, consult the same news websites, watch the same tv shows, etc.

His worry is that soon we might no longer be able to confront our own selves, that we won’t be able to find the time to read and to create. Above all the Jewish teacher in him fears that we won’t be able to study. By studying he means, the existential approach that enables us to grasp the real meaning of a text, as it addresses itself to the individual interpreter.

To explain this approach, he quotes this famous text from the Midrash commenting on Deuteronomy 29:15:
It is not with you alone that I make this covenant, as well as this plea, but with whoever is present today with us in the presence of God . . . and with whoever is not here today with us.”

The existential attitude is based on the idea that every era must un derstand the text in its own way. The real meaning of a text, as it addresses itself to the interpreter, does not depend on accidental factors concerning the author and his original audience. Or, at least, these conditions do not exhaust its meaning.
And so one can state that the meaning of a text–if it is a great text–not just occasionally but always escapes its author.

(…) In fact, it is not the text that is understood, but the reader. He understands himself. To understand a text is, from the start, to apply it to ourselves. But this application does not diminish the text, for we know that the text can and must always be understood differently. (Marc-Alain Ouaknin)

As an avid reader I couldn’t help feeling challenged by those words. Do I read less because I blog more? The answer is certainly yes. Do I spend less time studying the way Ouaknin suggests? Maybe. What do you think?

These thoughts were inspired by a radio program I heard yesterday.