Understanding Purim in 5 Minutes or Less

Screen Shot 2015-02-12 at 2.45.15 PM

 

Understand Purim in 5 Minutes or Less: The Quick Scoop on Judaism’s Most Enigmatic Holiday, By Rabbi David Fohrman

Two generations ago, a nation attempted to wipe the Jews off the face of the earth. Purim is a holiday that takes us back to the first time in history such a genocide against the Jews had been attempted – some 2,300 years ago.

The holiday of Purim marks the Jews’ salvation from the plot of Haman, a high officer of the Persian Empire, an advisor to King Achashveirosh. Haman’s rage against the Jews was incited by the failure of a single Jew, Mordechai, to bow before him as he passed by. Rather than seeking to do away with Mordechai alone for this slight, Haman plotted revenge against Mordechai’s entire people. Haman sought, and gained, permission from King Achashveirosh to do as he pleased against the Jews, and Haman took this license and ran with it. He legislated a pogrom that would wipe out every living Jew in the empire on a single, blood-soaked day.

In an act laden with symbolism, Haman cast lots to find the day upon which he and his minions would destroy the Jews. In leaving the day of the Jews’ demise entirely up to chance, Haman’s message was unmistakable: The Jews, who believed in the providence of a beneficent God, a being they heralded as Master of the Universe – these Jews would be subject to the blind whim of fate. A casual roll of the dice would be the instrument that seals their end, while the Jews’ God would stand helplessly by.

Haman’s challenge came at a crucial point in history. Seen in its largest sense, Haman’s provocations were a test, as it were, of whether Divine influence would still be felt at the close of a grand era of Biblical history. It was a test of whether God was still relevant in a new and vastly different age – an age when miracles no longer prevailed, an age of what we might call “normalcy”. To explain:

The events of Purim took place at twilight of Biblical history. The last of the Bible’s prophets had been heard from, and with them, an era in which open miracles would sometimes dramatically alter the course of history, had come to an abrupt end. Earlier in history, when the Jews left Egypt, plagues from heaven descended upon the Egyptians. The Sea split to allow the Jews to pass. Manna sustained them in the desert. A pillar of fire led them through the wilderness. But now, that era was coming to a close. There were no prophets anymore. There were no miracles anymore. In this new era, a harsh question would face humanity. In an normal world, a world where Divine intervention and prophetic communication is no longer apparent – in that world, is God relevant anymore?

It was in this context that Haman’s roll of the dice was particularly terrifying. With God in the background and miracles laid aside, could there by any meaningful way in which the Divine Will continued to operate in the world?

In the end, the Jews were saved from Haman’s plot – but, pointedly, they were saved in a non-miraculous fashion. In the events of Purim, serendipitous happenings conspired to bring about unexpected results. Alone, each of these events could be seen as nothing more than fortuitous coincidence. But taken together, were they still the work of coincidence?

The king happened to do away with his first queen – and happened to replace her with Esther, a girl who happened to be a Jew. Mordechai, Esther’s relative, happened to overhear, and foil, an assassination plot against the king. It also so happened that he was not rewarded immediately for that deed. One night, Haman decided to go to the king to get permission to hang Mordechai. But that very night, the king had insomnia and couldn’t fall asleep. He asked for the Book of Records to be read to him — and the book just happened to open to the page recording Mordechai’s long forgotten act of loyalty towards him. All of these apparent coincidences conspire to save Mordechai – and ultimately the rest of the Jews, as well — from imminent demise.

The Scroll of Esther – the book that tells of the miracle of Purim – has the distinction of being the only book of the Bible that does not mention the name of God. It may seem strange for an entire book of the Biblical canon to avoid mention of the Almighty – after all, if the Bible isn’t about God, what is it about? – but in truth, that’s the whole point. The message of the Book of Esther is that God is there even when He doesn’t seem to be there. God’s presence in History is felt not just when the sea splits or when divine fire descends upon a mountaintop in full view of an entire nation. These fireworks are nice, but they aren’t the be-all-and end-all of Divine influence in the world. God is present in the everyday workings of life and history as well.

God’s Will is present not just when the laws of nature are suspended. To the contrary, the very workings of these laws are manifestations of the Divine. Every time a falling body adheres to the inverse square law of gravitational attraction; every time molecules dissipate in space in consonance with the second law of thermodynamics; every time a riverflows downstream – every time these things happen, God’s Will is done in the world. And so it is with history: It is not just when plagues free the slaves of Egypt that God works in history. God’s influence is more subtle than that. He can be present, mysteriously, in the smallest and least obtrusive of ways.

Chekhov once said that if a rifle lies above the mantle in Act I of a play, it had better go off before Act III. The mark of a good playwright is that no plot element is superfluous. Everything, ultimately, gets used. And the same goes for the Great Playwright in the Sky. Everything we humans do “gets used” in the play we call life. But not necessarily in the way we imagine, or design. The king asks Haman how the man the king wishes to honor should be treated. Haman, thinking the king wishes to honor him, advises making a royal parade. Does that advice get used? It surely does. But it is used to honor Mordechai, not Haman. Haman constructs a gallows to hang Mordechai. Does that gallows get used? It certainly does. But not the way Haman imagined. He himself is hanged on those gallows.

We all have choices to make. The making of those choices is up to us human beings; that is how we cast our lots in life. But what happens after we cast our lot – that is no longer up to us. One of the messages of Purim, is that God is very much around, even when He remains behind the scenes. Without the fanfare of miracles, in the space between human choice and ultimate result, the Master of the Universe will yet have His say.

For more on Purim, check out our new Purim page! <www.alephbeta.org/purim>

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

God & Science

In this week’s Parsha video, “Va’era: Seeing God in Science,” Rabbi Fohrman talks about God’s name and how we can understand it in light of modern cosmology.

Watch the video, then consider this dialogue between Rabbi Fohrman and a physicist viewer, Larry Smith.

{It’s a bit long, but so so interesting and worthwhile!}

Here’s Larry’s contention with Rabbi Fohrman’s explanation:

Larry Smith 

I applaud Rabbi Forman for giving us the sages interpretation of the name “shin daled yud” as “He who said to his world enough”, and attempting to relate this to modern cosmology. But, speaking as a physicist, I think his explanation
was not successful.

Rabbi Forman suggests that it was necessary for G-d to “reign in” the Big Bang. But the expansion of the universe leads naturally to the formation of galaxies and stars and planets, and life itself. There is no need for G-d to “limit” this natural evolution by saying “enough”; it would be quite counterproductive. Regarding the
flatness and smoothness of the universe, and also the relative magnitudes of
the four physical forces: these are examples of what is known as the Anthropic
Principle, which is that the fundamental physical constants seem to have just
the right values (i.e., are “finely-tuned”) to support life. The problem for scientists is to come up with natural explanations for why they have these values. For the cases of the flatness problem and the smoothness problem, these are now explained by the theory of inflation, which posits the exponential expansion of space in the very early universe. That still leaves the relative magnitude of
the four physical forces, as well as other physical constants that seem to have
just the right values to support life. One idea is that these might be explained by the concept of the “multiverse”.

A couple of other technical corrections: (1) the formation of hydrogen atoms had
nothing to do with gravity; it was a result of the electromagnetic attraction
of the electrons and protons once they had cooled down sufficiently. (2)
the big bang should really be thought of as an expansion of space
itself, rather than as an explosion.

————–

And here is Rabbi Fohrman’s response:

I think that you may have misunderstood me regarding my interpretation of God’s name here. Let me clarify:

I am not suggesting that the universe was reeling ‘out of control’ like an out-of-control 18 wheel truck, and God had to step in at the last minute and try to steer it from careening over the cliff – and, shouted: enough! It would be inelegant of God to be involved in such a haphazard way. If God is indeed involved, would it not be more elegant for the Master of the Universe to ‘reign in’ the universe by setting the initial consonants precisely so that things unfold as they must, from the beginning? In doing so, God is essentially acting as a limiting force on what otherwise would be chaotic – hence, my ‘modern’ take on the Sages’ expression: “The one who said his world: enough!”.

With that in mind, let us consider ‘inflation’ as an “explanation” for the smoothness and flatness problem. Yes, physicists have proposed a short period of hyperinflation in the very early universe as the only way of “explaining” the extraordinary smoothness and flatness of the universe. But that “explanation” does absolutely nothing to detract from the wonder of it all. For still, the statistical improbability persists: Who saw to it that the short burst of hyperinflation was just precisely long enough to create a universe that was just smooth enough to allow for stars but not too bumpy to create a universe of black holes? The margin for error here is still 10 to the -51 power. And we only got one try.
Surely, if you’d like to invoke luck to explain the fine tuning inherent in hyperinflation, that is your choice. All I’m saying, is that as a religious person, these phenomena that we’ve only come to understand the last 10 or 20 years, seem to give new meaning to a very old explanation of the name of God.
A final point: you mentioned multiverse as a possible explanation for this phenomenon. This is essentially the theory that perhaps there are trillions and trillions of other universes out there with different constants, and we just happen to live in the one suitable for life. The lure of this theory is that it does not need to  invoke some sort of intelligent, ordering forces such as God.
John Leslie, in his book Universes, which I quoted in the video, deals with this point. (Leslie, by the way, is not a religious man). The essence of his argument, as I understand it, is this: You can, if you wish, hypothesize about the existence of many trillions and trillions of universes that exist beside our own – universes we cannot see, nor ever prove exist - as a way of “explaining” the fine-tuning present in our universe. But is that really the simpler, more elegant explanation?
Imagine you were to wake up one morning, and you find a quarter on your bedside dresser. You flip the quarter, and it lands on heads. Your flip it again and it lands on heads. You spend the week doing nothing but flipping that quarter, and every one of the 3,400,097 times you flip it, it lands on heads.
What’s the best explanation for what happened here?
Explanation one: Something fishy is going on here. Someone, or something, is making sure that it always lands on heads.
Explanation two: it was all a product of blind chance. You see, next door, maybe there is another person who found a quarter. And next-door to him, another person who found a quarter. Maybe there are 5 quadrillion people who found quarters and spent the week flipping them. If there are indeed 5 quadrillion people doing this, it is not remarkable that for one of them, the coin would’ve consistently landed on heads. That one person just happened to be you.
That, is essentially how I understand what the multi-universe theory is trying to do. If we invoke trillions and trillions of other unseeable, unprovable universes, then the fine-tuning in this one is not so remarkable anymore.
But is that really the simplest explanation?
————
What do you think?
Get involved in the conversation by adding your comments under the video, or add your comments here!
Shabbat Shalom!
Tamar
Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Rabbi Fohrman on the Radio!

Hey everyone!

Tamar here. I’m the newest to join the Aleph Beta team and I take care of a bunch of different things, like lots of our tweets & Facebook posts, emails, and other fun stuff! But enough about me…

 

This past Sunday, January 11th, Rabbi Fohrman was a guest on the “The Bible Live.” It’s a really unique radio show stationed in South Texas that goes through the entire Bible, giving both a Jewish and Christian perspective.

 

Since RF was too modest to tell me in advance (!!), I have only just now finished listening to it, and it is incredible. It begins with Rabbi Fohrman discussing his background and how he got started in Torah study, and then touches upon Aleph Beta and our goals. The Bible Live is up to Bamidbar/ The Book of Numbers in their studies so they wanted to hear Rabbi Fohrman’s thoughts on the Priestly Blessings {Numbers 6:22}. RF goes into an in-depth discussion of the blessings and (spoiler alert) how he believes them to be the Torah’s model for parenting. {For more on this topic, I highly recommend listening to our two part course: Naso & Beha’alotcha: A Guide for Parenting? and of course The Bible Live, 1/11/15, beginning at 30 minutes in.}

 

It was particularly interesting for me to learn new things about someone I work beside every day. For example, Rabbi Fohrman grew up in Berkeley, California and spent 7 years working as a translator- who knew?! (Well, I probably should have since it can be found right here on our website, but I’ll excuse myself since I’m the Aleph Beta novice.) :)

The whole discussion was grounded in mutual respect and interfaith bonding. The hosts, Jacob Champion and Soapy Dollar, said they feel that learning the Jewish perspective is so crucial for their understanding of the Bible as a whole, regardless of their faith.

 

Afterwards, RF received these gracious accolades from Champion: “We did NOT get even one negative response!  You are a great teacher & I am & remain a fan.  Since I do the ‘Jewish’ view I always want to put a great presentation toward our mostly Christian audience. So, naturally, I tend to very selective about guests. YOU are at the TOP of my preferred list, Rabbi David Fohrman.  One of the major reasons I had originally agreed to do this show & get involved is to build bridges & mutual respect, friendships, and understandings between Christians & Jews. The world is so in need of this, I think.”

 

I couldn’t agree more.

 

So, in summation:

  • Be sure to check out Rabbi Fohrman’s talk on The Bible Live. Just click this link, be sure it’s the January 11th talk (should be the first one listed) and go to the 30 minute mark where RF is first introduced.

  • And if you find yourself craving more on parenting in the Torah and the priestly blessings, or if you simply love our videos and want to see some gorgeous graphics, click this link.

 

And, as always, we’d love to hear your feedback!

Enjoy!

 

- Tamar

Screen Shot 2015-01-15 at 4.15.26 PM

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Response

The Most Familiar Thing

Hey folks,

So something quite funny happened to me yesterday when I was teaching a bunch of tweens, about 200 of them, at a school I will leave unnamed. I was doing an interactive presentation with them on the tabernacle, based upon the series of videos that we produced last year (you can find them here: http://goo.gl/IetmV6 and here: http://goo.gl/1Q3zVn).

Anyway, there’s a point in the videos where I show a bird’s-eye view of the tabernacle, looking down at the various elements within it, and ask: What does this picture remind you of?

The answer I was looking for – the answer in the video at least – is a human face. The holy arc is placed where the brain would be, and we relate to what’s inside it- the Torah- with our minds; the menorah and the table are where the eyes would be – and indeed, in order to see with your eyes, you need light (menorah) and something to look at (show bread); the incense altar is in the center where the nose would be; and finally, the large altar with the ramp, where the offerings are consumed, is where the mouth would be.
All in all, it looks uncannily like a face. Or so I thought…
I stopped the video right before the answer is revealed, and pose the question to the group: What does this look like to you? It’s a bit of a Rorschach test. They had no idea. I thought I’d give them a of a hint to make it easier: “Thing broadly. It’s the most familiar thing in the world.”
It occurred to me as I said this, that scientists assert that the human face is indeed the most familiar thing in the world to us. It’s the one thing that infants are programmed from the womb to recognize. A newborn child recognizes nothing else but a human face – and will smile back at a face that’s smiling at it. There’s an instant bond at face-to-face communication. Faces are the most familiar things in the world to us.
After a brief pause and pondering, one girl raised her hand excitedly. She stood up and began waving her arm around. Thinking this is it- this girl has got the right answer- I called on her.
“It looks like a phone,” she says breathlessly. “It looks like an iPhone”.
The most familiar thing in the world to this girl was an iPhone.
As someone who posts most of his content via technology, I am certainly not immune to this phenomenon. But this exchange made me stop and think about what the consequences might be for the younger generation.
Here’s a link to a video I find very compelling on this topic: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OINa46HeWg8
I would love to hear your thoughts.
Cheers,
RF
Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged | 1 Response

Download MP3s at the Brand New Aleph Beta Shop!

Years ago, back in the olden days, Rabbi Fohrman recorded hundreds of hours of lectures on tapes. As tapes became mp3s and mp3s became videos, we decided to open the archives to our users to take advantage of these incredible lectures.

Thanks to your support, we’re now able to announce the grand opening of our Online Shop!

audio and docs

Our Available Products

Books:
Have you read: “The Beast that Crouches at the Door” or “The Queen You Thought You Knew?” What are you waiting for?!

Audios:
Rabbi Fohrman’s lectures on mp3s. From the 3-part series to the 20-part series.

Audios with Supporting Materials:
The lectures on mp3s + pages and pages of outlines, highlighted texts, source-sheets, and all kinds of goodies, created by Rabbi Fohrman himself!

Teacher’s Guides:
Many of our video courses come with Teacher Guides with educational goals, “points-to-pause,” supplementary assignments, source sheets, and outlines. Our Parsha guides are generally simpler, and our longer courses are quite robust. This is an excellent source for academic studies.

*Unfortunately, at this time, it’s not possible to buy individual lectures, or lectures without documents.

Subscriber Benefits

At Aleph Beta, we’re doing our best to continue to provide you with outstanding features to make Torah-learning easier, more engaging, and convenient. Additionally, we’re contributing even more resources to putting out tons of new content for our users! Your support enables us to provide you with all of these great products.

For our “Thanks,” we are excited to offer a 66% discount to our subscribers on our digital products and unlimited streaming of our audio library! Another reason to subscribe? You bet!

Note: If the shop doesn’t automatically grant you the 66% discount, you can request a coupon code next to the product you are looking to purchase, and follow instructions on the site. Make sure to input the code before purchasing in order to receive the discount.

What’s Next?

In our valued tradition of giving something to everyone for free, we will continue adding more videos and audios to our library for free streaming at an hour per month. Subscribers will continue to have unlimited free streaming.

Stay tuned for some exciting updates to our library, some new features for our subscribers, and the release of new Purim series coming soon!

Shop Now!

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Happy Anniversary!

By Immanuel Shalev
Chief Operating Officer

Esther (1)

Since it is Purim Katan this evening, we thought we’d celebrate this special occasion with you all by sharing a bit of exciting Aleph Beta history.

 

Purim is a very special holiday for us, because at this time last year, we took the first steps toward making our videos more engaging – shorter, more fun, and with powerful, relatable messages. The videos that you are now used to: 10 minute parsha videos, and 4-part series for a holiday, descended from 3 to 5 hour lectures and from hundreds of pages of notes in the mind of Rabbi David Fohrman.

 

Rabbi Fohrman isn’t just an incredible teacher of Torah – he is one of the most creative and tech-savvy Rabbis you will ever meet. A couple of years ago, after the rising success of Khan Academy, Rabbi Fohrman wondered if the visual medium might be perfect for his material. After all, describing chiasms and pointing to intertextual parallels relies on the student to take him at his word. That wasn’t good enough for Rabbi Fohrman. Armed with screencasting software and some tutorials, Rabbi Fohrman started to teach his Genesis material through illustrative video.

 

Rabbi Fohrman scribbled on the screen, picked out his own music and images, and spent hours putting together videos that added another dimension to his teachings. And he didn’t stop at one video – no, Rabbi Fohrman sat and created 60 videos to teach his Genesis material and worked through another 80 for “part 1” of his Yosef material.

 

At the beginning stages of Aleph Beta, our video editors merely cleaned up the videos that Rabbi Fohrman created. At Purim-time last year, in an effort to give Rabbi Fohrman more time to research, develop and teach his material, our incredibly talented video editors decided to take a crack at building videos from scratch, using only Rabbi Fohrman’s audio. The Purim video series was our first major success, taught in over 25 schools and viewed by over 14,000 people.

Our video editing team has been improving their game with each video, taking the words of Rabbi Fohrman’s lectures, capturing the main essence of his teaching, and creating the most powerful medium for its delivery. We now have an incredible team of excited young professionals working with Rabbi Fohrman on developing content, editing, producing videos, developing our web-offerings, and distributing the material to schools and adult-ed programs. Our material is being studied in more than 100 schools, and by 100,000 people throughout the world. We’re continuing our popular holiday and parsha series, and hope to expand our library of topics each month.

 

Ultimately, we’re still doing what we do because of you, our fans. We all love coming to work everyday because we think that Rabbi Fohrman’s methodology and Torah content is incredible. And it makes us even more excited when we get the kind of feedback that you all share with us each week.

 

So as Purim approaches, and in anticipation of this year’s new Purim course, take a walk down memory lane and enjoy last year’s course: The Hidden Story of Queen Esther.

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The Mystery of Place: Reflections on Death, Mourning, and the Afterlife

An Epilogue to Our Parshat Tetzaveh Video

I want to take a few minutes to share with you a thought that moved me this week. It appeared in the comments to our parsha video, and was contributed by a fellow who identified himself only as Avi. Here’s the background to his idea.

 

In this past week’s parsha video, I talked about the paradox embodied by the mishkan, the tabernacle. It is a place in our three-dimensional world for the One who transcends those dimensions. God, the creator, lives outside the world that He creates. He is not bound by the rules of physics that He created – nor is He bound by the categories of space and time that form the matrix of our existence. He is beyond all this; He is transcendent.

 

I mentioned on the video that the Sages, in Bereishit Rabbah, allude to all this with a cryptic aphorism: Why, they ask, is God called “The Place”? Because God is the place of the world; and the world is not His place. What could they possibly mean by that?

 

I suggested that they meant that God’s place is not in this world; that is, space and time is not the environment in which God “swims,” as it were. The Almighty is not a physical entity that needs a “place.”Nevertheless, God does have a relationship to our physical world. He is the “place,” so to speak, for that world.

 

To understand this, we need to think more deeply about what we mean by the word “place.” What does this notion really mean to us? A place is a vessel in space and time in which something exists. It is the environment that holds something. In our universe, something doesn’t exist unless it has a place. But let’s stop thinking about that which is ‘in’ our universe. What of our universe itself? What is the place for that?

 

That place – that ‘environment’ – would be God.

 

The Consolation of Place

So here’s what Avi had to say. He called attention to the fact that there are many appellations for God in our tradition. On occasion we call God the ‘Master of the Universe.’ Sometimes, we call God ‘The Holy One Blessed be He.’ On rare occasions we speak of God as ‘The Place.’ What quality do those occasions have?

 

One of the times we speak of God this way is when tragedy strikes, when we are mourning our dead. The traditional statement that one makes on taking leave of a mourner refers to God as ‘The Place”:

Hamakom yenachem etchem betoch shaar avalei tziyon v’yerushalayim…

May “The Place” comfort you among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem…

Similarly, when we add a prayer for our brethren in trouble, we say:

Acheinu Kol Beit Yisrael hanetunim batzara . . . .HaMakom yerachem…”

Our brothers who are faced with travail and difficulty… may The Place have mercy on them…

It seems that in times of trouble, our tradition tends to refer to the Almighty as ”The Place.” Why?

 

Avi suggests that there is something comforting about thinking of God as “The Place.” When we ponder the notion that God is not of our world, that He is transcendent, that He doesn’t live in our little fishbowl called the universe of space and time, there’s something lonely about it. God lives apart from us, and we want to be close to God. We want particularly to feel that closeness when times are hard, when darkness touches our lives. When life feels cold to us, when we mourn – we sometimes mourn more than we might know. In our sadness, perhaps we mourn not just the passing of a loved one, but something more basic: We fear that we are truly alone, that somehow, God is not with us. It’s just us and the cold, emptiness of the vastness of the universe.

 

Do we know there is a God? Yes. Do we believe His influence is felt in the world? Yes. But the idea that God exists in a realm apart from us is still a lonely idea. It’s like the five-year-old who must go to sleep in her dark room at night, all alone. She knows her parents are next door. She knows they won’t abandon her. But still, it is hard. It is lonely. The room feels vast and she feels small. Small, and alone.

 

It is in those times, and those times particularly, that we are called upon to think of God as “The Place.” That name for God tells us something, that our Parent in Heaven is in fact, very near. It tells us that we are not alone; our Parent holds us. We exist, as it were, within Him. Our Creator may not inhabit our world. But our Creator is more than our Maker; He is the place, the nurturing environment, in which we, and all that we know, exists. He is our place. In Him, we find our home.

 

“The Place”: Implications for Life After Death

Taking these ideas just one step further, it seems to me that there are profound ramifications for how we might think of life after death. Death is scary. It is our confrontation with the great beyond, the moment at which we leave the comforting familiarity of space and time and confront What Comes Next.

 

No one really knows what comes next, and that makes it frightening. Unknown journeys, by their nature, evoke angst. But it seems to me that the notion of God as Place should be of some comfort to us. In that regard, allow me to share with you a piece of writing sent along to me by two good friends, Morris Smith and Andrew Herenstein. It seems to me a restatement, in a way, of ideas that appear in the classic Jewish work on death and dying, Gesher HaChayim (section III). I don’t know the original author of this beautiful piece, but I found it quite profound. Here it is:

In a mother’s womb were two babies. One asked the other: “Do you believe in life after delivery?”

The other replies, “Why, of course. There has to be something after delivery.

Maybe we are here to prepare ourselves for what we will be later.”

“Nonsense,” says the other. “There is no life after delivery. What would that life be?”

“I don’t know, but there will be more light than here. Maybe we will walk with our legs and eat from our mouths.”

The other says: “This is absurd! Walking is impossible. And eat with our mouths? Ridiculous. The umbilical cord supplies nutrition. Life after delivery is to be excluded. The umbilical cord is too short.”

“I think there is something and maybe it’s different than it is here.”

The other replies, “No one has ever come back from there. Delivery is the end of life, and in the after-delivery it is nothing but darkness and anxiety and it takes us nowhere.”

“Well, I don’t know,” says the other, “but certainly we will see Mother and she will take care of us.”

“Mother??” You believe in mother? Where is she now?”

“She is all around us. It is in her that we live. Without her there would not be this world.”

“I don’t see her, so it’s only logical that she doesn’t exist.”

To which the other replied, “Sometimes when you’re in silence you can hear her, you can perceive her.”

I believe there is a reality after delivery and we are here to prepare ourselves for that reality.

Posted in Uncategorized | 6 Responses

Crashing the Wedding Party

64

 

One of the downsides of creating any work that ensconces an idea – whether book, video, audio recording or what have you – is that you don’t get a second crack at it once it is published. The idea is gone, separated from you and out in the world – and you can’t just “reel it back in” for fine-tuning.

 

At least, so it was until the creation of blogs.

 

A blog, I think, can give a writer a second crack at the bat. At least, that’s what I’d like to try to use this blog post for – a second chance at the bat at Parshat Yitro.

 

Last week, we released a video on Parashat Yitro. It gave rise to some fantastic discussion on our note boards (and on Aish). I want to highlight some of those posts and address them – and in the process, try to clarify and refine some of the ideas I raised. But a quick warning: The implications are not all so terribly sunny. There are some dark possibilities here as well, so let the adventurous reader be forewarned!

 

Let me begin by summarizing my central thesis on the video:

Yitro I and Yitro II: Parallel Stories?

 

In the Yitro video, I took the position that there seemed to be an intriguing correspondence between Moshe’s first encounter with his father-in-law Yitro, and Moshe’s second encounter with him. The latter encounter, of course, takes place in the aftermath of the Jews’ salvation at the Sea of Reeds. I went so far as to suggest that these two stories so closely aligned with one another that they constitute “parallel narratives” as it were.

 

Now, a word of caution here: Whenever one might suggest that two narratives are genuine “parallels” of one another – i.e. that the Torah actually means for us to understand them this way – it is not really enough to cite one or two things about the stories that seem to be similar. One or two similarities might just be the product of coincidence. Indeed, to really make the case, you need to show similarities that are fairly numerous and compelling. Failing that, your argument can be fairly easily dismissed with a wave of the hand.

 

So with that in mind, let us examine the available evidence.

 

Let’s take a moment to run through what happens the first time Moshe meets Yitro. In that encounter, a savior [Moshe], had just saved a potential victim [the daughters of Yitro] from enemies. Right after that, Yitro encounters the ones who were saved [namely, his daughters] — and in that encounter, the “saved persons” tell Yitro exactly what happened; that is, how the savior saved them. Following that, Yitro tells his daughters: “Why did you leave the man where he is? Call him and let’s break bread with him!” Following Yitro’s feast with “the savior”, the next thing you know, is that the savior marries the saved: Yitro gives the hand of his daughter in marriage to Moshe.

 

OK, and now let’s go to the second encounter between Moshe and Yitro, chapters later. Here is what happens there:

 

A savior [God], had just saved a potential victim [the Jewish People] from enemies [the Egyptian army]. After that, Yitro encounters a representative of the one who was saved. That representative is Moshe [who is part of the Jewish People]. In that encounter, Moshe, tells Yitro exactly what happened – how God saved them. And then, as if on cue, Yitro responds with: “Let’s sit down and have a feast”. Just as before, Yitro “invites” the Savior to join in the feast – he offers offering, and eats “in the presence of God”.

 

And now, let us ask: What happens next?

 

My conclusion on the video, was that if these parallels are real, the next thing that should happen in the chain of parallels is some sort of event that corresponds to the marriage between Moshe and the Daughter of Yitro.

 

Indeed, in what I’ve come to call “YItro II” – the second encounter between Moshe and Yitro — the next event we witness is Moshe judging the people who come to “seek out God” by virtue of their arguments. They want to know what God thinks of their disputes, how God will settle them. I suggested that perhaps this very event – this “seeking out of God” – is a kind of connection between God and Humanity, a connection sealed and consecrated by Divine Law. This constitutes a kind of “marriage” in the text between the Savior and the Saved. The Savior is God. The Saved is the Jewish People. They are now connecting deeply in a loving way. They are married. The ring, as it were, is the Divine Law.

OK; I See That; but is it Real?

Now comes the moment of truth: Was that all real, or just idle homiletics?

 

I’d say that the parallels described above are certainly suggestive – but I do concede that they leave room for reasonable doubt. One could counter that perhaps this is all the product of coincidence (and Fohrman’s overactive imagination). So let me to try and flesh out the argument just a little bit more. Let me show you a couple other points of correspondence that didn’t make it into the video version of this…

 

Remember the first time Moshe meets Yitro? If you look carefully at the text (Exodus 2:19), you’ll find that his daughters recount three things to him. They tell him that:

 

  • The savior [Moshe] saved them from enemies.

  • They then tell their father that the savior went on to provide for them in other ways, drawing water from a well.

  • Finally, they tell how Moshe then gave their thirsty flock of sheep water to drink.

 

Now let’s go to the corresponding point in “Yitro II”.

 

It turns out that when Moshe tells Yitro how God saved the people, he actually says, in effect, three things, too. Not only that, but each of the three things appear to correspond to the three things the daughters said in “YItro I”.

 

What does Moshe say in Yitro II? Well, first, he tells Yitro that a savior [God] saved has the people from Pharoah and the Egyptian army. OK, that corresponds to what the girls told father about a savior saving them from enemies. But now, ask yourself: How, exactly did God effect that salvation? How did God save the people from the army of Pharoah? The answer is that He did so through the event we know as the Parting of the Sea. In that event, God took a single body of water, and drew some of the water away, making, in effect, two bodies of water…

 

So what does that remind you of in Yitro I?

 

Well, go back to what the daughters said to Yitro: “He drew water from the well for us… Think, now: What happens when a person draws water from a well? First, before lowering the bucket, all the water is in the well. Then, after you lower and raise the bucket, you draw part of the water away, making two bodies of water.

 

At the well, in an act of everyday kindness, Moshe drew a small body of water apart vertically.

 

At the splitting of the Sea, in an act of supernatural kindness, God drew a body of water apart horizontally, in the greatest miracle known to mankind.

The Third Correspondence

But let’s continue further. In “Yitro II”, Moshe goes on to tell of how the people met up with “travails on the way”, difficulties from which God saved them. Now, ask yourself: To what travail does Moshe refer?

 

Well, let’s see. Moshe had just spoken of God’s deliverance at the Sea of Reeds. What was the very next travail the Jews met up with in the desert? The answer is that the people thirsted for water, and there was none – so God provided them with water.

 

They came to Marah and couldn’t drink the water because it was bitter… and God showed Moshe a tree, and he threw it in the water, and sweetened the water for them… (Exodus 15:23-25).

 

Again, let’s go back to the corresponding event in ‘Yitro I’. What is the third thing the daughters told their father? It was that Moshe provided their thirsty flock water to drink.

 

In each case, the Savior provides water, allowing, as it were, a thirsty flock to drink. It is just that in one case, the Savior is human; in the other, the Savior is divine. In one case, the flock is comprised of sheep; in the other, it is comprised of the Jewish People as a whole…

Further Parallels, with a Twist

I said above that after the Feast of Yitro, the next thing that happens in both instances is that the Savior marries the Saved. Actually, that’s not entirely true. There is something that happens in between. It has to do with Moshe “sitting”.

 

In “Yitro I”, Moshe sits and dwells with Yitro.

 

And Moshe was content to sit [lashevet] with the man. (Exodus 2:21).

 

And what about in “Yitro II”? Well, Moshe again sits – but he does not sit with Yitro; instead he sits to judge the people…

 

“Vayeshev Moshe lishpot ha’am…” (Exodus 18:13).

 

Parallel events continue to unfold here – but yet, something is happening differently this time. There is a divergence.

 

The divergence starts with the guest list for Yitro’s feast. In Yitro II, Moshe, strangely, is conspicuously absent from Yitro’s feast; one wonders: Where is he?

 

Lo and behold, we find him in the next verse “sitting” (just as he was in Yitro I) – but sitting not with Yitro but with the people, telling them of God’s laws. At this point, Yitro accosts him, telling him that what he’s doing is not a great idea:

 

“Why are you sitting here all alone, with the people standing over you from morning til evening?… It is not good this thing that you do… you cannot do it all alone…” (v. 14, 17, 18).

 

I’d like to add here an idea that didn’t appear in the video, due to lack of time. The idea is somewhat dark, and a viewer (she identifies herself as “Princess”) alluded to it in one of the comments that appear on our site. Let me quote her insightful words:

 

I am going to take the minority position that Yitro was a malevolent introduction into the bridal party rather than a positive one. Yitro hears about the deliverance of Israel while Moshe has [directly] heard from and seen the miracles of the Holy One. Now, I can understand that forty years of shepherding with his son-in-law probably leads Yitro to not view him as anything special, so once he shows up in the camp of Israel, it appears he decides to take over. …He sets up a court system that we never hear is validated from heaven, as God has his own plan…. Thoughts?

 

Well, “Princess” concluded by asking for my thoughts, so I will provide them here:

Crashing the Bridal Party?

My thoughts are that “Princess” may largely be right.

 

While I wouldn’t go so far as to characterize Yitro’s involvement as “malevolent”, there is indeed reason to wonder whether or not we are witnessing something of a tragedy in the making. For indeed, if the thesis I advanced above is correct, Moshe is telling Yitro that something special is happening between the people and God. It is not just about judging; it is about connection. There is a kind of marriage happening here.

 

But what is Yitro’s response to this?

 

Yitro, concerned about Moshe’s well-being, suggests instituting a large hierarchy of judges. What will this do? What will happen as a result?

 

Yitro suggests this in order to help Moshe in managing what seems like a crushing burden. It makes sense from an administrative standpoint, that is sure. But while his plan might provide relief for Moshe, it comes at an existential cost. It creates a new, intermediate position in what was otherwise a direct and intimate relationship. Yitro’s proposal creates something that intervenes between God and the people. There is now a new party to the marriage between God and the Jewish People. The network of intermediate judges is intervening between them.

Does the Text Support Such an Audacious Conclusion?

 

One second, you say: Are you telling me Yitro’s plan wasn’t a good idea? Are you suggesting this whole plan was something other than what should have taken place?

 

While that might seem a startling conclusion, there is strong evidence in the text for it. Listen carefully to Yitro’s words, again:

 

“Why are you sitting here all alone, with the people standing over you from morning ‘til evening?… It is not good this thing that you do… you cannot do it all alone…” (v. 14, 17, 18).

 

I’ve bold-faced a few words here. Look at those bolded words carefully, and ask yourself: What this reminds you of? Where else in the Torah do we hear language like this? Where else does someone say: “It is not good that someone be alone…” Where else does someone then try to create someone who will “help” that person, so that he will not be all alone?

 

The answer, of course, is that we are looking at language borrowed from the creation of Eve. The “someone” who creates the helper is none other than God:

 

And God said: It is not good that man is alone. I will make a helper alongside him… (Genesis 2:18).

 

The Torah seems to confirm our suspicions. We really are talking about marriage between God and the Jewish People here. It’s not just a figment of our imagination. It is real. And yet, at the same time, the Torah seems to be sending out a cautionary signal. What Yitro is proposing is, in effect, the creation of a new spouse in the relationship. No longer will it just be God and the Jewish People, in a relationship facilitated directly by Moshe. No, there will be someone else. New helpers. There will be intermediate judges, intervening in the relationship…

Echoes of Hagar

The notion of the judges being “new helpers” intervening in a marriage relationship, as it were, is reinforced by one last textual allusion — a quite chilling one.

 

At the very end of the story, where Moshe accepts Yitro’s advice, the text expresses Moshe’s assent using these words:

 

And Moshe listened to the voice of his father-in law (18:24).

 

The Hebrew for this is:

 

Vayishma Moshe lekol chotno… [Hebrew transliteration].

 

Now, let’s play our little game one last time: Where else have we heard this formula before? What else in the Torah does vayishma Moshe lekol chotno remind you of?

 

It turns out that this exact formula, “vayishma ‘x’ lekol ‘y’” [And ‘x’ listened to the voice of ‘y’], appears only one other time in the entire Five Books of Moses.

 

When is that time?

 

The only other time that language appears in when Abraham assents to Sarah’s suggestion that he consort with Hagar, instead of her, to father a child:

 

And Abraham listened to the voice of Sarah… (Genesis 16:1).

 

Think about that earlier episode. A man is married to a woman. But then that woman suggests that he consort with another woman, instead, to achieve the all-important end of a child. And the man assents to that suggestion…

 

The comparison is indeed chilling. The Torah seems to hint that “Princess” might well be right. The intermediate judges may have offered administrative support for Moshe – but at what price did that support come? Could it have compromised what could have been, should have been, a direct, intimate relationship?

 

I’ve already gone on quite long enough in this blog post – but for readers interested in hearing more about my theory concerning the startling repercussions of Yitro’s judges, I invite you to listen to an audio course we just posted on our site: “Why Couldn’t Moshe Enter the Land?” In that series, I’ve explored these issues in depth, and charted what I believe to be their repercussions.

 

The series is a long one – it is seven lectures. The first three deal with other ideas; the last ones, the fourth through seventh, I believe deal with these issues extensively.

 

Take a listen and let me know what you think. I believe you’ll find it quite intriguing.

Posted in Uncategorized | 19 Responses

“Great D’var Torah! But What Are Your Sources?”

 

research2

By Rabbi David Fohrman

 

So here’s a note that I received recently from one of our loyal Parsha viewers. I thought I would share it with you and take a moment to respond:

 

“Rabbi Fohrman’s Parsah thoughts are brilliant & insightful. I just wonder are there any sources for his theories and if yes why do you not quote them?

Thank you so much…”

(name withheld)

 

So here’s my response: I do work with other sources – and I do mention them when I work with them; it is how I synthesize those sources that is original. So, for example, in our video on Parshat Vayechi, I refer to Rashi and to comments made by the Midrash in Bereishit Rabbah. But how I synthesize those sources with the text – yes, that is original. Unless I state otherwise on any particular video, how it all comes together is nothing more or less than my way of seeing it. I am sharing with you, a reader of Chumash, how things seem to me, as a fellow reader of Chumash. We are two readers, trying to make sense of the text that stands before us. We are trying to understand “pshat” [the simple meaning of the text]. Any commentator we encounter – from Rashi, to the Ramban, to Seforno, to Hirsch and the Haamek Davar – is writing to you based on the assumption that you have already made an attempt to understand “pshat.” If you have not tried to do so yet, you are not ready to read the commentator – for indeed, you have not yet read the text that he or she is commenting upon.

 

Let me backtrack, for a moment, to a possible source of some confusion on this matter.

 

Many of us have spent a great deal of time studying Gemara, over the years. When we study the Gemara, we are trained from a young age, in yeshiva, to defer to the opinions of sages greater than us, who have written on these matters many years before. To some extent, that deference owes itself to a recognition of the greatness, acumen, honesty, and spiritual loftiness of such earlier commentators. But it also owes itself to the idea of legal precedent. Studying Gemara is not just an intellectual pursuit, and it is not just a spiritual one. It is also a legal pursuit. The Gemara is concerned with settling questions of law – and in questions of law, precedent matters. It matters in Jewish law, and it matters in American law. It matters in almost every system of law that one could imagine.

 

When legal matters – halachah – are not at stake, Jewish tradition has always recognized the right of all readers, in every generation, to look at the text themselves and to try to decide, to the best of their abilities, what it is that they think the text means. It is always up to individuals to read “pshat”, to try to discern for themselves what they think the simplest, most true meaning of any text is. One simply cannot read a text and fail to make these decisions; to do so is just to read words without attempting any sense of comprehension, and it is an abdication of one’s basic responsibility as a reader. The very idea of “reading comprehension” implies an attempt to comprehend – to synthesize – the words, sentences and paragraphs that lie before you and in some sort of way, ask yourself what they all add up to. This is what we all do when we read. And it is what I do, when I read, too. This is what I am sharing with you in these videos: My best attempts to make sense of what the pieces add up to.

 

If it is Really New, it is Wrong

 

I should really say another thing though, about “originality” in my work. When I say that, typically, the ideas that I put forth on the videos are “original”, which is to say, they originate with me – that’s true in one sense, and it’s not true in another. The sense in which it is not true, is that I’m not trying to dream things up; I’m not really the point of origin for the ideas. The text is. That is, I’m trying to share with you something that I think the text is saying. Ultimately, if I am right, it is the text that is speaking to you more than I am. I’m just a guide, not an originator. If, in truth, I am really originating something – if it comes from me and not from the text – then I have failed. Then, I am actually wrong. In order for theory that I put out there to be correct, it has to, in retrospect, seem “obvious.” If it does not seem obvious, or at least compelling on the merits of the text – then it should be rejected.

 

The Role of Midrash

 

The above take on things is somewhat oversimplified, because the truth is, much of what I do, in fact, involves commentary quite heavily. I am often attempting to synthesize a kind of commentary – Midrashic commentary – with the Biblical text. (Our video on Parshat Vayechi is a good example of this.) Midrash is typically difficult to understand, and it tends to speak in riddles. But if one can piece together its meaning, I believe that one finds, more often than not, that Midrash provides an astoundingly insightful way of synthesizing the larger meaning of Biblical text. For those of you interested in a more detailed look at Midrash and how it can be read successfully, I refer you to Simi Peters excellent book, “Understanding Midrash” – and, to a lesser extent, to our upcoming video on Parshat Shemot. In the meantime, I wish you great success in your attempts, along with me, to discern the larger themes inherent in biblical text – to discern the beauty of each leaf, to understand how each is part of a tree, and to intuit the shape of the forest. To do, in short, what it is what the Almighty requires of us in reading His book.

 

Happy reading,

Rabbi David Forhman

 

Make sure to check out the 10 Minute Parsha Video on Shemot: If Midrash Is Real, Why Isn’t It Pshat?

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

A Powerful Biblical Tool…From Sesame Street

By Rabbi David Fohrman

 

Sesame Street

It strikes me that most of the tools we need to help us read Biblical text more clearly and more deeply — the kind of tools I use often in Aleph Beta videos — are actually very intuitive and commonsensical. So intuitive and commonsensical, I would say, that it is almost as if everything you need to know to understand the Bible, you learned in kindergarten. A lot of time, these tools remain kind of behind the scenes on our videos, so I wanted to take a couple moments with you, in writing, to profile one of the approaches to text that I find really valuable. You’ll find, I think, that it is something you can use yourself from time to time — and, when you do, you may surprise yourself with the profundity of insight it leads you to uncover.

The ‘kindergarten-like’ tool I want to point out today is a device I like to call “which one of these things is not like the other?” Yes, you heard that right. If you remember Sesame Street back from those kindergarten days, you already know how to play — but for those of you who were deprived of Sesame Street in your youth, allow me to introduce you to the pleasures of this little exercise.

 

The way it used to work on Sesame Street is this: All of a sudden the screen divides into four segments. In each quarter of the screen you see some kind of object, and then the music starts to play. At this point, your mission, dear viewer (should you choose to accept it), was to identify which of the four object just doesn’t belong. In short, which of the four is just “not like the others.”

 

Something like that can happen as well, quite often, when we examine core Jewish texts. Every once in a while, as you read, you come across groups of ideas, things or places. And as you look at the group, you begin to hear that Sesame Street song play in the back of your mind. Most of the things seem to obviously fit in a certain category. But one of them doesn’t seem to fit.

 

Why might the Torah be goading us into playing this little game? Why include the fourth element if it doesn’t really fit? My sense is that the Torah does this as a way of conveying something unexpected and profound. It is the Torah’s way of saying: “You think that last element doesn’t fit? Look again. Things aren’t as they seem at first glance.”

 

From my own experience, I find that, usually, the last thing really does fit — it just doesn’t fit the way you first expected it to. If you can figure out how the last thing truly is part of the larger whole, it will lead you into a new and deeper understanding of both the whole category — and the apparently anomalous element’s place within it.

 

A good example of this ‘tool’ in action can be found on the first tablet of the Ten Commandments. The first four commandments on that tablet seem to fall under the category of commands that govern man’s relationship to God. But the last command on the tablet, to honor your father and mother, is apparently anomalous. Last I checked, your parents are people. What are they doing on a tablet that is supposed to be about my relationship with God?

 

The answer might well be that the category name needs to be refined. The tablet might not be about “relationships between people and God,” as tempting as that title may seem. The tablet might actually be about something else, about something larger. Yes, we have a heavenly creator, God, and earthly creators, parents. The first tablet tells us how to honor both.

 

I want to challenge you to play our game in this week’s parsha. T the whole parsha is about the story of Joseph, right? He is the main character; it all revolves around him. Or…almost all of it. There is an entire chapter that just doesn’t seem to belong. And that is chapter 38.

 

Chapter 38 details the long and involved story of Yehudah and Tamar. The story is entirely centered on Yehudah and his life, and seems to have

Judah and Tamarnothing whatsoever to do with Joseph. So the question is: What is it doing here? Right after the Sale of Joseph occurs, when Jacob’s house seems to be in utter disarray, and the reader is waiting to see what happens next with Joseph — we get a long, extended digression into the life of Yehudah. And then, just as suddenly, it’s back to Joseph. Chapter 39 picks up with the story of Joseph, as if we had never left it.
Why is the Torah doing this? What does Chapter 38 have to do with the price of tea in China, as it were? The Sesame Street music is starting to play. What do you think the answer is? Leave us your answers in the comments below. And if you’d like to hear mine, check out our new Aleph Beta course on the life of Yehudah, entitled “Judah: A Perpelexing Character.”

 

Shabbat Shalom!

 

This Post was sponsored by Bonnie Septimus in loving memory of Shmuel Fishel ben Alexander Chaim, Eliezer Zvi ben Yosef Dov, Devorah bat Zvi Zelig, and Chaya Rachel bat Chaim Yitzchak

 

For Sponsorship Opportunities: http://alephbeta.org/donate

Posted in Uncategorized | 5 Responses