Archive for January, 2013

I know this could easily have been determined with a concordance, but since I didn’t use one, this surprised me. As I make my way slowly but (sometimes) steadily through Isaiah, I discovered a fascinating verse. The prophet, in describing the utter desolation that will be the fate of Babylonia as a consequence of their persecution of Israel, depicts Babylonia as a desert overrun by wild creatures that do not inhabit areas where men dwell.

Isaiah 34:14:

“The tziyim shall encounter the iyim, and the sair shall call to its fellow, even there Lilith abides, and finds her resting place.”

I left the more cryptic Hebrew terms untranslated here, pending my explanatory remarks. “Tziyim” and “iyim” are definitely small desert animals, though of what species exactly I am uncertain. The word sair usually means “goat” although it sometimes means “demon,” as Targum and Rashi both translate here. Demons, according to Jewish tradition, only dwell in secluded or desolate places, not in areas with an abundance of men. The prophet, by invoking the demon, so to speak, conveys that Babylonia will be a ruin uninhabited by men. If, however, sair is to be rendered “goat,” it must refer to some wild, desert variety. Then comes “Lilith.” Remember that there are no capital letters in Hebrew, so the choice to make Lilith a proper noun is the translator’s. Without the capital “L,” a “lilith” in Hebrew may simply refer to a desert creature that makes a ululating sound, or a nocturnal creature taking its name from the Hebrew “laylah,” meaning “night” (Radak). However, Rashi tells us that “Lilith” is indeed the name of a demoness, though Rashi tells us nothing more. Metzudath David goes so far as to say that Lilith is “the mother of the demons.”

Legends abound in the mouths of the masses as to who Lilith actually was or is, though I prefer to save my discussion for what is found in mainstream sources. So far, my research has not yielded much more than I have already shared here.

In the world of “kiruv,” or “Jewish outreach” as it’s known (although kiruv literally means “bringing close”), there exist two “targets” of these efforts: unaffiliated Jews, and formally affiliated Jews who have “strayed from the path.” The contemporary Hebrew terminology for outreach to the former group is “kiruv rechokim” (“bringing close those who are distant”), while outreach to the latter has been dubbed“kiruv kerovim” (“bringing close those who are close”).

Ironically, however, I discovered that, according to Rashi, the prophet Isaiah reversed these terms:

“Hear, you who are far (‘rechokim’), that which I (G-d) have done; and know, you who are close (‘kerovim’), My might.” (Isaiah 33:13)


“‘you who are far’ — those who believe in Me and carry out My will from their youth; ‘you who are close’ — penitents (baaley teshuvah) who have recently come close to Me.”

So it seems, according to Rashi’s understanding of Isaiah, that those who only recently become observant of G-d’s commandments are called “kerovim” (“close”), while those who begin as observant Jews are called “rechokim” (“far”), as in having been observant a long time, having already travelled a long road in their observance. According to these definitions, our contemporary outreach terminology is completely reversed.

Another, more ironic meaning to find in Rashi’s words is that unfortunately too common phenomenon that those who are raised observant are often further from a truly inspired connection to G-d than those who have more recently discovered Torah Judaism. Baaley teshuvah feel a closeness to G-d, live more inspired lives and find meaning and happiness in their observant lifestyle, while those raised with ritual are desensitized, uninspired by habit-driven religiosity and rote observance.

Perhaps all Jews, those raised Torah observant and those not, could use a little kiruv in order to become true kerovim.

The Talmud (Gitin 56B) records a catastrophic incident in Jewish history that took place when the Romans destroyed the Holy Temple in Jerusalem.

When Titus (then general, son of Emperor Vespasian, later Emperor himself) entered the Holy of Holies (inner sanctum of the Temple), among the revulsive acts of absolute desecration he performed there, he plunged his sword through the curtain that divided between the area containing the Holy Ark (holiest of Temple vessels) and the area containing the other holy vessels. When Titus did so, the Talmud records, blood miraculously spurted out from the cut, and Titus “thought he had killed [the Almighty] Himself.”

When I quoted this passage recently during a class, a student expressed [rightfully] his skepticism regarding the veracity of this story. I vindicated his sentiment, asking him to remain openminded in order to draw out the message the Sages meant to convey with this story. In fact, Maimonides is emphatic that one should treat such difficult passages metaphorically. What then, is the metaphor of the spurting blood?

Rabbi Shimshon Pincus, of blessed memory, asserts (in Nefesh Shimshon: Shabbos Kodesh) that even more troubling is the notion that Titus actually thought he had eliminated G-d himself! Could he be so weak a thinker to believe he had such power?

I would like to borrow from Rabbi Pincus’ explanation, with slight variation, to offer the following understanding.  “Death” ultimately means the abandonment by the soul of the body. When the soul “leaves,” the body “dies.” But the soul lives on! Death is not an absolute end. Titus interpreted his “victory” as a sign that G-d had abandoned the Jewish people as the soul leaves the body. The Torah teaches that “the blood is the spirit [of life],” therefore the forsaking of the Jewish people, the abandonment of the “body” of the nation by G-d, the “soul” of the nation, is represented by the spilling of blood.  However, Titus’ error was in his short-sightedness. To where does the blood flow? To the earth. This symbolizes that G-d has not abandoned the Jewish people, but has joined them in their lowly state. Like Obi-Wan Kenobi, in that famous scene from the original Star Wars, says to Darth Vader, “If you strike me down, I shall become more powerful than you can possibly imagine,” the Almighty (l’havdil) is not defeated, but, in our state of exile, has assured us He is with us upon whichever earth we stand, through all our ups and downs, until we shall return, may it be soon, to our Holy Land, where we will celebrate together the Glory of G-d.


The words of G-d through His prophet Isaiah (27:4):

I have no wrath; if only I could be as briars and thorns at war, I would step on her, I would set them aflame altogether.

Rashi explains:

“I have no wrath” — I cannot express My case to pour out my wrath against the nations, for Israel, too, sins.

“if only I could be as briers and thorns at war” — against those with whom I am at war, and that is Ishmael. If only I could punish them without the objection of the Attribute of Justice! If the Children of Israel would repent, that would set Me as briars and thorns against those with whom I am at war! I would step over the Attribute of Justice and punish them (Ishmael)… and set them aflame altogether.”

Interestingly, Rashi interprets this end-times prophecy as referring to Ishmael, the progenitor of the Arab nations, though I’m not sure how this is indicated by the text. Remarkably, though, according to Rashi, this reflects accurately the current state of Israel’s affairs, very much oppressed and abused by the Arab peoples from both within and without its borders. Why does G-d not rescue us from our woes and punish the wicked ones? Because we too are wicked! We too commit wrongdoing and do not repent, so we have no right to demand “justice” against our enemies when the same claim can be made against the Jews. The Jewish people must return to the ways of the Torah; this is the only route to providing salvation from our enemies. Until then, even G-d must act “fairly,” though it is not He that holds back the redemption, it is we.

See also this post.