Archive for July, 2013

Oft quoted is the idea that the Jews are to be “a light unto the nations,” popularly understood to mean that Israel will set an example for all humankind through excellence in behavior.

This idea originates from a verse in Isaiah:

“I am the Lord, I have called you in righteousness, and I will strengthen your hand, and I will form you (alt. “protect you”) and I will give you as the covenant of a people, as a light unto the nations.” (42:6)

(The translation here is my own. I have rendered the Hebrew “or goyim” as “a light unto the nations” following the popular phrase, just to avoid confusion, though otherwise I’d prefer to translate it as: “a light of nations.”)

As usual, the popular understanding of this phrase is challenged by a quick glance at the commentary of Rashi.

“I have called you” — [God] says to Isaiah.
“and I will form you” — ‘When I formed you, this was My thought, that you will return My people to My covenant.’
“as a light unto the nations” — Each tribe by itself is called a nation, as it says (Genesis 34:11, G-d blessing Jacob), “a nation and a congregation of nations shall come forth from you.”

According to Rashi, G-d addresses here not the people of Israel but Isaiah himself, revealing to him his mission to be a light unto “nations,” that is, to the tribes of Israel.

It seems then, that the notion, supposedly based on this verse, that the Jews are charged to act as a light unto the nations (of the world) is greatly overstated. Rather, G-d’s desire, as stated here, is that the Jews’ primary concern be the honoring of its own covenant with G-d. This will be the greatest “enlightenment” our people can strive to achieve.

When Isaiah informed King Hezekiah that he would live despite the king’s fatal illness and the earlier pronouncement by G-d that he would surely die, Isaiah then commands that Hezekiah’s boils be healed by rubbing them with pressed figs, a miraculous form of healing (Ch. 38, see Rashi).

King Hezekiah responds by proclaiming his excitement regarding his continued ability to come before G-d in the Holy Temple: “What a sign that I shall ascend to the House of God!” (v. 22)

The Hebrew for “What a sign” is ״מה אות״ — “mah oth” — which can also be translated, “What is the sign,” i.e. an inquisitive statement asking the prophet for a sign that he would merit to come to the Temple again. However, there is a strong consensus among the classic commentators that the correct translation is as the first translation, “What a sign,” expressing then king’s excitement over the sign already given, that is the miraculous healing that signaled the king would continue to live and serve G-d as before. “What,” here is therefore an expression of praise. If you will, it is as though Hezekiah said, “What a great sign…”

Following this understanding of the term “מה — what,” a novel understanding of a classic passage in Pirkey Avoth (“Ethics of the Fathers”) emerges.

[הלל] היה אומר: אם אין אני לי מי לי, וכשאני לעצמי מה אני, ואם לא עכשיו אימתי.

Classically, the translation of this passage runs as follows:

[Hillel] would say: If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And if I am [only] for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?

The Shelah ha-Kadosh (Rabbi Yeshayah ha-Levi Horowitz), however, offers an incredible interpretation of the same passage translating מה אני (“mah ani”) not as the inquisitive “what am I?” but rather as an exclamation as in the passage from Isaiah such that the phrase translates roughly as, “how great am I!” carrying quite the opposite connotation.

According to the Shelah, Hillel refers in his statement to the concept of transmigration of souls, that a soul will return to the earth in a new form in order to rectify some wrongdoing in a previous incarnation. While this can occur, a soul only reaches an inferior level of elevation through this process rather than if the soul had fulfilled its existence during its first incarnation. “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?” If I do not take it upon myself to fulfill my existence during my initial incarnation, whom should I expect to bring about the rectification of my soul? “And if I am for myself, how great am I!” What a tremendous accomplishment to achieve the fulfillment of my soul without recourse to reincarnation! “And if not now, when?” If I do not accomplish the fulfillment of my soul now, in this life, when will I again have an equal opportunity to do so?

Based on this principle of the Shelah, we would do best to immediately contemplate “what” our choices will yield.


Hebrew Dreams -- a healthy habit

After King Hezekiah was miraculously restored to health by God, he composed a prayer of thanks, in which he declares:

“Regarding anything upon which my life depends, [declare], ‘They shall live,’ and grant me health, and grant me life!” (Isaiah 38:16)

The Hebrew word here for “grant me health,” is “tachalimeni,” from the Hebrew root “Ch-L-M.” While the usual word for health in Hebrew (“beriut”) derives from the root “B-R-A,” the root used here typically appears in relation to the word “chalom,” meaning “dream.” What is the connection between dreams and health that the Hebrew uses the same root to refer to both? Well, while the purpose of dreaming has never quite been fully understood, modern science is now proposing an essential connection between dreaming and health. Consider this passage from “Why Do We Dream,” by Kendra Cherry:

“Some researchers… believe that dreaming is essential to mental, emotional and physical well-being. Ernest Hoffman, director of the Sleep Disorders Center at Newton Wellesley Hospital in Boston, Mass., suggests that ‘…a possible (though certainly not proven) function of a dream to be weaving new material into the memory system in a way that both reduces emotional arousal and is adaptive in helping us cope with further trauma or stressful events.'”

Why to be discerning with one's musical choices as articulated by musician and neuroscientist Daniel J. Levitin in This is Your Brain on Music, p. 242-243

“To a certain extent, we surrender to music when we listen to it–we allow ourselves to trust the composers and musicians with a part of our hearts and our spirits; we let the music take us somewhere outside of ourselves. Many of us feel that great music connects us to something larger than our own existence, to other people, or to God… We might be understandably reluctant, then, to let our guard down, to drop our emotional defenses, for just anyone… This is part of the reason why so many people can’t listen to Wagner. Due to his pernicious anti-Semitism, the sheer vulgarity of his mind… and his music’s association with the Nazi regime, some people don’t feel safe listening to his music… I feel reluctant to give into the seduction of music created by so disturbed a mind and so dangerous (or impenetrably hard) a heart as his, for fear that I might develop some of the same ugly thoughts. When I listen to the music of a great composer I feel that I am, in some sense, becoming one with him, or letting a part of him inside me. I also find this disturbing with popular music, because surely some of the purveyors of pop are crude, sexist, racist, or all three.”

Of Songs and Shepherds

Rabbi Nachman of Breslov writes that the origin of music is the earth. Each blade of grass, he writes, plays a particular note, and somehow, the shepherd, who dwells in the fields as his sheep graze, subconsciously absorbs these notes and plays a unique tune, based on the notes of the grass of the area that he inhabits at any particular time.

Since discovering this idea, I “noted” the relationship between many words relating to plants and music. Some examples:

GaN = garden; niGuN = melody

ZeMuRah = vine; ZeMiRah = pruning, song

ShaRon = lush pasture (Metzudath Tziyon, Isaiah 35:2); ShiR = song