Thursday, July 30, 2015

Another Seat Change Scandal

The stories are familiar from flights to/from Israel, but now we have one in Canada. Per CBC News, an "ultra-Orthodox" man on a Porter Airlines flight from Newark to Toronto requested that a woman, Christine Flynn, change her seat, so that he wouldn't need to sit next to her on the flight.

The article includes harsh indictments of the man and his religion:
Flynn said she might have been willing to accommodate the man had he spoken to her directly and politely asked her to switch seats. She admits language may have been a factor — saying his English "wasn't terrific" — but said his refusal to even make eye contact was offensive.
"He could have made a plan, he could have put in a request," Flynn said in an interview Wednesday on CBC Radio's Metro Morning. "When someone doesn't look at you, and when someone doesn't acknowledge you as person because of your gender, you're a lot less willing to be accommodating.
"Leaving it to the last minute and expecting me to move is appalling. He's expecting me to fall in to that archetypical feminine role and acquiesce."

And:
Flynn says she's frustrated she was asked to move and upset others on the flight were willing to help the man.
"I have a problem with that. He [the flight attendant] probably, maybe, didn't realize that asking a woman to move because the fact she had a uterus made the man next to her uncomfortable ... I don't think he even would have put it together that that's kind of insulting and maybe even discriminatory," she said.
"If someone had refused to sit next to me because I was gay and maybe they were some kind of old-school religion that doesn't like gay people no one would have switched with him. It would have been off the table," she said.

[Update: I have now seen another CBC article on the story, here. Not any better, sorry to say.]

My three thoughts:
1. The man should recognize that taking public transportation may involve sitting beside women. If he believes that sitting beside her is wrong (and he certainly has basis in Shulchan Aruch), then it is not her job to move; it's his job to move. If he doesn't want to sit next to a woman, and he cannot select a seat guaranteeing that, then he should find another means of travel.

2. The man is guilty of chillul HaShem, desecrating Gd's Name, for voluntarily taking public transportation and then practicing this discriminatory act.
And yes, I do believe this qualifies as discrimination, per the Supreme Court of Canada (Andrews v. Law Society of Canada, 1989): Discrimination may be described as a distinction, whether intentional or not but based on grounds relating to personal characteristics of the individual or group, which has the effect of imposing burdens, obligations, or disadvantages on such individual or group not imposed upon others, or which withholds or limits access to opportunities, benefits, and advantages available to other members of society.
Since a man would not have been asked to move, this is discriminatory.

3. The people interviewed in the article and writing in the comments are depressingly judgmental. I know that they feel no obligation to assume the best of someone, but do they really need to assume the worst?
 They assume the man did this because he sees the woman as evil or dirty because she "had a uterus". In truth, separating men and women is simply a barrier against sexual impropriety - a woman might make the same request for a man to move.
Of course, society as a whole doesn't view sitting next to someone as a sexually charged situation - but society as a whole has an abysmal track record for sexual safety. I personally don't believe that switching seats was required by Jewish law, but frankly, if people would observe such strictures then we would be able to avoid much of the rampant sexual harassment and abuse we tolerate as "normal" in our world.
I wish the writer had interviewed someone with knowledge of Judaism.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Rabbi Yehudah HaLevi's Tzion Halo Tishali

I have put together an English translation of Rabbi Yehudah haLevi's beautiful Tziyon Halo Tishali. Of course, you can find it translated in various Hebrew/English editions of kinot, but the translations I have seen on-line have not satisfied me.

To make reading easier, I have divided up the poem into six parts based on themes I see there:
Lines 1-8 - A sense of abandonment; does Zion cry for us?
Lines 9-20 - Zion as the spiritual home of the Shechinah
Lines 21-38 - I wish I were there in the Zion of the Shechinah, even as a mourner!
Lines 39-46 - Mourning for the devastation of physical Zion
Lines 47-56 - We miss you, as a nation
Lines 57-68 - Your glory is great, and we will return

Note that there are various lines which are subject to multiple editions; my text may not match yours. Check the Hebrew below.

I would welcome suggestions and corrections.

English:
Zion, will you not ask after the welfare of your prisoners,
Who seek your welfare, and are the remnant of your flock?
From west and east, and from north and south,
The welfare of those far and near, inquire from all of your sides.
And the welfare of the prisoner of hope, who sheds tears like Hermon’s dew,
And yearns for them to descend upon your mountains.
Crying for your suffering, I am a jackal,
And when I dream of the return of your captives, I am a harp for your songs.

My heart is to Bethel, and for Peniel it greatly yearns,
And for Machanaim and all of the rendezvous of your pure ones,
There the Shechinah resides for you,
And your Creator opened your gates opposite the gates of Heaven,
And the glory of Gd alone was your luminary,
And the Sun, Moon and stars were not your luminaries.
I would choose for my soul to be poured out
In the place where the spirit of Gd was poured out upon your chosen ones.
You, house of royalty, and you, throne of Gd,
How could slaves now sit upon the thrones of your masters?
If only I could wander
Upon the places where Gd was revealed to your seers and messengers!

If only I had wings, and I would fly far away,
I would cause the pieces of my heart to wander among your pieces.
I would fall on my face upon your earth,
And I would desire your stones greatly, and favour your dust.
Even when I would stand upon the graves of my ancestors,
And I would be overwhelmed in Chevron, upon the choicest of your graves.
I would travel your forests and Carmel, and stand in your Gilead,
And I would be overwhelmed upon the mountain of your crossing,
Har ha’Avarim and Hor haHar,
The places of the two great lights, your luminaries and teachers.
The life of souls, air of your earth,
And the dust of your dirt better than sweet myrrh, and your rivers better than the drippings of honeycombs.
It would be pleasant for my spirit, to walk unclothed and barefoot
Upon the desolate ruins which were your Holy of Holies,
In the place where your Ark was hidden,
And in the place of your cherubs, which resided in your rooms within rooms.
I would shear off and cast down the splendour of my crown, and curse the time
When your nazirites were desecrated in an impure land.

How could eating and drinking be sweet for me, when I see
That dogs drag away your young lions?
Or how could the light of day be sweet for my eyes,
When I see in the mouth of ravens the corpses of your nesharim?
The cup of misery, slow! Release a bit,
For my innards and soul are already full of your bitterness.
When I remember Oholoh, I drink of your wine,
And when I remember Oholibah I squeeze out your sediment.
Zion, crown of beauty, braided with love and favour since back then,
And in you are braided the souls of your friends.
They are the ones who rejoice at your peace,
And who are pained at your desolaton, and who cry upon your ruins.
From the pit of captivity, they yearn toward you,
And they bow, each from his place, toward your gates,
The flocks of your multitudes, who were exiled,
And who were scattered from mountain to hill, but did not forget your pastures.
Who hold your hems, and struggle to ascend,
And to hold the branches of your dates.

Will Shinar and Patros compare with you in their size,
And will their futility be compared with your Urim v’Tummim?
To whom will they compare your anointed and your prophets,
And to whom your Levites and your singers?
Let all of the idolatrous empires change and pass entirely,
Your strength is forever, your crown for all generations.
He desired you for the dwelling of your Gd,
Fortunate is the one who will choose, draw near, and dwell in your streets.
Fortunate is the one who waits and arrives and sees the rising of your light,
And your dawns will break upon him,
To see the good of your chosen ones, and to celebrate in your joy
When you return to your early youth.

Hebrew:
צִיּוֹן, הֲלֹא תִשְׁאֲלִי לִשְׁלוֹם אֲסִירַיִךְ,
דּוֹרְשֵׁי שְׁלוֹמֵךְ וְהֵם יֶתֶר עֲדָרָיִךְ?
מִיָּם וּמִזְרָח וּמִצָּפוֹן וְתֵימָן
שְׁלוֹם רָחוֹק וְקָרוֹב שְׂאִי מִכֹּל עֲבָרָיִךְ.
וּשְׁלוֹם אֲסִיר תּקוָה, נוֹתֵן דְּמָעָיו כְּטַל חֶרְמוֹן
וְנִכְסַף לְרִדְתָּם עַל הֲרָרָיִךְ.
לִבְכּוֹת עֱנוּתֵךְ אֲנִי תַנִּים,
וְעֵת אֶחֱלֹם שִׁיבַת שְׁבוּתֵך אֲנִי כִנּוֹר לְשִׁירָיִךְ.

לִבִּי לְבֵית-אֵל וְלִפְנִיאֵל מְאֹד יֶהֱמֶה
וּלְמַחֲנַיִם וְכֹל פִּגְעֵי טְהוֹרָיִךְ,
שָׁם הַשְּׁכִינָה שְׁכֵנָה לָךְ,
וְיּוֹצְרֵךְ פָּתַח לְמוּל שַׁעֲרֵי שַׁחַק שְׁעָרָיִךְ,
וּכְבוֹד ד' לְבַד הָיָה מְאוֹרֵךְ,
וְאֵין שֶׁמֶשׁ וְסַהַר וְכוֹכָבִים מְאִירָיִךְ.
אֶבְחַר לְנַפְשִׁי לְהִשְׁתַּפֵּךְ
בְּמָקוֹם אֲשֶר רוּחַ אלקים שְׁפוּכָה עַל בְּחִירָיִךְ.
אַתְּ בֵּית מְלוּכָה וְאַתְּ כִּסֵּא ד',
וְאֵיךְ יָשְׁבוּ עֲבָדִים עֲלֵי כִסְאוֹת גְּבִירָיִךְ?
מִי יִתְּנֵנִי מְשׁוֹטֵט
בַּמְּקוֹמוֹת אֲשֶׁר נִגְלוּ אלקים לְחוֹזַיִךְ וְצִירָיִךְ.

מִי יַעֲשֶׂה לִי כְנָפַיִם וְאַרְחִיק נְדוֹד,
אָנִיד לְבִתְרֵי לְבָבִי בֵּין בְּתָרָיִךְ.
אֶפֹּל לְאַפַּי עֲלֵי אַרְצֵךְ
וְאֶרְצֶה אֲבָנַיִךְ מְאֹד וַאֲחֹנֵן אֶת-עֲפָרָיִךְ,
אַף כִּי בְעָמְדִי עֲלֵי קִבְרוֹת אֲבֹתַי
וְאֶשְׁתּוֹמֵם בְּחֶבְרוֹן עֲלֵי מִבְחַר קְבָרָיִךְ.
אֶעְבֹר בְּיַעְרֵךְ וְכַרְמִלֵּךְ וְאֶעְמֹד בְּגִלְעָדֵךְ
וְאֶשְׁתּוֹמֲמָה אֶל הַר עֲבָרָיִךְ,
הַר הָעֲבָרִים וְהֹר הָהָר,
אֲשֶׁר שָׁם שְׁנֵי אוֹרִים גְּדוֹלִים מְאִירַיִךְ וּמוֹרָיִךְ.
חַיֵּי נְשָׁמוֹת אֲוִיר אַרְצֵךְ,
וּמִמָּר דְרוֹר אַבְקַת עֲפָרֵךְ, וְנֹפֶת צוּף נְהָרָיִךְ.
יִנְעַם לְנַפְשִׁי הֲלֹךְ עָרֹם וְיָחֵף
עֲלֵי חָרְבוֹת שְׁמָמָה אֲשֶׁר הָיוּ דְבִירָיִךְ,
בִּמְקוֹם אֲרוֹנֵךְ אֲשֶׁר נִגְנַז,
וּבִמְקוֹם כְּרוּבַיִךְ אֲשֶׁר שָׁכְנוּ חַדְרֵי חֲדָרָיִךְ.
אָגֹז וְאַשְׁלִיךְ פְּאֵר נִזְרִי וְאֶקֹּב זְמָן,
חִלֵּל בְּאֶרֶץ טְמֵאָה אֶת נְזִירָיִךְ.

אֵיךְ יֶעֱרַב לִי אֲכֹל וּשְׁתוֹת בְּעֵת אֶחֱזֶה,
כִּי יִּסְחֲבוּ הַכְּלָבִים אֶת כְּפִירָיִךְ?
אוֹ אֵיךְ מְאוֹר יוֹם יְהִי מָתוֹק לְעֵינַי
בְּעוֹד אֶרְאֶה בְּפִי עֹרְבִים פִּגְרֵי נְשָׁרָיִךְ?
כּוֹס הַיְגוֹנִים, לְאַט, הַרְפִּי מְעַט,
כִּי כְבָר מָלְאוּ כְסָלַי וְנַפְשִׁי מַמְּרוֹרָיִךְ.
עֵת אֶזְכְּרָה אָהֳלָה אֶשְׁתֶּה חֲמָרֵךְ,
וְאֶזְכֹּר אָהֳלִיבָה וְאֶמְצֶה אֶת-שְׁמָרָיִךְ.

צִיּוֹן כְּלִילַת יֳפִי, אַהְבָה וְחֵן תִּקְשְׁרִי מֵאָז,
וּבָךְ נִקְשְׁרוּ נַפְשׁוֹת חֲבֵרָיִךְ.
הֵם הַשְּׂמֵחִים לְשַׁלְוָתֵךְ,
וְהַכּוֹאֲבִים עַל שׁוֹמֲמוּתֵךְ וּבוֹכִים עַל שְׁבָרָיִךְ.
מִבּוֹר שְׁבִי שׁוֹאֲפִים נֶגְדֵּךְ
וּמִשְׁתַּחֲוִים אִישׁ מִמְּקוֹמוֹ אֱלֵי נֹכַח שְׁעָרָיִךְ,
עֶדְרֵי הֲמוֹנֵךְ, אֲשֶׁר גָּלוּ
וְהִתְפַּזְּרוּ מֵהַר לְגִבְעָה וְלֹא שָׁכְחוּ גְדֵרָיִךְ,
הַמַּחֲזִיקִים בְּשׁוּלַיִךְ וּמִתְאַמְּצִים לַעְלוֹת
וְלֶאְחֹז בְּסַנְסִנֵּי תְּמָרָיִךְ.

שִׁנְעָר וּפַתְרוֹס הֲיַעַרְכוּךְ בְּגָדְלָם,
וְאִם הֶבְלָם יְדַמּוּ לְתֻמַּיִךְ וְאוּרָיִךְ?
אֶל מִי יְדַמּוּ מְשִׁיחַיִךְ וְאֶל מִי נְבִיאַיִךְ
וְאֶל מִי לְוִיַּיִךְ וְשָׁרָיִךְ?
יִשְׁנֶה וְיַחְלֹף כְּלִיל כָּל מַמְלְכוֹת הָאֱלִיל,
חָסְנֵךְ לְעוֹלָם, לְדוֹר וָדוֹר נְזָרָיִךְ.
אִוָּךְ לְמוֹשָׁב אלקיִךְ,
וְאַשְׁרֵי אֱנוֹשׁ יִבְחַר יְקָרֵב וְיִשְׁכֹּן בַּחֲצֵרָיִךְ.
אַשְׁרֵי מְחַכֶּה וְיַגִּיעַ וְיִרְאֶה עֲלוֹת אוֹרֵךְ
וְיִבָּקְעוּ עָלָיו שְׁחָרָיִךְ,
לִרְאוֹת בְּטוֹבַת בְּחִירַיִךְ וְלַעְלֹז בְּשִׂמְחָתֵךְ
בְּשׁוּבֵךְ אֱלֵי קַדְמַת נְעוּרָיִךְ.


Tuesday, July 14, 2015

A poem of Rabbi Yehudah HaLevi - The Hall of G-d

I'm working on translating a poem of Rabbi Yehudah HaLevi. I find this challenging because I prefer to be literal, but I want to preserve the poetry. I'd welcome corrections/suggestions:

The Hebrew:
הֵיכַל ד' וּמִקְדַּשׁ הֲדֹמוֹ
,גָּלָה כְבוֹדוֹ וְנִפְזַר עַמּוֹ
וּמִמֶרְחַקִּים יִדְרְשׁוּ שְׁלוֹמוֹ
.וְיִשְׁתַּחֲווּ לוֹ אִישׁ מִמְּקוֹמוֹ

גּוֹלִים בְּמַעֲרָב בְּכוּשׁ וּמִצְרָיִם
,מְגַמַּת פְּנֵיהֶם יְרוּשָׁלָיִם
,אֶל אֲבִיהֶם אֲשֶׁר בַּשָּׁמָיִם
.לַעֲמֹד לְשָׁרְתוֹ וּלְבָרֵךְ בִּשְׁמוֹ

אוֹבֵד בְּעֵילָם וְנִדָּח בְּשִׁנְעָר
.לְדֶרֶךְ אַרְצוֹ פִּיהוּ יִפְעַר
מִבֵּין שִׁנֵּי זְאֵבֵי יָעַר
.וּמִתּוֹךְ צַעַר יַחֲזִיק בְּתֻמּוֹ

,גָּלוּת צִיּוֹן אֲשֶר בִּסְפָרַד
בַּעֲרָב מְפֻזָּר וּבֶאֱדוֹם מְפֹרָד
לִפְאַת מִקְדָּשׁ יִתַּר וְיֵחֱרַד
.לְבָבוֹ, כְּגָמוּל עֲלֵי אִמּוֹ

,שָׁפַךְ תְּפִלָּה, וְצוּר מִתְעַלֵּם
.וְשָׁמַע חֲרָפוֹת וַיְהִי כְאִלֵּם
בְשׁוּב שְׁבוּת צִיּוֹן הָיָה כְּחוֹלֵם
.ובַהֲקִיצוֹ, אֵין פּוֹתֵר חֲלוֹמוֹ

מָתַי אֶקְרָא וְאַתָּה תִרְצֶה
,וְאֶת מִשְׁפָּטִי לָאוֹר תּוֹצֵא
,וְיִוָּדַע, יוֹם תַּצִּיל וְתִפְצֶה
?אֱמֶת כִּי רוֹצֶה ד‘ בְּעַמּוֹ

Translation:
The Hall of G-d, the Sanctuary that is His footstool,1
His honour is exiled, His nation scattered,2
and from afar they seek His welfare,3
and bow to Him, each from his place.4

Exiled in the West, in Kush and Egypt,5
the goal of their faces is Jerusalem,6
toward their Father in the heavens,
to stand to serve Him and to bless in His Name.7

Wandering in Elam and pushed away in Shinar,8
to the path toward his land he opens his mouth.9
From between the teeth of the wolves of the forest,10
and in the midst of pain he maintains his purity.11

The exile of Zion in Spain,12
in Arabia scattered, and in Rome divided,13
in the direction of the Sanctuary will leap and tremble14
his heart, like a weaned child for his mother.15

He pours out prayer, and the Rock remains hidden,16
and he hears calumny, and is as one mute.
Of the return of Zion’s captives he is as a dreamer,17
and when he awakes – none can explain his dream.18

When will I cry out and You will desire,19
and You will produce my verdict before the light,20
and it will be known, on the day You rescue and release,21
that in truth, G-d desires His nation?

Related verses:
1 Yeshayah 66:1
2 Shemuel I 4:21, Esther 3:8
3 Yirmiyahu 8:19
4 Tzefaniah 2:11
5 Yeshayah 11:11
6 Chavakuk 1:9, Daniel 6:11
7 Devarim 10:8
8 Yeshayah 11:11, 27:13
9 Iyov 29:23
10 Yirmiyahu 5:6
11 Iyov 2:3
12 Ovadia 1:20
13 Esther 3:8
14 Iyov 37:1
15 Tehillim 131:2
16 Tehillim 102:1
17 Tehillim 126:1
18 Bereishit 41:8
19 Yeshayah 58:9
20 Yeshayah 51:4
21 Yirmiyahu 9:17, Tehillim 144:10



Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Motivating the second generation?

From time to time, I hear from self-described baalei teshuvah - people who grew up in non-observant homes, and then came to observance of halachah in adulthood - that their children have left that path. Indeed, it seems to me that I hear it more from that demographic than from people who grew up observant.

The sample I have been dealing with is not statistically significant, and I have not been keeping score, so my observations are irrelevant. Still, the conversations have made me wonder: Might it be easier or harder for baalei teshuvah to raise children in observance?

[Just to note something I have written on other occasions: All parents, regardless of background, must recognize that their influence on their children's chosen paths is limited.]

On one hand, I could contend that baalei teshuvah would have an easier time -
* Baalei teshuvah have thought through a broad range of religious options, and chosen observance. Their religious practice could be more heartfelt and authentic than that of someone who is motivated by peers and family;

* Baalei teshuvah can speak with their children from the experience of a range of lifestyles (although really, who accepts the word of a parent who says 'I've been there'...?);

* Self-aware baalei teshuvah can understand their children's need to chart their own path, and address it in a way that does not drive those children further away.

On the other hand, I can think of several reasons why it might be more difficult for them:
* Not having been raised in such a home, the baalei teshuvah might have greater difficulty finding a good balance between openness and restriction, which is necessary to encourage healthy observance;

* Baalei teshuvah may be psychologically disposed toward breaking with the previous generation, and their children might absorb that - consciously or subconsciously - from their attitudes and behaviour;

* The absence of observant grandparents for the children may be a factor;

* The next generation might feel that just as their parents had the opportunity to sample different lifestyles, they should be able to do the same (and the baalei teshuvah themselves may think likewise);

* Baalei teshuvah, having come to Torah and learning late, may not have the knowledge to properly address their children's questions;

* The religious catalysts of baalei teshuvah may not inspire their children. Baalei teshuvah may be motivated by specific personal experiences they had as teens and adults, while others may be motivated by the more transmittable motivations of family tradition, community, role models and years of religious instruction.

I don't know; what do you think?

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Modern davening, in one sentence

The weakness of a significant chunk of modern Judaism is reflected in one sentence I overheard after a Shacharit minyan several days ago:

Person speaking to Chazan: That was quick.

Chazan: I have things to do today!

[My point is not the speed; I didn't find the davening that day to be any faster or slower than the norm at that minyan. Rather, my point is the philosophy.]

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Nothing if not consistent

I was just preparing for the daf yomi shiur this Shabbos (Nedarim 34a), and having difficulty following the discussion. I noted that the Ran's edition was the reverse of the one that appears in the standard Vilna Shas, and I wrote in the margin, "לר"ן גירסא אחרת בכל סוגיין" ("The Ran has a different edition in our entire passage.")

After struggling further, I pulled out an old gemara, which I had used for Nedarim 20-25 years ago. I opened to that page, and found I had made the following notation, in the identical part of the page: "לר"ן יש גיר' אחרת בסוגיתינו" ("The Ran has a different edition in our passage").

Consistent, if nothing else...

...and I think I'm going to work with the Rosh on the passage.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

The Pun and The Primordial

A thought for Parshat Chukat:

At the start of the Jewish nation’s fortieth year in the wilderness, they again protested their desert predicament. “The nation’s spirit became short, due to their travels,” we are told, and they rejected the Divine gift of manna. The Divine reaction was harsh; G-d sent poisonous serpents, which began to bite and kill the wayward Jews. The nation admitted their sin, and called upon Moshe to pray to G-d on their behalf. Moshe interceded, and G-d told him, “Make a serpent, and place it atop a pole. All those who are bitten should look upon it, and live.” Moshe formed a snake of nechoshet [a copper alloy, either brass or bronze] and brought the plague to an end. (Bamidbar 21:4-9)

This story introduces obvious problems of theology, but a midrash (Bereishit Rabbah 31:8) seizes upon an apparently minor detail to make a major theological statement.

Our midrash cites four cases in which G-d instructs a human being “Aseh lecha,” “Make for yourself.” In three out of the four – Noach’s boat of gopher wood; Joshua’s circumcision knives of stone; Moshe’s trumpets of silver – G-d specifies the material to use. In our case, though, no material is specified. [Our midrash omits Aseh lecha instructions that appear in Yirmiyahu 27:2 and Yechezkel 12:3. Perhaps this is because those items are not truly “for yourself”; they are only prophetic props, and have no further function.] And so our midrash asks: How did Moshe know to use nechoshet?

Medieval commentators noted the same problem, and offered a range of solutions:

  • Rabbi Avraham Ibn Ezra suggests that G-d told Moshe to use nechoshet, but the text did not record it.
  • Ramban offers that nechoshet would be a particularly good material for simulating a serpent.
  • Rabbi Chizkiyah ben Manoach (Chizkuni) contends that nechoshet was a practical choice, due to its visibility from afar.

Our midrash provides a different approach, though: A pun.

Rabbi Yudin explains in our midrash, citing Rabbi Eivo: “[Moshe] said: If I would make it of gold, the term for one [nachash] would not flow into the term for the other [zahav]. If I would make it of silver, the term for one [nachash] would not flow into the term for the other [kesef]. I will make it of nechoshet, language flowing into language.”

In other words: Moshe used a pun to determine that he should use nechoshet to form the serpent.

Of course, the use of the nachash in this story is itself a pun. The Hebrew word nachash refers not only to a serpent, but also to secret knowledge (see Bereishit 44:5 and Vayikra 19:26) – as seen in the Garden of Eden, and as seen with this serpent which conveyed the Divine cure. Moshe, then, layered pun upon pun.

While the midrash’s acknowledgement of a biblical pun is interesting, its next step is profound. Rabbi Eivo adds, “From here we see that the Torah was given in the sacred tongue.” Rabbi Pinchas and Rabbi Chizkiyah then cite Rabbi Simon, “Just as the Torah was given in the sacred tongue, so the world was created with the sacred tongue.” The association between serpent and copper alloy is fundamental to their natures, and it is expressed in the Torah’s Hebrew words for both of them, because Hebrew is the language of Torah and of Creation. [See, too, Bereishit Rabbah 17:4 and 18:4, and Shabbat 104a.] In other words: The Pentateuchal pun is pre-ordained, primordial.

What is the point of linking Hebrew with Creation? Rabbi Yehudah HaLevi (Kuzari II 67-68) explains that this is evidence of the elevated character of the Hebrew language. However, one might also suggest that this link teaches the importance of the Jew, speaker of Hebrew, in the plan of Divine Creation.

Reading the Torah plainly, I could have assumed that Jews were the beneficiaries of a handful of superlative ancestors and serendipitous incidents. If not for the daring of Avraham and Sarah, we might have remained in Aram; if not for Eliezer’s prayer at the well, we might have been a one-generation wonder. This midrash argues for Jewish exceptionalism, claiming that Jews are no product of fortune; rather, the Jew is hardwired into the universe, his language the code of Creation, her destiny the primordial plan.

This perspective on the role of the Jew is at once daunting and inspiring. It demands that we view our next move as more than the expression of personal whim, and as necessary for the success of the Divine will. The universe, crafted with our tongue, is playing our song. Moshe’s decision to fashion the nachash of nechoshet teaches us that not only is Hebrew a tool of G-d – but so are we.