Friday, March 16, 2007

Creativity and the Ark

The Holy Ark had an interesting method of construction. It was a wooden box that was encased in gold, from within and without (Ex. 37:2). It is understandable to cover it in gold on the outside. However, the gold on the inside would never be visible to anyone. Why encase it from within?

Rabbi Hirsch takes the aron as a symbol for the Jewish nation's relationship to personal and individual expression. The center of the ark is wooden. Wood is a material which, in its natural state, changes and grows over time. It is constantly developing, branching out in new and different directions, covering new ground, and sprouting new leaves and fruit. It is a symbol for the creative element in each person. Throughout our lives, we change, as wood does. We grow physically, emotionally and spiritually. We continually conceive of new ideas, and give birth to concepts and novellae. We are creative beings by nature.

The coating of the wood, on the other hand, is gold. Gold, the quintessential metal, is rigid and strong. It can withstand pressure and is not flexible. It symbolizes the restrictive, definitive rigor of the halacha.

Thus, the ark symbolizes a person's creative domain and its limits. We are contained by the strictures of the essential law. However, within its bounds, we are free to grow and invent with the full creative capacity that God endowed within us.

Rav Kook takes the creative enterprise and sees it as an ethical and religious imperative. In ארות הקודש, he develops the idea that human creativity is a vestige of prophecy. The strictures of societal pressure choke the lofty creative spirit. Within the golden bounds of the halacha, "we are charged by the Divine to produce with truth and honesty, that which our souls show us, and to bring our celestial insight from the abstract to the concrete..."

"The culling of sparks of glorious truth from the creative stores of all brightens the world, and bring about the revelation ultimate, complete truth of God." Rav Kook sees the innovative expression latent in us all as a pre-requisite for the glory of God to be clearly visible in our world.

In אורות התורה (ch. 13), he goes on to explain that the true elements of innovation and pure creativity are only to be experienced in the land of Israel. This is because the true unity of subject across the vast contents of the torah can only be truly appreciated in the Holy Land. Unity of thought is a necessary element for creative activity. The difference between the Babylonian Talmud and the Jerusalem one is indicative of this: the Babylonian must divide, categorize and feel about in the dark for the contours of God's law, while, in the Jerusalem Talmud, the diverse and disparate elements of halacha and hashkafa are effortlessly seen as part of an organic whole. There, the search for truth is as easy as bringing a candle to illuminate the dark. Perhaps this is the meaning of the statement, 'אוירא דארץ ישראל מחכים.' The very atmosphere in the Holy Land enlightens the mind and spirit (B. Bath. 258b).

Friday, March 09, 2007

Literary Devices in Ki Tisa

To paraphrase one of my teachers, the Torah is much more than excellent literature, but it is at least that. By examining the words of the Torah through a literary scope, one can gain a much deeper appreciation for the beauty and inspiring technical design that went into it. For example, in Gen. 2:25-3:1, we find the word ערום twice, one after the other. The first means 'naked', and refers to the naive pair of humans, while the second means 'wily', and refers to the scheming snake. The juxtaposition of the innocent, guileless man and wife and the crafty snake, is powerful. It is enhanced by the use of precisely the same word to describe each, with each usage highlighting a different variant meaning for that word. It is as if the text itself becomes wily and crafty, foreshadowing the snake's malicious and devious strategy. This kind of verbal irony mingled with alliteration is very successful at immediately changing a light, care-free mood into a grim and portentous tone.

In this week's portion, we again find this literary device. In 32:17, Yehoshua meets Moshe as he descends the mountain, and says, 'the sounds of war are in the camp.' In the next verse, Moshe responds: "אֵין קוֹל עֲנוֹת גְּבוּרָה, וְאֵין קוֹל, עֲנוֹת חֲלוּשָׁה; קוֹל עַנּוֹת, אָנֹכִי שֹׁמֵעַ." 'Those are no sounds of victorious battle cries, nor sounds of defeated cries for retreat; I hear the cries of strife.' The word ענות in the context of this verse is used three times, but means two different things. In the first two instances, it is a nominalized verb whose root is the qal form of .ע.נ.ה, meaning 'answer'. This is translated hear as meaning 'battle cry'. Units of armies would sometimes find out the status of their fellow units by listening to hear if the battle cries were victorious ones, or ones of retreat. In this case, the infinitive would be of the form לִלְמׂד, or לְמׂד. However, since the פ of the root is an ע, the shwa becomes a chataf-patach. There is no dagesh in the נ because the word is essentially in qal.

However, the third instance of the word is not the same. There is a dagesh in the נ, which is a marker for piel. The ע is pointed with a patach which further shows that this is a nominalization of a piel verb. The meaning is thus the piel of .ע.נ.ה, which is 'torture or cause pain or strife.'

The use of this literary strategy hearkens to the usage mentioned in Gen 2:25, and provides an undercurrent of movement beneath the surface of the text of the story. The tone and mood of the story-line is changed by literary usages while the story plays iteself out. The result is a text which is subtle and nuanced. Much of the beauty and artistic creativity of the Torah is best recognized when taking a moment to re-connect to the Torah as a Divine literary creation.

J.G. Herder (quoted in Phillip Birnbaum's translation HaSiddur HaShalem) once commented, "It is worth studying the Hebrew language for ten years in order to read Psalm 104 in the original." He was referring to the poetry and native lyric that can only be appreciated in Hebrew. Translations of the Bible, even when they comprise dramatic literary accomplishments in their own rights, are only dim shadows of the drama and breathless beauty that the native Hebrew Bible contains. The original uncovers some of the immortal perfection that is usually hidden in our natural world.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Which Achashverosh? That Achashverosh!

My teacher, Dr. Richard Steiner, sent me an electronic off-print of one of his new articles. In it, he discusses the Aramaic of the Elaphantine papyri and Ezra (5:15-17). There, an official named Sheshbazzar is mentioned. First, when introduced, it is said, "ששבצר שמה", 'whose name was Sheshbazzar', and afterwards, it continues, "ששבצר דך", 'the aforementioned Sheshbazzar'. Dr. Steiner develops this peculiar syntax.

First, a previously unknown (to the reader) subject is mentioned and named in a 'de-definitizing' way. It is analogous to the english sentence, 'A man named John said this.' In this case, the subject 'John' is not a true definite article, and is like saying 'A John said this.' Only after the de-definitizing of the name, is the name re-definitized, by the second clause. "The aforementioned Sheshbazzar" is analogous to "That John is the one who picked up the ball." It takes an indefinite article that is named, and makes it definite by describing which John picked up the ball. Not 'a John,' but 'this John.'

Dr. Steiner (quoting Meyer) points out that this syntactical format is found in Old Persian writings.

Immediately, the first verse of Esther came to my mind: "ויהי בימי אחשורש הוא אחשורש המולך..." The same syntactical style is clear! 'In the days of a king called Achashverosh, that same Achashverosh who ruled over...'

There are certainly people out there who know better than me, but I am betting that the book of Esther was first written in Persian, and certainly employed the diction and style of that language. Could the style of the first verse of the Hebrew Megillat Esther be a subtle hint and acknowledgement of this?