This week we read another double portion, Acharei Mot and Kedoshim. The latter, literally meaning “holies”, instructs us on the key mitzvot that make us especially holy. Of course, while all of the Torah’s mitzvot serve to make us holier, the ones in Kedoshim particularly have special merits. The list starts with revering one’s parents and observing the Sabbath (Leviticus 19:3). It peaks with the famous mitzvot of judging others favourably (v. 15), not gossiping (v. 16) nor bearing a grudge (v. 18), and loving your fellow as yourself. Other big mitzvot include not wearing shaatnez (v. 19, a mixture of wool and linen), and not getting tattooed (v. 28). Finally, there is a list of prohibited sexual relationships, before God says: Continue reading
This week’s parasha concludes the Ten Plagues of Egypt by describing the final three plagues, as alluded to in the name of the parasha, Bo (בא), which has a numerical value of three. One would think that the parashas would be divided in such a way that all the plagues appear in one portion. Yet, we see the first seven in one, and the final three in another. The mystical reason for this is to mirror the Sefirot, which are divided into the seven lower middot, and the three higher mochin, “mental” or “intellectual” faculties.
The mochin are the three Sefirot of Keter (or Ratzon, God’s “Will”); Chokhmah, “Wisdom”; and Binah, “Understanding”. They are on a higher level than the lower seven Sefirot. In fact, in this physical world we find most things mirror the seven, including the seven discernible colours of the rainbow, the seven notes of the musical scale, the seven visible “luminaries” in the sky, and the seven days of the week. The mochin, meanwhile, represent the upper worlds, and correspond to more ethereal things like the three primordial elements of Creation (air, water, and fire, as per Sefer Yetzirah) and the three realms of space, time, and soul (in mystical texts referred to by the acronym ‘ashan, עשן, standing for olam, shanah, nefesh). (For a detailed explanation of this, see here.)
Recall that the Sefirot represent the ten major aspects of God, and are primarily meant to help us relate to, and understand, the Infinite One. As such, the mochin represent the highest aspects of God. That there are specifically three of them is significant. The number three is central to Judaism, and God has a particular affinity for this number, as the Talmud (Shabbat 88a) tells us:
Blessed is the All-Merciful One, Who gave the three-fold Torah [ie. the Tanakh, composed of Torah, Nevi’im, and Ketuvim] to the three-fold nation [Kohen, Levi, Israel] by means of a third-born [Moses] on the third day, in the third month [Sivan].
While this teaching is well-known, what isn’t so well known is in whose name it is brought down. The Talmud introduces it as a teaching “of that Galilean”. Who is this anonymous Galilean? Why does the Talmud use a seemingly-derogatory term for him, avoiding his name? Continue reading
Earlier this week, people across America experienced a unique event that has not occurred there in a century: a coast-to-coast, total solar eclipse. While partial solar eclipses are generally visible from somewhere on Earth twice a year, a total eclipse is harder to catch—the last one in the US was forty years ago, and the last to be visible across the entire span of the country was in 1918.
Despite the fact that a solar eclipse is a regular phenomenon, and one that can be predicted long in advance, the Talmud (Sukkah 29a) seems to suggest it is a sign of human misconduct:
Our Rabbis taught: When the sun is in eclipse, it is a bad omen for the whole world. This may be illustrated by a parable: To what can this be compared? To a human being who made a banquet for his servants and put up for them a lamp. When he became angry with them he said to his servant, “Take away the lamp from them, and let them sit in the dark”.
Our Sages suggest that God brings about eclipses (or more accurately, total eclipses, the only kind that would bring about the kind of darkness described above) when He is unhappy with man’s sinful ways. This apparently contradicts the notion that eclipses are a cyclical, recurring event. Yet, the Talmud is full of discussions illustrating the astronomical expertise of our Rabbis, who could perfectly calculate the arrival of new moons, knew the cosmos like the backs of their hands, and accurately estimated the number of stars in the universe centuries before scientists came up with the same numbers (see Berakhot 32b).
In fact, the current Hebrew calendar that we use was affixed by the Talmudic sage known as Hillel II (not to be confused with Hillel the Elder), who calculated the months far into the future, and was only able to accurately do so by taking into account the dates of predicted solar and lunar eclipses. That means that the sages of the Talmud were certainly well aware of the fact that eclipses are a regular, predictable phenomenon. This was also long known by Greek and Roman astronomers. So, how could the Talmud state that eclipses depend on man’s ways?
To deal with this conundrum, multiple answers have been proposed. One of these is that the Sages are referring to visible eclipses only. The Torah tells us that the luminaries were created, in part, to serve as signs for humans (Genesis 1:14). If God wanted to make known that He is unhappy, we would obviously have to be able to see the eclipse. Although eclipses can happen multiple times a year, they are seldom visible from habitable locations. Some 71% of Earth’s surface is covered by water, so eclipses are most likely to be visible only from some marine location in the middle of the ocean. Further still, of the remaining portion of Earth that’s covered by land, only 10% is actually inhabited by humans. There could be other factors as well, like cloudy weather. Or, the moon simply does not cover enough of the sun for people to even notice. (As anyone not in the path of the total eclipse probably learned on Monday, when they were unable to look at the sun for more than a split second because it was still way too bright without eclipse glasses—which no one had in Talmudic times.) This is indeed what the Talmud later clarifies:
Our Rabbis taught: When the sun is in eclipse it is a bad omen for idolaters; when the moon is in eclipse, it is a bad omen for Israel, since Israel reckons by the moon and idolaters by the sun. If it is in eclipse in the east, it is a bad omen for those who dwell in the east; if in the west, it is a bad omen for those who dwell in the west…
An eclipse is a bad sign only for that specific place where the eclipse is visible. In His Infinite Wisdom, God pre-programmed Creation so that eclipses would be visible at the precise time and place where they are necessary to give people a wake-up call. As such, it isn’t surprising that America had a coast-to-coast eclipse precisely at this moment, with everything that’s recently been going on in the country.
What exactly is it that God is unhappy about when an eclipse occurs?
Our Rabbis taught: On account of four things is the sun in eclipse: On account of an av beit din who died and was not mourned properly; on account of a betrothed maiden who cried out loud in the city and there was none to save her; on account of sodomy, and on account of two brothers whose blood was shed at the same time.
The United States has been plagued with all of these things: fellow American citizens—brothers—at each other’s throats, “shedding” each other’s blood for silly ideological reasons; the rampant sexual immorality; the tremendous amount of injustice and apathy, where there is seemingly no one to save a “troubled maiden”.
And what of the av beit din? In early Talmudic times, the leader of the Jews was the nasi, the “president” of the Sanhedrin, and his “vice-president” was the av beit din, literally “head of the court”, the top judge of the land. (Appropriately, this week’s parasha is Shoftim, “judges”.) Last year saw the mysterious sudden death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, whose death was unexamined and quickly swept under the rug, triggering a flood of conspiracy theories. This is a sign of far greater societal issues. All of the above is reminiscent of a famous Talmudic prophecy (Sotah 49b) describing the time before Mashiach’s coming:
In the footsteps of Mashiach, insolence will increase and honour will dwindle. The vine will abundantly yield its fruit, yet wine will be dear. The government will turn to heresy, and there will be none to offer them reproof. The meeting places of scholars will be used for immorality. Galilee will be destroyed, and Gablan desolate, and the “people of the border” will go about from place to place without anyone to take pity on them. The wisdom of the learned will degenerate, fearers of sin will be despised, and truth will be lacking. The youth will put the elders to shame; the old will have to stand before the young. A son will revile his father, a daughter will rise up against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law, and a man’s worst enemies will be the members of his own household. The face of the generation will be like the face of a dog; a son will not feel ashamed before his father. And upon whom is there to rely? Only upon our Father in Heaven.
With everything that’s happening around us right now, it certainly feels like there is none left to rely upon but our Father in Heaven. It is quite fitting that the solar eclipse happened at the end of the Hebrew month of Av, literally “father”, which is precisely meant to remind us of our “Father in Heaven”. As long as we recognize this, and take upon ourselves to be good “children”, there is no need to fear, as the Talmudic passage on solar eclipses concludes:
… When Israel fulfils the will of the Omnipresent, they need not have fear of all these [omens] as it is said, “Thus said Hashem: Learn not the way of the nations, and be not dismayed at the signs of heaven, for the nations are dismayed at them”—the idolaters will be dismayed, but Israel will not be dismayed.