Inhabiting a Word

Once the Rabbi Eliezer was teaching his disciples how they should read scripture. “If a man really wants to understand a word in scripture,” he said, “he has to enter into it with his whole being.”

This confused the disciples so that one of them asked, “Teacher, is it not impossible for a grown man to enter into a small word?”

The Rabbi Eliezer smiled and his voice grew quiet. “I did not speak about men who think they are bigger than words.”

According to the ninth chapter of Proverbs, “The fear of The Lord is the beginning of wisdom…” “Fear of The Lord” is a phrase in the Hebrew Scriptures that means something like “humility before God.” The way of wisdom begins with the acknowledgement that God is greater than we are and that his word is greater than we are. Rabbi Eliezer, in this wonderful little story from the Babylonian Talmud, is reminding his students that they must search scripture in a posture of humility. They must be willing to not see themselves as the consumers but the consumed. Liberals and conservatives, allegorists and literalists, are all guilty of bending and contorting scripture to fit their own desires and agendas rather than bending their desires and agendas to fit scripture. When we come to scripture with preconceived notions and search out those verses that agree with us, then we see ourselves as giants towering over the book. How foolish. Do we not know that God made man small enough to fit inside one tiny word?

Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear…

 

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The Face of God

Rabbi Joshua Ben Hananiah had a peculiar relationship with the Roman Emperor Hadrian. Rabbi Joshua would often go to Hadrian's court to advocate for the rights of his people against oppressive policies. Hadrian was not used to being talked to quite so boldly but he tolerated it. In fact, he enjoyed these visits because he liked to make sport of trying to stump the Rabbi with questions about his religion. Occasionally, Hadrian called Rabbi Joshua to his court for the sole purpose of questioning him.

One such day, Hadrian summoned Rabbi Joshua to his court. There in the room he had three statues depicting the Roman gods. He said to Rabbi Joshua, “These are the statues of but a few of our gods. We have many more. Look at their faces! This one, Venus, has a beautiful face that her devotees worship out of love. This one, Mars, has a terrible face that his devotees worship out of fear. And this one, Jupiter, has a regal face that his devotees worship out of respect. The face of a god tells its worshipers who it is. Tell me… what is the face of your god like?”

Rabbi Joshua dutifully responded, “The Torah teaches that no one can see the face of The Lord and yet live. We Jews worship the unseen God.”

Hadrian laughed. “How can you worship a god whose face you cannot even see?”

“Follow me,” said Rabbi Joshua, “and I will give you an answer.”

So the Emperor, enjoying having fun at the Rabbi's expense, obliged him and followed him out into the courtyard. It was a hot summer day and the sun was shining very brightly. Rabbi Joshua said to him, “If you want to see the face of God, you must stare directly into the sun.”

Hadrian's mood suddenly changed. “You fool,” he shouted, “You know very well I cannot look directly into the sun! Do you scheme to make your emperor blind?”

“Of course you cannot stare into the sun,” said Rabbi Joshua calmly, “but the sun is only a servant of our God. If you cannot behold the splendor of one of His servants, how could you possibly hope to gaze upon the face of God?”

Hadrian was speechless. He had once again been outwitted. Without a word, Rabbi Joshua departed to go back to his people and join them in their worship of an unseen God.

There is a whole tradition of Jewish parables that involve Romans questioning the Rabbis about their faith only to be outwitted in the end. The stories reflect the very real skepticism that the Romans had about monotheism and the extent to which Jews (and Christians) constantly had to defend themselves from mischaracterizations about what they believed. It was in this context of suspicion that the writer of 1 Peter told followers to “always be ready to defend your confidence in God.” Modern disciples live in an increasingly suspicious and skeptical world. Some people make sport of trying to make religious people look silly. While God does not call us to be trolls ourselves, we are called to be ready to defend, with patience and humility, our confidence in the unseen God.

Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear…

 

The Third Day of Creation

On the third day of creation, as God was adding the last finishing touches on the trees, giving them sap, leaves, bark, and seed, He noticed something very troubling. The great cedars of Lebanon were towering high above the other trees. They seemed to God to be almost arrogant. God worried that there would soon be competition among the trees and that they might begin to despise one another and threaten His perfect creation. So God in His infinite wisdom decided to create iron. The trees immediately understood that iron would have the power to destroy them so they began to weep.

They cried out to God, “O King of Heaven why have you done this to us? Surely each one of us is destined to be felled by the axe!”

God replied, “The axe is nothing without the wooden handle to lift it! Go, therefore, and live in peace with one another. Stay united and refuse to betray each other and iron will be powerless against you!”

This beautiful midrash tells us far more about human nature than it does about the politics of trees. Unity is a very fragile thing. It only takes a single tree to lend its branch and an entire forest can be felled. For peace to be lasting, each side must trust the others for the limb that is given up to hurt an enemy threatens every tree. Jesus calls his disciples to be peacemakers. This means living in a posture of humility and forgiveness. We may know some trees that really deserve to be chopped down but let us not forget who it is that created this forest. 

Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear…

Majority Rules…

Rabbi Eliezer was famous for his extraordinary powers of persuasion. One day, he was arguing his theological position in front of a group of 10 sages. After Rabbi Eliezer had finished making what he had felt was a logically airtight argument, complete with many eloquent rhetorical flourishes, and an overall sense of Holiness, he was satisfied the sages would agree with his argument. He had shown a mastery of scripture, appealed to all the great Rabbinical traditions, and had brought in the world’s great philosophers to bolster his case. All that was left was for the sages to vote. Eliezer was shocked when, after the vote, all ten sages rejected his position.

“I’m sorry Eliezer, it is 10 to 1. Majority rules and your position has been rejected.”

Rabbi Eliezer was dumbfounded that his great logic and rhetoric had not changed any minds, but he resolved to use more powerful means of persuasion. He said, “if I am correct, let this fig tree uproot itself and move to the other side of the yard.”

No sooner had the rabbi said this than the fig tree miraculously uprooted itself and moved to the other side of the yard. However, the sages were unmoved.

“No proof can be found in a fig tree,” they said.

“Fine…,” said Rabbi Eliezer, “If I am correct, let this stream we are standing by flow backward!”

No sooner had the Rabbi said this than the stream that they were all standing by began to flow in the other direction. However, the sages were still unpersuaded.

“No proof can be found in a stream,” they said.

Undeterred, Rabbi Eliezer bellowed in a commanding voice, “If my argument is correct, let God , Himself, say so…”

Suddenly, the clouds parted and a great shaft of light fell on the rabbi and the ten sages, and a voice, ancient and eternal, sounding like thunder and many rushing waters said, “My servant Eliezer is correct, listen to him!”

“Alright, Eliezer,” said the sages, “Now it’s 10 to 2…”

This humorous Jewish parable illustrates a profound truth: some people will never ever change their minds. Many times we expend a great deal of time and energy trying to win over people who are just not going to be won over. Disciples are of course called to share their faith and try to persuade others to trust in God but sadly some people will never be moved no matter what you say or do. In these cases we must pray that God will do in their hearts what we cannot, and then move on.

Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear…

Baby Moses and the Burning Coal

After the Pharaoh's daughter took baby Moses into her own home, she loved him as if he were her own child. He was beloved in the palace and his laughter and his smile brought joy to everyone. Pharaoh, himself, was fond of Moses, looking to him as a grandson. Often he would play with the child and he would giggle and pull Pharaoh' crown off his head and put it on his own while the Pharaoh would laugh and make faces at the baby. Not everyone was pleased by this though. The magicians in Pharaoh's court saw the child pulling the Pharaoh's crown off his head to be a bad omen. One day the palace magicians and wise men were huddling together discussing this amongst themselves.

“Surely this is a bad sign,” said one, “the child repeatedly pulling the Pharaoh's crown off his head!”

“Yes,” said another, “This cannot be ignored! Surely the child means to eventually usurp our master's throne. Has not this very thing been prophesied?”

A third spoke in a hushed whisper, “It pains me to say this but it seems to me we must put this child to death now before he is allowed to grow in strength and cunning and someday raise an army.”

The magicians and wise men all murmured in agreement except for one: Jethro, the priest of Midian.

“It seems to me,” said Jethro, “that we are reading too much into the actions of a child who has not yet reached the age of understanding. Let me propose a test. Let us put, in a basin, a piece of gold and a burning coal and place the basin in front of the child. If little Moses reaches for the gold, we'll know the child has understanding and we can recommend to the Pharaoh that he have the future usurper executed BUT if the child reaches for the hot coal, we will know the child has no understanding and that his actions are innocent.”

The magicians and wise men all agreed to Jethro's proposal and the next day they carried out this very test. They laid before Moses, in a basin, a piece of gold and a hot coal. The piece of gold caught the child's attention and he began to reach for it when the Angel Gabriel suddenly appeared and moved the boy's hand to the coal. Not only did Moses pick up the burning coal, but he put it in his mouth! From that day forward the child stuttered and was slow of speech.

The ancient Rabbincal interpreters of scripture used stories and parables to explain things in the Bible that might be considered confusing to hearers. These types of commentary on scripture are called midrash. This ancient midrash about Moses' childhood sought to explain why God would allow his chosen prophet to be a “stutterer and slow of speech.” According to the midrash, it was God's own merciful intervention that made Moses slow of speech. If the angel hadn't showed up, things would have been far worse. There may be another lesson in this tale too. Our childhood traumas make us the people we are and all of us carry with us the scars of things that have happened to us in life. None of us, though, is too scarred to serve. Our past does not determine our future. It easy to wish away all the burning coals in your past but it is impossible to know who or what you'd be without them. As disciples, we serve not because we are perfect but because, without God's intervention, our fates would be much worse.

Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear…

 

 

Standing On One Foot

During the period of the second temple, there was a gentile man who decided to devote himself to becoming a Jew. He had heard that the two greatest teachers of Judaism living in Jerusalem were Rabbi Shammai and Rabbi Hillel. The man was unsure of which Rabbi to study under so he devised a test to choose his teacher

First, the man knocked on the door of Rabbi Shammai. When Shammai came to the door, the man said, “I am interested in becoming a Jew but I don't nearly have the time to devote to it that your followers do. Could you please sum up the Torah while I stand on one foot?”

Shammai replied, “What a ridiculous request! Look at all my students studying inside! They have devoted their entire lives to reading Torah and you propose to learn it in mere seconds? Begone!”

So the man continued on to Rabbi Hillel's house and knocked on the door. When Hillel opened the door, the man again said, “I am interested in becoming a Jew but I don't nearly have the time to devote to it that your followers do. Could you please sum up the Torah while I stand on one foot?

Hillel thought for a second, then said, “Alright.” As the man stood on his one foot, Hillel spoke these words: “That which you hate, do not do to your neighbor. This sums up the entire Torah and the rest is just commentary.

When the man put his other foot back down, he entered Hillel's home and became one of his most devoted disciples.

Most of the world's religions have some version of the “golden rule” and yet the world continues to be rife with conflict. For the Christian, loving God and loving neighbor ought to be the twin poles that keep us oriented and yet we too often fail at the latter out of our zeal for the former. Loving others is the essence of loving God. Doing good is the essence of serving God. The Torah (and indeed the Christian scriptures) are summed up in the call to “do unto other as you would have them do unto you.” The rest, as Hillel reminds us, is just commentary

Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear…

 

 

The Chameleons on the Ark

Of course there were chameleons on the ark. There was every kind of animal on the ark and Noah was in charge of feeding them all. This was much harder than you'd think! Some animals ate plants, some nuts, some berries, and of course some animals ate other animals. Some ate during the day and some ate during the night. Some at one large meal; some ate many tiny meals and Noah was in charge of figuring this all out. One particular animal that vexed him were the chameleons. Try as he might, Noah could not figure out what the chameleons ate.

The first day, he left them grass to eat and he came by the next day and the grass was still there. So the next day he left berries but the following day the berries were untouched. The third day, he left flies and they were left alone on the fourth. This went on for awhile and Noah became more worried and frustrated as the chameleons became smaller and paler. He would say to the chameleons, “How I wish you would just tell me what you want to eat!” but each day, the chameleons continued to deteriorate in silence.

Finally, around day 15, Noah was passing by the chameleons' cage with a pomegranate. As he stood there pitying the marvelous and mysterious creatures who would likely not survive the flood, he began to cut his pomegranate. As he cut into the center of the fruit, a worm hopped out and fell into the cage. One of the chameleons immediately seized the worm with their tongue and ate it. Surprised and relieved, Noah sent his sons to fetch some worms to restore the chameleons to health.

Later when the flood was over and Noah was watching all the animals file out of the ark, he spotted the two healthy chameleons and felt a great sense of relief that he was no longer responsible for their care.

 

This old Jewish midrash demonstrates the truth that God is a much better provider than we are. As human beings, we are often quick to criticize God's management of the world but we don't stop to think about all the intricacies and minute details that go into creation. This parable also speaks to our tendency to try and solve our problems without God. Noah worried himself with the fate of the chameleon and took their burden fully upon himself without praying for a solution. Surely the God who was in the midst of saving all of creation from the waters of the flood could be trusted to provide worms for two small chameleons.

 

Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear…