Esteemed readers of the Times of Israel! This is the first essay I have the honor to share with you. May it find you in good health; and may my humble words always contribute to Ahavat Yisrael— the love of Israel, all our fellow Jews without exception. May my words be guided by the light of Torah and its Commandments, Ki mi-Tsiyyon tetse Torah u-dvar Hashem mi-Yerushalayim, For the Teaching shall go forth from Zion, and the Word of the Lord from Jerusalem— to illuminate all the world. May God help me to mesirat nefesh, to His and your service.
Your humble servant is a semi-retired professor of Armenian studies, with training in Ancient Iranian languages and religions and in Russian studies. I am of mixed Sephardic and Ashkenazic background: my parents are from Brooklyn, I taught on the East Coast a long time, and now make my home in the farthest West, as Yehuda ha-Levi might say, and belong to Chabad of the Central Valley. I hope my posts will interest you, and I look forward to learning from your responses. Their focus will be Israel and Jewish life and thought, maybe with a little Avesta and Nabokov thrown in now and then.
What does one say in a first post, how does one make a beginning? All beginnings come after endings, don’t they. Hashem (the polite Jewish term for God, meaning “The Name”) alone is beli reshit, beli takhlit, without start or conclusion; but where we mortals are concerned, Genesis was not just the beginning par excellence. It was the arbitrary end of a long period of pre-Creation, in which, inter alia, God played happily for two millennia with His Torah. The angels, who also, it would seem, already had existed for some time in that age before there were nights and days, urged Him to be content with that and not make the world. But God thought better: He wanted Israel to receive the Torah, to study it, live by it, come up with new interpretations, new ideas. So Be-reshit bara… does not mean “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” but something more like, “At the point when God was first creating.” It’s a narrative that jumps into the action, in medias res, rather as the great Homeric epics do.
God created the whole world with the particular purpose that Israel might study and live by Torah; and the Torah is itself understood by the Rabbis as a kind of proprietary lease to the Land of Israel. One has to have a place to live and eat and say prayers and raise a family while doing one’s job: Israel. The evolving relationship of humanity and Divinity in the growing, changing world is understood as reciprocal by the medieval Rabbis: God is the only true King, but even if He will reign in awesome majesty after all is done and gone (a frightening assertion we sing rather blithely in Adon ‘Olam), a King is defined by a kindom with subjects, that is, us. In a way, we’re needed. The medieval Persiam Muslim mystical poet Jalal al-Din Rumi in his Divan for his teacher Shams-e Tabriz has King David address God: Since You have no need of us (bi-niyazi to ze-ma), what was the wisdom of the creation of the spiritual and material worlds (do sara, literally the two houses). To which the poet supplies the reply that has become famous, proverbial: Ganje budam Man dar nehan, “A treasure was I, in concealment”— and I desired to become known.
For some months I have been saying Kaddish, with the permission of my father, Yosef Boruch, may he be well as he approaches his 91st birthday, for his sister Elsa, may her memory be for a blessing. In recent days I have been reading the book Kaddish by my old college friend Leon Wieseltier, whom some of you might know as the former literary editor of The New Republic. Leon is a many-faceted scholar, and each facet glitters like that of a diamond. His book is one of those exceedingly rare treasures, a scholarly page turner unencumbered by academese, Montaigne and Midrash in equal measure, a masterpiece of Judaic scholarship, a literary monument written by a good man.
I have also been meditating on the text myself. Kaddish is of course the prayer in Aramaic that Jews recite for the dead over roughly a year, and at anniversaries of the loved one’s passing. But it does not mention death and says nothing about mourning or loss. It comes in different variants for diverse occasions and purposes, and is not just for mourners. There is the Kaddish it’chadta for siyyum, the completion of the study of a tractate of the Gemara (Talmud); the rabbanan Kaddish, invoking blessing upon teachers and their pupils in their academies (“in Babylon and every place”, harking back to the Talmudic academies of Sasanian Mesopotamia), the half-kaddish at points in the liturgy, and so on.
But one part of the prayer that intrigues me is this line: Amen! Yehe Shemeh rabba mevorakh le-‘olam u-le-‘olmei ‘olmaya. “Amen! May His great Name be blessed forever and unto ages of ages.” The Rabbis say the angels envy human beings, because the former cannot pronounce this verse. In the Hasidic commonplace-book Ha-Yom Yom (Today’s the Day When…) , the Rebbe notes that R. Menachem of Chernobyl used to gain weight from reciting this line— it was that nourishing. Why? In the first case, that of envy, a mundane (as it were) explanation might be that the angels don’t speak Aramaic. (One often wonders exactly how we know this.) But then one might expect to discover reports from intrepid Rabbinic out-of-body journeyers to the effect that angels envy us also Yequm purqan, the nice prayer on behalf of the community that also gave its name to a stirring military mission during Israel’s War of Independence. And in the meantime R. Menachem is putting on weight. Why?
If one may be allowed to speculate, this verse is the only one I know that begins with Amen rather than ending with it. In a way, it declares that something greater and better is still to follow, even after that best and most sanctified of all blessing-enders. God in His perfection does not remain still: He creates Torah, then the world, Israel, and all that will come after. A Talmudic story: When Moses, our Teacher, is above Sinai to receive the Torah and sees the Lord adding little last-minute crowns (taggin, I mean here the Aramaic plural, not the artistic practice of painting graffiti on walls in NYC) to the letters, he asks, more or less: Who’s ever going to complete this? God replies that Rabbi Akiva will compose whole hills of halakhot (legal Torah rules) and sends Moshe Rabbenu on a time-travel journey to Akiva’s classroom in what was the far future. (I think this pericope is loosely based on the Aeneid but that’s another story.) More, more. Mitzvah goreret mitzvah, One mitzvah (commandment, good deed) leads to another! For Torah, for Jews, things only start with Amen, they don’t end with it.
The angels are (one is reliably informed) static. They do what they are made to do perfectly, and continue doing it ad infinitum and without variation. (True, one of them shone like the Morning Star, tried on a new role, and fell, declares the prophet; and Christians expanded this hint into the malign mythology of Satan. Well, it goes to show at least that if angels do try on something new, it’s a bad idea.) They sing praises, say Amen, click, stop. But for us, we’re privileged to make even Amen a beginning, to do something new, to look forward to better and better, which is perhaps why R. Menachem back in his cheerful hamlet in the old Russian Empire was becoming hale and roly poly with every kaddish recited— and for a frummer Yid that’s a rich diet indeed.
I was born in 1953. About a decade before, a relative of me Dad’s, R. Kalonymous Kalman Shapira, the Piasechner Rebbe, buried the manuscript of his Torah book Esh Kodesh in the Warsaw Ghetto and went to his death with his Hasidim at the hands of the Nazis, may their name and memory be erased. It was an ending that was part of a bigger ending: the last Torah book in Europe, at the end of the long Jewish civilization on that continent. And five years before my birth, two millennia of Jewish homelessness ended, with the birth of the State of Israel, the first flower, God willing, of our redemption. Endings, and too many mourner’s kaddish prayers to recite in all the time left to the planet, and a conclusion one would think enough, yet after those endings, beginnings.
So to the illustrious accomplishments of the writers and reporters of the Times of Israel and their readers, now my colleagues all, till now, Amen. To the prayers for our fallen heroes, Amen. To our forefathers, Amen. To all Creation up to this moment, Amen. And now with trepidation before our learned and holy nation, I begin with these words to contribute here to that great play, my verse. Annuit coeptis: May He prosper our undertakings. Shalom— Hello!