Tuesday, April 20, 2021

Angels and America’s Broken Glass: the George Floyd Case

 Angels and America’s Broken Glass: the George Floyd Case

“The creations of My hands are drowning in the sea and you wish to sing songs?” - Talmud, Megillah 10b

Even if you’ve never been to a Jewish wedding you know that a glass is broken to complete the ceremony. This is done to remind us that others are suffering even when we are at ease, even when we are rejoicing. And because we are all tied to each other, seeing as we are all alive at the same time on this absurd little speck in the cosmos, we cannot act as if deep down we don’t know that the conditional and temporary joy I may feel at any given point negates my obligation to those still in need.

With the defendant found guilty on all counts over the killing of George Perry Floyd, today such a glass was shattered in America.

When a great wrong has been committed and the evildoer brought to justice, that is right. It is even good. But it is not a time for rejoicing. Not when we remember all the suffering that even justice does not alleviate.

The racial tensions and civil unrest in our country which must be addressed are far from quelled tonight and that is no source for joy.

Neither does the conviction of one wrongdoer here mean that now no other in a place of authority will transgress in the future.

Nor can we be glad knowing that for all those who do faithfully concern themselves with the law and with our protection, even at the risk of their own lives, that their duty to us is now made any easier.

But most of all, George Floyd is still dead. Is still murdered. Justice does not bring him back and rejoicing certainly cannot either.

When the Israelites crossed the Red Sea and the Egyptian army was drowned in their pursuit of them, the Jews broke into song upon being saved from their clutches.

Yet when the angels did as well, God stopped them. Could they not see it? God does not rejoice when evildoers are punished, when humans die. God finds no pleasure in it. And neither should we. Achieving justice and peace in a society all too often means precious things like the glass at the wedding, like a man’s life, are shattered in the process. All our joy is tempered in this way.

So why then were the Israelites allowed to sing at the deaths of the Egyptians? And if they could, why couldn’t we? Or if not us, somebody today must surely be like the Israelites, right?

The Israelites were the ones whose lives were in danger, and the drowning of the Egyptians saved them. The only person in the analogous place here was killed. So there is no one who can sing today.

And furthermore, even if there were today, like the Israelites, someone who could rightly sing, that would not be the conclusion of the story. On the other shore of the Red Sea, the Jews still had forty years and a wilderness to cross before they reached the promised land.

In our own community here, there are civic, faith, and law enforcement partners with whom we must continue to work.

We have it in our power to bring about the more perfect union our country can be. We Jews can live and teach the rule not to do to others what we wouldn’t want done to ourselves. We can see to it that our county’s laws and law enforcement, which every democratic country seeking to create a fair and just society emulated, that they function for all the people of this land as they were intended to do.

But doing so means we have no time for singing. The journey is far from over and we must get on our way.

Rabbi Aaron Benson

Saturday, March 20, 2021

Demons & Passover – You Really Need to Drink Four Cups!

 Demons & Passover – You Really Need to Drink Four Cups!

We wrap up with a discussion from the Talmud, Pesachim 109-110, about drinking the four cups of wine at Passover and the dangers related to drinking (or doing anything) in even amounts.

While our ancestors’ beliefs about demons (and witches, I couldn’t resist including that one), the lesson for us comes from how the rabbis explain the drinking of the four cups.  Their interpretations of the four cups’ meanings can apply to our sedarim now. 

Pesachim 109b:  We learned in the mishnah that even regarding the poorest of Jews, the charity distributors should not give him less than four cups of wine.

The Gemara asks: How could the Sages establish a matter through which one will come to expose himself to danger [from demons, who attack you when you do things in pairs]?  Wasn’t it taught in a baraita: A person should not eat pairs, i.e., an even number of food items; and he should not drink pairs of cups; and he should not wipe himself with pairs; etc.? 

Looking ahead a page in the Talmud, we learn more about demons and “evens.”

Pesachim 110a:  אָמַר רַב יוֹסֵף, אָמַר לִי יוֹסֵף שֵׁידָא: אַשְׁמְדַאי מַלְכָּא דְשֵׁידֵי — מְמוּנֶּה הוּא אַכּוּלְּהוּ זוּגֵי, וּמַלְכָּא לָא אִיקְּרִי מַזִּיק. אִיכָּא דְּאָמְרִי לַהּ לְהַאי גִּיסָא: אַדְּרַבָּה, מַלְכָּא [רַתְחָנָא הוּא], מַאי דְּבָעֵי עָבֵיד, שֶׁהַמֶּלֶךְ פּוֹרֵץ גָּדֵר לַעֲשׂוֹת לוֹ דֶּרֶךְ וְאֵין מוֹחִין בְּיָדוֹ.

Rav Yosef said: Yosef the Demon said to me: Ashmedai, the king of the demons, is appointed over all who perform actions in pairs.  Can you call a king a harmful spirit?  Would he cause harm?  Rather, some say this statement in this manner: On the contrary, he is an angry king who does what he wants, as the halakha is that a king may breach the fence of an individual in order to form a path for himself, and none may protest his action. Similarly, the king of demons has full license to harm people who perform actions in pairs.

Rav Pappa said: Yosef the Demon said to me: If one drinks two cups, we demons kill him; if he drinks four, we do not kill him. But this person who drank four, we harm him. There is another difference between two and four: Regarding one who drinks two, whether he did so unwittingly or intentionally, we harm him. About one who drinks four, if he does so intentionally, yes, he is harmed; if he does so unwittingly, no, he will not be harmed.

The Gemara asks: And if one forgets and it happens that he goes outside after having drunk an even number of cups, what is his solution? The Gemara answers: He should take his right thumb in his left hand, and his left thumb in his right hand, and say as follows: You, my thumbs, and I are three, which is not a pair. And if he hears a voice that says: You and I are four, which makes a pair, he should say to it: You and I are five. And if he hears it say: You and I are six, he should say to it: You and I are seven. The Gemara relates that there was an incident in which someone kept counting after the demon until he reached a hundred and one, and the demon burst in anger.

Ameimar said: The chief of witches said to me: One who encounters witches should say this incantation: May hot feces and dates be in your mouth, witch, and may your hairs fall out, and may your crumbs be scattered to the wind. 

Now that we’ve seen the dangers one might encounter from demons when doing things in pairs or in even combinations, let us consider how this applies to our four cups of wine on Passover – seeing as four is a dangerous number of cups to drink, what do the rabbis say we should do?

Rav Naman said the verse: “It was a night of watching to the Lord” (Exodus 12:42), which indicates that Passover night is a night that remains guarded from demons and harmful spirits of all kinds. Therefore, there is no cause for concern about this form of danger on this night.   אָמַר רַב נַחְמָן, אָמַר קְרָא: ״לֵיל שִׁמּוּרִים״ — לַיִל הַמְשׁוּמָּר וּבָא מִן הַמַּזִּיקִין

Rava said a different answer: The cup of blessing for Grace after Meals on Passover night is used in the performance of an additional mitzvah and is not simply an expression of freedom. Therefore, it combines with the other cups for the good, i.e., to fulfill the mitzvah to drink four cups, and it does not combine for the bad [blessing a cup of wine as part of grace after meals is an “extra” mitzvah that when joined to the others for Passover makes a “good” set of four].

[And/or] About the danger of drinking pairs of cups, it is as though one drinks only three cups. [Rava adds another thought which could be another interpretation on its own, namely that the third cup drunk as part of Grace after Meals, only occurs since you’re eating anyway, so it is like an “extension” and so it doesn’t count as a totally separate cup.]

Ravina said: The Sages instituted four separate cups, each of which is consumed in a manner that demonstrates freedom. Therefore, each one (110a) is a distinct mitzvah in its own right. In other words, each cup is treated separately, and one is not considered to be drinking in pairs.

Think about the four positions presented by the three rabbis here.  Is there one that speaks to you about the meaning of your seder?  Is Passover mainly about the miracle of the Exodus as Rav Nahman suggests?  Does Passover augment and enhance our regular Jewish observances and practices as Rava seems to be saying?  Or is there something to Ravina’s view that each cup, like each mitzvah we do at any time, has its own meaning and deserves its own attention?  

Demons and Elijah – Cups, Doors and Curses


Demons and Elijah – Cups, Doors and Curses


Even if you don’t come back after dinner to finish up all of the seder, one post meal ritual that is likely to take place is opening the door for Elijah.  Actually, it’s not just one ritual, it’s two, pouring a glass for Elijah is, as we’ll see, a ritual unto itself.  And then there is a third, the recitation of the prayer, shefoch chamatcha or “pour out Your wrath.”  It’s a harsh passage that might seem at odds with the messages of freedom and concern for the stranger and the other which fill the Haggadah, but it is yet another piece, though combined with the other two Elijah rituals, add yet another piece to this portion of the Seder. 


Three Separate Rituals:

As we’ll see, the cup is there to welcome Elijah, and maybe even to encourage him to come, so that he will bring the Messiah.

Opening the door is a demonstration, as we will see, that Passover night is a leil shimurim a protected night, and we Jews show that we are safe from the evils and dangers of the world with this act.

Doing so while mentioning Elijah and then reading shefoch take full advantage of the protection the Seder night offers – we curse the demons and dangers of the world on this night when God’s power is all the more potent.  This way, we should not suffer at their evil hands in the future. 

These rituals were not there in the Torah’s description of Passover.  They weren’t even there as the basic structure of the seder was laid out in Roman times.  Reciting the prayer as the door is opened is a custom only about 500 years old and the others seem to date to the Middle Ages. 

Yet these customs are not just odd add-ons but superstitious ancestors.  They were ways to ritualize and to gain power over a world in which Jews all too often suffered at the hands of unseen demons like plague and famine, and demons personified by those who sought to kill them.  Praying the night of freedom, the protected night of the Exodus would be their night of rescue was a brave act of faith and defiance.  An act that can still have meaning for us today. 


Leil Shimurim:

Exodus 12:42 introduces us to this concept, using the term twice, it is a night that is guarded by God to take Israel out of Egypt, this night is to God a night that is guarded throughout the generations.

God guarded the Jews that original Passover night in two ways, just like the verse alludes to:  the Jews were protected from losing their first-born and the Jews were protected from the interference of the Egyptians in carrying out the night’s ceremonies. 

Additionally, we are taught that the two references mean for that time and place and for all other Passover nights everywhere else through time. 

Examples of this are that Esther and Mordecai overcome Haman on Passover night (see the dates mentioned in the Book of Esther), and the Messiah and Elijah are meant to come on Passover night (as referred to in the midrash, Exodus Rabbah).  And of course, Moses and Aaron and the original Passover.  It is interesting to note that in each case, a pair of heroes with a Mem name and Aleph name will be the ones to bring about God’s redemption. 


A Cup for Elijah:

Freedom from slavery is the key idea of the Seder.  Furthermore, telling the story every year undoubtedly leads us to think about the ways in which others in our history have been enslaved, how we and/or others may be or may feel enslaved today, and how the threats of various forms of slavery loom over the future.  Invoking Elijah’s name and praying that he and then the Messiah should come on this night is the natural evolution of these thoughts about slavery and freedom. 

Rabbi Israel Drazin teaches that if the Seder participants actually opened the door for Elijah and even poured him a cup of wine, and if they stood to welcome him and say words of greeting, their behavior would not be for naught; on the contrary, our ancestors would magically cause Elijah to appear. 


Opening the Door:

No doubt you are punctilious about reciting all three paragraphs of the Shema before you go to be each night.  Well, you get a break on Passover night.  The Shulchan Aruch tells us you need only say the v’ahavta paragraph – the other two aren’t needed because it is Leil Shimurim.  The “Bedtime Shema” as it is sometimes called makes overt reference to “the evil forces that surround us.”  Clearly a connection exists between the danger of demons on any other night and the fact that on this night, you have freedom from their influence. In fact, if you wanted, you could even unlock your door and fling it open, because you would be safe – and so we do!

The commentator Magen Avraham notes that while we can and should unlock our doors on this night to show our faith in God and our belief we cannot be harmed, we needn’t overdo it – if you live in a place or have some reason to fear a true threat, unlocking your door but not opening it is okay. 

Leaving our doors unlocked or opening them altogether allows us to get out to welcome the Messiah quickly as well.

And, another bonus that comes with all the extra protection, we can drink (Pesachim 109b) four cups of wine on this night, even though normally that might get you into trouble, it doesn’t at the Seder.


Shefoch Hamatcha:

The actual text of the prayer/curse is, “Pour out your fury on the nations that do not know you, upon the kingdoms that do not invoke your name, they have devoured Jacob and desolated his home.” (Ps. 79:6,7)

“Pour out your wrath on them; may your blazing anger overtake them.” (Ps. 69.25)

“Pursue them in wrath and destroy them from under the heavens of the Lord!” (Lam. 3:66)

As we’ve seen, the ritual regarding the door and mentioning Elijah had to do with scaring away demons.  It would seem then, that this prayer is not so much about God destroying non-Jews, but rather a use of biblical quotations to scare away “the nation of demons.”



We may not believe in demons at all, yet there is still meaning in these three separate yet related rituals for us.  For the goal of the seder is to feel as if we are there in Egypt preparing to leave with Moses.  Calling to mind those threats to our own lives and in our own times help us to achieve that bond with the past and help us realize that like the Israelites, while God may send a prophetic messenger to guide us, we are still the ones who have to get up and open the door. 

Thursday, February 18, 2021

Purim, Magic, Demons and More


From left to right: firecrackers for Chinese New Year; Isabella and Pantalone, two Commedia dell'arte stock characters; Nuo "exorcism" masks; a 9000 year old prehistoric stone mask.  

 Masks have always been a part of human culture.

One use of masks is to scare away bad spirits.

Making noise is another universal way to drive out evil spirits. 

Pagan Europe, East Asia, Christianity and of course Judaism all have celebrations and ceremonies using masks and noise as well as indulging in food and drink to clear out bad spirits before a period of cleansing to enter the new year “clean.” 

Among these, the Commedia dell’arte masked plays, associated with the Christian springtime ritual of Carnival, may have influenced the sorts of costumes we wear, see the chaste maiden and the scheming villain above. 

The new year was traditionally marked in the spring as a time of rebirth after winter.  The Chinese New Year is like this as is Nowruz the Persian New Year.  Notably, (the Islamic calendar, which is entirely a lunar calendar, does not have a fixed season for the new year).  Throughout Western history, the new year began on March 25th.  Even after the introduction of the Gregorian calendar when January 1st became the new year, the spring date remained in use.  The American colonies continued to observe March 25th as the new year until 1752! 

Rosh Hashanah marks the change in years on the Jewish calendar, the first month on the calendar is Nissan (Passover).  Purim is compared to Yom Kippur and further supports the idea of Purim as a new year holiday. 

As in all the other cultures with a spring new year, Purim is a time to use up and chase out the bad and the unwanted to prepare for the spring.  This is one reason why we drink liquor on Purim as much of it will not be acceptable for Passover in another month.  It also explains the connection to demons and evil spirits in Purim!

Further comparisons with Yom Kippur reveal the demonic nature of our Purim antagonists:

The Yom Kippur ritual of the scapegoat was also a lottery, goral, like Haman casting lots pur, to determine the day to attack the Jews.  Putting lots into a container, the high priest would shake them [a noisemaker!] and one goat would go to God, the other to Azazel. 

Azazel probably referred to a place of wilderness, but came to be a name for Samael, the chief demon in Jewish lore.  Samael is the most like the Christian Satan, and among other things, was the guardian spirit of Esau and Esau’s descendants, including Amalek and Haman.  (Mishnah Yoma 3 & 4, Yalkut I:110)

The two goats are twins, like Jacob and Esau, and just like the two of them, represent the struggle between good and evil. 

But Haman isn’t just evil like his forebears Amalek and Esau.  According to the Talmud (Chullin 139b) he is the Serpent of Eden, "And God said: Who told you that you are naked? Have you eaten of the tree, ha-min ha-etz, from which I commanded you not to eat?" (Gen. 3:11) In the same place we are told how Esther is in the Torah when God is referred to as hiding God’s face haster astir (Dt. 31:17)

Regarding Esther, we find a shedim, demons, helping her out, not just fighting with her:  “[Lest you think Esther cohabitated with him] the Shekhinah hid Esther from Ahasuerus and gave him a [shapeshifting] shedah instead while she returned to Mordecai.”  While demons are bad, unlike in other traditions, for us, nothing is outside God’s ultimate control. 


·        Around the world, springtime marks the start of a new year and rebirth after winter. 

·        Festivals for “finishing off” the evil spirits of winter, food “leftover” at the end of the outgoing year, and releasing pent up energy from being stuck inside, take place before the start of the spring new year (Nuo before the Lunar New Year, Mardi Gras/Carnival before Lent and Easter, Purim before Passover). 

·        These festivals involve making noise to scare off the evil and demonic, masking oneself to hide from the evil, as well as to “get the jump” on nefarious forces which may seek to destroy us.

·        It is possible that some of the sumptuary queues Purim offers as well as the notion of putting on a shpiel, were borrowed from stock characters in the Commedia dell’arte performance tradition.  

·        Rather than see these similarities as taking away from our Jewish practices and beliefs, they should reinforce the “truth” of these rituals as somehow essential to humanity – historically, culturally, and psychologically if not literally.

·        The Rabbis have long remarked on the connection between Yom Kippur and Purim.  We can see why this is so given the themes of leaving behind the evil of the old year and cleansing oneself, revealing what is hidden, in both holidays. 

·        The connection between the scapegoat, the demon Azazel/Samael, the Serpent, Esau, Amalek, and Haman, vs. the sacrificial goat, God, Jacob, Esther and Mordecai speak to Purim as being a cataclysmic clash between the forces of good and evil.

·        Humans must themselves struggle to defeat God’s adversaries and prepare the way for the coming redemption, which we experience at Passover.