Making It Our Own

Behar-Bechukotai — Leviticus 25:1-27:34

By Jeffrey Fiskin

Published May 11, 2007, issue of May 11, 2007.
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A fine day in Hollywood. Two white-robed and bearded gentlemen enjoy luncheon on the terrace of a movie studio commissary, when a third similarly dressed fellow in a fright wig stands on a nearby table and begins to rant about what evils will befall our errant kind.

Malachi: Well, look who’s here. Ezekiel.

Moses: Naw, that’s not him. Zeke had those weird, wild green eyes.

Malachi: But the hair! That’s Ezekiel’s hair, no?

Moses: The hair’s good. And the costume. But it’s not Zeke. It’s all show biz.

Malachi sighs and returns to his salad.

Moses: What?

Malachi: No more prophets; no more miracles. It looks like I killed off an entire genre. As it is written, “When … Malachi died, the Holy Spirit departed from Israel.”(Bab. Tal Sotah 48b)

Moses: Wasn’t your fault. You didn’t even prophesy that much. What three, four pages? Besides, there’s another one coming. As it is written, “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet.” (Malachi 3:23)

Malachi: I know, I know. I wrote it. But where is he?

Moses: Doesn’t matter. “Rabbah stated in the name of R. Kahana in the name of Rab: If Elijah should come… he would not be obeyed.” (Bab. Tal. Yebamoth 102a) Malachi: So where did we go wrong?

Moses: Nobody went wrong. But remember the last sentence of this week’s portion, “These are the commandments, which the Lord commanded Moses for the children of Israel in Mount Sinai.” (Leviticus 27:34) As it is written, “These are the commandments, implying no prophet has now the right to introduce anything new.” (Bab. Tal. Temurah 16a).

Malachi: Isn’t that a bit harsh. Prophets are fun, exciting.

Moses: Not unreasonable though. As soon as you move from autocrats to democrats, you don’t need prophets anymore. With absolute rulers, to inculcate change, you need to shake things up a little. You need excitement. You need prophets. But with democracy, you need a thoughtful brooding presence.

Malachi: Rabbis.

Moses: Bingo. “A wise sage is even superior to a prophet.” (Bava Batra 12a)

Malachi: And who wrote that? Rabbis.

Moses: The “no more prophets after me” rule also appealed to Muhammad and Joseph Smith.

Malachi: Okay, so no more prophets. But why no miracles?

Moses: First of all, you need a prophet to be sure that you’re dealing with a miracle. A prophet has to anticipate the miracle, announce it as such before it happens. Otherwise, it might just be a natural occurrence we don’t understand yet. Ergo, no prophets, no miracles.

Malachi: But didn’t you understand everything at Sinai including natural occurrences?

Moses: Some think yes, some think no. It is written, “And He gave unto Moses when He made an end of speaking with him upon Mount Sinai, the tables of the testimony….” (Exodus 31:18) Now “… when He had made an end of speaking…” might suggest He said everything. But the Midrash Tanchuma, believing a pun WAS? involved, suggests we ought to understand that to mean I received only general rules at Sinai.

Malachi: So you got some general rules on Sinai, but maybe not everything, and the rabbis try to figure things out from there? Isn’t that contradicted by Megilla 19b, where it is written, “God has shown to Moses all details of the written and oral law and what will be renewed in the future by the sages”?

Moses: Indeed, how to resolve this apparent contradiction? Well, let’s try this: From either point of view, Sinai is the given, the first revelation. So the only question becomes how to understand it. That is, how do we make it our own in each generation? That suggests the first revelation is ongoing. As you said, “renewed in the future by the sages.” That renewal requires deep creative understanding; the operative word being “creative.” As R. Elazar ben Azariah said, “If there is no knowledge there is no understanding, and if there is no understanding there is no knowledge.”

Malachi: Still, did you learn everything or just some things?

Moses: Did you ever hear the one about me having ascended to heaven? So the Holy One says, “There will rise a man at the end of many generations, Akiva ben Yonkl by name, who will wrest from the smallest matter, heaps and heaps of laws.” Of course, I asked to see this amazing sage. “Turn around,” says He. And sure enough, there is Akiva. And he’s holding forth. Absolutely brilliantly. And for me, I’m afraid, absolutely impenetrably. I felt terrible. Until, at last, a disciple raised his hand and asked, “Whence do you know this?” And Akiva answers, “It is a law given unto Moses at Sinai.” I didn’t feel so bad then. (Bab. Tal. Menachot 29b)

Malachi: Did that really happen?

Moses: Never ask if a good story really happened.

Jeffrey Fiskin lives in Hollywood, Calif., with his wife and children.


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