Making It Our Own

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

By Jeffrey Fiskin

Published May 11, 2007, issue of May 11, 2007.
  • Print
  • Share Share

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.

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

Find us on Facebook!
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight":
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • Many #Israelis can't make it to bomb shelters in time. One of them is Amos Oz.
  • According to Israeli professor Mordechai Kedar, “the only thing that can deter terrorists, like those who kidnapped the children and killed them, is the knowledge that their sister or their mother will be raped."
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.