Sunday, January 31, 2010


The word behala is a cross between fright, shock, confusion and dread. It connotes total lack of control over one's environment and the unnerving, unsettling feeling that imparts. Behala is found in many psalms, and many places in the Bible. It is presented as a punishment of the most severe accord in the section of curses in Leviticus. In chapter 26 verse 16, after presenting the rewards for following in the path of the laws of God and then warning not to stray from that path and end up mocking, ignoring and humiliating the name of God, the Torah begins a litany of curses aimed at paralyzing our minds and bodies.

אַף-אֲנִי אֶעֱשֶׂה-זֹּאת לָכֶם וְהִפְקַדְתִּי עֲלֵיכֶם בֶּהָלָה אֶת-הַשַּׁחֶפֶת וְאֶת-הַקַּדַּחַת מְכַלּוֹת עֵינַיִם וּמְדִיבֹת נָפֶשׁ וּזְרַעְתֶּם לָרִיק זַרְעֲכֶם וַאֲכָלֻהוּ אֹיְבֵיכֶם
"I shall also do this to you by raining down upon you the 'behala' and the diseases of consumption and fever, failing eyes, and languishing soul, you will sow your seeds in vain and your enemies will eat it."

The diseases of consumption and fever and opthalmological problems we understand, but what of this behala? Should the first curse, the first punishment for the unrepentant sinner be behala?

Yes! The terror one feels at losing control of a situation, of losing sight, of utter confusion strikes a fatal blow to man's capacity to survive and sustain. As long as we have some semblance of control, we can endure the suffering. Once we lose that, we enter the world of behala.

Behala occurs when events before us defy logic.
When a brother we killed turns up as the devising evil viceroy of Egypt, "velo yachlu laamod lifnei Yosef ki nivhalu mipanav" An they could not stand before their brother Joseph for they experienced behala.
When a rundown group of slaves manages to uproot the great empire of Egypt: "az nivhalu elufei edom eile moav" Then the generals of Edom and Moav experienced Behala.

Finally, it is found in the mouth of David and the psalmists to reflect their state of utter terror at their loss of control. Psalm 6 depicts this behala in two realms:
רפאני ה' כי נבהלו עצמי, ונפשי נבהלה מאד ואתה ה' עד מתי
Heal me God for my bones are affrighted (behala) and my soul is in a state of bewilderment (behala).

David in psalm 6 has lost control. The psalm we use as our tachanun attempts to impart the feeling that while most of the time we put on a facade of control and confidence, once in a while we confess that we are confused, unsure, bewildered and disoriented. This can either be a result of a physical malady which strikes us (nivhalu atzamai) or a psychological or spiritual malaise which frightens us (nafshi nivhala).

David acknowledges the curse of behala as it grips his essence and paralyzes his senses. It almost prevents him from functioning at all, but something raises him from the mire--his relationship with God.

Ultimately he overcomes his own demons and reconnects with God to assert control over his destiny and over his enemies. "yevoshu ve'yibahalu meod kol oyvai" A day will come when my enemies will retreat in abject fear and chaos (yibahalu), they will experience the dread of behala.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Soulblessing, part 2: The Partnership

"Ha-motzi lechem min ha-aretz", the ubiquitous Jewish blessing is a bit of a conundrum. We acknowledge God, our Lord, king of the universe who brings forth bread from the earth. God brings forth BREAD from the earth? If anything, God brings forth wheat, grain, anything natural, but bread? Bread involves human production, a lot of it in fact! The Mishna lists the eleven events necessary to turn earth into our smorgasbord--
1. Sowing (seeding)
2. Choresh - Plowing
3. Reaping (cutting)
4. Gathering (bundling sheaves)
5. Threshing
6. Zoreh - Winnowing
7. Selecting, separating)
8. Grinding
9. Sifting
10. Kneading
11. Baking

How then do we recite the blessing as if God Himself sends us bread from the earth like manna from heavens? The answer relates to a fundamental Jewish notion of existence: We are not bystanders in God's world. The film called 'life' is not about its creator but His creations! I have heard in the name of Rav Soloveitchik that Judaism is theo-centric but anthropo-oriented. This means that while God should be in our consciousness at all times, the real story is about mankind and the way in which we as people interact, develop and ultimately join together with our creator to make the world He made for us, that much better.

This idea is illustrated in the famous story in the Midrash:

Turnus Rufus the wicked asked Rabbi Akiva, "Whose deeds are better? Those of God or those
of humans?" Rabbi Akiva answered, "Those of humans are better." Turnus Rufus asked,"Behold the heaven and the earth. Can you make anything more beautiful than them?"

He answered, "Do not tell me about something that is higher than human capabilities, since
humans are unable to do these things, but let us compare things which humans are capable of."

Turnus Rufus asked, "Why do you circumcise yourselves?" Rabbi Akiva answered, "I knew that
you were asking about something like that, and for that reason I told you at the start that men's deeds are greater than those of God."

Rabbi Akiva then brought to Turnus Rufus two items: stalks of wheat and baked rolls. Rabbi
Akiva said, "These [the stalks of wheat] are the deeds of God, and these [the baked rolls]
are the deeds of humans. Are these [baked rolls] not more beautiful?" (YALKUT 546, par. "Uveyom")

It is quite significant that Rabbi Akiva uses the rolls as the the example of the joint venture between man and God. Psalm 104 describes man's acknowledgement of God, of His creation, of His sustaining life through nature. But halfway through verse 14 a transition takes place where God is not the provider but man. That takes place with the verse 'lehotzi lechem min ha-aretz' that man takes the fruit of the earth and turns it into bread which sustains us and grapes into wine which gives us joy. It is this transition that reminds us of our incredibly important role in the world. Just as God sets up the infrastructure of nature, the eco-systems and all that is needed to survive and thrive, so too, Man takes the baton and adds value, brings emotion, compliments the fruit of the earth with the ingenuity of mankind towards an even nobler ideal.

The psalm in the subsequent verses beautifully describes how we are all supposed to share this beautiful world in a state of equilibrium: nature does its work constantly; the animals emerge in the night; Man goes out to work in the day; the sea has an entire world within it, living together side by side; "all turn to God for sustenance, all are provided by His light and warmth (and all shudder at God's hidden face).

"yehi chevod hashem leolam, yismach hashem bemaasav"
May God's glory permeate for eternity and may He rejoice in His creations.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Soulblessing: Analysis of Psalm 104, part 1

ברכי נפשי את ה
My soul shall bless God...

This title to psalm 104 is familiar to us all as the psalm our rabbis designated to be recited on Rosh Chodesh, the festival of the new moon. What does it mean that my soul should bless? What does this psalm have to do with the new moon?

The thirty five verses of the psalm depict the creation story anew. It is a song to God acknowledging the grandeur, the splendour of God's work, culminating with the famous verse, "מה רבו מעשיך ה" How wondrous are your works O God!

I distinctly recall the epiphany I underwent when in Yeshiva Univeristy I learned this psalm under Rabbi Dr. Mordechai Cohen, the man who opened my soul to the majesty of Psalms. He asked us to scan the text and find the parallels to the creation story. It was all new for me and lit a spark which has continued to luminate until this very day as I pass the spark on to my students.
From the initial creation story we sense a glimpse of the Divine planning, the orderliness and the process. We note the distinction in usage of words to create, fashion, cause to evolve, and a plethora of nuances which comprise the brief glimpse into the metaphiysical beginning.

Psalm 104 is perhaps the very nascent steps of man to acknowledge, express gratitude, praise, and even bless God for what we take for granted every day.
Already in the first verse the tone changes from a statement about the experience of praising God to a call to God Himself--ה אלהי גדלת מאד הוד והדר לבשת, O Lord, my God You have consistently, totally, unequivocally shown us the true nature of 'good', splendour and beauty are Your garments.

Then, verse two begins the praising of creation: light, heavens, waters, atmosphere, celestial spheres, elements, land--all of which is in totality, consistency, permanence.
Verse 6 describes the miraculous nature of the world (which we take for granted) such as the mountains standing on the water, the movement of water, the crumbling of mountains, and the development of new ones. the process of nature as the streams usher down into the valleys, dancing in-between the hills.

What is Rosh Chodesh, the 'festival of the new moon'? It is a day built in to nature to serve as a reminder that the world is remarkable, that we should never settle, resign, or feel content. We can't take it all with us, but in appreciating its source we must not simply sing out and rejoice, praise but must also bless and convince our souls, our Godliness built in to our humanness, to bless the Almighty, engage in His good works and internalize His amazing system.

Once a month the moon shrinks, the light diminishes, and we wonder frighteningly about our mortality and insignificance. But then, just as hope is lost, a sliver reappears, and the light begins to shine once again.