Not Your Father's Talmud

Rabbi Adam Chalom of Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in suburban Chicago explores the Talmud from a Humanistic perspective, one page a day.

Location: Highland Park, Illinois, United States

Rabbi Adam Chalom is the Rabbi of Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in suburban Chicago. He is also the Assistant Dean for the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism.

Saturday, April 23, 2005

Blessings and “Memories” - Berakhot 54

So far, the exploration of “Blessings” (Berkhot) has focused on blessings for certain occasions – special meals, Shabbat, daily prayers. Our lengthy Mishnah text under consideration in today’s page, however, demonstrates that for the Rabbis, there was a blessing for any occasion: there is a blessing for seeing a place from which idolators have been purged, or seeing shooting stars or earthquakes or lightning, or seeing mountains or rivers or deserts, or for rain and good tidings, or for evil news, or for buying a new house or objects (the classic Shehekhianu [who has sustained us]), and so on. We have already explored the problem of blessing God for disasters in previous pages, but what is most interesting in this list is a Tefillat Shav [a vain prayer]. Crying over the past, praying for a male child, or hearing cries in a house and hoping it is not yours: these are considered a waste of time by the Rabbis because one cannot change the reality of the world that has already exists – all we can hope to be better is what is yet to come.

One of the new categories of blessing described here are blessings on seeing places where miracles are said in the Bible to have taken place. The Talmud gives examples: the Red Sea, the Jordan where Joshua crossed (and the sea also parted), Lot’s wife as a pillar of salt, the stone the giant king Og wanted to throw at the Israelites, and so on. We even get a story of Moses as superhuman superhero – as Og prepares to destroy Israel, Moses (who is himself 10 cubits, or 15 feet, tall) takes a 15 foot axe, jumps 15 feet in the air, strikes Og on his ankle and kills him. And one can hear a latter-day tour guide say, “Imagine how large Og must have been! And THAT’S why this mountain is called Og’s Stone.”

Of course, from an historical perspective, many of these “moments” never actually happened – they were later stories to explain ancestral names for locations, or elements of the founding mythology – imagine finding the cherry tree George Washington supposedly cut down as a boy, saying “I cannot tell a lie,” and you’ll understand. We have found Jericho, but the site was abandoned during the time Joshua’s supposedly destroyed it. Even though we will be hearing the story on Passover, there is little historical evidence of any sizable Jewish presence in or Exodus from Egypt – certainly nothing on the order of events described in the Bible. The story retains its power as literature, but not as historical fact. Changing the past may be impossible, but changing our understandings of the past is essential to get a truer picture of who we are and from where we come.

Rabbi Adam Chalom