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  • Writer's pictureSamuel Lebens

Shmini: Joy Inside My Tears

Updated: Apr 19, 2020

Sometimes, Midrash help us to uncover underlying themes and meanings of the Biblical text. Sometimes, by contrast, it's more interested in developing an idea, even if it means pinning something onto a Biblical text that clearly wasn't there originally. But always, the authors of Midrash display a penetrating and subtle understanding of Biblical language; both in terms of syntax (grammar), and semantics (meaning). Sometimes they use this knowledge to uncover hidden meaning. Sometimes they use this knowledge to play games with the text; even to subvert the original meaning. And sometimes, they provide us with tools for reading the text on our own.

For example, Rabbi Yudan teaches us that the two biblical words for "afterwards", אחר and אחרי, carry a slightly different meaning. אחר is used to introduce an event that happened immediately after a previous event, while אחרי is used to introduce an event that happened a little while after some previous event. Armed with this insight, we can go on to read multiple texts in a new light.

Centuries later, Rashi would relate to this teaching as a reliable key for unlocking the Bible's chronology even though Rabbi Yudan's contemporary, Rav Huna, thought that it was the other way round. According to Rav Huna, it is אחר that introduces an event that happened a little while after some previous event, and אחרי is the word that's used to introduce an event that happened immediately after a previous event. Apparently, Rashi related to both of these theories as working hypotheses, and found that Rabbi Yudan's theory better explained the data.

This week's Midrash discusses a similar tool. The Bible has two words that (due to the vagaries of Biblical grammar) can sometimes end up having the same meaning: וַיְהִי and וְהָיָה. They both can mean there was. But is there some subtle difference between these two words, knowledge of which would help us penetrate deeper into the Biblical text?

The Midrash relates a tradition, in the name of Rabbi Yochanan. According to this tradition, וַיְהִי is a very special word. It comes to introduce a narrative that concerns either sorrow or gladness. Moreover, if it comes to introduce sorrow, it introduces immense sorrow; unparalleled sorrow. Likewise, if it comes to introduce gladness, it comes to introduce immense gladness; unparalleled gladness. וְהָיָה, by contrast, is -- on this theory -- a less loaded word.

The Midrash doesn't go to any great length in order to test this hypothesis. I suppose that this is something we could each do in our own time. But the Midrash does present a competing tradition, and it subjects that tradition to extended scrutiny:

Rabbi Yishmael came and made a distinction. Every place where it says “וַיְהִי” there is no gladness [and every place where it says] “וְהָיָה” there is no sorrow.

We have a clear theory on the table. Does it stand up to scrutiny? Rabbi Yishmael's audience were unconvinced:

They challenged him [citing Genesis 1:3] “And God said, “let there be light”, and there was [וַיְהִי] light.”

Surely, the creation of light was a good thing. Why think that there was no gladness in this event?

He said to them, “even this case contains no gladness, since the world didn’t merit to use that light. Indeed, Rabbi Yehuda bar Simon said, [regarding] the light created by the Holy One, blessed be He, on that first day [of creation]: a person could use it to see from one end of the universe to the other [from the beginning of time, to the end of time]. When the Holy One, blessed be he, saw [by this light], the deeds of the generation of Enosh, and the deeds of the generation of the flood, that they were destructive, [God] arose and confiscated [this light] from them, as it is written, “Their light is withheld from the wicked,” (Job 38:15). And where was it placed? In the Garden of Eden, at it is said (Psalms 97:11): “Light is sown for the righteous, radiance for the upright” [i.e., the light of the first day of creation is reserved for the righteous in the world to come].”

There's a lot to digest here. Is the future already written, such that with the right light we could look right into it? Is God's knowledge of that future dependent upon his using that light? These are disturbing and perplexing questions, but we don't have time to dwell on them. The point at hand is this: the story of the creation of this light carries a tragic backstory in its wake. The joy here is skin deep. It's an illusion. But Rabbi Yishmael's skeptical audience continue:

They challenged him [citing Genesis 1:5, which describes the first day of creation]: “And there was [וַיְהִי] evening, and there was [וַיְהִי] morning; day one.” He said to them, “even this case contains no gladness, since all things created on the first day [i.e., the heavens and the earth] are destined to be destroyed, as it is written (Isaiah 51:6): “when the heavens will melt away like smoke, and the earth wear out like a garment”.”

Even the creation of the heavens and the earth are a source of disappointment to Rabbi Yishmael, since they will one day come to an end. The underlying assumption is that a phenomenon is rendered somehow tainted simply by being temporary. Sure, the creation of the world would have been something in which to rejoice, had it only been everlasting, but since it's going to perish, why bother? This is a close cousin of the claim that our lives are rendered meaningless by the fact that we're going to die.

Iddo Landau summarises that claim:

[A]nnihilation nullifies everything, making it into nothingness. And what is nothing has no value; it is meaningless. With time our body, our life, everything that we value and gain, will all be gone. All our achievements, whatever we are proud of, will evaporate. Their final stage is nullification, and that means -- or seems to mean -- that they all have no worth. True, they all persist for a while. But then they all vanish. Hence, death and annihilation render what we do inconsequential and, thus, pointless.

Landau, rightly, dismisses this argument as fallacious (in his fascinating book on the meaning of life). The fact that something is fleeting doesn't render it without value. Why can't we rejoice in the creation of our temporary universe? The Midrash doesn't dwell on the issue. Instead, Rabbi Yishmael's skeptical audience try him with another counterexample!

They challenged him [citing all the other days of creation since it is written], “and there was [וַיְהִי] evening, and there was [וַיְהִי] morning” [regarding] the second, third, fourth, fifth, [and] sixth day. He said to them, “even this case contains no gladness, since [the creation was incomplete such that] everything created in the six days of creation required [human] labour [in order that it should be completed]. The wheat needed grinding. Mustard needed sweetening. The Lupin bean needed sweetening.

Here Rabbi Yishmael invokes a common Midrashic trope: the product of a divine-human partnership is better than something created only by God; God created the world incomplete in order that we should become his partners, and complete it with him; baked goods are better than raw grain. As far as Rabbi Yishmael is concerned, the creation of an imperfect, incomplete universe is nothing to write home about. We can celebrate, perhaps, when it's finished!

His skeptical audience is not satisfied. They provide him with lots more counter-examples:

Joseph and Potiphar's Wife, by Guido Reni 1630
  • Genesis 39:2 describes Jospeh’s success in the house of Potiphar. It reads: “And it was [וַיְהִי] that God was with Joseph, and it was [וַיְהִי] that he was a successful man.” Unimpressed, Rabbi Yishmael points out that it was only because of Joseph's success that Potiphar's evil wife took a liking to Joseph.

Nadab and Abihu are killed in the Tabernacle - James Tissot
  • Leviticus 9:1, which is what ties our Midrash to this week's Torah reading, describes the completion of the inauguration of the Tabernacle. It reads “And it was [וַיְהִי] on the eighth day”. Rabbi Yishmael is unimpressed, since on that day, Nadav and Avihu, the sons of Aaron, perished.

  • In the book of Numbers (7:1), we read a description of Moses completing the building of the Tabernacle: “And it was [וַיְהִי] on the day that Moses completed the raising of the Tabernacle”. Again, Rabbi Yishmael is unimpressed. The Tabernacle was a portable structure, and just as Moses constructed it on that day, he also tested it by taking it apart. Moreover, this symbolizes that the Tabernacle was not to be permanent.

  • The book of Joshua (6:27) tells us that “God was [וַיְהִי] with Joshua”. Rabbi Yishmael is unimpressed. This verse occurs just before the military defeat, in the city of Ai, in which thirty-six of Joshua's men were killed. Or, according to our Midrash, perhaps only one person was killed, but that person's stature was as weighty as the majority of a Sanhedrin (a panel of 71 sages). Such a person was Yair ben Menashe, who, according to our Midrash, was the one person who died that day.

  • What about the verse that tells us that God was [וַיְהִי] with Daivd, in his youth (I Samuel 18:14)? No! Since: “From that day on Saul kept a jealous eye on David” (Ibid. 18:9).”

  • What about the verse, from this week's Haftorah, that tells us that David, many years later, was [וַיְהִי] finally able to settle in his palace in peace and safety, God having granted him security (II Samuel 7:1)? No! Since, on that very day, Nathan the prophet came to David and informed him that he would not be allowed to build God's Temple (I Kings 8:19, and II Samuel 7:5).

Rabbi Yishmael is implacable. It's impossible to find him a joyous verse into which he cannot read a note of sorrow. There is no silver lining beyond which he can't find a cloud.

Fed up with trying to find counter-examples, his critics ask him to provide his own proof texts. Moreover, since he's seemingly never willing to countenance a completely pure joy, will he really be able to find verses, in accordance with his own theory, that contain no single note of sorrow? According to his theory, remember, every instance of וַיְהִי is free of gladness, but every instance of וְהָיָה is free of sorrow. Does he really have any examples?

Rabbi Yishmael provides his critics with a list of verses. What's interesting about these verses is that each one uses the word וְהָיָה to describe the future. This isn't fair, since our initial question only really arises when וַיְהִי and וְהָיָה are used to mean the same thing; when they're used to describe the past. Here are Rabbi Yishmael's examples:

  • “And it shall be [וְהָיָה], on that day: The mountains shall drip with wine, the hills shall flow with milk, and all the watercourses of Judah shall flow with water; A spring shall issue from the house of God and shall water the Wadi of the Acacias” (Joel 4:18). No sorrow.

  • “And it shall be [וְהָיָה], on that day: each man shall save alive a heifer of the herd and two animals of the flock” (Isaiah 7:21). No sorrow.

  • “And it shall be [וְהָיָה] on that day: fresh water shall flow from Jerusalem, part of it to the Eastern Sea and part to the Western Sea, throughout the summer and winter” (Zecharia 14:8). No sorrow.

  • “And he shall be [וְהָיָה] like a tree planted beside streams of water, which yields its fruit in season, whose foliage never fades, and whatever it produces thrives” (Psalms 1:3). No sorrow.

  • “The remnant of Jacob shall be [וְהָיָה] in the midst of many peoples, like dew from God, Like droplets on grass — Which do not look to any man nor place their hope in mortals” (Micah 5:6). Again, no sorrow.

It's hard not to think that Rabbi Yishamel is cheating here. The real challenge is to find past tense uses of וְהָיָה that contain no sorrow. But don't be surprised. Rabbi Yishmael probably thinks that there are no events in history that are free of sorrow. If you want to be free of sorrow, you need to look beyond history, to the end of days, to the eschaton, to the visions of the prophets. At this point, his critics bring him a singly devastating counter-example: a verse that contains the word וְהָיָה; and example which is in the past tense and which is saturated in sorrow.

They challenged him. “Is it not written “And it was [וְהָיָה] when Jerusalem was captured” (Jeremiah 38:28)?” He said to them: “even this case contains no suffering, since on that day Israel received their judgement for their sins. For [just as] Rabbi Yishmael ben Rabbi Nachman said, “Israel took a complete judgement for their sins on the day that the Temple was destroyed. For so it is written (Lamentations 4:22): “Your iniquity, Fair Zion, is expiated; He will exile you no longer.”

The destruction of the Temple wasn't all bad. It was, despite the tremendous suffering and pain involved, a step along the road to our ultimate redemption.

Rabbi Yishmael, right throughout this Midrash is, I think, playing a game. He knows that there are no verses in which a creative pessimist cannot find a hidden note of sorrow. And he knows that there are no verses in which a creative optimist cannot find a note of gladness or joy. Pure joy exists only in the eschaton. For that reason, it's hard to take his theory as a serious suggestion. Surely he doesn't really believe that every וַיְהִי comes without a glimmer of joy, and that every וְהָיָה comes without a note of sadness. If anything, he's likely mocking the theory that came before him; the theory of Rabbi Yochanan; that each instance of the word וַיְהִי introduces either unmitigated sorrow or unmitigated joy. There is no such thing (in this world) as a pure emotion, either for the better or for the worse. Emotions always come mixed up. History can be divided into the good bits and the bad bits, but there is always some darkness lurking in the light, and there's always some light flickering in the darkness.

And yet, even if Rabbi Yishmael's theory isn't to be taken too seriously, he is offering us a tool for reading Scripture. He isn't merely sharing a truism with us about the complexity of history and the complexity of our emotional landscape. He's also making a point about the Bible. Aside from its vision of the end of days, the Bible doesn't trade in black and white. It trades in shades of gray. If you think that the Bible is glorifying a certain incident, period, or character, portraying matters only in positive terms, look deeper. The Bible will not hide from you a note of sorrow. Moreover, if you think that the Bible is portraying a certain incident, period, or character in only negative terms, look deeper. The Bible will not hide from you a glimmer of something worth salvaging.

And so we see. The Bible's narrative of the creation of the world contains within it the narrative of Adam and Eve eating the forbidden fruit. We don't sing a full Hallel ceremony on the last days of Passover because the Biblical narrative of our redemption doesn't hide from us the suffering of the Egyptians, which can only mar our joy. The giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai will forever be associated with the sin of the Golden Calf. Likewise, the inauguration of the Tabernacle, in this week's reading, will always be associated with the death of Nadav and Avihu. They were consumed by a heavenly fire.

Who were Nadav and Avihu? What were their motivations? Why did they meet such a sudden and untimely demise? There are countless explanations (they brought a sacrifice that wasn't commanded (cf. Leviticus 10:1); they served God under the influence of wine (cf. Leviticus 10:9); they were somehow too holy to stay on earth (cf. 10:3). But, in this series of weekly posts, we've already seen the theory, according to which, God was going to kill them on the day of the revelation at Sinai. He was going to kill them for seeking to look at God's glory, when they should have turned their faces. They were already on death row.

That reading has a lot going for it since it uncovers a striking parallel between the inauguration of the Tabernacle and God's appearance at Sinai. Both incidents contain a mass revelation. Indeed, on the eighth day of the inauguration of the Tabernacle, the glory of God was revealed to the assembly of Israel (Leviticus 9:23). And, of course, both incidents present Nadav and Avihu as drawing close; perhaps too close. According to that theory, God had already sentenced them to death on the day of the revelation on Mount Sinai, but he didn't kill them then and there because the day of the giving of the Torah was too dear to God. He didn't want to tarnish that day. He pushed their execution off to a later date.

Rabbi Yishmael, we imagine, wouldn't accept such a theory. God wouldn't cling to the childish notion that any day, in human history, can be free of sorrow, or that any day of mourning can be free of a glimmer of hope. And indeed, Nadav and Avihu's death occurred not on some unremarkable date, hand-picked by God so as not to interfere with a national holiday. On the contrary, they died, for whatever reason, in the service of God, on the day of the inauguration of the Tabernacle. The Torah does not present an unreal idealization of life. Pure joy is reserved for the end of days. In the meantime, we have to learn to live with tears of laughter and tears of sorrow flowing all at once.

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