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September 23, 2011 / 24 Elul, 5771
MISHNAH ROSH HASHANAH 3:8
By Rabbi Wayne Allen

Mishnah: "And it came to pass when Moses held up his hand that Israel prevailed, and when Moses let down his hand Amalek prevailed" (Exodus 17:11). But could the hands of Moses influence the outcome of the battle? Rather [this verse] comes to teach you that when the Israelites directed their thoughts on high and surrendered their hearts to their Father in heaven, they prevailed; otherwise, they suffered defeat. Similarly, you may say "Make for yourself a fiery serpent and set it upon a standard, and it shall come to pass that anyone bitten who sees it shall live" (Numbers 21:8). But does a [bronze] serpent have the power to kill or keep alive? Rather, [this verse] comes to teach that when the Israelites directed their thoughts on high and surrendered themselves to their Father in heaven they were healed; otherwise, they succumbed.

Commentary: Rare indeed does Midrash appear in the Mishnah. But here is an example of how two problematic verses in the Torah are interpreted in the Mishnah to help substantiate the position of the Mishnah immediately preceding it, that it is a person's mindfulness that counts. In making this point the Mishnah explains that Moses' hands were not the vehicle though which some magic was performed. Moses' hands merely served as a directional indicator. When the Israelites realized that their fate was in the hands of God and they focused on invoking God's saving power in their battle against the Amalekites, success was assured.

Likewise, when the Israelites complained about their limited diet in the wilderness and were punished by a plague of snakes, those who were snake-bitten did not recover because of some magical power of the bronze serpent Moses was instructed to fashion. They recovered because looking upward at the bronze serpent atop a pole reminded them that their very lives were in the hands of God above. It is that theological realization that earned their recovery. In both these cases the Mishnah claims that what is in one's heart is what matters.

The history of the bronze serpent is also instructive. The Mishnah challenges the idea that a physical object can have any metaphysical power. But over time, the Israelites began to conceive of the bronze serpent as a kind of fetish. King Hezekiah ultimately destroyed the bronze serpent in his purge of idolatrous practices among the Israelites of the seventh century B.C.E., some six hundred years after Moses (cf. II Kings 18:4). This left the Babylonian Talmud with the tantalizing question of why it took so long for the bronze serpent to be destroyed. There were particularly notable kings, such as King Asa and King Yehoshefat, who preceded Hezekiah, who were loyal to God about whom it was said they destroyed all traces of idolatry. They had both the power and the inclination to destroy the bronze serpent but did not. Of course, their reluctance to destroy the "Nehushtan" - as it was called - could be easily explained by the fact that it was considered an important relic.

The Babylonian Talmud (Hullin 7a), however, offers a different explanation. It concludes that our ancestors leave us opportunities to distinguish ourselves. In other words, as conscientious as our noble ancestors may have been, they did not do everything that could have been done. If they did, there would be no challenges for us to take on, no new things to accomplish. Consequently, they have generously allowed us the possibility of doing something noble. The implication is that we will exploit the opportunity.

So the Mishnah repudiates those who might think that there is a realm of magic beyond the powers of God. And at the same time, it provides the fodder for the Talmud to generate an important lesson about self-actualization.

This week's Haftarah commentary was written by Rabbi Wayne Allen, Ph.D.,
He is the author of Perspectives on Jewish Law and Contemporary Issues, Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies, Israel, e-mail: Books@schechter.ac.il.
Rabbi Allen is editorial board member, The Unraveller.

The opinions expressed in this Unraveller are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the FJMC.


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Blessings our Loved Ones in this Modern Day

There is no greater act that we perform each week on Shabbat then blessing our Loved Ones.

Yet, in our modern society, we often find our children and loved ones not living close enough to share this wonderful Shabbat tradition each week.

At our recent Convention in California, a group of men discussed how we can perform these Blessings on Shabbat, despite the absence of our children and family at the Shabbat table.

In our modern day, an email, a text or a tweet, can often be a simple electronic connection, bringing the family together in anticipation of Shabbat. Many in our group have continued this modern day means of communicating each week, when it is just difficult to reach all of our family by phone before Shabbat.

Perhaps your Men's Club can send out a reminder each week to Bless Your Loved Ones.

Give it a try, there is nothing like getting that text back, "Shabbat Shalom Dad".

Alan Sussman

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