Bo: Balancing Openness and Insularity

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    • Tzvi Chulsky 4 months ago

      There is a famous midrash[1] about Avraham being hidden in a cave in his childhood, coming out, seeing the sun and worshipping it; when the sun sets, he realizes that it cannot be God and begins worshipping the moon. But then morning returns and the moon disappears and Avraham realizes that there must be a God above the sun and the moon.

      Coming out of a childhood in which he sees and understands relatively little of the world (as does everybody), Avraham sees two great cultures: Egypt, with its solar calendar; and Babylon, with its lunar one. Both cultures initially appeared to be good, solid approaches to the world and life, but Avraham determines that the truth must be above both[2].

      In this week’s parashah, we are, for the first time, introduced to the Hebrew calendar. God starts out by telling Moshe and Aharon that Nissan shall be the first month[3]. The word for a month in Hebrew (חדש) means “renewal”—without vowels, it looks identical to the adjective “new”—because our months are lunar, and each month represents a new lunar cycle. (The picture is really a bit more complicated, as it requires witnesses and a court to declare a new month; declaring a new month is a collaboration between us and God, not an act of God on his own[4]. But the discussion of collaboration between humans and God is BE”H a few parshiot away.)

      Moshe then says to the Jews that this month (Nissan) is the month of spring[5]. The reason that the month can consistently be a spring month is that our years are solar, each year representing a new solar cycle. With its lunar months and solar years, our lunisolar calendar combines aspects of both the lunar and solar systems and joins them into something that works. The midrash cited above, with our interpretation, hints that this points to something else: we needed to find the good in Egyptian culture and the good in Babylonian culture, and assimilate it as our own, fusing those aspects by way of our moral system into a whole that was more than the sum of its parts[6].

      Today, Egypt and Babylon are gone, having enriched our culture and been supplanted by systems that have already been significantly affected by Judaism and the Torah. The heirs to the solar calendar are the Christians, and the West that they built; the heirs to the lunar calendar are the Muslims, and the Middle East that they built. Our job now is similar to our job then: to filter their cultures through our moral sieve, decide what to accept and what to reject, and then enrich our own culture, fuse the East and West into more than the sum of their parts.

      We are naturally drawn to this; it did not take pulling teeth to convince Israelis to become leaders in technology, nor is it intentional that the second result of a web search for “classic muslim foods” is “israelfortourists.com.[7]” It is important to continue in this vein. It is necessary and valuable for us to know, and to teach our children to know, Virgil and Omar Khayyam, Gaius and Abu Hanifa, Galileo and Ibn Khaldun, Greek and Latin and Arabic. It is good for us, as long as we are able to ensure that we study Torah first and foremost, and filter everything else we learn through its lens; we must make certain that we are mature enough to understand what to accept and what to reject.

      A week ago, Michelle posted some deep insights about the first of the morning blessings[8], which describes God giving the rooster the understanding—בינה—to distinguish between day and night. In kabbalah, בינה immediately precedes דעת, the latter being akin to “eating” something—assimilating it into oneself, making it part of oneself. בינה, then, is precisely what one must have prior to assimilating something: the ability to distinguish between day and night, good and bad, appropriate and inappropriate, as applied to whatever is being assimilated. As our bodies filter the nutritious from the poisonous in the foods we eat, so must we separate between the healthy and the toxic in the ideas we assimilate, both as individuals and as a community.

      [1] Its origins appear elusive, though it can be found in Sefer HaYashar Noach 12
      [2] This interpretation of this midrash is a modified version of Pinchas Polonsky‘s.
      [3] Shmot 12:1-2
      [4] See Rav S.R. Hirsch for a detailed discussion, and of course the Talmud in Rosh Hashanah and Sanhedrin for an even more detailed discussion.
      [5] Shmot 13:4
      [6] There is a difference between wisdom (which we can bring in from other cultures), and Torah (which we cannot). See Eichah Rabbah 2:13.
      [7] Kosher offerings of imported cuisine are a simple example of refining foreign ideas through the Torah before assimilating them.
      [8] אשר נתן לשכוי בינה להבחין בין יום ובין לילה

    • Raquel Sananes 4 months ago

      Wow, this is so informative! Thanks for sharing

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