Yitro 5768

January 25, 2008

Last night I had the opportunity to study Psalms together with monks and nuns from the Community of the Beatitudes in Emmaus .  Emmaus is the place where Christians believe Jesus was first seen after being resurrected.  The monastery I visited is on a site that Christians have considered the leading contender for the site since the 5th century; it is, however, pretty far from Jerusalem, about 20 miles, but I suppose distance doesn’t really matter when we are talking about miracles.

I really appreciated this opportunity; since I’ve been working in the business world to make a living, I have not spent nearly as much time teaching and learning Torah as I would like.  I have no idea how Rashi and Rambam managed to combine work and serious Torah.  I hope I figure it out soon!

We were an eclectic group of about a dozen people.  A few nuns, a few monks, Rabbi David Lazar who is the leader of the group, a few laypeople — Catholic pilgrims, and a few Jews from Tel Aviv, including a lawyer whose attire — he was wearing a suit — is somewhat unusual most anywhere in Israel, but particularly unusual in the setting.

The session was set to start at 8pm. My wife Lauri is out of the country on a business trip, so I had to scramble to get the kids ready before heading down the hill to the monastery.  Traffic was terrible, and I arrived a little late.  When I got there I saw what appeared to be the entrance, but it was completely dark, there was a sign that said "entrance on foot only" — I didn’t even see anything that looked like a road that would accept a car — so I assumed I must be at the wrong entrance. 

I could see a big old building with some lights on up the hill a ways, so I assumed that was the monastery, but I didn’t see anyway to get there. So I drove around looking for another entrance, with no luck.  I called Rabbi Lazar on his cell phone, and found I had, in fact, been in the right place.  One of the monks walked down the hill and opened the gate, and drove up what looked like a goat path, meandering through an archeological site an up the hill until arriving at the monastery.

The "Psalm for the Day" was Psalm 5. It was fascinating to hear the different takes — Christian, Jewish (including Rashi, etc.), religious "professionals" and laypeople.  The Jews tended to take the psalm at face value — in accordance with our teaching that while you can interpret, a verse does not leave it’s "pshat," it’s simple interpretation — and to us, it sounds like the psalmist was having a really bad day; and was putting down the wicked people not as righteous as himself.  The Christians tended to spiritualize the whole thing, and say it wasn’t talking about an outside wicked person, but the wickedness within.

I really enjoyed the very close reading we gave of the text, coming up with what I thought were better translations of some of the concepts than any of the English or French translations we looked at.

The verses led us off into some interesting theological discussions — when the psalms says "God cannot abide with the wicked," how do we understand that?  Is evil then, simply the absence of God?

After the study session, our hosts took those of us who were there for the first time on a tour.  They have a lovely chapel, with several Jewish symbols, like a menorah, and what at I at first thought was a representation of the luchot (the tablets of the 10 Commandments). Hence the connection, albeit tenuous, to this week’s parsha — Yitro, in which we read the 10 commandments.

However, I was puzzled by something.  On the right side, was a letter "aleph," which would fit for the first word of the 10 commandments in Hebrew, "Anokhi," "I." However, on the what looked like the other table was the letter "tuv," and I was scratching my head trying to figure out where that came in the commandments, until one of the nuns explained it was really supposed to be a Hebrew version of "alpha and omega" the Greek letters that are the first and last letters of their alphabet.  Alpha-Omega is supposed to symbolize God’s eternity.

The community at the monastery is quite small, only 11 full time residents, although their numbers sometimes more than double with visitors.

I’ve got a lot more I’d love to write, but Shabbos is almost here, so I better go cook something or we won’t have any dinner!

Rav Baruch

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