Mystery in the Meshalim: the Power of Parables

One of the most ancient tools for communicating meaning is the simple story. Within the tradition of Judaism exists the convention of the mashal, meaning “to be like.” The more familiar Greek equivalent is the parabolē, or parable. Meshalim (the plural form of mashal) are seen scattered throughout Scripture with many faces and can function as “any type of illustration, from a proverbial saying to a fictitious story. It may refer to a proverb, riddle, anecdote, fable, or allegory. A mashal defines the unknown by using what is known. The mashal begins where the listener is, but then pushes beyond into a new realm of discovery” [1]

King Solomon was an expert at using the device to convey wisdom, and we see the positive form emerge as early as Genesis 10, where verse 9 contains the ancient comparison “Just like Nimrod who was a mighty hunter before Hashem” or the question, “Is Shaul also among the prophets?” (1 Samuel 10:12), which became a mashal in Israel. Meshalim also conveyed a negative function of a tragic story, a byword, satirical taunt songs of divine judgment, ascribed to individuals or nations. (Deuteronomy 28:37).

APPLES OF GOLD IN SETTINGS OF SILVER

Maimonides quotes the scriptural proverb: “A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in settings of silver.” (ketapuhei zahav b’maskiyyoth shel kesef) [Proverbs 25:11]

Hear now an elucidation of the thought that the Sage has set forth. The term maskiyyoth [translated as “settings”] denotes filigree traceries; I mean to say in which there are apertures with very small eyelets, like the handwork of silversmiths. They are so called because a glance penetrates through them; for in the [Aramaic] translation of the Bible the Hebrew term va-yashaqeph — meaning, he “glances” — is translated va-istekhe.” The Sage accordingly said that a saying uttered with a view to two meanings is like an apple of gold overlaid with silver filigree having very small holes.

Now see how marvelously this dictum describes a well-construed parable. For he says that in a saying that has two meanings-he means an external and an internal one-the external meaning ought to be as beautiful as silver, while its internal meaning ought to be more beautiful than the external one, the former being in comparison to the latter as gold is to silver. Its external meaning also ought to contain in it something that indicates to someone considering it what is to be found in its internal meaning, as happens in the case of an apple of gold overlaid with silver filigree having very small holes. When looked at from a distance or with imperfect attention, it is deemed to be an apple of silver; but when a keen-sighted observer looks at it with full attention, its interior becomes clear to him and he knows that it is of gold. [2]

HANDLES ON THE TRUTH

The power of the parabolic story is that it provided a vehicle for communication — a handle if you will — for transmitting eternal truths (regardless of whether the hearer ultimately understood the message, the story provided the optimal means to remember and transmit it.) Usually told in the third person, parables invite the hearer to interact and insert themselves into the story as they see fit and usually include a twist to drive home the point, which may or may not be clearly stated, depending upon the intent of the teller.

The Tanakh includes seven examples of story meshalim, which appear in stories of conflict. [3] Of these examples, only Nathan the prophet’s story of the poor man’s ewe lamb is a direct parallel to the story parables recorded in the four Gospels and later Rabbinic literature. Nathan’s mashal demonstrates the effectiveness of storytelling at pulling the listener in, even when they do not fully comprehend the hidden, underlying message. David was able to clearly see the injustice in Nathan’s story in that he pronounced a royal sentence condemning the evildoer, only to face a wave of shock and shame when Nathan uncovered the apple of gold behind the silver setting in revealing that David himself was the offender. Added to this was the accompanying horror that due to his circumstances, he was unable to carry out his own royal sentence of restitution (i.e David was unable to restore Bath-Sheba to her husband Uriah, who had been murdered in battle via his direct order.)

This idea of using meshalim to both reveal and conceal was echoed by the prophet Isaiah, “And he said, Go, and tell this people, Hear ye indeed, but understand not; and see ye indeed, but perceive not.” (Isaiah 6:9) who was later quoted by Yeshua of Nazareth in explaining his teaching methodology to his own talmidim.

“Therefore speak I to them in parables: because they seeing see not; and hearing they hear not, neither do they understand. (14) And in them is fulfilled the prophecy of Esaias, which saith, By hearing ye shall hear, and shall not understand; and seeing ye shall see, and shall not perceive: …(16) But blessed are your eyes, for they see: and your ears, for they hear.” (Matthew 13:13–14, 16)


Hillel the elder taught a mashal about the high priest Aaron to teach about being peaceful. “Be of the disciples of Aaron, loving peace and pursuing peace, loving every single person, and drawing each one near to the Torah.” [4] 

R. Nathan further expounded upon Hillel’s adage of Aaron: When two men had quarreled one with the other, Aaron would go and sit with one of them and say, “My son, see what your companion is doing! He beats his breast and rends his garments, exclaiming, ‘Woe is me! How can I lift my eyes and look my companion in the face? I am ashamed before him since it is I who offended him.’” Aaron would sit with him until he had removed all enmity from his heart. 

Then Aaron would go and sit with the other and say likewise, “My son, see what your companion is doing! He beats his breast and rends his garments, exclaiming, ‘Woe is me! How can I lift my eyes and look my companion in the face? I am ashamed before him since it is I who offended him.’” Aaron would sit with him until he had removed all enmity from his heart as well. 

Later, when the two met, they embraced, fell on each other’s necks and kissed each other. [5]

We see this virtue echoed in Yeshua of Nazareth’s teaching at the Sermon on the Mount, “Happy are they who pursue peace (peacemakers), for they will be called the sons of God” (Matthew 5:9)

ENTER THE MAGID

The Rabbi occupied an invaluable role in Jewish oral culture as Maggid (Storyteller), transmitting eternal truths by telling and unraveling stories old and new. The birth of what later developed into Rabbinic Judaism (after the destruction of the second Temple in 70 CE.) included teachers such as Hillel, Shammai, Gamaliel, Yeshua, Hanina ben Dosa and Shim’on ben Gamaliel (among many others). These sages stepped into the role of maggid to tell stories that resonated with their audiences and served as handles to carry and transmit truth. Yeshua used this teaching technique almost exclusively during his ministry in Israel.

“All these things Yeshua spoke to the crowds in parables, and He did not speak to them without a parable.” (Matthew 13:34 NASB)

CONCLUSION: THE POWER OF STORY


Yisrael Campbell [6] recalls whenever the Baal Shem Tov saw misfortune threatening the Jews he would go to a certain part of the forest and meditate. There he would say a certain prayer and light a fire and the miracle would be accomplished—, the danger averted.

And the next generation the Maggid of Mezeritch would go to the same place in the forest and he would say, “Ribbono Shel Olam (Master of the World), I don’t know how to light the fire, but I can still say the prayer.” And it was enough.

And still later, Rabbi Moshe Lieber of Sasso would go to the forest and he would say, “I don’t know how to light the fire and I don’t know the prayer, and that must be sufficient.” And it was.

And still later, generations later, when it fell to Rabbi Yisrael of Ruzhyn, sitting in his armchair, his head in his hands. He would say, “Master of the Universe, I don’t know where the place is in the forest, and I don’t know how to say the prayer, and I don’t know how to light the fire. All I can do is tell the story.”

 And it was enough. 

Because God made man. 

Because God loves stories.


ENDNOTES:

[1] Brad Young, The Parables: Jewish Tradition and Christian Interpretation(Baker Academic, 1995), 3
[2] Gila Sifran Naveh, Biblical Parables and Their Modern Recreations: From Apples of Gold in Silver Settings to Imperial Messages, (State University of New York Press, Albany, 2000), 3–4
[3] These are the poor man’s ewe lamb (1 Samuel 12), the Woman from Tekoa’s two sons (2 Samuel 14), the prophet’s acted parable to Ahab (1 Kings 20), the song of the vineyard (Isaiah 5), the lament of the vine (Ezekiel 19 — the only account specifically labeled a mashal), and the fables recorded in Judges 9 and 2 Kings 14.
[4] Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) 1:12b
[5] A. Cohen, I. Brodie, “Abot de Rabbi Nathan” English translation found in Minor Tractates of the Talmud, (London: Soncino, 1971), 172
[6] https://youtu.be/q481vlmVuSc

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The Bible as Myth: Finding Truth in the Story

The juxtaposition of the words “Bible and “myth” often elicit a raised eyebrow from people of faith, so allow me to provide a working definition of how I will be referring to myth. Contrary to the popular definition of myth (dating back to 1840) defined as “untrue stories,” the classical definition refers to “a people’’s sacred stories about origins, deities, ancestors, and heroes. Within a culture, myths serve as the divine charter, and myth and ritual are inextricably bound.

Note that the classical definition of “mythology” offered here does not attempt to determine if biblical or subsequent narratives are true or false; historically accurate or not. And, emphatically, the use of the word “myth” is not offered to mean something that is not true, as in the current popular usage.” [1]

THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN MYTH AND MEANING


In short, myths are the stories which enable us to manage meaning and transmit values to future generations across millennia and shifting culture. Humanity at our core are storytelling creatures, evidenced from the oral traditions of the world’s earliest known cultures to the modern entertainment arenas of music, literature, stage, television, and film. The form of story is archetypal: universally familiar characters or situations that transcend time, place, culture, gender, and age. Stories represent and best communicate eternal truths.

Famed mythologist Joseph Campbell explained how mythology has served a fourfold function in human societies 
1. Metaphysical — Awakening our Awe for the Enigma of Existence
“The first function of mythology is to reconcile waking consciousness to the mysterium tremendum et fascinans of this universe as it is.”

2. Cosmological — Explaining the Architecture of the Cosmos
“The second function of mythology is to render an interpretive total image of the same, as known to contemporary consciousness.”

3. Sociological — Validating and Upholding Communal Order
“The third function of mythology is the enforcement of a moral order: the shaping of the individual to the requirements of his geographically and historically conditioned social group.”

4. Pedagogical — Guiding Individuals Through Life’s Circuit
“The fourth function of mythology is to foster the centering and unfolding of the individual in integrity, in accord with himself (the microcosm), his culture (the mesocosm), the universe (the macrocosm), and that awesome ultimate mystery which is both beyond and within himself and all things.” [2]

MEANING AND BIBLICAL INTERPRETATION

Within Jewish Biblical interpretation, referred to by its acronym PaRDeS (meaning “paradise.”) Scripture is divided into four levels of understanding.

1. Peshat (פְּשָׁט‬) the plain meaning of the text can be gleaned from a surface (but not necessarily “literal”) reading

Now the LORD said to Abram,“Go forth from your country, and from your relatives and from your father’s house, to the land which I will show you…So Abram went forth as the LORD had spoken to him; and Lot went with him.” 

(Genesis 12:1, 4)

God communicated a message to Abram; Abram followed the instruction. End (or more accurately, beginning) of the story.

2. Remez (רֶמֶז‬) a hinting, or deeper allegorical meaning, hidden just below the surface.

Remez repeats specific words or phrases found elsewhere in Scripture to hint back and forth and conceptually connect multiple passages. The practice of Gematria also falls under the category of remez. Gematria consists of numerological study in which each letter of the Hebrew alphabet is connected to a fixed number value allowing one to calculate a numerical value for words and phrases, which connect to other words and phrases of the same value. There are multiple methodologies for this discipline, from the standard method which values the first Hebrew letter aleph at 1 through the last Hebrew letter tav valued at 400, to “at bash”, in which the numerical values are reversed, with aleph valued at 400 and tav valued at 1.

One early example of remez using gematria is found in Genesis 6:8 “But Noach (נח) found grace (חן) in the eyes of the LORD.”

“Noach” consists of nun and chet, while “grace” is constructed from chet and the sofit form of nun. Both words have a gematria value of 58.

Of further interest is Genesis 6:9, in which Noach’s name is doubled in the text. “This is the history of the generations of Noach. Noach was a righteous man…” We can find a parallel in the only instance in the Tanakh where grace (chen) is also doubled. “Who are you, O great mountain before Zerubbabel? You shall become a plain; and he shall bring forth the top stone with shouts of ‘Grace, grace,‘ unto it.” (Zechariah 4:7) According to midrash (see next point), the “great mountain” refers to King Messiah Himself; [3] therefore Noach can be seen as a manifestation of the Messianic archetype. [4][5]

3. Derash (דְּרַשׁ‬) to seek, a comparative (midrashic) meaning as given through similar occurrences. Midrash further divides into two categories: Halacha (acceptable behavior, or literally “the way to walk”) and Aggadah (the story of existence) Halacha is Jewish behavior; aggadah is the backstory for those behaviors [6]

MIDRASH AGGADAH

One midrash recounts the story of Abram and the idol shop. His father, Terah was an idol manufacturer who once went away and left Abram in charge of the store. Abram took a stick, smashed the idols and placed the stick in the hand of the largest idol. When Terah returned, he asked Abram what happened to all the idols. Abram told him that a woman came in to make an offering to the idols. The idols argued about which one should eat the offering first, then the largest idol took the stick and smashed all the other idols. Terah responded by saying that they are only statues and have no knowledge. Whereupon Abram responded by saying that you deny their knowledge, yet you worship them! [7]

The nuance underlying this aggadic tale of Abraham suggests that God beckoning Abraham seemingly out of the blue (Genesis 12) was rather a result of Abraham having independently reached a place within himself to be receptive to the voice of a monotheistic God. It depicts insight into Abraham’s relationship with his family and culture, his shrewdness and sets him forth as a model of spiritual integrity for all to aspire to.

4. Sod (סוֹד‬) secret, the esoteric or mystical meaning as given through revelation (Kabbalah*)

*Kabbalah here refers to “received tradition,” the area of Jewish mysticism which deals with the symbolic, esoteric meaning of the Torah. This differs from occultic and western forms of Kabbalah which include attempted magic and manipulation which are forbidden by the Torah as empty pursuits.

Sod mysticism is prevalent throughout the Apostle Paul’s writings and the Gospel of John, whose account reflects a deep mystical connection between Yeshua of Nazareth and the Torah, from the opening dialogue on the logos, to the miracle of wine at Cana hinting to the future Messianic era, to the final words in chapter 21, which seemed to confound even Yeshua’s closest disciples .

Note: It is important to follow restrictions and cautions using these hermeneutical techniques, lest invalid connections are made. It is further understood that no deeper meaning of the text invalidates or contradicts the Peshat or plain meaning of a passage.

Scripture contains many examples of parallel myths, intended to reference, inform and build upon aggadic concepts of how we should conduct our lives. One such example can be seen in parallel creation narratives, which hint back to the imagery used in Genesis 1:2. “And the ruach elohim (Spirit of God) was hovering (as a bird) over the face of the waters.”

We see a remez to this account in the immediate aftermath of the Deluge, when Noach sent forth a dove from the ark and “The dove soared over the water and found no resting place.” (Genesis 8:9) and again at the baptism of Yeshua where John described “the ruach hakodesh (Holy Spirit) descended as a dove and rested upon Him.” (Matthew 3:16) Here we see order imposed upon and rising from the chaos to bring forth a new creation, the last Adam and prophesied Great Hero, who will rescue and restore creation to the state of goodness in which it was first ordered.

ENDNOTES

[1] “Tree of Souls: The Mythology of Judaism” Howard Schwartz Oxford University Press, 2004. xliv
[2] Joseph Campbell, The Masks of God, vol. 4: Creative Mythology (New York: Viking, 1965), pp. 4–6
[3] “What does it mean, “Who are you O great mountain?” This is King Messiah. And why does he call him great mountain? Because he is greater than the Fathers…loftier than Abraham…more elevated than Moses…and higher than the ministering angels…and from whom will he issue? From Zerubbabel…”
Midrash Tanchuma, Toledot 14, ed. Buber 1:139, cited in the Messiah Texts by Raphael Patai, pg. 41
[4] “…This Noach is the Messiah. . . the two musical accents on the word “zeh [this one]” (Gen 5:29) are a clue to the first and last redemption; “from our work” — from the generation of the Flood, “and from the toil of our hands” — from this long exile. Furthermore, why is his name doubled, Noach Noach? This is hinted at the haftorah “Shout for joy” [Zech 2:14–4:7), which concludes “chen, chen.” This is the secret of Noah. Had his name been chen, we would not be sitting in exile.”
Sefer Chizyonot, R’ Hayyim Vital, Jewish Mystical Autobiographies, pg. 256
[5]
 https://ladderofjacob.com/2016/11/02/dove/
[6] Between God and Man, Abraham Joshua Heschel
[7] Genesis Rabbah 38.13, also recorded in the Islamic religious tradition in Quran 21

The Theory of Self-Actualization

hillel-featured

Hillel says, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, who am I? If not now, when?”

-Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers), 1:14

Hillel the Elder was a prominent figure in Jewish history. A renowned sage and scholar, he is perhaps most famous for his expression of the ethic of reciprocity, stated as the inverse of the Golden Rule:

“That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. This is the summary of Torah; the rest is explanation. Go and learn.”

– Babylonian Talmud, tractate Shabbat 31a

The maxim from Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) is profound on the surface, but contains a much deeper significance in its Hebrew context.

hillel-1-web

“If I (ani) am not for myself, who will be for me (li.)?”

The phrase distinguishes between two selves: “I” (ani) and “me” (li). It implies that somehow we can have a self called “I” and a self called “me.” The “I” self is the deepest self. It is our personalized facet of the Divine image. By contrast, the “me” is the persona we develop during life. Elements of the “me” originate from others, from society—from that which is outside “I.” We must break away from three levels of “non-self” forces: * Your country” – the nationalistic, political ideology. * “Your birthplace” – the more local, communal, ethnic undertows. * “Your father’s house” – even the particular familial expectations and norms.

Future success begins when we break away from these environmental forces.

Each of us has an authentic, unique self; an “I.” Hillel teaches us that if we do not reveal that “I” – the part of my self that is unique – then who are we? What value is there to “me,” the persona that operates in the world? It is just a shell, a conglomeration of societal elements originating in others.

hillel-2-web

“But if I am only for myself, who am I?”

Here the word for “I” is anochi, which is a proclamation of intimate nearness between the speaker and the listener. It is an “I” that encompasses “others,” and is thereby infinitely more whole.
We cannot stay within the isolated ego. We must start with the self (ani), but then move out into the world of others. By so doing, we free them and ourselves from bondage and reveal a greater self (anochi). It is a self that is simultaneously a part of a greater whole.

There is a unique “I” in the universe and it has only been entrusted to one human being: you. If that unique “I” does not somehow find expression, then the world will never know it. A precious unique “I” has failed to be experienced. That is a tragedy.
However, once that “I” has discovered and learned to express its individuality, it needs to take the next step and bring it out into the world. Each of us has something unique to contribute and no one else can bring it into the world.

hillel-3-web

“If not now, when?”

What does this somewhat enigmatic phrase have to do with the struggle of self?
The clause is describing an important step in bringing the process of self-actualization to fruition. It’s saying: “Stop procrastinating! If not now, when? If you’re not going to develop your self now – if you’re not going to make that trip, take that course, meet that person, read that book – when will you? Get moving on it NOW!” Sometimes the very thing that can give us the most satisfaction – the key unlocking the doorway to our selves – is the very thing we deny most. It is the door we most fear opening. So we keep the key far out of sight to prevent it from reminding us that there’s even a door to be unlocked. We design our lives and busy ourselves from dawn to dusk with activities that rob us of the time to soberly take up the meaning of life and what we need to do to make it truly meaningful.

Sometimes we’re the last to know how great we are, and how much greater we can become. So we procrastinate – even for precisely that which we long for most. And there’s nothing we long for more than the expression of our deepest self. That’s why Hillel feels it vital to remind us that it’s not enough to be aware of the need; we have to act on it. Continually. Relentlessly. Otherwise, what’s life for? And if not now, when?

(Text adapted from “Me, Myself and I: Ethics of the Fathers” by Yaakov Astor and Benyamin ben Esther on Aish.com)

Six Blind Men & the Elephant: A Modern Fable

0

Six blind men encounter an elephant.

1

The first feels the elephant’s side and exclaims,
“An elephant must be exactly like a wall!”

2The second feels the elephant’s tusk and exclaims,
“An elephant must be exactly like a spear!”

3

The third feels the elephant’s trunk and exclaims,
“An elephant must be exactly like a snake!”

4

The fourth feels the elephant’s knee and exclaims,
“An elephant must be exactly like a tree!”

5

The fifth feels the elephant’s ear and exclaims,
“An elephant must be exactly like a fan!”

6

The sixth feels the elephant’s tail and exclaims,
“An elephant must be exactly like a rope!”
7alt

And while the six blind men stood arguing as to the true nature of the elephant, undaunted and with little concern, the beast stomped each blind man in turn, smashing them to smithereens, before sauntering off aimlessly.

8And thus is the nature of truth and the end of fools who feign debate it.

end

MORAL: Truth isn’t relative; only one’s perspective of it.

The True Nature of Love

the Christian response to the 2016 Election.


header

Intro

This is a tough subject to wrestle with. At the time of this writing, Donald Trump has been named the 45th President of the United States after a contentious and highly charged electoral process. Currently, there are protests across the United States, from petitions to eliminate the electoral college (as it stands, Trump has won the electorate, but does not lead in the popular vote) to broad brushing blame for a Democratic loss across a variety of demographics. But this post is not about politics. It deals with a deeper subject that runs to the core of every individual in America, regardless of race, creed, gender or demographic divide.

I must preface this by being transparent. I did not support or vote for Donald Trump. I did not support or vote for Hillary Clinton. I did choose to participate in the electoral process, but the United States government has long ceased to represent my worldview or political outlook, a subject best left for a separate post. I have shared in the uncertainty and anxiety of the ramifications of what the Trump administration might bring (as well as those surrounding what a Clinton administration might bring). Such worries might be best locked away within one’s heart and the future approached with a resolute outlook of “We’ll see.”

Continue reading “The True Nature of Love”

Book Review: 5 Hebrew Words that Every Christian Should Know

5 Hebrew Words that Every Christian Should Know
A Bite-Sized Bible Study

Today, I am reviewing 5 Hebrew Words that Every Christian Should Know: A Bite-Sized Bible Study (self published) by Lois Tverberg.

A book on the subject of Hebrew words every Christian  (presumably English-speaking) should know undoubtedly raises the question, “How will my life benefit by knowing Hebrew words?” Tverberg provides a wonderful analogy that answers that question in the introduction.

Continue reading “Book Review: 5 Hebrew Words that Every Christian Should Know”

Dancing to God’s Rhythm

Dancing to God's Rhythm

I’ve noticed a common theme in Christian music lately is freedom in Christ with emphasis on the freedom to dance (since sin’s chains have been cast off). I’ve long been of the opinion that freedom without responsibility is nothing more than chaos and have been pondering how that aligns with the popular theme of freedom in Christ.

It occurred to me yesterday that it’s impossible to dance without following a rhythm.  You can try, but to anyone observing, you would be nothing more than a flailing madman with no sense of purpose. Since rhythm is an integral component of dancing, what would the rhythm of freedom in Christ be?  What was the rhythm of the Apostles as they spread the message of freedom in Christ across their world?

Continue reading “Dancing to God’s Rhythm”

The Help Meet

Help meet—ezer kenegdo
The Hebraic meaning behind ‘ezer kenegdo, translated as “help meet.”

And the LORD God said, [It is] not good that the man should be alone; I will make him an help meet for him…And Adam gave names to all cattle, and to the fowl of the air, and to every beast of the field; but for Adam there was not found an help meet for him. (Genesis 2:18, 20 KJV)

In the Christian denomination I was raised under there is a common anecdote used in the marriage ceremony based on the above passage. Imagery from the mashal (parable) of the creation of mankind is used to explain how a woman is a “help meet” (or helpmate) to her husband.

Genesis 2:21 is often explained thusly: And the LORD God caused a deep sleep to fall upon Adam, and he slept: and he took one of his ribs, and closed up the flesh instead thereof;

“Woman was not taken out of man’s head to rule over him, or from his feet to be trod upon, but out of his side, close to his heart to be loved and protected by him.”

On the surface this seems like a nice sentiment, but it falls far short of getting to the root of the concept that was translated into English as “help meet.”

Continue reading “The Help Meet”

Keeping the Nine

I ran across an article on the 10 commandments today that intially seemed edifying, but as I read into it further I was smacked with a glaring misconception which really aggravated me. I’m not going to share the name of the well-known author or the ministry he represents because I don’t think it would be fruitful. I do my best to refrain from acting like a “heresy-hunter”, naming names and hurtling accusations at those whose beliefs aren’t in line with my own. I’ve done my share of that in the past and I’ve seen the damage it does to everyone involved.

Continue reading “Keeping the Nine”