Thursday, December 27, 2018

Parshat Shemot: The Power of Belief

The Christian crusaders were weary and close to defeat. The Muslim armies defending the Holy Land were much stronger and better prepared than they had expected. Defeat was close at hand and they were about to abandon their question to liberate Jerusalem from the infidels.

Yet they knew they had a secret weapon. The crusaders knew there was a powerful Christian king living in the east, who at that very moment was leading a mighty army to save them. This king was named Prester John, but unfortunately he never came. Some said his army was unable to cross the Tigris river. Others said that it was not yet the time for him to come. And others said that Prester John was a myth and did not actually exist.

Stories of Prester John, also known as Presbyter John or John the Elder circulated throughout medieval European Christian.

In 1165 a letter was received by Byzantine Emperor Manuel I Comnenus which was believed to be from the great king himself. The letter states that John, lives in the land beyond India, where, “Our land streams with honey and is overflowing with milk.” He is so powerful that he is served by 72 kings of the surrounding lands. He sent Manuel a fantastic description of his country:

“Our land is the home of elephants, dromedaries, camels, crocodiles, meta-collinarum, cametennus, tensevetes, wild asses, white and red lions, white bears, white merules, crickets, griffins, tigers, lamias, hyenas, wild horses, wild oxen, and wild men — men with horns, one-eyed men, men with eyes before and behind, centaurs, fauns, satyrs, pygmies, forty-ell high giants, cyclopses, and similar women. It is the home, too, of the phoenix and of nearly all living animals.”

Of course, the letter turned out to be a forgery, but nevertheless, a large part of the Christian world believed in this great king who would come to save them.

Even some Jews believed in Prester John. Joshua ben Joseph ibn Vives al-Lorqui (Joshua Lorki) was a 15th century Jewish doctor living in AlcaƱi, in Aragon, Spain. He served Benedict XIII and wrote a medical textbook in Arabic which was later translated into Hebrew as Gerem Hamaalot.

In a letter to Paul of Burgos (a Spanish Jew who converted to Christianity), Lorki wrote:

I know that it is certainly not hidden from you the matter well-known to us from stories of travelers who journeyed the length and breadth of the world, and also from letters of the Rambam, and we heard it from the traders from the ends of the earth… about those who dwell at the end of the earth in the land of Ethiopians, called Al-Chabash, and they made a deal with the Christian prince called Prester John…

By this time the legend of Prester John had him living in Africa. As the Indian subcontinent became more widely explored and better known, the Europeans realized that the great Christian King must reside in Ethiopia.

There were many attempts at forging ties between European countries and Ethiopia during the Middle Ages, and despite the denial of the Ethiopians, the Europeans continued to insist their King was Prester John.

Zara Yaqob was emperor of Ethopia from 1434 until his death in 1468. In 1441 he sent delegates to the Council of Florence where, despite their confusion and subsequent denials, the council prelates continued to refer to their monarch as Prester John (in Robert Silverberg’s “The Realm of Prester John”).

As late as 1751, the Czech missionary Remedius Prutky visited Ethiopia and asked Emperor Iyasu II about Prester John. He writes that Isayu was “astonished, and told me that the kings of Abyssinia had never been accustomed to call themselves by this name.”

Gradually the legend of Prester John died away but it continues to have an influence to this day. From Shakespeare’s Benedick, who offers Don Pedro to “…bring you the length of Prester John’s foot…” in “Much Ado About Nothing,” to appearances in issues of Marvel’s “Fantastic Four” and “Thor” to DC comics who featured him in “Arak: Son of Thunder” the legend lives on.

This was not the first time a nation waited for a powerful king from a distant land to come and save his people. It was not even the first time Ethiopia was the believed hidden refuge of a powerful king.

In this week’s Torah reading, Shemot, we are introduced to Moses who was saved from Pharaoh’s decree by Pharaoh’s daughter and raised in the royal palace. He was forced to flee after he killed an Egyptian who was persecuting an Israelite and was sentenced to death (Exodus 2:15). The same verse states that he went to Midian, where he eventually married Jethro’s daughter Zipporah.

We are not told how young Moses was when he fled Egypt, but he was 80 years old when he led the Jews out of Egypt. It seems that there are many decades unaccounted for by the Torah.

Although there is no mention of it in the Talmud or early Midrashim, several of the Torah commentaries say that Moses spent the intervening years ruling Ethiopia.

The verse states, “Miriam and Aaron spoke about Moses because of the Ethiopian woman he married, for he had married an Ethiopian woman,” (Numbers 12:1). Ibn Ezra and Rashbam, in their commentaries on that verse, explain that Moses married this wife while he was king of Ethiopia. Later commentaries including Sefer Hayashar, Menahem Azariah da Fano (Ma’amar Chikur Din 3:5) and Rabbi Shmuel Bornsztain (Shem Mishmuel, Beha’alotecha 5676) speak of Moses’s time in Ethiopia. The medieval Midrash Yalkut Shimoni and the 17th century Yalkut Reuveni compiled by Rabbi Reuven Hoshke HaKohen also speak of Moses’s time ruling Ethiopia before he went to Midian.

But the origins of this legend date back to the second century BCE, hundreds of years before the Mishna and Talmud were compiled. The Jewish historian Artapanus, who lived in Egypt, most likely in Alexandria, wrote of Moses’s conquest of Ethiopia in his history book “Concerning The Jews.” Although the book no longer exists, Eusebius, who served as Bishop of Caesarea from 314 CE quotes sections of what Artapanus wrote about Moses. He describes how Pharaoh, named as Chenephres, sent Moses to lead an unskilled army against Ethiopia. Contrary to expectations Moses was victorious and founded the city of Hermopolis and taught the Ethiopian men to circumcise themselves.

Titus Flavius Josephus, the first century Jewish rebel turned Roman historian, gives more details of Moses in Ethiopia. He writes in The Antiquities of the Jews (Book II; chapter 10) that not only was Moses victorious but he also married an Ethiopian princess:

“Tharbis was the daughter of the king of the Ethiopians: she happened to see Moses as he led the army near the walls, and fought with great courage… she fell deeply in love with him; and upon the prevalancy of that passion, sent to him the most faithful of all her servants to discourse with him about their marriage. He thereupon accepted the offer, on condition she would procure the delivering up of the city…; and when Moses had cut off the Ethiopians, he gave thanks to God, and consummated his marriage, and led the Egyptians back to their own land.”

So, according to these ancient Jewish traditions, when Moses stood before God at the burning bush he was not merely a poor, humble shepherd, but also a former hero who had conquered foreign lands and ruled over them.

Yet at first Moses refused God’s command to go back to Israel and redeem the Israelites. Not only did he tell God he was unworthy, but he claimed that the people would not believe in him. And for doubting the faith of the nation Moses was punished.

Belief in a savior from afar does not require evidence or proof. When Moses returned to Egypt he performed the signs that God had given him, but it was unnecessary. For the verse states that immediately, “The people believed. And they heard that God had remembered the Children of Israel and that he had seen their suffering. And they bowed and prostrated themselves,” (Exodus 4:31).

The Torah tells us that Moses came from a distant land and brought the Israelites out of slavery. And just as the medieval faith in Prester John, the belief in a strong leader who will suddenly appear and save a nation remains powerful to this day.

Monday, December 24, 2018

Parshat Vayechi: The Final Journey

This was originally published on the Times of Israel website.

The elaborate funeral Joseph gave his father may shed light on the mysterious talmudic claim that Jacob never died

On November 30, 2018, George H. W. Bush, the 41st president of the United States, passed away at his home in Houston, Texas, nine months after the death of his wife Barbara. On December 3, his body was flown from Ellington Base to Washington DC, where it lay in state at the Capitol for two days, followed by a funeral service attended by President Donald Trump and three former presidents.

Then his body was flown back to Texas, where a second funeral service was held.

Finally, his body was transported by train to the George Bush Presidential Library where he was buried next to his wife. Mourners lined the tracks as a Union Pacific locomotive named Bush 4141 pulled the carriages carrying the former president and his family the 100 kilometers (70 miles) to his final resting place.

Bush was the first president in almost 50 years to make his final journey by train, but it is a tradition going back to John Quincy Adams, who died 170 years ago.

However, it was Abraham Lincoln, assassinated in 1865, for whom the final train ride became an outpouring of national grief shared by mourners across the country.

After lying in state for a week in the capital, Lincoln’s body was transported 2,662 kilometers (1,654 miles) from Washington to his hometown of Springfield, Illinois in a trip that took almost two weeks.

Along its journey through seven states retracing Lincoln’s journey to the White House four years earlier, the train stopped in Baltimore, Harrisburg, Philadelphia, New York, Albany, Buffalo, Cleveland, Columbus, Indianapolis, Michigan City, and Chicago. In each place, his body was taken off the train and traveled on a horse-drawn hearse to a public building to lie in state as altogether millions of Americans paid their final respects to Lincoln.

As an interesting historical aside, according to President Theodore Roosevelt’s widow, Edith, a young Theodore and his brother Elliott can be seen in a photograph of Lincoln’s funeral procession, looking out of the open second story window of their grandfather Cornelius Van Schaack Roosevelt’s home at the corner of Broadway and Union Square in New York.

A local reporter described Lincoln’s funeral train as it pulled in to Springfield:
In the mellow air and bright sunlight of this May morning, sweetened by the rain of last night, when those prairies are clothed in flowers, and the thickets of wild fruit trees, and blossoming orchards are jubilant with birds, he comes back.

This week’s Torah reading describes in great detail the first and only “state funeral” in the Bible. It depicts Jacob’s death in Egypt and his final journey to be buried in the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron.

Although nowadays Jewish custom favors a burial in plain shrouds as soon after death as possible, Jacob’s funeral was the opposite of that.

The patriarch passed away peacefully aged 147, surrounded by all his children. Then his body was embalmed and lay in state in Egypt for 40 days while the Egyptians mourned him. Then his body was transported to the border of Canaan, accompanied by a military cortege and all the dignitaries of Egypt. Genesis chapter 50 then describes how the entire entourage was joined by the Canaanite people in a place named Goren Haatad for a further seven days. The site was renamed Evel Mitzrayim (Mourning of Egypt) to commemorate the event.

Although the Bible says that this was “on the other side of the Jordan” it seems unlikely that Jacob’s funeral procession made such a wide detour. Aaron Demsky (along with other scholars) explains it is more likely that Jacob’s final journey followed the Way of Horus, which was the main route from Egypt to Canaan. It is probably that Goren Haatad was a small village that was later destroyed during a Muslim battle with local Christians on February 4, 634 CE (described in Latin in Anecdota Syriaca p. 116).

Only after the weeks-long public mourning by the Egyptians and the Canaanites did Jacob’s children bury his body in the Cave of the Patriarchs, alongside Abraham and Sarah, Issac and Rebecca, and Jacob’s first wife Leah.

Yes, there were perhaps bigger funerals in Jewish history — when Miriam and Aharon died in the desert they were mourned by the entire camp of 600,000 military-aged men, as well as the women and children. But nobody else in the Bible was mourned publicly by all the surrounding non-Jewish nations.

The people came to mourn Jacob, but the entire event was arranged and coordinated by his son Joseph, who was still the second-in-command in Egypt at the time.

It must have been so painful for Joseph to arrange such a public and international burial for his father when Jacob was unable to give Rachel, Joseph’s mother, even the bare minimum of a funeral. Although she married Jacob after Leah, and thus was his second wife, she was also the patriarchs first love, and when she predeceased her sister maybe Joseph had hoped that she would be buried in the Cave of the Patriarchs so she could remain alongside her husband in death.

But instead, Jacob apologized to his son, saying that he could not even bring Rachel’s body to the city but buried her at the roadside (Genesis 48:7).

When I came from Paddan, Rachel died on me in the land of Canaan along the way, some distance away from Ephrat; and I buried her there on the way to Ephrat, which is Bethlehem.

Despite, or perhaps because of, the ignoble burial Jacob gave Rachel, Joseph swore to his father that he would carry him to Israel for burial with his fathers. And he gave Jacob the most elaborate public and international funeral recorded anywhere in the Torah.

But why did Joseph give his father a state funeral?

George Bush planned to make his final journey by train, perhaps as a reminder of how as a child, he rode the rails with his family, sleeping in on the train. Or perhaps he wanted to remind the country of an earlier age, when the only way to cross the country was by locomotive.

Why did Lincoln’s family and advisers decided to hold a very public funeral for him? Perhaps it was so that the nation, shocked by his assassination, could mourn for him publicly. Or perhaps it was a show of defiance against those who opposed his views on emancipation.

But why did Joseph give his father such an elaborate funeral? Jacob simply requested that he be buried in Hebron.

Perhaps it had to be done so that the Egyptians would continue to respect him and his family. During the New Kingdom period ancestor worship and honoring one’s deceased parents was not only important, but the Egyptians believed that if the family treated their deceased with respect, the dead would be able to continue to have an influence over the affairs of the living. Maybe the Egyptians insisted on a drawn-out, public funeral for their leader’s father, to ensure that the Patriarch would continue to protect his ruling son and the entire nation.

Or perhaps Joseph was preparing for the long exile of the fledgling Israelite nation. God had promised that Abraham’s descendants would be strangers in a strange land for hundreds of years. Maybe Joseph planned the elaborate funeral and procession to Israel so that even in the darkest depths of enslavement, Jacob’s children could look back and remember a time when their father was so important to their oppressors.

Or maybe Joseph wanted them to always remember that they were in exile, and that their ultimate destination was the land of Canaan. Jacob’s funeral would have remained as part of the narrative of the Egyptians and Canaanites for a long time, acting as a constant reminder to all that Jacob’s children ultimately belonged in the land of Israel.

Perhaps this is another meaning of the talmudic concept that Jacob never died:

Rav Yitzhak said, “Rabbi Yochanan said, ‘Jacob our father didn’t die.'” [Rav Nahman] said to him, “Was it for nothing that they eulogized him, embalmed him and buried him?” [Rav Yitzhak] said to him, “I derived it from a verse… Just as his descendants are alive, so he too is alive.”

Maybe Jacob remains alive for his descendants as a constant reminder that once upon a time he and his family were respected by all the surrounding nations. And that eventually his children will follow his path, leave their exile and return to the holy land.