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Shavuout: smooches and suspended mountains

Studying the Book of Ruth on Shavuous, as I do every year, I look for something interesting and new. Today, I happened to have sitting on my desk the Midrash Rabbah for Ecclesiastes and Ruth—I have it for my interminable study of the former, but what the heck.

Here’s one: in Ruth 1:14, we read “and Orpah kissed her mother in law”. What do the Sages of Blessed Memory have to say about that?

All kissing is folly, except on three occasions, the kiss of high office, the kiss of meeting after separation, and the kiss of parting. Of high office, as it is written, Then Samuel took the vial of oil, and poured it on his head, and kissed him (1 Sam 10:1). Of meeting, as it is written, And he met him in the mountain of Gd and kissed him (Ex 4:27); of parting, as it is written, And Orpah kissed her mother-in-law. R. Tankhuma added: Also the kiss of kinship, as it is said, And Jacob kissed Rachel (Gen 29, 11). Why? Because she was his relation.

So that’s it: three reasonable occasions for smooching, maybe four. Thought y’all would want to know.

In other inspiring ruminations about Shavuot, I found an essay on Consent and Coercion at Sinai (pdf) by Rabbi Dr. Jacob J. Schacter to be fascinating and evocative. The Sages of Blessed Memory, in that case, are discussing the text of the Giving of the Law at Sinai, particularly the phrase in Exodus 19:17 that the KJV gives as they stood at the nether part of the mount. They stand beetakhteet, under the mountain, and Rav Avdimi riffs off this word to paint an image of the people of Israel literally standing under Mount Sinai: “This teaches us that The Holy One, Blessed be He, suspended the mountain over them as a vat and said to them, ‘If you accept the Torah, good. But if not, there will be your burial place.’”

This is an amazing image, the Divine Hand holding a mountain over the heads of the People as they decide. On the other hand, and for all the issues that the Sages of Blessed Memory occasionally have with consent, this is pretty much textbook duress, innit? This kinda ruins the entire story of the People saying in one voice we will do and we will hear! Well, yeah, because the alternative was being crushed by a bloody big mountain, then. And when we add to that the injunction that every generation must think of itself as the Sinai generation, well, frankly I would rather not think of a mountain being held over my head to crush me if I choose poorly.

Rabbi Schacter attempts to rescue the image in a couple of ways, not entirely successfully in my opinion. I would be inclined to abstract the image—suggest that the Divine Hand always holds off the crushing weight of Creation, that without the agreement to covenant with the Divine, we are choosing to have the weight of the world directly on us—that the peril is everpresent for all people, and that it is, perhaps, the joy of our choosing to be in covenant with the Divine that gives strength to the Divine to continue the eternal task of Creation without crushing us beneath its weight. Something like that.

But really, this is the danger of the kind of Scripture study I like to do: take the plain meaning of the words, and then break the words down for connotations, search for arresting images and evocations and reflections of other texts, and then build the text back up out of those. It’s terrifically fun (well, for me) and it is also terrifically distracting from the actual plain meaning of the Scripture. When we read that the people were under the mountain it is clear that we were at the foot of Mount Sinai, where the entire context of the text places us. Probably a worthwhile reminder as I continue with Ecclesiastes.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

Comments

Yes, it's a key interpretive principle: meaning is differential, so the meanings of statements and the role of words in those statements arises from the relations of the words to one another. Therefore, when one pulls a given word or group of words out of those relations and considers them independently or in different relational contexts, they can be made to mean anything. Of course, the boundaries of every text are indistinct and permeable, so judgment is always required in establishing context: the relevant relations for the discernment of the meanings of verbal constructions.


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