Tag Archives: Life of Pi

Reviewing the Meaning of Midrash: Part 5

We’ve explained why midrash and aggadah are so vital to our Torah diet. We’ve explained that these stories speak to us from a higher plane of reality. And we’ve also demonstrated that even if you don’t get it, you still do get it—meaning that you’ve still got truth even if you’re clueless to the meaning inside.

We’ve also provided some guidelines to determine whether a story is an anecdote or a parable. Now, let’s take a test case. Let’s look at a story of the Talmud and see what’s meant literally, what’s meant to point to something deeper, and how it could be true for everyone on their level.

-Tzvi Freeman and Yehuda Shurpin
Death by Secrets
Part 5 of “Is Midrash For Real?”

That’s a really nice summary of the past four articles compressed into just a couple of paragraphs. Now’s the test. Run an actual story through the matrix and see if it makes sense. This last commentary by R. Freeman and R. Shurpin is quite a bit shorter than their previous missives. I could probably copy and paste the whole thing here and then comment on it, but I don’t think I’ll do that. You have the link above to see all of the contents.

So what’s the story they want to test?

Rabbah taught, “A man is obligated to get drunk on Purim until he cannot distinguish between ‘cursed is Haman’ and ‘blessed is Mordechai.’”

Rabbah and Rabbi Zeira held their Purim feast together. They became drunk. Rabbah got up and slaughtered Rabbi Zeira. The next day, Rabbah pleaded for divine mercy, and brought Rabbi Zeira back to life. A year passed, and Rabbah said to Rabbi Zeira, “Come, let us hold the Purim feast together!” Rabbi Zeira replied, “Miracles don’t happen every day.”

I’ve heard this one before. This story circulates every Purim (and as I write this, it is still before Purim). The commentary from Chabad tells us something useful right away.

In this case, I guarantee this is not meant to be taken at face value.

In other words, even if these two esteemed Ravs got drunk on Purim, it wasn’t to the degree that Rabbah murdered and then resurrected Rabbi Zeira. But then what does it mean and more importantly, how does this story ”speak to us from a higher plane of reality?”

Here’s where the title “Death by Secrets” comes in.

What we appear to be dealing with in this case is a real-life anecdote told in figurative terms. Rabbah and Rabbi Zeira were drunk, but not from the wine; and Rabbah slaughtered Rabbi Zeira, but not with a slaughtering knife. Everything was good, very good—to the point that Rabbah was ready to go it again. Just not something that us amateurs should attempt without clinical supervision.

Leon ZernitzkyWhat? OK, I was fine with ”a real-life anecdote told in figurative terms,” but what does it mean that Rabbi Zeira was “slaughtered but not with a knife” and “everything was very good and Rabbah was ready to go again?” Go at what?

”When wine enters,” the Talmud tells us, “secrets come out.” Rabbi Isaiah Horowitz, in his classic Shnei Luchot ha-Brit, describes how great sages and holy men would consume much wine and celebrate—and the channels of their mind would open so that the deepest secrets of the Torah would flow out of their mouths.

Interrupting the narrative for a moment. Sounds like something Carlos Castaneda was trying to do; apprehend Yaqui Indian sorcery through the use of mind-altering drugs. But to continue…

He cites stories of the Talmud to this effect. Rabbi Chaim ibn Attar, in his commentary to the Torah, Ohr ha-Chaim, describes how it was these secrets that emerged through the drinking of wine that carried Nadav and Avihu, the two sons of Aaron, to death as their souls departed from their bodies in ecstatic divine love.

Now, Rabbah was able to imbibe these secrets and remain alive, as his name implies: rab means “great.” But Rabbi Zeira could not contain such intense light: ze’ir means “small.” So Rabbah’s sharing of mystical secrets created such a great thirst for divine union in Rabbi Zeira’s soul that it departed, and his body was left dead.  The next day is no longer Purim—no longer a day for escaping all bounds and limitations, but a day for fulfilling your purpose down here on earth inside a physical body—so Rabbah dutifully resurrects his colleague.

The next year, Rabbah had no regrets, and was ready to perform the same clinical procedure on Rabbi Zeira once again—take him for a ride up to heaven and back again the next morning. Or perhaps he figured Rabbi Zeira had enough time to also attain a higher level, and would be able to hang in there.

So we aren’t to believe that Rabbah literally murdered Rabbi Zeira but we are expected to believe that under the influence of alcohol, Rabbah’s “secrets” were spilled out, and he took Rabbi Zeira on an unexpected ride to heaven and then back to earth the next day.


Rabbi Zeira decided he didn’t want a second trip to heaven the following year, not because it would drive him to the point of insanity and even kill him, but because of his great humility.


But then Freeman and Shurpin give a more down-to-earth answer:

Whatever the case, the lesson remains the same: Don’t get carried away with your wine, no matter its substance. Keep your feet on the ground. If you know you’re the type to be easily carried away when drinking, avoid it altogether.

Purim in JerusalemSo it all depends on what kind of person you become when you get drunk. That’s the moral of the story and it seems to be the most useful lesson being taught, especially when imbibing at a celebration where others are present.

To be honest, I’m a little disappointed. That’s quite a build up to a conclusion that seems so pedestrian. I mentioned in last week’s review that based on Yann Martel’s novel Life of Pi, it’s not the more believable story that’s “real” but the most interesting tale.

Here we have three selections:

  1. The literal meaning: Rabbah and Rabbi Zeira got drunk on Purim to the degree that Rabbah murdered Rabbi Zeira and, when he sobered up the next day, begged for divine mercy and resurrected Rabbi Zeira. The next year, Rabbi Zeira turned down Rabbah’s invitation to celebrate again because he couldn’t count on a second miracle should he die again.
  2. The higher or mystic meaning: Rabbah and Rabbi Zeira got drunk on Purim, and Rabbah’s mystic secrets poured forth to the degree that he escorted Rabbi Zeira on an “unscheduled” trip to the heavenly realms (which rendered such ecstatic joy it killed him) and returned him to earth the next day (bringing him back to life). The following year, Rabbi Zeira turned down Rabbah’s invitation to a second trip because of his great humility.
  3. The underlying truth: Rabbah and Rabbi Zeira probably did get drunk together on one Purim but because of his host’s behavior or perhaps his own (some people are less pleasant or controlled when drunk), Rabbi Zeira declined a subsequent invitation, being concerned about a repeat of previous events.

The moral of all three stories is, if you know you get too excited or carried away while drunk, avoid social situations that require alcohol consumption.

As far as which story you want to apply to the moral, I guess it depends on which one you find the most interesting or, if “interesting” isn’t what you want from your morality tales, which one seems the most plausible.

What Did I Learn?

I learned what I already knew, to take mystic and midrashic tales with a grain of salt. Don’t get me wrong. I love a good metaphor and a fantastic saga. I believe they can contain great truths about the reality of our lives. I just don’t think that contained within these stories are a higher mystic reality and must be objectively real. I don’t believe Rabbi killed Rabbi Zeirg with a knife because they were exceedingly drunk and then resurrected him the next day. Nor do I believe that under the influence of wine, the two of them took a trip to heaven in massive, mind-blowing joy and then returns the next day, anymore than I believe that any of Carlos Castenada’s adventures under the influence of hallucinogens were anymore than what a person experiences in a chemically induced, mind-altering state.

Hasidic New WaveI’m sorry, I just don’t. I believe that, however these tales came about, they result in lessons of ethical and moral behavior that are designed to illuminate the communities in which the revered Talmudic sages resided. I wish I could say they were more than that. I really do like reading them and I do learn from each one. I guess I make a pretty lousy Jewish mystic. However, if you’re interested in reading more examples of Chasidic Tales, go to the Chabad webpage Stories from the Midrash.

One of These Things is Not Like the Others

One of these things is not like the othersCommunity. It’s that thing, the way of life, that we all want but we’re just not quite sure how to pull it off successfully. It’s that tantalizing concept that promises so much reward, and yet it seems so elusive. Its promise sometimes causes us to cut ties where we are and move somewhere else where we hope to find greener pastures, better friends, and/or become part of a different community. Then when we do get a taste of real community, it’s only a matter of time before our hearts are stunned with hurt or insult. But a lack of community causes us to feel despondent, alone, and often times as if we’re missing out on something significant that was intended for us all along. This community thing can really be disappointing!

“Community Disappointment”
Following the Ancient Paths

I wrote a lengthy response to this blog post, but when I pushed “Post Comment,” I received an error message and my comment was lost forever. It was a rather lengthy comment (go figure) and I suspect the blog application was complaining to me about it. I thought about re-writing the comment but decided to blog instead.

Lisa’s blog post addresses what we should already know. Being part of any group or community is hard work. It’s hard to join, it’s hard to sustain, it’s hard to adapt over time. This includes families, employers, and Lisa’s specific topic, religious organizations.

I can sympathize. A little over a year ago I “went back to church” and in that time have had many interesting, educational, and dismaying “adventures.” But as Lisa’s blog post suggests, this is to be expected. No group that involves multiple human beings is always going to run smoothly.

Over a year apart, I wrote the blog posts Why I Don’t Go to Church and Why I Go to Church, chronicling my internal struggle, the same one Lisa seems to be describing.

We live in a world that seems to praise isolationism, yet we instinctively know that we weren’t created to be loaners (sic). Somehow it’s considered a good thing when we can handle things alone, when we can appear stand tall with a backbreaking burden strapped to our backs, when we live such private lives that nobody knows what is really going on with us. Deep inside we know that it isn’t right to go through life all alone. We wrestle with wanting something yet not wanting the very same thing, pursuing it and rejecting it all at the same time.


As Lisa says, we want to go it alone to avoid all of the messiness of being part of a community, but when alone, we know that being isolated from community isn’t right, either. Sort of a “can’t live with ’em, can’t live without ’em” situation.

The main point of my lost comment was the issue of competing interests. Affiliation with one community may conflict with another affiliation. In my case, I’m a Christian living with Jewish family members while attending a Christian church. How does that work?

Another set of competing interests has to do with entering into and finding a niche within a community. I recently declared that I’m a Christian who studies Messianic Judaism, and yet I attend a very fundamentalist Baptist church in Southwestern Idaho. If you’ve read any of my blog posts about my conversations with my Pastor, you know that although we get along, we disagree on a number of fundamental (no pun intended) elements of what faith in Messiah means, particularly to the Jewish people.

Can a square peg successfully integrate into a church of round holes? Good question.

I recently finished the book Life of Pi by Yann Martel. It tells the story of Pi, born and raised in India, from childhood to adulthood through a series of flashbacks, with the main action taking place aboard a lifeboat shortly after Pi’s family died in a shipwreck in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Pi is the only human survivor, but finds that he must share the lifeboat with an injured Zebra, an Orangutan, a Hyena, and a 450 pound, male adult Bengal Tiger named Richard Parker (Pi’s father was a zookeeper and they were transporting a number of their animals from India to their new home in Canada).

life_of_pi_by_megatruh-d5noigdThe other interesting thing besides how Pi manages to survive seven months adrift at sea sharing a lifeboat with a Tiger (the other animals didn’t make it), is that as a child, Pi adopted three religious traditions, first Hinduism, then Christianity (Catholicism), and finally Islam. Pi practiced all three religions simultaneously, ignoring the basic tenet of each that these religions are exclusivist. That is, if you belong to one, you cannot also belong to any other religion.

Pi managed to observe each religious tradition in parallel without arousing suspicion for a while, but eventually it caught up with him, and he was finally confronted by all three congregational leaders at the same time in a public place in front of his parents.

When questioned about why he thought he could be a Hindu, a Christian, and a Muslim all at the same time, he responds by saying that he “just wants to love God.” (Martel, pg 69)

The book follows Pi’s life into adulthood and middle age where he is married with two children and a small dog and living in Toronto. He still practices all three religions, with no mention of any conflict in his family or in any of the involved congregations, but “Life of Pi” is a work of fiction and operates often at the level of religious allegory (I still haven’t figured out what the carnivorous island is supposed to mean).

In real life, Pi would never be able to successfully manage practicing all three religions, not only because of the conflicts between those communities, but the likely conflict with his own family, particularly his wife, who almost certainly had formed her religious or irreligious affiliations before she ever met and married Pi.

I have to admit, when I read about the sheer audacity and innocence of Pi’s devotion to three different religious branches, cherishing the best in all three, I felt a moment of admiration and even envy. What would it be like to open your arms wide and to take in and accept humanity’s vast range of traditions in worshiping God just for the sheer love of God?

It isn’t practical, which I suspect is one of the reasons why Martel’s novel is called a fantasy.

But Interfaith communities aren’t unheard of in our world. Author Susan Katz Miller maintains the On Being Both blog which celebrates a variety of interfaith families and communities, but such celebrations aside, one does not easily navigate the stormy seas that occur when theologies, doctrines, and dogmas clash in the narrow straits between one religion and another.

The solution in my own family, as it stands now, is something of a compartmentalization of each religion. In my home, Christianity and Judaism exist in separate silos, rarely communicating across the gap between them for the sake of peace. I do occasionally get emails from my wife containing links to news or information items on Israel or Judaism but I’m very careful not to bring up Christianity.

The ugly times is where our communities can grow stronger, more dedicated to one another, where each member grows in righteousness and in the image of our Master. The challenge is on the table. Are we ready to accept it?


Sesame StreetIt is true that adversity can produce stronger communities, but there’s a line that, if crossed, means that adversity has exceeded manageable limits and is destructive, not constructive. Sort of like lifting weights at a gym to build strength but overtraining resulting in injury, sometimes serious injury.

The television show “Sesame Street” sometimes has a lesson in the form of a song called One of these things is not like the others and I know what that experience is like in spades. There are interfaith communities that (seemingly) successfully co-exist within the same larger group, and there are interfaith families that are created and thrive for decades (such as my own), but that doesn’t mean it’s easy (which is what Lisa’s blog is all about).

But beyond being “not easy,” there are times when “not easy” becomes impossible or at least highly improbable, like a fourteen-year old boy from India who is a practicing Hindu, Christian, and Muslim, or the same boy two years later who manages to survive for seven months in the Pacific Ocean sharing a lifeboat with a large Bengal Tiger. How long can such a relationship between communities last before something gives?