Rabbinic Reflections: Gardening freedom in winter

“Stay warm.” With each bitter cold snap this winter, we tell each other to “stay warm.” We mean it, it is cold outside, dangerously so. We would be remiss, though, if we stopped at thinking about the temperature, wind chills, and whether the heat is working. There is also a biting chill in today’s civil discourse.

Today, we need to say and hear “stay warm” as a reminder to be warm to each other, to extend our warmest regards to our fellow humanity. We need to warm the hearts and minds of our children. We need to be reminded of the heat of love and hope.

The rabbis teach us how to read in a way that gives us both that level of commiseration and a deeper level of compassion. Their method is a rhetorical gardening, called PaRDeS, like paradise, referring to no less than the Garden of Eden. Each letter of the Hebrew word for the paradisiacal garden stands for a type of reading: P for peshat (the plain meaning of the text), R for remez (the hinted or allegorical meaning of the text), D for drash (the interpretative meaning of the text), and S for sod (the secret or mystical meaning of the text). In Jewish exegesis, peshat and drash are the most common, and in the interest of space, will be my focus.

The peshat of “stay warm” is literally to be warm, as opposed to cold. The drash of “stay warm” is interpretive, to remain good-hearted or kind. Neither meaning is incorrect. Even if one meaning was the intention of the speaker, the listener and the witness can walk away understanding the other meaning. The two meanings are able to coexist, and, again, today we need them to do so.

I was reminded of the importance of thinking this way, of gardening our cordial interactions to make our world that much better, by a rabbinic debate about Moses and the first plague. The rabbis wonder: why did Aaron use the staff to turn Egyptian waters into blood, in particular, the Nile? Why not Moses? The peshat would seem to be that Aaron is playing the equivalent role to Pharaoh's magicians, showing honor to the dignified leader who does not need to do the dirty work himself. Moses does not bring the plague of blood because Aaron’s doing it shows Moses honor.

The drash, though, adds a layer of meaning that gives us moral guidance. Moses does not turn the water to blood because it is the very water that saved him as a baby when his mother put him in a basket down the Nile to be rescued by a previous Pharaoh’s daughter. Moses could not damage that which saved him. Both understandings work easily. One fits the scene and one fits the larger narrative. They both tell us how to conduct ourselves.

This weekend, we honor Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday. We know he had a dream. In this cold season of winter and this chilling moral landscape, let us go to the garden of meanings of that dream. King not only dreamed of black boys and girls and white boys and girls holding hands and literally walking together; he dreamed that Americans would journey in lockstep with justice. Let us not merely dream of a better world; let us also dream of transforming the world. We can and will cultivate the warmth of God’s love if we do. “Stay warm,” and garden freedom.

** The opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the ownership or management of Chadds Ford Live. We welcome opposing viewpoints. Readers may comment in the comments section or they may submit a Letter to the Editor to editor@chaddsfordlive.com

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About Rabbi Jeremy Winaker

Rabbi Jeremy Winaker is the head of school at the Albert Einstein Academy in Wilmington. Prior to that he was the senior Jewish educator at the Kristol Hillel Center at the University of Delaware for four years and he served as the rabbi for Bet Torah in Mt. Kisco, N.Y. and Adas Israel in Washington, D.C. He’s also one of several rabbis taking part in a radio show, The Rabbi Speaks, on WDEL. Rabbi Winaker lives in Delaware with his wife and three children.

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