Rabbi David Walk, Education Director

Congregation Agudath Sholom | 301 Strawberry Hill Ave | Stamford, CT 06902 (203)-358-2200 www.agudathsholom.org

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Walk Article



Rabbi David Walk


            Growing up in the American Northeast, I always rooted for the North, whether it was an athletic event or the Civil War.  The North always represented the good guys to me.  Also, during the fight for Civil Rights during the late fifties and into the sixties, the south just appeared to me as the bad guys.  Plus, they talk too slow.  So, it was with great chagrin that I discovered that Jewish tradition seems to feel the exact opposite.  The North represents evil and trouble, while the South tends to appear more benign.  This idea appears many times in our Tanach, but is most forcefully and clearly expressed in this week's Haftorah.

            According to Jewish tradition, we recite a Haftorah based upon that week's Torah reading until the three Shabbatot before Tisha B'av.  From then until after the High Holidays, there are ten Haftorot which are connected to the season, rather than to the week's Torah topic.  The first three are warnings of dire events, and the last seven are poetic expressions of comfort and consolation.  That yearly cycle begins this week.  The first up is the beginning of the book of Jeremiah, and describes his initiation as a prophet.  It wasn't easy.  He is told that he must inform the Jews of impending doom, namely the destruction of the southern Kingdom of Judea and the Holy Temple in Jerusalem.   The central idea which he must communicate goes like this:  And the word of the Lord came to me a second time, saying: What do you see? And I said, "I see a bubbling pot, whose foam is toward the north." And the Lord said to me; from the north the misfortune will break forth upon all the inhabitants of the land. For, behold I am summoning all the families of the kingdoms of the north, says the Lord, and they will come and place, each one his throne at the entrance of the gates of Jerusalem and against all its walls around and against all the cities of Judah (Jeremiah 1:13-15).  There you have it.  Misfortune comes from the north, and that's where the bad guys come from. This concept is repeated elsewhere in Jeremiah, and also appears in Ezekiel (The storm breaks from the north, 1:4) and Isaiah (for the smoke comes from the north, 14:31).

            So, what's so bad about the North?  Historically, disasters came from enemies who actually did attack from the North.  In Isaiah's time the Assyrian Empire swarmed down from the north to destroy the Northern Kingdom (722 BCE).  Jeremiah and Ezekiel experienced the Babylonian hordes which also descended from the North to capture Jerusalem and destroy the Temple (586 BCE).  The Jewish Kingdoms were never conquered from the South.  Also, on a topographical note, Jerusalem is most vulnerable from its Northern side, where the ground is level.  The other three sides have deep slopes for protection. 

            But our sages didn't discuss this issue from a geographic or historical perspective.  They discussed a symbolic negativity of the North.  The four Hebrew words for the compass directions are very descriptive.  East is where the sun first shines and is called Mizrach, shines.  West is where night falls and is called Ma'arav, evening.  South is desert, and is called Negev, dry.  But the North is called Tzafon, which means hidden.  That's why at the Pesach Seder we call the eating of the Afikomen, Tzafun, because the tradition developed to hide it (And it still costs us parents plenty.).  The North is mysterious and is hidden from the sun which never crosses the Northern horizon.  This is only true above the Equator, but our Torah was written for the Northern Hemisphere.  Sorry, Australia, South Africa and Argentina.

            There's another reason given for why the North is negative.  In the ancient world maps weren't arranged with North at the top.  East was at the top.  People woke up in the morning and figured their day's travel direction by looking east, or orienting themselves by the rising sun.  You get your orientation by facing the orient or east.  Okay, so, when I look East, the North is on my left.  We don't like the left side, because it represents judgment and trouble.  The right side represents compassion; the left harsh justice.  Our punishments, therefore, come out of the North.  Isn't it ironic that in baseball and boxing, southpaws are lefties.  In Judaism, they'd be northpaws.  Apparently this is because baseball diamonds faced east so that the afternoon sun wouldn't be in the batter's eyes, therefore the pitcher is facing west, with his left hand on his south side.  Now that's a cool piece of trivia.

There's one other approach which I saw for the first time recently, based on a statement in the book of Job.  The verse states:  Gold sparkles from the north (Job 37:22).  The Northern climes tend to be the home of the wealthy countries.  In our present time all members of the G8, or wealthiest eight countries on earth, are situated further North than Israel.  Perhaps we're being informed that our misfortunes stem from attention to material goals over spiritual attainment.  For our Jewish culture to succeed and prosper, we must view wealth as a means to a greater good, rather than an end in itself.

One last idea from the Magid of Mezeritch (Rav Dov Ber, 1700-1772).  The North isn't evil; it's a challenge.  The North, like its Hebrew name tzafon, represents important, hidden things.  The hidden item is reverence for God, and it's buried in the heart of every human.  The threats from the North are to remind us to mine this most precious commodity.  The menace of the cold and mysterious can't harm us if we put our faith in God's protection.  It's when we are enticed to succumb to the allure or power of these threats that we are imperiled.

So, I believe that the message of Jeremiah is to resist the dangers represented by northern attackers, and remember that our salvation comes though God, Torah and morality.  When we learn that lesson, we have uncovered the golden truth. 


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