The Disputation at Barcelona and the Mortality of Man  

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The history of the Jews has not been an easy one by any stretch of the imagination. Persecution, forced conversions, slaughter, discrimination, ridicule -- all generations have experienced these things to some degree. But in His kindness, G-d allows the Jews a period of time during which they can rebuild and restore themselves after each tragedy. For example, Columbus set sail and discovered America at around the same time as the Spanish Expulsion. (In fact, he sailed during the very same week that the last of the Jews left Spain.) His discovery of America eventually gave the Jews another opportunity to escape the oppression in Europe.

I recently learned about the history of Spanish Jewry in school, and I decided to read The Disputation of Barcelona. It is the written account by Ramban (Nachmanides) of the debate between himself and an apostate named Pablo Christiani in the summer of 1263 in Barcelona. It was held in front of King James I of Aragonia and other Christian nobles. Debates such as these were common in mediaeval Europe, where Christians, seeking to prove the validity of their religion, forced prominent Jews to participate. The Church would then declare that the Christian had won the debate, although it was usually obvious that that was not at all the case. It was as a result of this that Ramban had to leave Spain. The Church published their own version of the debate at Barcelona, but the only surviving account of the event now is that of the Ramban (translated into English by Rabbi Dr. Charles B. Chavel). Although it is only 42 pages, it is a fascinating read, and I would recomment it to anyone (and especially to those who have doubts about the truth of Judaism). You can purchase it here, or try finding it in your local Jewish library or bookstore.

One of the things that I found very interesting was what he said about mankind's original immortality:

"Behold, the first man lived 930 years. Scripture explains that he died because of his sin and that had he not sinned, he would have lives many more [years] or [perhaps] forever. All of us, gentiles and Jews, admit that the sin and pubinshment of the first man will be voided in the era of the Messiah. If so, death will cease from all of us [ordinary mortals] after the coming of Messiah. As far as the Messiah himself is concerned, death is completely inoperative against him. Thus, it is fitting that Messiah live for thousands of years or [even] forever."

(p. 16)

So according to this, man had the potential to live even longer than a millenium, if not forever. But because the first man, Adam, sinned by eating from the Tree of Knowledge, his life was cut short and he could no longer be immortal.

Ramban went on to explain, in answer to the king's question about the whereabouts of the Messiah:

The answer is clearly written in Scripture. The first man was placed in the Garden of Eden, which is upon the earth. When he sinned, it is stated, And the Eternal G-d sent him forth from the Garden of
. If so, this one, who is free from the punishment of man, abides there in the Garden of Eden.

(p. 16)

What Ramban is saying is that since Adam's sin and punishment had no effect on the Messiah, he could both be immortal and dwell in the Garden of Eden. Adam was only expelled from it as a punishment for eating from the Tree of Knowledge.

The Yalkut Me'am Lo'ez, a commentary on the Torah by Rabbi Yaakov Culi (1689 - 1732), has a fascinating explanation of why exactly Adam was banished from the Garden of Eden for his sin. He was punished thoroughly for that sin -- his stature was reduced, his beauty was diminished, he had to work hard for his food, etc. In all, Adam was given ten curses. What I found interesting though was that this commentary connected the curse of mortality to the curse of being banished from the Garden of Eden.

One of the trees that as in the Garden of Eden was the Tree of Life. G-d never forbade Adam from eating the fruit of that specific tree, and according to the Yalkut Me'am Lo'ez:

"G-d would have not minded if Adam had eaten from it and gained immortality; creation was originally set up in such a manner that no creature would die. It was only after Adam sinned that he was banished from the Garden of Eden so that he could not gain immortality by eating from the Tree of

(p. 278, The Torah Anthology - Genesis I 1.)

G-d wanted Adam to be able to live forever, and Adam did indeed have that opportunity. Not only was G-d watching over him to make sure no harm came to him, but Adam was also permitted to eat from the Tree of Life, which would extend his life. Therefore, when G-d wanted to curse Adam by making him mortal, He also had to banish him from the Garden of Eden, so that Adam would not be able to prolong his life by eating from the Tree of Life. The Yalkut Me'am Lo'ez shows that Adam's expulsion from the Garden of Eden was because of his curse of mortality, which was the punishment for his sin. It was a direct, logical result.

Going back to what Ramban said about the Messiah's immortality, we can apply the Yalkut Me'am Lo'ez's explanation to it. The Messiah can reside in the Garden of Eden, because he is supposed to be immortal.

And when the Mashiach comes to gather our scattered nation and redeem us, we will also have the gift of immortality that we were originally meant to have and would then logically be permitted to experience being in the Garden of Eden.

Happy Endings  

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One of the things that always used to frustrate me about Jane Austen's books was the fact that their endings were invariably happy and immaculate. She would tie up all the loose ends, write out in the last page or two exactly what happened to each of the characters (and obviously, only good things happened to the heroes, while the less-than-stellar characters would simply live unhappy lives or something of that sort). I felt that some of her books just lacked depth. Don't get me wrong; I thoroughly enjoyed reading them and there are some that I can read over and over, and they leave me with a smile on my face, but when I think about it, I feel something is missing... and that's reality.

Not all endings are happy. In fact, many of them are quite the opposite. Those who are good and strive to make the world a better place are often the ones who are left heartbroken and have the bitter endings. Characters who should logically live happily ever after because they 'deserve' it often find that life doesn't work that way in reality.

That is something I occasionally struggle with when I am writing fiction. Will I write a tale of hope and redemption, with a happily-ever-after ending, or will my hero die alone somewhere in a ditch, abandoned and broken-hearted? Will my hero learn the hard way that life isn't usually what you want it to be? And if he does, will he afterwards learn that life can also be worthwhile and rewarding, or will he then be disappointed yet again and his hopes dashed? I so wish for my hero to have a happy ending and to see that life can be good and there is still some goodness left in mankind to counter all the ugliness, but what are the chances?

All I know is that the main character of the short story I am currently writing will die under the moon-lit night sky, heartbroken and betrayed.

I thought I had decided on the fate of my novel's hero too, but now I am not so sure.... My novels cannot have fairytale/Jane Austen endings.

I was thinking about happy endings versus sad endings before, but today is the first of November and therefore the beginning of NaNoWriMo, so I had to make some decisions.

Anyway.... Back to my avalanche of school-related assignments. I am a bit amused though at how I did not blog for a few weeks and then -- BAM! -- I started writing one post after another. When it rains, it pours.

Marriages of Life and Death  

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Here is an interesting excerpt from The Warsaw Ghetto Diaries, by Dr. Hillel Seidman:

"Finally, I arrive at my own office in Grzybowska Street, and again thousands wait outside. Men seek official marriage certificates to protect their wives, since there is also a rumor that those holding marriage certificates will not be deported. Inside the Kehillah, too, depression reigns; everybody believes that workers alone will not be expelled.

Incidentally, in the house of Rabbi Yitzchak Meir Kanal at 6 Twarda Street are also large crowds -- busily getting married! Bachelors who have work cards marry women who have no work, to save them from deportation. These mass marriages are conducted in great haste. Zionist chalutzim marry chalutzot; tzukunftisim (Bundists) marry tukunftisiot. Women still unmarried seek 'husbands.' The ancient prophesy rings true: 'And on that day seven women will clutch at one man saying we will eat our own bread, wear our own clothes -- just allow your name to protect us.'"

(p. 51)

I guess it didn't matter what type of tablecloths their mothers used or where the girls received their education. Remind me again, why are people so thick-headed these days? Is it because we have gotten so used to the good life that we think every little detail has to be the way we want it to be?