Wise Women, Leadership, and Zealotry

As you read about and watch this week’s Torah portion, some ideas to consider:

  1. Is zealotry ever warranted? Why and why not?
  2. What do Zelophechad’s five daughters have to teach you about speaking truth to power?
  3. What do you think of Moshe’s reaction to being told he is going to die without going into Israel?

If you can remember all the way back to last week, we ended the parasha about the talking donkey (Balak) with the story of a zealot priest by the name of Pinchas who stabs to death Cozbi, the Midianite princess, and Zimri, the Israelite son of a chief in the Tribe of Simeon, while they are having sex. Pretty salacious and graphic — and an insight into the personality of Pinchas.

This week’s parasha is actually named after that very same priest, Pinchas, about whom we will say more later. For now, though, we concentrate on one of the most promising and up-beat stories of the entire Torah: the story of the five daughters of a man named Zelophechad.

Zelophechad: hard to pronounce but important to remember because of the way he might have inspired his daughters to speak truth to power. In English, you might pronounce his name Z’LOFF-HOD, the way the storyteller does in the G-dcast episode. In Hebrew, we pronounce it with a twist at the beginning, TZ’LOAF-CHOD (with a guttural ch sound for the final syllable).

The storyteller rightly zeroes in on the story of the perfectly articulated case of the five women, Mahlah, Noah, Hohglah, Milkah, and Tirtzah, the unwed daughters of Zelophechad, from the Tribe of Manasseh. The women state that they should be allowed to inherit their father’s portion of land after his death, just as would be the case if they had brothers — if Zelophechad had sons. But he didn’t, and so they come forward to Moshe/Moses to point out the inequity of this situation.

Now, here is the astounding part: Moshe presumably doesn’t know how to answer them because he brings their case forward to God. God replies,

“Rightly do the daughters of Zelophechad speak,”

and continues to amend the laws that had been previously understood concerning who may inherit land so that the tribe continues to hold onto its territory (Numbers 27: 7-9). Later, in chapter 36, we get an amendment to this law, which the storyteller points out.

This is a giant step forward for the women of the day (biblical times) and an essential message to all of us today. Namely, when something seems out of joint and plainly unfair, one must step forward to make the case for equality. Is it just coincidence that the Defense of Marriage Act was struck down this week by the Supreme Court? Hopefully, Mahlah, Noah, Hoghlah, Milkah, and Tirtzah will continue to motivate and even encourage us to bring forth arguments for equal treatment before the law to the legal authorities who have the power to change the status quo for the better.

Immediately after settling the issue of daughters being able to inherit, God tells his servant Moshe to ascend to the top of Mt. Abarim and look over the whole land that is promised to the Israelites. He is then told that he will not be allowed to enter the Land (Numbers 27: 13-14). Is Moshe shocked? He doesn’t seem to be. God gives him the reason (again, verse 14) and maybe, just maybe, Moshe realizes that his sin was sufficiently grievous, such that he merits this harsh sentence. Also, maybe Moshe understands that he is of the old generation and no longer an optimal leader.

Out of his love for the people he has shepherded all these years he asks God to appoint a successor (“so that the Lord’s community will not be like a flock without a shepherd”). God instructs him to take Joshua/Yehoshua, the son of Nun, and stand with him in front of Eleazar, the priest, in full view of the people and lay his hands upon the new leader, investing in him the power and the wisdom to lead the people into their Promised Land.

I think you might be wondering about the sin that Moshe merits. The hint comes when God says that Moshe and Aaron “rebelled against My word in the Wilderness of Zin…to SANCTIFY Me through the water” in front of the complaining masses of thirsty Israelites. God’s instruction at the time was for the two brothers to speak to the rock, making it crystal clear that it was the same God who redeemed the Israelites from the slavery of Egypt who is now slacking their thirst, bringing forth water from the rock, again saving them. Instead, Moshe and Aaron said to the Israelites, “shall we bring forth water for you?” implying that it is they who are the saviors of the people, rather than God. God knows that this people have little faith and need to be reminded of God’s miracles all the time — God needs to be sanctified and made holy at every opportunity. And in this Moshe and Aaron failed big time, and thus their punishment not to enter the Promised Land.

I said I would return to the character of Pinchas, who is a complicated figure because of his zealotry. As Moshe imagines who will lead the people after his death, one might imagine that Moshe would think that Pinchas would be the logical successor. After all, Pinchas is from the priestly clan, and has already shown himself to take leadership (when he killed Cozbi and Zimri to avert the decimation of the entire Israelite nation). In last week’s parasha, Numbers 25: 11-12, Pinchas is even granted a covenant of peace, a “brit shalom.” But… one letter of that word, shalom, the letter vov (which looks like a straight line and gives that “o” sound), is calligraphied with a break in its middle. Kind of a visual hint or reminder that true peace cannot come from zealotry. And true leaders cannot be hotheads, who take a spear in their anger, and aim to kill.

Maybe all of this runs through the mind of our leader Moshe, when he hears God tell him that the new leader will be Joshua. God may have awarded Pinchas a brit shalom, a pact of peace, but, maybe it’s not what it seems. To explore this idea, here’s another fascinating read by Shamai Leibowitz, in his blog, Pursuing Justice.

A Prophet and His Talking Donkey

The Torah parasha this week is named after a non-Israelite king, Balak, who decides that the Israelite tribes are a threat to his people, the Moabites. So King Balak hires Balaam ben Be’or, a soothsayer and prophet, to go and deliver a curse on the Israelites (Numbers 22: 5-7). Balaam accepts the gig; he and his talking donkey become two of the most comical or mysterious characters in the whole Torah. The G-dcast storyteller this week, Rabbi Andrew Shapiro Katz, formerly of San Francisco and now residing with his wife and growing family in Be’er Sheva, Israel, has given us a shorter-than-usual and very provocative commentary on this parasha.

Makes sense, doesn’t it? That the only way to “explain” a talking donkey is to imagine that Balaam projects a piece of himself, some intuition coming from his “gut,” right into the mouth of his donkey. It gets even better… Balaam ends up having a conversation with his donkey, almost the way you sometimes get two parts of yourself arguing with each other (on the one hand….but on the other hand…). There is also some medical evidence that the very same cells that formed our brains when we were in our embryonic and then fetal state also formed the organs associated with our gut, such as our intestines. For more on brain gut, you can read this.

The donkey stops because he sees God’s messenger in the path in front of him, forbidding him to continue onward. And Balaam just beats him for that — witness their absurd interaction in chapter 22 verses 28-30. When Balaam himself finally hears the voice of God’s messenger, he changes direction, both metaphorically and physically.

The King and his for-hire prophet end up discussing the parameters of the instructions to curse Israel. The prophet realizes, after several encounters with the Holy One of Israel, that he cannot go against the powerful Lord of the Hebrew tribes. He knows he is going against his contract, but he ends up actually blessing the Israelites with the words…

“How goodly are your tents oh Jacob, your dwellings oh Israel!”
Mah tovu Ohalekha Ya’akov; mish’k'notekha, Yisra’el!
Numbers 24:5

…which appear in a lengthy poem of praise to the Israelites. This phrase has entered our liturgy, part of the opening morning prayers, every day…. Amazing, huh?

To recap: religiously observant Jews in the 21st century recite a line of poetry, now part of the daily prayers, ascribed to a pagan prophet whose story was captured in the Bible, dating back to perhaps the 8th century before the common era (BCE).

The story ends with King Balak being very angry. More poetry is exchanged, and, in the end, the prophet Balaam goes home and the King goes back to his despair and his wrath, never having achieved his goals of cursing the Israelites.

Chapter 25 has one more story: how the Israelites, who had just been blessed and praised by a foreign prophet, have resumed their naughty behaviors, in imitation of their pagan neighbors. And what is the crime? They go “whoring with the daughters of Moab.” They begin to engage in the cultic and sexual activities related to the worship of Baal Pe’or. Of course this behavior is not acceptable to God, and so Moshe/Moses tells his chiefs to impale the wrong-doers so that the people can be saved from idolatry.

One of these leaders, a member of the priestly tribe and the grandson of Aaron, is Pinchas/Phineas, a hyper-energized zealot who takes a spear in his hand and stabs an Israelite man, Zimri, son of Salu, chieftain of the Simeonite tribe. Zimri is caught in flagrante delicto (Latin for “in blazing offense,” sometimes used colloquially as a euphemism for someone caught red-handed in sexual activity) while engaged in sexual intercourse with Cozbi, daughter of Zur, a Midianite chief. She is a princess and he is the son of a chief of one of the Tribes of Israel; these are not your average schleppers, and the fact that their lineage is mentioned means that they are prominent and well regarded, until now. Seems that God wanted to make an example of God’s utter intolerance of the alliances and intermarriages between the Midianites and the Israelites, despite the fact that in a previous generation, Moshe/Moses married Tzipporah, a Midianite, daughter of Yitro/Jethro, the beloved priest of Midian.

The attitudes of the Israelites towards assimilation and interchanges with their neighbors vacillate and change with the times… In some generations intimacy seems to have been more or less OK, and at other times completely forbidden. Do you think that vacillation exists today as well? How have attitudes towards intermarriages between races and religions changed over the past several generations?

Let’s end with an 18th century poem by Robert Burns, who sees a glorious exit to this world in the example of Zimri and Cozbi:

I murder hate by flood or field,
Tho’ glory’s name may screen us;
In wars at home I’ll spend my blood -
Life-giving wars of Venus.
The deities that I adore
Are social Peace and Plenty;
I’m better pleased to make one more,
Than be the death of twenty.

I would not die like Socrates,
For all the fuss of Plato;
Nor would i with Leonidas,
Nor yet would i with Cato:
The zealots of the church and state
Shall ne’er my mortal foe be;
But let me have bold Zimri’s fate,
Within the arms of Cozbi!

Showdown at the OK Corral

This week’s parasha (Numbers 16:1 – 18:32) is named after its key protagonist, a feisty fellow by the name of Korach, born into the priestly tribe of Levi, the same leadership tribe as Moshe/Moses and Aaron. The scene is the desert: the Israelites are complaining and want a change, wishing they were back in good old Egypt. The vibe is just right for a populist revolt. Korach steps into the breach and stirs up trouble. He basically demands an answer to this familiar question: “Who made you the boss over us?” Korach asserts that Moshe is an elitist, busy interacting with God while leaving everyone else out, and then proceeds to organize a band of people who agree with him to confront Moshe.

You can imagine that neither Moshe, his big brother Aaron, nor God are pleased with this uprising. After he gets over his initial shock, Moshe consults with God and receives instructions for something like a gunfight at the OK Corral (minus the guns), in which Korach and his cronies will be swallowed up by what seems like a gigantic earthquake.

Before we proceed to talk about what ultimately happened to Korach and his sons, I’m wondering if I’m the only one who feels some empathy with Korach and his position. This is what Korach says, verbatim, in chapter 16 verse 3:

“You have too much! For all the community, they are all holy, and in their midst is the Lord, and why should you raise yourselves up over the Lord’s assembly?

Aren’t Korach and 250 of his closest friends just demanding what is due them? That is, to share the leadership? After all, God has told the people repeatedly that they are all a “kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (look at Exodus 19:6).

Some of us are puzzled by the searing condemnation and punishment Korach receives for raising the issue of a more democratic system in which Moshe would share leadership with the other Levites. For an insightful commentary on why siding with Korach really is missing the boat, read this piece by Dr. Benjamin Sommer of JTS.

Now, let’s go back to find out more about the fates of Korach, his buddies who joined in his rebellion, and his sons. As you saw in G-dcast’s video, no one remains; they are swallowed up and completely disappear — no one is left except Korach’s sons, who didn’t take their father’s side. And what turns out to be a strange twist is that the guy’s sons went on to write some dozen or so of the 150 liturgical poems found in the Bible, called Psalms. Many of these psalms still appear in Jewish daily worship and some are recited on Sabbaths and special occasions.

These poems are filled with profound insights expressed eloquently and with great beauty. Korach’s sons are mentioned by name in Exodus 6:24 — you can read more about them (and Korach himself) here.

Traditionally, Korach remains a power-hungry trouble-maker, despite the fact that on the surface, he seems to be raising a valid point about sharing leadership. And yet, his sons become known for their spiritual poetry, opening us up to the mysteries of life.

One more thing: in the Talmud, there is a shorthand way of classifying arguments between scholars: those that are “for the sake of heaven” and those that are not. The following quote is from the Mishnah, Pirkei Avot 5:17:

Every argument for the sake of heaven will in the end be of permanent value, but every argument not for the sake of heaven will not endure. Which is an argument for the sake of heaven? The argument between Rabbi Hillel and Rabbi Shammai. And which is an argument not for the sake of heaven? The argument of Korach and his followers.

Korach gets a bad rap — and deservedly so, despite his seemingly compelling critique.

To think about:

  1. Even if Korah had a point, what do you think of the way he went about with his argument? Did he approach Moshe privately to have a quiet chat about his (and others’) dissatisfaction? Or was he looking for a fight? When you have difficult emotional issues to grapple with concerning divergent religious traditions, how do you resolve them?
  2. What do you think of the family dynamics in our story? Cousin Korach spearheaded what turned into a huge rift with Cousin Moshe. Do families have propensities to argue with each other? And what about Korach’s sons? How did they manage to stay out of the rebellion? Is there a message for us when we read that Korach’s sons became composers of liturgical poetry? How does it happen that family members can have such divergent religious views as Korach and his sons?

Boston and “After the Death”

When tragedy strikes, what do you need to do to remain balanced and react in a positive fashion? What kinds of rules should we adopt to keep our society safe, healthy, and open?

BAM's message of support for Boston

Brooklyn Art Museum's message of support for Boston

The parasha (Torah portion) this week, Acharey Mote/After the Death, opens with a reference back to the inexplicable death of two of Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu. Remember them? The ones back in Leviticus chapter 10 verses 1-2? Not only were those deaths kind of shocking, the Torah captures the reaction of their father, Aaron, in one pain-filled, two-word sentence, “Va-yidom Aharon” — “And Aaron was silent.” Because really, what can one say when confronted with an inexplicable and seemingly senseless death?

Even though Acharey Mote refers back to the deaths of Nadav and Avihu, for me, this week, the opening words of this parasha referred to the deaths and horrifying maiming of the victims of the terrorist attack at the finish line of the Boston Marathon this past Monday, April 15, also known as Patriots’ Day in Massachusetts.

There has been so much written about the attack and its immediate aftermath, and we know so little right now about the perpetrator and their reasons. But we do know some things, for example, about the astoundingly brave way in which those unharmed, both spectators and runners, rushed to help the injured. One of the columns that helped put the atrocity in perspective for me appeared in the New York Times, written by Thomas Friedman. Friedman urges us to focus on our reactions — that is, not to give the terrorists the advantage of deciding how we react. How we react is up to us, he reminds us. And he begins his column with a reference to how Israelis have decided to react to the multiple terrorist attacks they have been subjected to over the past decades.

In shock and dismay, I looked at the photos, as I imagine thousands of others did, and thought of how much the scene in Boston resembled scenes in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv after a bus bombing or other terrorist attack. Coincidently (or maybe not) on Monday, Israelis observed Yom Ha-Zikaron/Israeli Memorial Day, immediately followed by Yom Ha’atzma’ut/Israeli Independence Day, on Tuesday. The juxtaposition of these two observances with our parasha led Rabbi Matthew Berkowitz, who lives and works in Israel, to remark on how the parasha sheds light on the pain and joy embodied in these 2 days. He remarks:

the opposite side of the pain is life — choosing and embracing life with fervor, zest, and appreciation. The calendar reminds us that we must pause to reflect on these two aspects of the Jewish journey.

Moving back to Acharey Mote, our G-dcast storyteller, Amichai Lau-Lavie, helps us think about the threads that connect this parasha together. He wants us to see these chapters as a modern “Operations Manual” for the Tabernacle, and lists the 3 subject areas the manual covers: eating meat, having sex, and atonement (for when we do wrong and have to go “oops”).

At the outset, Lau-Lavie says that the parasha deals with the aftermath of the tragedy of Nadav and Avihu’s deaths, and explores ways to react to their deaths. He later comments that we often need to look beyond literal instructions to find symbolic meaning in what the Torah prescribes for our behavior, whether in the realm of eating meat, or in our sexual lives, or when we have gone astray and need to atone. The organizing principle, he suggests, is that we impose a kind of discipline in our lives — and follow the appropriate rules listed in whatever operations manual we find compelling, to navigate the uncertainties, the pains, the unbridled desires, the ups and the downs of life. While there may be many different interpretations to the rules and regulations set forth in our parasha, nevertheless our storyteller wants us to know that the bottom line is that discipline matters.

Circling back to the tragedy on Monday in Boston, discipline mattered a great deal. Without the discipline of the first responders and medical personnel, many more victims would have lost their lives, not only their limbs, as horrible as that is. The discipline of the marathoners to listen to the police instructions mattered. The discipline of the spectators — to help and comfort victims, to tie tourniquets, and to do whatever was asked — mattered. The discipline of the journalists not to report unconfirmed rumors mattered.

What each of us takes away from this terrorist attack matters. We need discipline to react in ways that re-enforce our cherished freedoms, our trust in others, our humanity, our belief that good can and will triumph over evil.

No Good Reason

This week’s Torah portion (parasha) contains one of only two narratives in the entire book of Leviticus — the rest of Leviticus is made up of laws, rules, and instructions. The story this week is of the death of two of Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, and appears at the beginning of chapter 10 and is only 3 verses long. (But don’t worry — we also get rules, about food!, this week too. Read on…)

It is a poignant and tragic tale, partly due to its brevity, partly due to its strangeness. It leaves us with an overarching sense of injustice, and we are left with many questions but few answers. Why exactly did these men die? What does “alien fire” mean? Why would God want to kill young priests offering sacrificial incense?

You might imagine that these questions provide fertile ground for rabbinic inquiry, and you would be right. A number of midrashim (stories that come to fill in the blanks) were suggested by the rabbis of the Talmud about the deaths of Aaron’s sons. In chapter 9 of his book Reading The Book: Making The Bible A Timeless Text, Rabbi Burt Visotsky, a professor of Bible at the Jewish Theological Seminary, writes about sibling rivalry in the Bible. He explores the rivalry between Aaron and his more famous brother, Moses, and their sister, Miriam.

The literature is thoroughly divided on explaining how it came to pass that on the very day of Aaron’s investiture as High Priest, his two sons were put to death by fire from heaven. The puzzling death of the two siblings, Nadav and Avihu, is reported in the Bible on four separate occasions. Each time, the account differs until we are left with no clear idea of what actually happened…..

Professor Visotsky and his colleague, Dr. Avigdor Shinan of the Hebrew University, have laid out 12 separate reasons the traditional commentators gave for the deaths of Nadav and Avihu. Visotsky compares this gamut of explanations to the various points of view in the Japanese film Rashomon, in which the filmmaker, Kurosawa, wants the viewer to understand that a story has no objective truth and that it changes depending on who is telling the story. The same events can be interpreted in vastly different ways. What happened to Aaron’s sons is beyond comprehension — hence the 12 very different reasons from the rabbis who tried to make sense of a tragic and ultimately perplexing loss.

And what do we know of Aaron’s reaction? “And Aaron was silent.” This loss of two sons was beyond words — Aaron was speechless. The brother who was the mouthpiece, the one who was to speak to the Pharaoh for Moses, is left without words in the face of his heartbreaking loss. Sometimes in the face of overwhelming tragedy, the best behavior is silence.

Then, on a completely different wave length, (or as our G-dcast storyteller says, “now that this unpleasantness is behind us”) the parasha also lays out some of the rules of kashrut, enumerating explicitly which animals Jews are allowed to eat and which are forbidden. The storyteller presents this information from chapter 11 of Leviticus in a catchy song:

Eating is one of the most basic functions of a living, breathing creature, humans included. If we are lucky, we eat 3 meals a day, both to sustain us and to give us pleasure. The Torah is concerned with what we consume as food/fuel. In parashat Sh’mini, this weeks portion, we get the full rule book on what is in the YES column and what is in the NO column.

Notice that no explicit reason is given in the Torah for why some of these animals, birds, and fish are forbidden for Jews to eat. Kind of like the idea that there is no explicit reason that two of Aaron’s sons are consumed by the fire of the sacrificial alter, even though the G-dcast storyteller suggests a few, like one of the better known rabbinic “reasons” — that Nadav and Avihu were drunk, and therefore in no state to perform the holy acts of offering up the incense.

It occurs to me that we are only several days past the last crumbs of matzah from 8 days of Passover, when there were many restrictions on what kinds of food Jews were allowed to consume and what was forbidden — anything made from the five grains that could become hametz (leavened). On an outing to the local grocery store’s kosher section, you could see food products, many produced in Israel, that bore the label, “kosher for Passover;” these are foods that come out only at this time of year.

It’s worth a few moments of contemplation on what all of these restrictions mean to people observing the kashrut laws, both those derived from this week’s parasha and those that apply to the 8 days of Passover. Also worth noting are all of the various kinds of restrictions people freely adopt concerning the kind of food they will eat and what they deem forbidden for either health or environmental reasons… from veganism to abstaining from gluten or sugar, from raw foodists to those who will not eat any foods that have been processed commercially. Once you start thinking about the various categories of food that people will or will not eat, the laws of kashrut in chapter 11 are no longer so strange!

Sight and Smell, Bodies, and Losing Faith

To consider as you read about the week’s Torah portion, Ki Tissa:

  1. Which of your senses is the most important to you in understanding the world? Is this also the sense that helps you tap into your spiritual self?
  2. Why does the writer of the Bible use the human body when describing God?
  3. Why did the Israelites lose faith in Moshe’s returning to them? What makes you lose faith in someone or something?

Ki Tissa (Exodus 30:11 – 34:35) starts out slowly, with more instructions from God about a census and a special kind of tax for each Israelite, and then proceeds to add more instructions about the construction of the washing basin, or laver, that the priests will use when they offer sacrifices. Then, in chapter 30, verse 22, we get a recipe for a fabulous scented oil, which is to be used only by the priests. It sounds absolutely out of this world, like it was concocted by some Parisian perfumery. A few verses later, we get another recipe, this time for incense. One might get the idea that the sense of smell was very important to this desert tribe.

Chapter 31 changes direction and we read about one outstanding artisan, Bezalel, the son of Uri, the grandson of Hur, of the tribe of Judah. Apparently, Bezalel was able to bring a divine spirit into everything he designed. He was a master craftsperson and worked in many media including gold, silver, cooper, precious stones, and wood. And God lets Moshe/Moses know that God wants Bezalel in charge of designing the Tent of Meeting and all of its furnishings. No wonder that the early Zionists named the Jerusalem-based college of arts “Bezalel,” after this master. It seems pretty obvious that it was important for God to have things look a certain way. Now maybe we are getting the idea that the sense of sight was important to the Israelites.

Now, a detour for a special paragraph, chapter 31 verses 12-17: the verses describing what is to happen on the 7th day, the Sabbath day. These verses are recited every Shabbat at Kiddush, the blessing over wine at the noontime meal; these verses express deeply held beliefs about what is and what is not to be done on the 7th day. The Sabbath is described as a “sign”, an “ot,” the very same word used for the first rainbow and for the circumcision of male babies on their 8th day of life. It is a sign of an agreement between the Israelites and God, for all times. More recently, around 100 years ago, the Zionist thinker, Asher Ginsberg, better known by his pen name of Ahad Ha’am (“one of the people”), riffed on this verse when he said, “More than the Jews have kept the Sabbath, the Sabbath has kept the Jewish people.” There is something rather profound about making the 7th day radically different from the other six. In fact, the newish organization Reboot has instituted one day a year as the day to unplug in their Sabbath Manifesto. Read it to see what people are saying! By the way, this year’s day to unplug is March 19-20 — will you be giving it a try?

Finally, we get to some big time drama in chapter 32. And I mean big! Chapter 32 is the story of the Golden Calf and its aftermath. Lots of fireworks, literal and metaphoric.

Our G-dcast storyteller focuses on the sense of sight in this week’s parasha, and how important it is to be able to see something with our own eyes. We already know that hearing is important to the tribes of Israel—after all, they are told “Sh’ma Yisrael” — Listen Israel, Adonai our God, Adonai is One. Listen, Hear, Pay Attention, Take-in-the-Oneness oneness of God.

But now, we concentrate on the sense of vision, of seeing, of being in-sight-ful. Why did the people freak out so much in Moshe’s absence that they needed to build an idol, a golden calf? Did they have so little faith that their leader, Moshe, would return? Did they have so little faith in the God who brought them out of Egypt? Well, apparently they had lost their faith, perhaps following the adage: out of sight, out of mind. They demanded that Aaron, Moshe’s brother, build them a molten calf of gold.

The calf is forged in the flames, the people sacrifice to it, feast, and party like there was no tomorrow (see chapter 32 verse 6).

But, there was a tomorrow, and I bet you can already predict what God is going to say and do. God sees the festivities and goes berserk. God wants to wipe them out, just the way God wiped out all of creation way back in the days of Noah back in Genesis. But Moshe is on the side of this rag-tag bunch of freed slaves and argues with God, just the way Avraham/Abraham argued with God to spare the people of Sodom and G’morrah, again back in Genesis. Good thing we have these loyal and stalwart leaders on the side of the Jewish people — we seem to need someone strong who can argue with God, even when we mess up. And God relents: “And the Lord renounced the punishment He had planned to bring upon His people” (chapter 32 verse 14).

So Moshe heads down the mountain with the tablets of the law that were inscribed with the writing of God, and stops in his tracks when he see the calf and the dancing. Major meltdown. Now it is Moshe who sees red, and is so angry that he throws the tablets to the ground, shattering them to smithereens. Oy! There will be a resolution — it is worth reading all the way to the end of chapter 32 to see how this drama ends.

One last narrative in our parasha that is filled with both joy and angst comes in chapter 33. It centers on an intimate and poignant conversation between Moshe and God. In verses 7-11, we read how it is when Moshe goes to speak/commune with God. What do the people do when they see Moshe enter the Tent of Meeting? How do they know Moshe is going to communicate with God? Verse 11 tells us: “The Lord would speak to Moshe face to face, as one man speaks with another.”

In verses 12-23 we are privileged to eavesdrop on one of the most fraught conversations between Moshe and God; we can actually hear the pleading voice of this tireless servant of God, this protector of Israel, who begs God to let Godself be seen intimately. And God demurs, lets Moshe know that even he, the greatest prophet of the Jewish people, may not actually see God’s face and live; but God will enable Moshe to feel the Divine Presence in a way no other man can. Verses 22-23: “…as My Divine Presence passes by, I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and shield you with My hand, until I have passed by. Then I will take My hand away and you will see My back; but My face must not be seen.”

Lots of questions of course, beginning with: I thought that God had no body and no form… what does God mean when God mentions God’s own face, hand, and back? For one commentary on this conversation, see what Chancellor Arnie Eisen of JTS has to say.

Project Runway: Priest Edition

Last week, we read in some detail about the building of the Ohel Mo’ed, the Tent of Meeting, aka the Miskhan, aka the Dwelling Place of the Divine. In this week’s parasha, called Tetzaveh, we read the elaborate descriptions of the clothing that the priests must wear when they serve God.

Our storyteller from G-dcast comments that the Torah is often sketchy about details we would like to know more about. But here, in describing the clothes of the priests, “the Torah goes into OCD mode” — there are so many precise and detailed descriptions, one might think that God was instructing Ralph Lauren on his new fall fashion line.

Besides the ephod and the breastplate of decision (see Exodus chapter 28 verses 6-21), where gorgeous precious stones are enumerated (carnelian, chrysolite, emerald, turquoise, sapphire, amethyst, jacinth, agate, crystal, beryl, lapis lazuli, and jasper), I love the description of the hem of the priests’ robes (verses 33-35).

Jackie Hoffman, in her 'Shavuot' song. Click the image to listen. (Note: lyrics aren't fully PG-friendly.)

The yarns to be used are blue, crimson and purple; the design specifies embroidered pomegranates, and they are to be placed all the way around the bottom hem. And then, in between each pomegranate, there is to be a golden bell attached, a real bell, which will produce sound as the priest moves. Sounds exquisite, on par with the clothes the women of Downton Abbey wear when they visit their cousins’ castle in Scotland! In our own times, the highest ranking priests of the Catholic Church wear sacral vestments that are in the tradition of these ornate, highly decorative and expensive garments.

This leads us to ask some questions about both the Torah’s descriptions and why so many religious traditions dictate the exact kind of clothing to be worn when one is serving God. Why is it so important to know about the sash, the turban, the robed tunic, the exact colors, and what fabrics need to be part of the clothing? And further, why should God care so much about what the Priests wear when they perform the ritual sacrifices on behalf of the people? When a Catholic worshipper of today goes to church and witnesses the Mass performed by richly garbed cardinals (or even the Pope), how does the clothing worn by the priests impact the experience of the worshipper?

Anglican Archbishop and the Catholic Pope know what to wear!

As we approach the next book of the Torah, the book of Leviticus, we will see that many prescribed rituals fall into the “OCD” mode, as the video’s storyteller says. Look at the instructions for the sacrifices in Exodus 29 verses 19-21. This is what the priests, in their finery, must do: they must “…slaughter the ram and take some of its blood and put it on the ridge of Aaron’s right ear and on the ridges of his sons’ right ears and on the thumbs of their right hands and on the big toes of their right feet; and dash the rest of the blood against every side of the alter round about.” Wow! Talk about precise instructions that are pretty inscrutable. Here we have it in abundance.

Even though Jews no longer offer animal sacrifices, we still have laws that are considered puzzling and have no obvious purpose. Those laws are known as “hukkim” as opposed to laws which make some common sense, which are known as “mishpatim.” A mishpat (single form of mishpatim) is something like “don’t steal” or “don’t kill.” The sorts of laws in the category of hukkim are like the laws of kashrut, dietary restrictions for keeping kosher. We just do them (if we want to be observant) because they were commanded, not because they necessarily make sense or make society work any better.

Before we leave the parasha of Tetzaveh, with its opening focus on the clothing of the priests, I also want to acknowledge the lovely coincidence that the Torah reading points to the holiday that comes on its heels — the joyous holiday of Purim, which falls on the 14th of Adar, which is the evening of February 23 through the 24th this year. Parashat Tetzaveh and Purim both have clothing and costumes interwoven in them. One of the fun aspects of the Purim festivities is dressing up in costumes and disguises. This is our topsy-turvy festival where nothing is what it seems. In Hebrew, the word for clothing is beg’ed, the root, b.g.d. This root also forms the word bag’ad, to betray or lie. Think of it this way: when we wear clothes, we cover-up our bodies and a “cover-up” is also used to describe hiding something, not being transparent, maybe even betraying someone’s trust. On the holiday of Purim, we masquerade; we put on costumes to appear to be someone other than ourselves. What is it about covering up or hiding oneself that is so central to this festival? And what is it that the clothing of the priests is covering up, if anything?

Wishing you a very merry Purim!!

Sentences and Laws

Our G-dcast story teller this week, David Henkin, asks some pretty provocative questions about why it was that Moses/Moshe decided to write down the words he heard from God and record them in a book, that we now call the “Torah.” He ponders what happens when people have the capacity to read words rather than to only hear those words spoken aloud.

Jews have been known as “People of the Book.” I am also wondering about the differences between cultures that revere reading and cultures with more of an oral tradition. What kinds of changes do you imagine take place when people go from listening to words to the act of reading them?

The name of this week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim, actually can mean either “sentences” (meaning a string of words with subject and predicate) or “laws.” Mishpatim enumerates many laws that, on the surface, don’t seem to have anything to do with one another. These laws read like statements and pronouncements; they are terse, not well detailed, and, in fact, provide the rabbis of the Talmud (200-600 CE) much raw material on which to construct the whole Jewish system of proper behaviors and observances.

Just look at Exodus 23 verses 19-22. First there is a sentence (a mishpat) about bringing first fruits to the House of the Lord, followed by this: “You shall not boil a kid in its mothers milk,” which is the tiny sentence upon which the laws of kashrut (keeping kosher) are built. This is then followed by a sentence about angels guarding us “on the way” and bringing us to “the place I have made ready.” Huh? We go from a law on first fruits, to recipes, to angels, in quick succession. What possible relationship do these laws have with one another?

This strange list of seemingly unconnected laws gave rise to hundreds of commentaries and interpretations. I think of this parasha almost like a stream of consciousness list, where some laws on the list are extremely important for the moral and ethical functioning of the new society of Israelites. Here’s one such example: “you shall not give perverse testimony in a dispute so as to pervert it in favor of the mighty, nor shall you show deference to a poor person in a dispute” (Exodus 23:2-3). In other words, when you are called to be a witness, don’t lie and don’t side with either the powerful or the weak — just tell the truth.

There are also laws concerning slavery, which seems strange given that the Israelites were just themselves slaves; now they seem to be getting laws concerning the proper treatment of slaves, as if they were owners of slaves. The human propensity to enslave another human being seems to have traveled from the days of the Bible all the way to the 21st century. To read more about how we might think about the whole slavery issue, make sure to read Letting Our People Go: Bringing Us All Out of Egypt by Rabbi Jonathan Spira-Savett.

Our stream of consciousness law list also has laws about not tolerating sorceresses and laws against bestiality…. Do you think that we could extract some relevance to our lives today from these prohibitions? I mean, it’s not a leap to get the significance of a law forbidding us to steal or to kidnap, or a law enjoining us to return borrowed property; but some of the laws here really need to be unpacked in order for us to appreciate them.

One of the laws in this parasha that is most frequently quoted is found in Exodus 21:23-25: “but if other damage ensues, the penalty shall be life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise.” This law is often misunderstood to mean that the perpetrator gets the same exact punishment inflicted on him or her that s/he dealt to a victim. Kind of a “measure for measure” type of punishment. However, the rabbis of the Talmud subjected all of these one-liner laws to prolonged scrutiny and out of their deliberations whole tomes of legal procedures and jurisprudence were written and became the Talmudic codes. They interpreted the “eye for an eye” law to mean that an assailant must pay monetary damages for the injury s/he caused, the heavier the damage, the bigger the fine. This “eye for an eye” law is referred to in Latin as “lex talionis” and was humanized by the rabbis of the Talmud; based on these verses in this week’s parasha, the Talmud explains that the Bible mandates a sophisticated five-part monetary form of compensation, consisting of payment for “damages, pain, medical expenses, incapacitation, and mental anguish” — the same categories underlying many modern legal codes.

To summarize, the laws in this parasha merit the full treatment of years of discussion by rabbis and teachers, collected in codes from the Talmud to today, to make them relevant to Jews and to Judaism…. It’s all in the details.

And one more thing: take a moment to read the mystical narrative of Moshe, his brother Aaron, Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, and the 70 elders, as they ascend the Holy Mountain to meet God, in Exodus 24:9-11. There seems to have been quite a party, complete with a sapphire pavement. Let your imagination run wild as you try to figure out what the text wants us to know. Have fun!

Come Darkness

To consider as you read and watch this week’s installment:

  • How can a story change in meaning when its told from the perspective of a secondary character or witness?
  • Can you think of an experience from your life that would benefit from a retelling through someone else’s perspective?
  • Is there a habit you’ve formed that, though you know it’s not positive, you keep repeating despite others’ urgings to stop? Why do you think you continue it?

The parasha last week left us off in the middle of the story — those cliff-hangers again! We read about the seven plagues that God brought down on Egypt, as its hard-hearted leader, the Pharaoh, kept changing his mind (or hardening his heart) in conversation after conversation with Moshe/Moses, our leader and teacher.

This week, Moshe and Aharon/Aaron (the two brothers) are told by God in the opening words of the parasha, “Bo el Pharoh,” usually translated as, “Go to Pharaoh.” Take a look at how this week’s storyteller on G-dcast interprets this phrase.

Joel Stanley, the storyteller, has chosen to share this tale from the perspective of the older and more articulate brother, Aharon. It really is a different point of view and worth talking over. What do you think of the way Joel understands the command, Bo/Come?

One would think that this Pharaoh would already know the drill: first he says he will allow the Israelites to worship in the desert, then, as they begin to leave, he changes his mind. Then, he’s dealt a mighty blow such as frogs, lice, locusts, and the rest of the plagues as a response to his changing of mind. What doesn’t he understand about reneging on his word? Why does God give the Pharaoh so many chances to let the Israelites go? And what is it about human behavior that the more one does something, the more likely one is to go on doing it? Once the Pharaoh is set on the path of saying “NO, NO, NO, I WILL NOT LET THEM GO!” he ends up incapable of doing the right thing.

The ninth plague brings a terrible and utterly black darkness on the land for 3 solid days and nights. Somehow, this darkness, described as “thick” (Exodus 10:22) seems more horrible than the other plagues. Again, Pharaoh brings Moshe to court and tells him that he and his people can go to the desert to offer sacrifices. But Moshe ups the ante and tells the Pharaoh that not only does he have to let them go, he also has to provide the livestock for them to sacrifice to their God in the desert — kind of like proving who is in charge. And Pharaoh just cannot abide. We are told that “the Lord stiffened Pharaoh’s heart and he would not agree to let them go” (Exodus 10:27). What do you think has happened? Who is pulling the strings? Does the Pharaoh have free-will? Or has he just become so unable to do the right thing that he lands in a rut with no agency of his own?

We know the terrible 10th plague — the death of all first born Egyptians — will completely un-do the Pharaoh. This terrible price seemed to be what needed to happen in order that the Israelites could emerge from their bondage. Read the description in chapter 11 verses 4-8 to fully appreciate the tragedy as it was unfolding. Everyone was affected: the first born of the cattle, of the slave girl, of the Pharaoh himself. It sounds positively Shakespearean.

In Chapter 12, the scene changes radically. We are now in the Israelite camp, reading the rudimentary instructions of what was to take place in the days leading up to the great exodus of the Israelite nation.

Starting from the first day of the month, the month associated with spring and rebirth, now called Nisan in the Hebrew calendar, the Israelites are told what to do. They must take a lamb (remember, it’s spring and there are many new baby lambs being born) and keep it from the 10th day of the month until the 14th day of the month and then, that evening, the beginning of the 15th of Nisan, they must roast it and share it with their household and with any neighbors who don’t have enough people in their immediate family to allow a whole lamb to be consumed. All of this must happen at night and none of the lamb can be kept for “leftovers.” Beginning with verse 11, we have a description of how we are meant to have this feast: in a hurry! And it is to be called “the Passover offering to the Lord.”

What’s truly amazing to me is that still today, on the evening corresponding to the 15th day of Nisan (usually in April or late March), Jewish families gather to tell the story of what happened back in 1250 BCE, or roughly 3200 years ago (some say the year was 1440, so 3400 years ago). We gather as families around tables and read from a little book called the Haggadah/The Telling, with phrases lifted straight out of this story in our parasha. We re-enact what these Israelites went through as they were readying themselves for liberation. And just as the children asked then (Exodus 12:26), “what is the meaning of this rite?” we prompt our children to ask us, with “Four Questions” to allow us to re-live this event.

The parasha concludes by telling us that this special, hurried roasted lamb dinner is to be remembered as the day on which we were freed from the house of bondage (Exodus 13:3-10) and that we are to “keep this institution at its set time from year to year.” Taking that memory one step further, perhaps we need to think a bit more about what it means to be a slave, a commodity, less than fully human in today’s world.

Because of people like journalists Nick Kristoff and Sheryl Wudunn and their searing report, Half the Sky, we know there are still many people (mostly women and girls) in the world today who are enslaved. They may be sex slaves or indentured servants and unable to live their lives in freedom. Perhaps out of gratitude for our own freedom recounted in this week’s parasha, each of us must do something to help free those still in bondage.