Nearing The End

Wow! We are about to complete the yearly cycle of reading the entire Five Books of Moses, The Torah, with only 2 more parshiot (portions) until we get to the very end of the scroll. But between now and the very last verses of the Torah, there are a bunch of holidays — Rosh HaShanah (the New Year), Yom Kippur (the Day of At-One-Ment or Atonement), and the festival of Sukkot (the Harvest Days celebrated in temporary huts called “sukkot“). So how does the Torah reading this Shabbat illuminate the days of awe, shortly upon us?

As if to signal we are close to the end of the reading cycle, this week we read two parshiot called “Nitzavim” (Standing) and “Vayelekh” (And He Went Out). Let’s begin with Nitzavim by looking at the G-dcast video:

The storyteller focuses on the speech Moshe/Moses gives to the Children of Israel on the last day of his life, and on the deals they are offered — what will happen to them (the curses that we read about last week, and this week in abbreviated form) if they don’t obey the mitzvot (commandments), and what they will get (the blessings) if they do manage to stay true to the commandments. It’s a very short parasha (portion), which is probably why it is so easily paired with the following one (Vayelekh).

However, even though it is short, it has several of my favorite passages in all of Torah. One comes at the opening of the parasha, and here is the most powerful excerpt:

You stand this day, all of you, before the Lord your God — your tribal heads, your elders and your officials, all the men of Israel, your children, your wives, even the stranger within your camp, from woodchopper to water drawer — to enter into the covenant of the Lord your God….I make this covenant, with its sanctions, not with you alone, but both with those who are standing here with us this day before the Lord our God and with those who are not with us here this day (Deuteronomy 29, verses 9-14).

Here is why these verses resonate so strongly:

  1. They are written in the present tense. Nitzavim — “you are standing.” It makes me feel as though I’m meant to be included in those standing there, listening to the tail end of Moshe’s long speech that has been going on for what seems like weeks.
  2. The statement includes the high officials and the common day laborers — and the women, and the children, and even the strangers. Again, this makes me feel included. As a woman, there are plenty of times that the words of Torah make me feel excluded; here, women, as a class of people, are explicitly included.
  3. These verses reference people who are “not here with us this day.” I love the fact that the Torah realizes that there are those who are not yet co-signers to the covenant, those who haven’t joined the Jewish people….but there is room for them to be part of the covenant, if they choose, and they too are standing with us, listening to the words called out by our leader and greatest prophet.

Another passage that has entered my heart and consciousness is from chapter 30 verses 11-14:

Surely, this instruction [commandment] which I enjoin upon you this day is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach. It is not in the heavens, that you should say, “Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?” Neither is it beyond the sea…No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth, and in your heart, to observe it.

How completely affirming this statement is — that nothing that God commands is too hard for you; it isn’t impossible — you can do it.

And finally, a few verses later, verse 19:

Choose life — if you and your offspring would live — by loving the Lord your God, heeding the commandments…

What speaks to me so powerfully here?

  1. I am being told in no uncertain terms that I can do what is being asked of me. It isn’t too onerous, it is possible to lead a life of mitzvot (commandments), observing a code of proper conduct in all things.
  2. These injunctions are in my own mouth and heart, so to speak. They are not inscrutable, and in fact the opposite is true — they are intuitive, I can “own” them, and, in some sense, they already reside in me.
  3. Choose life: one of the best pieces of advice that anyone could give. And here, the Holy One of Creation is telling us, through Moshe: choose to do what is life-affirming, choose the path of blessings, choose the way that will make your life meaningful and will make your days count. In two words, we get a wisdom-infused motto that works on so many levels. Choose life! L’chayim!!

The second parasha we read is Vayelekh (“And He Went”); it begins in , Deuteronomy 31:2, by letting us hear Moshe speaking very personally: “I am now one hundred and twenty years old. I can no longer be active…”

Mayim Bialik focuses on what is commonly known as the 613th commandment, which is an interpretation of verse 19 of chapter 31, that each Israelite is to put the “poem” which is Torah into his or her own mouth. She asks what it means for each of us to write a Torah, or even more significantly, what it means to “be a Torah.” While this absolutely deserves considerable attention, I would like to take a quick look instead at the verses about how Moshe is asked to prepare for his death. In verse 14 he is told by God: “…the time is drawing near for you to die.” You can read more about how Moshes gets ready to die.

Moshe’s demise is both heartbreaking and instructive. This is the very time of year, when summer days wane and bleed into fall, as the liturgy of the High Holy Days reminds us, that our lives are finite, our days are numbered. Facing our own mortality naturally brings fear and trepidation, kind of like what the Israelites might have felt about crossing over the Jordan without their leader. We can read these lines metaphorically: one day we will “cross over” a river (the river of life) into a land unknown. And what does God tell us? “…God will be with you, God will not fail you nor forsake you. Fear not and be not dismayed” (chapter 31 verse 8). Does this remind you of a song by Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav?

The entire world is just a narrow bridge, and the essence is not to be afraid at all.
Kol Ha-olam kulo gesher tzar me’od v’ha-ikar lo l’fahchayd klal.

Crossing Over To The Other Side

The parasha this week, Va’etchanan (“And He Pleaded”), refers to how Moshe/Moses pleaded with God to cross over into the Promised Land, along with the People of Israel.

Interesting how when we look back on incidents in our lives, and we re-tell the story of what happened, some of the more difficult facts have a way of morphing into something other than what actually happened. Has this ever happened to you? Something happened one way but you tell the story in another way, without even meaning to hide the truth — it just changes in your memory.

You may remember, back in parashat Cukkat, when we talked about God’s extreme displeasure with the way Moshe (and his brother Aaron) handled the crisis in Meribah — when they were supposed to produce water from the rock (Numbers 20:6-12). Now, in this week’s parasha, Moshe revisits that incident, actually blaming the people and their incessant complaining as the reason he is not allowed to enter the Land. Deuteronomy 3:26:

But the Lord was wrathful with me on your account and would not listen to me. The Lord said to me, “Enough! Never speak to Me of this matter again!”

The storytellers this week pick up on the incident with the rock at Meribah, and conclude that Moshe is punished because he hit the rock instead of speaking to it. Just as Moshe himself concludes that his punishment should be attributed to the behavior of the people, there are scores of commentators through the ages who have come up with other reasons. Dr. Jacob Milgrom, of blessed memory, writes an essay in The JPS Torah Commentary – Numbers (pates 448-456), discussing this complex problem in some detail. Known as Excursus 50, Dr. Milgrom orders 10 major interpretations given over the centuries for why Moses is punished into three categories: Moses strikes the rock rather than speaking to it; he exhibits character traits in doing so that are unworthy of his office; the nature of the words that he uttered is unbecoming. While the full essay is not available online, I have summarized it here.

Our storytellers choose one reason; it seems that Moshe has another; and the late biblical scholar, Professor Milgrom, concludes yet another.

What does this teach us? Are some reasons or interpretations wrong while another one is right? I don’t think so. I think we are meant to learn that the Torah is multi-faceted (as Ben Bag-Bag says in the Talmud, Avot 5:22: “turn it and turn it, for all things are in it”) and that different interpretations of what happened, in different historical periods, will better shape our understanding of what actually transpired.

This parasha also has several outstanding passages that have entered Jewish life on a daily basis, and have entered both the Jewish and Christians traditions in a major way.

  • For Jews, it is here in Deuteronomy 6:4-9, when we first read the Shema, often called the “watchword of our faith,” which is recited every morning, every evening, and upon going to sleep at night. The Shema prescribes two practices that are still done today, both of which involve parchment upon which the verses from our parasha are inscribed, instructing Israelites then, and Jews now, to “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.”

    1. Putting a mezuzah on one’s doorway,
    2. and donning “phylacteries,” known as tefillin.
  • More universally, there is the other outstanding passage: The Decalogue, aka The Ten Commandments, or the Ten Utterances, which we previously read about in Exodus 19. (Because Deuteronomy is basically a speech by Moshe, he here repeats what we have read before, with a few minor changes.)

The storytellers suggest that Moshe is pleading for his life, to be spared a death on the across from the eastern border of the Land of Milk and Honey. Indeed, a metaphor for dying found in African-American spiritual songs is “crossing over the river to the other side.” The expression “crossed over” is linked with Moshe in the novel Moses Man of the Mountain by Zora Neale Hurston, the Aftrican-American anthropologist and novelist, published in 1939. In one paragraph, the sentence “he had crossed over” appears 12 times in a lyrical description of Moshe at a key moment in his life — during his transformation from Prince of Egypt to shepherd of the nascent Israelite nation.

The answer Moshe receives from God concerning his entering the Land of Israel is plain and simple: no, you may look but you will not enter…it is now time for new leadership to take over. Of course we then get to read another approximately 30 chapters of Moshe’s final speech, but at least we now know how these Five Books will end — with the death of our most beloved, most human, and most cherished prophet. When we get to chapter 34 of Deuteronomy we will talk about his death in more detail.

For now, if you are looking for summer reading, you might want to pick up a copy of Moses Man of the Mountain, to enjoy how “our” story was tweaked to fit the narrative of the African slaves brought to the New World in bondage. To whet your appetite, here are a few lines from the author’s introduction:

Moses was an old man with a beard. He was the great law-giver. He had some trouble with Pharaoh about some plagues and led the Children of Israel out of Egypt and on to the Promised Land. He died on Mount Nebo and the angels buried him there. That is the common concept of Moses in the Christian world. But there are other concepts of Moses abroad in the world. Asia and all the Near East are sown with legends of this character. They are so numerous and varied that some students have come to doubt if the Moses of the Christian concept is real…..

One more tidbit: this book was published the same year that Freud’s Moses and Monotheism was published, and the year that concepts of race began to define Jews in Nazi Germany.

A Red Cow, Water, and a Snake?

To think about as you read this week’s installment:

  1. What do you think about rituals surrounding purification around death/caring for a deceased person?
  2. How do you reconcile following laws that make no sense to you? Would you ever obey a law that you can’t understand? Why or why not?

One might think that the way parashat Chukkat opens, with details about the way one must purify oneself after being in contact with the dead, we would be reading mind-numbing minutia of priestly rites with absolutely no relevance for us today. All this talk about a red heifer and how Eleazar the priest must sprinkle its blood hither and yon, followed by the burning, and how to use the sacred ashes. Whew! So impossibly arcane!! Turns out that the early rabbinic commentators used this particular law of the parah adumah (red heifer) to suggest that the Israelites had two separate categories of law: chukkim (statutes or Divine decrees) and mishpatim (logical laws).

The chukkim were (and are) laws that make no rational sense to us on the surface. Why would touching the ashes of a dead red cow purify one from being in contact with the dead? Or why are we still not allowed to mix certain kinds of fabrics (like linen and wool)?

The mishpatim were (and are) laws that seem to be based in logic. For example, the laws dealing with interpersonal relations such as not stealing or not murdering. They are rational if one is to build a civil and moral society — that is, they “make sense” to us.

The red heifer saga, which opens our parasha, is a prime example of a chok (law; the plural form is chukkim) that makes no sense. Nevertheless, it was very important to have some kind of ritual to draw a sharp line between contact with the dead and re-entry into daily life among the living. On a recent trip, I spent some time in the “Four Corners” area of the U.S., an area of land which belongs to the Navajo Nation. While in the Tribal Lands, I read a fascinating book, The Scalpel and the Silver Bear: The First Navajo Woman Surgeon Combines Western Medicine and Traditional Healing, by Lori Arviso Alvord, M.D., in which she talks about the customs surrounding death in Navajo culture. For example: it is forbidden to touch a dead person; only those who care for the corpse may touch it. After they have prepared the body for burial, the people who have cared for the deceased remove their own clothes, and wash themselves completely before getting dressed again and mingling with the living. When a dead body is removed from a house or hogan, the hogan is burned down, and the place is abandoned. While there are many differences between contemporary Navajo and the Israelites of the desert, we can appreciate that the desert-dwelling Israelites had complex rituals for purification after contact with the dead, and it isn’t so completely different from the customs of other tribes.

But hold on, that’s not all this parasha has in store for us!

This parasha also includes the deaths of Miriam and Aaron, the two siblings of our greatest leader, Moshe Rabbeinu (Moses our teacher) at the beginning of chapter 20. Miriam becomes forever linked to water. Think about the episodes linking Miriam and water: she protected baby Moshe when he was set afloat in the Nile, and she later sang the Song of the Sea as the Reed Sea waters parted to let the Israelites escape into freedom. Some of us have added the “Cup of Miriam” to our Passover seder tables to remember her special link. The rabbis connected Miriam to a magical well with springs of fresh water following the Israelites in the desert, because immediately after the verse marking her death (Numbers 20:1) we read “and the community had no water, and they assembled against Moses and against Aaron.” It was as if once Miriam died, the water dried up. So those creative early rabbinic commentators came up with the midrashim (stories) about Miriam’s well.

Aaron, big brother and life-long partner to Moshe/Moses, dies at the end of chapter 20; the description of his death in verses 24-29 reads like a scene from a movie. It is poignant, filled with ceremony and unstated emotion. Perhaps because the landscapes of the Navajo Tribal Lands are still in my brain, I flashed on Native Americans when I re-read these verses — the descriptive scene of Aaron’s death seemed like something I had seen in a movie about the death of a great Native American chief.

Finally, we get to the snake/serpent/viper. The G-dcast storyteller focuses on this fascinating little story in Chukkat — the symbol of the snake or serpent.

As with some alternative medical therapies, where one may be given the tiniest amounts of an allergen to ingest to counter-act one’s allergy, the G-dcast storyteller offers some ideas of how the snake became a healing symbol to counteract its poisonous bites (Numbers 21:6-9). The symbol Moshe/Moses is instructed to fashion is called “Nechash Nechoshet.” Biblical scholar and translator Robert Alter quotes medieval commentator Rashi, who remarked that G-d had just mentioned a “nachash” (serpent), but Moshe said: “the Holy One calls it nachash and I’ll make it out of nechoshet — a pun.” Alter points out that the force of replicating the same letters “reinforces the device of sympathetic magic whereby the sight of the bronze image of the serpent becomes the antidote for the serpents’ poisonous bite.”

And if you want to pursue this depiction of healing in today’s medical symbols, take a look at what Wikipedia has to say about the image of the snakes coiled around a staff.

Believe it or not, there’s a lot more to mine in this parasha, so stay tuned.

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!