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.

Something Doesn’t Make Sense…

As the storyteller (and others) point out, this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tetzei (“When You Go Out”), has more commandments (mitzvot) than any other parasha in the entire Five Books of Moses. We are smack dab in the middle of the book of D’varim (Deuteronomy), the last discourse of Moshe/Moses as he prepares the Children of Israel to cross over into the Promised Land, without him. As we have mentioned in other posts, Deuteronomy is substantively different from the other four books of the Torah, using different language, and serving as a review of the history that began way back at the beginning of the book of Sh’mot (Exodus). So, what are these 70 mitzvot, and what is a mitzvah anyway?

The mitzvot here are all over the map. However, we might notice that these laws seem to have to do with personal behavior and personal agency rather than being mitzvot directed towards public officials (judges, priests, prophets, and kings). They are also not commandments directed towards the nation as a whole, but towards each individual.

In common American Jewish parlance, sometimes mitzvah is translated as “good deed.” The actual derivation of the word comes from the root “command” and implies that in order for something to be a mitzvah, it needs to come from an authority doing the commanding. It is almost like saying that without a commander, a mitzvah doesn’t exist.

There are many mitzvot presented this week, many of which bear looking at in some depth, such as Deuteronomy 21:10-14. How is taking captive a beautiful woman relevant to us today in 21st century America? Why would we take this mitzvah seriously? Maybe a hint about these laws comes from chapter 21, verses 15 and 16. Nowadays, a man may not have two wives simultaneously, but he might very well have two wives serially (because of death or divorce) and may have children from his marriage with each wife. How is his property to be passed on? The Torah insists that he be scrupulous about not playing favorites and giving the majority of his wealth to the son of the beloved wife, and must follow the laws of primogeniture — the first born son, even of the “hated” wife, must inherit the double portion.

Within just a few verses, we get laws relating to family life and choices: whom to marry, which son gets to inherit, etc. Maybe these mitzvot are linked by addressing the small, everyday issues that arise, the kinds of challenges each of us face if we live with others, which means most of us. How to be fair to enemies, how to react when you find something valuable that doesn’t belong to you, how to treat your animals with compassion, what building codes are needed in order to avoid accidental deaths, etc.

But, interspersed with these ethical mitzvot are also a bunch of mitzvot that make no sense. Traditional Torah commentators like to derive lessons from the way verses are juxtaposed; they figure that the editors are trying to teach us something from the proximity of the various mitzvot, the ones that make sense and the inscrutable ones.

For example, let’s take a closer look at chapter 22, verses 9-12:

  • In verse 9 there is a mitzvah about not planting a vineyard with a second kind of seed — now why would this be the case? Can you think of any reason? Perhaps one seed will make the other less viable? In any case, it is forbidden.
  • On to verse 10: this is the one about not plowing with an ox and a donkey yoked together; and our storyteller highlights this in his discussion of the treatment of animals, showing that it is of utmost importance that we treat our animals in a humane and compassionate way. A donkey would be placed under an unfair burden if harnessed next to a much bigger and more powerful ox, and so this mitzvah makes ethical sense.
  • And then, verse 11: here we are commanded not to mix wool and linen in a woven fabric (called “shatnez“) and again we are puzzled, scratching our heads and wondering “why is this a commandment of God?”
  • And finally, verse 12: putting tassels on the corners of our garments. Again, why? (The first time we read this mitzvah, back in Numbers 15:37-41, we are given a reason: the tassels will serve as reminders to walk in the ways of God and not to stray.) Here it is just an injunction, not a fashion statement, like tassels on loafers.
    • Four verses and only one makes obvious sense — the others seem capricious. So we need to ask ourselves: can we learn something about the opaque verses from the verse that instructs us to have compassion on the smaller and weaker of the two animals harnessed to the plow?

      The G-dcast storyteller spends considerable time on the mitzvah described in chapter 22 verses 6-7: how one must handle a mother bird and her eggs in a nest. We are enjoined to send the mother bird away, and only then to take the eggs, allowing the mother to continue to produce eggs in the future. And if you observe this commandment, “you will fare well and have a long life.” The link between sending away the mother bird and having a long life is nicely unpacked in the G-dcast video. This is precisely the way we are supposed to read these laws. How does the link between two disparate parts work? Sending away mother bird and meriting long life…what is the connection?

      At the very end of the parasha we are reminded of our mortal enemy, the nation of Amalek, said to be somehow connected to every evil despot who tried to kill the Jewish people throughout history (from Haman to Hitler). Look at the very last words of the parasha, “blot out the memory of Amalek…do not forget” (Chapter 25, verses 17-19). OK, I think I understand what it means to “blot out the memory.” Doesn’t it mean to forget? To delete, obliterate, erase, remove? If so, then what do you make of the last phrase, “do not forget!”

      Lots to puzzle over in this week’s parasha with 70 different mitzvot. Here’s something to try: make a list of all of the mitzvot that make sense to you, and a second list of all of the ones that don’t, and then see if you can find any links between the two sets.

See the Blessings (and Curse)

To think about as you read:

  • When do you clearly see and acknowledge the blessings in your life?
  • What do you think it means to be cursed?
  • What tempts you away from doing the right thing?

Re’eh” — “See”! The Torah portion this week opens with this command by the God of Israel to “see” — see the blessing and the curse that are set before them (Deuteronomy 11:26-27). Last week, the text commanded the Israelites to “Hear” — “Sh’ma“! This week continues last week’s long valedictory discourse, the going-away speech, the very last words of advice that Moshe/Moses wants to transmit as his flock is poised at the River Jordan, about to cross over into the Promised Land, knowing that he will neither guide nor accompany them any longer.

And what does he say in this one pithy little statement? “See what is before you” — both the category he calls blessing and the category he calls curse. Even if we ignored the rest of the verses in this parasha filled with laws that some Jews follow to this day, we could have a pretty significant conversation about what it means to see blessings and curses in one’s life.

First, an overview:

The storyteller sings a ditty that reviews the parts of this parasha highlighting blessings and curses, and telling us that there will be a helping hand to guide the Israelites in their sojourn in Canaan, despite temptations in their paths. What is not covered in the song are some of the laws that were picked up by the rabbis of the Talmud, and turned over and over to give us systems observed by some Jews several thousand years later — for example, some of the dietary laws of kashrut, telling us what is OK and what is forbidden to eat (Deuteronomy 14:3-21).

You may remember hearing this once before: in the Book of Leviticus, chapter 11 is the first time we encounter these strictures; and then here in Deuteronomy, we are getting all of the laws again, for the second time, sometimes changed a bit, through Moshe’s discourse. If you want to refresh your memory and enjoy another great little song, visit the blog post from that week back in April.

Also in our parasha this week are the laws of tithing (chapter 14:22-27) and laws concerning loaning money (chapter 15:1-11), among others, that all gave the Talmudic rabbis plenty of grist for their mills and provide the basis for Jewish observance today. We also read some laws describing sacrifices, slavery, and punishment by stoning, that were jettisoned after the Temple was destroyed in 70 CE.

Which makes this verse so interesting:

Everything which I charge you, that shall you keep to do. You shall not add to it and you shall not subtract from it (chapter 13: 1).

Wow!! Really? We are told right here in the Torah, explicitly by Moshe, not to change the laws at all by adding to, or subtracting from, them. But how can that be? We don’t observe the laws as stated — so in essence, it looks like we are subtracting; while in some cases (praying in a synagogue instead of slaughtering sacrifices on an altar), it looks like we have added to the laws.

A traditional interpretation of this one powerful verse holds that the entire Torah is called the “Written Torah” (the “Torah Sh’bihktav“), which must have been accompanied by another set of laws and interpretations thereof called the “Oral Torah” (the “Torah Sh’ba’al Peh“), the oral tradition that came to Moshe directly from God at Sinai, which provides the details needed in order to observe the laws even after the Temple was destroyed and the Jews were exiled from their beloved land. The famous statement in the Mishna (the foundational layer of the Talmud) in Pirkei Avot (Sayings of the Fathers) on the formation of the Oral Torah illustrates this point:

Moses received Torah from Sinai and handed it on to Joshua, Joshua to the elders, and the elders to the prophets. And the prophets handed it on to the men of the great assembly…

Now, let’s wind our way back to the idea of blessings and curses that Moshe says will accompany the Children of Israel as they enter and dwell in their own land. He makes sure to tell them that they will be blessed as long as they obey God’s commandments, and cursed if they do not obey.

Last week I suggested looking at the word “land” metaphorically, to substitute the word “earth” for “land.” This week, I want to repeat the idea of reading metaphorically: I suggest that we read the phrase “obey the commandments of the Lord your God” as “perceive clearly and do the right things.” Then, the opening verses of the parasha might read as follows:

See your ability to choose clearly! This day I set before you blessing and curse: blessing, if you perceive clearly and do the right things for yourself and others; and curse, if you do not do what is right, and turn away from the path that is available to each of us as human beings who are created in the image of the Holy One.

Vulnerability of the Heart and Land

The name of this week’s parasha, Ekev, is kind of a hard word to translate precisely into English. Here are 3 renditions of the first phrase (Deuteronomy 7 verse 12):

  • “And if you do obey these rules and observe them carefully…” (Jewish Publication Society)
  • “And it shall come about in consequence of your heeding these laws when you keep them and do them…” (Robert Alter)
  • “Now it shall be: because of your hearkening to these regulations, keeping and observing (them)….” (Everett Fox)

Ekev shares its root with the word for heel, ahkev. If we remember that Moshe/Moses is giving his culminating speech to the Children of Israel as they are poised on the border of the Promised Land, right before crossing over into the Land of Israel, he seems to be hammering home this point: “OK you guys, on the heels of all of the commandments God gave you is this crucial point: You must obey / heed / listen to these laws! And if you don’t do them, there will be major trouble, which I will now go on to describe.”

And as if a simple reminder wasn’t enough, Moshe takes the opportunity to recount things that surely the descendants of the Israelites who left Egypt must already know. Think about it: what stories were the parents and grandparents telling their offspring during all those long 40 years of wandering about in the desert? As far as we know, there were no Golden Books, no Goodnight Moon, and certainly no tablets with entertaining illustrated stories for the young set. It’s not hard to imagine that the older generation related the miracles of being brought into freedom from the bondage of Egypt, and the promise that they were going to live in a land flowing with milk and honey, a land where they would lack nothing (Deuteronomy 8: 7-10). It sounds like a fantasy or dream… certainly a rosy enough picture to pacify the kids when they complained about having to pull up stakes from one campsite to travel to another.

The G-dcast storyteller this week spends some time with the phrase in chapter 10 verse 16, about circumcising or cutting away the thickening around our hearts. The storyteller believes that when we cut away this thickening, we will become vulnerable and open; this is a good thing for our relationships with God and with others. You might want to look at this paragraph from the Curveball Health Coaching blog, on being vulnerable:

What I learned today reinforces with what I already believe — the more vulnerability you show — the better life you have. There are so many ways to be vulnerable, and Annelise highlighted some this morning: being in the moment, having self-compassion and asking for help. I’d love to hear from you: What are some ways you show vulnerability? Do you recognize these moments when you’re in them?

Part of Moshe’s valedictory speech was adopted by the rabbis of the Talmud when they began to construct the written siddur (prayerbook). The second paragraph of the Shema, recited twice daily, comes right from this parasha, chapter 11 verses 13-22. Here Moshe transmits to the people what God tells him about the consequences of not obeying the laws and commandments.

I suggest that we take a second look at the language, noticing that the commandments are inextricably tied to the way the earth will continue to produce its plenty. We are told that if we observe the commandments, “the rain will fall in its season, and there will be plenty of grain and wine and oil.” And if we don’t… well then, we will experience the dire consequences of no rain and no produce, and we will perish from “the good land” that God has given us. Moshe goes on and presses home the point: tell your children about all of this, keep talking about it, be vigilant about passing on these commandments lest they be forgotten.

Stepping back for a moment and looking at this passage using a wider lens, it seems to me (and many others before me) that we could read this passage metaphorically. Instead of reading it as if God will be angry or threatening and will demand only strict adherence to a set of biblical laws, we might read this passage as descriptive of what is actually happening with the degradation of the planet. That is, try to read the word “land” as “earth.” And read the words “loving the Lord your God and serving Him” as “loving the rules of nature that provide balance, seasons, and the capacity to nourish all” and read the words “for the Lord’s anger will flare up against you and He will shut up the skies so there will be no rain” as “the forces of nature will react, and we will encounter devastating droughts, famines, and climate [climactic refers to climax, not climate] catastrophes.”

Seen this way, the words resonate differently. That is, the consequences of what we do, and also what we ignore, may be damages of biblically disastrous magnitude. The earth itself will react to our not heeding the commandments of stewardship with all our hearts and with all our souls.

I recently spoke to a cousin, an enlightened and intelligent farmer, who shared her beliefs about the decimation of the bee population. According to her, bees use electromagnetic fields to navigate their flights from and back to their hives. With the proliferation of cell phones and towers, the electromagnetic fields are compromised and many bees never make it home. And without bees to pollinate, we are doomed — the good land that the Lord gave to all of us will no longer yield its produce and we will soon perish.

What do you think? Are we obeying the commandments and therefore enjoying the blessings of living on the good land/earth that the Lord has provided us, or are we headed down a path of curses? What are the consequences of the ways we have used technology (including pesticides, etc.) in the way we conduct our agricultural lives?

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 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?

The First Successful Fundraiser!

To consider:

  1. What’s the relationship between beauty in the material world and the beauty of the spiritual world? When you are in a place of beauty, how is it easier to get in touch with the Divine, or doesn’t it matter?
  2. What about the beautification of the body — does it help to be dressed beautifully to get in touch with “soulful” work? Why or why not? Why do priests or religious officiants in many religions wear beautiful clothing or vestments?
  3. Why do you think the Torah makes such a big deal about how the Tent of Meeting looks? Why does it repeat all of the descriptions multiple times?

This week we have the pleasure of reading a double portion of Torah — the last two sections of the book of Exodus/Sh’mot! About half has been dedicated to the detailed descriptions of how the Tent of Meeting, aka The Tabernacle, aka God’s Dwelling Place, is to be constructed. The G-dcast storyteller for Pekudei, the second portion read this week, tells us that this is mostly a repetition of what we already read earlier in the book of Exodus, and compares this to the attention you give to your first apartment, when you are newly in love and moving in together with your lover or spouse. He notes that the special relationship between the children of Israel and the God of Israel is like a marriage, one of the metaphors used by the early rabbis of the Talmud to describe the Israelites and God.

What do you think of comparing the relationship of a nation to its God, using such a human metaphor? How does this comparison work for you?

Interpreting the Vayakhel-Pekudei double portion through nail design!

Interpreting the Vayakhel-Pekudei double portion through nail design!

The earlier parasha read this shabbat, Vayakhel, takes its name from the Hebrew word meaning “and he assembled” or gathered together. In this case, the “he” is God; we read that God gathered the whole people to tell them a few more things, like reminding them exactly what materials to use in building this Dwelling Place.

The G-dcast storyteller for Vayakhel sings a lovely tune about what each wise woman and wise man is to bring to construct God’s home. The way God instructs them is also lovely; in Exodus chapter 35 verse 5 we read: “take from among you gifts to the Lord; everyone whose heart so moves him shall bring them — gifts for the Lord…” It almost seems to be saying: I only want donations of materials that are brought with a full heart, willingly, and in joy. What a great way to ask for a donation!

Later in the same chapter, verse 29, we read the results of this request: “Thus, the Israelites, all the men and women whose hearts moved them to bring anything for the work that the Lord, through Moses, had commanded to be done, brought it as a freewill offering to the Lord.” It turns out that this “fundraising drive” was so utterly successful — with everyone bringing their gold and silver and jewelry — that the artisans in charge of the construction finally had to tell Moshe/Moses that no more gifts were needed, they had plenty of materials to work with (chapter 36 verses 4-7). When have you ever heard of a building project so amply endowed with gifts that the fundraisers called a halt to the voluntary contributions?!

One verse in Vayakhel has a special midrash/story attached, expanding upon the verse. Everything to be used in the Tent of Meeting is described in minute detail, from the curtains, to the loops that hold the curtains up, to the sculptural aspects of the golden lampstands. In chapter 38 verse 8 we find out that the special copper washing basin (laver) is to be built “from the mirrors of the women who served at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting.” Huh? The women have mirrors? They remembered to pack mirrors when they were leaving Egypt? OK, I guess we also need to suspend disbelief when reading about the lapis lazuli and dolphin skins, but let’s focus for a minute on these mirrors that are to be melted down to form the copper washing basins and stand.

First, we learn from Robert Alter that mirrors in the ancient world were made of polished bronze rather than glass, and were considered a luxury item in Egypt. He also reminds us that some of the medieval rabbis commented on this verse with the observation that here, the very objects that were used for the purposes of vanity are dedicated to the furnishing of the sacred worship place.

Now to the midrash from Tanhuma Pekudei:

When Israel was in harsh labor in Egypt, Pharaoh decreed against them that they should not sleep at home nor have relations with their wives. Said Rabbi Shimeon bar Chalafta, What did the daughters of Israel do? They would go down to draw water from the river and God would prepare for them little fish in their buckets, and they would sell some of them, and cook some of them, and buy wine with the proceeds, and go to the field and feed their husbands… And when they had eaten and drunk, the women would take the mirrors and look into them with their husbands, and she would say, “I am more comely than you,” and he would say, ‘I am more comely than you.” And as a result, they would accustom themselves to desire, and they were fruitful and multiplied, and God took note of them immediately….. In the merit of those mirrors which they showed their husbands to accustom them to desire, from the midst of the harsh labor, they raised up all the hosts, as it is said, “All the hosts of God went out of the land of Egypt” (Ex. 12:41) and it is said, “God brought the children of Israel out of the land of Egypt in their hosts” (Ex. 12:51).

The Israelite women used these mirrors both when they adorned themselves and when they were enticing their husbands to engage in intimate relations, but they didn’t hesitate to bring these mirrors as their contribution for furnishing the Tabernacle. Moshe wanted to reject them since he thought they were associated with vanity and things unholy. But God said to Moshe, “Accept these mirrors — they are dearer to Me than all the other contributions, because of the way the women used them when they were in Egypt. When their husbands were ready to give up eating, drinking, and having sex (because of the crushing labor), the wives would bring them food and drink and induce them to eat; then they would use the mirrors playfully, to awaken their husbands’ desires.” This resulted in many pregnancies and the perpetuation of the Israelite nation. The life-force was with the women — maybe that’s why God saw the greatness of those mirrors. They were used to induce love, sex, and appreciation between husbands and wives. And as a result, God wanted those mirrors to be somehow built into the Sanctuary where God planned to dwell among the Children of Israel.

For more on this midrash, see Rabbi Lauren Eichler Berkun’s commentary.

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!!