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?

Deuteronomy, Here We Come!

This week we begin the 5th of the Five Books of Moses: Devarim, which literally translates to “The Words” even though we usually hear “Deuteronomy” as the English (Greek! more on this later below) name. Some like to say, “These Are The Words,” because the entire book amounts to a very long exhortation by Moshe/Moses to the Children of Israel as they stand on the threshold of the Promised Land, the Land of Israel.

The first thing that is odd about Devarim is the very fact that Moshe, at the end of his long life, has become an orator. Remember back in Sh’mot/Exodus, chapter 4 verse 10, when he tells God “Please Lord, I have never been a man of words, either in times past or now…I am slow of speech and slow of tongue.” In other words, Moshe begs God not to make him the leader of the Israelites, since he feels himself to be handicapped when it comes to making speeches. How things have changed in the 40 years of wandering in the desert! What do you think… does Moshe still have his same speech defect, or did something essential about him change? What happened to enable him to speak the words that make up the book of Devarim?

In English, this book is called Deuteronomy, based on the Greek word “Deuteronomion,” meaning “second law.” This name is likely because the book repeats many of the laws already given in Exodus chapters 19-23.

However, 70 of the approximately 100 laws found in Devarim appear only here. In fact, it is sometimes enlightening to compare the version in Deuteronomy with the original version in Exodus…. For example, how are the Ten Commandments different in each book? It is commonly accepted among bible scholars that Devarim was written several centuries after the other 4 books comprising the Torah, likely in the 7th century BCE, during the reign of King Josiah, and that the discovery of “a scroll of the Teaching,” mentioned in Kings 2 chapter 22:8, is none other than the book we are now beginning to read in synagogues.

There are lots of ways this book differs from the previous four:

  • the Hebrew language is different;
  • it has a different tone;
  • the laws in it are presented as a form of covenant between God and the People;
  • and this covenantal language corresponds to the covenants of other peoples in that part of the world at that time.

An excellent one-page overview of the Book of Deuteronomy, written by Professor Jeffrey H. Tigay, can be found in the Etz Hayim chumash (Torah and commentary), published by the Jewish Publication Society in 1999. Dr. Tigay writes:

Deuteronomy’s effect on Jewish life cannot be overstated. No idea has shaped Jewish history more than monotheism, which this book asserts so passionately. And no verse has shaped Jewish consciousness and identity more than Deuteronomy’s classic expression of that idea, the Sh’ma.

An excerpt of Dr. Tigay’s essay can be viewed on MyJewishLearning.com.

Our G-dcast narrator points out that a journey that might have taken just 11 days took 40 years! And as we begin reading, we notice that Moshe is recalling a bunch of places and people met along the way. The entire book of Devarim is divided into three discourses by Moshe, plus a few narratives, including the very last story, which we will get to in about 3 months — the story of Moshe’s death.

This week, we begin with the first discourse, in which our leader is intent on doing a major review…. It seems he really wants to ensure that they know what has happened during the 40 years of desert wandering, even if some of those to whom he is speaking didn’t experience the episodes first hand — maybe they were born in the desert and had no knowledge of what their parents went through.

So teacher Moshe is giving geography lessons, history lessons (which kings and which people we fought during those desert years), and a lot of “remember this, remember when?” What’s so important about having to remind the Israelites of every single one of these encounters with foreign nations? And how do you think this links up to Moshe telling the people Go, take possession of the land that the Lord swore to your fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, to assign to them and their heirs after them (chapter 1 verse 8)?

One last note: from sundown on Monday, July 15 ’til darkness on Tuesday, July 16, there is a holiday commemorating the Jewish national day of mourning, Tisha B’Av, the 9th of [the month of] Av. It is a solemn fast day, a day to remember many of the tragedies that have befallen the Jewish people, beginning with the destruction of the first Beit HaMikdash/the Temple in the year 586 BCE. In this week’s parasha, in chapter 1 verse 12, we have one little word that gives a hint that Tisha B’Av (during which the Book of Lamentations is read) is around the corner. That little word is “eicha,” which means “how.” Moshe asks, “How can I bear unaided the trouble of you, and the burden, and the bickering?” This echoes the first word in the Book of Lamentations, where the opening verse is, “How does the city sit so lonely, she that was once great among nations!” It is a plaintive cry, and, in fact, the parallel word in this week’s parasha is chanted with the same sad melody as the Book of Lamentations.

Lots to think about, lots to ponder, as we enter Shabbat, and then the sad day of mourning on the Ninth of Av.

The End of the Wilderness

As you read and watch, some ideas to consider…

  • How do you reconcile difficult passages in Torah with your concepts of moral behavior?
  • What do you think about creating physical spaces to protect those who have committed some awful wrong (like manslaughter)? What should those spaces be like? What would a contemporary city of refuge look like?

Here we are already, at the last chapters of the book of Bemidbar/In the Wilderness/Numbers. Wow… that was a quick trip! It took the Israelites 40 years of wandering and took us just 10 Sabbaths of reading about their journey. Remember back in May when we started this desert trek?

Back then I mentioned that the opening chapters of Bemidbar contain several recurring themes, and that one of them is the theme of traveling and zig-zagging. We wander between texts that read like a triptych or map and texts that have a story or narrative to offer. In these final chapters we have a lot of GPS-like information (see Numbers 33:5-37 — and more!). All the place names! All of the camping sites! Sounds like an extended article in the New York Times Sunday Travel section.

Please note that this Shabbat we read a double portion: Mattot and Masei. The G-dcast for Mattot is done rap-style and worth your time to find out more about the difficulties in dividing up the Land of Canaan according to what each tribe desired.

When we get to chapter 34, we read about the boundaries of the map of the Land of Canaan which the Israelites are about to inherit.

Our storyteller this week focuses on how the Land is going to be divided up among the tribes; she paints a picture of a master plan for a utopian society based on the way land is to be used. She begins with the idea that every tribe will have its own specified section, except for the tribe of Levi — and they will receive their allotment as donations from the other tribes. This is to be in exchange for what the Levites will provide to the entire Israelite nation — leadership and role modeling — demonstrating good ethics, wisdom, teaching, and guidance.

While the idea of dividing up the land and giving the Levites their own cities is central to these last chapters of this 4th book of the Torah, there are a number of other important, even essential ideas that I want to highlight.

  1. The idea of “cities of refuge.” You can read about them in chapter 35, verse 6 and verses 9-13. Basically there are designated places where those who have killed someone unintentionally (perhaps we would call this manslaughter) are offered a safe place, protected from those presumably seeking retribution, such as the kinsmen of the victim. The cities of refuge could be used by both Israelites and resident aliens who lived in the land. The Torah goes on to enumerate what circumstances would qualify to label a killing “unintentional,” or who merits the label “manslayer” instead of “murderer,” therefore deserving of protection in a city of refuge. Fascinating distinctions are being made here about the consequences of taking someone’s life. The rabbis of the Talmud were also fascinated by these distinctions, and constructed pages and pages of discussion on these verses. For example, chapter 35 verse 30: “If anyone kills a person, the manslayer may only be executed on the evidence of witnesses; the testimony of a single witness against a person shall not suffice for a sentence of death.”

    From this, the rabbis riffed on how many witnesses (at least 2), who must be deposed separately (so as not to be influenced by the testimony of each other), and who must also be eye-witnesses to the event in question. Also, the rabbis concluded that the witnesses needed to have heard the killer being told (verbally) about the laws concerning murder, so that he would be fully aware of the consequences of his actions. There are literally dozens of exceptions in a capital case, so much so that by the time of the Talmud, laws about the cities of refuge are supplanted and made even more stringent, opposing simple and ancient judicially-imposed laws of retribution, such as: you kill someone, we will put you to death…. no extenuating circumstances count.

  2. Expropriation of land belonging to others. This one is difficult for many of us to accept. When I read chapter 33 verses 50-56, I start to cringe. Why? Well, it seems that God is commanding the Israelites to utterly wipe out the indigenous people of the land that they are about to enter — the Land of Milk and Honey, the Land of Canaan, the Land of Israel, promised way back when to Abraham and Sarah. “You shall dispossess all the inhabitants…you shall destroy all their figured objects and molten images; you shall demolish all their cult places….”

    For many, this exhortation sounds completely unethical and makes us wonder how the forward-thinking idea behind the cities of refuge (commanded by a God who tells us to always pursue justice) can stand side by side with a commandment to dispossess another people from the land on which they live. Does the success of one nation depend on the subjugation of another? What does it mean to favor one people with a “promised” land when others will need to be driven out of their homes, or worse? How are we to understand this?

The Book of Bemidbar ends with a very good wrap-up sentence, chapter 36 verse 13:

These are the commandments and regulations that the Lord enjoined upon the Israelites, through Moses, on the steppes of Moab, at the Jordan near Jericho.

Here is a post-script, letting us know that the Israelites are about to enter the Land of Israel and are poised at the mountains, at the moment that the wandering is over.

Next week we start the last book of the Five Books of Moses, Devarim (Hebrew for “(These Are The) Words”, and usually translated to the (Greek) Deuteronomy). See you at the top of the mountain!

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.

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!

Ritual Then, Ritual Now

As we sit down at our seder tables, I invite you to talk about what rituals you treasure in your life, and why they are important to you. Are they something you inherited or something you made up? How do you feel when you do those rituals?

The G-dcast storyteller tells us this week to “Keep That Fire Going!” Parashat Tzav is filled with how-to instructions on the burnt offerings which the Israelite priests are to offer to God in the holy Tabernacle, and later, the Beit HaMikdash (Temple) in Jerusalem. It is a precise manual of what the priests must wear, where they must bathe, how they must mix ingredients for offerings of meal (flour), who can and who must eat the offering, where, and how. It tells us the quantities of meal that should be used, which pots to cook the offerings in on the altar, which animals should be offered up and which parts may and may not be eaten, exactly where the priests should put their hands when slaughtering the animals, what to do with the blood, what the ceremonies of consecration must be like, how many days, where, and many more details.

Get the picture?

The minutiae remind me of Cooks Magazine, when someone is deconstructing a recipe you have made many times, like buttermilk biscuits, and then it gives you several pages of detailed instructions that are much more complicated than you thought the recipe warranted. Seems like way, way too much information, or TMI.

With Tzav, however, the detailed instructions seem different because we are dealing with the holy, the sanctified. All peoples have realms of sanctity in their lives, even if they don’t readily recognize them as such. And once you get into making something holy or set apart, you become involved in the performance of a ritual. Even the way we say that, “performing a ritual,” implies that we are doing something with a heightened awareness that is different from just doing something, like doing the laundry, doing dishes, or taking a shower. “Performing” implies we are acting in a way that is prescribed, with a script, a set of words and actions that are not spontaneous and not our own. Last week, we talked about ritual when we began the book of Leviticus, because that’s what this book is all about. Look at the lens through which Rabbi Nancy Kreimer considers our parasha and ritual in general. She mentions some of the same scholars we referenced last week, Arnold Eisen and Mary Douglas.

The most ritual-filled meal of the year will be celebrated on Monday night, the 14th of Nisan, this year corresponding to March 25. The Pesach (Passover) seder has 15 steps, corresponding to the 15 stairs leading up to the Holy of Holies in the Beit HaMikdash/Temple in Jerusalem. These are the very steps on which the Levites (for whom the book of Leviticus is central) would sing as they walked up to the Holy of Holies.

Turns out that as we sit around the seder table telling the story of our ancestors leaving the slavery of Mitzrayim (Egypt), we are also imitating the behavior of those priests of long ago and their complex rituals of sanctification. As Rabbi Kreimer points out in the article linked above, Catholics incorporate rituals into their Mass as congregants ingest the Eucharist, symbolic reminders of the body and blood of Jesus, who is also called the Lamb of God. Jews incorporate our particular symbols in the ritual foods we eat at the sedermatzah, maror, charoset, eggs, etc. — to remember, sacrilize, and sanctify the experience of liberation from bondage, of yitziyat mitzrayim (leaving Egypt), brought out by the strong arm and outstretched arm of the Holy One.

I wish you a very sweet and joyous Pesach and a seder filled with songs of thanksgiving, with free-wheeling discussions of what it means to be free, with questions galore (many of which cannot be answered simply), and with special connections to family and friends….and of course, a splendid Pesach meal! Happy Pesach!!

Leviticus!

This week we began the third book of the Five Books of Moses, Leviticus. The English name comes from the Greek Levitikon, or things pertaining to the Levites, a tribe which includes the priests, who are the major actors in this book. The Hebrew name for this book is VaYikra (“And He (the Lord) called”), referring to the first words of the parasha: “And the Lord called to Moshe/Moses and spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting” (Leviticus 1:1). Another name for this centrally located book is Torat Ha-Kohanim or The Instruction Book for the Priests.

Leviticus has only two stories. The rest of the material, starting with this week’s parasha, are laws and instructions of all sorts about sacrifices, called korbanot (singular = korban) in Hebrew. The root of korban is the same root for the Hebrew word meaning to draw closer. Our storyteller makes a very important point about the whys and wherefores of sacrifices as being ways to become closer to the Divine.

Traditionally, the biblical book that small children first learned was the book of Leviticus, rather than the first book, Genesis, which is chock-full of great stories. Instead they started with Leviticus, filled with arcane and detailed descriptions of slaughtering and the sacrificing of animals as burnt offerings in the Tent of Meeting, on all different sorts of occasions, for all different sorts of reasons. Why? The tried and true explanation was that the laws of purity — that is, becoming pure after some type of misdeed for which one would present a burnt offering — were taught to the pure, that is, to little kids, who haven’t yet been around long enough to accumulate many sins. But more likely, it is probably because this book has laws that have practical application in Jewish daily life. For example, the dietary laws are found in Leviticus, the laws governing sexuality (who is OK to sleep with and who is forbidden) are also found in this book, and so are the laws describing what to do on each festival.

Another really important theme of this third book of the Torah is the idea that ritual laws (that are hard to justify) and ethical/social laws are all bound up with each other — neither is more or less important than the other. That is, the mitzvot (commandments) given for proper behavior between people and God are no more and no less elevated or precious than the mitzvot between one person and another or one group of people and another. This is where we get the fine print of what it means to be a Jew and what it means to be in relationship with God: the role of the Jew is to sanctify God’s name and God’s existence in the world. Leviticus describes how we do that with this system of korbanot/sacrifices.

Three more points:

1. We begin VaYikra just days before the great spring holiday of liberation, Pesach/Passover. One might think that the parasha to be read around Passover time would be the one describing the Exodus. But, no, we are here in Leviticus. What could the connection possibly be? For many Jews who observe the rituals of Pesach strictly, there are a bunch of laws governing how to rid our homes of chametz (any food product made from wheat, barley, rye, oats, spelt, or their derivatives, which has leavened (risen); flour from any of these five grains that comes in contact with water will leaven and is forbidden to eat or derive benefit from unless fully baked within eighteen minutes, which matzah is). In a certain way, the laws surrounding chametz are as mysterious as the laws of Leviticus. We say we are observing the chametz restrictions to remember the Exodus…. but the extent and severity of the laws governing Pesach observance have a lot in common with the detailed descriptions of the sacrifices in Leviticus.

2. The anthropologist Mary Douglas wrote a book in 1998 called Leviticus As Literature. It isn’t an easy read, but it is fascinating and has a unique perspective. Here’s how the book opens:

Leviticus is usually put into a kind of glass cabinet: it can be looked at, respected and wondered at, but the real heart of the religious is presumed to be found in other parts of the Bible, especially Genesis, Exodus, and Deuteronomy, and the writings of the psalms and prophets. The tradition does Leviticus wrong. This study’s aim is to reintegrate the book with the rest of the Bible. Read in the perspective of anthropology the food laws of Moses are not expressions of squeamishness about dirty animals and invasive insects. The purity rules for sex and leprosy are not examples of priestly prurience. The religion of Leviticus turns out to be not very different from that of the prophets, which demanded humble and contrite hearts, or from the psalmists’ love of the house of God. The main new feature of this interpretation is the attitude towards animal life. In this new perspective, Leviticus has to be read in line with Psalm 145:8-9: The God of Israel has compassion for all that he made…the more closely the text is studied, the more clearly Leviticus reveals itself as a modern religion, legislating for justice between persons and persons, between God and his people, and between people and animals.

You've read Leviticus, now play the video game!

3. If Mary Douglas is a little too thick, you might consider downloading a brand-new digital game called Leviticus! Here’s the review in Tablet magazine.

If your curiosity is now piqued, check out what Rabbi Charlie Schwartz has to say about the game and about the book of Leviticus.

Happy getting-ready-for-Pesach, coming on the evening of March 25!

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.

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!!