Say, What?

Emor, the name of this week’s parasha (Torah portion), simply means “Say,” and this verb is in the imperative mode. Here in the depths of the forests of Leviticus we read about things that Moshe is commanded to say to the people of Israel as they are forming their social structure. This parasha also has one of only two narrative passages in the entire book of Leviticus.

What kinds of things do you think it would be important to say to a nascent national entity as they begin to establish the way they want things to work? There are oh-so-many rules and guidelines to make a society work optimally…. In Exodus we heard the basics in the Aseret Ha-Dibrot (Ten Utterances, usually known as the Ten Commandments), but in Leviticus we get the nitty-gritties — all the little laws, some things not as obvious as the Big Ten.

Our G-dcast storyteller focuses on Moshe’s lecture on the holidays — when to mark them and when to celebrate them. Hmmm, would instructions about holidays be on your list of the most important instructions for a newly forming society? Maybe we can learn something essential about the way we are built psychologically if we consider why God deemed it important to make sure the Israelites knew about marking these holy-days.

When we mark the seasons in nature, when we remember special days like birthdays and graduations and anniversaries (of weddings or of deaths), we are differentiating that day from the endless progression of infinite time separating one day from another, from the routine. Chapter 23 lays out these special times, or as God tells Moshe to say, “These are my fixed times, the fixed times of the Lord, which you shall proclaim as sacred occasions” (Chapter 23 verse 2). Here in the desert, our rag-tag masses of former slaves, not particularly well-versed in how to live a good life, hear about the special “fixed” times for the Lord. And Moshe tells them how to go about marking these fixed times. Seems like a pretty important concept for the well being of this new nation.

Another set of rules offered at the beginning of the parasha is the laws of the priesthood, beginning in Chapter 21. Even though we don’t have a priesthood anymore in normative Judaism, it is nevertheless fascinating to think about what we need from our leaders, who the priests were in the days of the Israelite wanderings in the desert.

Why does God forbid a priest from coming into contact with the dead, or from marrying a divorced woman, or from serving if he is blind or has a broken leg? What would be the analogous parameters for today’s spiritual and political leaders? In this week’s D’var Torah by Professor Arnold Eisen of JTS, he unwraps the underlying message about the laws pertaining to priests.

At the end of parashat Emor, we change channels and read a very short and disturbing story in chapter 24 verses 10-16. It’s about a man who had an Israelite mother and Egyptian father. We even read his mother’s name, Shlomit bat Dibri of the tribe of Dan. This is an extremely rare occurrence — to get the name of a person’s mother (just think of all of the Biblical women who remain nameless, from Potiphar’s wife to Samson’s mother…). Apparently, Shlomit’s son did something that was so beyond the pale and so grievous that Moshe didn’t know what to do about it. What did this man do that was so awful? He blasphemed.

The blasphemer was placed in custody and brought before Moshe. Because Moshe didn’t know what to do, he went to commune with God; of course God was able to make a decision — the blasphemer needed to be put to death in a most horrifying way, by stoning. (By the way, in countries such as Afghanistan, this still occurs occasionally and we read about it and shudder.)

Some more questions:

  1. Who was this blasphemer and why do we find out that he had an Israelite mother and an Egyptian father? Was the intermarriage relevant?
  2. Why is this narrative here and what does it have to do with the rest of the parasha? The only other place that a narrative such as this appears is the story of Nadav and Avihu, back in Chapter 10, where it appears in parashat Shemini. Both of these stories end in death, and both seem to imply that lines have been crossed in something having to do with the essence of the way God is worshipped or spoken about.
  3. What does it mean to blaspheme? Could someone actually blaspheme today? What would he or she have to do to be considered a blasphemer? According to the rabbis of the Talmud, it is not just taking God’s name in vain (as forbidden in the Ten Commandments); rather, it is cursing God in public — that is, uttering imprecations against The Holy One, desecrating the Sacred. Doing something that is wrapped in mystery but that is intolerable and connected to speech (remember, our parasha is called, “EMOR/SAY!”).

While I have not been able to figure out what would constitute a blasphemer in our contemporary society, I would like to share a teaching from my teacher, Dr. Avivah Zornberg, in which she quoted a midrash from Tanhuma. Tanhuma, dating back to at least the 4th/5th centuries, is a collection of stories and discussions of specific laws connected with the Torah, that is to say, “aggadot” (a word that shares its root with hagaddah, the book that tells the story of Passover).

The back story on the identity of this blasphemer is that he was conceived by an Egyptian taskmaster and an Israelite slave woman, back when the Israelites were still enslaved in Egypt. One day, a taskmaster told one of his Israelite work-gang leaders (who were slaves) to assemble his gang. When the Israelite slave left, the Egyptian taskmaster raped the slave’s wife. The result of this coupling was the son who grew up to be the blasphemer. When Moshe heard about the rape, back in Egypt, he killed this same taskmaster and buried him in the sand.

Fast forward to the desert, years later, when this son is an adult. Dr. Zornberg describes him as the quintessential “ger” (stranger). Now we begin to understand why it is that his parentage is noted (when the Torah often leaves out so many details we want to hear about). He is a person who hasn’t been able to find his place; he is estranged, and in some existential way, represents all of us who sometimes feel that we can’t find our place in the world. The Torah tells us 36 times to be sensitive to the stranger because “you were gerim (strangers) in the land of Egypt”. Zornberg quotes Nahmanides, a commentator from the Middle Ages, who posits that this man wanted to be part of the Hebrew nation but was told “no.” There was nothing he could do to change his parentage; he felt out of options, there being no way he could un-do the circumstances of his birth. He is thus profoundly outraged by the terms of this world, its complete and utter unfairness… and he blasphemes. Maybe understandable, but not something for us to emulate. We must find a better way when life presents us with ultimate limitations.

Lots to think about….

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‚Ķ.. 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.

Jospeh’s Big Reveal

Last week, we left our hero, Yosef/Joseph, in a heated conversational exchange with one of his brothers, Yehuda/Judah, who speaks on behalf of all of the brothers and pleads with Yosef not to keep the youngest brother, Binyamin/Benjamin, as a slave. We were literally stopped in our tracks in the middle of the conversation!

Now we take up the story in the middle of that conversation, with Yehuda’s heartfelt and poignant speech to save his youngest brother. Va-yigash (and he [Yehuda] approached) is the name of this parasha; in it we hear the longest and most sophisticated speech in all of the book of Genesis.

This long discourse takes 17 verses. Yehuda recounts much of the recent history of what has transpired with the brothers, adding that their elderly father, Yakov, would surely die from grief if this son, Binyamin, is enslaved in Egypt. The atmosphere couldn’t be more tension-filled. Everyone seems to be holding his breath to see what will happen next. Yehuda goes on to offer himself in place of Binyamin. He says all of this to the grand Egyptian vizier, not knowing that it’s Yosef, his brother. He ends his plea by asking Yosef to please take him instead, “for how can I go back to my father unless the boy is with me? Let me not be witness to the woe that would overtake my father.” And then he is silent.

You could hear a pin drop — the room is absolutely still. Breaking the silence, Yosef yells out and demands that the court to be emptied; the only ones who are allowed to stay are these men from Canaan. When the room is emptied, Yosef breaks down in loud sobs, crying, as he makes his true identity known to the brothers who once threw him into a pit and then sold him into slavery. He says, “I am Yosef…. Is my father still well?” His brothers are speechless and cannot believe that this guy, who looks and acts so Egyptian and has so much power, is actually their little brother, the dreamer and braggart, now completely grown up and chief advisor to the Pharaoh.

There is a tearful scene of reconciliation as Yosef tells them that he has forgiven them for their wrongdoing so many years before. He now believes that it was God’s will that he ended up in Egypt so he could devise a plan to save that country and his own clan from the severe famine that they are all experiencing. Wow!! He instructs them to return home and bring their father and the entire tribe of Israelites down to Egypt so he can take care of them properly. Everyone is hugging everyone else and crying, the text tells us. I think they were probably laughing as well, from relief, from joy, from a break in the tension.

News reaches the Pharaoh who bestows gifts to Yosef’s family, “the best of the land of Egypt.” All of Yakov’s sons get ready to return home, laden with wagons bearing several changes of clothing, silver, and provisions like bread, grain, and other food for the journey to Canaan. Yosef tells his brothers, “don’t be quarrelsome with each other on the way back.” Why do you think he gives this particular piece of advice? What mood do you think the brothers were in that would cause them to get into fights?

The caravan leaves Egypt and after days, they reach Canaan. There are several midrashim (rabbinic interpretations to fill in the story) about how the brothers will tell their father Yakov that his beloved son Yosef, to whom he gave the coat of many colors, is still alive. They don’t want him to be shocked and have a heart-attack (God forbid), so how will they handle the news? The rabbis of the Talmud come up with a great little story that acts as a gloss to Genesis 45: 26-27. They remember that Yosef warned them not to alarm their aged father. So the brothers summoned Serach, the daughter of Asher, and asked her to sit before Yakov and play for him on the lyre; in this gentle, soothing manner she could reveal to her old grandfather that his favorite son was still alive, down in Egypt. Serach played the lyre well and sang gently: “Yosef my uncle did not die, he lives and rules all the land of Egypt.”

Serach bat (daughter) of Asher acquires a rich life in the midrash/rabbinic stories. She is actually named in the Torah, in the genealogy of this parasha, Genesis 46:17. And because she is the only girl listed by name, the rabbis embellished this tiny mention with fabulous stories about her: how she lives for hundreds of years; how she identifies Moshe/Moses as the liberator; and how, when the Children of Israel finally leave Egypt 400 years later, she alone knows exactly where Yosef’s bones are buried in the Nile River, and she shows Moshe so that Yosef’s bones can be carried out of Egypt, as per his instructions…. But wait, we are getting ahead of ourselves here. For more on Serach bat Asher, look at this resource from MyJewishLearning.

The rest of the parasha deals with the migration of the Children of Israel into Egypt and how they become a protected people among the Egyptians, how they are given the choicest geographical areas in Egypt by the Pharaoh, and how they prospered. We also get to read how Yosef manages the famine by establishing a system of serfdom among the population (not such a pretty solution, but the Egyptians were grateful nonetheless).

Next week, we will come to the end of the book of Genesis, the first of the 5 books of Moses. Stay tuned!

To consider:

  1. How do you feel about the system Yosef devises to enable all to have food (Genesis 47: 23-26)? Do you think the ends justify the means?
  2. What do you think about the way Yosef reveals himself to his brothers? Why did he take so long to tell them the truth about who he was? Did Yehuda’s speech have anything to do with Yosef’s finally breaking down?
  3. Have you ever been moved by a powerful speech, spoken from the heart? When? What moved you?