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?

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….. 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.

Who Dwells Where?

Our G-dcast storyteller this week correctly informs us that Parashat Terumah is all about the Israelites’ newest project: building a portable sanctuary (mishkan) for worshipping God, right there in the middle of the desert. God gives the instructions to Moshe/Moses, and then we, as readers, get the dozens of details as a kind of blueprint in what might be considered numbingly boring minutiae.

But we need to ask ourselves: what is the point of laying it all out so exactingly? And does God really care about gold, silver, lapis lazuli and dolphin cloth??? And if not, why would these specifications be made?

Our storyteller suggests that we need to zoom in and zoom out of these particulars in order to see the bigger picture.

There are a few verses that really call out to me in this parasha, starting with Exodus chapter 25 verse 2:

Tell the Israelite people to bring Me gifts; you shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart so moves him/her.

What an incredible thing to find here in the Torah, a book full of commandments for so many things. Here, we are told that gifts are only to be brought if one WANTS to participate, if one’s heart is so moved… Only then, should he or she bring a gift to help build the sanctuary. This is the first startling thing in this huge, complicated new construction project the former slaves are undertaking.

The second verse that is at the heart of Parashat Terumah is also from chapter 25, a few verses later in verse 8:

And let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them.

God is actually telling Moshe that God wants to be “among” the people (b’tocham — in their midst). Not above them, not in a special place rooted in a specific locality, but AMONG them, in this portable tent-like santuary that moves with the people as they wander in the desert. What kind of God wants to be AMONG the people? What is God’s need, if we could be so bold in asking?

The storyteller also uses several words for this building, this “sanctuary.” First we get the Hebrew name, Mishkan, which has the same root as shakhen/neighbor and shekhinah/feminine presence of the Divine. The portable building is also referred to as a tabernacle (which always makes me think of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir). Finally, it’s also called the Divine Dwelling Place.

Sanctuary implies a holy place, a sanctum, a place with sacred dimensions (mikdash/holy place). There is also the name Ohel Mo’ed /Tent of Meeting, referring to the function this place provides — it’s where Moshe encounters the Divine and receives instruction. These names seem like they might be interchangeable, but as we proceed through the book of Exodus and Leviticus and get more information on the Mishkan, we will see that each name implies a different function and/or is describing another part of the whole compound.

Still, think about what it could mean to have the Almighty say that S/He wants to “dwell among the Israelite nation.” Not only is this a profound gloss on the relationship between God and the people, it also suggests possibilities in the way we build our contemporary synagogues and places of worship right now, in the 21st century. Chancellor Arnold Eisen of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America writes about this in his column on Parashat Terumah.

To consider as you continue reading:

  1. If you believe in God, is your concept of the Divine immanent or transcendent (close-by, near you or above you, far away)? In other words, is God inside you or way outside?
  2. What is the purpose of adorning holy worship places with gold and other precious materials (think of the great cathedrals of Europe)? What does it do for the worshipper?

Sentences and Laws

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Big Ten

As you read this blog post, some thoughts to consider:

  1. Sometimes others can offer advice on a particularly vexing problem you are experiencing. How is it that they can see solutions when you can’t figure things out for yourself?
  2. What do you think about offering advice to others?
  3. What do you make of the fact that Yitro was an outsider? Do we accept the advice of outsiders as easily as from people more like ourselves?

This week’s Torah portion, Yitro, is special to me, speaking strictly personally, because it was my bat mitzvah parasha, in 1960, at a large Conservative synagogue in Los Angeles. Becoming a bat mitzvah as a 13-year-old girl was still not something taken for granted in those days. So much so that girls were only allowed to chant the haftorah (the portion from the prophets loosely linked to the Torah portion of the week).

Back in 1960 as a young adolescent, what I thought was special about parashat Yitro was that it contained the Ten Commandments — and who doesn’t know about the Big Ten? Our G-dcast narrator opens her story this week along the same lines.

Now, don’t get me wrong, the Ten Commandments are pretty important. They represent one of the parts of the Torah that many folks have heard of, even if they don’t actually know the specifics of what they say. I’m guessing that most people raised in the Western world who have inherited the Judeo-Christian religious ethos can recite a few of what’s known in Hebrew as Aseret HaDibrot (the 10 Utterances). However, if you really stop and read these statements carefully you will see that not all of them are really commandments… or are they?

The lead-up to God’s Revelation at Mt. Sinai comes in Exodus chapter 19, and in chapter 20 we “hear” the voice of the Almighty commanding the tribes of Israel to observe this Decalogue.

Some of these commandments seem universal for all human communities to flourish, such as “you shall not murder” and “you shall not steal” (Exodus 20:13). Others, such as “honor your father and your mother” (Exodus 20:12), seem psychologically astute. And yet others, such as “I am Adonai, your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage..” (Exodus 20:2) seem very particular, aimed at those listening in that time and space, and not even being much of a “commandment.”

The general nature of each of these utterances or commandments left the rabbis of the Talmud and subsequent generations of commentators with plenty of material to unpack, define, discuss, and argue about. All of the laws of Sabbath observance are derived from the simple statement in Exodus 20:8-10, by means of painstaking discussions in the Talmud. The rabbis whose oral discussions are captured by the Talmud fully understood that they were creating a new framework for how the seventh day was to be observed. Although they used the commandment “Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy” (Exodus 20:8-10), they knew that their construction of the Sabbath laws was related to the Torah verses as “…mountains hanging by a hair, for they have scant scriptural basis but many laws…” (Chagigah 10a).

Leaving the Decalogue (another name for the Ten Commandments) for a moment, I want to focus on a section of the parasha that I think is equally compelling as the well-known list of laws, and that is the system of organization recommended by a non-Israelite leader, the man known as Yitro (or Jethro), the father-in-law of Moshe/Moses. In fact, the parasha is named after this priest of Midian, who is not only a good listener, but also a man astute in the ways of constructing a viable society. Some call him the first person to apply the rules of organizational development to a group of people who could be regarded as a motley crew of newly liberated slaves.

In chapter 18, Yitro helps Moshe figure out how to set up a system of accountability and organization so that this rag-tag multitude can begin to resemble a society that can survive together in a sustainable way. This removes a tremendous burden from the shoulders of Moshe and allows him to lead his people to their promised land. You can read the conclusion of this whole episode in chapter 18:24-27.

How absolutely wonderful for this Midianite Priest, Yitro, to observe, diagnose, and remediate a problem that plagues many organizations, even today. And how wonderful for his son-in-law, Moshe, to take the advice of his perspicacious father-in-law to heart and to re-organize the Israelites into a viable structure for daily life. Now the tribes of Israel have both the laws by which to lead their lives (the Ten Commandments) and they have adopted a system of hearing complaints and adjudicating arguments, maybe they are ready to hear more (from God) about how to go about building a life of meaning. What do you think?

Come Darkness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let My People Go!

For you to consider as you read this week’s blog post:

  1. Can you remember a time when you rejoiced in the pain suffered by someone whom you thought of as your enemy? What was that like? Did you feel justified or diminished? What would it take to set your joy aside?
  2. Why do you suppose that God neither hears the cries of the Israelite slaves nor remembers the covenant made with the Israelite ancestors, until now? Why did Israel have to be enslaved for so long?
  3. If the Pharaoh kept changing his mind and “hardening his heart,” why did the God of Israel keep sending more plagues? What do you think was going on with Pharaoh?

Last week we focused on the birth of our nation; we were introduced to the greatest prophet of the Jewish people, Moshe Rabbeinu (Moses our Teacher). This week’s parasha, Va-eira, propels us right into the heart of the story of the Israelite journey from slavery to freedom, from darkness to light, from oppression to redemption — all familiar phrases that echo in our heads and hearts — likely imprinted there at the Passover seder, the most celebrated Jewish ritual of the entire year.

But wait, doesn’t Passover come in the spring? And aren’t we now reading this parasha in the dead of winter? Yes and Yes. The Torah narrative doesn’t correspond to the seasons, and it does seem like this story is coming too early in the cycle of the seasons; on the other hand, we can think of it as a preview of the next major Jewish festival.

So much of what happens in Va-eira is familiar: the story of Moshe and his brother, Aharon/Aaron going to the Pharaoh to tell him “Let my people go!” If you are like me, when you hear this, you immediately set it to the music of the African American “spirituals,” or songs that the black slaves of the American South composed, soulful melodies of sadness and uplift.

The parasha opens with a little speech God gives to Moshe outlining God’s own identity; telling Moshe that God’s name is YHVH, a 4 letter name that is never vocalized but stands in for the defining statement, “I AM EXISTENCE, TOTALITY”; and reminding Moshe that this God of the Hebrews intends to keep the covenant (brit) that was made with Avraham/Abraham, Yitzhak/Isaac, and Ya’akov/Jacob so many generations before (Exodus 6:2-4.) God/YHVH then commands Moshe to go to the Pharaoh to deliver the message that the Israelites are a people under the protection of YHVH and that they must be liberated.

The rest of the parasha is a back and forth power play between Moshe and the Pharaoh, aided by what we have come to know as “the 10 plagues,” although in this parasha, we just get the first 7 — next week we’ll find out about the last three. God knows that the Pharaoh is stubborn and will need lots of persuasion to allow his cheap labor force to leave the land of Egypt, so God addresses this issue straight on… read about it in Exodus 7:14-18. God tells Moshe to accost the Pharaoh in the morning, when he comes out for his morning ablutions at the Nile River. This body of water is like the life force of Egypt — fresh, potable water in the desert. And now the God of the Hebrews is going to turn it to blood!!!

Following that first plague, we read about the frogs that will appear all over Egypt. This second plague has been turned into a very popular children’s song at many seder tables; at my seder table, I place some colorful little plastic frogs around the table, to give little kids something to play with and to remind us of this plague. We make the frogs kinda cutesy as you can see in the song:

At the opposite end of the spectrum, there is a much more sober and scary depiction of what it could have been like to experience the plague of frogs, seen in the movie, Magnolia. (Viewer advisory: yucky stuff.)

After an absolutely horrible week of frogs everywhere, Pharaoh says he has had enough and begs Moshe to ask the God of the Hebrews, YHVH, to return the frogs to the river. Of course, anyone who knows human psychology can now predict that the Pharaoh will change his mind. And of course, he does… (Exodus 8:11). And so on and on it goes, one plague after another, with horror and destruction raining down on the Egyptians until YHVH stops the plague and Pharaoh, in turn, reneges on his promise to let the Israelite slaves leave.

The storyteller in this week’s G-dcast video points out that when we recite the 10 plagues that the Egyptians suffered as part of the Passover seder, we diminish the amount of wine in our goblets by one drop for each plague, to symbolize our sympathy with the plight of our enemy. After all, wine is intended to gladden the heart, and we are removing some of that happy-making substance. This comes to teach us to have compassion, even for the suffering of our enemies — it’s the polar opposite of schadenfreude.

All of these natural human emotions — changing your mind when the worst of consequences lets up, not jumping up and down with glee when your enemy is getting pummeled, and hardening your heart against the human misery and pain — are part of this story.

Welcome to Exodus!

This is kind of exciting: we start a new (secular) year on the calendar and start a new book of the Bible, Exodus or Sh’mot which in Hebrew means “[These Are the] Names,” taken from the opening phrase of the book.

The book begins with a very short history of how the Children of Israel came to be in Egypt and these verses act as a kind of bridge from Genesis (Bereishit, “Beginnings”).

Shifra and Puah

Micography art depicting the midwives Shifra and Puah, and the first act of civil disobedience recorded in history.

We are officially leaving the fables about the “beginnings” of the world and of our ancestors, and transitioning to the birth of this new nation, going from being the Children of Israel (the person, who was also called Ya’akov/Jacob) to being the Children of Israel (the emerging nation of Israelites).

As you might expect in a well-crafted story focusing on birth, we have a bunch of female figures and some water imagery that echo what happens in the plot. And, in addition to women (and one special girl, Miriam) this week’s parasha also introduces us to another outsider, Yitro/Jethro, who becomes the father-in-law of Moshe/Moses, our great leader. Yitro, also called Re’uel, is a priest of Midian; he is portrayed as a wise and perspicacious desert-dweller who plays a key role in the story of our people’s birth. He also is the father of seven daughters (again, introducing more women into our tale).

Let’s list the women characters and a few tidbits about them:

  1. A Levite woman (Exodus 2:1) who gives birth to a son. We later find out (in Exodus 6:16-20) that her name is Yocheved and that she had 3 children: Aaron, Miriam, and Moshe.
  2. Miriam, who also is not named here, but referred to as the sister of the baby born to Yocheved (Exodus 2:4) and only named later, in chapter Exodus 15:20.
  3. The Pharaoh’s daughter who, again, is not named at all, but given a name hundreds of years later, in the Talmudic midrash (stories). She is called Batya, meaning “Daughter of God.” Batya rescues the Hebrew baby boy (Moses) from the Nile River.
  4. The seven daughters of the priest of Midian (Yitro) one of whom, Zipporah, is given to Moshe as a wife.
  5. Two Hebrew midwives (Exodus 1:15) named Shifrah and Puah. By the way, if you are not inclined to read the whole parasha, I highly recommend reading this little episode of these two brave midwives (Exodus 1:15-22) and then join the centuries-old conversation about why these women ignore the Pharaoh’s decree. Why indeed? First, consider the following: the midwives are described in a noun phrase, which, in Hebrew, ends up being ambiguous. The phrase is m’yaldot ha-ivri’yot meaning either “the midwives who were themselves Hebrew” or “the (Egyptian) midwives who helped with the birthing of the Hebrew women slaves.” Depending on what you think about the nationality of the midwives, imagine how and why they had the courage to disobey the powerful ruler of Egypt. And how does a reward given by God (Exodus 1:20) influence your conclusion about who they really were?

Basically, this parasha brings all of this woman-energy to the foreground, as if to underscore how essential the women were in the birthing process of this nation.

The G-dcast narrator this week raises questions about another group of outliers — people with disabilities, like Moshe Rabbenu / Our Teacher Moses, who had a speech impediment.

In thinking about those who tend to be “outside” the mainstream both today and in many biblical stories, we have a trio: people with disabilities, women, and non-Israelites.

How do you think this enhances the description of the birth of the Israelite nation?

To further emphasize the birthing metaphor, we can look at the Hebrew word for Egypt: Mitzrayim. Mitzrayim also can be understood to mean “narrow straits,” probably describing the land on both sides of the life-giving waters of the Nile. The river waters are much like birth-waters; our people must make the journey down the birth canal, the narrow straits, before emerging as a brand-new nation, the Israelite nation, the People of Israel.

And so we get to the end of this blog post, without my even sharing thoughts about the burning bush, Moshe’s conversation with God, the name God gives Moshe to identify Godself, the murder of the Egyptian task-master, the fugitive status of our greatest leader, and how Moshe gets along (or doesn’t) with the Israelite slaves. Just in case this parasha whets your appetite for more, here are a couple of sources you might enjoy: