Counting in the Desert

This week we begin reading the 4th of the 5 Books of Moses, which actually has 3 different names: Bemidbar (Hebrew for “In the Desert”), describing where the action takes place, and Numbers, because, following the early Greek translation of the Bible, the book begins with a census and close attention to counting. Finally, this book also had another, earlier name: Homesh Hapekudim (Hebrew for “the Fifth of the Torah about Counting” (or reckoning)), emphasizing the several censuses (first in our parasha, the first few chapters, and then again in chapter 26).

I like the name Bemidbar (in the desert) because the desert has a connotation of being an in-between place… That is, the place between the enslavement of Egypt and the entry into the Promised Land of Israel. The desert is also a wilderness: the word “wilderness” has in it an echo suggesting a place of wildness. It’s where a certain kind of desolation and emptiness can make one wild and/or can help one journey through whatever is required to make one civilized. Have you ever felt the need for isolation in a quiet, empty space to re-calibrate your own balance, to become more “civilized” and fit for social interactions? What is it about a “time-out” in a quiet space that takes the wildness out of us? For the Israelites, Bemidbar is the place where the ragtag tribes who were taken out of Egypt go in order to become a civilized nation, with rules and proper organization.

Bemidbar begins with a head count, a census. This is where we get the notion that the tribes must engage in the business of nation-building, how to position themselves, how to divide things equitably, and how many able-bodied men there are to wage war. Israel is organizing — each tribe is assigned its proper place. In contrast, the Levites are not placed among the tribes; just as they don’t receive a regular inheritance in the Promised Land and have special responsibilities, they are assigned a location along side the Tent of Meeting, which is in the center of the camp’s concentric rectangles.

The whole book of Bemidbar is a composite book, with multiple narratives, and they don’t always fit together. More than any of the other five books, this one is clearly the result of an editorial process, according to biblical scholars. We have both snippets of ancient texts (often found in poetry) and chapters that seem to be written much later, but were added here by whoever edited the Bible, to emphasize certain points. You could think of the entire book of Bemidbar like a journal of a family trip: even though it looks like everyone was in the same place at the same time doing the same thing, each member of the family has his or her own experience of that place and that activity, and each will report on it in sometimes radically different ways. Each day of a family trip might be planned by a different family member, or parts of the day might be the responsibility of another member of the family. Bemidbar is our family’s journey in the wilderness before entering the Promised Land of Israel. It is a bunch of stories, some of which have the same theme, but sometimes the way the stories are assembled makes the narrative disjointed and confusing.

Another observation about the entire book is that the structural aspects of Bemidbar parallel its content. The 36 chapters alternate between discussions of laws and narratives. According to the late Professor Jacob Milgrom, one of the foremost scholars on Bemidbar, the book zigzags between laws and stories as follows: The first 10 chapters deal with laws. Then, chapters 10:11-14:45 are stories. Chapter 15 goes back to laws; chapters 16-17 are stories; chapters 18-19 deal with laws; chapters 20-25 are a narrative; chapters 26-27:11 again deal with laws; chapters 27:12-23 are stories; chapters 28-30 contain laws; chapters 31-33:49 are stories; and finally, from the end of chapter 33 through the end of chapter 36, we get more laws.

If you were to make a line drawing of the map of the wanderings of the Israelites and used what I listed, making a zig or a zag for every time there is a change in content, you would get a route that would show the extremely circuitous way that the people traveled through the desert, which is partly the reason they spent 38 years there, until the generation of those who experienced slavery died out.

One of the strongest narrative themes in Bemidbar is rebellion. There are eight different rebellions, most of them beginning with the Israelites complaining and whining and involving the same actors: Moses, God, the Israelites. The biblical scholar and prolific biblical translator, Professor Robert Alter, points out in his book, The Five Books of Moses, pages 676-77:

The scheme of the recurrent scene of ‘murmuring’ or complaint is as follows: the people bitterly protests its misery in the wilderness or Moses’s leadership or both: God’s wrath flares against the people, expressing itself in some sort of ‘scourge’ that decimates the Israelite ranks; Moses intercedes — in two instances God actually threatens to wipe out the entire people and begin anew with Moses — and He relents…. Restiveness under Moses’s rule is so epidemic that even Miriam and Aaron are infected by it, at one point resentfully rebelling against their brother (chapter 12). One suspects that all these repetitions of the scenes of murmuring are introduced because the writers conceived it as a paradigm for the subsequent history of Israel: recurrent resentment of God’s rule and of the authority of His legitimate leaders, chronic attraction to objects of base material desire, fearfulness, divisiveness, and the consequences of national disaster brought about, in the view of the biblical writers, by this whole pattern of constant backsliding.

On the other hand (and this is another zigzag), we will see as we continue to read this book of Bemidbar, that we get a strong counter image of this nation-in-formation, as a bunch of tribes who are molding themselves into a people with a grand historical destiny in their future.

This week’s parasha has a lot of counting in it — and it comes at the end of the counting period known as the Omer, the 49 days we count between Passover and Shavuot. In her Torah commentary this week, Rabbi Abigail Treu of the Jewish Theological Seminary reminds us that counting must be seen in context. As we begin the book of Numbers, when it seems the text is hung up on counting, she reminds us of the quote attributed to Albert Einstein: “Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.”

She concludes, “With all of the numbers and counting pervading our week, let us not lose sight of the message they bring: that what counts the most is spending time with one another, and that we measure our years by counting day in and day out the moments we spend with others wandering with us, blazing paths together through the wilderness of life.

The Power of Words

How do our words affect our physical lives — and the lives of those around us?

This week we read a two Torah portions, a “double parasha,” Tazria (Leviticus 12:1-13:59) and Metzora (Leviticus 14:1-14:33). They are both relatively short and they are both concerned with pretty yucky details about skin diseases. As the G-dcast story teller, Jennifer Traig, acknowledges, it’s a dreaded parasha to get for your bar or bat mitzvah — whatever will you be able to talk about that isn’t totally gross?

The important thing to remember is that the Torah sometimes gives us something very physical (skin disease) for us to understand in a meta-physical way (as divine punishment for anti-social speech) — in other words, as a metaphor for something real in our contemporary lives. In this day and age of speech that actually hurts and causes real damage, one could actually benefit by thinking about the lessons of hurtful speech, gossip, and other sins that come from plain old talking. All you have to do is look to the political divides and stalemates in the US Congress to realize that hateful speech is alive and even thriving today. Sometimes don’t you wish that the loudest, most vociferous congresspeople were told to take a “time-out” or were sent away for a while, to be alone in the wilderness, perhaps to recover their sense of perspective?

Our storyteller makes it patently clear that we are not talking about a skin disease of the sort that can be healed by a salve or cream. A dermatology aphorism is: if it’s dry, make it wet; if it’s wet, make it dry. There’s no such snappy advice that the cohen (priest) could give in the days of the torah, but he might have said this: “You need to be alone, for an extended period of time, until you can refrain from gossip. I will let you know when you can come back.”

The skin disease described in our parasha existed only in Biblical times, according to the rabbis; it is called “tza’ra’at” and is incorrectly described as leprosy (we will understand more about this faulty translation in a bit). So, even though gossip, speaking badly of others, spreading rumors, and repeating unpleasant things about people we know and don’t know is still very much a part of our social fabric, we have no prescriptions to heal the person afflicted with the disease of being a gossip-monger. In this sense, the Biblical rules were way ahead of our own.

Moving on to the next parasha, Metzora, we note that these two parshiot (Torah readings) are a matched pair, and, in fact, are often read on the same Shabbat. There is a good way to remember how this parasha links to the previous one. In Hebrew, even though “metzora” means a person who has tza’ra’at (the unlucky one afflicted with the yucky skin disease), it also is like an anagram for the expression “motzi shem ra” (literally: extract a bad name), meaning one who is a slanderer, who spreads evil speech. This is to remind us that the person who is a metzora (has the skin disease) must have been spreading gossip or committing other verbal offenses.

The storyteller for Metzora, Rabbi Steve Greenberg, tells us that this parasha is an “interesting place to learn about our bodies and ourselves.” He traces the centuries-old translation mistake that equated tza’ra’at, an unknown (by whom?) Biblical skin disease, with the skin disease of leprosy. Starting with a list of scaly skin diseases compiled by Hippocrates, we leap forward to a 9th century (unnamed) physician who wrongly called tza’ra’at leprosy, which helps us to understand why lepers, although not contagious, were isolated even in our recent history and sent “outside the camp” even though there was no evidence that they had indulged in gossip. For centuries, one little word was mis-translated and much human suffering ensued.

Rabbi Greenberg emphasizes the power of a word, “davar” in Hebrew. He quotes the rabbis of the Talmud who say that the power of life and death is in the tongue, and reminds us that once harmful speech is “out there” it is next to impossible to repair the harm it has caused. Another way to think about how Jewish thought regards the power of a word: davar also means “thing.” It is as if we are meant to understand that a word is a real, physical object. It is not ephemeral; it has life and power and can be used for good and for bad, with real consequences in the lives of each and every one of us.

In the days of the Bible, the warning signs were obvious:

  1. First, tza’ra’at appeared on the walls of your house.
  2. Then, if you didn’t stop spreading rumors and speaking ill of others, the fungus would appear on your clothes.
  3. Finally, your own skin began showing scaly areas and sores, and you had to be isolated and go through a whole cleansing ritual before coming back into the camp, kind of like re-joining society after being imprisoned.

Fast forward to now: what warning signs do we have that our gossip is causing harm? How can we prevent ourselves from engaging in it? After all, isn’t a little gossip just an innocent indulgence? And we know it’s also kinda fun…. Nope, says the Torah, the rabbis, and the law codes. Gossip (“lashon hara,” casually speaking about others for no good reason) has no place in a healthy, well-functioning society. Even though an outbreak of zits nowadays has nothing to do with tza’ra’at, we would do well to guard our tongues from speaking evil.

Striving not to speak evil? It is, by the way, something we say in prayers at least 3 times a day, maybe because it’s so hard to actually accomplish. The following prayer is quite old, from the days of the Talmud (200-600 CE), when it was composed by Mar, son of Ravina, who used to say:

“My God, guard my tongue from evil and my lips from speaking guile. May my soul be silent to them that curse me and may my soul be as dust to all. Open my heart to Your Torah, and may my soul pursue Your commandments. Deliver me from evil occurrences, from the evil impulse, and from all evils that threaten to come upon the world. As for all that design evil against me, speedily annul their counsel and frustrate their designs. ‘Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable before You, God, my Rock and my Redeemer.’”

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!

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.

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!

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:

The End of Genesis

We have gotten to the end of the book of Genesis, the book of Bereishit (Beginnings) — the beginnings of the world and of our people. This last parasha in Genesis is called Va-Yehi (And He Lived), commenting on the life of Ya’akov (Jacob) that we have been following for weeks. But just as the parasha Chayei Sarah (Sarah’s Lives) begins with the death of Sarah, so too here, Va-Yehi paints a picture of Ya’akov on his death-bed (even though we might have thought, from the title of And He Lived, that the parasha would be about his life, not his death).

There is also a curious puzzle in Va-Yehi that is captured by the very form in which the Hebrew letters are written in the scroll. The puzzle is why Ya’akov loses the prophecy he wanted to convey to his sons before he took his leave of this world. What happened to him that the prophecy just escaped from him so completely?

What exactly, is that form that echoes the mystery of the missing prophecy? Well, Ya’akov is “blocked,” somehow prevented from delivering a message of final redemption to his sons. And our parasha is also “blocked” or “closed off.” Very rarely in the Torah scroll we see something called a “closed parasha,” referring to the actual physical layout of the letters on the parchment scroll. They appear on the same line as the last words of the parasha of the preceding week, instead of the typical separation of at least 9 blank spaces, which would separate last week‘s reading from this week’s. The form echoes the content. Ya’akov is blocked and our parasha is written in a “blocked” format, as if to emphasize our patriarch’s lost prophetic vision at the end of his life.

In fact, in Genesis chapter 48, when we get to verse 8, Ya’akov seems befuddled and lost. OK, he’s about to die, but he had just given a whole speech reminiscing about his life, and mentioning his grandsons, Ephraim and Manasseh. And now, a moment later, he is asking, “who are these boys?” What’s going on here? Is he losing it or not? And then he does something very curious: he wants to bless the boys that he has just formally adopted (chapter 48 verse 5) but he switches his hands so that the younger son, Ephraim, gets Ya’akov’s right hand, and the older son, Manasseh, receives his blessing from Ya’akov’s left hand. Do you think this is a subtle reminder of how he “stole” the blessing from his own twin brother Esav (Esau) so many years before?

In the present, Yosef (Joseph) tries to correct his dying father’s apparent mistake, but old Ya’akov is still sharp (so he isn’t losing it) and tells the assembled family that he wants to bestow the blessing just the way he indicated. Read what Ya’akov says in verses 19 and 20.

To this day, parents give this exact blessing to their sons on Friday night, as part of the ritual welcoming Shabbat. Why do you suppose we ask God to make our sons like Ephraim and Manasseh instead of any of the other brothers or even the patriarchs? (By the way, girls are blessed to be like the matriarchs: Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah.) One possible hint may have to do with the lack of sibling rivalry associated with these two sons of Yosef; whereas, at least in the generation of Ya’akov and Yitzhak, there were terrible and sometimes violent sibling struggles.

In Chapter 49, Ya’akov says his last words, called blessings, to each of his sons, spoken in poetic form. Each little poem recalls things that happened earlier in their lives. We call these snippets of poetry “blessings,” but they often don’t sound like what we think of as blessings; they are more like “this is what you did so now you will get what you deserve.” In verse 29, Yakov gives his final instructions; and in verse 33, the long life of Ya’akov ends. As you can read in Chapter 50, he is given quite a funeral, paralleling how we bury great leaders in our day and age. Senior members of the Pharaoh’s court joined the family to mourn Ya’akov, and the mourning period lasted 7 days, just like “shiva” today.

Not only does Ya’akov die in this “closed” parasha called “And He Lived/Va-Yehi,” but Yosef also dies, at the age of 110. It is as if the author of this story wanted us to know that we are leaving the patriarchal and matriarchal tales and moving onwards. And where are we moving to? Look at the very last word in the book of Genesis to find out.

So we conclude Genesis at the same time as we conclude the year 2012. I have learned to read each parasha with an eye towards what is actually happening right now in our world, not limiting myself to thinking that the parasha is about some history that happened thousands of years ago. At the end of each book of the Torah we say, “Chazak, Chazak, V’Nitchazek” (be strong, be strong, let us be strong). As we say those words this Shabbat, I think we are encouraging each other to be strong in the face of the many challenges we face as we repair our communities from both deadly storms and massacres and have the strength to find ways to sustain and celebrate life.

To consider:

  • What would you like to say to each of your children at the end of your life? What kind of blessing would you like to bestow? Or, if you don’t have children, what kind of blessing would you like to receive from your parents before they die?
  • What is so different about Yosef from his father Yakov, his grandfather Yitzhak (Isaac), and his great-grandfather Avraham (Abraham)? What makes him a great transitional figure?
  • Since we tell each other to “be strong” as we finish the book of Genesis, as we finish 2012, what is the nature of the strengths you need to meet the challenges that came at the end of this year?

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?