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Last week, we were “going out” (“Ki Tetzei“) and this week, we are “coming in.” In the first words of this week’s parasha, Ki Tavo (“When You come In [to the land of Israel]”), we find Moses/Moshe continuing his long valedictory address to the people. He wants to cover all bases, since he isn’t coming into the land with them. This is also the parasha that, according to Professor Arnold Eisen, Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, “contains some of the highest highs and lowest lows in the entire Torah — or in any other work of literature, for that matter”.
And to what is Prof. Eisen specifically referring? To the litany of blessings and curses found in Ki Tavo. Here Moshe spells out exactly how the Israelites will be blessed if they follow the commandments, as well as the many horrific curses falling on them if they fail to obey God’s laws.
Our G-dcast storytellers this week understand these blessings and curses as basic building blocks of a committed, long term, mutual relationship. They liken the relationship between God and the People of Israel to a marriage between a husband and a wife, who promise many things to each other as they enter their covenantal relationship. In fact, they point out, the relationship between God and Israel is called a brit — a covenant, a mutually binding agreement.
Understanding the blessings and the curses in this way is certainly one way to look at our parasha.
The parasha begins with a very special ceremony in which each male Israelite is commanded to bring some of every first fruit of his harvest to the Beit HaMikdash (Temple) in Jerusalem, in the springtime of the year, and give it to the priest while reciting a formulaic acknowledgment concerning his ability to harvest abundantly in the land promised to him by God. In Deuteronomy chapter 26, beginning with verse 5 and continuing for several verses, the Israelite is told to narrate his history, starting with the words, “My father was a wandering Aramean.”
Does this phrase sound familiar to you? It certainly might, because the rabbis of the Talmudic times chose these very same verses to include in our Passover Haggadah. It is a central part of the Magid (Telling) section of the Haggadah, the story narrative; in just a few verses, we sum up our relationship to God, the Land, and the bounty of the fruits and richness of the soil with which we have been blessed. We say these words every year around the Passover seder table, as we remember our deliverance from bondage to freedom, from being slaves to being free people. Strange, isn’t it, that we are actually reciting the same script that Moshe tells the Israelites to say when they make their pilgrimage to Jerusalem over 2000 years ago?
By the end of chapter 27, we are in the dark land of the curses, which really fill us with dread; they are so shockingly terrible that sometimes the person reading from that section of the Torah chants them in a whisper rather than aloud.
Here I would like to return to Prof. Eisen’s commentary on Ki Tavo. If you have been reading my Torah blogs, you may remember that several weeks ago I mentioned the frightening phenomena of the honeybee colony collapse. I found a persuasive connection between what the Torah has to say about how we conduct our agricultural responsibilities, and the blessings of the land in bearing fruit and giving us everything we need. When we abuse the land, we are told that it will not bring forth food or sustenance.
In this week’s parasha we are confronted and even shocked with horrific curses. Prof. Eisen uses this as an opportunity to alert us to the result of failing in our roles as stewards of our planet. It is as if the devastating curses are already almost upon us. This year, he reads:
We are entering the last few weeks leading up to Rosh HaShanah, the new year of 5774. I’m thinking that while it may not be up to each of us as individuals to know the answers to this greatest challenge to humankind, it is up to each of us to answer these questions as they pertain to us personally:
We all like to think about changes as one year ends and a new one begins. For me, there is nothing more important than thinking, talking with friends and family, and deciding on one behavior change to help avert the curses and allow us to lead lives of blessing.
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.
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!
As we sit down at our seder tables, I invite you to talk about what rituals you treasure in your life, and why they are important to you. Are they something you inherited or something you made up? How do you feel when you do those rituals?
The G-dcast storyteller tells us this week to “Keep That Fire Going!” Parashat Tzav is filled with how-to instructions on the burnt offerings which the Israelite priests are to offer to God in the holy Tabernacle, and later, the Beit HaMikdash (Temple) in Jerusalem. It is a precise manual of what the priests must wear, where they must bathe, how they must mix ingredients for offerings of meal (flour), who can and who must eat the offering, where, and how. It tells us the quantities of meal that should be used, which pots to cook the offerings in on the altar, which animals should be offered up and which parts may and may not be eaten, exactly where the priests should put their hands when slaughtering the animals, what to do with the blood, what the ceremonies of consecration must be like, how many days, where, and many more details.
Get the picture?
The minutiae remind me of Cooks Magazine, when someone is deconstructing a recipe you have made many times, like buttermilk biscuits, and then it gives you several pages of detailed instructions that are much more complicated than you thought the recipe warranted. Seems like way, way too much information, or TMI.
With Tzav, however, the detailed instructions seem different because we are dealing with the holy, the sanctified. All peoples have realms of sanctity in their lives, even if they don’t readily recognize them as such. And once you get into making something holy or set apart, you become involved in the performance of a ritual. Even the way we say that, “performing a ritual,” implies that we are doing something with a heightened awareness that is different from just doing something, like doing the laundry, doing dishes, or taking a shower. “Performing” implies we are acting in a way that is prescribed, with a script, a set of words and actions that are not spontaneous and not our own. Last week, we talked about ritual when we began the book of Leviticus, because that’s what this book is all about. Look at the lens through which Rabbi Nancy Kreimer considers our parasha and ritual in general. She mentions some of the same scholars we referenced last week, Arnold Eisen and Mary Douglas.
The most ritual-filled meal of the year will be celebrated on Monday night, the 14th of Nisan, this year corresponding to March 25. The Pesach (Passover) seder has 15 steps, corresponding to the 15 stairs leading up to the Holy of Holies in the Beit HaMikdash/Temple in Jerusalem. These are the very steps on which the Levites (for whom the book of Leviticus is central) would sing as they walked up to the Holy of Holies.
Turns out that as we sit around the seder table telling the story of our ancestors leaving the slavery of Mitzrayim (Egypt), we are also imitating the behavior of those priests of long ago and their complex rituals of sanctification. As Rabbi Kreimer points out in the article linked above, Catholics incorporate rituals into their Mass as congregants ingest the Eucharist, symbolic reminders of the body and blood of Jesus, who is also called the Lamb of God. Jews incorporate our particular symbols in the ritual foods we eat at the seder — matzah, maror, charoset, eggs, etc. — to remember, sacrilize, and sanctify the experience of liberation from bondage, of yitziyat mitzrayim (leaving Egypt), brought out by the strong arm and outstretched arm of the Holy One.
I wish you a very sweet and joyous Pesach and a seder filled with songs of thanksgiving, with free-wheeling discussions of what it means to be free, with questions galore (many of which cannot be answered simply), and with special connections to family and friends….and of course, a splendid Pesach meal! Happy Pesach!!
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:
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!
To consider as you read and watch this week’s installment:
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.
For you to consider as you read this week’s blog post:
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.