See the Blessings (and Curse)

To think about as you read:

  • When do you clearly see and acknowledge the blessings in your life?
  • What do you think it means to be cursed?
  • What tempts you away from doing the right thing?

Re’eh” — “See”! The Torah portion this week opens with this command by the God of Israel to “see” — see the blessing and the curse that are set before them (Deuteronomy 11:26-27). Last week, the text commanded the Israelites to “Hear” — “Sh’ma“! This week continues last week’s long valedictory discourse, the going-away speech, the very last words of advice that Moshe/Moses wants to transmit as his flock is poised at the River Jordan, about to cross over into the Promised Land, knowing that he will neither guide nor accompany them any longer.

And what does he say in this one pithy little statement? “See what is before you” — both the category he calls blessing and the category he calls curse. Even if we ignored the rest of the verses in this parasha filled with laws that some Jews follow to this day, we could have a pretty significant conversation about what it means to see blessings and curses in one’s life.

First, an overview:

The storyteller sings a ditty that reviews the parts of this parasha highlighting blessings and curses, and telling us that there will be a helping hand to guide the Israelites in their sojourn in Canaan, despite temptations in their paths. What is not covered in the song are some of the laws that were picked up by the rabbis of the Talmud, and turned over and over to give us systems observed by some Jews several thousand years later — for example, some of the dietary laws of kashrut, telling us what is OK and what is forbidden to eat (Deuteronomy 14:3-21).

You may remember hearing this once before: in the Book of Leviticus, chapter 11 is the first time we encounter these strictures; and then here in Deuteronomy, we are getting all of the laws again, for the second time, sometimes changed a bit, through Moshe’s discourse. If you want to refresh your memory and enjoy another great little song, visit the blog post from that week back in April.

Also in our parasha this week are the laws of tithing (chapter 14:22-27) and laws concerning loaning money (chapter 15:1-11), among others, that all gave the Talmudic rabbis plenty of grist for their mills and provide the basis for Jewish observance today. We also read some laws describing sacrifices, slavery, and punishment by stoning, that were jettisoned after the Temple was destroyed in 70 CE.

Which makes this verse so interesting:

Everything which I charge you, that shall you keep to do. You shall not add to it and you shall not subtract from it (chapter 13: 1).

Wow!! Really? We are told right here in the Torah, explicitly by Moshe, not to change the laws at all by adding to, or subtracting from, them. But how can that be? We don’t observe the laws as stated — so in essence, it looks like we are subtracting; while in some cases (praying in a synagogue instead of slaughtering sacrifices on an altar), it looks like we have added to the laws.

A traditional interpretation of this one powerful verse holds that the entire Torah is called the “Written Torah” (the “Torah Sh’bihktav“), which must have been accompanied by another set of laws and interpretations thereof called the “Oral Torah” (the “Torah Sh’ba’al Peh“), the oral tradition that came to Moshe directly from God at Sinai, which provides the details needed in order to observe the laws even after the Temple was destroyed and the Jews were exiled from their beloved land. The famous statement in the Mishna (the foundational layer of the Talmud) in Pirkei Avot (Sayings of the Fathers) on the formation of the Oral Torah illustrates this point:

Moses received Torah from Sinai and handed it on to Joshua, Joshua to the elders, and the elders to the prophets. And the prophets handed it on to the men of the great assembly…

Now, let’s wind our way back to the idea of blessings and curses that Moshe says will accompany the Children of Israel as they enter and dwell in their own land. He makes sure to tell them that they will be blessed as long as they obey God’s commandments, and cursed if they do not obey.

Last week I suggested looking at the word “land” metaphorically, to substitute the word “earth” for “land.” This week, I want to repeat the idea of reading metaphorically: I suggest that we read the phrase “obey the commandments of the Lord your God” as “perceive clearly and do the right things.” Then, the opening verses of the parasha might read as follows:

See your ability to choose clearly! This day I set before you blessing and curse: blessing, if you perceive clearly and do the right things for yourself and others; and curse, if you do not do what is right, and turn away from the path that is available to each of us as human beings who are created in the image of the Holy One.

Boston and “After the Death”

When tragedy strikes, what do you need to do to remain balanced and react in a positive fashion? What kinds of rules should we adopt to keep our society safe, healthy, and open?

BAM's message of support for Boston

Brooklyn Art Museum's message of support for Boston

The parasha (Torah portion) this week, Acharey Mote/After the Death, opens with a reference back to the inexplicable death of two of Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu. Remember them? The ones back in Leviticus chapter 10 verses 1-2? Not only were those deaths kind of shocking, the Torah captures the reaction of their father, Aaron, in one pain-filled, two-word sentence, “Va-yidom Aharon” — “And Aaron was silent.” Because really, what can one say when confronted with an inexplicable and seemingly senseless death?

Even though Acharey Mote refers back to the deaths of Nadav and Avihu, for me, this week, the opening words of this parasha referred to the deaths and horrifying maiming of the victims of the terrorist attack at the finish line of the Boston Marathon this past Monday, April 15, also known as Patriots’ Day in Massachusetts.

There has been so much written about the attack and its immediate aftermath, and we know so little right now about the perpetrator and their reasons. But we do know some things, for example, about the astoundingly brave way in which those unharmed, both spectators and runners, rushed to help the injured. One of the columns that helped put the atrocity in perspective for me appeared in the New York Times, written by Thomas Friedman. Friedman urges us to focus on our reactions — that is, not to give the terrorists the advantage of deciding how we react. How we react is up to us, he reminds us. And he begins his column with a reference to how Israelis have decided to react to the multiple terrorist attacks they have been subjected to over the past decades.

In shock and dismay, I looked at the photos, as I imagine thousands of others did, and thought of how much the scene in Boston resembled scenes in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv after a bus bombing or other terrorist attack. Coincidently (or maybe not) on Monday, Israelis observed Yom Ha-Zikaron/Israeli Memorial Day, immediately followed by Yom Ha’atzma’ut/Israeli Independence Day, on Tuesday. The juxtaposition of these two observances with our parasha led Rabbi Matthew Berkowitz, who lives and works in Israel, to remark on how the parasha sheds light on the pain and joy embodied in these 2 days. He remarks:

the opposite side of the pain is life — choosing and embracing life with fervor, zest, and appreciation. The calendar reminds us that we must pause to reflect on these two aspects of the Jewish journey.

Moving back to Acharey Mote, our G-dcast storyteller, Amichai Lau-Lavie, helps us think about the threads that connect this parasha together. He wants us to see these chapters as a modern “Operations Manual” for the Tabernacle, and lists the 3 subject areas the manual covers: eating meat, having sex, and atonement (for when we do wrong and have to go “oops”).

At the outset, Lau-Lavie says that the parasha deals with the aftermath of the tragedy of Nadav and Avihu’s deaths, and explores ways to react to their deaths. He later comments that we often need to look beyond literal instructions to find symbolic meaning in what the Torah prescribes for our behavior, whether in the realm of eating meat, or in our sexual lives, or when we have gone astray and need to atone. The organizing principle, he suggests, is that we impose a kind of discipline in our lives — and follow the appropriate rules listed in whatever operations manual we find compelling, to navigate the uncertainties, the pains, the unbridled desires, the ups and the downs of life. While there may be many different interpretations to the rules and regulations set forth in our parasha, nevertheless our storyteller wants us to know that the bottom line is that discipline matters.

Circling back to the tragedy on Monday in Boston, discipline mattered a great deal. Without the discipline of the first responders and medical personnel, many more victims would have lost their lives, not only their limbs, as horrible as that is. The discipline of the marathoners to listen to the police instructions mattered. The discipline of the spectators — to help and comfort victims, to tie tourniquets, and to do whatever was asked — mattered. The discipline of the journalists not to report unconfirmed rumors mattered.

What each of us takes away from this terrorist attack matters. We need discipline to react in ways that re-enforce our cherished freedoms, our trust in others, our humanity, our belief that good can and will triumph over evil.

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.

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?

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?

This Family Is Headed For Trouble!

When I sat down to write about Toldot, my husband said, “This is one of your favorite parshiot (plural of parasha – portion), isn’t it?” I laughed and said, “Yeah, it definitely ranks right up there with the best.” So, why do I like it so much?

Well, for starters, the family trauma-drama continues: We see what happens to our plucky heroine, Rebecca, after being married to Yitzhak/Isaac for 10 years, but still not blessed with children. Then she gets pregnant — with twins, no less!! She has a difficult pregnancy (having no clue that she is carrying twins). She is far from her own home, perhaps with no kinswomen to consult with, and decides to “inquire of the Lord” (Genesis 25: 22-23). The Lord tells her she is carrying the progenitors of two nations, given in the form of an oracular poem — terse and mysterious.

She gives birth to twins who look, and, later, behave, very differently. The eldest is called Esav (Esau) and the younger is called Ya’akov (Jacob). The descriptions of them in verses 25-28 tell us how different they are, but with no judgment. Many hundreds of years after the Bible was written, when the Jews were defeated, exiled, and subjugated by the Romans (in the first centuries of the common era), the rabbis of the Talmud did make judgments about Esav and Ya’akov and in fact, called Esav “wicked.” This week’s G-dcast narrator uses that midrashic interpretation. Check it out:

However, what I find the most illuminating in these verses is notT later interpretation but the actual Torah text as we have it right here. We read just a few words that provide remarkable insight into the family dynamic. Verse 28:

And Yitzhak/Isaac loved Esau for the game (meat) that he had brought him, but Rebecca loved Ya’akov/Jacob.

What jumps out at you?

I see a strong hint of major family dysfunction. Dad loves one twin because of what that twin does for him (this child brings his dad tasty wild game) while Mom loves the other twin (for no apparent reason, or at least we aren’t told)! We have all heard about unconditional love that parents are supposed to have for all of their children; we know the pitfalls of preferring one child more than the other. It is almost as if the author of this narrative is holding up a bright neon sign saying: WATCH OUT FOLKS, THIS FAMILY IS HEADED FOR TROUBLE WITH A CAPITAL “T.”

Let’s remember, Rebecca is the one who has heard the oracular pronouncement concerning who she will give birth to, and what will become of these twins. Does Yitzhak/Isaac know what Rebecca knows? What do you think? The text doesn’t say one way or the other. And let’s also remember that Yitzhak/Isaac may have suffered from post-traumatic stress syndrome after his near-sacrifice and might not have been sensitive to nuance.

This parasha also has the famous story of Esav selling his birthright for a pot full of “red-red stuff” (probably lentil stew). We read about God appearing to Isaac, repeating the promise given to Abraham…. plus a bunch of other juicy tidbits, but I am saving the best for last.

Chapter 27 is one of the most well crafted stories in all of Torah. Some of the lines are actually famous even today, and used as metaphors: “the voice is the voice of Jacob and hands are the hands of Esav…” (verse 23).

I invite you to think of this chapter as a one-act stage play with 7 scenes, some longer than others. In each scene (except for one) there are 2 characters on the “stage” in dialog with each other. Other characters lurk, but we don’t actually see them on the “stage.” The characters appearing are: Yitzhak, Rebecca, Esav, and Ya’akov.

Consider:

  • Can you identify the “scenes” and who is talking to whom?
  • What do the characters say to each other?
  • What is the secret?
  • Who is in on the secret?
  • Why the subterfuge?
  • What happens in families when crucial secrets are shared between parent and child but kept from the other spouse?

In verse 35 we get the most poignant and pitiful cry of any in all of Torah. The twin whom dad loves the best has been cheated of the blessing of the first-born son; his younger twin brother (Ya’akov) came and pretended that he was the eldest! Now the deed has been done and Esav cries out with a “great and very bitter outcry, and he said to his father, ‘Bless me too, Father.’” Doesn’t this just break your heart?

Sarah’s Life and Rebecca’s Voice

Our parasha opens with the words, “The span of Sarah’s lifetime was…” indicating that Sarah, our first foremother, wife of Abraham and mother of Yitzhak, has died. We can know this only because now we can count her days. It is a statement filled with irony and sadness, because the text focuses on her death and burial, while using the words, “Sarah’s life(span).”

As one generation passes, the story continues with the next generation. Some early rabbinic commentators tell us that Sarah died when she heard the false rumor that her husband had sacrificed her beloved son — upon hearing this news, she had a heart attack from extreme grief. (Abraham had no instant messaging or updates on his Facebook status to let folks know something like “Trip to Mt. Moriah went well — sacrificed a ram instead of our son.”

Whatever the reason for her death, this parasha moves on to a narrative of new beginnings and romance, and provides a rich portrait of the second of our foremothers, Rebecca/Rivka. The g-dcast cartoon this week focuses on this story line. Watch it here:

The g-dcast storyteller in this episode gives us the plotline of how Abraham’s servant travels back to Abraham’s native land, in Aram Naharyim, to find a suitable wife for his son, Yitzhak/Isaac. (By the way, Yitzhak is the only one of the 3 forefathers who never leaves the Land of Canaan/the promised land/what becomes the Land of Israel.)

The g-dcast cartoon includes a traditional commentary which says that Rebecca/Rivka was only 3 years old when she performed the prodigious act of watering the caravan of 10 camels that came with Abraham’s servant and his retinue. Hmmm… Watering the camels is already quite a feat of prowess and strength (see Genesis chapter 24, verses 16, 18-20). Robert Alter (a UC Berkeley professor who writes and lectures on the bible) calls it the closest thing to a “feat of Homeric heroism…” in Genesis. She is, in Alter’s words, “a continuous whirl of purposeful activity. In 4 short verses she is the subject of eleven verbs of action and one of speech…”

While this sounds like the dervish-like activity of a hyper-active toddler, I don’t think she was a baby. Rather, I think the servant saw a beautiful teenager, “very comely to look at, a virgin…” (verse 16). She also was extremely kind, intuitive, resourceful, independent, gregarious and eager for adventure. Read the description of what she says (she has a voice!! amazing for a women in the Bible!!) in verses 57-61 when her kinsmen ask her if she wants to accept the generous offer to marry Yitzhak, the son of their relative, Abraham. The qualities just listed make Rivka a perfect choice for a marriage partner for Yitzhak, who, after his trauma of being almost slaughtered on an altar by his father, likely suffered from post-traumatic stress syndrome his entire life. He also seems to have been the more passive partner in this marriage.

When I read a commentary that just feels wrong, I feel perfectly OK disregarding the commentator’s interpretation and replacing it with my own, as long as it fits with the text. I want and need to be loyal to the text, and not distort it with some off-the-wall commentary just because it better suits my world-view.

The text belongs to all of us, and we can “turn it and turn it, because everything is in it” (Mishnah Avot 5:25).

Let’s end with a poem by Reba Connell on what happens when Rivka first sees Yitzhak, taking off on (Genesis chapter 24:64:

Rivkah’s Voice by Reba Connell
“And Rivkah lifted up her eyes and saw Yitzhak and fell off the camel.” — Genesis 24:64

she rises that morning
like every morning
to walk in the early light
and bring water from the well

among the dusty goats
she walks to the well
the sun hangs low in the sky
she squints in its glare
heavy jug on slight shoulder

as she lowers her jug
the waters see her
and immediately rise up
she does not hear the other maidens
whispering in surprise

the water flows uninterrupted
her jar has no bottom
she does not see the man or his camels
even as she rushes back and forth

all is the flowing water
the bright sun
and the voice surrounding her

rivkah
you will be a sign to your descendants
because the waters rose to you
your sister of the future yet-to-be
miriam, will bring a well with her
for the thirsty children in the desert

the voice that says: elech, I will go
is both her own
and the same voice that said lech l’chah to avram

she follows the voice
her own and not her own
to the new land

for that voice
she will abandon family
land, birthplace
even her well

the voice speaks to her
the whole journey

when she sees a strange man
the voice says
your descendants will remember him
not you
you will love me as you do now
and follow my commandments
but it will not be written

she falls off the camel