Sunday, July 16, 2006

Korach

Numbers 17:16-24

The test of Aaron’s and Moses’ favor with YHVH against the leaders of the second of the two (conflated) rebellions (Korach and his family having been swallowed up by the earth); the flowering of Aaron’s staff.

Sh'lakh l'kha

Numbers 15:8-16

The rules of offerings in fulfillment of a vow or of well-being; an explicit instruction that resident aliens shall follow the same ritual, and that “you and the stranger shall be alike before YHWH.” This brought up some discussion of the immigration debate, the ominous attempts to change “citizenship by soil” to “citizenship by blood” and the bizarre insistence by the administration that non-citizens (including those who are here legally) are not covered by the Bill of Rights, which only refers to “the people,” “persons,” the “accused,” or in the case of the 8th Amendment is couched entirely in the passive case: “Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.”

B'ha-alot'kha

Numbers 10:11-34

The Israelites’ “journeys from the wilderness of Sinai“; the order of march; Moses, evidently not having much faith in God to guide them, attempts to persuade his father-in-law (whose name now appears to be Hobab rather than Jethro or Reuel, although I still think it could be ”Hobab, who was the son of Reuel, who was Moses’ father-in-law,“ which would make him a brother-in-law and eliminate one of poor Jethro/Reuel’s names), to go with them. We talked a lot in our study session about the nature and behavior of the ”cloud.“

Naso

Number 7:1-41

Back to the penalty box with me – I’ve been bad again, so the next few posts will be summaries. This was my bat mitzvah portion, so one would think I would have had something brilliant to say about it, but evidently we dealt with the fourth aliyah, which had all sorts of wonderful things in it, like the priestly blessing, the nazirite vow, etc.

The fifth aliyah, on the other hand, is about the consecration of the Tabernacle after its completion and includes, in mind-numbing and repetitive detail, a list of the tribal leaders and their offerings, at least through the fifth day.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Chag Sameach

Shavuot begins tonight – have a good one if you celebrate it. Originally an agricultural festival celebrating the barley harvest and the bringing of the “first fruits” to the temple, it was historicized by the rabbis of the Talmud to commemorate the giving of the Ten Commandments on Mt. Sinai, fifty days after Passover. (The Christian analogue is Pentecost, which bears a similar relationship to Easter.) Traditionally, the book of Ruth is read on Shavuot. Not only is it set at the time of the barley harvest; it also chronicles the acceptance of the Jewish covenant with God by Ruth, a young Moabite woman who becomes the great-grandmother of King David and by extension an ancestress of the Messiah. It is believed to have been written as a rebuttal to the xenophobia that ran rampant after the return of the Jews from the Babylonian exile, when many of those who had remained behind and married non-Jewish women were forced to abandon them, along with their children. Shades of today’s immigration debate, a great deal of which is fueled by xenophobia, whatever legitimate concerns there may be.

Monday, May 29, 2006

B'midbar

Num. 3:14-39

The beginning of a new book (Numbers). The recording of the Levites (males from the age of one month), the names and numbers of the different clans and their duties. I've got some ideas kicking around in my head about this one on how the various parts of the Tabernacle – the coverings, screen, curtains, etc; the ark and other utensils from the sanctuary; and the "infrastructure" – bars, posts, sockets, etc. – could be compared to the "parts" that make up a human being, e.g., our external appearance, our inner self, and I'm not sure what it would be best to compare the third part to. Just some thoughts to be going on with.

B'har/B'chukkotai

Lev. 26:9-46

The end of the list of blessings which YHVH will bestow upon Israel if the people follow the commandments, as well as all of the curses, at least in this part of the Torah. There are more of both in Deuteronomy (D'varim).

Emor

Lev. 23:23-32

Commandments regarding the observance of Rosh Hashanah (at this time only the first day of the seventh month - yes, the new year begins in the seventh month - don't ask) and Yom Kippur.

Acharei Mot/K'doshim

Lev. 19:15-32

Once again, I have to admit I've fallen down on the job, so here are some basic outlines that can also serve as placeholders in case any brilliant thoughts occur to me.

This was a wonderful fifth aliyah, jam-packed full of commandments of all kinds, ranging from impartiality in judicial decisions to reverence for elders, and including the "Golden Rule" (Lev. 19:18), as well as the less obviously uplifting prohibitions on mixing species of both animals and cloth, communicating with the dead, and eating blood.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Tazria-Metzorah

At the moment I’m not even going to try this one, rumored to be known as “the rabbinical students’ nightmare” – certainly the bar/bat mitzvah’s nightmare. I do have to say, though, that the fifth aliyah of the double portion – the reintegration of the former “leper” into the community – is much more palatable than the fifth aliyah of Tazria alone, which is solely to do with diagnosis.

Monday, April 17, 2006

Sh'mini

Lev. 10:16-20

Earlier in this portion, Aaron's two eldest sons, Nadav and Abihu, attempted to offer "strange fire" before YHVH and, not to put too fine a point on it, were zapped. Moses has told Aaron and his remaining two sons that they are not allowed to mourn, but must "buck up" and get on with their duties. In the fifth aliyah, upon discovering that the sacrifices were not eaten, as they should have been, but burned, Moses once again upbraids them, this time for doing it wrong. Aaron objects on the basis that after what has happened to them, he and his sons are not in a position to expiate the sins of the people, of which we are told, "When Moses heard this, he approved."

It seems to me first that the ritual being carried out improperly is the natural consequence of Moses' refusal to let Aaron and his two younger sons mourn, and perhaps his own anger stems from his knowledge of this. It is also a weakness of concentrating the leadership of an institution in a small, tightly-knit family group. Family tragedies happen, and what is to be done if the entire family is incapacitated with grief? It may be partly a reflection of this realization that when Moses chooses his own successor he goes not only outside of his immediate family, but outside of his tribe.

Secondly, Aaron's point seems to be not so much that he is unable to perform the ritual, but that there is something about him and his remaining sons that makes them incapable of expiating the sins of the people, even if they had done it. Rabbi Judith Abrams talks about the exemption of mourners from certain duties in her first volume of Talmud commentary, and theorizes that the experience of death shatters a person's connection with God to the point that they cannot perform these mitzvot. How much more so must this be true in a case such as Aaron's, where the deaths happened in the course of the performance of these same duties? Aaron is correct, and Moses acknowledges this.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Tzav

Lev. 8:14-21

This week we are reading about the inauguration of Aaron and his sons into the priesthood - the High Priesthood in Aaron’s case. The fifth aliyah concentrates on two of the sacrifices, a bull offered as a sin offering and the first of two rams, which is an olah, or a whole burnt offering. Blood is daubed or poured in various places, such as at the bottom of the altar and, in the sixth aliyah, on various parts of the new priests’ bodies. All in all, this is a very messy business, the thought of which makes today’s services look a lot better. One of the local non-Orthodox rabbis commented once that a lot of sincere Orthodox Jews whom he knew, although they prayed every day for the restoration of the Temple, really were not looking forward to this part.

What, then, can we learn from this ritual, which seems so alien to our modern, urban sensibilities? Most of us, while unwilling to give up meat, get squeamish even thinking about how that makes it into those relatively neat packages in the supermarket. I believe that the answer is, in good Reconstructionist tradition, looking at the function of the ritual and its message about what we should expect from our leadership.

First of all, the par ha-chatat, or “sin offering” is sacrificed. Interestingly enough, this is done after Aaron and his sons have been washed, clothed in the gorgeous vestments (particularly for the High Priest) that had been made, and anointed with oil.These men have got to be feeling like they are pretty hot stuff. Wait a minute - now they have to undergo a cleansing from sin? To me, this says that our leaders, whether secular or religious, need to maintain a sense of perspective and humility. They need to remember that for all the trappings of their offices, they can make mistakes, and that sometimes it may be necessary for them to publicly acknowledge their errors. A similar function was served in ancient Rome, when the victorious general, during his triumphal procession, is said to have been accompanied by a slave intoning into his ear, “Remember that you are mortal.”

The second offering, the ram that is totally consumed - unusual among sacrifices in that none of it is used or eaten, may offend us even more. What an utter waste! Isn’t this the equivalent of burning a $100 bill, especially in a society that didn’t always get enough protein? However, the message of the whole burnt offering can be read to say, “Look, God - we are not holding anything back. We are giving ourselves, heart and soul, to serving You.” This is also something that a leader should do. It is difficult to remember, as our news is crowded with politicians all seeking personal gain, weighing any action they take based on whether it will help them raise more money or get re-elected, but this is the basis of any real tradition of public service. Thank God, this tradition is not dead. The self-aggrandizers and abusers of power may get the coverage, but those who stand up for principle no matter how they may be smeared are still there, and they are the ones who will earn our gratitude, even if it is belatedly or never expressed, as so often happens.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Vayikra

Lev. 4:1-26

Atoning for sins committed unwittingly - for the high priest, entire community, and chieftain, but not for a regular person. That is in the sixth aliyah.

Vayekhel-P'kudei

Ex. 39:2-21

A detailed description of the making of the High Priest’s ephod and breastpiece.

Ki Tissa

Ex. 34:1-9

The carving of the second set of tablets after Moses broke the first set, and after his and God’s little “tiff” about whether or not God should exterminate the Israelites then and there. This aliyah also contains the “Thirteen Attributes” of God, which are chanted before the open Ark on holidays.

T'tzavveh

Ex. 29:19-37

Continuation of detailed instructions for the ordination of Aaron and his sons as High Priest and not-so-high priests, respectively, starting with the sacrifice of the second ram. I’m sure there’s a wonderful d’var torah in that division, if I can only figure out what it is.

T'rumah

Ex. 26:31-37

Specifications for the curtain that goes in front of the Ark of the Covenant, instructions for assembly, and the screen for the entrance to the “Tent” (of Meeting?).

Mishpatim

Ex. 23:6-19

Some commandments that Jack Abramoff should really have read, about bribery, subverting the rights of the needy, and oppressing strangers, although of course the people he was involved in oppressing were here first and might consider him the stranger. The sabbatical year, Shabbat, Passover, Shavuot and, for the first time, that vexing “thou shalt not boil a kid in its mother’s milk.”

Yitro

Ex. 19:7-19

This is the big sound and light show on Sinai. Before that, however, Moses goes back and forth between God and the people, acting as messenger-boy, as it were, although it’s not clear exactly why God needs someone to tell Him what the people said.

B'shallah

Ex. 15:27-16:10

In the fifth aliyah for this portion the Israelites come to (and leave) the oasis of Elim and set out into the desert, where they begin to have second thoughts about leaving Egypt. God, needless to say, gets really annoyed. Neither God nor Moses seems to be cut out for this job, both having notoriously short tempers.

Back to the salt mines, I hope

Well, we’re actually into Leviticus now, but I thought that what I would do was at least to post the names of the portions in between and the verses that we’ve been concentrating on, and maybe if I come up with something brilliant I can just add to that post.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Apology

For anyone who may be checking out this blog for new material, I have to apologize. I'd set myself an "assignment" of writing something on the Torah portion every week, but the creative juices just haven't been flowing lately. I hope to be able to get back into the swing of things eventually, either with previous portions that I've missed or with future ones. Please check back occasionally.

Bo

Ex. 12:21-28

..you shall say, “It is the passover sacrifice of YHVH, because He passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt when He smote the Egyptians, but saved our houses. The people then bowed low in homage.”
- Ex. 12:27

This is the first of the four places in the Torah in which the Israelites are told by Moses to tell their children about the Passover experience, but there is a jarring difference between this passage and the one that is the most familiar to us. (Ex. 13:8: “It is because of what YHVH did for me when I went free from Egypt.”) Why the difference?

It is on the basis of the second verse that Jews of today are told that we should feel that we, too, were slaves in Egypt, but the words of the verse in our aliyah make it sound as if the whole thing happened to someone else, not even the ones who are to tell of it from firsthand experience. To be sure, there is the word “our” in “our houses,” but it sounds very generic and feeble compared to the power of the later statement.

An obvious difference is that, as of 8:21, the Israelites, including Moses, have not yet experienced the Passover event; it is not real even to them. How, then, can we make it real to ourselves? One simple yet powerful way is to use our own imaginations. Another, which takes more direct action, is to learn about contemporary situations which are similar and, for those people who still struggle under oppression, work to bring them the liberation that we experienced so long ago. Find firsthand accounts of the ending of American slavery or the Freedom Marches; think of what you were doing when you heard of the fall of the Soviet Union; work for those in Darfur, Tibet or any of a dozen other places who are still waiting for the angel to pass over their houses, and you may feel the beat of his wings.

Sunday, January 29, 2006

Va-era

Ex. 8:7-18 (Oops, I originally had Genesis - sorry.)

“But on that day I will set apart the region of Goshen, where My people dwell, so that no swarms of insects shall be there, that you may know that I YHVH am in the midst of the land.”
- Ex. 8:18

This verse is traditionally understood to mean that the Israelites were spared from suffering the effects of the last nine plagues, but we know that in the real world this is not so. Rebelling against oppression is not easy; in fact, it is more likely to make things worse for those who seek justice. Unfortunately, the story of the Israelite slaves being forced to hunt for their own straw and still turn in the same quota of bricks every day is much more true to life. Dissidents and rebels are smeared, ridiculed, ostracized and worse, even when their hearts are pure and their causes are just.

How, then, can this story speak to us in the modern world, where God does not protect the oppressed with miracles? I believe that the answer lies within the human spirit. There are many points in every revolution of this sort when the rebels can do one of three things: give up, become a mirror image of what they fight against, or persevere and remain true to their cause. There comes a time, perhaps a separate time for each participant who perseveres, when they are “set apart,” when the suffering, while it never ceases to affect them, does cease to matter in the face of what they are struggling for. When the marchers in the Civil Rights Era braved fire hoses and dogs, when the refuseniks in the Soviet Union went to prison, they knew that God was not going to magically protect them from harm, but they stood up for what they believed anyway. Their region of Goshen was within, and God was the Power that succored them there.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Quick thoughts on Sh'mot

Exodus 3:16-4:17

The main thing that jumped out at me about this aliyah is the fact that, for all that God is supposed to be angry at Moses for lack of faith in the people, it really seems to me that God is the one who lacks faith. He tells Moses that if “they do not believe you or pay heed to the first sign (turning the rod into a snake), they will believe the second (the hand in the robe turning leprous). And if they are not convinced by both these signs and still do not heed you,” then Moses is to do the Nile-into-blood trick, although only with some water on the ground, not the whole river, which is much more impressive.

As for the reason why Moses is doing “Egyptian magic tricks,” which came up in our beit midrash last week, obviously he has to show the Hebrews that he can meet their oppressors on their own turf, as it were. Also, as someone else pointed out, the Hebrews have been part of that culture for quite a while, if not necessarily 400 years, so it makes sense that they would be impressed by the same things.