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.