Emor: Flawed Worship

May 10, 2017 at 10:17 pm | Posted in Emor | Leave a comment
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And God spoke to Moses, saying:  “Speak to Aaron, saying:  Anyone from your descendants through your generations who has a moom may not approach to offer the food of his god.” (Leviticus 21:16-17)

moom (מוּם) = blemish, flaw.  (Plural: moomim, מוּמִים.)

In the book of Leviticus/Vayikra, the word moom is used only for physical blemishes in humans or sacrificial animals. Moom appears 20 times in the Hebrew Bible, but only three of those instances refer to a character flaw, rather than a physical flaw.1

Priest tending the altar

This week’s Torah portion, Emor (“Say”) lays out rules for priests, including this statement that no priest with a moom may serve at the altar. As in other ancient Near Eastern religions, there are many offerings in which select parts of the animals are burned up into smoke for God, while the remaining meat is roasted and eaten by the priests and their households (including their wives, children, and slaves). Priesthood is hereditary; any adult son of a priest gets his share of the food, even if he cannot officiate because he has a moom.

He may eat the food of his god, from the holiest and from the holy [offerings]. However, he may not come behind the curtain [into the Tent of Meeting] and he may not approach the altar, because there is a moom in him… (Leviticus 21:22-23)

After giving a few more rules about eating from offerings, the Torah portion states that the animals brought to the altar must also be unblemished.

Anyone from the house of Israel or from the resident alien in Israel who offers their offering … from the herd or from the flock, it must be flawless to be accepted; no moom may be in it. (Leviticus 22:19, 21)

This week’s portion helpfully provides both a list of disqualifying blemishes for priests (Leviticus 21:18-20), and a list of disqualifying moomim for sacrificial animals (Leviticus 22:22-24).2

Why must both the priests who make the offerings and the animals that are offered must be physically flawless? Rashi3, citing the book of Malachi4, answered that it would be disrespectful to offer God a defective gift or use a defective emissary.

Maimonides5, citing the Talmud6, wrote that people were more likely to think of the temple with awe and reverence if its officiating priests were not only dressed in beautiful garments, but also looked like perfect physical specimens.

Other commentators, including S.R. Hirsch, claimed that the physical perfection of the officiating priests was necessary to symbolize their psychological perfection.7 A man with a moom would be a symbol of a broken and incomplete life; the Israelites were supposed to offer God their whole, complete selves through the rituals at the altar.

We no longer give the lives of our animals to God to express our devotion or gratitude; instead we give God our prayers and blessings. And for almost two millennia8 Jews have not used priests as intermediaries; although we have clergy, any adult can lead a group in prayer9. Physical flaws do not matter in prayer, only the state of one’s heart or mind.10

Do the Levitical lists of unacceptable moomim for priests have any relevance today?

Some psychological, rather than physical, flaws can harden our hearts and impede the act of praying. Does the Torah’s list of moomim that disqualify priests from ritual service address this problem?

Let’s look again at the list of moomim in priests.  Some of the words carry more than one meaning.  Some come from the same three-letter root as other Hebrew words. And many concrete words are used metaphorically in Biblical Hebrew, as in English.

This yields an alternate translation of verses 21:18-20:

Because anyone who has a moom must not present an offering:  anyone who is stirred up, or has been skipped over, or split off from ordinary life, or stretched (too far); (Leviticus 21:18)

Or anyone who is having a breakdown and is unable to walk forward or act; (21:19)

Or who hunches over (with insecurity), or who is stingy, or who has clouded vision, or who has problems that fester and don’t heal, or whose libido is crushed or crushes others. (21:20)

We all have some psychological “flaws” or limitations. And like priests with moomim, we can all absorb some nourishment from praying and blessing. But it is a bad idea to lead prayer, or to offer spiritual insights to others, when one is in the grip of a psychological moom on the list above. Only after you have understood and repaired (or at least set aside) your own moom can you step forward to lead with an open heart.

(An earlier version of this essay was published in April 2010.)

1  Deuteronomy 32:5, Proverbs 9:7, and Job 11:14-15.

2  There were disagreements about what some of the Hebrew words meant even when Talmudic rabbis discussed them in the third century C.E. My translations follow modern translations in William L. Holladay, A Concise Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament, William B. Eerdmans Publishing, Grand Rapids, Mich., 1988; Robert Alter, The Five Book of Moses, W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 2004; and The Jewish Publication Society translation of 1999.

3  Rashi (11th-century rabbi Shlomoh Yitzchaki), commentary on Leviticus.

4  When you bring up a blind one for sacrificial slaughter, there is nothing wrong? And when you bring up a lame or a sick one, there is nothing wrong? Offer it, please, to your governor!  Will he accept you or favor you? (Malachi 1:8)

5  Maimonides (12th-century rabbi Moses ben Maimon), The Guide for the Perplexed, Chapter 45.

6  The Babylonian Talmud, Berachot 43b, states that hereditary priests were also disqualified from serving at the altar if their heads were too square or too bald in the back.

7  Samson Raphael Hirsch (19th-century rabbi), The Hirsch Chumash: Sefer Vayikra—Part 2, trans. by Daniel Haberman, Feldheim Publishers, Jerusalem, p. 723.

8  Since the fall of the second temple in Jerusalem in 70 C.E.

9  However, many Orthodox Jewish congregations still prohibit women from leading parts of the service. The other branches (denominations) of Judaism accept women both as lay leaders and as rabbis and cantors.

10  Texts emphasizing the importance of kavvanah (intention, direction) in prayer go back to the Talmud (about 300-500 C.E.). Talmud Bavli, Berakhot 30b says one should not stand up to pray except in a sincere and serious frame of mind; Berakhot 31a adds that when a man prays, he should direct his heart to heaven.

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Haftarat Emor—Ezekiel: No Sweat

May 16, 2016 at 10:53 pm | Posted in Emor, Ezekiel | 1 Comment
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Every week of the year has its own Torah portion (a reading from the first five books of the Bible) and its own haftarah (an accompanying reading from the books of the prophets). This week the Torah portion is Emor (Leviticus 21:1-24:23) and the haftarah is Ezekiel 44:15-31.

Gold gleaming, censers swinging, men chanting, priests in elaborate robes and headgear … When I saw a special Catholic mass on television, I assumed that the officiants dressed up to impress the congregation with the beauty and holiness of their ritual.

priest ordinary garmentsI used to assume the same thing about priests in ancient Jerusalem when they performed rituals in the outer courtyard of the temple, in front of all the people. These outdoor rituals included butchering animals and burning the pieces on the altar; I pity whoever had to do the priests’ laundry. Nevertheless, their costumes seemed designed to impress the congregation, from the turbans on their heads down to the hems of their long elaborately woven robes.

And for the sons of Aaron you shall make tunics and you shall make sashes for them, and turbans you shall make for them, for magnificence and beauty. (Exodus/Shemot 28:40)

The priests had to look dazzling, I figured, in order to inspire the people into a worshipful state of mind.

This week’s haftarah turned my head around.

The book of Ezekiel records the visions and prophecies of a priest who was deported to Babylon in 593 B.C.E., when King Nebuchadnezzar’s army besieged Jerusalem. While Ezekiel was in Babylon, the temple in Jerusalem was razed. Ezekiel encouraged his fellow Israelite exiles by prophesying a future temple in Jerusalem, bigger and better.

In this temple, he said, only the descendants of Tzadok, King Solomon’s high priest, would be priests. (See Haftarah for Emor: Tzadok the Priest.) They would follow strict rules of purity in their marriages, their behavior, and their dress.

When they come inside the gates of the penimit court, they must dress in garments of linen; they shall not dress themselves in wool for their attendance inside the gates of the penimit court and its house. (Ezekiel 44:17)

penimit (ַפְּנִימִית) = inner (part of a temple or palace). (From the noun panim = face, faces, surface, expression, disposition. The inner court was where one encountered the disposition of God or of a monarch.)

temple 2Throughout the ancient Near East, a temple consisted of an unroofed outer courtyard for public worship, and a roofed inner court where priests served their god through other rituals.

And when they go out to the outer court, to the outer court to the people, they must take off their garments that are on them and set them aside in the holy rooms, and they must dress in other garments, and not make the people holy with their garments. (Ezekiel 44:19)

According to Ezekiel, the holiest priestly garments must be worn in the penimit court, which only priests may enter. Thus only other priests—and God—could see them in their sacred vestments performing the rituals of the oil lamps, the bread table(s), and the incense altar.

Since the inner court is such a holy place, the garments worn there are also holy. The priests have to change into other garments before they go out into the public courtyard in order to prevent cross-contamination.

Commentators differ on the direction of the contamination. Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, 1040-1105 C.E.) wrote that ordinary garments are not ritually pure, and therefore would contaminate any holy garments they touched.  But according to Radak (Rabbi David Kimchi, 1160-1235 C.E.), Ezekiel was concerned that the holiness of the priests would rub off on the unqualified.

Turbans of high priest (L), regular priest (R)

Turbans of high priest (L), regular priest (R)

The holy linen garments include headgear and underpants as well as a long tunic and sash.

Turbans of linen will be on their heads and breeches of linen will be on their hips; lo yacheggeru in sweat. (Ezekiel 44:18)

lo yacheggeru (לֹא יַחְגְּרוּ) = they shall not gird themselves, they shall not wrap a belt or sash around their waists.

Girding happens most often in the Bible when men gird on swords or other weapons. A close second is girding oneself with sackcloth as a sign of mourning or repentance; in this case, a man wraps a broad sash of coarse goat hair around his naked midsection. In other references, men gird their loins in order to shorten the skirts of their tunics so they can run or march without encumbrance.

In this week’s haftarah, a priest’s linen sash girds his long linen tunic simply because men wore sashes. In the outer courtyard, a priest’s sash might help to hold his tunic away from spattering blood, or he might shorten his skirts with it to facilitate moving the ashes off the altar. But in the penimit court, the sash is strictly for beauty and propriety.

So are the linen breeches. Linen is cooler than wool; a man wearing linen is less likely to sweat. Today, sweat stains are considered unattractive and inappropriate on formal wear; copious perspiration is associated with either hard labor or excessive nervousness.

The Hebrew Bible refers to sweat only twice: in the sentence from Ezekiel above, and once in the book of Genesis when God sentences Adam to his new life outside Eden, and declares:

By the sweat of your brow you shall eat bread… (Genesis/Bereishit 3:19)

Here, sweat is a metaphor for hard labor in the fields. But the work of the priests hidden inside the inner court is stately and spiritual. For this holy service, they need refined and holy clothing—not for the sake of onlookers, but for the sake of their own state of mind.

According to Ezekiel, the priests in the penimit court will be in an altered state. They will wear special clothes that are never worn anywhere else. They will not sweat. And they will not put on a show for the general public.

A second Israelite temple was built in Jerusalem, with construction beginning in 516 B.C.E. It did not follow Ezekiel’s plans, though it still separated the inner and outer courts. It was staffed by priests from the Levite tribe, but they were not all Tzadokites. They wore linen tunics, sashes, turbans, and breeches, though their sashes and the hems of their long tunics were embroidered with colored yarn that might have been wool.

There is no record of whether the priests of the second temple sweated inside the inner court.

After Romans destroyed the second temple in 70 C.E., priests could no longer perform the sacred rituals. But a new form of serving God was already developing. For the last two millennia, Jews have emphasized worshiping God through good deeds and the prayers of every individual. In that sense, we have become a kingdom of priests (and priestesses), as God predicted to Moses in Exodus/Shemot 19:6.

What can we do today to make our prayers and our good deeds like magnificent and beautiful garments we wear without sweating, in a pure and priestly state of mind?

Haftarah for Emor: Tzadok the Priest

May 6, 2015 at 10:39 pm | Posted in Emor, Ezekiel | 2 Comments
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by Melissa Carpenter, maggidah

Say to the kohanim, the sons of Aaron, say to them: For the death of someone among his people he shall not become ritually impure; only for the blood-relations closest to him… (Leviticus/Vayikra 21:1-2)

kohanim (כֹּהֲנִים) = priests.  (Singular:  kohein, כֹּהֵן)

Thus this week’s Torah portion, Emor (“Say”), opens with instructions from God to the priests on avoiding ritual impurity as much as possible in their personal lives, including who they mourn for and who they marry.  The haftarah (the weekly reading from the prophets) comes from the book of Ezekiel, and also warns that a priest must not marry a divorced women, enter a house where there is a corpse, or engage in mourning practices for anyone except his immediate blood relatives.

The Prophet Ezekiel by Gustave Dore

The Prophet Ezekiel
by Gustave Dore

The details of the two warnings differ, but the general themes are the same, and support the idea that a priest must devote himself completely, body and soul, to the ritual service for God. (All priests were male.) According to both the book of Leviticus/Vayikra and the book of Ezekiel (Yechezkeil), that includes avoiding certain negative conditions as much as possible—physical conditions such as contact with a corpse, and psychological conditions such as the states of mind that arise in mourning, or in dealing with a wife who was divorced by her previous husband.

In the entire Hebrew Bible, priesthood is hereditary.  And even today, men whose last name is “Cohen” share a genetic marker.  The right genealogy was enough to qualify a man for service as a priest in both the portable sanctuary of Leviticus and the temple of Ezekiel.  But both books insist that the priests must also observe certain rules of behavior in order to be “holy” and serve God properly.

The book of Ezekiel was written either by, or about, a man named Ezekiel who was exiled to Babylon, along with other Judahite officials, priests, and craftsmen, after the Babylonians captured Jerusalem and destroyed the first temple in 586 B.C.E.  Ezekiel lived in a community of exiles on the Kedar Canal outside the city of Babylon, where he had a series of visions and became a prophet.  The haftarah begins in the middle of one of Ezekiel’s visions, shortly after a divine guide has given Ezekiel the measurements for rebuilding the temple in Jerusalem.

And the priests of the Levites [who are] the children of Tzadok, who kept custody of My sanctuary while the children of Israel were straying away from Me, only they shall come close to Me to minister to Me, and they shall stand before Me to offer Me fat and blood—declares my lord, God.  Only they shall come into My sanctuary, and only they shall come close to My table to minister to Me, and they shall keep My custody. (Ezekiel 44:15-16)

Tzadok (צָדוֹק) = Righteous one.  From the same root as tzedek (צֶדֶק) = what is morally right or just.

In the book of Leviticus, all the descendants of Aaron (a man from the tribe of Levi who was the brother of Moses and the first high priest) qualify as priests who can perform the rituals involving incense and animal and grain offerings. Men in the tribe of Levi who are not descended from Aaron are classified as Levites, who assist the priests by transporting the (carefully wrapped) holy objects, and by guarding the portable sanctuary while it is erected. (Singing Levites are not mentioned until the first book of Chronicles.)

Ezekiel says that only the descendants of Tzadok will be priests when the temple in Jerusalem is rebuilt. Tzadok is a tenth or eleventh-generation descendant of Aaron through Aaron’s son Eleazar. He first appears in the second book of Samuel, where King David appoints him as one of two priests in Jerusalem, along with Evyatar.  In the first book of Kings, after many adventures, King Solomon fires Evyatar and makes Tzadok the only high priest.

And the king placed Benayahu son of Yehoyada over the army instead of him [Yoav], and Tzadok ha-kohein the king placed instead of Evyatar. (I Kings 2:35)

ha-kohein (הַכֹּהֵן) = the priest; the high priest.

Aaron has numerous descendants; two of his four sons die childless in Leviticus, but the survivors, Eleazar and Itamar, father large dynasties. Why should the priesthood be limited to Tzadok’s branch of the family tree?

A later chapter in the book of Ezekiel explains:

…the holy contribution [of land] for the kohanim: on the north 25,000 [cubits] and on the west 10,000 and on the east 10,000 and on the south 25,000, and the holy place of God will be in its center.  The holy place will be for the kohanim [descended] from Tzadok, who kept My custody, who did not stray continually [like] the Children of Israel or like the Levites. (Ezekiel 48:10-11)

Ezekiel implies that during the last years of the first temple in Jerusalem, there were two factions of priests. The Tzadokites stuck to the rules for serving God, but the other priests, as well as the Levites and the non-clergy, kept straying.  A vision in chapter 8 of Ezekiel shows some priests as well as some Israelites worshipping other gods right on the temple grounds.

Scholars speculate that Ezekiel himself was a descendant of Tzadok, because his visions and prophecies focus on rebuilding the temple in Jerusalem and reinstating the traditional priestly rituals. Nothing else is important to him; the presence of God must once again have a home in Jerusalem.

In order to make God’s contact point on earth secure, the Tzadokites must be the only legitimate priests—not because of their lineage, but because they remained true to God and continued the ritual service of the God of Israel.  And part of that service, in both the haftarah in Ezekiel and the Torah portion Emor, is maintaining a state of mind compatible with ritual purity.

Despite Ezekiel’s prophecy, non-Tzadokite priests were allowed to serve in the second temple once it was built in 538 B.C.E.  But Tzadokites were the high priests of the second temple from the founding priest Ezra until 153 B.C.E., when the Romans appointed Jonathan Maccabaeus as both king and high priest of Judah.

During the past two millennia, since the fall of the second temple in 70 C.E., almost all Jews have abandoned the idea of reinstating temple worship.  Unlike Ezekiel, we do not believe that God needs one particular spot to bring the divine presence to earth.

Priestly blessing: birkat kohanim

Priestly blessing:
birkat kohanim

We have also abandoned the idea of hereditary priesthood, except for a few minor customs. (Cohens get to do special blessings at services, and are supposed to stay out of cemeteries.)  Instead of ritually pure technical experts who make temple offerings, we now want spiritual leaders such as rabbis to help us improve our inner selves and our prayers.  Many Jews retain some practices having to do with ritual purity, such as keeping kosher.  But holiness is now about divine inspiration and ethical behavior.

We can still aspire to be “a kingdom of priests” and priestesses, as Moses predicts in Exodus/Shemot 19:6. We can even aspire to be Tzadok the priest. But today, that means being tzaddikim, people who are righteous and ethical, like Tzadok—“Righteous One”.

Emor: Challah with a Hole

April 27, 2014 at 11:03 pm | Posted in Emor | 1 Comment
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When you invite a god to be with you, you want to be a good host. Being a good host for human guests always includes offering them food and drink. So the ancient peoples of the Middle East offered their gods bread and cake.

In his book Leviticus, 20th-century scholar Jacob Milgrom noted: “In Egypt the offerings are placed on the outer altar, but only the fresh bread and cakes are brought into the sanctuary and laid on mats (together with incense) before the god’s table … Ritual bread laying was an early custom in Mesopotamia, appearing in a Sumerian inscription of Urukagina of Lagash (c. 2340 BCE). Babylonians laid sweet unleavened bread before various deities, in twelves or multiples of twelve.”

The book of Exodus/Shemot describes the three holy containers in the inner sanctum of the Israelites’ sanctuary: the gold lampstand (menorah) for making light, the gold incense altar for making fragrant smoke, and the small gold-plated table for displaying bread. The display itself is only described in the book of Leviticus/Vayikra, in this week’s Torah portion, Emor (“say”). It begins:

You shall take fine flour, and you shall bake it into twelve challot; a challah shall be two tenths [of an eyfah in size]. And you shall put them in two rows, six in each row, upon the ritually-pure table in front of God. (Leviticus/Vayikra 24:5-6)

challah (חַלָּה), plural challot = loaf or cake made of finely-ground wheat flour, leavened or unleavened, probably  pierced with one or more holes (from the root verb chalal (חָלַל) = pierced through).

Half of the 14 references to challah in the Hebrew Bible specify that the challah shall be unleavened (matzah); in these cases, part of the challah is destined to be burned up on the altar, where leavening is banned. However, when the challah is destined to be eaten by people, it can be sourdough. (A thanksgiving offering, according to Leviticus 7:13, requires both unleavened challah to burn on the altar and leavened challah for people to eat.)

Other cultures in the ancient Middle East laid out bread in front of statues of their gods, and replaced the bread every day. The Israelites are forbidden to make a statue of their god, but the bread table stands in front of the innermost room of the tent, where God’s presence manifests over the ark. The bread is replaced only once a week. The twelve loaves are strictly symbolic; nobody pretends that God eats them. In fact, the Torah orders the priests to eat the week-old challot after the fresh loaves are laid out.

And you shall place as an addition to each row clear frankincense, and it shall become a memorial-portion for the bread, a fire-offering to God. Sabbath day after sabbath day it shall be arranged in rows in front of God, perpetually, as a covenant from the children of Israel forever. And it shall be for Aaron and for his sons; and he shall eat it in a holy place, because it is most holy for him, out of the fire-offerings of God; [this is] a decree forever. (Leviticus 24:7-9)

Unlike the unleavened challot people bring as offerings, the challot on the display table are never burned on the altar. Every seven days the priests set out fresh-baked challot and two new bowls of frankincense. They burn the previous week’s frankincense, so God can enjoy the fragrance (see my post Pinchas: Aromatherapy). Then the priests eat the stale bread.

This week’s Torah portion is the only place in the Hebrew Bible that calls the bread on the sanctuary table challah. Elsewhere it is simply “bread in rows” or “the bread of panim”, the bread that faces God. (See my post Terumah: Bread of Faces.) The twelve challot represent the twelve tribes of Israel, all lined up in front of God.

One might imagine each challah as a fluffy braided loaf, since that is what the challah that Jews eat on Shabbat today looks like. But the root of the word challah is challal, which means “pierced through”. The Torah uses the verb challal most often for fatal wounds, but the word also applies to window-openings in walls and to certain loaves or cakes.  Thus the challot in the Israelite sanctuary and temples might have looked like large bagels.

(Talmudic rabbis, considering the small size of the table—2 cubits by 1 cubit, about 4 square feet—speculated that each challah must have been shaped like a lidless rectangular box, so that one row would stack neatly on top of the other with no gaps. But since we do not know how much flour is in two-tenths of an eyfah, nor how dense the bread was, the table might just as well have held two rows of six bagel-shaped challot, one in front of the other.)

Does the shape matter? I think so. Bread begins as grain that grows as a gift from God or nature. But then humans add a lot of labor to transform that grain into bread. When we display our own creative work to God, are we showing off or expressing gratitude? A continuous loaf with no holes is full of itself; it leaves no empty spaces for God to fill. But a loaf with a hole in the middle says: “The center of my life is for You to fill with Your inspiration. I am building my life around that holy hole.”

That is what I want to say to the divine presence inside me.

 

 

Omer: Counting 49

April 10, 2013 at 9:43 am | Posted in Counting the Omer, Emor | 1 Comment

My timing is off. During the week of Passover/Pesach, when we take a break from the regular cycle of  Torah readings,  I published a new post about the Torah portion Shemini. Last week, the time for Jews to study Shemini, I took a week off. This week, the Torah reading is Tazria and Metzora—but I am writing about counting the omer.  (If you are interested in my thoughts on this week’s double Torah portion, please look at my website at http://www.mtorah.com, and search for Tazria and Metzora on the blog page or the archive page.)

I have been counting the omer every evening for two weeks now, and we have five more weeks to go. The omer count begins on the second day of Passover and goes on for 49 days. On the 50th day, we celebrate the holy day of Shavuot (“Weeks”). In the Torah, the priest waves a sheaf of barley each day for 49 days. But after the fall of the second temple in Jerusalem in 70 C.E., the omer-counting became a prayer service, and acquired new  meanings. This is the first of several posts I am writing about the fascinating prayers from Kabbalah that come  before and after the daily count in standard orthodox Jewish services.

But first, what does “counting the omer” mean?

עמר

omer

The Hebrew word omer first appears in the book of Exodus/Shemot (in the Torah portion  Beshallach), as a measure for manna; one omer of manna feeds one person for one day. The word omer does not show up again until Leviticus/Vayikra (in the Torah portion Emor, which we read two weeks from now). Here an omer is a measure for barley, equivalent to a sheaf. The Torah sets the time for the Festival of Matzah, i.e. Passover, then gives instructions for the next day:

…then you shall bring an omer of the first of your harvest to the priest. And he will wave the omer before God so you will be acceptable; [starting] from the day after the rest-day the priest will wave them. (Leviticus/Vayikra 23:10-11)

And you shall count for yourselves, from the day after the rest-day, from the day you bring an omer of the waving, seven tamim weeks. Until the day after the rest-day of the seventh [week] you shall count [to] the 50th day; then you shall bring close a new grain-offering to God. (Leviticus 23:15-16)

 tamim = whole, entire, intact, unblemishes, blameless, sincere

When the word tamim refers to a sacrificial animal, it means blemish-free. When it describes a human being, it can mean either that the person’s body is unblemished, or that the person is innocent, blameless, honest. So I think the text in the Torah itself invites us not merely to count the days for seven weeks, but to make the days count—by checking for blemishes in our souls.

The culmination of the 49 days of counting is Shavuot, the 50th day. Until the fall of the second temple, Shavuot was a harvest festival. People brought their “new grain-offering” of two loaves of wheat bread to the temple, along with the first fruits from seven kinds of plants (wheat, barley, grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives, and dates).

After the fall of the temple, the rabbis soon found a new meaning for Shavuot, deciding that it marked the anniversary of receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai. So for the last 2,000 years, the 49-day count has been linked with preparing, day by day, to be worthy of receiving the divine revelation of Sinai.

Naturally, rabbis over the millennia have enriched counting the omer with other prayers that have a count of  7 or 49. The orthodox omer-counting procedure as it stands today follows this order:

#1.  Opening prayer: a) a sentence declaring the intention of the omer prayer service, b) Leviticus 23:15-16 (translated above), and c) a blessing from Psalm 90.

#2.  Blessing for counting the omer.

#3.  Statement of which day it is in the count.

#4.  A one-sentence prayer about restoring the service of hamikdash = the holy place (usually translated as “the Temple”).

#5.  Psalm 67, which has 49 words.

#6.  Ana Bekhoach, a 7-line poem of supplication written by Rabbi Nechunya ben HaKanah, a Kabbalist who lived in the first century C.E.

#7.  Closing prayer framing the count in terms of Kabbalah, including the 7 lower sefirot. (Sefirot is the plural of sefirah, a word from the same root as sofeir = counting. Sefirot area categories of creative power, or forces ruling the universe and the human soul.) In the middle of this closing prayer, you fill in the blank with the  the sefirah of the day and the sefirah of the week. Over the course of seven weeks, you get 49 different pairings.

Most non-orthodox Jews who count the omer today simply read or recite two sentences, labeled as #2 and #3 above. That way they get it done quickly, and miss all the juicy parts. Some people, especially in Jewish Renewal, go on to consider the essence of #7, and try to find a personal meaning in the pair of sefirot for the day. There are many books and blogs about what each of the 49 sefirot pairs might mean.

My posts will look instead at the often overlooked prayers in the omer-counting procedure: numbers 1, 4, 5, 6, and 7 in the list above.  This week, let’s zoom in on just the first prayer in number 1:

For the sake of the unification of the Holy One, blessed is He, and His shekhinah, in fear and love to unify the name Yud Heh with Vav Heh, in complete unity, in the name of all Israel.

shekhinah = the indwelling presence of God in our universe (literally, the feminine form of “dweller”)

This opening prayer sets the intention of the rest of the omer-counting prayer service. We are not just counting the days; we are doing spiritual work that helps to change the nature of reality.

This introduction was written (in Aramaic) by the disciples of Rabbi Isaac Luria. Luria taught from 1569 to 1572 in Sfat, a town full of Kabbalists about 80 miles north of Jerusalem. In those three years before his death, he founded a major branch of Kabbalah. One of the core Lurianic ideas is that in order to create our universe, God first withdrew a measure of divine “light” to make space, then created ten sefirot, ten forces of creative power, which Luria saw as vessels for the divine light. The first three vessels, the three upper sefirot, could contain the light  poured into them. But the next six vessels shattered. The tenth and the lowest sefirah, Malkhut, cracked.

After the “shattering of the vessels”, the rest of the creation of the universe proceeded differently from God’s original plan, and included evil as well as good. Yet everything in our universe contains a spark of divine light. And human beings have the ability, through good deeds and prayers, to “raise the sparks” and repair the universe. Therefore the Lurianic Kabbalists preceded many prayers with the sentence above, to remind the person praying that the purpose of the prayer service is to unify God Itself with the shekhinah, the divine presence in our world. According to Kabbalah, the shekhinah is in the sefirah of Malkhut, the lowest one, the one closest to our daily physical life on earth. So uniting the Holy One with the shekhinah is also uniting the upper three sefirot with the lower seven  sefirot, and it also uniting the first two letters of God’s most holy Name, yud and heh, with the last two letters of the Name, vav and heh.

Every evening, during the 49 days of counting the omer, when I recite that intention to unify God with my prayers, I feel hollow with awe inside. What nerve! How could anything I do affect God, reality, the nature of being? And anyway, I’m not much of a mystic compared with most of my Jewish Renewal friends. I find the images of Kabbalah powerful, and they feel significant; but my rational mind does not believe any of this stuff.

And yet … if I pray for the sake of the unification of the Creating and the creation…if I pray for the sake of making whole the holiness I glimpse in the world…then maybe this little ritual of counting the omer  has a deeper meaning than I think. Maybe everything I do, everything each of us does, has a deeper meaning than we think.

Emor: The God of Life

May 10, 2012 at 5:38 pm | Posted in Emor | 1 Comment

The Jewish tradition of focusing on this life, in this world, began with the Torah itself. Its first two books, Genesis/Bereishit and Exodus/Shemot, treat death as merely the end of life. People grieve when their loved ones die, but the text shows little interest in what happens to the dead.  The next book, Leviticus/Vayikra warns the children of Israel not to succumb to idolatry of the dead. In this week’s Torah portion, Emor (Say), the priests are given additional rules which make it clear that the God of Israel is opposed to worshiping death or those who have died.

While priests in other ancient Middle Eastern religions conducted elaborate funeral rites, the priests of Israel had to minimize their contact with the dead.  While ordinary people in other religions followed extreme mourning practices, including gashing themselves and yanking out their hair, the Torah forbids Israelites from making cuts in their skin or bald spots on their heads. These permanent marks would mean that the living survivor has less honor (according to 16th-century rabbi Obadiah Sforno) or less value (according to 19th-century rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch) than the dead.

Furthermore, the Torah says anyone who touches a dead human body, or enters a room containing a corpse, becomes tamei, a state of ritual impurity that prevents one from entering God’s sanctuary until one has completed seven days of purification. Worship of the God of Israel must remain completely separate from the experience of death.

Since proximity to a human corpse makes a person tamei, the priests of the Israelites can only do their jobs if they avoid the dead.  (Ironically, the priests’ service inside the sanctuary required slaughtering and butchering animals; but the Torah views the body of a kosher animal differently from the body of a human being.)

The Torah makes two exceptions to this ban against proximity to dead human bodies.  If a priest finds an unidentified corpse on the road, he has the same obligation as anyone to take the body away for proper burial.  Additionally, this weeks’s portion says that all priests except for the high priest are allowed to become tamei  when their closest blood relatives die: mother, father, brother, unwed sister, son, and daughter.  (Rabbis through the centuries have assumed that the priest’s wife also counts as a sufficiently close relative, and have devised explanations for her omission from the list.)

Like other Israelites, regular priests are forbidden to mourn by shaving their beards, making bald patches on their heads, or cutting incisions in their skin.  But they are allowed to dishevel their hair and rip their clothing as they grieve. The high priest, however, must follow stricter rules.

The high priest over his brothers, who has had the oil of the anointing poured over his head and his hand filled, so as to wear the garments– he shall not dishevel his head, and he shall not rip his garments. And he shall not enter (a room) with any dead body; not even for his father or for his mother shall he become tamei. And he shall not leave the holy place, and he shall not profane the holy place of his God; because the crown of the anointing oil of his God is upon him. (Leviticus/Vayikra 21:10-12)

kohein gadol = great priest, high priest (a lifetime office after anointment, with unique duties)

mikdash = holy place, holiness; that which is set apart as exclusively for God

neizer = crown, headband, head of hair; mark of distinction, ordination, setting apart

On a practical level, if one regular priest becomes tamei because of the death in the family, another priest can substitute for him in his sacred work.  But there is only one high priest, who has no substitute.  (In this respect, the high priest is like the president of the United States, who is always on call, and can use the vice president as a substitute only if he is seriously incapacitated.)

On another level, the Torah requires all of the priests to serve as public symbols of holiness, and the high priest is the ultimate symbol. He even wears a unique gold medallion on his forehead engraved with the words “Holy to God”.  (See my post on “Tetzavveh: Holy Flower”.) All priests, but especially the high priest, represent God’s characteristics to the public.  That is why, when they are on duty, they dress in beautiful costumes colored with expensive dyes, dazzling people with their majesty. And that is why, unlike priests in other religions, they avoid corpses. Traditional Jewish commentary agrees that if the priests of the God of Israel engaged in rituals for the dead,  God would be viewed as another god of death.  Above all, the God of Israel is a god of life.

In fact, one of the names of God in the Hebrew Bible is “God of Life”, a phrase that first appears in the book of Deuteronomy, and occurs in many of the books of the prophets:

For who, of all flesh, heard the voice of Elohim Chayyim speaking from the midst of the fire, as we did, and lived? (Deuteronomy/Devarim 5:23)

Elohim Chayyim = God of Life, Living God (Both translations are valid.)

Because the high priest is distinguished from all other priests by his method of ordination–which includes anointment on the head–and by the additional items he wears with his official garments, he must avoid any appearance of mourning on his head or his garments. As a human being, he will grieve in his heart.  But as a symbol of God, he must always stand for life, life in the body in this world.  This life is God’s great gift to us, the one that lets us praise and bless God in return.

The dead do not praise God, nor any who go down to silence. But we ourselves will bless God, from now until eternity.  (Psalm 155:1718)

Of course, life and death must co-exist in this world; you can’t have one without the other.  But we can choose which aspect of reality to focus on and appreciate.  When I meet people whose personal religion revolves around an afterlife, I wonder if they are fully appreciating this life, in this world.  I find that the more attention I pay to everything that is alive, right now, the more I appreciate life, the more I rejoice in creation, the more I am able to praise God.  A god of death would give me a grim outlook.

There is a time for mourning, and I am glad I will never be a high priest!  But I am grateful I could choose to become a Jew, and bless the God of Life.

Emor: Saying It

May 1, 2011 at 11:05 pm | Posted in Emor | Leave a comment

This week’s Torah portion, Emor (Say), begins:

God said to Moses:  Say to the priests, the sons of Aaron—you will say to them:  he (a priest) shall not become ritually impure for a dead person among his people.  (Leviticus/ Vayikra 21:1-2).

Priests devote their lives exclusively to serving God, so they must minimize times when they are ritually impure and therefore cannot enter the sanctuary.  Contact with human death is the primary source of impurity in the Torah, so priests are forbidden to go near dead bodies, or even to engage in mourning for anyone except their closest family members.

The Torah portion Emor ends with the whole assembly of Israelites (except, presumably, the priests) stoning a man as they execute the death sentence for saying something that denigrates God.

What a contrast! At the beginning, one person speaks according to God’s instructions, and decreases a group’s contact with human death.  At the end, another person speaks against God, and his sentence causes the whole community to have an especially horrific contact with death.

Who is this person who says something awful about God?

The son of an Israelite woman and an Egyptian man went out among the children of Israel; and they quarreled concerning the camp, the son of the Israelite woman, and an Israelite man.  The son of the Israelite woman denounced the Name (of God), and he vilified it; so they brought him to Moses.  And the name of his mother was Shelomit daughter of Divri of the tribe of Dan.  And they put him in custody, to get themselves a clarification through the mouthpiece of God.  God spoke to Moses, saying:  Remove the vilifier to outside of the camp.  Everyone who heard shall lean their hands upon his head, and then the entire assembly shall stone him.  And you shall speak to the children of Israel, saying:  Any man, if he vilifies his God, will bear his guilt.  … foreigner or native alike, if he denounces the Name, he shall be put to death.  (Leviticus/ Vayikra 24:10-16)

vayekaleil = and he vilified, demeaned, belittled, treated with contempt, declared a curse on

My first reaction to this story is sympathy for Shelomit’s son, the young man with the Egyptian father.  No matter what he said about God’s name, or God’s reputation (another meaning of “name” in Hebrew and English), how could he deserve a death sentence?

The Torah does not explicitly say what the quarrel was about, or why Shelomit’s son was so upset.   The Hebrew in Leviticus/Vayikra 24:10 could mean either that they quarreled concerning the camp, or merely that they quarreled in the camp.  The traditional commentary says they quarreled concerning the camp, and follows the idea in Sifra (a collection of comments on Leviticus from the third century C.E.) that reason behind the quarrel was that the half-Egyptian wanted to camp with his mother’s tribe of Dan, instead of staying with the erev rav (the “mixed multitude” or “riff-raff”—  those who left Egypt and followed Moses along with the Israelites,  even though they were not of Israelite blood).

Why can’t the young man camp wherever he pleases?  In the book of Numbers/ Bamidbar, God tells Moses where everyone should camp during their journey through the wilderness.  All Israelites must camp with their tribe, “the house of their fathers”.  The tribe of Levi camps in the center, right next to the Tent of Meeting, the portable sanctuary for worshiping God.  The other Israelite tribes camp in a ring around the Levites and the Tent of Meeting.  The tribe of Dan, which the half-Egyptian’s mother belongs to, always camps on the north side.

Since the instructions do not say where the erev rav camped, early commentary concluded that everyone who was not of Israelite ancestry camped around the periphery of the Israelite circle, farther away from the Tent of Meeting.  In some contexts the erev rav seems to be “outside of the camp”, where ritually impure objects are dumped, people with tzara-at disease pitch their tents, and criminals are stoned to death.

Prejudice by the in-group against  the out-group is common.  Yet the Egyptians and other people in the erev rav freely chose to march into the wilderness with the Israelites, under the leadership of Moses and his God.  They are like converts to Judaism.  Yet they have to camp outside the charmed circle of those who were born Israelites.  Why should they be treated as second-class citizens?

And why should Shelomit’s son be treated as second-class?  He’s even an Israelite on his mother’s side, but according to Sifra and others, he still has to camp with the erev rav.  (Ironically, Jewish law for the last 1,800 years or more says a Jew is anyone with a Jewish mother, or anyone who has converted to Judaism.  Shelomit’s son would be a Jew on both counts.)

I can imagine the young man longing to be accepted as an Israelite, perhaps even longing to camp closer to the place of worship, instead of remaining an outcast because of his father’s ancestry.  I can imagine the man who picks a fight with him calling him the ancient equivalent of “half-breed” and insulting his Egyptian father.   I picture Shelomit’s son as a young man full of testosterone, lashing out in rage over the other man’s insults.  Maybe the full Israelite says God has chosen only the children of Israel as His people.  Then Shelomit’s son rails against such a narrow-minded god.

Clearly his mixed ancestry has some connection with his vilifying the Name of God, or the Torah would not mention it.  But Moses, as the mouthpiece of God, states that the punishment is death for anyone who says bad things about God, regardless of ancestry.

Of course God itself cannot be harmed by human speech.  But the issue here is harming God’s name, God’s reputation among human beings.  Is God’s reputation really so important that denigrating God deserves the death penalty?

The ruling Moses hands down from God declares that after the vilifier’s guilt is confirmed, the entire assembly shall stone him.  The implication is that his blasphemy harms the whole community.  Some of those who hear malicious talk will be unable to resist passing it on, and eventually everyone will hear it.  Then even those who reject the vilification will think of God somewhat differently.

To me, this seems like a normal part of life.  In the present day, we’ve all heard God vilified, belittled, and declared non-existent.  (When I was a teenager, and the only “God” I knew about was the beard-in-the-sky variation, I said things like that myself.)  In the United States, we value freedom of speech, and we accept anti-God comments without calling for drastic punishment.  But the Torah treats blasphemy as if it were murder.  Why?

One possibility is that the ancient Israelites (and  some fundamentalists among Jews, Christians, and Muslims today) make no distinction between  religion and morality.  The Torah mixes together laws for religious rituals and laws for behavior toward fellow human beings. Therefore, turning away from God is automatically lumped with turning away from moral standards.  Saying something that makes others have doubts about God could lead to an explosion of selfishness and cruelty.  No wonder vilifying God seems like a terrifying crime against humanity to people with that approach.

Personally, I’m grateful to live in a society that uphold moral standards regardless of religion, a society where atheists are just as likely as religious people to have high moral standards.  Vilifying someone else’s concept of God is a bad idea, since it belittles the person who holds that concept.  But it’s a common moral lapse; even the Torah does it when referring to other religions.  It doesn’t destroy ethics or civil society.

Is there any other reason why denigrating God in public is a horrible deed?  One possibility, suggested by Sefer HaChinuch (an anonymous book from 13th-century Spain), is that denouncing God is the same as denying that God is present inside us.  If we think we have no inner divinity, we become less than human.

I don’t know what the Torah means when it says that humans are made in God’s image, or that God will dwell among us.  But for at least the last thousand years, some Jews have been associating our inner divinity with such things as inspiration, creativity, compassion, and the intuition of interconnectedness.  If denigrating God means denigrating these gifts, it’s a tragedy indeed.

But we can’t reverse dehumanization, or de-divinization, by stoning people.  I think the only way to restore a sense of inner divinity is by saying something different:  showing delight in creativity, saying kind words, speaking as if we’re all parts of a whole.

The half-Egyptian man in this week’s Torah portion may have had every reason to feel like lashing out at the full Israelite and insulting God.  His mistake was not what he felt, but what he said.

The Torah hints that he had an alternative to vilifying God’s name.  His mother’s name is Shelomit, which means “Peaceful” or “Complete”.  Her father is Divri, which means “Speaker”.  Their tribe is Dan, which means “Judgment”.  If you seek peace and wholeness, you speak in a way that leads to good judgments.

Even when we don’t have to worry about being stoned to death, may we all remember that what we say matters.

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