Shemini: Prayer and Glory

April 19, 2017 at 8:17 am | Posted in Psalms/Tehilim, Shemini | Leave a comment
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For seven days after Moses consecrates Aaron and his sons as priests, they sit at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting. The Torah portion Shemini (“Eighth”) opens on the eighth day, when the new priests are ready to make their first offerings on the altar: two different offerings for the high priest Aaron, and four different offerings for the people.1 Moses explains:

Because today God will appear to you.  (Leviticus/Vayikra 9:4)

After the animals and the grain have been assembled, and the rest of the Israelites are standing in front of the altar, Moses gives further instructions, saying:

This is the thing that God commanded you must do; then the kavod of God will appear to you.  (Leviticus/Vayikra 9:6)

kavod (כָּבוֹד) = weight, importance, impressiveness, magnificence; a glorious manifestation (often translated as “glory”).

Vesuvius in Eruption, by J.M.W. Turner, 1817

The Israelites have already witnessed a long string of miracles in Egypt, culminating in the splitting of the Reed Sea.  They have followed the kavod of God, in the form of a pillar of cloud and fire, from Egypt to Mount Sinai. On the day of the revelation they experienced God’s kavod as lightning and smoke on the mountain itself, along with thunder and blasts of a shofar.2

Yet once miracles stop, it is hard to keep faith.  When Moses stayed on top of Mount Sinai for 40 days, and no pillar of cloud and fire reappeared near the camp, the Israelites felt abandoned.  Who would lead them to a new home?

In desperation, the men asked Aaron for an idol, then worshiped the golden calf he made.3  Moses returned to them, but God’s cloud and fire did not.  The Israelites were so anxious to see the kavod of God again that when Moses called for donations to make a dwelling-place for God, they donated more than enough treasure and labor.4  The dwelling-place, the new Tent of Meeting, is completed at the end of the book of Exodus/Shemot.

Then the cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, and the kavod of God filled the dwelling-place.  (Exodus/Shemot 40:34)

For the cloud of God was over the dwelling-place by day, and fire was in it at night, in the sight of all the house of Israel, on all their journeys.  (Exodus 40:38)

Presumably the cloud is resting over the Tent of Meeting on the day the new priests make their first offerings at the altar.  So why do the Israelites need another view of God’s kavod?

Perhaps God, or Moses, knows that the Israelites are still insecure. The survivors of the Golden Calf incident have committed their work and treasure to God, and they are ready to follow the new version of God-worship Moses has laid out, in which priests are intermediaries.  But they need divine confirmation that Aaron and his sons really are God’s chosen priests. After all, it was Aaron who made the Golden Calf—choosing to pacify the people rather than sticking to God’s commandment against idols. Could they trust him to serve only God from now on—and keep the Israelites in God’s favor?

While all the people watch, Aaron and his sons carry out the required procedures for the six offerings at the altar.

Then Aaron raised his hands toward the people and he blessed them …  (Leviticus  9:22)

The Torah doesn’t say what Aaron’s blessing is, but the Talmud assumes that it must be the blessing prescribed for priests in the book of Numbers/Bemidbar 5 (and still used in Jewish liturgy today):

May God bless you and guard you; May God illuminate Its face for you and be gracious to you; may God lift Its face to you and place peace over you.”  (Numbers/Bemidbar 6:22-27)

After this blessing, one might expect the kavod of God to appear as promised. It does not.

19th-century rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, claimed that God delays the divine manifestation on purpose so as to prevent any belief that animal offerings make God’s glory appear by magic.6  The kavod appears when God wants it to appear.

Then Moses came, and Aaron, into the Tent of Meeting. Then they went out and they blessed the people … (Leviticus 9:23)

What is this second blessing?  According to the Sifra, a 4th-century collection of commentary on the book of Leviticus, Moses says: “May it be God’s will to cause His Presence to rest upon the work of your hands!  May God, the God of your fathers, increase your numbers a thousandfold and bless you, as He promised you!”

And the people respond with a verse that appears in Psalm 90:

May the comfort of God, our God, be upon us, and may the work of our hands be an enduring foundation for us.  (Psalm 90:17) 7

Moses’ blessing is a prayer that God will indeed dwell in the new Tent of Meeting that the Israelite people made.  The people’s response, in this context, is a prayer that the work they did with their own hands will result in both divine comfort and an enduring commitment to serving God.

The children of Israel are moved to commit themselves further to God when Moses and Aaron, their human leaders, come out of God’s dwelling-place and bless them. After this commitment,

… and the kavod of God appeared to all the people. Fire went out from the presence of God, and it devoured the rising-offering and the fatty animal-parts on the altar. And all the people saw, and they shouted with joy and they fell on their faces.  (Leviticus 9:23-24)

At that sign of God’s acceptance, the people shout with joy—and relief.

*

A blessing from another person can seem like a useless exercise.  After all, a human being has no power to make the blessing come true.  We can only express the hope that God will make it happen.

And today, the sudden appearance of fire means an emergency, not divine acceptance.

Yet I remember when I received blessings from Rabbi Aryeh Hirschfield, of blessed memory, and I felt a transfer of good will and even a sense of kavod.  This feeling made a psychological difference to me, changing my attitude toward life and toward the divine.

I find I can be committed to an abstract principle, but not comforted by it. Comfort and joy come more naturally when the abstraction is connected with a human being, someone whose warm feelings are palpable.  Maybe a blessing in itself can be a manifestation of God.

Bless someone today.  It might make a difference.

(An earlier version of this essay was posted on March 20, 2010.)

1  First the new high priest, Aaron, makes a reparation-offering (חַטָּאת) and a rising-offering (עֺלָה) for himself. Then he makes a reparation-offering, a rising-offering, a grain offering (מִנְחָה), and a wholeness-offering (שְׁלָמִים) for the people.  For an explanation of these four types of offerings, see my posts Fire Offerings Without Slaughter, Part 1 and Part 2.

2  Shofar (שׁוֹפָר) = a ram’s horn modified for blowing as a wind instrument.

3  Exodus/Shemot  32:1-6.  See my post Ki Tissa: Heard and Not Seen.

4  Exodus/Shemot  35:4-29 and 36:2-7.

5  The Babylonian Talmud, Sotah 38a, assuming that Aaron’s first blessing of the people in Leviticus 9:22 is the same as the blessing God commands all priests to give in Numbers 6:22-23, argues that therefore the “priestly blessing” in Numbers 6:24-26 must be pronounced with the hands raised. Rashi (11th-century rabbi Shlomoh Yitzchaki) and the majority of medieval commentators agreed that Aaron spoke the “priestly blessing”.

6  Samson Raphael Hirsch, The Hirsch Chumash, Sefer Vayikra Part 1, translated by Daniel Haberman, Feldheim Publishers, Jerusalem, 2002,  p. 289-290.

7  Sifra, quoted by W. Gunther Plaut, The Torah: A Modern Commentary, Union of American Hebrew Congregations, New York, 1981, p. 804.

Haftarah for Ki Tavo–Isaiah: Rise and Shine

August 19, 2013 at 11:16 am | Posted in Isaiah 2, Ki Tavo, Yom Kippur | 1 Comment
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I was an alto before I was a Jew. I first sang Handel’s “Messiah” in my high school choir. Now, 27 years after my conversion, I still enjoy Handel’s music, and I still do not take the words seriously. But when you sing words, you remember them.

This week I read the Torah portion, Ki Tavo, and then turned to the haftarah, the passage from the Prophets/Neviyim that is traditionally chanted after the Torah portion. I glanced at the first line of this week’s haftarah in Hebrew, and I immediately sang:

handel-1Arise, shine, for thy light has come! (Isaiah 60:1)

This King James Bible translation accurately captures one possible meaning of the Hebrew. But the “Messiah” uses the line for an entirely different purpose than the book of Isaiah. Handel’s friend Charles Jennens, who provided the libretto for the oratorio, was a devout Anglican who wanted to tell a story of Jesus’ life in terms of direct divine intervention in human affairs. So he cut and pasted verses from all over the King James Bible and the Common Book of Prayer to make his point.

Jennens took many lines out of context from the book of Isaiah. At the beginning of the “Messiah”, after setting the scene, he put in a line from the King James version of Isaiah: Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call His name Emmanuel: God with us.

This line is now notorious as a bad Hebrew translation. A more accurate translation would be: Behold (or Hey!), the young woman is pregnant and is giving birth to a son; may she call his name Immanu-El (with us God). (Isaiah 7:14)

There is no virgin birth in the original Hebrew, and the young woman is already pregnant. There is no indication here or in the rest of Isaiah that this line has anything to do with the birth of someone called Jesus about 700 years later.

But by using this quote from the King James Bible, Jennens established that the “Messiah” was going to be about Jesus. He proceeded with another out-of-context quote from Isaiah: O thou that tellest good tidings to Zion …say unto the cities of Judah, behold your god! (Isaiah 40:9)

Then Jennens goes directly to the verse at the beginning of this week’s haftarah. The King James translation is: Arise, shine, for thy light is come, and the glory of the Lord is risen upon thee.

Here is my own translation:

Arise! Shine! For your light ba,

And the kavod of God dawns over you. (Isaiah 60:1)

ba = come, has come, is coming

kavod = glory, honor, dazzling splendor, awesome presence

In the “Messiah”, Jennens uncharacteristically chose to follow up Isaiah 60:1 with the next two verses, Isaiah 60:2-3. A solo bass sings the King James version: For behold, darkness shall cover the earth, and gross darkness the people; but the Lord shall arise upon thee, and His glory shall be seen upon thee. And the Gentiles shall come to thy light, and kings to the brightness of thy rising.

Here is my translation from the Hebrew:

For hey! the darkness will cover the earth

And the gloom the peoples;

But God will dawn upon you

And Its kavod will appear over you.

And the nations will walk to your light

And kings to a gleam of your dawn. (Isaiah 60:2-3)

What is the light that either came or is coming? And who is “you”?

These three verses connect “light” with God’s glory. In the previous two chapters of Isaiah, the Israelites who live in exile in Babylonia have been groping in the darkness of ignorance, wondering how to find their god. So “light” may mean both enlightenment and God’s close approach.

The “you” (and all the verbs) in the verses above are in the feminine singular, but no female human is mentioned. “The people” and “God” (and “Jesus”!) would all take the masculine form. However, most place-names in the Torah are feminine. The subject whose light will attract the tribute of many nations is finally named in 60:14: And they will call you City of God, Zion of the Holy One of Israel.

Zion (pronounced Tziyon in Hebrew) is a synonym for Jerusalem. Scholars date the second half of the book of Isaiah (chapters 40-66) to about 550-515 B.C.E., around the time when the Persian king Cyrus  gave the Jews in exile permission to return to Jerusalem and rebuild their temple. The poet in Isaiah chapter 60 apparently rejoiced that Zion’s people and religion were rising again, and hoped that the religion would spread as more and more nations “saw the light”.

So in the 6th century B.C.E., the book of Isaiah saw the rebuilding of Jerusalem as the dawn of an era in which belief in the god of Israel would become universal. In the 18th century C.E., the librettist of Handel’s “Messiah” connected the dawning of God’s light with the birth of Jesus, heralding the new religion of Christianity. Meanwhile, for the last 2,000 years or so, Isaiah 60:1-22 has been the “sixth haftarah of consolation” of Jews; we read it during the sixth week after Tisha B’Av, the day of mourning for the fall of the first and second temples in Jerusalem.

Can this haftarah from Isaiah, which is so hopeful about the rebuilding of the temple, still console us for the fall of both temples in Jerusalem? Personally, I am glad that for the last 2,000 years we have been seeking God through prayer instead of through animal offerings at a temple.  But I am still waiting for enlightenment to dawn over Zion.

Meanwhile, I can use a message of hope during this introspective month of Elul, when Jews are asked to prepare for Yom Kippur by reviewing the past year and acknowledging their misdeeds. As Rabbi Shoshana Dworsky pointed out, it is easy for a woman to take the first few verses of this haftarah personally, since all the language is in the feminine singular! What if the poem is addressing me, as I wonder how I will ever outgrow the shortcomings in my character that I am pondering this month?

Maybe my light is coming, and soon I will arise and shine.

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