Shelach-Lekha: Reminder

June 14, 2017 at 8:34 pm | Posted in Shelach-Lekha | Leave a comment
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Living in the present is hard. Even when humans have a plan for the future, we crave knowledge of what benefits and obstacles we will encounter. The more we believe we know about what lies ahead, the more secure we feel—unless the new information makes us panic.

The Israelites reach Kadesh Barnea, on the southern border of Canaan, at the beginning of this week’s Torah portion, Shelach-Lekha (“Send for yourself”). God tells Moses to send scouts to bring back advance knowledge for the people.

“Send for yourself men, veyaturu the land of Canaan which I am giving to the Israelites. Send one man for each tribe of their fathers, each a leader among them.” (Numbers/Bemidbar 13:2)

veyaturu (וְיָתֻרוּ) = and they shall scout out, reconnoiter, wander around and investigate. (A form of the verb tur, תּוּר.)

God does not say what aspects of the land the twelve representatives should investigate. Moses gives them more detailed instructions, addressing first the people’s insecurity about how hard it will be to overcome the indigenous population, then their insecurity about how well they can live in Canaan.

And Moses sent them latur the land of Canaan, and he said to them: “Go up this way through the Negev, and you shall go up into the hill-country. And you shall see the land: what it is and the people who are dwelling on it. Are they strong or feeble, are they few or many? And what is the land where they are dwelling? Is it good or is it bad? And what are the towns where they are dwelling? Are they open camps, or fortified places? And what is the land? Is it fat or is it thin? Are there trees, or none?” (Numbers/Bemidbar 13:17-20)

latur (לָתוּר) = to scout out, reconnoiter, wander around and investigate. (Also a form of the verb tur, תּוּר.)

Scouts return with produce

All twelves scouts return with glowing reports about the fertility of the land, but ten out of twelve describe the towns of the hill-country to the north as large and fortified, and its residents as mighty giants. These ten scouts frighten most of the Israelites and their fellow-travelers into abandoning the commitment they made when they followed the God of Moses out of Egypt, and calling for a return to Egypt.

Then the scouts Joshua and Caleb say:

Only do not rebel against God, and you need not fear the people the land, because they are our food!1  Their protection has left them, but God is with us.  Do not fear them! (Numbers 14:9)

The crowd reaches for stones to throw at the two scouts. They stop only because God’s glory appears (probably as cloud or fire, the usual manifestations). God decrees that they must stay in the wilderness for another 39 years. When they decide to cross into Canaan anyway, perhaps hoping to change God’s mind, they are defeated in battle. (See my post Shelach-Lekha: Too Late.)

The Torah portion closes with God giving more instructions about animal offerings, declaring a death sentence for a man gathering wood on Shabbat, and ordering the Israelites to wear fringes on the corners of their garments. According to some modern scholars, these three passages were written by different scribes and inserted into the main story by a later redactor.2

However, I believe the teaching about the fringes offers a solution to the human tendency revealed by the story of the scouts. When potentially adverse information makes our plan look iffy, we refuse to move forward with it, because we do not trust ourselves, our fellow humans, or “God” (which might mean the mastermind of the universe, fate, the deep soul, or something else). Instead we tend to panic and clutch at a less reasonable alternative plans—especially if they are seductive, like the Israelites’ false memories of security and plentiful food in Egypt.

Tzitzit

At the end of the Torah portion, God tells Moses:

Speak to the Israelites, and you shall say to them that they shall make for themselves tzitzit on the kenafayim of their begadim through their generations, and place on the tzitzit of the kanaf a thread of tekheilet.  And it shall be a tzitzit for you, and you shall look at it and you shall remember all the commandments of God and you shall do them; and lo taturu after your heart or after your eyes, after that which seduces you. Thus you shall remember and do all My commandments, and you shall become holy to your God. (Numbers 15:38-40)

tzitzit (צִיצִת) = fringe(s), tassel(s), tuft(s). (From the same root as tzitz, צִיצ = flower, bud; the gold medallion on the high priest’s forehead. See my post Tetzavveh: Holy Flower.)

kenafayim (כְּנָפַיִם) = plural of kanaf (כָּנָף) = wing, corner, edge, hem, skirt.

begadim (בְּגָדִים) = plural of beged (בּגֶד) = clothing, garment, outer wrapping; unfaithfulness, treachery.

Wool dyed
with tekheilet

tekheilet (תְּכֵלֶת) = blue dye made from a Mediterranean murex sea snail. (The cord fastening the tzitz to the high priest’s forehead is dyed tehkeilet, as are parts of the curtains of the Tent of Meeting, and cloths that cover the holy ark, table, lampstand, and incense altar when they are moved. See my post Bemidbar: Covering the Sacred.)

lo taturu (lo, לֺא = not + taturu, תָתֻרוּ = another form of the verb tur, תּוּר.) = you shall not scout out, reconnoiter, wander around investigating.

On a simple level, God asks people—from the Israelites on the border of Canaan down through the generations to Jews today—to attach fringes that include blue threads to the corner hems of their clothing. We must look at them, and remember all the divine rules we are supposed to follow. Then instead of carrying out whatever fantasy pops up in our hearts, or succumbing to whatever temptation we see in the world, we will remember God and follow the rules, thereby becoming holy people.

On a more poetic level, God asks people to make flowers of thread reminiscent of the flower of gold on the high priest’s forehead. Each thread flower must include a thread dyed the same blue as the cord around the high priest’s head and the cloth used for the sanctuary. These reminders of holiness shall be like wings, lifting us away from our outer covering of unfaithfulness to our God. When we look at our tzitzit, we shall want to become holy people, so we shall follow God’s rules instead of straying after temporary seductions.

When I pray the morning service, I look at the tzitzit on the corners of my prayer shawl when I first put it on, and at several points in the daily prayer service when holding up tzitzit is customary. Following Jewish tradition, I kiss my tzitzit when I read out the passage from Numbers 15:37-41, from the end of this week’s Torah portion.

Is this reminder enough to make me faithful to God? Maybe not to the God of Israel, since I do not follow most of the rules that observant Orthodox Jews follow. But looking at the tzitzit does remind me not to panic when I receive upsetting information regarding the possible future. It reminds me to move forward anyway, keeping my commitments to myself, to my fellow human beings, and to the “God” that I am grounded in. It reminds me that what happens to me is not as important as how well I behave.

May we all find more ways to be mindful, so that when panic threatens we will remind ourselves of the deep commitments that give our lives meaning, and rise toward the holiness of being steadfast in our dedication to the good.

1  They are our food” is an idiom meaning: They are helpless against us, we can eat them up as a predator eats its prey.

2  One example is Richard Elliott Friedman, The Bible with Sources Revealed, HarperCollins, San Francisco, 203, pp. 266-268.

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Kedoshim: Reciprocal Holiness

May 5, 2017 at 2:31 pm | Posted in Kedoshim, Shemini | Leave a comment
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The Torah portion named Kedoshim (“holy”) begins:

And God spoke to Moses, saying:  “Speak to the whole community of the Children of Israel, and you shall say to them:  Kedoshim you shall be, because kadosh am I, God, your God.”  (Leviticus/Vayikra 19:1-2)

kedoshim (קְדֺשִׁים) = plural of kadosh.

kadosh (קָדוֹשׁ) = (As an adjective:) holy, sacred; set apart for religious use; dedicated to God. (As a noun:) something that is holy. (Kodesh, קֺדֶשׁ, has a similar meaning, and is also used in the Torah both as an adjective and as a noun.)

Vestments of the high priest

An object (such as a priest’s vestments, a tool for the altar, an animal offering) is kadosh in the Hebrew Bible when it is for religious use only. A place is (such as Mount Sinai, the temple, Jerusalem) is kadosh when God is present there, either manifesting as a fire or a voice, or simply known to dwell there. (See my posts Chayyei Sarah: A Holy Place and Terumah & Psalm 74: Second Home.) The day of Shabbat is kadosh because it is dedicated to abstaining from ordinary activities in order to spend time in contemplation or worship of God.

God’s reputation is also called kadosh. Later in the Torah portion Kedoshim, God warns that anyone who gives a child to the Molekh profanes the reputation of God’s kodesh.1

A priest is kadosh because he is formally dedicated to God, and has a different life from non-priests: he must serve God at the temple and instruct the people on ritual matters; and he depends on the whole community for support, owning no farmland of his own.

But what does it mean for God to be kadosh? And what does it mean for human beings who are not priests to be kedoshim?

Here are the three passages in the Hebrew Bible in which God orders people to be kedoshim because God is kadosh:

  1. Holiness as ritual purity

The first two times God declares that the Israelites shall be kedoshim because God is kadosh happen in the Torah portion Shemini, earlier in the book of Leviticus. Right after a list of which animals are and are not kosher for eating, the Torah says:

Because I, God, am your god, vehitkadishtem, and you will be kedoshim, because kadosh am I; and you shall you shall not make yourselves impure through any of the tiny teeming animals swarming over the earth.  Because I am God, the one who brought you up from the land of Egypt to be your god; and you shall be kedoshim because kadosh am I. This is the teaching of the land-animals and the flying-animals, and for all living beings teeming in the water and for all swarming animals on the earth: to distinguish between the impure and the pure, and between the edible living things and the living things that you may not eat. (Leviticus 11:44-47)

vehitkadishtem (וְהִתְקַדִּשְׁתֶּם) = you shall make yourselves kedoshim, you shall consecrate yourselves.

Animals that the Israelites are forbidden to eat cause temporary ritual impurity in any person or thing that touches their dead carcasses.  The mammals and birds that are acceptable sacrificial offerings to God (cattle, sheep, goats, and two kinds of birds) are all from the kosher list.

The Torah includes many other laws about ritual observance. Transgressing one of these laws means being less obedient to God, and therefore no longer kadosh—until one has made atonement with the appropriate sacrifice.

The Torah portion Kedoshim reinforces this idea:

Vehitkadishtem, and you will be kedoshim, because I, God, am your god. And you shall observe My decrees and do them.  I, God, am mekadishkhem. (Leviticus 20:7-8)

mekadishkhem (מְקַדִּשְׁכֶם) = the one who makes you kedoshim, the one who consecrates you, the one who transfers holiness to you.

For a human, in other words, being kadosh is a condition like ritual purity.  People who follow all the rules of the Israelite religion are kedoshim—because God puts them in a kadosh state.  Maybe for God, being kadosh means being mekadishkhem.

  1. Holiness as moral virtue

Honor Your Parents,
by Hans der Maler, 1529

The Torah portion Kedoshim begins with Kedoshim you shall be, because kadosh am I” (Leviticus 19:2). Right before this divine direction, in the previous portion, Acharey Mot, is a list of forbidden sexual partners.2  Right after it is a list of 20 commandments, starting with “Everyone shall revere his mother and his father” and concluding with “You shall love your neighbor as yourself”. While two or three of these commandments are about religious ritual3, the rest lay out ethical standards for human interactions.

For the last millennium, many commentators have concluded that God is asking us to become kedoshim by behaving ethically toward other people. In the 11th century C.E. three great rabbis, Rashi in France4, Maimonides in Egypt5, and Bachya ibn Pakudah in Spain6, all responded to Kedoshim by writing that human beings become kedoshim by exercising self-restraint over their passions and appetites, especially their sexual appetites. Besides avoiding the immoral deeds specifically mentioned in Acharey Mot and Kedoshim, humans must fully dedicate themselves to holiness by acting moderately and responsibly even when they are doing what is permitted.

More recently, Rabbi Adin Even Israel Steinsaltz has pointed out: “Bringing a korban [an offering to the altar] every once in a while is simple. But to fulfill all the various major and minor requirements listed in Parashat Kedoshim every day is quite another story. Not for naught does the Torah say, ‘Everyone shall revere his mother and his father’ (Lev. 19:3). Anyone who has any experience in this knows how difficult it is. It is something that we are faced with every day, and it can be especially challenging when one’s father and mother are themselves not exceptionally holy people.

            “This struggle is the fundamental struggle for holiness. Parashat Kedoshim presents a long list of minor requirements, none of which is extraordinary on its own, but each one recurs day after day. The very requirement to maintain this routine without succumbing to jadedness and despair—that itself creates the highest levels of holiness.”7

For a human, in other words, being kadosh means continuously striving to act ethically in the world.  Most commentators who argue for this meaning of kadosh assume that God is kadosh because God is morally perfect, and we become kedoshim to the extent that we imitate God.

Yet the anthropomorphic God portrayed in much of the Torah often seems to act immorally. The “God” in the first five books of the Torah or Bible frequently bursts into anger and kills thousands of people without discriminating between the truly evil ringleaders (if any) and those who are merely weak or imperfect, or happen to be part of a wrong-doer’s family.

However, in the book of Exodus God claims to be compassionate, gracious, slow to anger, kind, truthful, and forgiving.8 Some people claim that what looks to us like God’s bad behavior, both in the Torah and when bad things happen to good people today, is really part of God’s larger plan for ultimate justice and mercy for everyone.  We humans can’t see the big picture, but this is the best of all possible worlds, and God is kodesh after all.

  1. Holiness as exclusive possession

Sometimes the Torah calls the Israelites kadosh because they are set apart by God, and God is kadosh through the distinction of being the only god the Israelites worship.9 This concept of holiness as segregation appears near the end of this week’s Torah portion.

And you shall be kedoshim for Me, because kadosh am I, God, and I have separated you from the [other] peoples to be Mine.  (Leviticus 20:26)

Asa Destroys Idols,
Petrus Comestor Bible Historiale, France, 1372

The exclusivity of this arrangement between God and the Israelites leads to rules that discriminate against non-Israelites.  For example, in the book of Deuteronomy/Devarim, Moses warns the people that when they conquer their “promised land’ in Canaan and defeat the seven tribes already living there, they must not make any treaties with these tribes; they must not intermarry with them; and they must destroy all their religious items.

For you are a kadosh people to God, your god; God, your god, chose you to belong to It as a treasured possession, out of all the peoples on the face of the earth.  (Deuteronomy/Devarim 7:6)

Sifra, a collection of commentary on Leviticus that was probably compiled in the third century C.E., rephrases God’s direction at the beginning of the Torah portion Kedoshim this way: “As I, God, am set apart, so you must be set apart.” The same condition of being “set apart”—from other peoples or from other gods—defines how both the Israelite people and God are kadosh.

*

All of the passages in the Torah that include some version of Kedoshim you shall be, because kadosh am I” concern activities in the physical world: obeying or decreeing ritual rules; or dedicating oneself to ethical behavior; or excluding other people and other gods. None of these passages mention spiritual transcendence.

Later in the Hebrew Bible, the prophets sometimes use the word kadosh to indicate that God is an awesome and overpowering mystery.10  In the 16th century C.E., the Maharal of Prague wrote that a person or act is kadosh when it is transcendent in its essence—like God.11 And in the 18th century, Hassidic rabbis defined holiness as an intense and continuous attachment and devotion to God. This deep mental connection let God’s holiness flow into a person.12

But in the book of Leviticus, kadosh describes something in the physical world: an object, a place, a day, a priest—or an ordinary Israelite’s actions in the world, or God’s actions in the world.

What it means to say God’s actions are kadosh depends on how you define “God”—and that determines what human beings do to become kadosh.

  1. The “God” of ritual purity

Some people think of “God” as the anthropomorphic biblical character who makes all the rules. They strive to follow whatever rules their current human leaders have selected from the Bible in a literal way, eschewing symbolism. (It would be impossible to follow all the rules in the Bible; some contradict each other, and some cannot be performed in the modern world.)

To the extent that literal-minded religious people achieve this, they consider themselves holy. But all too often this definition of God leads people to denounce those who they believe are not following their chosen biblical rules.

  1. The “God” of moral virtue

Some people think of “God” not as an anthropomorphic being, but as a theological abstraction of perfection: omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent. Others think of “God” as the force of goodness in the world. Either way, “God” is perfectly virtuous by definition, and the bible should not always be taken literally.

When people think of “God” as an ethical ideal (from the original 13 attributes to modern variations on “God is love”), and they try to become holy, they strive to act with more forethought or kindness or compassion toward others—thus imitating their God.

  1. The “God” of exclusive possession

Some Jews consider themselves the “chosen people”, descendants of the Israelites with whom “God” has a special and exclusive relationship in the Hebrew Bible.  Some Christians consider themselves the “chosen people”, with whom “God” made a new covenant in the Christian Bible.

Defining God in terms of the in-group usually results in disparaging the out-group. People imitate the “God” who singles out one “chosen people” by discriminating against all other groups of people, who they assume are inferior and/or threatening.

 

If you want to become kadosh, be careful how you think about God!

1  Leviticus 20:3.  The Torah portion does not say whether sacrificing a child to the alien god Molekh profanes God’s reputation for separating the Israelites from people with other religions, or God’s reputation for the ethical act of banning child sacrifice.

2  Leviticus 18:1-30.

3  Seventeen of the twenty commandments in 19:3-18 are definitely about behavior toward other people, i.e. ethics.  The other three are:

* Observe Shabbat. (Leviticus 19:5)

* Do not worship idols. (19:4)

* Eat a wholeness-offering (שְׁלָמִים) in the first two days. (19:5-8)  This appears to be an instruction about ritual, but some commentators point out that the wholeness-offering is the only offering in which some of the roasted meat and grain is shared with guests. In order to make sure this large offering is eaten in two days, the person making the offering must invite multiple guests, so this commandment may also address the ethical virtue of generosity.

4  Rashi (Rabbi Shlomoh Yitzchaki), commentary on Leviticus 19:2.

5  Maimonides (Rabbi Moses ben Maimon), Guide for the Perplexed.

6  Rabbi Bachya ben Yosef ibn Pakudah, Kad HaKemach.

7  Rabbi Adin Even-Israel Steinsaltz, Talks on the Parasha, Koren Publishers, Jerusalem, 2015.

8  This is a summary of the “13 attributes” God proclaims to Moses in Exodus 34:6-7. However, 34:7 ends by saying that God punishes not only wrongdoers, but their children and children’s children, to the fourth generation.

9  God is called kedosh Israel, “the holy one of Israel”, twelve times in the first book of Isaiah and fourteen times in the second book of Isaiah, as well as in 2 Kings 19:22; Jeremiah 50:29 and 51:5; Ezekiel 39:7; and Psalms 71:22, 78:41, and 89:19.

10  One example is a vision of the first Isaiah: In the year of the death of the king Uzziyahu, I beheld my lord sitting on a high and elevated throne, and [God’s] skirts were filling the palace.  Serafim were standing over [God], six wings, six wings to each … And they would call, one to another, and say:  “Kadosh! Kadosh! Kadosh!  God of hosts!  [God’s] glory fills the earth!” (Isaiah 6:1-3)

11  Rabbi Yehudah Loew ben Betzaleil, a.k.a. the Maharal of Prague, Tiferet Yisrael 37.

12  Arthur Green, Speaking Torah, Vol. 1, Jewish Lights Publishing, Woodstock, Vermont, 2013, pp. 292, 295.

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?

Bechukkotai: Gender, Age, and Personal Value

May 14, 2015 at 2:34 pm | Posted in Bechukkotai | Leave a comment
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by Melissa Carpenter, maggidah

Men are worth more than women.  It says so in the Torah—or does it?

A list of the equivalent value in silver of each of eight classes of people appears in Bechukkotai (“by My decrees”), the last portion in the book of Leviticus/Vayikra:

Weighing scales by Cornelius MatsysWhen someone undertakes a vow consisting of erekekha of persons for God— (Leviticus/Vayikra 27:2)

erekekha (עֶרְכְּךֳ) = the equivalent value, assessment.

—then the erekekha of the male of age 20 years up to age 60 years, erekekha will be 50 shekels of silver according to the shekel-weight of the Holy place. And if she is a female, erekekha will be 30 shekels. (Leviticus 27:3-4)

And if from age 5 years up to age 20 years, erekekha will be for the male 20 shekels, and for the female 10 shekels. (Leviticus 27:5)

And if from the age of a month up to age 5 years, erekekha will be for the male 5 shekels of silver, and erekekha for the female 3 shekels of silver. (Leviticus 27:6)

And if from age 60 years and above, if male, erekekha will be 15 shekels, and for the female, 10 shekels. (Leviticus 27:7)

In this lis of equivalent values, males are assigned a higher erekekha than females, and adults between the ages of 20 and 60 are assigned a higher erekekha than children or seniors.  Individual differences between people within each of the eight classes of persons are disregarded.

What does undertaking “a vow consisting of erekekha of persons for God” mean?

Leviticus includes a number of mandatory gifts to the sanctuary or the priests who serve there.  All Israelite households are required to give:

* tithes.

* the firstborn of their livestock and a portion of their first fruits.

* the prescribed animal and grain offerings for relieving guilt and thanking God for good fortune.

* the prescribed offerings for being readmitted into the community after a period of ritual impurity.

The tithes and the first farm products are like annual taxes or membership dues.  For the ancient Israelites, there was no separation of temple and state; every citizen was also a member of the religious community and had to help support the religious rituals at the temple.  Individuals had to make additional payments to support the rituals for specified situations in their own lives.

I daresay most Israelites were glad to be part of a system that connected them with their God through concrete actions.  And sometimes one of them had a religious impulse, and felt moved to pledge an extra donation.

Ancient Israelites could not do this by simply writing a check.  In fact, even coins were not invented until the sixth century B.C.E. (A shekel was a measure of weight in silver, rather than a coin.) So the Torah portion Bechukkotai considers four other things that could be donated:  a field, a house, part or all of an edible animal, and the erekekha of a person.

The Talmud tractate Arakhin, written during the first few centuries C.E. by rabbis analyzing this passage in the Torah, states that either a man or a woman could make this vow.  A person often dedicated his or her own erekekha to the temple in Jerusalem.  But someone could also vow to donate the erekekha of any person belonging to him or her at the time—i.e. someone the vower owned and could legally sell.  In that era, people could sell their slaves or their own underage sons and daughters.

When someone made the vow, a priest would collect a token pledge.  Then sometime later, the vower would come to the temple and fulfill his or her vow by paying the erekekha in silver.

Why donate the equivalent value of a person?

Wouldn’t it be simpler to vow to give a certain weight of silver to the sanctuary?  Why bring a person into the equation?

One theory is that the system of erekekha was developed to replace the custom of giving human beings to God, either by sacrificing them at the altar or by dedicating them to service at a temple.

Human sacrifice was widespread in the ancient Near East, and is mentioned several times in the Bible.  In the book of Judges, an Israelite general named Yiftach (Jephthah in English) vows that if God lets him vanquish the enemy and return safely, he will give God whatever comes out the door of his house by making it a burnt offering.  His daughter comes out the door.  She is sacrificed.

“Samuel Dedicated by Hannah” by Frank W.W. Topham

 

 

In the first book of Samuel, Hannah vows that if God lets her have a son, she will give him to God for “all the days of his life”.  Once her son, Samuel, is weaned, she brings him to the temple in Shiloh to serve as an assistant to the high priest.

The book of Leviticus, on the other hand, describes the practices of the priests during the time of the first temple in Jerusalem, centuries after the period described in Judges and Samuel.  Human sacrifice has been banned, and the priests and Levites who serve at the temple in Jerusalem inherit their positions.

But perhaps some people still made vows that if God would do something extraordinary for them, then they would do something extraordinary for God. And perhaps some people simply wanted to be consecrated to the temple, even though they could not be priests or Levites.

One way to achieve this was to replace the donation of a human being with the donation of the human being’s erekekha in silver.

The time lag between the vow and the delivery of the erekekha is not explained in either the Bible or the Talmud.  Perhaps some people felt moved to make an unusual vow before they had saved up enough silver to fulfill it.

Or perhaps the time lag was important because between the time of the vow and the time the silver was delivered, the person whose erekekha was vowed was considered consecrated—marked out as having a holy purpose.

Imagine what it would be like to undertake a vow that made you consecrated to God for a period of time.  Unlike a monk or nun (or a nazirite in ancient Israel—see my blog post Naso: Let Down Your Hair), you would continue with your usual life.  But the meaning of your life would be different.

Imagine what it would be like to undertake a vow that made your servant or your young child consecrated to God for a period of time.

Why set the value according to age and gender?

The erekekha of a person is not his or her market value. The eight classifications according to age and gender do bear some relation to a person’s ability to perform work; generally speaking, adults between the ages of 20 and 60 can do more work than the very old or the very young, and men can do more literal heavy lifting than women.  But the market value of an individual sold as a slave varied according to the person’s physical and mental condition.  (Talmud Bavli, Arakhin 2a)  The eight assessments for a person’s erekekha disregard any individual strengths or weaknesses.

The assignment of values according to age and gender probably reflects the prejudices of society in the ancient Near East, which was dominated by men who were heads of households. Yet Judith Antonelli, in her book In the Image of God: A Feminist Commentary on the Torah, argues that the lower erekekha for women indicates that the ancient Israelites respected women more than their neighbors did.  “…the lower prices for women reflect the Torah’s prohibition of sexual slavery. Where female slaves are officially used for sex as well as for labor—that is, kept in harems as concubines—they are in greater demand than male slaves and thus command a higher price.”

In other words, even slave women had value as persons, not merely as sex objects.

So the amount of each erekekha reflected the realities of an agricultural society in which brawn mattered, free men dominated, and children were possessions.  But vowing to pay the erekekha of a woman, child, or old person, meant respecting that person’s value.  By consecrating him or her to God for the period of your vow, you were assigning a high value to your slave or your child.

And when you consecrated yourself to God by vowing to pay your own erekekha, you were assigning a high value to your own life.

Today our systems of religious worship are very different.  But I wonder if we could devise a new way to consecrate our own life, or the life of someone in our family, for a period of time until we achieve a goal. It would change the way we treated ourselves or the other person.  And everyone, of any age and gender, might be worth more.

 

Kedoshim: Holier than Thou

April 27, 2015 at 9:34 pm | Posted in Kedoshim | Leave a comment
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by Melissa Carpenter, maggidah

God spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to the whole assembly of the Children of Israel, and say to them: Kedoshim tiheyu, for kadosh [am] I, God, your god. (Leviticus/ Vayikra 19:1-2)

kadosh (קָדוֹשׁ) = holy; set apart for religious ritual. (plural kedoshim).

tiheyu (תִּהְיוּ) = you shall become, you shall be.

This divine directive, which opens the Torah portion Kedoshim, bundles together three statements:

1) You can, and should, become holy.

2)  God, the God of Israel, is holy. (Or God will be holy.  English requires a form of the verb “to be” between “holy” and “I” in this sentence, but Hebrew omits it, so we can only guess whether God is holy, or used to be holy, or will be holy.)

3)  God’s holiness is related to human holiness.

First, what does it mean for a human being to be holy? 

A place is called “holy” in the Hebrew Bible if it is physically close to a manifestation of God. (When Moses stands in front of the Burning Bush, he is standing on holy ground.  The Holy of Holies in the sanctuary or temple is where the voice of God manifests.)

Medieval depiction of high priest

Medieval depiction of high priest

Objects (such as incense pans) and days (such as Shabbat) are holy if they are set apart for religious use. The holy status of the high priest of the Israelites is probably due to both his proximity to God’s presence in the Holy of Holies, and the dedication of his life to service in the sanctuary.

The Torah mentions two other ways human beings can become holy. One way is by always obeying God’s laws and decrees.

This day God, your god, commands you to perform these decrees and the laws, and you must observe and perform them with all your heart and with all your soul.  …  And God promised to you today you will be Its treasured people … a holy people to God, your god, as It has spoken.  (Deuteronomy 26:16-19)

Another way that a person can become holy is by always acting ethically. In Kedoshim, after telling the Israelites to become holy, God provides a list of general rules of behavior which scholars call the Holiness Code.  The opening of the Torah portion is followed by a list of general rules, most of which are about treating other people ethically, from You shall respect your mother and your father (Leviticus:19:3) to You shall love your fellow as yourself (Leviticus 19:18).

So human beings become holy if they are set apart for religious ritual, if they observe and perform all of God’s laws and decrees, or if they consistently behave according to the ethics laid out in this Torah portion.

What does it mean for the God of Israel to be holy?

The god portrayed in the Bible is not holy in any of the three ways humans become holy.  God is not set apart for religious ritual; “He” also interferes in a variety of human affairs, telling people what to do, sending plagues, and frightening armies.  God does not obey “His” own laws and decrees, since they are written so they only apply to humans.  And the God character in the Torah violates at least two of the ethical imperatives in the Holiness Code.

You shall not do injustice in judgement … (Leviticus 19:15)

The God character often makes a judgement in anger and then wipes out the innocent with the guilty.  For example, “He” floods the earth and kills every human being except for Noah’s immediate family—deliberately drowning thousands of innocent children. Another example is when God is responsible for killing all of Job’s children and afflicting him with horrible diseases—just in order to find out what Job will do.

You shall not hate your brother in your heart; you shall certainly reprove your fellow person and …you shall not take vengeance.  (Leviticus 19:17-18)

In other words, when someone’s behavior angers you, you must give that person an opportunity to repent, rather than lashing back in revenge.  But in the Torah, God is often keen on vengeance.  For example, in the poem at the end of Deuteronomy/Devarim, God vows:

When I whet the lightning of My sword

And my hand seizes it with judgement

I will give back vengeance to My adversary

And My hated enemy I will repay.  (Deuteronomy/Devarim 32:41)

In later parts of the Hebrew Bible, God becomes more ethical.  A shining example is the book of Jonah, in which God rescues Jonah from drowning even though he has refused to obey God’s order to go to Nineveh, makes sure Jonah reproves the inhabitants of Nineveh so they have an opportunity to repent, withholds vengeance against them when they do repent, and reproves the refractory Jonah with a lesson in compassion.

The directive at the opening of Kedoshim is usually translated:

You shall be holy, for I, God, your god, am holy.

But maybe we should translate it this way:

You shall become holy, for I, God, your god, will become holy.

Medieval depiction of a seraph

Medieval depiction of a seraph

Another way to explain the difference between human holiness and divine holiness is to note that God in the Bible seems to be holy by definition; anything pertaining to God is, or ought to be, holy.

One of the names of God is Ha-kaddosh, “the holy one”.  In the Prophets, God’s holiness appears to refer to a numinous experience of the divine beyond our ordinary perceptions.

In the year of the death of the king Uzziyahu, I beheld my Lord sitting on a high and elevated throne, and [God’s] skirts were filling the palace.  Serafim are standing up above him, six wings, six wings to each: with a pair it covers its face and with a pair it covers its feet and with a pair it flies. And it would call, one to another, and say:  “Kadosh! Kadosh! Kadosh! God of hosts!  Its glory fills the earth!” (Isaiah 6:1-3)

How is God’s holiness related to human holiness?

Nevertheless, there must be some relationship between God’s holiness and human holiness, or the opening directive in Kedoshim would not instruct us to become holy because God is holy.

In the first chapter of the book of Genesis, God creates humankind “in God’s image”. Even the primeval adam, human, seems to lack most of God’s traits, but he-she can speak and name things, has the potential to make new objects, and has the potential to acquire knowledge of good and bad—like God. Before they can actually make things or distinguish between good and bad, humans have to spend time learning and thinking.

I think that humankind also has the potential to become holy like God.  The first stage is to learn how to serve the divine and how to behave ethically.  Next we must dedicate ourselves to a divine purpose and to always striving to do the right thing.  After that comes practice.  I have met a few people who had practiced for a long time, and to me they seemed to embody holiness.  I could sense it just by being in their presence—the way someone who beheld God might be moved to sing out Kadosh! Kadosh! Kadosh!  Holy! Holy! Holy!

 

Vayakheil: Holy Time

March 8, 2015 at 12:47 pm | Posted in Vayakheil | 1 Comment
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by Melissa Carpenter, maggidah

Holy time is more important than holy space. Jewish commentary through the millennia has drawn this conclusion from several key passages in the Torah, including the opening of this week’s Torah portion, Vayakheil (“And he assembled”):

matchAnd Moses assembled the whole community of the Children of Israel, and he said to them: Six days you shall do melakhah, and the seventh day there shall be holiness for you: a shabbat shabbaton for God. Anyone who does melakhah on it shall be put to death. You shall not kindle a fire in any of your settlements on the day of the shabbat. (Exodus/Shemot 35:1-3)

melakhah (מְלָאכָה) = tasks, job, crafts; creative work, productive work; project, enterprise.

Shabbat (שַׁבָּת) = day of rest, day of stopping. (From the root verb shavat, שָׁבַת = stop, cease, desist.)

shabbat shabbaton (שַׁבַּת שַׁבָּתוֹן) = day of absolute stopping.

Immediately after this, Moses hands down God’s directions for making the portable sanctuary—the most holy type of melakhah humans can do. According to most of commentary, Moses first makes it clear that the work of making the sanctuary must be confined to six days a week, then tells the people what to make.  The holy day of Shabbat trumps the holy sanctuary.

As confirming evidence, the commentary points to the first mention of any form of the root shavat in the Torah—after God spends six “days” creating the heavens and the earth and everything in them.

God finished on the seventh day Its melakhah that It had done, vayishbot on the seventh day from all Its work that It had done. God blessed the seventh day and made it holy… (Genesis/Bereishit 2:2-3)

vayishbot (וַיִּשְׁבֹּת) = and he/it stopped, ceased, desisted.

God made the seventh day holy long before making the sanctuary (or any other place) holy.

In between the beginning of Genesis and the ending of Exodus, the Torah gives us more information about Shabbat and melakhah in the fourth of the Ten Commandments.

Remember the day of the Shabbat to make it holy. Six days you shall serve and you shall do all your melakhah. And the seventh day is Shabbat for God, your god; you shall not do any melakhah—you or your son or your daughter, your male slave or your female slave or your livestock or your resident alien who is within your gates.  Because [for] six days God made the heavens and the earth, the sea and everything that is in them, vayanach on the seventh day; therefore God blessed the seventh day and made it holy. (Exodus 20:8-11)

vayanach  (וַיָּנָח) = and he/it rested.

Here the Torah introduces the idea of stopping as resting. People, animals, and even God must periodically stop and rest. We know that our physical bodies need rest to rebuild energy. Do our souls also need rest to re-energize? During Moses’ first 40 days on Mount Sinai, God says:

The Children of Israel shall guard the Shabbat, to make the Shabbat for their generations, a covenant forever. Between Me and the Children of Israel it is a sign forever, because for six days God made the heavens and the earth, and on the seventh day shavat, vayinafash. (Exodus 31:16-17)

shavat (שָׁבַת) = he/it stopped, ceased, desisted.

vayinafash (וַיִּנָּפַשׁ) = and refreshed his/its soul, and recovered himself/itself, and re-animated himself/itself. (From the same root as nefesh = soul, the soul that animates the body, inclination, appetite.)

Since the divine life of the universe pauses periodically for refreshment and redirection, so must our own souls. (See my earlier post, Shabbat in Yitro, Mishpatim and Ki Tissa: Soul Recovery.)

One divine inspiration can trigger human beings to engage in a lifetime of holy work; but if we do not stop regularly to rest and listen with our souls, our work will never be animated by new inspirations.

When Shabbat comes up again in this week’s Torah portion, the Torah adds a new detail:

You shall not kindle a fire in any of your settlements on the day of the shabbat. (Exodus 35:3)

Kindling a fire is the archetype of a human activity that is creative and useful, and enables further creative and useful work. Many ancient cultures considered kindling fire the beginning of civilization.

fireI would add that God manifests in the Torah as a sound, a cloud, or a fire. So fire can stand for our own holy work, as well as for God’s presence. And fire represents change and activity; flames are always moving, never stopping, until the fire has burned down to an ember.

I learned a hard lesson from preparing this blog post: as I suspected, I have been cheating myself.

It is a pleasure to refrain from doing drudgery on Shabbat. And during the years I worked at a job that was not my calling, I was always glad to take Saturday off.

But now I love my melakhah, my creative work of learning, pondering, and teaching Torah through my adult education classes, my Torah monologues, the services I lead, and this weekly blog. I love the work so much that it is hard to make myself take a vacation. I know I should rest on Shabbat, but after all, studying Torah is an approved Shabbat activity.  So what if I put sticky tags next to passages I want to copy onto my computer the next day? So what if I take notes on Shabbat afternoon, even though the Talmud (in Shabbat 73a) includes writing in its list of melakhah forbidden on Shabbat?  I decided long ago that I never wanted to be so strict in my observance that Shabbat became a punishment.  Why not write down any ideas about the Torah that come to me?  After all, studying Torah is holy work.

So was making the items for the sanctuary.

Rereading the portion Vayakheil this year, I can understand the value of stopping even holy work, once a week. My work makes me feel happy, but also driven. Every day that I have the blessing of time to work on Torah, I quickly kindle my inner fire. So far I have not run out of insights and observations—perhaps because I have 60 years of life to reflect upon. But I do run out of energy. I am starting to worry that my fuel supply is dwindling, and if I go on this way, I will burn out.

I need to rest more. I need to re-animate my soul. I need a regular day of shabbat shabbaton, absolute stopping. The Torah is right.

So I am going to start obeying the fourth commandment. I will still lead a Shabbat service now and then, having prepared the week before. But I will rest every Shabbat, and refrain from working on my next holy project. It will not be easy for me.

 

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