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.

Tzav: Filling Up a Priest

April 5, 2017 at 5:44 pm | Posted in Tzav | Leave a comment
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The Israelites complete the tent that will serve as a portable temple at the end of the book of Exodus/Shemot. Moses consecrates the altar and the priests who will perform all the required rituals in this week’s Torah portion, Tzav, the second portion in the book of Leviticus/Vayikra.

High Priest’s garments

Moses assembles the whole community outside the entrance of the new Tent of Meeting. In front of everyone he washes his brother Aaron and Aaron’s four sons, then dresses them in the white, gold, red, purple, and blue ritual garments described in the book of Exodus/Shemot.1

The ceremony continues with the ritual slaughter of a bull and three rams, offerings of animal parts and three kinds of flat cakes, and the application of anointing oil and blood from the slaughtered animals in various locations and combinations. (See my post Tzav: Horns, Ears, Thumbs, and Toes.) After the gorgeous new ceremonial garments are spotted all over with oil and blood they are holy—dedicated to God.  So are Aaron and his sons, but they are not yet priests.

Moses leaves them with a supply of boiled meat (from the second ram) and leftover grain products (from the grain offering), and gives them strict instructions:

You must not leave the entrance of the Tent of Meeting for seven days, until the day of melot the days of your milu-im; because in seven days yemallei your yad. (Leviticus/Vayikra 8:33)

melot (מְלֺאת) = filling up, being full, fulfilling, completing.  (A form of the verb mala, מָלַא = filled, was full.)

milu-im (מִילֻּאִים) = ordination; setting for a jewel to fill.  (From the root mala.)

yemallei (יְמַלֵּא) = it will fill up.  (Another form of the verb mala.)

yad (יַד) = hand; power, ability.

mala yad (מָלַא יַד) = Literally: filled the hand.  Idiomatically: ordained.2

Tent of Meeting and its courtyard
(entrances in red)

According to God’s instructions to Moses in the book of Exodus, one part of the ritual will be repeated each day during this seven-day period: the slaughter of a bull and consecration of the altar with its blood.3 But Aaron and his sons will simply sit in the tent entrance in their spattered garments, gradually eating their portions of the meat and grain offerings that they had shared with God.

God commanded to do what was done today, to atone for you. And you must sit at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting day and night for seven days, and you must watch over the watch of God, so you will not die; for so I was commanded.  (Leviticus 8:34-35)

The Torah does not say whether the long ritual served as a general atonement and spiritual purification, or whether it atones for Aaron’s sin of making the golden calf back in the book of Exodus.4

Nor does it say what Aaron and his sons must watch over or guard for seven days. Many commentators have written that they spend the seven days meditating on the rules of holiness and ritual purity for serving God.5

Another viewpoint is that they are mourning, because they have a premonition that at least one of them will die on the eighth day, when they first serve God as official priests.6 But when Aaron’s two oldest sons, Nadav and Avihu, do die on the eighth day, in next week’s Torah portion, it comes as a shock to everyone.

The Torah also quotes Moses as telling Aaron and his sons that they must not leave the entrance of the Tent of Meeting for seven days because “it will fill up (yemallei) your ability (yad)”.  Maybe it takes seven days in the entrance to God’s dwelling-place to fill up with sufficient holy awe to be able to conduct the business of holiness.

What strikes me is that Aaron and his sons are neither born nor trained to be priests.  They get their new positions without any previous job experience.

Chur and Aaron support Moses, by J.E. Millais, 1871

Up to this point, Aaron has not been the sort of man who wears a gold medallion on his forehead saying “Holy to God”.   It’s clear in the book of Exodus that God only calls Aaron in because Moses makes so many objections to the job God gives him at the burning bush.7  To his credit, Aaron greets his long-lost brother without jealousy, and willingly serves as Moses’ sidekick.  When the Israelites are attacked by Amalek on the way to Mount Sinai, Aaron literally supports Moses’ arm and helps him save the day.8  But when Moses climbs Mount Sinai and does not return for 40 days, and the people panic and ask for idols, Aaron makes the golden calf.

Now Aaron is promoted from Moses’ unreliable assistant to High Priest.  Aaron will officiate over the ritual offerings in the sanctuary.  Aaron will light the menorah.  Aaron will be in charge of God’s dwelling place.

Aaron’s four sons are also getting major promotions.  They have not done anything of distinction, though they would be treated with the respect simply because they are Aaron’s sons.9  Now they are being ordained as priests.  They will be the only people besides Moses and Aaron and Moses who are allowed to enter the Tent of Meeting, the only people allowed to handle the holiest objects inside it.  Only they will turn the offerings of their people into smoke that ascends to God.

For seven days Aaron and his sons sit inside the sanctuary, in the entrance of the Tent of Meeting. Perhaps they face out, gazing at the bronze altar and the wash-basin in the sunlit courtyard. Perhaps they face in, gazing at the golden menorah, incense altar, and bread table under the tent roof, not to mention the curtain screening off the ark itself.  For seven days they sit there, without distractions, realizing they will spend the rest of their lives dedicated to holy service.

I doubt they are doing anticipatory mourning for the coming deaths of Nadav and Avihu. But they may be mourning for their old way of life, which has ended forever.  At the end of seven days, they will be the servants of God’s dwelling-place, who must act as God’s representatives every waking minute.

Their new lives as priests are imposed on them.  They do not apply for the job. They do not even hear God call them, the way prophets in the Hebrew Bible are called into service. Moses simply tells them what God told him do. It might seem like a great honor to them, or it might seem as arbitrary as an accident.

At least they are granted seven days to sit at the entrance of their new lives, experiencing the grief, fear, awe, and whatever else comes along, letting the transformation sink in.

We don’t have a Moses to set aside seven days for us when we face a sudden major change in life.  But we have the example in this week’s Torah portion.  May everyone who can take time on the threshold between an old life and a new one receive the inspiration to sit and reflect.  And whenever our lives change, may God fill up our ability to meet the new challenge.

(An earlier version of this essay was posted in March 2010.)

1  Exodus 28:1-43, 39:1-31. See my post Tetzavveh: The Clothes Make the Man.

2  The source of this idiom is not known, but it may be related to the elevation offering, the tenufah (תְּנוּפָה), in which priests lay the meat or grain cakes to be offered on their palms and either hold them out, raise them, or wave them toward God before burning them. A tenufah was part of the ordination ceremony for Aaron and his sons (Leviticus 8:26-28).

3  Exodus 29:35-38.

4  Exodus 32:1-8, 21-25. See my post Ki Tissa: Out Came this Calf!

5  e.g. 13th-century rabbi Moses ben Nachman (a.k.a. Ramban, Nachmanides), paraphrased in Elie Munk, The Call of the Torah: Vayikra, trans. by E.S. Mazer, Mesorah Publications, 1992, p. 71; 19th-century rabbi Sampson Raphael Hirsch, The Hirsch Chumash: Sefer Vayikra, Part 1, trans. by Daniel Haberman, Feldheim Publishers, Jerusalem, 2002, p. 277.

6  Midrash Tanchuma, a collection of commentary from the 5th through 8th centuries C.E., paraphrased in Munk, p. 72.  Aaron’s two older sons, Nadav and Avihu, do die on the eighth day, consumed by a fire from God (Leviticus 10:1-2); and Moses forbids Aaron and his two surviving sons to engage in mourning for them (Leviticus 10:6-7). The seven days sitting at the tent entrance are compared to the initial seven-day mourning period of shivah, but “sitting shivah” is a later Jewish custom.

7  Exodus 4:10-17.

8  Exodus 17:8-13.  See my post Beshallach: Hands Up.

9  Aaron’s two older sons, Nadav and Avihu, are treated as if they are elders when they walk partway up Mount Sinai with the 70 regular elders, Moses, and Aaron to behold a vision of God’s feet (Exodus 24:1, 9-11).

Haftarat Acharey Mot—Ezekiel: Abomination

May 4, 2016 at 3:54 pm | Posted in Acharey Mot, Ezekiel | Leave a 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 Acharey Mot (Leviticus 16:1-18:30) and the most common haftarah is Ezekiel 22:1-19.

The Torah frowns on some actions because they are ra (רַע) = bad or immoral; some because they are tamei (טָמֵא) = not pure for religious purposes; and some because they are to-eivah (תּוֹעֵבָה) = abominable, disgusting, offensive. This week’s Torah portion and haftarah reveal two different views of what should be to-eivah to the god of Israel.disgust 1

The authors of both Leviticus and Ezekiel knew that societies in the ancient Near East had different opinions on what was abominable. The first two books of the Bible, Genesis/Bereishit and Exodus/Shemot, use the word to-eivah only to describe what the Egyptians abhor: eating at the same table with Canaanites (Genesis 43:32), and the slaughter of sheep (Genesis 26:34, Exodus 8:22).

This week’s portion in Leviticus/Vayikra declares that some of the practices that Canaanites permit are off-limits to Israelites.

You must keep My decrees and My rules, and you must not do any of these to-eivot, [neither] the native-born nor the resident alien among you. Because the men who were on the land before you did all these to-eivot, and they made the land tamei. (Leviticus/Vayikra 18:26-27)

to-eivot (תּוֹעֵוֹת) = plural of to-eivah.

The passage leading up to this statement lists 17 acts that are both tamei and to-eivot for Israelite men: twelve kinds of sex involving relatives, sex with a menstruating woman, sex with your comrade’s wife, giving your child to the god Molekh, sex with another male, and sex with a beast.

Two of these acts are labelled tamei within the list, perhaps to emphasize that they cause religion impurity: sex with a comrade’s wife and sex with a beast. Another act is specifically labeled to-eivah:

And you must not lie down with a male as in lying down with a woman; it is to-eivah. (Leviticus 18:22)

The book of Leviticus might have emphasized that this homosexual act was to-eivah for the ancient Israelites because it was accepted as normal among other peoples in the region, including the Hittites, Assyrians, Babylonians, and Philistines. These societies had laws against specific deeds such as father-son incest and homosexual rape, but treated sex between consenting males (and even boys) as a normal part of life.

But for the priests who wrote Leviticus, all sex between males was as abominable as raping your mother or giving your child to the foreign god Molekh.

The prophet Ezekiel was a priest deported to Babylon when Jerusalem fell, and he shared some of the opinions of the priests who wrote the book of Leviticus. But he took a broader view of what was to-eivah to the god of Israel. The haftarah from the book of Ezekiel denounces the residents of Jerusalem for recklessly committing deeds that are to-eivah. God asks Ezekiel:

And you, son of humankind, will you judge, will you judge the city of bloodshed and inform her of all her to-eivot? (Ezekiel 22:2)

Then God tells Ezekiel what to say. The first eight  to-eivot God says the citizens of Jerusalem have committed are: making idols, belittling their own parents, practicing extortion on resident aliens, oppressing widows and orphans, despising God’s holy things, profaning the sabbath, speaking slander, and eating sacrifices on mountaintops (where there were altars to other gods).

Next God mentions a few of the sex acts men are also forbidden to do in this week’s Torah portion: sex with their fathers’ wives, with menstruating women, with their comrades’ wives, with their daughters-in-law, and with their own sisters. Neither sex with other males nor sex with beasts is mentioned in this haftarah.

In the haftarah it is sex with another man’s wife that is explicitly labeled to-eivah.

And a man does a to-eivah with the wife of his comrade, and another man makes his daughter-in-law outrageously tamei, and another man rapes his sister, his father’s daughter. (Ezekiel 22:11)

The list is wrapped up with three more non-sexual to-eivot: taking bribes, charging extra interest, and damaging friends through extortion.

Ezekiel’s point may be that we should feel the same knee-jerk, visceral disgust that we feel in the face of incest and rape when we see our fellow citizens worship other gods or injure people through extortion, slander, and perversion of justice.

Can we change our gut reactions? Yes, over time. When I had my first period it seemed like an abomination, but eventually I accepted menstruation as a mere nuisance. On the other hand, when I was very young it did not bother me at all to trade my little sister a penny for a dime. After a few years I developed enough empathy so that the idea of deliberately cheating anyone seemed repulsive.

The Bible is right that we must pay attention and choose what is truly to-eivah to our god. But we can do better than the priests who wrote Leviticus. Modern commentators suggest that the incest rules in that book were designed to protect girls and women from the men living in the same household compound. Today we take the idea of protection farther by considering all acts of rape and all sex with children as to-eivah.

On the other hand, more and more of us smile when we see two men fall in love and go home together. I believe that today many people are more kind and fair than the Israelite authorities were 2,500 years ago.

Yet alas, too many individuals today still deserve Ezekiel’s denunciations in this week’s haftarah. Human beings cannot all have perfect empathy. But what if we all had a gut reaction to slander, bribery, and extortion, finding these deeds to-eivot? How would the world change?

Haftarot for Vayikra & Tzav—Isaiah & Jeremiah: Useless Gods

March 23, 2016 at 6:03 pm | Posted in Isaiah 2, Jeremiah, Tzav, Vayikra | Leave a 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). Last week the Torah portion was Vayikra (Leviticus 1.1-5:26) and the haftarah was Isaiah 43:21-44:23. This week the Torah portion is Tzav (Leviticus 6:1-8:36) and the haftarah is Jeremiah 7:21-8:3 and 9:22-23.

The first two Torah portions in the book of Leviticus/Vayikra consist entirely of instructions for making offerings on the altar: what each type of offering is for, what kind of animal or grain should be brought, and how the priests should process them. In Leviticus, this is the primary way to worship God, so the instruction manual is important.

The two accompanying haftarah readings both declare that offerings on God’s altar are meaningless when people are also making and worshiping idols.

The children of Judah have done what is bad in My eyes, declares God. They have set their abominable idols in the House with My name on it, defiling it. And they have built shrines of the Tofet in the valley of Ben-Hinnom, for burning their sons and their daughters in the fire, which I did not command and which did not arise in my mind. (Jeremiah 7:30-31)

Tofet in "Bible Pictures", 1897

Tofet in “Bible Pictures”, 1897

Jeremiah decries the placement of statues of other gods right in God’s temple (“house”) in Jerusalem, as well as the practice of Tofet-worship in the valley below.  The haftarah from Isaiah points out that a craftsman might burn part of a log to burn for heat and cooking, and carve another part of the log into a statue to which he bows down and prays.

Yotzeir of an idol—

All of them are emptiness;

And what they crave

Cannot be useful.  (Isaiah 44:9)

yotzeir (יֹצֵר) = one who shapes, forms, fashions.

Other gods and the statues that represent them are empty, useless. God is the yotzeir of real humans; but a human is a yotzeir of false gods.

Jeremiah agrees that worshiping other gods is useless. In a prophecy that follows this week’s haftarah, Jeremiah says:

And the towns of Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem will go to the gods for whom they sent up offerings in smoke, and call for help. But they [these gods] will certainly not rescue them at the time of their adversity. (Jeremiah 11:12)

The haftarah in Isaiah goes a step further, and declares other gods simply do not exist.

Thus said God, king of Israel

And its redeemer, God of Armies:

I am first and I am last

And except for Me there are no gods. (Isaiah 44:6)

The haftarot in Jeremiah and Isaiah agree that God punished the people of Judah for making and worshipping other so-called gods by sending in the Babylonian army to conquer the land and destroy Jerusalem and its temple. (See my post Haftarah for Bo—Jeremiah: The Ruler of All Armies.)

Does that leave any hope for the future? Jeremiah, who witnessed the siege of Jerusalem in 589-587 B.C.E., predicts only more disaster.

Vulture on Assyrian relief carving in Kalhu

Vulture on Assyrian relief carving in Kalhu

And the carcasses of these people will be food for the birds of the sky and for beasts of the earth, and there will be no tomorrow. (Jeremiah 7:33)

And death will be preferable over life for all the remainder of those remaining from this wicked family, in all the places where I will push them… (Jeremiah 8:3)

But chapters 40-66 of the book of Isaiah were written at least 50 years later, after the Babylonian empire had been replaced by the Persians. Although the Jews did not get an independent kingdom again, the new Persian emperors granted them religious freedom and let those who wished go back to Jerusalem and build a second temple for their god.

The haftarah from Isaiah interprets this Persian policy as God’s intervention. After criticizing the Israelites for their idolatry, the haftarah says:

I have wiped away like a mist your rebellion

And like a cloud your transgressions.

Return to Me, for I have reclaimed You. (Isaiah 44:22)

How can they return? What should they do that is more important than making offerings at a rebuilt altar?

This week’s haftarah from Jeremiah says they should follow God’s directions for the right way to behave in the world.

Heed My voice, and I will be your god and you will be My people; but you must walk on the entire path that I command you, so that it will go well for you. (Jeremiah 7:23)

Last week’s haftarah from Isaiah says they should praise God to the rest of the world.

This people yatzarti for Myself:

My praise they should report! (Isaiah 43:21)

yatzarti (יָזַרְתִּי) = I formed, I shaped, I fashioned. (From the same verb as yotzeir above.)

Instead of forming statues of empty, useless gods, the people should report what the real God is.

But the Israelites of Judah turned deaf (according to Jeremiah) and mute (according to Isaiah) where God was concerned.

*

We still make idols, 2,600 years later, and we still worship “gods” that are ultimately useless. Some people pursue power as if it were the source of life—until their careers or families crash and they discover they live in a spiritual exile. Others dedicate themselves to accumulating or spending money—until a disaster reveals how they devoted so much time and energy to something so transient. We do not need an anthropomorphic god to send an army against us; serving the false gods we create carries its own intrinsic punishment, preventing us from leading full and meaningful lives.

A Jeremiah can point out that the wrong path leads to a bitter death. Sometimes this is the slap in the face we need to wake up.

But an Isaiah can give us hope for a second chance, however late in life. If we return to God—if we return of a life of appreciating reality (one form of praising God), appreciating one another, remembering we are only human, and rejoicing when we come home to our better selves—then the divine spirit will wipe away our former false worship like a mist, like a cloud. We can change, and true meaning can return to our lives.

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!

 

Tazria and Lekh-Lekha: On the Eighth Day

April 19, 2015 at 8:07 pm | Posted in Lekh Lekha, Tazria | 1 Comment
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by Melissa Carpenter, maggidah

Circumcision in Egypt circa 2400 B.C.E.

Circumcision in Egypt
circa 2400 B.C.E.

The ancient Israelites did not invent circumcision.  It was practiced in Egypt even before 2400 B.C.E..  Biblical references indicate that although some tribes living in the ancient Near East did not practice circumcision, the Midianites, Moabites, Ammonites, and Edomites did.

However, all of these peoples circumcised boys either at puberty or in preparation for marriage.  The Israelites were unique in circumcising their males at the age of only eight days.

The first time the Torah mentions circumcision, God commands Abraham to circumcise himself and all the males in his household, from infants to old men.  (Abraham himself is 100 at the time.)  Then God declares:

U-nemaltem the flesh of your foreskin, and it will be the sign of the brit between Me and you.  At the age of eight days every male among you yimmol, throughout your generations… (Genesis/Bereishit 17:11-12)

Circumcision of Isaac, Regensburg Pentateuch circa 1300 C.E.

Circumcision of Isaac,
Regensburg Pentateuch circa 1300 C.E.

u-nemaltem (וּנְמַלְתֶּם) = And you shall be circumcised.

brit (בְּרִית) = covenant, treaty, pact.

yimmol (יִמּוֹל) = he/it shall be circumcised.

Why does the Torah change the age of circumcision to eight days, and make it part of a covenant with God?

In Biblical Hebrew, the idiom for formalizing a covenant is “cutting” it, not sealing or signing it.  One method of concluding a covenant in the ancient Near East was to cut one or more animals in half and walk between the pieces.  (See my blog post Lekh-Lekha: Cutting a Covenant.)  If you wanted a more impressive and lifelong covenant, what could you cut?

The directions for Abraham to cut a covenant with God by circumcising all the males in his household conclude:

A foreskinned male, one who has not yimmol the flesh of his foreskin: that soul shall be cut off from its people; my brit he has broken.  (Genesis 17:14)

Ironically, this leaves male Israelites with a choice between two kinds of cuts:  cut off the foreskin, or be cut off from your people.

In fact, only a convert gets to make a personal choice.  Fathers in the Torah have their eight-day-old sons circumcised, and household heads have their newly-acquired male slaves circumcised, without their consent.

Circumcision on the eighth day is mentioned again in this week’s Torah portion, Tazria (“She makes seed”).  At first glance, it appears to be a gratuitous aside in a passage about how long after childbirth a woman is ritually impure and must stay away from public worship:

God spoke to Moses, saying:  Speak to the Children of Israel, saying: When a woman makes seed and gives birth to a male, then she is ritually impure for seven days: as in the days of menstrual flow of her menstruation she is ritually impure. (Leviticus/Vayikra 12:1-2)

On the eighth day, the flesh of his foreskin yimmol. (Leviticus 12:3)

And for 33 days she shall stay in her bloodshed of ritual purification; she shall not touch anything holy, and she shall not come into the holy place, until the days of her ritual purification are completed.  (Leviticus 12:4)

In 1517 C.E., Rabbi Yitzchak Karo wrote: “If the Torah deems it necessary to repeat the law of the circumcision … this is not the right place!  Surely the Covenant of the Circumcision is holy and pure—why then associate it with uncleanness, as if placing a kohen into a graveyard?”

Why does the Torah bring up circumcision in this context?

The obvious connection is that two things happen on the eighth day after a boy is born:  the son is circumcised, and the mother transitions from one state of ritual impurity to another.  For the first seven days after the birth of as son (while her blood flow is like that of menstruation) the mother’s bedding and anything she sits on is considered “impure”; anyone who touches these things must immerse himself and his garments in water, and refrain entering the sanctuary or temple the rest of the day.  The mother herself must abstain from sexual intercourse as well as from going to the sanctuary.Pigeons 2

On the eighth day after a boy is born, the places where the mother lies and sits are no longer ritually impure, and she may have intercourse again. But she still may not come to the sanctuary or touch objects used in the sanctuary until 40 days after her son is born.  Then she immerses herself in water and brings two sacrificial birds to the priest at the entrance of the sanctuary.  These acts return her to her former state of ritual purity and reintegrate her into public worship.

According to 16th-century rabbi Ovadiah Sforno, even the blood that nourishes an infant in the womb counts as menstrual blood, and it takes seven days after the umbilical cord is cut for a son to become ritually pure from his mother’s blood.  He cannot be circumcised until he is ritually pure.

But I doubt that this is the reason the Torah calls for circumcision on the eighth day.  After all, the Torah does not require immersion or animal sacrifices on behalf of the infant.  Instead, a son’s circumcision is a religious promotion, turning him into an Israelite dedicated to God through the brit milah, the “covenant of circumcision”, as it came to be known in the Talmud.

milah (מִילָה) = circumcision (a noun in post-Biblical Hebrew, derived from the Biblical Hebrew noun mulah, מוּלָה).

Other commentary points out the connection between the circumcision of an Israelite boy and the sacrifice or a calf, lamb, or kid.  In two places, Exodus/Shemot 22:29 and Leviticus/Vayikra 22:27, the Torah says herd and flock animals must stay with their mothers for the first seven days after they are born.  On the eighth day, they can be brought to the altar as an offering to God.

According to the Zohar (written in the 13th century by the Kabbalist rabbi Moses de Leon) the drop of blood from a circumcision brings atonement to the father—just as an animal sacrifice brings atonement to the man who offers the animal.

The custom of circumcision faded among most Near Eastern peoples as the uncircumcised Greeks became dominant.  Many Semitic tribes began imitating the Greeks even before they were conquered by the Seleucid Empire in the fourth century B.C.E.  Circumcision continued only among some Egyptians and Arabs, and Jews.  The ruling classes—first Greeks, then Romans, and then Catholics—identified Jews in the Near East and Europe by their circumcisions.

The practice of circumcision did not spread to non-Jewish Westerners until the early 20th century.  Today the pendulum of public opinion is swinging against circumcision again.  Yet even Jewish atheists commonly circumcise their sons on the eighth day.  Even if they do not believe in a covenant with God, they still believe in a covenant between their own family and the rest of the Jewish people.

I was not a Jew when my son was born, and even if I had been, I doubt I would have immersed myself in a mikveh 40 days later.  To me, the categories of ritually pure and impure are merely historical.

But when I converted to Judaism, I had my two-year-old son circumcised. Was I dedicating him to the God of Israel?  Not really; I expected he would make his own decisions about religion when he came of age.  I did want him to fit in with other Jewish boys.  And I did want him to at least grow up as Jew, as a member of the people whose religion I had dedicated myself to.  Thus, in a roundabout way, my son’s circumcision was part of my own covenant with the God of Israel.

One way or another, the tradition continues.

 

Shemini: Is Strong Wine Divine?

April 14, 2015 at 11:00 pm | Posted in Shemini | 1 Comment
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fire

by Melissa Carpenter, maggidah

In this week’s portion, Shemini (Eighth), Aaron and his four sons complete the eighth day of their ordination as priests by presenting an animal offering at the new altar.  God sends forth a miraculous fire that consumes everything on the altar, and all the people shout with joy and bow down to the ground. Then Aaron’s two older sons, Nadav and Avihu, bring unauthorized incense into the Tent of Meeting, and God sends forth a miraculous fire that consumes them.  (See my earlier post, Shemini: Strange Fire.)

Moses gives instructions regarding removing the bodies and mourning.  Then God tells Aaron:

Wine or sheikhar do not drink, you or your sons with you, when you come into the Tent of Meeting, and you will not die—a decree forever for your generations—and to distinguish between the holy and the ordinary, and between the ritually-impure and the ritually -pure; and to teach the Children of Israel all the decrees that God, your god, has spoken through Moses.  (Leviticus/Vayikra 10:9-11)

sheikhar (שֵׁכָר) = strong drink. (From the root verb shakhar, שׁכר = was drunk, became intoxicated.)

Sheikhar is not liquor or fortified wine, since distilling was not inventing until the fourth century B.C.E.  The alcoholic drinks available to the ancient Israelites were wine from grapes, wine from other fruits, and beer from grain.  Judging by other Biblical passages containing the word sheikhar, the word might mean any of these fermented drinks, if they happened to be especially strong.

The Torah distinguishes between new wine, chemer (חֶמֶר), and old wine, called shemer (שֶׁמֶר) or sheikhar.  New wine has only progressed through the first stage of fermentation; old wine has fermented for at least 40 days (according to the Talmud, Sanhedrin 70a) and has more alcoholic content.  (The Torah also refers to both new and old wine as yayin (יַיִן), which simply means “wine”.)

Does God give Aaron the injunction above shortly after Nadav and Avihu’s fatal error because they were drunk when they brought the unauthorized incense? The commentary is divided.  Either way, God states the reason why priests must not drink on duty: alcohol decreases reasoning and discernment, and therefore would interfere with several of the priests’ duties: judging whether something is holy, judging whether something or someone is ritually pure, and teaching the laws correctly.

Coin with libation flagon for second temple (photo by CNG)

Coin with libation flagon for second temple (photo by CNG)

However, the Torah does not banish wine altogether from the sanctuary or temple.  Priests are required to give offerings of wine to God, poured out as libations on the altar.  The book of Numbers/Bemidbar even specifies strong wine for God:

And you shall say to them: This is the fire-offering you shall bring close to Hashem: male yearling lambs, unblemished, a pair for the day, as a perpetual rising-offering.  The one male lamb you shall do in the morning, and the second male lamb you shall do in the evening.  … And he shall pour out a fourth of a hin for the one male lamb, on the holy place, to provide a libation, a drink-offering of sheikhar for Hashem.  (Numbers/Bemidbar 28:3-4, 7)

During the time of the second temple in Jerusalem, the wine libation was poured into a silver bowl with a hole in the bottom, located near the southwest corner of the altar.  The wine flowed down through the hole and continued through the altar into the ground underneath. The wine of a libation had to be be entirely poured out; Jews did not follow the Greek practice of pouring a libation and then drinking the rest of the wine.

On the other hand, it was acceptable for non-priestly worshipers to drink their own wine in front of the sanctuary.

You must definitely tithe all the yield of your planting, what comes out of the field, year by year.  And you shall eat in front of God, your god … so that you will learn to be in awe of God, your god, all the time.  And if the road is too long for you … Then you shall give silver, and you shall bundle up the silver in your hand, and you shall go to the place that God, your god, will choose.  And you may give the silver for what your nefesh craves: cattle, or sheep, or wine, or sheikhar, or anything that your nefesh asks you for. And you shall eat it there in front of God, your god, and you shall rejoice, you and your household.  (Deuteronomy/Devarim 14:22-26)

nefesh (נֶפֶשׁ) = appetite; the soul that animates the body.

Here the Torah seems to approve of imbibing (as well as feasting) as an aid to feeling both joy and awe when serving God. Yet in the first book of Samuel/Shmuel, the high priest Eli criticizes Hannah for coming to the temple when she is, apparently, drunk.

And Channah, she was speaking in her heart; only her lips moved, but her voice was not heard.  And Eli considered her leshikorah.  And Eli said to her:  How long will you go on making yourself drunk?  Remove your wine from over yourself!

But Channah replied, and she said:  No, my lord, I am a woman of heavy spirit, and I have not drunk wine nor sheikhar, but I have poured out my nefesh before God.  (1 Samuel 13-15)

leshikorah (לְשִׁכּוֹרָה) = to be drunk.

By pouring out her soul before God, Channah is, in effect, making her own libation offering. And she is dedicating something stronger than old wine.

Perhaps the priests must avoid drinking at the sanctuary not only to keep their minds sharp, but also to serve God with appropriate levels of joy and awe, avoiding emotional excess.  Their libation offerings could be interpreted as pouring out their own emotionality, emptying themselves in order to become holy vessels for their work.

When I lead prayer services, the people in front of me seem to find more comfort, or insight, or elevation, when I manage to step away from the emotions that I walked in with, but retain my rational alertness.  At those times, I find myself empty and available for inspiration, yet also able to notice when I need to change the volume or tempo of a song, to skip something I had planned, to say something different, to invite comment or to move back into song.

If only I could do that every time!

Next time, I will imagine pouring out all my sheikhar, my old, strong wine, in a libation to God before the service begins.  Then maybe I can be both clear and clear-headed in the sanctuary that it is my duty to help create.

 

Tzav & Pesach:  Being Unleavened, Part 1

March 25, 2015 at 10:11 am | Posted in Passover/Pesach, Tzav | 1 Comment
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by Melissa Carpenter, maggidah

If you mix flour and water, spread it flat, and slap it in the oven at once, what comes out is a matzah (plural: matzot):  “unleavened bread” that is really a large, bland cracker.

one kind of leavened bread

one kind of leavened bread

If you mix flour and water and let the mixture sit indoors for six to nine days, adding more flour and water each day, you get frothy sourdough starter, thanks to the activity of wild yeast—invisible microorganisms that cover everything, even flour. Add more flour to the starter, spend a day kneading it, shaping it, and letting it rise twice, and put the balls of dough in the oven.  What comes out is chameitz: loaves of leavened bread.  To get from flour and water to loaves of sourdough bread takes at least seven days.

The difference between matzot and chameitz is critical in this week’s Torah portion, Tzav (“Command”), and even more critical in the Torah readings for the following two weeks, during the holiday of Passover/Pesach.

The Torah first mentions matzot in the book of Genesis/Bereishit, when Abraham’s nephew Lot meets two strangers in the town square of Sodom and invites them home.

He urged them very much, so they turned aside to him and came into his house.  And he prepared food and drink, and he baked matzot, and they ate.  (Genesis/Berieshit19:3)

matzah

matzah

matzot (מַצּוֹת) =  (plural) unleavened “bread”.

Lot’s wife is not involved in this act of hospitality.  Lot himself, who may not even know whether she has dough rising somewhere, simply mixes flour and water and spreads it on the hot inner surface of the oven, so that at least his guests will have crackers to eat with their meal.

The first mention of chameitz in the Torah is in the book of Exodus/Shemot, when God tells Moses what the Israelites should eat during the night of the final plague in Egypt, in preparation for the exodus the next morning. They must eat their meat roasted (the fastest way to cook it) and their bread as matzot (the fastest way to bake it).  And every year after that, they must remember the event with matzot:

Seven days you shall eat matzot; but on the first day you shall eliminate se-or from your houses, because anyone who eats chameitz, that soul shall be cut off from Israel—from the first day to the seventh day.  (Exodus/Shemot 12:15)

se-or (שְׂאֹר) = leavening agent, sourdough starter.

chameitz (חָמֵץ) = leavened bread, leavened food.

The Torah forbids the people of Israel to eat or own leavened bread during Passover. It also says that leavened bread must never be burned on the altar for God. But this week’s Torah portion, Tzav, gives directions for two kinds of offerings that include matzot burned on the altar: the grain offering and the thanksgiving offering.

And this is the teaching of the minchah: Sons of Aaron, bring it close before God, to the front of the altar. Then (one) shall elevate his handful: some of the fine flour of the minchah and some of its oil and all of its frankincense. Then he shall make it go up in smoke on the altar for a soothing aroma, a memorial portion for God. (Leviticus/Vayikra 6:8)

minchah (מִנְחָה) = grain offering; tribute or gift to express respect and allegiance.

The loose flour sprinkled with oil and frankincense can be burned on the altar because it is dry, and therefore unleavened.

A similar rule applies to the thanksgiving offering, which is made by someone who has emerged safely from a dangerous or oppressive situation. This type of offering includes both meat and grain products, and is divided into three portions: one to burn up on the altar for God, one for the officiating priest to eat, and one for the donor and his guests to eat.

And this is the teaching of the slaughtered-animal of the wholeness-offering that is brought close to God: If as a todah he brings it close, then he shall bring close along with the slaughtered-animal of todah [the following]: round bread of matzot mixed with oil, and thin matzot sprinkled with oil, and fine flour loaves soaked through with oil, along with loaves of chameitz bread.  He shall bring close his offering: along with the slaughtered-animal, his whole todah. (Leviticus 7:11-13)

todah (תּוֹדָה) = thanks; thanksgiving offering (one category of shelamim = wholeness-offering).

In other words, the donor brings animals for slaughter, three kinds of matzot, and loaves of leavened bread.  Portions of the animals and the matzot are burned on the altar.  The officiating priest gets one of each kind of item (including a loaf of chameitz). The rest of the food, including the chameitz, is eaten by the donor and his guests.

Once again, matzot are considered more “holy” than chameitz.

matzah001

In the first century C.E., Philo of Alexandria wrote that leaven is forbidden on the altar because it makes dough rise, and nobody should be inflated and puffed up by arrogance or insolence in front of God.

In the 19th century C.E., Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch suggested that chameitz stands for independence, and matzot for dependence. In a thanksgiving offering, Hirsch wrote, the chameitz represents the donor’s well-being and independence in the world.  The matzot acknowledges that he regained his worldly independence only through God, upon whom he is always dependent.

As a modern Jew, I am happy to offer prayers and blessings as my tribute (minchah) and my thanks (todah) to the divine. But when I am addressing God, I do not want to waste my time begging a parent-figure to give me what my inflated ego wants.  Instead, I want to acknowledge that I am not in charge—with an expression of humility, like tribute to a king, like matzot in a minchah offering.

I also want to give thanks for the amazing and wonderful universe I live in, knowing that I and the rest of the universe exist only because of forces I cannot imagine or control.  I want to acknowledge that I am not in charge—with an expression of dependence and appreciation, like giving thanks, like the matzot in a todah offering.

And while I’m at it, I want to express my gratitude for life by sharing my food with others, like the donor of a todah.  One of the things I want to share is some chameitz, some lovely leavened bread that stands for my joy over the small sphere of independence and power I have been given.

matzah001

(Next week, check my blog for Tzav & Pesach: Unleavened, Part 2, which will discuss how ideas about leavened versus unleavened bread apply to the holiday of Passover.)

Vayikra: Happening or Calling

March 16, 2015 at 3:41 pm | Posted in Vayikra | Leave a comment
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by Melissa Carpenter, maggidah

Vayikra to Moses, and God spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting. (Leviticus/Vayikra 1:1)

vayikra (וַיִּקְרא) = and he/It called, proclaimed, summoned; and he/It met.

The book of Leviticus and its first Torah portion are called Vayikra, the opening word.  In Hebrew, the word looks different here than in any other place in the Bible, because of the size of the last letter:

Vaiykra with nikkud

Early copies of the Torah had no diminutive letters.  But when the Masoretes wrote their definitive 9th-10th century versions of the Torah, they spelled 28 words with small letters, including Vayikra with a small alef, and the word has appeared that way ever since.

Torah scrolls omit the vowels that the Masoretes added to the text, but keep the Masoretic diminutive letters. So in a Torah scroll, the first word of Leviticus looks like this:

Vayikra alef

Most of the Masoretic additions to the text of the Hebrew Bible make it easier for someone to read (or chant) the Bible out loud. The nikkudim (marks above, below, and inside letters to indicate vowels and doubled consonants) clarify pronunciation. The trope (cantillation marks above and below letters) indicate which syllables to accent, and which melodic phrases to use for chanting. With both kinds of markings, the first word of Leviticus looks like this:

Vayikra with trope

There are also places where the Masoretic text gives two versions of a word, one (ketiv) in its original spelling (an actual word, but probably a scribal error), and one (kere) in a spelling that makes sense in context.

But the 28 words with diminutive letters would be spoken or chanted the same way regardless of the size of their letters.  Why did the Masoretes use small letters?

Some versions of 10th century Masoretic texts include marginal notes, and at least six of these notes on small letters say (in a rough translation of the Aramaic) “small [name of letter] to state the accepted version”. The footnotes for at least four more just say “small” (ze-ira), probably an abbreviation of the note that the letter is small to indicate the accepted version.

In other words, in the versions of the text that the Masoretes found unacceptable, the words were spelled with the controversial letters omitted.  For example, the first word of Leviticus was spelled ויקר.

In the accepted version of the text, the words were spelled with the controversial letters included.  Vayikra was spelled ויקרא. The Masoretes spelled these words according to the “accepted” version—but they made the controversial letters undersized to document that they were missing in some Torah scrolls.

Out of the 28 words with diminutive letters, seven are proper names, and ten are not even Hebrew words without the small letter. So only eleven of the words might mean something different if the diminutive letter were omitted.  And one of these is vayikra, the first word of this week’s Torah portion.

Without the alef (א) at the end, vayikra (וַיִּקְרא = and he/it called, summoned, met, encountered) would be vayiker (וַיִּקֶר = and he/it happened to, befell). The opening sentence would read: And It happened to Moses, and God spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting.

God “happens to” (וַיִּקֶר) the Mesopotamian prophet Bilam in Numbers/Bemidbar 23:3. God tells Bilam what to do, and then when it is time for him to utter a curse or blessing, God puts the words into Bilam’s mouth. It is a one-way relationship.

But the prophet Moses has a two-way relationship with God.  They have long conversations, and sometimes argue with one another.  So God wants to get Moses’ attention, God “meets” him or “calls” to him.

In an earlier post, Vayikra: A Voice is Calling, I mentioned that God “called” Moses three times, the first two times from Mount Sinai, and the third time (with the diminutive alef) from the Tent of Meeting. I cited commentary in Rashi and the Zohar that the miniature alef  indicates a restriction or muting of the call, and suggested that God switched to an “indoor voice” when the people switched to connecting with God through the vehicle of the sanctuary tent.

This year, I’d like to add that whether you encounter God in a sanctuary, or anywhere else in your life, there are two kinds of encounters. Sometimes a mystical experience just happens to you. If you are like Bilam, your mind is wired in such a way that it happens relatively often.

Moses at the Burning Bush by Rembrandt van Rijn

Moses at the Burning Bush
by Rembrandt van Rijn

The other kind of encounter begins when you merely notice the possibility of the numinous—as Moses noticed the bush that burned but was not consumed. You stop and pay attention, and try to figure out what is going on. If you are quiet enough, you may discover that the divine is calling you—as God called to Moses in the first portion of Exodus:

God saw that he had turned aside to look, vayikra to him from amidst the bush, and It said: Moses! Moses! (Exodus/Shemot 3:4)

18th-century rabbi Menahem Nahum Twersky of Chernobyl wrote in Me’or ‘Eynayim , “God the cosmic aleph is present in miniature form within each Israelite, calling us to return. These are our pangs of conscience, but we do not perceive them as God’s own call to us.” (Translated by Rabbi Arthur Green in Speaking Torah, Vol. 1, p. 250.)

Thus a conversation with the divine voice could be a much quieter affair than when God “happens” to someone.

At the beginning of this week’s Torah portion, at the beginning of the book of Leviticus, God calls Moses with a small alef.  Then Moses realizes that completing the Tent of Meeting according to God’s specifications is not the end of his work. Even though God’s radiance has filled the sanctuary, Moses hears the divine inner voice urging him to go back into the Tent of Meeting for further instructions.

May all of us learn how to be still, pay attention, and listen for the call inside ourselves.

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