Emor: Flawed Worship

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

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

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

Priest tending the altar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Tetzavveh & Psalms 141, 51, and 40: Smoke and Prayer

March 7, 2017 at 11:20 am | Posted in Psalms/Tehilim, Tetzavveh | Leave a comment
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(One of a series of posts comparing ideas in the book of Exodus/Shemot with related ideas in the book of Psalms.)

Outdoor altar at First Temple

Two kinds of smoke please God, according to the book of Exodus:

* the smoke from burning sacrificial animals and grain products on the copper altar in front of the Tent of Meeting described in last week’s Torah portion, Terumah,1 and

* the smoke from burning incense on the gold altar inside the tent, described in this week’s Torah portion, Tetzavveh (“you shall command”):

And you shall make an altar for miketar ketoret; from wood of acacias you shall make it. …And you shall plate it with pure gold …And place it in front of the curtain that is over the Ark of the Reminder, …where I will reveal myself to you. Vehiketeyr on it, Aaron, ketoret of spices …  (Exodus/Shemot 30:1-7) 

miketar (מִקְטַּר) = letting smoke rise; scenting with smoke. (A form of the verb ketar, קִטּר  = burned incense.)

ketoret  (קְטֺרֶת) = incense. (From the root verb ketar.)

vehiketeyr (וְהִקְטֵיר) = And he shall make smoke. (Another form of the verb ketar.)

In the Wilderness

The altar for burning animals and grain (which would otherwise be food for people) is outside the Tent of Meeting that the Israelites construct in the wilderness of Sinai.  The incense altar is inside, right in front of the Holy of Holies. All the Israelites worship God by bringing food offerings for the priests to burn on the outdoor altar. Only the high priest, Aaron, burns spices on the incense altar for God.

Food offerings are sent up in smoke for various reasons. Some offerings express gratitude to God, some atone for transgressing God’s rules, some mark a change in ritual status, and some observe holy days. The fragrance of the incense, however, is intended only to honor and please God.

The Israelites send columns of smoke up to God. And God sends columns of cloud and fire down to the people. When the Israelites are walking from Egypt to Mount Sinai,

God was walking in front of them in a column of cloud by day, to lead them on the way, and in a column of fire by night, to make light for them, [so they could] walk day and night.  (Exodus 13:21)

After God’s tent-dwelling is completed, the book of Exodus ends with:

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

During the Babylonian Exile

Israelites continue to use the smoke from burning food and incense as their main communication with God until the Babylonians destroyed the first Israelite temple in Jerusalem in 597 B.C.E. (The Bible also mentions a few individual prayers, but does not portray Levites as singing psalms until the time of the second temple.)

The Israelites deported to Babylon were not sure what to do.  Should they continue sending up smoke to God, even without the temple, the food altar, or the incense altar?  Or should they use another approach?

Psalm 141 is a plea for God to help the psalmist avoid harmful speech and bad company. The psalm opens with a request that this prayer be considered as a substitute for making smoke.

           God, I called You. Hurry to me!

                        Listen to my voice when I call to You!

            May my prayer endure as ketoret before You,

                        Lifting up my palms2 as an evening offering.  (Psalm 141:1-2)

After the Second Temple

After the Persians conquered Babylon, some of the Israelites returned to Jerusalem and built a second temple in 516 B.C.E. They reinstituted the sacrificial system in their new temple, making both an outside altar for burning food offerings and an inside altar for incense. This type of worship continued until the Romans destroyed the second temple in 70 C.E.

After the fall of the second temple, some Jews hoped for a third temple, and another return to worshiping God through smoke. The Amidah (“standing”) prayer, which is recited at morning and evening services to this day, begins with a verse from Psalm 51 about spoken prayer:

             My lord, may you open my lips,

                        And my mouth will declare Your praise.  (Psalm 51:17)

However, Psalm 51 ends:

            May You rebuild the walls of Jerusalem.

                        That is when You will want slaughter-offerings of righteousness,

                        Rising-offerings and complete offerings.  (Psalm 51:20)

Similarly, in traditional prayer books the Amidah3 includes this request: “And return the service to the inner sanctum of Your house, and the fire-offerings of Israel, and their prayer, with love, accepting it with favor.”  According to this tradition, prayer is good, but prayer and smoke together are better.

Many liberal prayer books produced in the last century or so omit or reinterpret this prayer in the Amidah, so as to avoid praying for either reinstituting animal sacrifices or building a third temple.

Psalm 40, composed at least 2,000 years ago, is bolder and more direct:

            Slaughter and grain offering You do not want.

                        You dug open a pair of ears for me!

                        Rising-offerings and guilt-offerings You do not request.

            That is when I said:

                        Hey, I will bring a scroll of the book written for me.

            I want to do what You want, my God,

                        And Your teaching is inside my guts.

            I delivered the news of right behavior to a large assembly.

                        Hey! I will not eat my lips.  (Psalm 40:7-10)

The speaker in Psalm 40 insists that God does not want smoke, only words. Nothing can make this prophetic poet recant; he will not “eat his lips”.

Tomorrow

I almost envy the simplicity of the early Israelite religion, in which people and priests burn something to make a column of smoke rise up to God in the sky or “heavens”, and God sends down a column of divine smoke (described as cloud and fire) to guide the people.

Personally, I could not even imitate this process by burning incense, since I am allergic to any type of smoke.  And these days, columns of cloud and fire do not descend from the sky; we only get lightning and general precipitation.

But I do pray to God with words, for all the reasons the ancient Israelites made smoke: to express gratitude, to ask for forgiveness and self-improvement, to observe holy days, and just to honor the divine. And though I often say, or sing, the words out loud, I do not pray to a God in the sky, but to a divine source I encounter “inside my guts”, like the author of Psalm 40.

I was brought up to be an atheist; I did not begin praying until I was 32.  My life for the past 30 years has been deeper, thanks to prayer; I have become more grateful, less egotistical, and more accepting.  And, God willing, I can continue to improve.

May everyone who would benefit from a prayer practice discover a good one.

            Oh God, may you open my lips,

                        And my mouth will declare Your praise.  (Amidah and Psalm 51:17)         

1  See my post Terumah & Psalm 74: Second Home about the Tent of Meeting, and my post Pinchas: Aromatherapy about smoke from animal sacrifices.

2  The Hebrew Bible describes two postures for prayer.  Prostration—bowing until you lie face down on the ground) indicates submission and the willingness to receive any word God might send you.  Raising your hands, palms up, toward the sky (with or without kneeling) indicates a petitionary prayer, in which you are asking God for something.

King Solomon

One example is when King Solomon dedicates the first temple in Jerusalem:

As Solomon was finishing praying to God all this prayer and this supplication, he got up from in front of the altar of God, from kneeling on his knees and his palms spread toward the heavens.  (1 Kings 8:54)

 

3   This prayer, called the Avodah (“Service”), is number 5 in the Shabbat Amidah, and number 17 in the longer weekday Amidah.

 

Haftarot for Rosh Hashanah & Shabbat Shuvah—1 Samuel & Hosea:  From Smoke to Words

October 6, 2016 at 11:36 am | Posted in Chukkat, Hosea, Rosh Hashanah, Samuel 1 | Leave a comment
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Almost 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). But the Torah portion this week is Vayeilekh (Deuteronomy/Devarim 31:1-30), and it is not assigned a haftarah of its own.

Nevertheless, this week is especially rich in haftarot (plural of “haftarah”) because it includes the two days of Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish new year) and Shabbat Shuvah, the “Sabbath of Return” to God—all before we dive into Yom Kippur (the “Day of Atonement”) next week.

The haftarah for the first day of Rosh Hashanah is 1 Samuel 1:1-2:10.  The reading for the second day is Jeremiah 31:2-20.  And the haftarah for Shabbat Shuvah this Saturday is Hosea 14:2-10. Perhaps it is no accident that during this time of intense prayer from Rosh Hashanah through Yom Kippur, two of these three haftarot show that praying with words is better than slaughtering an animal and burning it up into smoke for God.

Prayer is not a dialogue with God, although persons in the Hebrew Bible from Adam to the prophet Malachi do talk with God and hear God’s responses in words—in fact in complete sentences. Sometimes prophets report what God said; other passages are like conversations between two human beings of different rank and power.

first-temple-altarPrayer is more like smoke; it rises up toward God, but God does not answer in words.

Besides having many conversations with God, Moses also prays on behalf of the Israelites when they are traveling through the wilderness south of Edom, 40 years after their exodus from Egypt.  The Israelites complain again about their diet of manna, and God sends poisonous snakes.

Then the people came to Moses and they said: We did wrong when we spoke against God and against you. Hitpalleil to God so He will clear away from us the snakes!  Vayitpalleil, Moses, on behalf of the people. (Numbers/Bemidbar 21:7)

Hitpalleil (הִתְפַּלֵּל) = Pray!  (Probably from the same root as pilleil  = reassess. Prayer may be asking for a reassessment from God.)

Vayitpalleil (וַיִּתְפַּלֵּל) = And he prayed.

Here the Israelites confess their misdeed, but they do not believe they can pray to God directly, so they ask Moses, God’s prophet, to do it for them.

Temple altar

Temple altar

Smoke, not spoken prayer, is the primary way to worship God in the first seven books of the Bible. If you want to bring God your devotion, you slaughter an animal and burn up part or all of it on an altar, turning it into smoke. God appreciates the smell of the smoke.  (See my post Pinchas: Aromatherapy.)

The book of Leviticus/Vayikra lays out five categories of offerings burned up into smoke, and each one was transformed into a type of prayer.

1) olah (עֹלָה) = rising-offering, to maintain the relationship between the worshiper and God. This became liturgy, written prayers to read, recite, or sing at specific times and occasions.

2) minchah (מִנחָה) = allegiance-offering, to show homage or respect.  This corresponds to prayers of praise.

3) shelamim (שְׁלָמִים) = wholeness-offering, to thank God or to express devotion. This corresponds to prayers of thanksgiving.

4) chataat (חַטָּאת) = reparation-offering, to fix an unintentional transgression against one of God’s laws; and 5) asham (אָשָׁם) = guilt-offering, to atone for an intentional wrong (after making amends with the human whom you wronged).  Instead of these two animal offerings, we have prayers of confession asking for God’s forgiveness.

(For more on these smoke offerings, see my posts Vayikra & Tzav: Fire Offerings without Slaughter, Part 1 and Part 2.)

A additional type of prayer in the Bible is the petitionary prayer, in which we ask God to do us a favor. This category includes intercessory prayer, in which a prophet or someone else who is known to be on speaking terms with God utters a petitionary prayer on behalf of a community.

In the book of Genesis/Bereishit, any male head of a household can worship God by building an altar and turning an animal into smoke on it.  Gradually this right is restricted in the Hebrew Bible, until animal offerings can only be made at the temple in Jerusalem and under the supervision of priests. Meanwhile, the tradition of individual prayer expands until anyone can do it, and God will hear.

The first prayer in the Bible is an intercessory prayer.  King Avimelekh takes Sarah into his household thinking she is Abraham’s sister, not his wife.  God responds by afflicting the king and all his women with a disease.  Then in a dream, God tells Avimelekh: And now restore the wife to the husband, because he is a prophet vayitpalleil on your behalf, and you will live. But if you do no restoring, know that you will certainly die, you and all that are yours. (Genesis/Bereishit 20:7)

After the king gives Avraham his wife Sarah along with some gifts, Avraham does pray, and God removes the disease.

Intercessory prayers continue to be mentioned in the Bible, including Moses’ prayer regarding the poisonous snakes.  But not until the first book of Samuel, in the haftarah for the first day of Rosh Hashanah, does someone who has never conversed with God pray for her own sake. On her own initiative, Channah, who has been childless for many years, walks up to the doorway of the temple in Shiloh and prays for a son.

Channah praying from etching by Marc Chagall

Channah praying
from etching by
Marc Chagall

And she was bitter of spirit, vatitpalleil to God, and she wept continually. And she vowed a vow, and she said: God of Armies, if You really see the wretchedness of Your maidservant and You remember me and do not forget Your maidservant, and You give to Your maidservant a seed of men, then I will give him to God for all the days of his life…  (1 Samuel 1:10-11)

vatitpalleil (וַתִּתְפַּלֵּל) = and she prayed.

God does not answer Channah in words, but she does have a son (a “seed of men”), and she brings him to the temple in Shiloh once he is weaned. There she and her husband sacrifice a bull, following the established ritual, then give him to the priest so the boy can serve as an attendant at the temple. (Channah’s son, Samuel (Shmu-eil), later becomes a prophet and a judge of Israel.)

…and they bowed down there to God.  Vatitpalleil, Channah, and she said:

            My heart rejoices in God…

            There is no holy one like God,

            Because there are none except for You. (1 Samuel 2:1-2)

Channah continues with a long psalm praising God’s power. This time her prayer is not petitionary, but a prayer of praise, like a minchah offering.

This Saturday, on Shabbat Shuvah, we read in the book of Hosea:

            Shuvah, Israel, all the way to God, your god,

            For you have stumbled, through your wrongdoing.

            Take devarim with you

            And shuvu to God.

            Say to [God]:

            May You forgive all wrongdoing

            And take the good.

            And we will make amends of the bulls

            Of our lips.  (Hosea 14:2-3)

Shuvah (שׁוּבָה) = Return! (singular, addressing Israel)

shuvu (שׁוּבוּ) =  Return! (plural, addressing the people)

devarim (דְּבָרִים) = words; events, affairs.

Hosea asks the Israelites to make amends and return to God not by slaughtering bulls and burning them on an altar for God, but through the words of their lips, praying for God to forgive them. Instead of the smoke from a chataat or an asham offering, God wants people to return and atone with spoken prayer.

*

As we approach Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the haftarah from 1 Samuel reminds us of the power of individual heartfelt prayer, and the haftarah from Hosea reminds us to return—shuvah!—to God through prayer.

A priest cuts the animal’s throat, blood gushes, smoke roils up into the sky—that kind of worship was sure to have an emotional impact.  But even if someone brought the animal for an asham offering to atone for his own misdeed, or even if the high priest was killing the goat for God on Yom Kippur, people watched the show from a distance.

Channah worked harder, pulling out her own words to plead with God.  Hosea asks us to work harder, bringing our own personal words of confession to God, and returning to the holy one by praying for forgiveness.

It is possible to mouth formulaic prayers without thinking about them. But I believe it is better for our souls if we plumb our own depths, find our own words to bring to God, and do the work.

 

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.)

Beshallach: Hands Up

January 6, 2014 at 7:27 pm | Posted in Beshallach | 1 Comment
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What does it mean to raise one or both hands when they are empty?

Today, the gesture for “Stop!” is holding one arm straight out from the shoulder, with the hand bent back, palm forward. If you raise one arm straight up from the shoulder instead, with the hand in line, palm forward, you are “raising your hand” for permission to speak. When an authority figure says “Hands up!” you raise both arms, palms forward, to show you are not holding a weapon.

What if you raise both arms at an angle somewhere between straight up and straight out? Whether your hands are turned up or down, it looks as though you are making a religious gesture.

In many Jewish Renewal congregations, when we stretch out both hands with our palms down, we want to transmit a blessing to someone. (This gesture is derived from the Torah’s description of leaning one’s hands on the head of a man or boy in order to transfer holiness, as Jacob does to bless his grandsons in Genesis 48, and as Moses does to commission Joshua as his successor in Numbers 27.)

When we stretch out both hands with our palms up, it means we are prepared to receive a blessing. This is also one traditional posture of supplication to God; we reach forward and up toward “heaven” with empty hands, hoping God will fill them.

In this week’s Torah portion, Beshallach (“When he sent out”), God tells Moses to split the Reed Sea by holding the staff that summoned the ten plagues in Egypt, and stretching out his hand over the water. After the Israelites have crossed the Reed Sea and seen the Egyptian army drown,

…the people were in awe of God, vaya-amiynu in God and in Moses, his servant. (Exodus 14:31)

vaya-amiynu (וַיַּאֲמִינוּ) = and they trusted, and they had faith, and they believed, and they relied upon.

Because they have seen Moses signal the miracle by raising his arm, they believe that the god who split the Reed Sea is their god, the god of their leader Moses. So at that moment, they trust God.

The Israelites trek across the Sinai Peninsula unmolested, while God provides manna and quail for them to eat. Yet in less than three months, when they are camped only one day’s journey from Mount Sinai, the people complain to Moses that they have no water.

God instructs Moses to strike a rock with his staff, and water comes out.  But Moses notes that the people did not trust God to provide for them.

And he called the name of the place Trial-and-Disputing because of the dispute of the children of Israel and because of their testing God, saying: Hayeish, God, bekirbeinu, or ayin? (Exodus/Shemot 17:7)

Hayeish (הֲיֵשׁ) = Is it there? Does it exist?

bekirbeinu (בְּקִרְבֵּנוּ) = in our midst, inside us.

ayin (אָיִן) = not there, nothing.

A traditional translation of the people’s question is: “Is God in our midst, or not?” But another valid translation would be: “Does God exist inside us, or nothing?”

Immediately after the Israelites doubt God’s presence, the people of Amalek attack them.

Then Amalek came and fought against Israel at Refidim. And Moses said to Joshua: Choose for us men and go out, fight against Amalek. Tomorrow I will station myself on the top of the hill and the staff of God will be in my hand. So Joshua did as Moses had said to him, to fight against Amalek; and Moses, Aaron, and Chur went up to the top of the hill. (Exodus 17:8-10)

At this point, Moses probably assumes that he and God will do their usual routine, in which Moses raises the staff and God sends a miracle. But God does not speak to him. And when the battle begins, Moses does not seem to be holding the staff.

And it happened, when Moses elevated his hand, then Israel prevailed; but when he rested his hand, then Amalek prevailed. And the hands of Moses were getting heavy, so they took a stone and they placed it under him, and he sat upon it. And Aaron and Chur held his hands, one on either side, and his hands were emunah until the sun set. (Exodus 17:11-12)

emunah (אֱמוּנָה)  = steadiness, dependability, faithfulness. (From the same root as vaya-amiynu above, 14:31)

Why do the Israelites prevail when Moses’ hands are raised? Is it because God is responding to Moses’ gesture and making it happen? Or is it because their faith in God’s presence is renewed and they fight better?

Talmud tractate Rosh Hashanah 29a says: “Did the hands of Moses wage war or crush the enemy? No; the text only teaches that as long as Israel turned their thoughts above and submitted their hearts to their father in heaven, they prevailed; but otherwise they failed.” In other words, there is no magic in Moses’ hands, and God performs no miracles. When Joshua’s men prevail against Amalek, it is only because the sight of Moses’ upraised hands encourages them.

Modern commentator Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg wrote in Particulars of Rapture, p. 245: “The role of Moses’ hands is to model for the people the attraction upward that is faith.”  Moses demonstrates prayer and attachment to God by raising his hands toward heaven.

Maybe that is why we raise our hands for blessing in many Jewish Renewal congregations. Words are not enough. When we see upraised hands we remember in our bodies, not just our intellects, that we want to connect with the divine.

Raising our own hands, palms up and empty, completes the ritual link. Then we can—sometimes—feel that God is bekirbeinu, inside us. Then it is easier to prevail over our own internal enemies, our own psychological Amaleks that attack us when we complain too much.

Is it the feeling of God inside us that lets us prevail? Or is it God Itself?

Regardless of the answer, I am grateful for the inner strength that comes when I become aware of a deeper meaning in the universe and inside myself. I pray—with uplifted hands—for that strength, so I can prevail over my own internal enemies. And I am grateful when my friends help to support me as I reach upward.

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