Bemidbar: Covering the Sacred

May 24, 2017 at 7:43 pm | Posted in Bemidbar | Leave a comment
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When you have a portable sanctuary, you need a procedure for packing up the holy items when it’s time to move on. And if unauthorized contact with a holy object results in death, the correct procedure is critical. This week’s Torah portion, Bemidbar (“In a wilderness”), specifies that only the priests may wrap up the holy items. Then Levites can carry them, once they are completely concealed.

They may not come in and see the holy even for a moment, or they will die.  (Numbers 4:20)

The first holy item the priests cover is the ark itself. The ark is usually hidden even from them, behind the partition-curtain in the Tent of Meeting that screens off the Holy of Holies.

Aharon and his sons shall come, when the camp is pulling out, and they shall take down the partition-curtain, and they shall cover the Ark of the Testimony with it.  Then they shall place over it a covering of tachash leather, and they shall spread a cloth of perfect  techeilet over that, then put its poles in place. (Numbers/Bemidbar 4:5-6)

Murex shell

tachash (תָּחַשׁ) = An unknown Hebrew word for either a treatment for leather, or the animal providing the skin.1

techeilet (תְּכֵלֶת) = Blue dye made from a Mediterranean murex sea snail.2

Next Aaron and his sons Elazar and Itamar cover up the holy items they use regularly inside the Tent of Meeting.

Then they shall spread over the Table of the Presence a cloth of techeilet, and they will place upon it the bowls, ladles, offering-bowls, libation jars for libations, and [that week’s] perpetual bread.  And they shall spread out over them a cloth of tolat shani, and then cover it with a covering of tachash leather, and they shall put its poles in place.  (Numbers/Bemidbar 4:7-8)

Shield lice on branch

tola-at shani (תּוֹלַעַת שָׁנִי) =  A vivid red or scarlet dye made from the unhatched eggs of shield-lice living on oak bark.

Although the table also has three coverings, the utensils—and that week’s bread!—are stored on top of the first tablecloth, then covered by the second cloth and the leather.

Next they shall take a cloth of techeilet, and they shall cover the lampstand (menorah) of the lighting and its lamps and its wick-cutters and its ash-pans and all the utensils for its oil that they use to attend to it. And they shall put it and all its utensils into a covering of tachash leather, and they shall place it on the carrying-frame.  (Numbers 4:9-10)

The priests cover the incense altar the same way, first in techeilet cloth, then in tachash leather.3

Finally, the priests must prepare the altar used for animal sacrifices, which is stationed in front of the Tent of Meeting for burning offerings of animals and grain products.  Even though everyone can see this altar, the priests cover it before the Levites move it.

And they shall remove ashes from the altar, and they shall spread over it a cloth of argaman.  And they shall place on it all the serving utensils which they use to attend to it—the ash pans, the meat forks, the scrapers, and the sprinkling basins—all the utensils of the altar. And they shall spread over it [the altar and its utensils] a covering of tachash leather, and they shall put its poles in place.  (Numbers 4:13-14)

argaman (אַרְגָּמָן) = purple dye made from a Mediterranean murex sea snail.

The various coverings of the holy objects are made out of wool dyed in the three most vivid colors available, and a type of leather that is only used for the Tent of Meeting and its holy objects.  Clearly the holy items must be honored with the best possible But why are different colors, in a different order, assigned to each item?

Wool dyed with techeilet

Techeilet

Later in the book of Numbers the Israelites are told to wear fringes on the corners of their own garments, with a thread of techeilet in each fringe, so that the sight of the fringe will remind them of everything God has commanded them to do.4 (See my post Shelach Lekha: Glimpses of Blue.) Why is turquoise the best color for the reminder?  Perhaps because it is the color of the sky, which is “the heavens”, the place God descends from.

Techeilet is not used to cover the animal-offering altar, which stands outside the Tent of Meeting and is less holy.  But it is used for the innermost wrapping of the three holy objects placed inside the Tent, and for the outermost wrapping of the ark behind the partition.

God’s voice comes from the empty space above the lid of the ark, and the ark is sometimes called God’s throne. The Bible also pictures God’s throne in the heavens. And the pavement on which God’s feet appear in the vision on Mount Sinai is sapphire, “like the heavens for purity”.5 (See my post Mishpatim: After the Vision, Eat Something.)  Sky blue is the color most directly associated with God.6  So surrounding the wrapped ark with techeilet cloth is like surrounding it with the sky.7

A cloth of techeilet is the innermost cover touching the table, the lampstand, and the incense altar, the three holy objects that the priests tend constantly inside the Tent of Meeting. Although God does not speak or sit above these objects, they are still imbued with a residue of the heavens.

Wool dyed with tolaat shani

Tola-at shani

Scarlet is the color of fresh blood.  In the Torah, blood represents the soul that animates the body, and therefore the Israelites are forbidden to eat or drink it.8 (See my post Reih: Don’t Be a Soul-Eater.)

Later the book of Numbers describes how a perfect red cow is slaughtered, then burned with other red objects:  cedar wood, hyssop, and shani tola-at. The ashes are mixed with water and sprinkled on anyone who has touched a corpse, in order to make them ritually pure again.9 (See my post Chukkat: Blood and Ash.)

The table in the Tent of Meeting is spread first with a cloth of techeilet, the color of the heavens. Then its utensils and the usual twelve loaves of bread are set out on the blue tablecloth. Even while the table is being carried through the wilderness, the “perpetual bread” is there as a human offering to God.  But the grain to make the bread is God’s offering to humans.  Our bodies cannot live without the food that God provides, so the priests add a cloth of tola-at shani, the color of life-blood.

Cloth dyed with argaman

Argaman

A combination of blue (techeilet), scarlet (tola-at shani), and purple (argaman) yarns are used to weave or embroider all the cloth walls and door-curtains of the Tent of Meeting, as well as the sashes of all the priests, and several items in the high priest’s costume.

The innermost cover over the ark is the partition-curtain that screens off the Holy of Holies when the Tent of Meeting is assembled. This curtain is woven out of techeilet, tola-at shani, and argaman. Thus all three colors of holiness are touching the ark while it is being carried.

Cloth woven of only argaman wool, which the priests use to cover the outside altar, appears elsewhere in the Bible as a sign of wealth and royalty. Kings of Midian wear purple robes10, King Solomon sits on purple wool11, and the proverbial “woman of valor” dresses in purple.12

Why is the copper altar used to burn animal parts covered with the argaman of wealth? Perhaps turning the fat parts of cattle, sheep, and goats, or sometimes entire animals, into smoke for God is an expression of gratitude for the abundance that makes this offering possible.

Tachash

The word tachash occurs in the Bible only as a type of skin or leather. In this week’s Torah portion, tachash leather is the middle layer of wrapping for the ark, and the outer layer covering the table, lampstand, and both altars when these holy objects are carried to a new campsite. Tachash leather is also the top layer of the roof of the Tent of Meeting.13

The only other appearance of tachash leather in the Bible is a description of God dressing Jerusalem in embroidered garments, fine linen, silk, jewelry, and sandals of tachash. (Ezekiel 16:10)  The analogy makes Jerusalem not only God’s bride, but also a holy place.

While tachash leather separates Jerusalem from the earth in Ezekiel, it separates the Tent of Meeting from the heavens in Exodus. When God wants the Israelites to remain encamped, a pillar of cloud and fire rests over the Tent of Meeting, above the tachash leather roof. When God wants the Israelites to move on, the pillar ascends, and the priests must cover the holy objects with tachash leather so they can be safely transported. The Levites carry these carefully wrapped items above the earth and below the heavens.

*

Today we move not only to new geographical locations, but to new positions in our interior lives.  When we reach a new insight, or enter a new stage of life, it helps to remember the beliefs in our old lives that helped us to be grateful or ethical. Even as we outgrow some old beliefs, we can reframe the ideas that still inspire us, and carry them into our new lives.

When Jews today finish reading from a Torah scroll, we cover it with a garment that both protects the hand-lettered parchment, and prevents us from taking the scroll for granted.  Similarly, we can wrap our own sacred ideas and imperatives in garments that preserve them and prevent us from treating them too familiarly.

What colors do you need to cover your own sacred ideas?  Sky blue, to remind you of everything beyond your horizon?  Scarlet, to remind you that you owe your own life to living things you did not create?  Purple, to remind you of an abundance you may not have noticed? Or the unknown color of tachash, the skin separating heaven and earth through a divine mystery?

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

1  Those who guess tachash is a treatment for leather translate it variously as tanned, blackened, dyed blue, and dyed ochre.  Those who guess tachash  is the name of the animal providing the skin translate it variously as badger, ermine, wild goat, wild ram, sea cow, narwhal, dolphin, or seal.

2  Although the hue varies according to the amount of exposure to sunlight during the process, modern dye from the same species of murex used for the fringes on prayer shawls, is turquoise.

3  (Numbers 4:11-12)

4  Numbers 15:38.

5  Exodus 24:10.

6  19th-century rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch wrote that “תכלת, ‘sky-blue,’ is the color that points to the limits (תִּכְלָה) of our horizon, to what lies beyond our field of vision—i.e., to the hidden to the Divine.” (Samson Raphael Hirsch, the Hirsch Chumash: Sefer Shemos, English translation by Daniel Haberman, Feldheim Publishers, Jerusalem, 2005, p. 542 on Exodus 26:14.)

7  20th-century Rabbi Elie Munk, The Call of the Torah: Bamidbar, English translation by E.S. Mazer, Mesorah Publications, New York, 1993,  p. 29.

8   Deuteronomy 12:23-25.

9  Numbers 19:3-6, 19:11-22. A similar mixture of cedar wood, hyssop, and scarlet dye is mixed with blood from a slaughtered bird and sprinkled on someone who has recovered from skin disease in order to return them to ritual purity. (Leviticus/Vayikra 14:6, 14:51-52)

10 Judges 8:26.

11  Song of Songs 3:10.

12  Proverbs 31:22.

13  The top of the Tent of Meeting is covered with tanned rams’ skins, and then over that goes a layer of tachash leather.  (Exodus/Shemot 26:14, 36:19, 39:34; Numbers 4:25.)

 

 

 

Behar: Owning Land

May 18, 2017 at 11:47 am | Posted in Behar | 1 Comment
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Is owning land like owning a bowl or a blanket? Do human beings have the right to buy and sell land, inherit it, give it away, use it any way they like, destroy it?

This week’s Torah portion, Behar (“on a mountain”), lays out rules for land ownership in ancient Israel and Judah. The first rule is about farmland:

The seventh year will be a time of the most restful rest for the land, a time of rest for God. You shall not sow your field and you shall not prune your vineyard.  (Leviticus/Vayikra 25:4)

Every seventh year, the Torah explains, everyone can eat what grows wild on your land:

It shall be … for yourself and for your male servant and for your female servant and for your hired laborer and for your toshav, the geirim with you; and for your cattle and for the wild beasts that are in your land; all may come to it to eat.  (Leviticus 25:6-7)

toshav (תּוֹשָׁב) = resident alien, foreigner living in a citizen’s household. Plural = toshavim (תּוֹשָׁבִים).

geir (גֵּר) = resident alien, immigrant; non-citizen who moved from another land. Plural = geirim (גֵּירִים).

The implication is that although you own the land, you only own its produce six years out of seven. Every seventh year you must let it lie fallow,1 giving the land a year of rest (shabbat, שַׁבָּת), just as every seventh day you give everyone in your household a day of rest (shabbat, שַׁבָּת). During your land’s year of rest, whatever it produces is ownerless, and can be eaten by anyone, even wild animals. Additionally, landowners may neither sell nor hoard the produce during that year; like everyone else, they may pick up only what they can eat.

Tribal lands according to Joshua

The next rule in the Torah portion Behar lays out what happens to land every 50th year. After the 49th year (which is a year of rest for the land, as above), all the land gets an additional year of rest, and during that year ownership of each parcel of land reverts to the family that owned it 50 years before—the descendants of the family that owned that land 50 years before that, and so on, all the way back to the original assignment of land in the book of Joshua.2

In this year of the yoveil, each of you shall return to his holding. (Leviticus 25:13)

yoveil (יוֹבֵל) = ram, ram’s horn, shofar; year of blowing the ram’s horn.  (English “jubilee”.)

That means a plot of land may not be sold in the sense we sell land today. Instead, someone pays up-front to lease the land for however many years are left before the next yoveil. During those years, he3 may plant and harvest as he likes—but then he has to return the land.

According to the count of years since the yoveil, you shall purchase it from your fellow; … since he is selling you the number of harvests.  (Leviticus 25:15, 16.)

Does that mean that the only true owners are the “original” families that were given land when the Israelites conquered Canaan, and get the same lands back every 50 years?  No.  The Torah says that all land belongs to God.

You may not forfeit the right to reacquire the land, because the land is Mine; for you are geirim and toshavim with Me.  (Leviticus/Vayikra 25:23)

The Gleaners, Jean Francois Millet, 1857

God is the true landowner of the land; even the Israelites who inherit land, or get it back in a yoveil year, are resident aliens from God’s point of view.

If everyone who “owns” land is actually borrowing it from God, everyone must obey God’s rules about the use of the land. Besides letting the ground rest every seven years, they must leave some of the harvest in the field for poor people and geirim to glean.4

Of course if a victorious enemy simply seizes land, there is nothing the Israelites can do but wait and hope God will return it to them eventually.

In modern nations today, our own governments can seize private land by eminent domain, often (depending on the nation) compensating the owners for their loss. In general, people can buy, sell, inherit, and give away land, but there are limits—set by government rather than God—on how they can use the land. We have zoning laws, laws protecting wetlands, laws requiring large developers to set aside some land for public parks or green spaces.

But we could do better, if our governments were truly dedicated to the public good.  For example, we could have laws banning the use, on farms and on homeowners’ lawns, of any pesticides, herbicides, or fertilizers that poison the environment. We could have laws severely limiting carbon dioxide emissions, and all forms of air and water pollution.

After all, does anyone have the right to degrade our God-given earth?

All human beings are merely temporary residents, geirim and toshavim, on God’s land.  We live here on sufferance.  We depend on nature, which some people call God’s creation—because it certainly isn’t ours. If only we could remember that we are all gleaners, harvesting our food from land that does not really belong to us!

We need to wake up and hear the ram’s horn!

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

1  The seventh year is called the year of shmittah (שְׁמִטָּה), “release”, in Deuteronomy 15:1-14, where it is described as the year for remission of debts and the freeing of Hebrew slaves.

2  Joshua 13:8-33 confirms Moses’ assignment of land east of the Jordan River to the tribes of Reuben and Gad, and half of the tribe of Menashe, divided by their clans. Joshua 15:1-17:18 confirms the assignment of land the tribes of Judah, Efrayim, and the other half of Menashe have already taken by conquest west of the Jordan, divided by their clans. Joshua 18:1-19:48 describes the assignment of land by lottery (which was presumed to be the will of God) to the remaining seven tribes and their clans. (The Levites, who serve at the temple instead of farming, are given land only in towns, with small attached pastures.) In the next few books of the Bible, the tribes do not conquer all of these assigned lands, and the tribe of Dan moves to another area.

3  Society in the ancient kingdoms of Israel and Judah was patriarchal, giving the male head of household authority over everyone else. According to current scholarship, the book of Leviticus was written sometime after the Assyrian Empire captured the northern kingdom of Israel in 721 B.C.E., but the patriarchal system continued in Judah.  Women could inherit land only when their fathers died without a son, as in Numbers 27:1-11, and even then strings were attached (Numbers 36:2-12).

4  Leviticus 19:9-10, 23:22; Deuteronomy 24:19-21.

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.

Kedoshim: Reciprocal Holiness

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

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

kedoshim (קְדֺשִׁים) = plural of kadosh.

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

Vestments of the high priest

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

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

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

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

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

  1. Holiness as ritual purity

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

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

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

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

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

The Torah portion Kedoshim reinforces this idea:

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

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

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

  1. Holiness as moral virtue

Honor Your Parents,
by Hans der Maler, 1529

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  1. Holiness as exclusive possession

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

  1. The “God” of ritual purity

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

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

  1. The “God” of moral virtue

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

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

  1. The “God” of exclusive possession

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

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

 

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

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

2  Leviticus 18:1-30.

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

* Observe Shabbat. (Leviticus 19:5)

* Do not worship idols. (19:4)

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

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

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

6  Rabbi Bachya ben Yosef ibn Pakudah, Kad HaKemach.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ki Tissa: Heard and Not Seen

March 2, 2015 at 6:01 pm | Posted in Ki Tissa | 2 Comments
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by Melissa Carpenter, maggidah

Model of the Ark with Keruvim

Model of the Ark with Keruvim

For 40 days at the top of Mount Sinai, Moses listens to God’s instructions on ordaining priests and making a sanctuary for the new religion. The holiest object in the sanctuary will be the ark—a gold-plated box covered by a solid gold lid with two keruvim (sphinx-like creatures with eagle wings, lion bodies, and human faces) hammered out of the gold at the two ends of the lid.

Meanwhile, in this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tissa (“When you bring up”), the Israelites at the foot of Mount Sinai conclude that Moses is never coming back.

The people saw that Moses was horribly late in going down from the mountain, so the people assembled against Aaron, and they said to him: Get up, make us elohim that will go before us, because this man Moses who brought us up from the land of Egypt, we do not know what happened to him! (Exodus/Shemot 32:1)

elohim (אֱלוֹהִים) = gods; God; divine powers.  (Elohim is the plural of eloha (אֱלוֹהַּ) = god, God.)

When the Israelites ask Aaron to make elohim, they want images of gods that carry some divine power or magic.

Aaron said to them: Pull off the gold rings that are in the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me. And all the people pulled off the gold rings in their ears, and they brought them to Aaron. He took [the gold] from their hand, and he shaped it in the mold, and he made it a calf of cast metal. And they said: These are your elohim, Israel, which brought you up from the land of Egypt! (Exodus 32:2-4)

Gold calf, Temple of Baalat in Byblos

Gold calf from Temple of Baalat in Byblos

There is only one gold statue, yet the people use the plural “these”.  Modern commentator Robert Alter wrote that the Golden Calf was not intended to be inhabited by a deity, but rather to serve as the throne for one or more gods. The Phoenician storm god Hadad was pictured standing on a bull.

The ark with its keruvim is not a throne. Later in the Bible, God acquires the title “Who Sits [Above] the Keruvim”, but the only descriptions of God sitting above keruvim refer to angelic creatures in the heavens, not to the solid keruvim in the sanctuary.

Later in the Bible, King Jereboam, the first ruler of the northern kingdom of Israel, sets up a golden calf in each of his two temples, one at Bethel and one in Dan. The Torah denounces these golden calves as sinful (reflecting the viewpoint of the southern kingdom of Judah, which retains two keruvim in the temple at Jerusalem).

Why are two gold keruvim acceptable to God, while a golden calf is not?

 

Hammered, not cast or carved

One line of commentary argues that God objects to cast-metal images, but not to images hammered out of a lump of gold. God does say “Cast-metal gods you shall not make for yourselves. (Exodus 34:17)”—but only later in this week’s Torah portion, after Moses has ground up the Golden Calf and climbed Mount Sinai for a second 40-day conference with God.

 

Imaginary, not actual

In one of the Ten Commandments, which come before the Golden Calf episode in the Torah, God declares: “You shall not make for yourself a carved idol, or any image of what is in the heavens above or what is on the earth below or what is in the waters underneath. (Exodus 20:4)” One could argue that the Golden Calf is an image of an animal that lives on the earth, while the keruvim do not represent any known animal.

 

Commanded, not volunteered

In his book Kuzari, 12th-century commentator Judah Halevi argues that images were psychologically necessary for people in that era. Until they reached Mount Sinai, the Israelites followed a visible pillar of cloud and fire. After the pillar disappeared, they waited for Moses to come down from Mount Sinai with some other visible item. Only after they concluded Moses would never return did they make an unauthorized image. Halevi wrote: “They should have waited and not made an image by themselves.”

The difference between the keruvim and the Golden Calf, according to Halevi and subsequent commentary by Ibn Ezra and Abarbanel, is that God ordered the keruvim. God does not want people to use anything that God Itself has not authorized.

 

Heard, not seen

I think the underlying problem is that in the Torah, God is heard and not seen. Later in this week’s Torah portion, God explains to Moses:

You will not be able to see My face, because humankind may not see Me and live. (Exodus 33:20)

Even the pillar of cloud and fire is called God’s messenger, not God Itself. Only God’s creations can be seen. But God’s voice is heard by all the people in the revelation at Mount Sinai. And throughout the Bible, God speaks to select human beings.

The Israelites err in expecting God to manifest as a visible shape, sitting astride the calf or standing on its back.  They want the reassurance of something they can see. But God only manifests as a voice; God wants people to listen for God’s words.

If God’s voice came from the Golden Calf, it would seem as though the words issued from the calf’s mouth—a clear case of idolatry. This is not a problem with the two keruvim at the ends of the ark. The Torah says that after the Holy of Holies is finished, God will speak from the empty space above the cover of the ark, between the wings of the Keruvim.  ART

In the Torah, God does not speak from the solid and visible Golden Calf, but from the invisible empty space in between the keruvim.

In our lives today, God does not speak from visible and mundane things such as gold jewelry or expensive cars.  God speaks to us from out of nowhere—if we make empty spaces in our lives, and listen.

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