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.

Bechukkotai & Jeremiah: The Inner Reward

May 11, 2014 at 7:14 pm | Posted in Bechukkotai, Jeremiah | 2 Comments
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If you follow all the rules, you will be rewarded; if you do not, you will be punished.

This makes sense when the boss is human. But this week’s Torah portion, Bechukkotai (“by my decrees”), claims that the same formula applies when the boss is God.

If you go by my decrees and observe my commands and do them, I will give you rains in their season, and the earth will give its produce, and the trees of the field will give their fruit. (Leviticus/Vayikra 26:3-4)

The Torah lists other rewards that God promises, including abundant food, peace and security, victory over enemies, and fertility.

But if you do not heed me and you do not do all these commands, and if you reject my decrees and if your nafshot gag on my laws, so that you are not doing all my commands, voiding my covenant, then I on my part will do this to you: I will appoint panic over you, the consumptive sickness and the fever, using up the eyes and wearing out the nefesh. And you will sow seed in vain, and your enemies will eat it. (Leviticus 26:14-16)

nefesh (נֶפֶשׁ), plural nafshot  = throat, appetite, embodied soul. (See my previous post: Bechukkotai: Sore Throat or Lively Soul.)

God adds many other punishments for rejecting the rules, including fear, wild beasts, attacking armies, pestilence, famine, and cannibalism. Cities will be ruined, and the Israelites will be scattered in exile.

The problem with this promise of material rewards for following God’s rules, and physical punishments for rejecting God’s rules, is that the world does not work that way. Bad things do happen to good people, as the book of Job points out.

The haftarah reading from the Prophets that always accompanies the Torah portion Bechukkotai takes the reward and punishment formula to a different level. Most scholars agree that this reading from the book of Jeremiah (16:19-17:14) is a collection of seven separate poems. The third poem, Jeremiah 17:5-8, does not talk about obeying God’s decrees and laws; instead, it considers a person’s inner feelings about God.

Thus says God:

Cursed is the man who yivtach in humankind,

And makes flesh his strength,

And whose leiv turns away from God.

He is like a juniper in the desert

That does not notice any good coming.

He dwells in a stone-field in the wilderness,

A salt-plain that is not inhabited. (Jeremiah/Yermiyahu 17:5-6)

yivtach (יִבְטַח) = trusts, feels safe, is confident.

leiv (לֵב) = heart; inner self, the seat of thoughts and feelings; attention, inclination.

Here, the curse falls on those whose thoughts and feelings reject God. They become bitter atheists, trusting only human power. Their punishment is that they become depressed and unable to see anything good; their souls become undernourished, deficient in the water of life; and they feel abandoned.

The blessing comes to those who maintain their attachment to God.

Blessed is the man who yivtach in God;

God will happen from his trust. (Jeremiah 17:7)

Perhaps Jeremiah is saying that God happens to people when they trust in God. The poem goes on to describe the man who trusts in God:

He is like a tree planted beside water

That sends out its roots beside a stream,

And does not notice any heat coming.

Upon it are fresh green leaves,

And in a year of drought it is not worried;

It does not stop bearing fruit. (Jeremiah 17:8)

Those who depend on God rather than humans for their sense of security are rewarded, Jeremiah says. They do not worry about anything bad approaching, because their souls are nourished by a water of life that never runs out. Therefore, their efforts and projects continue to bear fruit.

Jeremiah’s poem can be read as stating a psychological truth: trusting in God nourishes your heart and mind; abandoning all hope of God leads to sterile depression. Even if following God’s rules in your actions in the world does not necessarily bring a worldly reward, there are still rewards and punishments for your attitude toward God—and they are internal.

Is Jeremiah’s claim true for us today?

My first impulse is to say no. I know some happy atheists who believe that humans are basically good, despite the evil some people do, and there is hope for a better world. They find satisfaction in the company of other human beings, and they do productive work.

I also know some religious people who claim that they trust God and know that God will make everything will work out for the best—but they say it with either the glazed smile of self-hypnosis, or an edge of desperation.

On the other hand, now that I am 60 years old, I am beginning to taste the pleasures of acceptance. I no longer speculate on whether humans are destroying the world; I no longer assume the people I love will still be with me in my old age. Neither do I place my trust in the anthropomorphic God described in the Torah, since I cannot believe in a god who makes plans and decisions like a human being.

But I think that sometimes God happens to me. I see or hear something beautiful, and my heart lifts, and I am filled with joy and gratitude—and a sense of security, if not trust, in being part of the big picture. In a year of trouble I still worry—but not as much as I used to.  Perhaps I finally have a few roots in the stream of the divine.

May God happen to everyone who needs it.  And may all our souls be nourished, so we can continue to produce fruit.

 

 

 

 

 

Behar: Choosing a God

May 4, 2014 at 11:37 am | Posted in Behar | Leave a comment
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Feeling a sense of the numinous or the divine, from time to time, is human nature. So is the impulse to acknowledge and reach out to the ineffable. For thousands of years, many human beings have channeled this impulse into worship of one or more gods.

The Hebrew Bible does not have a separate word corresponding to the English word “worship”. But it does have words for prayer (tefillah), bowing down or prostrating oneself (hishtachavot), service (avodah—often meaning the tasks of priests), and bringing offerings to a god (hakriv korban). Prayer and prostration usually happen on the impulse of the moment in the Torah.  Priestly service and bringing offerings, on the other hand, are rituals for which the book of Leviticus/Vayikra gives detailed rules.

But the most important thing is which god one is addressing. The Torah repeatedly warms its readers to restrict themselves to only one god out of the many available in the ancient Middle East. This week’s Torah portion, Behar (“on the mountain”) ends with these instructions:

You must not make for yourselves eliylim, or a pesel; and a matzeivah you must not erect for yourselves; and a maskit stone you must not place in your land for prostrations upon it; because I, God, am your elohim. (Leviticus/Vayikra 26:1)

eliylim (אֱלִילִם) = pseudo-gods (often used to refer to gods in other religions)

pesel (פֶּסֶל) = carved image; idol of cut stone or wood (from the verb pasal = carve)

matzeivah (מַצֵּבָה) = standing-stone

maskit (מַשׂכּית) = paving-stone with a design on it, set into the floor of a shrine

elohim (אֱלֹהִים) = gods (plural of eloha = god); God

What strikes me about this warning is that after the general reference to pseudo-gods, we get three examples of idols associated with stone. In contrast, the God of the four-letter name (approximated in English by Y-H-V-H) is associated with a day of rest and a holy place in the next verse:

Shabbetotai you must guard, and mikdashi you must hold in awe; I am God. (Leviticus 26:2)

shabbetotai (שַׁבְּתֹתַי) = my sabbaths

mikdashi (מִקְדָּשִׁי) = my holy place

Shabbat, the sabbath, is a holy time: one day a week when the people must refrain from labor and honor God. A mikdash is a holy place. A shrine with a pesel, matzeivah, or maskit stone might be a mikdash for another god. But this week’s Torah portion quotes the god of Israel as saying mikdashi, MY mikdash. Throughout the book of Leviticus, God’s mikdash is the portable sanctuary Moses assembles in the book of Exodus; God becomes present above the ark in the sanctuary’s innermost chamber. Later in the Bible, the holy place where God becomes present is the temple in Jerusalem. Since the fall of the second temple, some Jews have viewed Jerusalem as God’s holy place, while others have said holy place is any spot where God becomes present to a human being—as long as it is the correct god.

Both the pseudo-gods and the God of Israel require human actions before they can be worshipped. Humans carve the pseudo-gods out of stones. Humans set aside times and places as holy to the God of the four-letter name.

Like many religious seekers today, I like the more abstract idea of how to approach God. Thinking about time and space dazzles me; looking at a stone sculpture only stimulates my aesthetic sense. But in Biblical times, the sanctuary or the temple was full of tangible objects and decorations made of metals, wood, and thread. Gold flashed, rich colors glowed. And the second temple was built of stone.

A visit to the temple meant not only a feast for the eyes, but an overwhelming experience for the other senses. The Levites chanted psalms and played musical instruments. Priests burned aromatic incense. When you brought any animal offering, you laid your hands on the beast’s hairy head. When you brought a wholeness-offering, a priest burned selected portions into smoke for God, and ate his own portion, but the donor and his guests ate the rest of the meat and bread.

When we make God too abstract, we approach the divine with only one part of ourselves, the rational function of our minds. But our minds are much bigger than that. Reading a prayer silently makes me think about the meaning of words; singing a prayer lifts my spirit. Thinking about time and space dazzles my intellect; looking at a blossoming tree or a smiling face moves my heart with a feeling of the divine.

So I have to reinterpret the phrase:  I, God (the four-letter Y-H-V-H name), am your elohim. Most translations use “the LORD”, a variation of “Y-H-V-H”, or Hashem (“the Name”) for the first god-word, and “God” (always capitalized) for elohim. Yet elohim is a plural, and the Torah occasionally uses the word to refer to multiple gods worshipped by other peoples.

When I come to that phrase, in prayers or in this passage from the portion Behar, I think: I, God, am all gods to you.

In other words, do not get stranded in abstract theories, however dazzling to the intellect. And do not get stuck at the level of a stone carving. Let the stone, or the singing of psalms, or the taste of bread move your heart. Use your head to recognize that the divine is also more than an exalted feeling. And then acknowledge that these things are all part of the holy One.

 

Emor: Challah with a Hole

April 27, 2014 at 11:03 pm | Posted in Emor | 1 Comment
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When you invite a god to be with you, you want to be a good host. Being a good host for human guests always includes offering them food and drink. So the ancient peoples of the Middle East offered their gods bread and cake.

In his book Leviticus, 20th-century scholar Jacob Milgrom noted: “In Egypt the offerings are placed on the outer altar, but only the fresh bread and cakes are brought into the sanctuary and laid on mats (together with incense) before the god’s table … Ritual bread laying was an early custom in Mesopotamia, appearing in a Sumerian inscription of Urukagina of Lagash (c. 2340 BCE). Babylonians laid sweet unleavened bread before various deities, in twelves or multiples of twelve.”

The book of Exodus/Shemot describes the three holy containers in the inner sanctum of the Israelites’ sanctuary: the gold lampstand (menorah) for making light, the gold incense altar for making fragrant smoke, and the small gold-plated table for displaying bread. The display itself is only described in the book of Leviticus/Vayikra, in this week’s Torah portion, Emor (“say”). It begins:

You shall take fine flour, and you shall bake it into twelve challot; a challah shall be two tenths [of an eyfah in size]. And you shall put them in two rows, six in each row, upon the ritually-pure table in front of God. (Leviticus/Vayikra 24:5-6)

challah (חַלָּה), plural challot = loaf or cake made of finely-ground wheat flour, leavened or unleavened, probably  pierced with one or more holes (from the root verb chalal (חָלַל) = pierced through).

Half of the 14 references to challah in the Hebrew Bible specify that the challah shall be unleavened (matzah); in these cases, part of the challah is destined to be burned up on the altar, where leavening is banned. However, when the challah is destined to be eaten by people, it can be sourdough. (A thanksgiving offering, according to Leviticus 7:13, requires both unleavened challah to burn on the altar and leavened challah for people to eat.)

Other cultures in the ancient Middle East laid out bread in front of statues of their gods, and replaced the bread every day. The Israelites are forbidden to make a statue of their god, but the bread table stands in front of the innermost room of the tent, where God’s presence manifests over the ark. The bread is replaced only once a week. The twelve loaves are strictly symbolic; nobody pretends that God eats them. In fact, the Torah orders the priests to eat the week-old challot after the fresh loaves are laid out.

And you shall place as an addition to each row clear frankincense, and it shall become a memorial-portion for the bread, a fire-offering to God. Sabbath day after sabbath day it shall be arranged in rows in front of God, perpetually, as a covenant from the children of Israel forever. And it shall be for Aaron and for his sons; and he shall eat it in a holy place, because it is most holy for him, out of the fire-offerings of God; [this is] a decree forever. (Leviticus 24:7-9)

Unlike the unleavened challot people bring as offerings, the challot on the display table are never burned on the altar. Every seven days the priests set out fresh-baked challot and two new bowls of frankincense. They burn the previous week’s frankincense, so God can enjoy the fragrance (see my post Pinchas: Aromatherapy). Then the priests eat the stale bread.

This week’s Torah portion is the only place in the Hebrew Bible that calls the bread on the sanctuary table challah. Elsewhere it is simply “bread in rows” or “the bread of panim”, the bread that faces God. (See my post Terumah: Bread of Faces.) The twelve challot represent the twelve tribes of Israel, all lined up in front of God.

One might imagine each challah as a fluffy braided loaf, since that is what the challah that Jews eat on Shabbat today looks like. But the root of the word challah is challal, which means “pierced through”. The Torah uses the verb challal most often for fatal wounds, but the word also applies to window-openings in walls and to certain loaves or cakes.  Thus the challot in the Israelite sanctuary and temples might have looked like large bagels.

(Talmudic rabbis, considering the small size of the table—2 cubits by 1 cubit, about 4 square feet—speculated that each challah must have been shaped like a lidless rectangular box, so that one row would stack neatly on top of the other with no gaps. But since we do not know how much flour is in two-tenths of an eyfah, nor how dense the bread was, the table might just as well have held two rows of six bagel-shaped challot, one in front of the other.)

Does the shape matter? I think so. Bread begins as grain that grows as a gift from God or nature. But then humans add a lot of labor to transform that grain into bread. When we display our own creative work to God, are we showing off or expressing gratitude? A continuous loaf with no holes is full of itself; it leaves no empty spaces for God to fill. But a loaf with a hole in the middle says: “The center of my life is for You to fill with Your inspiration. I am building my life around that holy hole.”

That is what I want to say to the divine presence inside me.

 

 

Kedoshim: Hard to Love

April 21, 2014 at 8:37 am | Posted in Kedoshim | Leave a comment
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Some people are hard to love.

The word “love” in English and the word ahavah (אַהֲבָה) in Biblical Hebrew have the same wide scope, including all four of the types of love distinguished in Classical Greek: agapé (selfless devotion to the welfare of another), eros (sensual desire for and attachment to another person, or enthusiastic attachment to a pleasurable activity), philio (mutual affection and harmony between friends), and storgé (fondness for familiar people, animals, and places).  This week’s Torah portion, Kedoshim (“Holiness”), commands the agapé type of love, devotion to the welfare of another—even when warm feelings do not arise naturally, and the only reward is knowing you are doing the right thing.

You shall not hate your brother in your heart; you must definitely reprove your fellow person, so you shall not carry guilt because of him. You shall not take revenge and you shall not hold a grudge against the members of your people; ve-ahavta lerei-akah kamokha; I am God. (Leviticus/Vayikra 19:17-18)

ve-ahavta (וְאָהַבְתָּ) = and you shall love, and you shall be loving.

lerei-akha (לְרֵעֲךָ) = to your colleague, to your fellow.

kamokha (כָּמוֹךָ) = like you, like yourself, as yourself.

The phrase ve-ahavta lerei-akha kamokha is often translated as “and you shall love your fellow as yourself”. The problem with this translation is that the word rei-akha has the prefix le-, which is the preposition “to”.  So a more literal translation is: And you shall be as loving to your fellow as you are to yourself.

In other words, you are not required to feel love for your fellow humans, only to act loving toward them. If the fellow in question is someone you are in love with (eros), or a friend (philio), or a  familiar person you have grown fond of (storgé), then it is usually easy to act loving toward them.  But what about someone you are not fond of, someone who has wronged you?

This week’s Torah portion calls for agapé (devotion to the welfare of another) for those who have wronged us.  We are forbidden to take revenge, and we we forbidden to holed a grudge.  We may not feel love for them, but we must act as if we did, and at least banish any feeling of hatred.

We must reprove them for what they did, and then, even if they neither apologize nor make amends, we must let go of our anger. On top of that, we must devote ourselves to their welfare as we do to our own welfare.

Does this mean I have to spend just as much time and energy on improving the lot of my antagonists as I do on improving my own lot? Oy, vey! My time and my energy are limited, and when it comes to improving someone’s welfare, I do not want to stint on doing good things for myself, my husband, my son, or my friends. Anyway, why should I do anything good at all for someone who wronged me?

The verse above does not necessarily mean And you shall be loving to your fellow [exactly as much as you are loving to] yourself. It could also be translated: And you shall be loving to your fellow, [who is] like yourself. Remember, says the classic commentary: you, too, are fallible, and you, too, make moral mistakes. If you can still be loving to yourself, you can be loving to your fellow the same way.

Yet sometimes this argument is not enough. Either you feel too upset about the other, or you feel too ashamed of yourself. Then what? The book of Genesis/Bereishit says we are all created in the image of God. Jewish kabbalah says we all contain divine sparks; we are all part of God. 19th-century Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch wrote that since human beings are part of God and God wants us to perfect ourselves, it is our duty to devote care both to our own welfare and to the welfare of everyone else. This is how we can fulfill our duty to be loving toward God.

I would revise this argument to say that all human beings are moral agents for God. When we act lovingly, promoting what is good for every person, we are improving God (or the divine spirit, or holiness) as we improve the world. When we act hatefully, toward ourselves or toward anyone else, we are undermining God as we undermine the world. I know that “doing the right thing” myself will not help everyone I encounter, but I believe it will at least contribute to an overall improvement in the world. So I practice acting with kindness and respect for everyone, whether I feel like it or not. And the longer I do it, the more I feel like it.

So may it be for all of us.

Acharey Mot: Private Parts

April 9, 2014 at 7:28 pm | Posted in Acharey Mot | 1 Comment
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No man shall approach any flesh of his own flesh “to uncover nakedness”; I am God. (Leviticus/Vayikra 18:6).

The phrase commonly translated as “uncover nakedness” is legillot ervah in the Hebrew.

legillot (לְגִלּותֹ) = expose, uncover, reveal. (Other forms of this verb mean “to expose oneself”, and “to be taken into captivity and exile”.)

ervah (עֶרְוָה) = nakedness of the genital area

When Adam and Eve discover they are naked in the book of Genesis/Bereishit, the Torah uses the word arumim (עֲרוּמִּים) = naked; smooth; clever. The word ervah first appears in the Torah after the Flood, when Noah gets drunk and exposes himself inside his tent. One of his sons, Cham, sees his ervah, and gets cursed.

In the book of Exodus/Shemot, God instructs Moses about underwear for the priests:

And you shall make them linen underpants to cover the flesh of their ervah; from the waist to the upper thighs they shall be. (Exodus 28:42)

In this week’s Torah portion, Acharey Mot (“After the death”), the statement “No man shall approach any flesh of hisown flesh legillot ervahis followed in Leviticus 18:7-18 by a list of the females whose ervah a man may not uncover: his mother, his father’s (other) wife, his sister or half-sister, his granddaughter, his stepsister, his father’s sister, his mother’s sister, his father’s brother’s wife, his son’s wife, his brother’s wife; his own sex partner’s daughter or granddaughter; or his partner’s sister during his partner’s lifetime. (11th-century rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, known as Rashi, pointed out that the prohibition against sex with both a woman and her daughter bans a man from sex with his own daughter.)

Many of the relationships on this list would count as incest in western society today. Others would be considered odd, but not incestuous; a single man in our society is free to marry his adult step-daughter, or the wife of any blood relative after that relative is dead or divorced. The Torah is not concerned about sex with relatives of the same “flesh” in the genetic sense.

In ancient Israel, a typical household consisted of about twenty family members and their slaves living around a common courtyard. One man was the head of the household, but other members included not only his wives and children, but also female and underage relatives of his wives, his sons’ wives and children, and any other relatives who had nowhere else to live.

Medieval commentary agreed that without strict rules about physical intimacy in such a large household, sexual desires would lead to bad outcomes. 14th-century Rabbi Yosef Ibn Kaspi worried about violence between men, as they quarreled jealously over ownership of the women in their household. But 12th-century Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon (called Maimonides or Rambam) pointed out that since any man in a household could have access to any of the women, the incest rules protect women (and girls) from encroachment.

This points to a more universal interpretation. One could legitimately translate the opening line of the list this way:

No one shall approach any flesh of hisown flesh to uncover private parts; I am God. (Leviticus 18:6).

The English idiom “private parts”, like the Hebrew word ervah, is a euphemism for the genital area. But “private” also means personal, restricted to the use of a particular individual, and free from unauthorized intrusion. This week’s Torah portion makes it clear that only a woman’s own husband is authorized to uncover her private parts; all other men, even if they live in the same compound, must not intrude.

The laws in Leviticus are certainly different for men than for women. They permit a man to uncover the ervah of multiple wives and concubines, as long as none of them are on the forbidden list; while a woman belongs to only one man (unless she is a prostitute).

On the other hand, these laws grant every Israelite woman and girl a physical right to privacy that no one but her husband is allowed to violate.

I think this principle can include people of all genders, and ban all types of personal encroachments, psychological as well as physical. I feel violated when someone yells or hisses insults at me. I even feel violated when someone begins by offering advice, and then pushes too far, too long, and will not take my “no, thank you” for an answer. I belong to a community in which most members are dedicated to kindness, but sometimes forget that respecting personal boundaries is also an important virtue.

There is more than one way to violate a person’s private parts. May we all come to respect each other as individuals with the right to choose for ourselves what to uncover, and what to keep private.

 

Haftarah for Metzora –2 Kings: Insiders and Outsiders

April 1, 2014 at 12:11 am | Posted in Kings 2, Metzora | Leave a comment
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Last week’s haftarah (the reading from the Prophets that accompanies the week’s Torah portion) tells the story of Na-aman, an Aramean general whose skin disease, tzara-at, disappears when he gives up his arrogance to follow the advice of the prophet Elisha. (See my post Tazria & 2 Kings: A Sign of Arrogance.)

Although Aram and Israel are at peace when Na-aman comes to Elisha for a cure, hostilities resume later in the second book of Kings. Eventually an Aramean army besieges Samaria, the capital of the northern kingdom of Israel. Trapped inside the city walls, the Israelites begin to run out of food. The price of food skyrockets, and two women eat a child.

Meanwhile, four men with tzara-at are living in exile outside the city walls. The Torah says that tzara-at, unlike all other skin diseases, is an affliction caused by the touch of God. The afflicted must live alone, outside the camp or town, until God removes the disease and a priest declares them ritually pure.

God may also afflict houses with tzara-at, according to this week’s Torah portion, Metzora (“Someone with tzara-at”). No one may live in a house with tzara-at in the walls.

Why does God touch people and houses with tzara-at? The book of Leviticus/Vayikra does not say, but in the Babylonian Talmud (Arachin 16a), the rabbis say tzara-at is caused by slander, and then list six other causes: bloodshed, swearing falsely, incest, arrogance, robbery, and envy. All of these bad deeds or bad attitudes not only sin against God, but also poison one’s relationships with other people. No wonder the Torah requires a metzora to stay away from the community.

In this week’s haftarah, the four men with tzara-at who live just outside the besieged city of Samaria are also starving. They come to the city gate, but they receive neither food nor a check-up from a priest to see whether they have healed and can come back inside. The haftarah picks up the story as they consider their options.

Four men were metzora-im at the entrance of the gate, and each one said to his neighbor: Why are we sitting here until we die? If we say “Let’s come into the city”, and the famine is in the city, then we will die there. But if we sit here, then we will die. So now, let’s go and surrender ourselves to the camp of Aram. If they let us live, we live; and if they put us to death, then we die. (2 Kings 7:3-4)

metzora-im (מְצֹרָעִים) = the plural of metzora  (מְצֹרָע) = someone afflicted with tzara-at.

In other words, the four men decide to defect to the Arameans on the chance that they will survive. Although most commentary criticizes the metzora-im for their disloyalty to Israel, I think they are far more ethical and less disloyal than the two Samarian women inside the city who resort to cannibalism. After all, the men do not even consider killing any Israelites in order to eat them.

So they got up in the twilight to come to the Aramaean camp. They came up to the edge of the Aramaean camp, and hey! Nobody was there! (2 Kings 7:5)

God had made the Aramean soldiers hear the sounds of an approaching army, complete with chariots and horses. Assuming that the king of Israel had hired mercenary forces, the Arameans had fled for their lives, leaving behind their horses, donkeys, and tents.

The four would-be defectors enter a tent, eat and drink their fill, then take the silver, gold, and clothing and hide it. After they have looted a second tent, it occurs to all four of them that they could rescue the starving Israelites in the city.

Then they said, each one to his neighbor: We are not doing right. Today is a day of good news, and we are delaying it. If we delay until the light of morning, we will be found guilty. So now, let’s go, and we will come to the house of the king and tell it. (2 Kings 7:9)

The men have two motivations for reporting that the enemy has fled: because it is the right thing to do, and because they do not want to be found guilty if they delay until someone on the city wall can see that the Aramean camp is deserted.

The gatekeepers of the city do not let in the metzora-im. Nevertheless, they shout out the good news, and the gatekeepers pass it on to the king’s house inside. Then the city of Samaria empties as everyone rushes through the gate to loot the deserted Aramean camp.

There is no indication of what the four men did that led God to punish them with tzara-at in the first place. By the time they appear in the haftarah, they seem fairly decent; they do not consider either using violence against anyone to get food, or taking revenge against the city that excluded them. Nor do they exhibit any of the seven causes of tzara-at listed in the Talmud, unless their looting of abandoned Aramean tents counts as robbery, a word used to mean taking forcible possession.

But what about the cannibalism that occurs inside the city just before the haftarah begins? One Samarian woman complains to the king of Israel:

That woman said to me: Give your son and we will eat him today; and my son we will eat tomorrow. And we cooked my son and we ate him. Then I said to her the next day: Give your son and we will eat him. But she hid her son! (2 Kings 6:28-29)

These two women commit five of the seven anti-social deeds on the list:

Slander: The actual idiom in the Talmud is lashon hara = the evil tongue. The woman who complains to the king is guilty of lashon hara because she points out the other woman and defames her.

Bloodshed: Obviously both women are guilty of murder.

Swearing falsely: The first woman complains that the second woman made a false vow when she promised they would eat her son the next day.

Incest: The actual idiom in the Talmud is “exposing the nakedness”. Although incest does not technically occur in the story, the first woman does expose her son’s vulnerability and violate his body.

Arrogance: Both women assume their lives are more valuable than the child’s life.

I would argue that the women inside the city deserve tzara-at more than the men outside the walls. When everyone rushes out of the city to loot the Aramean camp, it is echoes the requirement in the Torah portion Metzora that a house with tzara-at must be emptied and abandoned until its walls become pure again.

I know that I, like most human beings, feel as if some people are too awful to tolerate, and I want to exclude them from my community or my in-group—at least until they show signs of overcoming their anti-social traits. No doubt sometimes my diagnosis is correct. But I must remember that sometimes my in-group might be more at fault than the person I want to exclude. The affliction might be inside my own walls.

May we all keep the gates of our souls open to new developments, and close our gates only when we really are besieged.

Tazria & 2 Kings: A Sign of Arrogance

March 24, 2014 at 5:31 pm | Posted in Kings 2, Tazria | 4 Comments
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There is no leprosy in the Torah. The disease that used to be translated as “leprosy”, tzara-at, is not Hansen’s Disease, but a skin condition characterized by patches of dead-white skin that look lower than the healthy skin around them. This week’s Torah portion, Tazria, gives the priests detailed instructions on identifying tzara-at, because they must declare anyone who exhibits the disease tamei, ritually impure.

Most reasons for being tamei, such as sex, menstruation, contact with a dead body, or having recently given birth (see my earlier post, Tazria: Babies Versus Religion), merely exclude the person from entering the sanctuary courtyard to worship God (until their period of being tamei is over). But people who are impure because of tzara-at are excluded not just from the place of worship, but from the whole community.

And the one who is tzarua, who has the nega: his clothes shall be torn and his hair shall hang loose, and he shall cover his lips and he shall call out ‘Tamei! Tamei!’ As long as touch [of the disease] is on him, he shall be tamei. He is tamei, so he shall dwell alone; his dwelling shall be outside of the camp. (Leviticus/Vayikra 13:45-46)

tzarua (צָרַוּע) = suffering from the skin disease tzara-at.

nega (נֶגַע) =  an affliction caused by the touch of God.

tamei (טָמֵא) = ritually impure; unclean, defiled, contaminated.

The passage above might sound like a quarantine to prevent contagion, but no other diseases are quarantined in the Torah. Unlike all other skin diseases, tzara-at is classified as a nega; God touched (naga) the person with the affliction. The one who is tzarua remains tamei until God removes the affliction and the skin becomes healthy.

Why does God touch people with tzara-at? The book of Leviticus does not say, but in the Babylonian Talmud (Arachin 16a), the rabbis list seven causes: slander, bloodshed, swearing falsely, incest, arrogance, robbery, and envy. Since all of these bad deeds or attitudes poison or violate relationships with other people, it makes sense that the Torah requires someone with tzara-at to live alone, outside the camp of the community.

Arrogance might seem like the least of the seven causes, yet it prevents you from empathizing with or even respecting others, and therefore alienates other people. I believe the haftarah reading that goes with this week’s Torah portion addresses the role of arrogance in the disease of tzara-at. The haftarah is a story from the second book of Kings about an Aramean general named Na-aman who has tzara-at. One of his household slaves mentions the miraculous cures of the Israelite prophet Elisha, and Na-aman arranges a letter of introduction. He travels to Elisha’s house with a supply of silver, gold, and clothing as payment for a cure.

So Na-aman came with his horses and his chariots, and he stood at the door of the house of Elisha. Then Elisha sent a messenger out to him, to say to him: You must bathe seven times in the Jordan, and it will make your flesh restored and ritually-pure. (2 Kings 5:9-10)

Na-aman (נַעֲמָן) =pleasant one, nice person, mensch.

Na-aman has already proved himself humble in some ways: despite his high rank, he takes advice from a slave, and he goes to a foreign country to see Elisha instead of ordering the prophet to come to him. Elisha tests Na-aman’s pride by sending a servant to give him instructions instead of coming to meet him in person, and by prescribing a cure that is simple and possibly demeaning. At first, Na-aman does not pass the test.

But Na-aman became angry, and he walked away, and he said: Hey, I said to myself that he would surely go out and stand and invoke the name of God, his god, and wave his hand toward the place, and that would exterminate the tzara-at.  Aren’t the Amnah and the Parpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Wouldn’t I become pure if I bathed in them? Then he turned around and walked away hotly. (2 Kings 5:11-12)

Na-aman can respect a miracle-working prophet. But he expects the prophet to grant him the dignity of a personal cure, not a message by proxy. He also disdains the message because he believes his own country of Aram is superior to Israel.

Then his servants came near and spoke to him, and they said: My father, if the prophet spoke to you about doing a great deed, isn’t it true that you would do it? Then how much more so when he said to you: Bathe and be pure. So he went down and he dipped in the Jordan seven times, as the man of God had spoken. And his flesh was restored, like the flesh of a little boy, and he was ritually-pure. (2 Kings 5:13-14)

Na-aman must swallow his pride in order to take advice from his subordinates, and bathe in an inferior river. When he becomes humble about both his status and the status of his country, he is cured.

Then he returned to the man of God, he and all his troop, and he came and stood before him. He said: Here, please, I know that there are no gods on all the earth except in Israel. So now please take a gift of blessing from your servant. (2 Kings 5:15)

This time, Na-aman gets to stand in front of Elisha, and the prophet speaks to him in person. But when Na-aman offers his gift of silver, gold, and clothing, Elisha refuses it. I think Na-aman is impressed by Elisha’s humble attitude about cures that come from God.

He also recognizes that the god of Elisha and Israel is greater than Rimmon, the god of Aram. So he decides to convert, and worship only the god of Israel, the land he formerly disdained. Na-aman asks for some dirt to take home and use to make an altar for the god of Israel. Yet he does not plan to proudly isolate himself from his own community; he begs forgiveness in advance for continuing to support his king’s arm when his king goes into the temple of Rimmon.

Today there is no tzara-at, but the human failing of arrogance still abounds. May we all become humble enough to realize when we are acting arrogantly, and to apologize and change our ways. May we all learn to becomes mensches and nice guys, like Na-aman.

Shemini & 2 Samuel: Separating Holiness

March 16, 2014 at 3:04 pm | Posted in Samuel 2, Shemini | 2 Comments
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Aaron, who becomes the high priest on the eighth day of his ordination, hears directly from God in this week’s Torah portion, Shemini (Eighth). God tells him that priests must not drink on duty, so they can perform two important jobs:

Lehavdil between hakodesh and the ordinary, and between the ritually-impure and the ritually-pure.  And to teach the children of Israel all the decrees that God spoke to them through Moses. (Leviticus 10:10-11)

lehavdil (לְהַבְדֹּיל) = to make a distinction, to separate, to segregate, to distinguish

hakodesh (הַקֹּדֶשׁ) = the holy, the sacred; everything that is dedicated to God.

In the Hebrew Bible, objects, places, and days can all be holy, if they are reserved for serving God.

The holiest object is the ark, which holds two stone tablets that God wrote on at the top of Mount Sinai. When the ark is inside the innermost chamber of the sanctuary, the holy of holies, God’s presence manifests in the empty space right above its lid. No one but Moses and the high priest may see the ark when it is inside the holy of holies.

According to the book of Numbers/Bemidbar, when the ark is transported to a new location, it is draped with three layers of coverings to protect people from seeing it. No one may touch it except for the priests carrying it by its poles. It is so holy that touching or seeing it would be almost like touching or seeing God.

The haftarah reading for this week’s Torah portion is a selection from the second book of Samuel which describes how the ark is transported to Jerusalem from the house of Avinadav, near the Philistine border. The Philistines had captured the ark in battle, then sent it back across the border. A descendant of Avinadav named Elazar was anointed as a priest to take care of the ark. By the time King David arrives, 20 years later, the men of the house of Avinadav who serve the ark are Achio and Uzza.

They mounted the ark of God on a new cart, and they carried it away from the house of Avinadav, which was on the hill. Uzza and Achio, sons of Avinadav, were guiding the new cart. (2 Samuel 6:3)

Achio walks in front of the ox-cart, and Uzza has the honor of walking beside the ark. The procession includes King David and thousands of Israelites dancing to the sound of musical instruments. Then the oxen pulling the cart stumble.

They came as far as the threshing-place of Nakhon; then Uzza reached out to the ark of God, and he grabbed at it, because the cattle let [the cart] go off by itself. And God’s anger flared up against Uzza, and struck him down there, over the heedlessness. And he died there beside the ark of God. (2 Samuel 6:6-7)

While Uzza is accompanying the ark, he is serving as a priest, who must make a distinction between the holy and the ordinary. His impulsive action, however well-meant, fails to distinguish between the perilously holy ark and an ordinary ox-cart load.

King David sends the ark to a nearby house, and tries a second procession to Jerusalem three months later.

David was whirling around with all his might before God; and David had belted on a linen  efod. (2 Samuel 6:14)

efod (אֵפוֹד) = a tunic or cuirass with the front and back tied together, worn by the high priest as part of his ritual costume.

David is dancing in front of the ark, but the ark is so holy that the Torah says he is dancing before God. His whirling around with all his might reminds me of the prophets who speak in ecstasy in Exodus and the two books of Samuel. Although David is wearing a priest’s efod, he acts more like a prophet filled with the spirit of God—until the ark has been placed inside the tent in Jerusalem.

Then King David soberly plays the role of high priest, performing all the rituals without a hitch.

They brought the ark of God and set it up in its place inside the tent that David had pitched for it, and David brought up rising-offerings before God, and the wholeness-offerings. And when David finished bringing up the rising-offerings and the wholeness offerings, then he blessed the people in the name of the God of Armies. (2 Samuel 6:17-18)

David treats the ark as holy in two ways: first as a prophet filled with the spirit of God, second as a high priest conducting ritual. Both responses to holiness are acceptable in the bible, at the appropriate time and place.

When King David goes home, one of his wives criticizes him for exposing his private parts while dancing. She is concerned about what people will think of him. But what occurs to me is that David is wearing the priest’s efod without underpants. The books of Exodus and Leviticus require priests to wear linen underpants while they are on duty, so they will not be exposed.

This seems like one clear failure to distinguish the holy from the ordinary. But God overlooks a few of David’s infractions earlier in the bible, and God overlooks this one as well.

The ark was lost with the fall of the first temple in Jerusalem in 586 B.C.E. The innermost chamber of the second temple was empty, but it was still called the holy of holies, and treated with awe and reverence. The high priest still entered it only once a year, on Yom Kippur.

Since the fall of the second temple in 70 C.E., Jews have made do with objects and places of lesser holiness. Instead of an ark, we have Torah scrolls, which are unrolled for everyone to see. Instead of a sanctuary with a holy of holies, we have gravesites and the broken temple wall in Jerusalem.

The most holy things left for us are holy days: feast and fast days every year, and Shabbat every week. On Saturday nights, we make a havdallah, a separation, between the holy day of Shabbat that has ended and the ordinary days of the week to come. The havdallah blessing concludes with some of the words in God’s instructions to Aaron:

Blessed are you, God, hamavdil between hakodesh and the ordinary.

Hamavdil means “the one who makes a distinction”, and hakodesh means “the holy”. The world God created includes a distinction between the holy and the ordinary, which we must discern and act upon.

I think treating a day as holy is harder than treating an object or a place as holy. The sun sets and rises on Shabbat the way it does on any other day; the only difference is what we do. Even if we try to dedicate every moment of Shabbat to serving God, we still have to do some things in the realm of the ordinary.

Maybe we can be like King David, and serve God with enough enthusiasm to make up for serving God imperfectly.

Still, one question remains in our modern age:  What counts as serving God?

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