Archive for March, 2001

Vayikra 5761

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vayikra

This d’var Torah was originally distributed by Kolel: The Adult Center for Jewish Learning during the year 5761 and can be found in its archives.

Vayikra (Leviticus 1:1-5:26)

OVERVIEW

With this week’s parsha we begin a new book of the Torah, Leviticus, or Vayikra, which means “he called”, from phrase that opens the book. The Book of Vayikra is also called Torat Kohanim, or the “Teachings of the Priests,” as its main topic is sacrifices, purity regulations, and other technical religious details of the priestly religion.

The first Torah portion sets introduces us to different kinds of sacrifices: voluntary offerings; offerings made to atone for accidental transgressions; and offerings made to atone to God after reparation has been done in a civil or criminal case. Offerings may be herd or flock animals, birds, or grains. The important thing to remember is that all these offerings were called korbanot, from the root “to come close;” the book of Leviticus offers us a window into a religious system that had at its core the idea of coming close to God through ritual action.

IN FOCUS

“When a person brings a mammal as an offering to God, the sacrifice must be taken from the cattle, sheep or goats. If the sacrifice is a burnt offering taken from the cattle, it must be an unblemished male. One must bring it of his own free will to the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, before God. ” (Leviticus 1:2-3)

PSHAT

A “burnt offering”, or olah, is a common type of sacrifice in the Levitical system. The body of the animal was placed whole on the altar and entirely burned, except for the hide, which may have been given to the priest. (Cf. Levitics 7:8) An olah could have been offered for either atonement or for thanksgiving, according to Harper’s Bible Dictionary.

DRASH

The sacrificial system is almost impenetrably foreign to modern readers (especially vegetarian readers, such as yours truly.) We can hardly conceive of approaching God within a structure of hereditary hierarchies (such as the Israelite priesthood) and centralized sacrifices. Yet this was indeed a spiritual system for our ancestors, and given the prominence within our Torah of these laws, we can hardly dismiss their study.

R. Shoshana Gelfand, in The Woman’s Torah Commentary, (recently edited by Kolel’s own R. Elyse Goldstein), offers a wonderful interpretation of the korbanot in our parsha. For example, she notes that the root of olah is “to go up, ” and that

    as the fire consumes the offering and the smoke ascends to heaven, the desire of the offerer to ascend to heaven and unite with God is thus expressed.

She further notes that the word for “person” in this passage, adam, is the most general word for “human being,” coming from the adamah, or earth, out of which the first “earthling” (which had no gender, at first) was created. (Cf. Genesis 2) Thus, she sees the olah offering as representative of the kind of spiritual union in which one almost loses oneself into one’s beloved:

    This typology of closeness is identified with intimacy to such an extent that the two beings involved-God and the offerer- become as close as is cosmically possible. The olah represents the kind of flaming passion in which the individual is totally consumed by the relationship with the other. The mystics referred to this kind of union as devekut, a clinging of two entities . . . . the olah is a model of the Divine embrace, becoming passionately lost in one’s relationship with God, blurring the boundaries with between the self and the other.

Rabbi Gelfand points out that this kind of all-consuming experience within a relationship is not sustainable over the long run, and shows how the olah offering is balanced by other kinds of rituals within the sacrificial system. Her larger interpretation bears repeating: the sacrificial system is a model of relationship with the Divine, and our relationship with the Divine has many of the same needs and aspects and challenges as our relationships with our human loved ones. Through study and contemplation of our ancestor’s model of how to approach the Divine, we learn for ourselves wisdom for that same journey.

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Vayakel/Pekudei 5761

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vayakel/Pekudei

This d’var Torah was originally distributed by Kolel: The Adult Center for Jewish Learning during the year 5761 and can be found in its archives.

Vayekhel-Pekudei (Exodus 35:1-40:38)

OVERVIEW

A double portion is read this week:

Parshat Vayekhel tells the story of the actual building of the Mishkan; before this, we’ve only read the instructions for building it. Upon Moshe’s instructions, the people bring all the materials necessary: skins, wool, special woods, precious metals and stones. Master craftsmen do the specialized tasks.

Parshat P’kudei is the final weekly portion of the Book of Exodus; usually, but not always, read with the preceding parsha. P’kudei relates the final details of the building of the Mishkan, and takes its name from the accounting of all the gold and other precious metals used in its construction. Once all the tasks were completed, God’s palpable Presence rests in it, in the centre of the Israelite camp, a Presence so powerful that even Moshe could not approach the innermost parts of the Sanctuary. The Presence appeared as a cloud by day and as fire by night, and went in front of the people in their long journey.

IN FOCUS

“Moses assembled the entire Israelite community and said to them, ‘These are the words that God has commanded for [you] to do. . .’ ” (Exodus 35:1)

PSHAT

In the previous three Torah portions, Moshe has received from God the instructions for the Mishkan, or portable Sanctuary. Moshe now gathers the people together to give them the instructions he has received- the word Vayekhel literally means “gather together.” Moshe could not build the Mishkan on his own, but needed the participation of the entire people.

DRASH

Rashi makes a cryptic comment on the building of the Mishkan which may raise more questions than it answers:

    Moses assembled the entire Israelite community- on the day after Yom Kippur, after he came down the mountain.

What Rashi seems to be doing here is linking the previous story to the building of the Mishkan. In chapter 34, after the Golden Calf, Moshe goes back up the mountain, and asks to see God’s “face.” Instead, Moshe receives a revelation of God’s merciful and forgiving aspects. He then brings two new tablets down the mountain; rabbinic tradition has him returning to the people, with the symbol of God’s forgiveness and a renewed covenant, on the day which would eventually be Yom Kippur.

OK, so far, so good, at least in the world of midrash. Rashi, then, wants to make a midrash that Moshe gathered the people immediately (well, the next day) after coming back to them with the new tablets of the covenant. Aside from solving certain rather academic chronological problems, what could Rashi be trying to teach here?

One possibility which occurs to me is that Rashi is subtely comparing building the Mishkan to building a Sukkah, the “booth” which many Jews build during the harvest holiday which begins several days after Yom Kippur. To show that the “work” of religious observance and spirituality never ceases, even after a peak experience like Yom Kippur, many people symbolically begin to build their Sukkah right after breaking their Yom Kippur fast- maybe they just put in a nail or two, but they want to demonstrate that spirituality doesn’t stop, even for a day.

Another possibility is raised by the Hasidic teacher R. Moshe of Kobrin:

    Moshe wanted to hint to the Israelites that not only on Yom Kippur must people be filled with remorse and contrition, love of one’s fellow-person, and friendship, but also on the day after Yom Kippur one must continue in the same fashion. (Source: Itturei Torah)

A third possibility is that this midrash isn’t about the people’s experience, but Moshe’s. It was Moshe who had the “peak experience” (literally, up on a mountaintop!) in our story and it may have been Moshe himself who needed to channel his revitalized spiritual energy into a constructive project. How many times have you or somebody you know gotten a tremendous boost from a conference or a lecture or a religious service, and then just let that energy dissipate without being utilized for constructive purposes? People often get excited at new beginnings, but then the excitement fades once it becomes a daily discipline.

OK, now it’s YOUR turn: what do YOU think Rashi meant to teach by connecting “gathering the people” with the day after Yom Kippur ?

I’d love to hear from you, and we’ll post some replies in our “Reb on the Web” column in the near future.

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Ki Tissa 5761

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Ki Tissa

This d’var Torah was originally distributed by Kolel: The Adult Center for Jewish Learning during the year 5761 and can be found in its archives.

Ki Tisa (Exodus 30:11-34:35)

OVERVIEW

Parshat Ki Tisa begins with instructions for taking a census and a half shekel contribution from the Israelite adults, and continues with more instructions for making the worship implements for the Mishkan. After that, God reminds Moshe to tell the people about the holiness and importance of Shabbat.

The most famous part of our Parsha is the story of the Golden Calf: the people, upset at Moshe’s delay up on the mountain, make a statue of a bull or cow and venerate it as their liberator, apparently with Aaron’s cooperation. Both God and Moshe become angry with the people, and although Moshe rebukes them harshly, he also prays on their behalf. Finally, Moshe goes up the mountain again and beseeches God to reaffirm the Covenant; Moshe also wants a unique experience of God’s Presence. With great drama, God shows Moshe God’s “back” but not God’s “face,” and does reaffirm the Covenant and its ritual and ethical stipulations.

IN FOCUS

“Do not make for yourself any molten gods.” (Exodus 34:17)

PSHAT

After the sin of the Golden Calf, Moshe goes back up the mountain to plead with God, Who reveals attributes of mercy and forgiveness along with strict justice. However, Israel must obey the terms of the covenant, which include keeping the holy days and a stringent prohibition on anything resembling the worship of other deities. After the Israelites build the idol of gold, God reminds them in no uncertain terms that they must not make physical representations of Divinity.

DRASH

In its context, our verse makes perfect sense: God is irate about the Golden Calf, and warns the Israelites not to try it again. However, as we’ve noted before in this [cyber]-space, building statues of the sea-deity isn’t on most people’s agendas these days. Thus the famous Hassidic rabbi Menahem Mendel from Kotzk, also known as the Kotzker, used this verse to point out that creating a limiting representation of the Source of All doesn’t necessarily mean building something physical:

    “Do not make for yourself any molten gods” – do not make for yourself a god that is fixed in form [i.e., “molten” into one form], with unchanging routines. (Source: Itturei Torah, translation mine.)

I suspect that the Kotzker is making a pointed comment about the religious life of his day, but his insight continues to be relevant. Our experience of spirituality and religion must grow and change over time- if we have the same conception of God at 50 that we did at 15, then we’ve missed something important. Thus the traditional commentaries insist that the commandment of Torah study lasts until one’s dying day- perhaps not only because the way one understands Torah will change as we age, but the way we view our lives and world can change if we never stop viewing it through the prism of sacred texts.

The Torah itself hints at this flowing and dynamic model of spirituality, just a few verses before, by enumerating 13 different “attributes” of the Holy One (verses. 6-7) when Moshe asks to see God’s “face.” Moshe may have wanted the same thing that the Israelites did when they made the Calf: a palpable, visible, imaginable, conceivable Deity. To me, the great genius of Judaism is its insistence that we never stop striving for holiness and spiritual growth- there’s no way to “grasp” the God of Israel entirely, no ending point in out quest for insight. God is not limited by denominational ideologies (though they are valuable learning tools), political inclinations, or intellectual paradigms- rather, authentic spirituality breaks through our easy answers and forces us to admit that there is learning yet to do.

A famous pop psychology book from the early 80’s put captured this insight into its title: “If You Meet the Buddha on the Road, Kill Him!” I’m no expert on Buddhism, but I understand this to mean that as soon as you think you’ve found the endpoint, “met the Buddha,” you’re in trouble. If I were writing a similar book, I’d take my title from the Kotzker’s understanding of this verse: “If Your God is Routine and Comfortable, You’ve Made a Molten Idol!” It probably wouldn’t be a bestseller, but it might impart an important truth about the hard work of Jewish growth.

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Tetzaveh 5761

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Tetzaveh

This d’var Torah was originally distributed by Kolel: The Adult Center for Jewish Learning during the year 5761 and can be found in its archives.

Tetzaveh (Exodus 27:20- 30:10)

OVERVIEW

Most of the latter part of the book of Exodus is concerned with the construction and operation of the Mishkan, or portable Sanctuary, yet within this larger topic the portions do have distinct themes. This week’s portion, Tetzaveh, is concerned with the priests [Kohanim] who perform the rituals and sacrifices on behalf of the people. Rules and descriptions are given for the complex ritual garments of the high priest- replete with gold and adornments of precious stones – as well as a seven day period of sacrifices and rituals to sanctify the priests for services. The parsha ends with a short description of the golden altar upon which incense was offered.

IN FOCUS

“Have Aaron your brother brought to you from among the Israelites, along with his sons Nadab and Abihu, Eleazar and Ithamar, so they may serve me as priests. ” (Exodus 28:1)

PSHAT

After completing the instructions for building the Mishkan and its contents, God gives Moshe instructions for the priests and their special clothing. Moshe is told that Aharon, his brother, and Aharon’s sons, will serve as the priests of the new Sanctuary.

DRASH

Many commentators see in this verse a special emphasis on the fact that Moshe had to inaugurate and set up the priesthood, but he himself could not be part of it. This is especially interesting in light of the next chapter, 29, in which Moshe gets the instructions for the priestly dedication ceremonies. When Aharon will be consecrated as a priest, Moshe himself will make the sacrifices and perform the rituals- but after that, the priesthood is “transferred” away from him, to Aharon and his descendants.

Perhaps the Torah is suggesting that a “separation of powers” is a good thing for any community (ignore for a moment the obvious point that Moshe and Aharon were brothers.) On the most mundane level, the kind of work that a political and judicial leader must do is different from the kind of spiritual tasks the priests would do- maybe our explanation is as simple as making sure that nobody takes on too much. Conversely, maybe the Torah is pointing out that Moshe was not only the judicial and legal leader of the nation, but also its voice of moral exhortation; perhaps he would be too intimidating a figure to minister to the daily needs of the people, who brought sacrifices for atonement, sin-offerings, and healing.

Picking up on this latter idea, the famous 18th century preacher, the Maggid of Dubno, said that a kohen, a priest, had to educate the people in spiritual matters and offer them an example that they could follow. Moshe, the great prophet, was such a lofty and imposing figure that the people would never be able to emulate him. Instead, they needed religious figures who shared their lives, who were enough like themselves that they offered a viable example of the spiritual life. A commentary on this commentary reinforced this idea by pointing out that the verse says that a priest must come “from among the Israelites:”

    God commanded that a priest be taken from among the nation, a priest who was part of the nation’s body and soul. Such a person could lead them on the path of righteousness. (Yehuda Nachshoni, Hagaot B’Parshiyot HaTorah, from which the quote from the Maggid of Dubno was taken.)

My assumption is that the Maggid of Dubno wasn’t really talking about the historical priesthood at all, but rather making a subtle point about the religious and moral leadership of his own day. Some Hasidic rabbis were critical of the great Torah scholars who were seen as living in the “ivory towers” of the study halls rather than out among the community, helping people connect with Judaism on a day to day basis. This tension between the high standards expected of religious leadership extends into our own day; congregations often seem to want a rabbi to be a scholar and a moral exemplar, but also have a “connectability” factor of warmth and empathy.

It’s not only religious leaders who need to be “from among the people.” There is a story about a recent American President who was ridiculed when he marveled at an automatic price scanning machine, oblivious to the fact that these had been in supermarkets for years. The point his critics made was that the man responsible for setting the economic policy of the nation had not actually done his own shopping in a very long time- so how could he understand the needs of the average family? On the other hand, I certainly wouldn’t want the Prime Minister’s time taken up with daily grocery runs, so maybe we can’t have it both ways.

Ultimately, perhaps these teachings are directed not so much at the leaders, but at those who have expectations of leaders. I think we should ask ourselves if one person can be both a Moshe, the great prophet, the powerful transmitter of Torah, and an Aharon, the “people person,” who provides an example the common person can actually aspire to. Or is the text suggesting that a person can’t fulfill both of these roles at any one particular time, but indeed, they are both important modes of leadership? Moshe and Aharon were great, paradigmatic figures, but do we have reasonable expectations of our rabbis, politicians, and community leaders?

Pondering why Moshe was not allowed to be a priest forces us to consider our relationship to the leaders of our day; an ancient story of social roles, in the light of our tradition of commentary, leads us to ask the most contemporary of questions.

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Terumah 5761

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Terumah

This d’var Torah was originally distributed by Kolel: The Adult Center for Jewish Learning during the year 5761 and can be found in its archives.

Terumah (Ex. 25:1-27:19)

OVERVIEW

The third “act” or major theme of the Book of Exodus now begins: the construction of the Mishkan, the portable sanctuary where sacrifices where offered and God’s Presence was felt. This portion and ones following go into great detail describing God’s instructions to Moshe as to how the Mishkan should be built and what the various components are, including the menorah or lamp and an altar for sacrifices. Terumah means something like “contribution” or “expected donation,” and thus the very name of this parsha conveys the idea that every Israelite was asked to contribute gold, silver, copper, wool, animal skins, precious stones, wood, and so on, so that the Mishkan would represent the efforts of the entire nation.

There is also a special reading this week from the book of Deuteronomy, because on Shabbat before Purim we fulfill the commandment to remember [Hebrew zachor] the treachery of the Amalekites when Israel was leaving Egypt. Haman, the bad guy of the Purim story, is understood to be a descendant of Amalek, so in this way we connect the two stories.

IN FOCUS

“There, above the cover between the two cherubim that are over the ark of the Testimony, I will meet with you and give you all my commands for the Israelites.” (Exodus 25:22)

PSHAT

The Mishkan, or portable Sanctuary, had three “zones:” the innermost holy place, surrounded by a kind of intermediate holy zone, and next to it was a sort of courtyard which contained the altar where sacrifices were made. The first two zones made up a square, and the courtyard for sacrifices was also a square, so when you put the two next to each other the whole thing was a rectangle of two equal parts.

The “holy of holies” was at the geographical centre of the “holiness zone,” and the altar for offerings was at the geographical centre of the adjoining courtyard. The Ark which contained the tablets of the covenant was in the centre of the most sacred space, described in our verse above. God’s Presence was understood to be most palpable in that central spot.

This description, and an excellent diagram, can be found in the Jewish Publication Society commentary on Exodus- but many other Torah commentaries have diagrams as well, which are helpful in understanding this parsha and the ones that follow it.

DRASH

The contemporary Bible scholar Nahum Sarna, author of the JPS commentary cited above, makes an interesting observation regarding the structure of the Mishkan. Noticing that there are parallel layouts of a square with something in the centre of it, Sarna says that these really represent two different kinds of religious experiences:

    From the Ark in the Holy of Holies, God reaches out to Israel; from the altar of sacrifice, the Israelites reach out to God.

Sarna bases this comment on our verse above, and others like it, which describe the Presence of God being felt from out of the holy of holies. Now, one could raise the objection that God’s Presence is everywhere, at all times, but I think that when the Torah describes this “most holy” place, it’s telling us something about people’s experience. The people themselves may have needed a kind of “focal point” in their spirituality, especially after coming out of a society which had many visual images of the various deities.

Whatever the reason for constructing a “holy of holies,” I think Sarna’s point still very much applies today. Both kinds of religious experience seem to be necessary: if we never felt God reaching out to us, then we’d feel spiritually lonely and uncomforted; but if we never had to do the reaching out ourselves, we would not grow and learn reverence and humility over the course of our lives. In the Mishkan, both kinds of reaching out are balanced, represented by the equal squares of the “holy zone” and the sacrificial courtyard. This is an architectural representation of a religious ideal: sometimes God reaches for us, and sometimes we reach for God, perfectly balanced.

I think these two kinds of religious experience are still very operative today, but clearly not in balanced physical spaces like the Mishkan. Rather, I think that contemporary Judaism finds its balance in the two modes of study and prayer. The famous American rabbi Louis Finkelstein is reported to have said that “when I pray, I talk to God, but when I study, God talks to me.”

Study of sacred texts, especially in community, allows us to hear God’s voice echoing not only from the words on the page, but also through the people around us. Generations of Jews have struggled with Torah, with the Prophets, with the Talmud and the commentaries, and their questions can help immeasurably in finding our answers. The very existence of Kolel, as an institution of Torah learning, is based on the idea that our most sacred texts contain the most important challenges to the religiously striving Jew.

Prayer, on the other hand, can be thought of as “putting out” rather than a “taking in,” at least some of the time. Prayer can be a time of pouring out one’s emotions, hopes and fears, articulating clearly the truth of one’s existence. Prayer can be joyous or somber, grateful or hopeful, but I think it should have an element of seeking to extend beyond ourselves, seeking to bring God into the situation of our lives.

R. Finkelstein’s quip notwithstanding, I don’t wish to suggest that prayer is exclusively one thing or that study can never have an element of seeking to it, and of course sometimes prayer and study are intertwined, as when we recite the Shema or Psalms. However, the visual symbolism of this week’s Torah portion reminds us that balance is crucial to the spiritual life; there are different ways of being in God’s Presence, and one does not have priority over the other. Sometimes we have to create a space in which God can reach out to us, and sometimes we have to create a space in which we reach out to God.

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