Archive for March, 2006

Vayikra: Bring What You Have

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vayikra

It’s springtime, so it’s time to study everybody’s favorite Jewish
subject,the ancient sacrifices!

This week’s Torah portion is the first of the book of Vayikra, or
“Leviticus,” so named because of its central topic, which is the
priestly rituals of the Mishkan, or portable Sanctuary. (Leviticus=
tribe of Levi, which was the tribe from which the priests came and
which served the nation in religious duties.) It’s often pretty hard
not to go into a state of mind-numbing, eyes-glazed-over,
wake-me-up-when-it’s-over boredom when reading about the various kinds
of offerings and rituals, almost none of which we do anymore, but if
you read closely, you’ll see that the entire book of Vayikra is really
about very contemporary topics, like how we make sure everybody is
included in the spiritual community and how we bring people closer to
the experience of the Divine.

For example, let’s look at Chapter 5, verse 11, which comes in the
context of discussing the offerings which must be brought as atonement
for certain unintentional “sins,” defined here not as evil, but in the
more typical understanding of “falling short of the mark.” In other
words- problems resulting from ordinary human imperfections. So here’s
verse 11:

“If his means are not sufficient for the acquisition of two
turtledoves or two young pigeons, he shall bring as his offering,
—[he] who has sinned,— one tenth of an epha of fine flour as a
sin-offering. He shall not put oil upon it, nor shall he place
frankincense upon it, for it is a sin-offering.”

Now, we’re learning something interesting: the Torah truly wants every
Israelite, regardless of means, to feel comfortable bringing
themselves into the Mishkan, the sacred center of the community, in
order to be reconciled and set right before God and the people. Not
only that, but as I read it, the presumption of the verse is that
everybody should be able to come up with a small bag of flour, at
least- and it doesn’t have to be fancy with oil and perfume. If all
you have is a bag of regular Martha White flour, that’s fine. Nobody
is excluded from the possibility of reconciliation and return, but
there is a minimum level of effort expected as well.

So what can we learn? The lesson seems clear: there is nobody who
cannot bring some offering of heart or mind or body or soul into their
religious community, to have that gift lifted up and affirmed. Nobody
must ever feel excluded because of finances or self-consciousness! The
Divine Presence is the inheritance of every person, and thus our
synagogues and institutions must be open to everybody who seeks to
find their place within them. We need to affirm what people <can> do,
not criticize what they don’t (yet) do. If all you have is a handful
of flour, you can still do a tremendous mitzvah. On the other hand,
you do have to bring it forward; this is the opportunity, and this is
the obligation.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

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Ki Tisa: Seeking Together

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Ki Tisa

Post-Purim L’chaims to one and all!

OK, we’re back to more serious Torah study this week,
with Parshat Ki Tisa, which is the building of the
Mishkan, the Golden Calf, and Moshe’s treks up and
down Mt. Sinai. After Moshe breaks the first tablets,
he goes back up the mountain, talks with The Boss
again, and come down radiant from the experience. He
then teaches Torah to the Israelites, as we learn in
chapter 34:

” When Aharon and all the Israelites saw Moshe, and
beheld that the skin of his face had become radiant,
they were afraid to come close to him. Moshe called to
them and they returned to him— Aharon and all the
leaders of the congregation— and Moshe spoke to
them. After that, all the Israelites came close [to
him] and he commanded them [regarding] all that God
had spoken with him on Mount Sinai.” (Shmot/ Exodus
34:30-32)

In Rashi’s commentary, an implicit question is: why
mention Aharon and all the leaders and then mention
that Moshe taught the Torah to the rest of the
Israelites? Couldn’t Moshe just teach Torah to
everybody all at once?

As usual, Rashi finds a minor stylistic point in the
text and turns it into a profound moral lesson by
bringing an imaginative midrash from the Talmud. In
this midrash, these verses teach that Moshe taught the
Torah to Aharon first, then his sons, then the elders,
and then the community, as follows:

[Rashi]
“After he taught the elders he would again teach that
section or that law to all Yisrael. The Sages have
taught: What was the order of the teaching of the
Torah? Moshe would learn from the Almighty. Then
Aharon would enter and Moshe would teach him his
chapter. Aharon moved away and sat on Moshe’s left.
Whereupon his (Aharon’s) sons would enter and Moshe
would teach them their chapter. They then moved away
and Elazar sat on Moshe’s right and Itamar on Aharon’s
left. Whereupon the elders would enter and Moshe would
teach them their chapter. The elders moved away and
sat on the sides. Whereupon the entire people would
enter and Moshe taught them their chapter.
Consequently the lesson came into the possession of
the people once; into the possession of the elders,
twice; into the possession of Aharon’s sons, three
times; and into the hands of Aharon, four times.”

I love this midrash because it turns our stereotypes
of learning and leadership on their heads- maybe you’d
think that the “big shots” only had to learn the Torah
lesson once, or they could learn in private sessions,
but no, the biggest “macher” of them all, Aharon (the
High Priest) had to learn the same lesson four times.
Perhaps the idea is that the High Priest or the elders
get the must lesson exactly right (hence, the
repetition), but I also think this midrash is about
humility and being a role model. After all, when the
people came into get the teaching on the fourth time
around, they’d see all the assembled leaders already
learning- and even the High Priest could not be too
proud to be seen learning in front of his sons and the
other leaders and people.

I’m a rabbi, and my job is to inspire people to learn
Torah- therefore, I have to show that I’m a Torah
learner, too. The same thing goes for other Jewish
professionals, not to mention synagogue leaders,
parents and anybody else concerned about the spiritual
vitality of Jewish life. If we want people to learn,
then, like Aharon, we have to learn with them, side by
side, not just as role models, but as fellow seekers
of spiritual truth. Torah is best studied in community
because it is the inheritance of every Jew, and every
Jew has the right and responsibility to bring the
insights of his or her experience and life and soul to
the ongoing conversation, which is then infinitely
richer as a result.

Maybe that’s the real point of this midrash- that even
Moshe and Aharon studying Torah together is somehow
incomplete without the insights of all the people.
Moshe might have been radiant with the light of God,
but Torah is what brings the Jewish people together,
and gives us our purpose and our direction as a source
of light unto each other and the entire world.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

A summary and futher commentary can be found here:

http://www.myjewishlearning.com/texts/Weekly_Torah_Commentary/kitissa_index.htm

and of course, the text itself is here:

http://www.jtsa.edu/community/parashah/index.shtml

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Tetzaveh/ Purim: The Torah of Hunting Accidents (long)

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Purim

Dear Friends:

It’s almost Purim, and you know what that means . . . . . .

That’s right, it’s time to study Torah with the most holy Adar hermeneutic!

Every year, around Purim time, we look at some of the sacred principles of our
most holy
religion in a slightly different way, usually influenced by such great scholars
as the former
chief rabbi of the Freedonian Ghetto, Slib Ovitz, and another great rabbi, Sam
Buca, who
was Rabbi Ovitz’s second cousin once removed (for, apparently, getting sauced
and
making a non-halachic suggestion to a female guest at a bar mitzvah party.)

With that in mind, let’s turn to Parshat Tetzaveh, which is mostly a description
of the
special and sacred garments of the Kohen Gadol, or “High Priest,” who was
dressed in
extraordinary clothing in order to perform the rituals of the ancient Sanctuary.
The Kohen
Gadol wore a robe, called the “ephod,” which had a breastplate built into it,
and
decorations around the hems. (These days, most Jewish professionals who are men
generally don’t wear “breastplates,” unless they are going as Xena the Warrior
Princess to
the Purim party, but I read in the newspaper that the “Law Committee” of the
Conservative
Movement is looking into permitting it as a daily thing. A decision is due in
about 2043.)

Anyway, these decorations had the shape of fruit and bells:

“On its hem make pomegranates of blue, purple, and crimson yarns, all around the
hem,
with bells of gold between them all around: a golden bell and a pomegranate, a
golden
bell and a pomegranate, all around the hem of the robe. Aaron shall wear it
while
officiating, so that the sound of it is heard when he comes into the sanctuary
before the
Lord and when he goes out — that he may not die. ” (Shmot/Exodus 28:33-35,
really!)

Now, it’s easy to understand why the Kohen Gadol would have pomegranates on his
hem-
after all, since the earliest days of the Jewish people, the question: “maybe
you want a
piece of fruit?” has been linking one generation to another as a spiritual
legacy, and thus
the robe of the High Priest is a sartorial representation of the eternal Jewish
ideal of truly
omnipresent, yet healthy, snack food. Other religions have principles of faith:
as Jews, we
accessorize.

But understanding the pomegranates just begs the question: why the bells? After
all,
wouldn’t the acute, argute, blaring, blatant, cacophonous, clanging, clangorous,
deafening, discordant, ear-piercing, ear-splitting, harsh, high, metallic,
noisy, penetrating,
piercing, piping, raucous, screeching, sharp, strident noises of the bells
disturb the
devotional head-space of the High Priest as he made his prayers?

As you can imagine, the Talmud and other traditional commentators have a lot to
say
about this. One midrash, found in a collection of ancient sermons by the famed
preacher
Abissel Kichel, links the bells to the last part of verse 33, where it says
“that he may not
die.” This commentary points out that if the High Priest didn’t have bells on,
maybe the
guards around the Temple wouldn’t hear him coming, and would mistake him for a
wild
animal, or an intruder. Rabbi Kichel offers a parable:

“The bells on the hem of the ephod- to what may these be compared? It may be
compared
to the Viceroy who goes hunting with his friend- his friend comes up behind him,
and the
Viceroy mistakes him for a beast in the bush, and grievously wounds him. But
with the
bells on the ephod, it may be compared to a Viceroy who goes hunting with his
friend, and
the friend warns the Viceroy of his approach, and there is no accidental
bloodshed.”

[Note- the “Viceroy” the one who actually runs the kingdom for the king. The
king was
often a mere figurehead, or “do’ofbal” in Aramaic, who achieved his office by
mere
accident of birth, not by virtue of administrative capability or ability to
speak a coherent
sentence in any known language. In the Hebrew of our parable, the word for
“Viceroy” is
the “S’cheney,” or “second.”]

Another medieval commentator, Zalman Rashdi, in his commentary on the priestly
service
called “The Kohanic Verses,” takes Abissel Kichel’s parable one step further:

“The Kohen Gadol – his bells are not for his honor, but for the honor of the
people, lest his
approach to the Sanctuary should cause the Temple guards to mistake him for an
intruder.
The Holy Books compare this to a Viceroy [“S’cheney”] who wounds his friend
while
hunting- but would not the Viceroy, because of the arrogance and pride that
comes with
his exalted station, be loath to admit his mistake to the people, and would he
not
therefore bring shame upon the Torah and the people Israel ? For if the Viceroy
did not
immediately admit of his error to the people, woe unto the Torah, for repentance
and
humility are lost to the world! Therefore, let the Priest always wear bells, so
that there will
be no accidental shedding of blood.”

Now, admittedly, the author of the Kohanic Verses is mixing his metaphors a bit,
because
the Talmud is apparently saying that the priest wears the bells so not to cause
any . . .
well, let’s say, weaponry mishaps, in the Temple courtyards. The parable,
however,
compares this to a “Viceroy” who is hunting with his friend, and accidentally
wounds him-
but if the Temple guards thought the High Priest was a wild bird, for example,
and they
accidentally wounded him as a result, then it’s the guards who are like the
trigger-happy
“Viceroy” in the parable, and not the Priest.

So it seems that these commentaries are saying that even if it was guards who
had a –
what did we call it? a weaponry mishap- it would still be, in some sense, the
fault of the
High Priest, who is compared to a Viceroy, and is thus always responsible for
exercising
extreme caution in situations where somebody just might get hurt. That’s why he
has to
wear bells on the hems of his robe, just to make sure nobody gets a sharp arrow
in the
you-know-what. (That’s gotta be a big ouch, when you think about it.)

The spiritual lesson we can learn is this: even in the most holy precincts of
our ancient
Sanctuary, mishaps could have occurred when men are running around with
hand-held
projectile weaponry. If- God Forbid!- such a weaponry mishap DID occur, our
Torah
understands that it’s the natural inclination of public figures such as the High
Priest, who
is compared to the “Viceroy,” to be too proud to properly repent before the
people, and
thus they have to be prevented from causing any trouble in the first place.

Fortunately, of course, we know that in all of Jewish history- and really,
throughout all of
Western Civilization- the Torah’s warnings have been heeded most stringently,
and in any
situation where important people could be the cause of unfortunate weaponry
mishaps,
the utmost precautions are always foremost on everybody’s minds. Thus, to this
day, the
bells on the garment are a symbolic way of expressing that “Viceroys and
hunting” are a
very dangerous combination, to be avoided at all costs, so that “humility and
repentance”
are not lost, and the Torah itself is exalted among the nations.

happy Purim and Shabbat shalom,

Rabbi Neal

PS- if you want more, well, you know, serious, commentaries on Tetzaveh, you can
find
them, along with a summary, here:

http://www.myjewishlearning.com/texts/Weekly_Torah_Commentary/tetzaveh_index.htm

and the text of the parsha is here:

http://www.jtsa.edu/community/parashah/index.shtml

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