Pinchas: Fire and the Mountain

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Pinchas

It’s summertime, and the leyning is easy. . . . well, only because
this week includes some passages which are often read in the synagogue
as the maftir (concluding Torah reading) on festivals and Rosh Hodesh,
the new month. Before we get to those passages, which describe the
daily and special offerings in the Mishkan, [portable Sanctuary], we
have the conclusion of the story of Pinchas, a genealogical review of
the Israelites, and the story of the daughters of Zelophchad and their
legal case to inherit from their father. After all that, including
instructions to Moshe on appointing his successor, the Torah turns
back to the regular operation of the Mishkan, where the hereditary
priests made offerings of animals, wine, grain and oil.

Chapter 28 begins with the daily offerings, called “tamid,” or
“continual” offerings, since they were done morning and evening, every
day:

“And you shall say to them: ‘This is the fire offering which you shall
offer to the Lord: two unblemished lambs in their first year each day
as a continual burnt offering. The one lamb you shall offer up in the
morning, and the other lamb you shall offer up in the afternoon. . . .
A continual burnt offering, as the one offered up at Mount Sinai, for
a spirit of satisfaction, a fire offering to the Lord.’ ”
(Bamidbar/Numbers 28 3-6, abridged.)

What’s interesting about this passage is the reference to Mount Sinai,
which seems a bit out of place and thus attracts commentary. The JPS
translation- found in the Conservative Etz Hayim Torah commentary-
solves the problem by translating “olat tamid ha’asuyah b’har Sinai”
as “the regular burnt offering instituted on Mount Sinai.” It is true
that the tamid was indeed “instituted” on Mt. Sinai- that is, we got
the instructions for it along with the other laws of the Torah- but
it’s equally plausible to translate the passage as it is above, which
would indicate that the daily offering in the Mishkan was like the one
done on or at Mt. Sinai.

So which one is that? Our friend Rashi offers two explanations (for
the price of one!) First, he says that this “tamid” offering was like
the one done at Mt. Sinai when Aharon and his sons were invested as
priests, way back in Exodus 29. Rashi’s second theory is that this
daily offering was like the one offered by Moshe and some young men at
the foot of the mountain, when the people all agreed to the Torah and
its laws- this is at the beginning of Exodus 24. Rashi actually thinks
this episode happened before the Torah was given, even though in the
text it occurs some four chapters later- that’s a discussion for
another day.

S. R. Hirsch makes the connection between the daily offerings, which
were consumed by fire, and the “consuming fire” which appeared on Mt.
Sinai when the Torah was given. (Cf. Exodus 19). Hirsch sees the
daily offerings as a kind of regular reenactment of the offerings at
Sinai, not only because of the symbolism of the fire, but also because
the people promised there to live by the Torah’s covenant- the daily
offerings are a tangible symbol of daily rededication to that promise.

I see all of these explanations as tied together by a common idea:
that the daily offerings were not only a reminder of what happened at
Mt. Sinai, but represent our desire to recreate as best we can the
experience of feeling the Divine Presence immanent to and transforming
our lives. Hence the symbolism of fire- fire transforms that which it
touches, for better or worse, and so too an authentic spiritual
experience has the potential to deeply change a person, should they be
open to it.

To put it another way, Sinai is the place where the Divine Presence
broke through to humankind and forever changed the course of human
history (imagine no Judaism, no Christianity, no Islam.) The daily
offerings were our attempt to reach back to God, to bring the Presence
into our midst, to keep the fires burning, as it were, so the insights
and spiritual energy of Sinai were not lost. (I also like the
implication of Rashi’s first theory that the daily offerings gave a
measure of priesthood to the entire nation.)

What was true for our ancestors is true for us: regular spiritual
practices of prayer, study, and compassion are the discipline which
enable us to stay true to the powerful, transformative “Sinai moments”
which leave us humbled yet energized. Dramatic experiences of the
Divine don’t always happen right when we need them, but small,
recurring acts of spiritual practice open us up to the Sacred
Presence, over time, in no less powerful ways. Our offerings are not
agricultural, but of the heart and soul. Our prayers may be said in
Poughkeepsie, but they raise us up and calls us toward the sacred, no
less awesome and holy as the offerings of Moshe and the dedication of
Aharon.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

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