Archive for Shemini

Shemini: Blessing the People

Copyright 2016 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Shemini/ Shabbat Parah

Moses and Aharon then went inside the Tent of Meeting. When they came out, they blessed the people; and the Presence of the Lord appeared to all the people. (Vayikra/ Leviticus 9:23)

Good morning! Sorry my commentaries have been sporadic lately; I thank you for reading when I’m able to write!

This week’s Torah portion, Shemini, has three main themes: the conclusion of the dedication of Aharon and his sons as priests, the tragic death of Aharon’s sons and subsequent rules for the priesthood, and the dietary laws at the end. While the first chapter of the portion feels rather technical with all sorts of. . .um, meaty details about the ancient offerings, there’s actually a story being told.

To wit: at the end of the previous week’s portion, in Vayikra chapter 8, Moshe is commanded to do some special rituals for Aharon, his brother, and Aharon’s sons, to dedicate them as priests, after which they are secluded in the Tent of Meeting for a week. After the end of that week, we begin this week’s portion- on the eighth day, from which our portion gets its name- with Moshe bringing out Aharon and his sons from the Tent, promising them that the Divine Presence will appear to them today (verse 9:6), after they do more animal offerings of the various types. They do that, and when Aharon is finished, he comes down from the Altar and blesses the people (9:22), then he and his brother go into the Tent of Meeting again, and they come out together and bless the people again. (9:23).

Then, and only then, does Moshe’s promise come true: the Divine Presence appears as a fire, consuming the offering on the altar. This foreshadows the next chapter, in which the heavenly fire takes the lives of Aharon’s apparently errant sons Nadav and Avihu.

That’s a powerful literary moment, but between Moshe’s promise of the Divine Presence and the appearance of the fire from heaven is a great deal of technical detail about peace offerings and atonement offerings and burnt offerings and all the rest, so if you’re like me, your eyes glaze over a bit when reading verse after verse of ritual particulars.

Yet the story behind the details embodies powerful Jewish teachings. Note well that Moshe promises Aharon that the Divine Presence will appear, but it does so only after Aharon “comes down” off the Altar and blesses the people- not once, but twice. It’s not the ritual itself that opens Aharon to evoke and perceive the Divine Presence, it’s coming out of the private and holy space to bless the people, which I take as a metaphor for religious leadership that is not as much concerned with personal mystical experience as it is concerned with service to others. Aharon doesn’t just commune with the Presence in the set-off space of the Altar, but “comes down” from his place of privilege to bless the people, share his experience with them and raise them up.

This point is reinforced by the image in verse 23 of Moshe and Aharon going into the Tent of Meeting- the place where the Holy was experienced- and then coming out again, to bless the people together, prophet and priest as equals in servant leadership (to use a current phrase but an ancient concept.) It’s not when they are in the Tent of Meeting, but have left it to be in community that Moshe’s promise of Divine Presence is fulfilled! To put it another way, Aharon is fit to be a priest when he understands that his job is to be a blessing for all the people, not just to be the master of ceremonies with rituals and offerings.

Personal religious experience is a wonderful thing, and I certainly hope we all have more of it. To me, however, a genuine spiritual experience changes us to the extent that we become vessels of blessing to the people around us; it’s nice to be holy when set apart, but the real challenge is to be holy in community. Even – maybe especially- the High Priest had to learn to come off his high place to be a blessing for others; surely that’s our challenge too.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL  

The views expressed are my own and do not reflect that of Vassar Brothers Medical Center or Health-Quest.

Leave a Comment

Shemini: Shouting and Singing

Copyright 2013 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Shemini

David whirled with all his might before the Lord; David was girt with a linen ephod. Thus David and all the House of Israel brought up the Ark of the Lord with shouts and with blasts of the horn. (2 Samuel 6:14-15)

Good afternoon! It’s good to be back on this beautiful day after a Pesach break.

Our Torah reading this week, Shemini, deals with the laws of priestly offerings and the inauguration of Aharon and his sons into the priestly service. Two of his sons die while offering a “strange fire” upon the altar; this episode has elicited much commentary. This frightening intersection of holiness and mortal danger is echoed in the haftarah, which tells the story of David bringing the Ark of the Covenant into Jerusalem: a man named Uzzah accidentally touches the Ark and is struck as were Aharon’s sons.

So that’s one connection between the Torah portion and the haftarah. Yet the haftarah goes on to tell not only of Uzzah’s death but also of the joyous parade into Jerusalem; as in the verse above and other verses, David and all the people were dancing, shouting, playing music and eating festive foods along the way. While this behavior seems to get David into a spot of trouble at home, the people rejoice with him.

Perhaps in choosing this text for the haftarah, the ancient rabbis meant us to see a balance between the detailed religious laws of our Torah portion- and the priestly rituals in general- and the spontaneous, emotional outpouring of David’s joy before the Ark. He was honoring God and symbol of the covenant, and danced and sang without regard to decorum or status or self-consciousness- this, too, has always been part of the spirituality of Judaism.

Sometimes we need a fixed practice to bring us into a contemplative or grateful or humble stance, but sometimes we need to shout and dance because that’s the only proper response to the gift of life itself. Sometimes we need a composed prayer because the words won’t otherwise come, but sometimes we need to express the content of our souls, whether it be joy or gratitude or lament or praise. If even a king can dance and shout before the Divine, how much more the rest of us!

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

Comments (1)

Shmini: Aharon’s Example

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Shmini

“He said to Aaron, ‘Take yourself a calf for a sin offering and a ram for a burnt offering, [both] unblemished, and sacrifice them before God.  . . .’ ” (Vayikra/ Leviticus 9:2)

This week’s Torah portion is Shmini, so named because it begins on the eighth day of the inauguration ceremony for Aharon and his sons as they became the priests who served in theMishkan, or portable Sanctuary.  On this eighth day, when their service begins, the first order of business is for Aharon, the High Priest, to take a calf to make an offering for himself before the Israelites make their own offerings.

OK, so far, so good. Our friend Rashi comments  that the language of “take for yourself a calf”   [kach l’cha egel ] means that Aharon should take this calf for his own edification, to let him know that theegel, or calf, that he offers now, at the beginning of his service in the Mishkan, is a sign that he is forgiven for his participation in the building of the golden calf [also egel.]

In other words, “take for yourself a calf” means: understand that your past mistakes do not prevent you from acts of great service and devotion right now. Right at the heart of the priestly service was a gigantic example of the idea that forgiveness and reconciliation are the Divine Attributes, made manifest in Aharon’s very being and standing close to the sacred center of the ancient Jewish nation.

Perhaps, then, it’s especially appropriate that Aharon was the High Priest, for he not only performed all the rituals of atonement and celebration, he lived out the fundamental spiritual values of falling short and rising up, making mistakes and experiencing forgiveness. To put it another way- the Mishkan was not only inaugurated with priestly rituals, but with love and t’shuvah, [returning/ repenting] which are the moral core of Judaism itself.
Shabbat Shalom,
RNJL

Leave a Comment

Shemini: Kashrut of Honey

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Shemini

This week’s Torah portion is Shemini, which has rules for the ancient
priests and how they must comport themselves, and also a long chapter
detailing which animals are considered kosher- fit for eating- and
which ones are not. You probably know the basic outlines: no pork,
shellfish, creepy-crawling things, and meat only from a few permitted
species of birds and ruminants. Most people don’t realize this, but
the Torah itself does permit certain species of locusts to be eaten
(although, you will be relieved to learn, we have lost the traditions
as to exactly which ones) but not other flying insects. (See
Vayikra/Leviticus 11:21-21 and D’varim/Deuteronomy 14:19.)

In almost all cases, if we’re not supposed to eat an animal, we also
don’t use products derived from that animal. For example, food that is
certified kosher will not have certain chemicals derived from animal
fat or milk from non-kosher animals. So far, so good, but for one big
exception: bee honey. In this week’s parsha, and again in D’varim, we
are told quite specifically not to eat swarming or flying insects,
except a few locusts- so why is honey from bees kosher when milk from
horses (for example) isn’t?*

Basically, the distinction is this: a horse (an example of a
non-kosher animal) produces the milk directly from its body, or an
ostrich (a non-kosher bird) produces an egg, but a bee merely
transforms the nectar of the flower into honey. What happens, as I
understand it, is that a bee takes the nectar into its body and an
enzyme breaks down the nectar a bit, which is then released into the
beehive and the fanning action of the worker bee’s wings evaporate
some of the liquid, making the resulting honey thicker and more
viscous. Thus, there is an ancient tradition, going back to the
Talmud, of drawing a distinction between the “product” of a non-kosher
animal, like eggs or milk, and something the animal merely “carried,”
like nectar on its way to being honey.

I make no claim for deep spiritual metaphor in this distinction, but
having learned it I do have greater respect for how well the ancient
sages observed the natural world. The entire practice of kashrut
[“keeping kosher”] is based on careful distinctions based on
long-standing traditions, and without knowing the concepts it can all
seem bit arbitrary. Yet to paraphrase one source on the topic, knowing
more about where our food comes from helps us have a sense of great
awe, wonder and reverence for the infinite ways life expresses itself
upon our Earth.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

*Full Disclosure: This question was posed to me by a high school
student last night and I had to hit the books today to learn the
answer, so kudos to Craig “stumping the chump” and sparking the Torah
email this week.

Comments (1)

Shemini/ Omer: Counting This Day

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Shemini

Greetings! I hope everybody had a good holiday and is making a happy
transition back to “livin’ la vida leavened.” This week’s Torah
portion is Shemini, which itself is about transitions– Aharon and
his sons complete their inauguration into the priestly role, but two
of them die as a result of offering “strange fire” in the Sanctuary.
The rest of the parsha concerns itself with priestly offerings and
the dietary laws.

The death of Nadav and Avihu, Aharon’s sons, is one of the most
tragic and moving episodes in the Torah- we will not today explore
the the various theories and interpretations of their deaths, but
only note Aharon’s famous response- he was silent. (Cf. Vayikra/
Leviticus 10:3.)

This silence, described in only two words by the Torah, is a jarring
contrast to the 8 days of festive liturgy we’ve just finished. Pesach
is full of words: the Haggadah, Hallel, Torah readings every day, the
counting of the Omer which begins on the second night. Pesach is a
holiday of gratitude for past blessings and great hope for the future-
as one famous rabbi described it, on Pesach we fully experience the
joy and rightness of life, under the care of a loving God. Life may
have been hard, even unbearable, at times, but Pesach is all about
strengthening our faith in the goodness of life and the possibility
of renewal.

Well. . . then there is the rest of the story. The beginning of
Shemini reminds us in stark terms that sometimes life isn’t so nice
and good- rather than songs of praise, there is the image of
Aharon’s silence in the face of tragedy, death, and grief. Life is
bountifully good, and inexplicably tragic- both are true, and neither
cancels out the other. There are times in life when our response is
Hallel, [the Psalms of celebration sung on Jewish holidays] and there
are realities which would mock any response but silence.

So how do we find the middle path between the outlook of Pesach and
the tragedy of Shemini? As it happens, the Jewish calendar itself
shows the way. Starting on the second night of Pesach, we count
the “omer” for 49 days, until the holiday of Shavuot. In Biblical
times, the “omer” was a sheaf of grain, and there is a Torah
commandment to count the days between the early spring holiday
(Pesach) and the holiday of the first fruits of summer (Shavuot.)
Later on in Jewish history, the counting of the omer became a solemn
time of preparation for the spiritual meaning of Shavuot, which is to
recall the giving of the Torah.

Rabbi Soloveitchik reminds us that counting anything in a series
involves awareness of the past, the present, and the future
simultaneously. In order to count the omer, we have to be aware of
what day it was yesterday, and what day it will be tomorrow- but the
mitzvah is to become aware of the meaning of this particular day.
Counting the omer could be understood as a spiritual exercise of
keeping the past and the future in their proper perspective- we
cannot change the past, and we cannot be sure of the future, but we
can become deeply aware of the meaning of this day, this moment, this
unique link between yesterday and tomorrow.

We cannot always count on life being like a great redemption, nor can
we be sure when the future redemption will come- but neither is it
ordained that we must we be paralyzed by life’s tragedies. There is
yesterday’s omer, and there is tomorrow’s, but the commandment is to
count this day, and no other. By focusing on this day’s count- that
is, its unique existence- we can keep our souls in balance even when
we feel burned by “strange fire.” We remember the past, and look to
the future, but we live in this day, with all its infinite
possibilities.

Shabbat Shalom,

rnjl

For more about the counting of the omer, click here, and see
associated links:

http://www.myjewishlearning.com/holidays/Passover/TO_Pesach_Community/
Omer.htm

For the text of the parsha and haftarah:

http://www.jtsa.edu/community/parashah/jpstext/shemini.shtml

For a summary of Shemini and additional commentaries:

http://www.myjewishlearning.com/texts/Weekly_Torah_Commentary/shemini_
index.htm

This week’s commentary was partially informed by an essay on the omer
by Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, found in a book of transcribed lectures
on various Pesach themes:

http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0881259187/sr=1-
8/qid=1145629699/ref=sr_1_8/102-6354719-9842522?%
5Fencoding=UTF8&s=books

Finally, for those who haven’t seen it, a very special announcement
from your humble cyber-commentator:

http://www.tarteimashma.net/

Leave a Comment

Shemini and Schiavo

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Shemini

Dear Friends:

As I write this, it’s been a few hours since Terry Schiavo has entered the World
to Come- may her passage be easy and her memory be a blessing for her friends and family.

I’ve said very little about the controversy over her right to die- or right to
life, depending on how you see it- though many rabbis and spiritual leaders have used
the media frenzy as a chance to discuss important issues with their
congregations.  This week, however, not only is the Torah portion directly relevant to these
issues of literally life-and-death, but my own anger and frustration as a religious leader
has reached the point where I want to speak out. Not against Congress or the
judiciary or the doctors or the family, but against my colleagues, the so-called spiritual
leaders and advisors who have done so much to irresponsibly inflame passions on all
sides of this debate.

First, let’s put things in the context of this week’s parsha. The most famous
part of Shemini is the death of Nadav and Avihu, Aharon’s two sons, after they offer
“strange fire” in the Mishkan. Moshe tries to console his brother, but Aharon is silent;
thenMoshe tells Aharon and his other sons to continue with the work of the Mishkan,
and not to adopt the rituals of excessive mourning. All of this is in Vayikra/
Leviticus chapter 10, which you can find here, in the middle of the page:

http://learn.jtsa.edu/topics/parashah/jpstext/shemini.shtml

Now, returning to the topic at hand: what I find fascinating in the story of
Nadav and Avihu is not so much the topic of “why did this happen?” (although that’s a
timeless question for further Torah study) but in the reactions of their family. Moshe,
after all, is their uncle, yet he first tries to offer consoling words of explanation, and
then urges his other nephews to continue with the work of the priesthood- in modern
language, we’d say he was telling them to “move on with their lives.”

To me, both of these reactions are natural and common, born of a basic human
desire to lessen the pain of those we love. Yet sometimes when we try to
console, we end up sounding like the loss shouldn’t be so painful, or we try to minimize
the grief, which is often a well intentioned but ineffective gesture. The very idea
of “pastoral care” (not limited to official pastors, of course) is not so much to
find the right words to take away the pain but to be present with the one who is
suffering. In the parsha, Moshe is talking, but Aharon is silent- and sometimes silence is all
we can truthfully manage while going through times of loss and sorrow.

Silence, of course, is the one thing that’s been missing in the United States
these past few weeks, as everybody from newspaper columnists to radio pundits to
television preachers have discussed the Schiavo case in all of its details. The
legal and moral issues are complex, and I make no pretense of special insight, yet one
aspect of recent events bothers me greatly. The Schindlers- Terry Schiavo’s
parents- have often appeared with both Catholic and Protestant religious leadership-
everybody from Randall Terry, the anti-abortion crusader, to Jesse Jackson, if
you can imagine it. Prayer services have been held outside the hospice, and even the
Vatican has issued clarifications of its teachings about the “right to life.”
But where in any of this has been the pastoral care of grieving parents? How is it possible
that intelligent religious leaders have held out hope for a medical miracle against
all the advice of modern neurology, and nowhere is there evidence of that any spiritual
counselor has ever helped this poor family deal with its pain, its grief and
loss?

We’ve heard the talking- and the posturing, and the politics, and the preaching-
but where is the silence in the face of tragedy, that silence which is the truest
companionship when life becomes unbearable? I accept that different people have
different views of the Schiavo case- as I said, the issues raised are not
simple- but I cannot accept that religious commitment means only commitment to faith beyond
facts, as opposed to a humane commitment that life can be renewed for the living
after the death of a loved one. Sometimes helping people hold on tight when life
is ending is not mercy, but an abdication of responsibility on the part of the
“spiritual advisors” who are precisely the people who are supposed to have the “big
picture” of life and death, in its ebb and flow, over generations, in the sight of God, with
Whom we are ultimately reconciled.

Like Moshe trying to tell his brother that Nadav and Avihu were glorified in
their deaths, I can well understand how a religious leader wants to offer hope and
comfort in a time of tragedy, yet I cannot help but feel that once again, religion has
debased itself through the grandstanding of its most public “defenders.” Offering the
remote possibility of medical miracles, as opposed to the comfort of faithful presence,
to grieving parents facing bitter truths is to my mind a travesty of spiritual
leadership and pastoral care. Faith in life can be faith in the possibility of life to
renew itself.  Death is precisely when such faith is tested, and it’s the job of all members of
a religious community help each other find that faith when it is most needed. This
is done not by living in a world of impossible hopes, but by offering one’s
presence with a full heart- and that’s the kind of orientation towards life in which all
Americans could find agreement.

Shabbat Shalom,

rnjl

PS – Here’s a well-balanced discussion of different Jewish views on end-of-life
issues relevant to the Schiavo controversy:

http://www.jewishjournal.com/home/searchview.php?id=13858

Leave a Comment

Shemini 5761

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Shemini

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.

Shemini (Leviticus 9:1-11:47)

OVERVIEW

Last week, Aharon and his sons were dedicated as priests to serve in the Mishkan. This week, in Shemini, the altar itself is dedicated, and the priestly service begins- but on a tragic note. Nadav and Avihu, Aharon’s sons, bring a “strange fire” on their own initiative, and are “consumed” right then and there. God warns Aharon directly that priests may never perform their service while drunk. Rules are given for the disposition of the day’s korbanot. The last section of the parsha lists which animals, birds, fish and insects are permitted or forbidden as food.

IN FOCUS

“For I am God, Who brought you up out of the land of Egypt, to be your God- you shall be holy, for I am holy. ” (Genesis 1:31)

PSHAT

At the end of the list of permitted and forbidden foods, there is a general admonition not to break these laws, and to be holy, because God is holy. Perhaps holiness consists of making distinctions between pure and impure, or in following God’s commandments, or in cultivating a heightened consciousness of our eating habits- whatever the definition of holiness, the Torah strongly links our behavior to our relationship with God.

DRASH

Being an extremely careful reader, Rashi notices that one word in our verse is a bit unusual:

    “For I am God, Who brought you up out of the land of Egypt-” I [i.e., God] brought you up on the condition that you accept My commandments.

    Another explanation of “For I am God, Who brought you up-” everywhere else it is written, “I have brought you out,” but here is written: “I have brought you up.”

    The School of R. Yishmael taught [that God said:] ‘If I had brought up Israel from Egypt only so that they do not make themselves impure by eating crawling things, as do other peoples, that would be enough for them, for this is very high level of raising up.’ That is the meaning of “brought you up.”

What’s Rashi talking about here? If you check out other prominent verses which mention the Exodus from Egypt, you notice that they speak of God taking the Israelites out, not up, as for example in the Ten Commandments:

    I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. (Exodus 20:2)

So Rashi offers two explanations: first, that Israel was brought up from Egypt only to observe the commandments. That makes a general kind of sense, given that this verse comes at the end of a long series of detailed laws. Rashi’s second explanation is more contextual, related to the rules of kashrut [“keeping kosher,” or following the dietary practices]: not eating impure foods “raises us” up on a spiritual level, just like being free rather than slaves raises us up on a moral or social level. The mystical tradition takes this further, teaching that what we eat affects us on the level of the soul, not just the body.

Another way to understand Rashi’s comment is to think about how poor, oppressed servants would eat, as opposed to a people free to reach their spiritual potential. Perhaps just as the Israelites were “raised up” from the social and material conditions of servitude, they must be raised up from the mental habits they acquired in oppression. How you eat, and what you eat, says something about your personal dignity and mindfulness- something the oppressed Israelites probably didn’t have much of a chance to cultivate while working as slaves. Not being oppressed any more means that the Israelites can choose what to eat, and don’t have to eat just anything that comes their way- thus being “raised up” from slavery means that one’s morale and sense of self-worth is also raised up.

Different Jewish communities have different practices when it comes to kashrut, but I think most branches of Judaism would agree that we are whole beings, whose physical state affects our spiritual state and vice versa. If we want to be “raised up” spiritually, we have to pay attention to our physical existence, integrating our habits of eating, spending, dressing, and working with our religious ideals. Conversely, as Rashi points out in his first interpretation of our verse, our physical freedom and well-being only matters if we “raise ourselves up” with meaningful spiritual and moral goals.



Leave a Comment

Older Posts »